Disquieting, otherworldly, trance-like and haunting are just some of the adjectives that could be used to describe Plike, the project of Illinois-based electronic musician, and producer Em Baker. Em conjures vast, cinematic and deeply atmospheric vistas of sound, evoking the great Gothic poems of the Romantic era; think Coleridge‘s Cristabel or Byron‘s Augustus Darvell.
Em Baker’s lavish and ethereal Gothic compositions coupled with her instinct for dramatic musical shapes and huge, atmospheric arrangements enable her songs to ebb and flow with an emotional intensity that can be, at times, quite overwhelming. Often exploring the further reaches of the human psyche, her productions are dense cinematic symphonies that convey a sense of claustrophobia and foreboding.
Her latest release, Seven, is a journey through musical expression, encapsulating the essence of her previous works and distilling the processes and visions that have born so many incredible records. There is a sense of nostalgia around these compositions, a hearkening back to half-remembered moments rendered in blurry images and the purest beauty of sound and movement. It is a dizzying and incredibly moving feeling, one that pierces the very essence of our personal heritages.
Em‘s gift is to draw you in as the listener, to envelop you and re-ignite those long-dormant emotions either forgotten or suppressed. It is this skill of weaving dark and macabre tapestries that give Em‘s songs a narrative flow, using densely layered sounds, samples, and empyreal vocals.
On Seven Em welcomes vocalist Cristina Soto whose invocations are so diaphanous, so enveloping that all is swept before her.
Her debut 47th Helen, released in 2014, is a harrowing account of crippling mental illness, a haunting study into a fractured mind as it attempts to reconcile its disparate elements. We journey through Helen’s mind, each track plunging into the claustrophobic pool of trauma. Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s The Yellow Wallpaper seems to be a parallel, even down to the yellowing walls of the room depicted on the cover.
Em used the unique vocals of Veela to convey Helen. Her rhythmic drive and chants perfectly encapsulate this internal battle for sanity.
47th Helen is an assured and affecting debut and establishes Em‘s skill at creating nuanced and eerie atmospheres.
Following up with 2015’s Empathetic Empathy, Em teamed up with electronic producer ASH and once again vocalist Veela to further explore the sonic delights of witch house, trap and darkwave. Haunted toy piano’s, strings and ghostly voices ebb and flow throughout, mingling with the tripping beats to create a nagging sense of dread.
The paranormal is explored on Empty Mirrors, coming from a lifelong fascination of all things supernatural for Em. Opener “Room 873” is downright spooky, while “The Ghost of Anne Boleyn” creates visions of half-caught ghostly figures in the dappled moonlight of dusty stairwells. The very fabric of this record exists within the spectral realm of EVP’s and apparitions. Once again Veela‘s vocals haunt the very spaces they occupy.
This is dream-infused Gothic that is intoxicating and utterly bewitching.
Red Queen, White Queen is an album of dark, dramatic and immersive songs that strike at the core of our collective emotional being.
Released in 2016 Red Queen, White Queen is dramatic and windswept, conjuring images of darkening moors and fractured skies. From the clarion call of the siren on “The Proving Grounds” that opens the album, we are drawn into a dark, sullen and seductive world. This is a land of fleeting shadows, of slow-breathing beats, multifaceted production, lush and enveloping keyboards and melodies that intertwine and mingle throughout the cavernous-deep atmospherics. Holly Drummond and Francesca Genco‘s haunting and plaintive vocals are multi-layered and sensuous.
Bending Spoons is hauntingly beautiful. Dark and twisting, Em uses organic and synthetic sounds to create a collage of discordant and melodic shapes that shift and evolve through the fogged-out and immersive electronic compositions. This is dream-infused Gothic that is intoxicating and utterly bewitching. Skillful use of soprano Linda Strawberry elevates the songs to empyrean pinnacles, while Zara Taylor‘s vocals show power and astonishing control, arcing with, at times, near-unbearable emotional resonance.
“Black Swan” is an emotionally devastating and aching ballad of desperation and despair. Em has conveyed such darkening beauty among the cloying dissolution of the human mind that it could be one of her finest pieces of work to date.
2018 EP Dark Room is a collection of twisted lullabies and haunting tales that seep out of the ethereal realm and ooze into our reality casting twitching shadows into the farthest corners. “The Monster Study” emanates a dead-of-night eeriness, combining whispering voices, mournful strings, cloying synths, and portentous vocals to conjure deep atmospherics and darkening mystery.
Em Baker displays an almost supernatural mastery of her material. She is an artist so in tune with her vision and has given us so many moments, each moment so real, so compelling that we are revealed in their truth.
Em very kindly took time out from crafting sound design and composing music for video games and composing as Plike to answer some questions for The Jupiter Room.
What is your earliest musical memory?
