‘I am mostly driven by my overall energy and feeling’: Talking Tech with Coco Em

Coco Em has spent the last six years carving herself a distinctly ancestral electronic bounce that sets her apart from her contemporaries. The Nairobi-based producer and DJ blends her love of African electronic production with a uniquely Kenyan musical training and upbringing and a deep house understanding.

As well as being a highly valued member of the creative community, she is the programmes coordinator for Santuri East Africa Studios, a Nairobi-based non-profit organization who empower East African artists through their mentoring. This has allowed her access to a wide range of Kenya’s musical talent; both burgeoning and established. The communal energy is central to her newest EP Kilumi, on which she reflects the beauty of a musical identity shaped in the history, spirit and talent of those around you.

In the below interview, Coco Em walks us through both the home and community studios that have helped her to shape her sound and shares the stories behind their gradual creation.

What’s your musical education?

I studied music theory under the 8-4-4 Kenyan education system when I was in High School. My music teacher was a man called Mr. Moipei. My music classes made up some of my most fondest school memories. I was not good at reading sheet music, but I could harmonize to almost anything (in an alto) and I really enjoyed playing the traditional drums during our church services. *Catholic school things*

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

My first ever set up was my laptop, a pair of Shure headphones borrowed from Santuri studios, and the Ableton live 10 DAW.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

This has to be a pair of Rokit 5 monitors (KRK systems) that I bought second hand from my neighbour Mikel the Energy, who was also a recording artist.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? 

First off, I must add here that I made music predominantly in my bedroom on my laptop – and thereafter Santuri East Africa studios offered me studio space to work in, when I started working as programmes coordinator in 2020. 

Fast forward to today, whether working from home or from Santuri, my set-up is pretty mobile. 

I usually have the laptop plugged in and headphones going directly into my laptop when home and through a Komplete Audio 6 when in Santuri Studios. 

When it’s time to monitor the mixes, I stop producing and switch up the headphones for the RCA to audio jack cable directly into my laptop when home.

When in studio I have the monitors running through the Komplete audio interface.

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

The studio is located in Kilimani along Muringa road, Nairobi and is open to the community. This is one of the reasons I value this space. It led to me connecting with artists who would later on feature on my debut EP Kilumi. If this had not happened my music would not have been complete, not just technically (ie lacking vocals) but feel. Everyone came in with something special and their energy complimented the final product. 

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

When I work, I am mostly driven by my overall energy and feeling. Certain factors can help to improve my mood such as the right lighting. I don’t do very well with harsh fluorescent light (shudder). I like subtle warm light from a table lamp which both my home and Santuri have as an option. 

From producing entirely with headphones to having access to monitors, I really appreciate the breaks my ears get from close music exposure. I like to have my monitors really loud when I’m listening to a final mix, so I close doors and use gobos available at Santuri studios. As a new producer however I am beginning to appreciate listening to music at regular levels so as to preserve my hearing lol. 

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

For now, I would have to say it has been a slow accumulation on my end with regards to the Rokit monitors, laptop and headphones. 

With Santuri however, our amazing director David Tinning has fostered great relationships with tech companies such as Ableton, Adam Audio, Shure and Native Instruments. They have been extremely supportive with offering both software in the case of Ableton as well as PUSH unit hardware. David managed to secure some monitors for the community from Adam Audio, and headphones from Shure. We also have some Machine units and Traktor controllers from Native instruments. Some of this gear is stuff most people from my city including myself have never seen in real life. I am super appreciative of the community and it’s pool of resources. As we grow we hope to maintain these and create more connections to tech companies who would love to be involved in growing the East African electronic music community. 

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change?

Currently I am looking to supplement my home studio with a better set of monitors. I also am looking to get new headphones made specifically for recording, mixing and mastering. 

If money were no object what would you add?

