Self-Portrait: Anastasia Zems

Full creative control was behind Saint Petersburg-based producer and vocalist Anastasia Zems‘ decision to start making her own music. After spending much of her youth focusing on dance, singing and musical theatre, she soon became disillusioned with the lack of autonomy she had over these activities — you were judged on ability rather than creativity.

Producing gave her the freedom to do things on her own terms, and that’s what continues to motivate her sound. Always united by her psychedelic vocals and hypnotic, leftfield grooves, Anastasia’s musings have come via Seta, MMusic, Disque Discos and more recently Moscow’s IDA Sound.

Her Self-Portrait is a taster of all of the above sonics and sees her piecing together old unreleased demos and tracks finished especially for this mix. This sits alongside an interview about her approach to production.

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

My first musical memory is connected to the Russian rock music of the early 90s. We had a cassette player at home and plenty of early albums of Splean, Agatha Cristie, Nautilus Pompilius, Uma2rman, etc. I used to climb the three-way mirror and dance with all my heart, imagining myself on stage. Later we got the first tapes with foreign music such as Gorillaz, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd, etc. By that time, I had already grown up a little and began to arrange such concerts in the street in front of passers-by and sang in impromptu “English”.

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

Yes, all members of my family were involved in music. My mother played accordion, father played guitar, grandma and grandpa were amazing vocalists. Every home party and birthday flowed smoothly into a musical jam. Also, a fun fact: while being pregnant, my mother was an admin in the best night club of our city. That’s why I could never fall asleep without music playing in my childhood and this is how I explain my love for electronic music.

From the age of five I started doing dancing, singing, musical theatre. I was very successful at that: my first independent tour (i.e. without parents) happened when I was eight. Then there were a lot of jazz vocal competitions, but after a dozen of these contests and castings, I lost interest in that.

What led you into music production?

After all these competitions I understood that in our world there are a lot of talented people in all spheres of life, and I felt some kind of falsehood that we were competing in creativity; singing the same song by another artist who created this. And the judges evaluated how well you sang it, as if it wasn’t about creativity, but about craft.

Covers will never be as successful as the original because the original was meant to be that way with all the flaws and imperfections. There was only one way out for me – to learn how to produce music, where I can sing just the way I want and come up with a melody the way I want.

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

First of all, it was Nina Kraviz, I found her early tracks back in school and everything turned upside down in my head. Vocal, electronic music, a girl from Russia who became a famous international musician – all that sounded like a plan. Today I’m inspired by Moderat, Suns of Arqa and Loop Guru but every day I discover something new for myself from dozens of talented artists.

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio?

I usually start by cleaning the house. The task before me is to build comfort and cleanliness around me: aroma candles, muffled light, no detail should annoy me and distract from the process.

Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

No, it’s always impromptu, maybe I am in a certain mood, but more often than not I have no idea what the result will be in the end.

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

I am a 100% impulsive creator! More than anything, I do not like digging into my demos and trying to finish writing them and bringing them to mind, especially if I have already spent enough time on it. At some point, it’s easier to just delete everything and produce again.

In addition, especially the vocals, I like to record only once, then you are completely immersed in the process and convey truly sincere emotions and experiences. Of course, I rewrite completely unsuccessful takes, but I still don’t pursue perfection.

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track?

It always starts with the drum rack. I sit down and experiment with instruments and rhythm, sometimes I try to record something myself using the instruments at hand. So, in the ‘Desire’ track I have the sound of a mug falling from my desk, luckily it was empty. Then I move on to the bass or pad and only then to the melody, vocals and fx. It turns out that I’m moving from the general mood into history.

How much of your material is sample based and how much is original?

When I first started out, in my first draft tracks I used almost only samples, but only a couple of these tracks were released. I strive to use less and less samples each time, in recent works they can only be heard in drums.

I respect musicians working with samples, but for me their use leaves an inner discontent and a feeling of deception of the audience. The vocals have always been mine, I recorded the first one on a dictaphone, before I had the mic.

What’s the most important bits of kit that make a Anastasia Zems track?

My vocals are in every track, even in my remixes by other musicians. Each track has either vocals or recitative, thanks to my music past, through which I can tell a story. Sometimes, you will not be able to make out the words, but you should not reveal all your cards at once.

This mix is comprised of 100% original Anastasia Zems material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

To be honest, I always thought that the tracks from this mix were all very different, but they go with each other so harmoniously that I am quite surprised. There are some old works here, which are maybe two years old, for example ‘Doubt’ and ‘Underwear’, but there are also some that were written specifically for this mix. In this mix there is a track, in my opinion, the most experimental and difficult one, but I will not name it, let’s see what the impact will be and whether someone can understand which track I’m talking about.

Anything on the horizon for you? Any releases we should know about?

Of the confirmed projects, I am remixing a track by my friend Kolomensky on the Blue Night Jungle label. As for the upcoming EPs, I am at the stage of negotiations, so I cannot say for sure yet. There are plenty of gigs and guest mixes on the horizon so far. I hope that as soon as coronavirus measures are lifted, I will finally be able to go on tour.

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