Q&A: Abigail Blake

Electro-harpist and twinklestep pioneer Abigail Blake talks self-producing, Radio 1 bus stops and playing it all by ear

Image: Abigail Blake

Image: Abigail Blake

Describe the development of your musical style.
I’ve done the whole acoustic singer/songwriter thing for the last four years and I‘ve enjoyed it, but it’s never been exactly what I’ve wanted to do. I love playing my harp, but I have a passion for electronic music, so I combine the two together into something I like to call ‘twinklestep’ – twinkly harp with electronica and dubstep influences.
I’ve had the twinklestep vision for years now. I took my mum’s harp along to a recording studio when I was 16 and paid £200 for someone to help me make my ideas into something, but I don’t think they quite understood my idea. That was the day I thought ‘I wish I could just do this myself.’

I’m now 21, an experienced producer and recording engineer, and I can do every last part myself. I’m either a control freak, or just very driven.

The harp is a relatively unusual instrument. What made you decide to learn to play it?
My mum bought a harp as a birthday present for herself, as it was something on her bucket list. She always tells people that she was annoyed that while she was paying for lessons, I just sat down and figured out how to play almost straight away – I guess my piano background really helped me get to grips with it quickly. The first tune I ever figured out on the harp was Nelly the Elephant, and then history was made. I happy-cried so much when I got my own harp for my 20th birthday.

How do you achieve your unusual sound when performing live?
There’s a lot of multi-tasking involved! I cue the electronic tracks and samples I’ve made through my laptop using a Novation launchpad, all while singing live and playing the harp – which I also manipulate through a multi-effects pedal and a loop pedal. It takes a lot of practice but it’s totally worth it!

On your website you mention the sexism you have encountered in the industry. Can you speak a little more about the difficulties you’ve faced as a woman during your career so far?
The music industry is no doubt male-dominated, and I feel as though sometimes (but not all the time), I have to prove myself before my male counterparts will take me seriously.

An example of this would be when people ask me who produces my music – I do. Granted, there are significantly fewer female producers in the world, but I have outright witnessed conversations where men will be asked and then not questioned, and when it gets to me they start throwing technical lingo at me to try and catch me out or something. I’ve earned my right to call myself a producer just like the next guy!

My dad has always told me that some men are intimidated by smart women. Although I’m not the most intelligent girl in the world, I’m good at something that stereotypes say I’m probably not very good at – it takes guys by surprise. I know that’s something that I’m always going to face as a woman in music, but I’d like to acknowledge that I’m facing it less as time goes on, and future generations of women in music hopefully won’t have to deal with it at all.

You also speak openly on your site about having dyslexia and dyscalculia. How have these affected your musical journey?
I can’t sight-read for toffee. Despite trying to learn for many years, I just can’t process the music. From the age of eight I have taught myself music by ear and learned off-by-heart. I always say that being dyslexic and having dyscalculia is the flip side to the coin of my perfect pitch and creativity. If I wasn’t a musician, I’d love to be a forensic pathologist, but I know that my brain just isn’t built to succeed in that side of academia.

Who would you say are your musical inspirations?

It literally changes all the time. I’m the kind of person that hears one song I like on the radio, then within five minutes I’ve liked the artist’s Facebook page, followed them on Twitter and ordered their album off Amazon. Being like that I’m literally inspired by everything, and a fan of anything I can relate to. It’s like I wear my musical heart on a creative sleeve. Three names that are at the top of my playlist right now are Grimes, Bring Me The Horizon and Halsey.

Do you have a career highlight?
One of the most exciting things I’ve ever done was perform for Huw Stephens at the Radio 1 Academy when it visited my hometown of Norwich last year. I was so nervous, and then the fire alarm went off just before the show started. I then found myself in the weird situation where I was standing outside next to a bus stop with Huw Stephens. We had a chat and he was really nice, but I think he thought I was a bit strange. I don’t come across well when I’m nervous.

I then bumped into him the following month after performing at Latitude festival, and gave him one of my EPs – he definitely had no recollection of me, but it was still great for such a coincidence to happen.

Abigail Blake will be supporting Avec Sans at the Waterfront Studio in Norwich on 25 June. You can find out more about Abigail at her website, www.abigailblakemusic.com.

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