I am looking into performing my productions as live sets with a mobile setup and so I would go with:

  • An Ableton Push 2 unit
  • Audio interface (Komplete Audio 6)
  • A mixing board (Allan and Heath ZI 10)

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

Tricky question lol. I will go for a combination of laptop and headphones. It might not seem like much, but before going to studio I made my entire EP demo using only my laptop. I can map my entire Ableton software onto the keyboard and use it as an instrument as well which I love using to record ideas. 

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

When I’m in studio, if there are too many people I find it difficult to work. I find it very hard to concentrate. I like to have time to quietly process things with my headphones on before I can have anyone else in on it. I must add that I don’t produce much in a big studio. When an idea comes and I happen to be at my laptop in bed, I lay down the structure immediately because otherwise it will disappear. 

When I’m on the move and I hear something inspire a melody inside me, I pull out my phone and record the melody or idea as a voice note. When I’m feeling fully inspired, I can lay down an entire composition in about an hour. I’ve noticed that these bursts of inspiration happen when I am in busy and noisy environments. It could be traffic in Nairobi, loud conversations at immigration in an airport in Lagos or someone else’s DJ set that sparks an idea for a remixed beat. 

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

When I produce, I have a running idea in my mind which loops as I lay down the instruments. I then branch off where the idea needs to go. Nothing is off limits when it comes to sound. It could be a hip hop idea stemming into house and then morphing into a classical piece. I like to let my mind wander in this way.

I also like to take breaks when I feel like I have reached a plateau with the piece. I will sometimes not return to a project for a day or two. When I insist on completing it in one go, I feel like I stifle my creative mind. I need a bit of breathing room for my brain to formulate new ideas and everytime I listen to an old mix, I can build on it or tear it apart with clarity.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

I unfortunately will labour so hard on a track until it bleeds. In the case of my debut EP Kilumi, I absolutely love it but I sit back and listen and go, hmm if I feeled this empty space up more it would sound better or hmmm, track is not loud enough here, bass is too boom-ey, could have panned this, etc etc.

When I finally make the decision that a track is complete, I will sit back and listen to it an unhealthy number of times in obscene levels of volume and think that it is the greatest masterpiece ever lol.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

Sometimes I find that I need to give my ears a break from music all together so I will find something to watch. When I am facing a mental block and have the luxury to take a break, I enjoy watching Kenyan comedians on Instagram or Youtube ( @muchiri.mike @crazy_Kennar @cartoon.comedian ) and then I top it off with Steven He.

I find that working out also helps me to de-compress and think about other things (post gym pain lol).

Lastly when I’ve had enough of a break, I will come back to music but from a different angle from what I am trying to create. I will break out my old hip hop or funk tunes on my laptop, or find new amapiano and kuduro tracks I haven’t heard before. These things excite something in me and when I am ready to lay something down I go for it.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Going to live shows with artists I look up to really inspires me. Watching artists from the region such as Kampire, or DBN Gogo just take their craft to the world and excel and pull in their various communities is so inspiring! Just realized I went right back into music, lol.

I like fine art. When I can bring myself round to it, I draw pencil portraits. The level of concentration I need to do this allows me to meditate. I also like to swim though I don’t get to do that often enough. 

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new release, and why?

I spent countless hours finger drumming all my percussions and traditional drum samples on my laptop keyboard. I used a free ableton pack by an artist called Behr, which comprises of sounds sampled and recorded from traditional East African instruments. In all the compositions, I added this element to give the feeling of real-life traditional percussion (my favourite thing ever). I feel like this added life and a groove to the productions

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

I plan to make more music, improve as a producer and share it with everyone I can. I am very excited to be working on a new album with my new label, Infine. I am growing in my understanding of sound, music production and mixing and it’s exciting to know exactly how to create what you want to hear as opposed to just trying everything out lol. 

I am also about to go on a European tour in the summer. I will be performing at the Paleo festival in Switzerland, L’aeronef, Scopitone, Clandestino, IKEA festival in Helsingborg and Glastonbury at the Stonebridge stage curated by the amazing Kampire as well as a private viewing of African Fashion at the V&A museum (if the UK visa allows).

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