2D compositions to 3D sound sculptures: Emily Magpie's journey into music production

We sat down with DJ and Electronic Music student Emily Magpie to discuss her artistic evolution as she explores the interrelationship between songwriting and production.

Championed by Tom Robinson (BBC Introducing), Bristol-based artist Emily Magpie (aka Emily Spetch) has been enchanting audiences with her unique brand of ambient dream pop for five years now. In this time, she’s put out three EPs and one album, toured around Europe and supported the likes of This is the Kit and Let’s Eat Grandma. She’s now taking the opportunity presented by the pandemic to sharpen her production skills on our DJ and Electronic Music diploma course. We sat down with her to speak about her musical evolution, how learning production has empowered her as an artist and a woman and the impact of the pandemic has had on her creative output.

A musical magpie

I like to listen to a bit of everything really, which is where my stage name comes from. As a producer, I love taking from lots of different places.” 

If there is an artist that embodies musical eclecticism, it’s Emily Magpie. Since her early days singing in a jazz band, writing poetry and playing guitar and clarinet as a teenager, she’s continued to creatively shapeshift. “When I was in my early 20s, I started writing and performing my own stuff, but I always knew that I didn't just want to be a musician,” she tells me. “I didn’t just want to write and perform. I could always hear all the other sounds and the worlds that I wanted to create around my music. 

“In terms of influences, I really love what artists like James Blake and Jamie XX  are doing, where they’re a singer-songwriter but with producer and electronic elements as well. I like how they blend a load of worlds together. I guess that’s the approach I’m taking.” 

Learning through doing

Emily’s desire to be more than just a songwriter led her to start teaching herself music production. “I’ve always been self-taught and learnt from other producers. With each EP I was learning as I was doing it, which is kind of messy as a process. Looking back now on my early EPs I think ‘oh my god I would change that so much’, but I think that’s the beautiful thing about art. It’s a reflection of where you were at that point. So I try not to be too precious about it and just try to keep evolving, growing and learning.” 

This all changed when the pandemic pressed pause on live events, presenting the perfect opportunity for Emily to hone her technical understanding of music production. “The reason I wanted to study at dBs was I wanted to do a short one-year course. I’d heard from a lot of friends that the diploma course is really hands-on and you cover a lot, which is what I was looking for – to pick up on any technical skills I may have missed from being self-taught.

“We started very basic so that anyone with any level of experience could start, you know if they've never done any production before. But we learn at quite a fast rate and cover a lot of ground. Somehow the tutors manage to still cover the basics but make it challenging as well and give stuff to people across the spectrum of experience. So I found even from the very beginning, I was learning loads of little bits and finding shortcuts for things.”

Singer songwriter and Music production student Emily Magpie

Blending songwriting and production

I ask Emily how important she thinks it is for songwriters nowadays to understand production. “I think it totally depends on what you want to do. Personally, I love having an understanding across all of music creation. Learning about mastering recently has influenced how I go about mixing, and then that's influenced how I go about composing, which then changes the way you think about writing a song in the first place. Rather than sitting down with your guitar and playing and singing, maybe you create some loops on your laptop and then build off that. This is how I work now, I love having an understanding of a lot of different things and kind of playing with all of it. 

“I think even if you even if you're not interested in producing your own stuff, it's really handy to get to grips with the basics because that way, you understand what your producer will then be doing with your work. Then you can create it in a way that lends itself to that, so you can work with them. I think that aspect of it is really empowering. Especially as a woman. I find that having some understanding of what I want to do is useful for working with recording engineers. Knowing what I want it to sound like, means I can have that conversation and that gives you more of a say in what you're creating.”

Exploring electronic avenues

As well as gaining a more robust and holistic understanding of the music production process, Emily says studying at dBs has inspired her to continue experimenting with her creative output. “I’m taking this time to explore different avenues with my music. So for my final project, I’m creating an album of electronic music, with no vocals at all, which I’ve never done before. I’m then hoping to pitch it to Sync for music for licensing.

Singer songwriter turned music producer Emily Magpie

“All of this has really changed the way I think about music. Before, I'd write the song, have the bare bones of it, and then create the world around it – the textures and everything else. Whereas now, I'm really just exploring textures first, and then kind of seeing where they go and exploring that. I feel like the way that I'm producing is so different already, actually.  Just because there are so many other influences and ideas in there. I feel like it's much more experimental. 

“It’s like I’ve gone from more of a 2D painting approach in terms of composition and thinking about how things slot next to each other to something more multi-dimensional. I'm thinking about music more as a sort of 3D sound sculpture, now I've got a better understanding of stereo imaging and stuff like that.”

Reflections on the pandemic

Beyond inspiring her to go back into education, Emily tells me the experience of the pandemic has changed her as an artist in other ways. “Before I feel like I was very busy. I really loved creating, but I also cared quite a lot about being successful, and playing loads of gigs and wanted my music to do really well. Now obviously I still care about that, but I feel like my focus is shifting a bit. It was even before the pandemic but even more so now. 

dBs student emily magpie

“My art has always been about trying to explore ineffable stuff and trying to start conversations, but I feel like more and more what I'm interested in is trying to create art that helps people or kind of brings something. I guess because there hasn’t been the possibility to do things outwardly, it’s made me delve a bit deeper into what I’m creating and why I’m creating it, and what I want to do in the world, not just following the cut and dried formula of putting music out, gigging, touring the album blah blah blah. I still love all that, I’m just thinking about music more as an art form and a tool to explore ideas and share them.” 

Looking ahead to live shows

Despite refocusing her energies, Emily is still keeping her fingers crossed for the return of live shows this summer. “We have a couple of festivals we’ve been booked for and I’m really hoping those will still go ahead. I’d just love, if it was safe, to have a bit of fun at the end of summer. If we can all come together and play some gigs that would be great. I’m just taking it all as it comes, but I’m hopeful that things will shift and be more open soon. I also have a gig at the end of May at The Lanes in Bristol. If people want to get tickets there’s still a couple left.”

You can catch Emily Magpie playing at The Lanes on Tuesday 18th May.

For more information and to book tickets click here.

You can also listen to Emily on Soundcloud and Spotify.

Want to sharpen your music production skills? Check out our Electronic Music Production and Music Production and Sound Engineering degrees.

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