The first memory I have of music is actually of my five-year-old self rebelling against playing music, how funny is that! I must have just started piano lessons because I remember that I was still just practicing scales with my teacher, and my sister and the neighbourhood kids were outside playing Karate Kid, pretending to be ninjas. And I was stuck inside playing piano! Of course, I’m super thankful for those lessons now, but back then I just wanted to be a ninja.
I love that mix of the beautiful and the grotesque.
What did you grow up listening to?
Up until I was about thirteen or fourteen, I mostly just listened to oldies with my Mom and bluegrass with my grandparents. I had all of The Beatles records. Lots of Simon and Garfunkle and all that good stuff. My grandparents loved Dolly Parton and Hank Williams Sr., and we used to sing all those songs in the car whenever we took trips with them.
Where do you draw your inspiration from, musically and non-musically?
Musically, I’d have to say I draw inspiration from a wild mish-mash of genres. I was always heavily inspired by vocal harmonies and choirs, that sound just gives me the shivers. I absolutely love Enya. And then when I started getting into metal and grunge, I remember just sitting there with my mouth hanging open the first time I heard Ozzy singing “Diary of a Madman” and that epic backing choir! When I went into my raver phase and started hearing stuff like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, I just about died, I was listening to everything electronic I could get my hands on. Alice in Chains did a number on me, the vocal harmonies that Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell wrote, they were just so beautiful. And then when you listen to the lyrics, all the tracks are about drug addiction and depression and suicidal ideation and all the stuff that generation was speaking out about – and that’s probably my core inspiration when you have these beautiful songs that are telling you terrible things. I love that mix of the beautiful and the grotesque. I think it’s empowering to tell our stories as musicians, whether it’s direct through lyrics or more subtle, using sounds to paint these pictures of our lives.
You currently record as Plike, what is the sound and ethos behind this project?
I’ve always tried to create huge atmospheres for Plike. I go for a very cinematic kind of sound. I really love soundtracks, and how you can hear a five second snippet of a film score and instantly go to that place the composer created. For some reason, from the very beginning with Plike, I wanted to go for this sound that’s beautiful and sweet and childlike, but I wanted to pair it with sounds that are eerie or heavy or very dark. I feel like, no matter how much darkness and pain we go through, there’s always this innocent, childlike part of us that remains. I guess that’s the landscape that I try to paint with my music.
I’ve always been terrible about getting completely obsessed over a song and listening to it until it’s looping in my dreams at night.
Tell us about your studio setup. Do you use hardware, soft synths, DAW or a combination?
So far I’ve been strictly a DAW user, but there are so many times that I’ll be on Instagram or Twitter and people will share videos of these amazing modular synths they’re using, and I just want to go and max out my credit card. I used to use drum machines when I did live shows in different bands back in the day, but I’ve gotten away from it. I do miss it, it’s such an awesome thing to be able to put your hands on things instead of everything being digital. Right now I use Propellerhead’s Reason as my main DAW, every once in awhile I’ll use Logic when I’m working on music for film. Ozone is my go-to for mastering. Every time I open it I learn something new, it’s just an amazing program. Other than that, I have my Nektar Impact LX88 midi controller and a few drum pads. When I go visit my friends who have these amazing studios with guitars on the wall and real drum kits and synths galore, I just sit there and drool.
Describe your music in three words.
Haunting. Ethereal. Macabre.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve always been terrible about getting completely obsessed over a song and listening to it until it’s looping in my dreams at night. Right now I’ve got two: “Pretender” by Sarah Jaffe and “Bare” by Wildes.
Your latest album is Seven, can you tell us about it?
Seven is the first album I’ve written for Plike that didn’t have a strong concept behind it. Every other album, I’ve had this kind of lightning strike moment where something really just gut-punches me, and I go to work fleshing it out through the songs. 2018 was a very difficult year for me, so when I sat down to write, I just let whatever was there flow out. I really wanted to experiment like crazy with drums this time around, so I did focus on that a lot, combining a lot of organic drums like taikos with mangled loops and things. It was a very cathartic experience, just letting everything flow out into the music.
What’s your favourite sound?
The sound of rain falling. It’s such a soothing sound.
Tell us about the mix you’ve done for The Jupiter Room.
I wanted to share the songs I’m most proud of with your listeners, so I chose my favourite tracks from every album I’ve released. I also wanted to share as much variety as I could in this mix, so some of the songs are very heavy, some are very delicate, some make you want to dance and some make you want to cry.
What’s next for Plike?
At the moment, really excited to be collaborating on a track with Witch of the Vale. I discovered their music last year and I am completely obsessed! I’m the Lead Audio Designer for Oak Moon Games, and I’m composing the soundtrack for our first release, Momo Ichigo. I’ve been with the studio since 2016, and we have such an amazing team. I’m also finalizing the concept for my next album and I’ll be diving headfirst into that in the next few weeks. I’m hoping to release it this fall.
If you could make music history, how would you do it?
This is probably every musician’s dream, but I’d love to create a new genre of music. How cool would that be!?
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This show was broadcast on Thursday 28th February 2019 on Fourculture Radio.