‘It was terrifying, but I had to do it’: Katie Von Schleicher talks Consummation, education and isolation

In May 2020, Katie Von Schleicher released her co-produced and co-engineered second album Consummation, a record simmering with delicately balanced sonic textures and a fine blend of psych rock, pop melodies and sparsely furnished soundscapes. Since then, she has been living in almost complete isolation, plotting album number three and arming herself with a raft of new skills with which to approach it. Audio Media International editor Daniel Gumble spoke to her from her NYC apartment to reflect on a career-defining record and adapting to life in solitude…

It’s been a little while since New York-based artist Katie Von Schleicher has given much thought to her latest album Consummation, let alone spoken to anyone about it. It’s mid-September when we reach her via Zoom call in her Brooklyn apartment, and she tells us she has barely ventured outside since COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were introduced back in March. As has been the sad reality for artists around the world, tours and live performances have been scrapped and any press or promo work has been confined to the realm of the video call. For Von Schleicher, the past six months have been less about reflection and more about adaptation.

“I’m living the same way I’ve been living since March; I feel like I’ve found a way to enjoy living a different kind of lifestyle,” she tells us, sounding surprisingly relaxed and upbeat. “I’ve been alone for the past few months in my apartment, but I’ve been doing creative writing workshops and reading a lot, and I’m learning how to mix, so I’m taking on clients and learning how to mix other people’s records. In a way I’ve started a second business! If you can do things remotely you might as well.”

We’ll hear about her most recent ventures later. For now, we are turning our attention back almost 12 months to the end of 2019, when work first began on what would eventually become Consummation. It’s a period that now feels rather alien to Von Schleicher, as indeed it does for most of us. Many will be able to identify with the strangely distant, unfamiliar look of events pre-COVID, as though viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.

“I haven’t done an interview in a few of months now,” she says. “And given everything that’s happened I feel so much distance from this thing that’s really only happened quite recently.”

Consummation is the follow up to Von Schleicher’s 2017 debut album Shitty Hits and 2015 EP Bleaksploitation. From the purposely disjointed songwriting and production process to the first-time incorporation of digital recording methods over analogue, it represents a major departure from its predecessors in pretty much every conceivable way. Co-produced and co-engineered by Von Schleicher, it was constructed over several months in deliberately fractured fashion, as she embraced a more chaotic process. The core components of any given song can be broken down and traced back to various different studios, musicians and engineers, unlike her previous works which were generally more cohesive affairs.

“When I’m making an album, I’m always looking for a perspective shift, and once I have that then I can work,” she explains. “It’s psychological. I always have to change what I’ve done before. I was aiming in a bunch of different directions and it came together over time. One of the musical perspectives I wanted to change was starting the writing with drum loops and drum machines [which I hadn’t done before] and setting the pace and the subdivisions of rhythm before I made the song.

PHOTO: Shervin Lainez

“This is the first album I’ve made that was entirely digital,” she continues, noting that she wanted to move away from the analogue techniques she had embraced previously for reasons of flexibility and convenience. “I started the demo process digitally, so sometimes those songs would become finals. The song ‘Power’ was one of the first things I recorded and that was done by myself in a house in California. Same with the ‘Messenger’. I did everything very piecemeal. At some point I brought my friends and collaborators from my last record, who are both engineers (Julian Fader and Adam Brisbin), and I did a week with them. Then I made the song ‘Caged Sleep’ partially in a studio with one engineer where we added vocals and sax, and partly in a studio with another engineer where we recorded drums. I took that home and had someone come play guitar on it. There was never a basic session where we set up the drums and record them on all the tracks. Every single song had a different approach in a different setting, perhaps with a different player. The end result is more interesting because of that because it varies across the board.”

The piecemeal method that underlies Consummation is far from evident when listening to the end product. In fact, its 13 tracks make for the most seamless set she has released yet. Where previous records saw her obvious songwriting chops and undeniable knack for mood and melody weighed down by dense fogs of fuzz and distortion, here the air is distinctly clearer, allowing the album’s nuances and gentler moments to breathe. There are still plenty of welcome splashes of discord and overdrive in the mix, but they’re far less stifling.

