Beats by Beat: Fia Fiell administers an instant pick-me-up with this eclectic dance mix

Beats by Beat: Fia Fiell administers an instant pick-me-up with this eclectic dance mix

Photo by Hannah Alexander
Words by Jacob Nazroo

Welcome to Beats by Beat, our mix series for electronic music lovers. Head here if you missed the previous Beats by Beat mix, produced by techno purveyors Penelope Two-Five.

If we’re talking music, her personality is eclectic and her history is diversely coloured. But Carolyn Schofield, known to Australia’s music industry as Fia Fiell, has developed a reputation for creating and playing primarily improvised experimental electronic music. We could call it “ambient”, but that would be – as often is with generic labels – an oversimplification.

She’s been a pianist since the age of four and was an advanced classical musician by the time she approached her teenage years. She makes a third of what sounds like “confused country music for ants,” – or so it is described by her bandmate and the lead singer of local synth-pop-alternative-electronic-rock- (… let’s just stick with ants…) – band, Jaala. As you’ll read below, “weird dance music” with drummer Max Kohane is also on her discography.

So we’re lucky to have this latest addition to our Beats By Beat series: the sonic fruits of Fia Fiell’s ever-fluid musical personality packaged into an hour-long mix that also demonstrates her relentless refinement of musical craftsmanship.

We checked in with her, too, and were glad to hear about her exciting musical plans and admirably wholesome lifestyle in a time particularly volatile for musicians.

Firstly, how was your 2019? What was memorable, musically or otherwise?

2019 was a big year of change for me. I went through some massive upheavals in my life, which were difficult but ultimately positive. So I really needed to take the focus away from music and figure out how to slow down and look after my health after all of that, and I decided to take a significant break from performing. Musically, I had some really special moments – meeting Merzbow and performing right before him at Open Frame Festival in Sydney was a pretty big deal for me, especially as he had nice things to say about my set! It was also really special to close Saturday night at Inner Varnika at four in the morning. I felt lucky to play a lot of memorable shows with friends, and I wrote lots of music that I’m very proud of, which I’m excited to finish and release.

And how much has your routine changed in lockdown? How are you spending most of your time these days?

As I’d already planned to be taking lots of downtime right around this time, not a lot has changed, honestly. I’m still doing the things I was doing before, but at home. I’ve finished a big piece, and I’m working on finishing some synth parts for a new Jaala album. I’m getting to know my neighbourhood, and I’m taking time to improve my health and figure things out and plan for the future better. When the idea of lockdown was imminent, I was checking the news a lot and feeling a bit uncertain for a while, but I’ve stopped following the news like that and I feel much better for it.

How did you come to make experimental electronic and ambient music? Youre best known for these sounds, but what else makes up your musical personality?

I’ve been playing piano since I was four, and I really played it a lot – I was a pretty advanced classical player by the time I entered high school. I played violin and drums as well but stopped in my late teens. While I loved playing, I never wanted to be a classical performer – I really loved listening to hip hop as a teenager, then I got into African music and soul/funk, and a lot of dance music and electronic music. I guess I was drawn to ambient music or ‘quieter’ electronic music, in particular, then freer or more experimental ways of making music.

Stuff like Jan Jelinek, The Necks and Oren Ambarchi really blew me away when I first heard them, and I was particularly drawn to the warmth, freedom and emotional nuance of this sort of music. I don’t think I planned to make the sort of music I make though; it might just be the natural result of being a classical pianist that’s really into electronic music and improvisation. Basically, the way I make music is I play from one to four keyboards at a time, creating layers by using synth patches that morph and mutate as they go on, and using simple melodic and harmonic ideas that I can improvise on and be free with. It’s just the easiest way I know how to make music in front of people in an authentic way, where I can improvise, express myself and experiment with melody, harmony and sound.

As far as what else makes up my musical personality … I’ve made weird dance music with drummer Max Kohane in a duo called Rolling Mass, and I’m one-third of a band called Jaala, which our singer Cosi has described as “confused country music…for ants”. I also have a degree in notated composition, where I learnt to write music for real-life acoustic instruments and performers, so I’m looking forward to putting out music in the future where it’s not just synths making the sounds!

As artists progress and seek better opportunities, some can struggle with the transition from what was initially a passion-driven hobby feeling increasingly like work. Is this something youve experienced?

Yeah, being an artist is tougher than I thought it would be! It’s very fulfilling, but it’s difficult to make it work … I don’t know many people who are living that dream of being a full-time musician while also making enough money to live comfortably. It has to always be passion-driven! I’ve never felt like it’s ‘work’, but I have felt like I’ve focused on it too much to the detriment of my health, and I have regretted saying yes to a few things. Sometimes you can find yourself in a pattern of never-ending deadlines and show dates and it’s really hard to take time out – it can be pretty stressful and it’s easy to put too much pressure on yourself. So I’m actually glad in some ways that I do other work at the moment, so that I can stop, reset and focus on something else for a while – it takes the pressure off being a musician. Ultimately though, I would really love to be spending all my working hours making and sharing music, eventually – at the right time.

Thanks for sending us this killer mix. Can you tell us a bit about it? Is it representative of a lot of what youre listening to? Or perhaps what youd play at a dance-focused gig?

Yeah – although you might expect an ambient mix for me, this one is more dance-focused because I haven’t put out a dance mix in a while and I like having the opportunity to play dance music and fun music by friends! The style of music I play changes a lot from mix to mix – I’m not really into sticking to genres. And while I think that ambient and experimental music is great and all, having a good dance can really lift you up, and I’ve gotten through some shitty times by playing a lot of cheesy music I can dance to. This mix is mostly made up of things I’ve gotten into over the past year, including new records by some local Melbourne artists who I really love – Yunzero, Match Fixer and Big Yawn. And there’s a track by one of my all-time heroes mentioned above (Jan Jelinek), and possibly my most-listened-to track from the past year by Glasgow electro producer Galaxian. It’s a bit ridiculous and over-the-top, but very very great when things take a turn about halfway through.

What are you hoping to get out of the foreseeable future?

I’m looking forward to getting some new releases out – I’ve written so much music for live shows that I haven’t recorded properly yet. I have so many ideas that I wanna get down and polish off. And there’ll be a new Jaala record coming out soonish! I’m really excited to collaborate with more people, too – maybe there’ll be some new projects emerging soon.

Aside from that, I’m really looking forward to going to a beach, and a rainforest, and climbing up some mountains, and camping in the desert – that sort of thing. I feel like it needs to happen, even. I had to cancel a trip to Alice Springs when the lockdown happened so I’m really looking forward to finally being able to make it there when I can – I’ve just never seen so much of Australia and I think it’ll be an amazing thing to do. And I’m looking forward to being able to perform again when it’s allowed – I’m imagining playing outside, somewhere special.

Dig into Fia Fiell’s eclectic mix below.

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