This move towards a less cluttered sound was very much the plan from the outset, Von Schleicher explains, suggesting she has previously used heavy sonic textures as something of a comfort blanket behind which she can explore her vocal and compositional skills.

“The Bleak EP was a way to feel safe… it was kind of how I found myself as a musician. It was through obfuscation and having no rules about fidelity or what’s right and proper,” she elaborates. “It was just pure expression and I could hide inside of it. With my voice, I was recording to a four-track cassette machine, singing through pedals, out of an amplifier into a crappy microphone. On this record I wanted to pull away from some of that obfuscation, not because I felt like it was a good idea, or because it was comfortable… it was actually really scary because I felt naked. Part of me was like ‘shit, what if it’s not interesting without layers of fuzz? What if it’s not good?’ It was genuinely terrifying, but I felt like I had to do it; you have to prove things to yourself or ask certain questions, and if it comes out badly you learn something.

“The album still has fuzz and is still weird, but I was challenging myself. I also wanted to make a record that felt blue, whatever that means!” she laughs. “The last record was a reddish colour – the covers have reflected where I feel the album is sonically. And the idea of blue just seemed clearer and more direct, somehow.”

As for how much the making of Consummation is likely to impact the production of her next record, Von Schleicher is unsure.

“I’m not going to go even farther into fidelity,” she says after a pause, weighing up where he next project may take her. “The whole point is to find a way to move forward. That’s the only reason I keep doing it, to find something new I haven’t done. I have to find that thing and try to do it. Me and an acoustic guitar is never going to be the most compelling version of my music, it’s just not how I am, so it’s about being comfortable with that and finding different ways to work. I’m going to mix my next record, which is going to be a nightmare!”

PHOTO: Annie Del Hiero

With mixer now added to her list of studio credentials, Von Schleicher says she is excited at the prospect of taking further control over her work in the future.

“If I had a higher profile, I’d probably work with a producer who I revere, but for the most part control is a theme in my life; I like to control it and be able to shape it, so it’s likely that’ll continue no matter what I do next,” she states.

The theme of control comes up again as we discuss the concept of what precisely a producer is in today’s industry. Over the past year she has been producing work for other artists, which has allowed her navigate ideas of what she would require from a producer, and in turn, what type of producer she would like to be for others. One of the biggest factors in shaping this role, she acknowledges, is money and the restrictions it imposes on so many independent artists. Though happy to be in control over her work in the studio, she has often been forced to serve not only as artist, engineer and producer, but also manager and caretaker for her collaborators.

“I’ve been trying to produce people more, and when I do it’s very musical and arrangement-centric,” she says. “There are two things I would want from a producer. One is ideas about recording, like mic arrangement, finding weird places to record and oblique strategies. The other is someone who would just emotionally manage the situation. But it would require money, really. To be like, ‘we’re all going to stay in this place in California for a month and I’ll figure out all our meals and work our personnel and all that stuff’. That would be cool. The one thing I hate about making music right now is, like, being my own tour manager, being my own management etc. When I go to make record with my friends, I buy all the groceries and make sure everyone is happy and has a place to sleep. I’d like to not have to worry about that stuff and not feel like a caretaker. But that’s how it is.”

Before we part ways, Von Schleicher brings us up to date, filling us in on how she’s been occupying her time through lockdown.

“I’ve been mixing other people’s work, which has been really exciting,” she beams. “You have an immense amount of power in the mix. Because I’m fresh they are taking a chance on me in some ways, and in some ways they get more of my attention than they might get if I was a full-time mixing professional. I treat everything I do differently. I also started a mix club with my friends, where we give each other stems of songs on a weekly basis and then we all mix the same song and compare the difference in sound. It’s always different and I’m always trying to learn.”

Who would’ve expected anything less.