Katie Gately is curious about all things sound related. That trait led to quite a remarkable career, from dialogue editor to sound designer to producer and musician. Gately transforms everyday sounds into something musical, and this adventurous approach brought her into the waters of artists such as Björk, Zola Jesus and serpentwithfeet. On her second solo album Loom, Gately's skills are expressed in a totally intuitive, personal way: as a document of catharsis and grief.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: Steve Gullick
“What is music but organized noise?” French composer Edgard Varèse once wondered. Katie Gately's work largely provides an answer: within the endless possibilities of music technology, Gately can transform any sound into something expressive. In her hands, for example, a group of rampaging lemurs turns into an “exotic wind band”, while a simple oven door sounds like some kind of primordial alien scream of doom.
Indeed: Katie Gately's ears have been trained over the years to the extent that she has also started to listen to the world differently. Within every sound she hears a sea of potential. To demonstrate that, I tap the side of my laptop with my fingers. “With one-sixteenth delay and eighty percent feedback, it could just be a swarm of aggressive butterflies,” Gately replies at the other end of the line, without a moment's hesitation.
“I don't think I have a natural talent for it, but I can say with certainty that I spend the majority of my time listening. In hindsight, it is quite helpful that I put so many hours into sounds before I even get to the music.” Gately explains that this gave her a lot of flexibility to experiment - in the form of several EPs and debut album Color. The latter sounds more or less like her free-spirited version of pop music, playfully exploring the extremes. Listen to a track like 'Tuck': it sounds damn distorted and twisted, but secretly you just hear a strong pop song that sounds like it was made by Grimes' drunk sister or Charli XCX.
Those experimental EPs are also quite spectacular, in both elaboration and result. The disorienting 'Pipes' is a composition consisting exclusively of edited voices. Another composition, 'Ice', originated from just one sound: an ice cube falling into a glass. Also the remix Gately made for Björk's song "Family" is remarkable: she left only Björk's voice, stripped out all the instrumentation, and replaced it with battered sounds of turkeys, peacocks and other birds (and the result sounds like this).
“My parents thought I was crazy at first. In fact, I thought I was crazy! What the hell am I doing? Why am I listening to the hum of a refrigerator?"
“That's the beauty of working with electronics means,” she adds. “You can quickly turn a certain sound into something that gets you excited. But some sounds really stand out, they have something exciting in themselves.”
This is difficult for Gately to explain concretely: exactly what makes a sound exciting enough to use is very subjective. “I like working with samplers with built-in audio fragments and field recordings, but I'm not interested in Moog synthesizers, for example. I know a lot of musicians have a soft spot for those things, and admittedly, they can sound incredibly powerful. But I'd rather make a synth from something that was never intended to be a synth. I'm quite headstrong in that regard: I like to dive into something that I'm not even sure if it works… Just to see what happens!”
It took several years for Gately to thrive in her own way of working. As a child she received piano lessons, but had little patience to learn classical scales and techniques. However, she did become obsessed with sound, but how would that pay off as a profession? After high school she studied (music) philosophy in Minnesota, then sound design for films in New York. Initially, Gately specialized in polishing film dialogue, which was far too restrictive on a creative level. As a sound designer, she could spread her wings a bit more (for example, she composed for the short animation film Sensory Overload), although her work also had to serve the bigger picture.
“I started by following instructions, and that in itself is quite valuable. It is instructive when people direct you to make decisions. But my own work grew into a kind of reaction against it. I wanted to make my own decisions. It's still a lot of fun to switch between those two mentalities. They complement each other enormously. I work with animators and directors who also come up with valuable ideas themselves, which I also apply in my own music. Visual artists in particular often have very good ears, while they do not necessarily use sound as an instrument.”
It wasn't until Gately moved to Los Angeles to study film production that she became interested in actually making music. Because her roots lie in sound design, it was not yet clear what form it should take. “My parents thought I was crazy at first. In fact, I thought I was crazy! What the hell am I doing? Why am I listening to the hum of a refrigerator? Now I am very happy that I have developed a kind of sixth sense to turn normal sounds into something interesting.”
Her 'superpower' also provides a lot of anecdotes: “I was at my aunt's house, and the pipeline in her toilet screams a kind of death cry when you flush. At a school I taught at, CalArts, exactly the same phenomenon. I thought: gosh, the coolest sound I encountered today comes from a toilet?! If someone had walked in and caught me entering a toilet, that person might have declared me insane. But the point is, you never know where the exciting stuff comes from… That in itself is exciting.”
But isn't that sometimes extremely annoying? After all, we don't live in a vacuum, sound is all around you. How the hell does Gately suppress it? “In the end I kind of got myself into a bullshit zen attitude to let things go and not worry about not having my recorder with me. There are so many sounds to do something with, eventually something will come your way. Or in the path of another artist.”
Gately had her plans ready for the successor to Color when she heard the news: her mother had been diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of cancer. Gately pulled the emergency brake and caught the first plane from Los Angeles to Brooklyn to be with her family. Working on the projects that were shelved at the time was not an option: cerebral experimentation gave way to music made from the heart and soul.
“"A big Catholic wedding, with a lot of The Mamas & the Papas covers and other hippie music from California - I tried to turn all those happy exuberant sounds into a kind of chorus of death."“
Loom's starting point was the pulse-pounding 10-minute Bracer, which was also her mother's favorite. The song has a completely different character than the mutated pop songs Gately wrote for Color. Despite the fact that Loom is composed with modern means, the music does not sound futuristic but rustic, almost ecclesiastical. “This album came from an instinctive angle. My mother was a nun, so I grew up with a Catholic influence. I also think the reverb of a church is the most beautiful reverb on earth.”
Loom literally feels like a kind of landslide, where the ground could disappear under your feet at any moment. It therefore seems obvious that Gately sampled the sound of real earthquakes. In fact, many sounds form certain associations with the painful situation she was in. Howling wolves, a paper shredder, a shovel digging through the earth, the sound of a coffin slamming shut. Not exactly subtle.
Gately even samples a personal moment in the intro to the hair-raising 'Tower'. “These are sounds processed from my parents' marriage. A big Catholic wedding, with lots of The Mamas & the Papas covers and other hippie music from California. I tried to convert those happy exuberant sounds into a kind of chorus of death. It came about quite simply: to create dissonance by putting all the wrong notes next to each other, stretching and smearing it further with reverb, until it sounded unrecognizable.”
Not all sounds on Loom are distorted into abstraction. At the end of 'Tower' you hear a bullet casing falling to the ground, crystal clear. “That sound feels like death to me. It's such an ominous sound, much scarier actually than a bullet being fired, when it's not necessarily an unpleasant sound."
Gately still remembers little of the process surrounding Loom: almost all choices were made out of feeling, not out of curiosity. It's not an easy record to listen to; it reflects a turbulent era to the bone, like a plaster slowly being pulled from a healing wound. On the ghostly 'Allay' Gately is the 'voice' of the cancer, and 'Flow' comes from her mother's perspective. "Waltz" is another subtle nod to Leonard Cohen, one of her mother's favorite artists.
“It was difficult to get out of my own tendencies, and often that is fodder for criticism,” Gately says. “I'm not afraid of that. It has become such a personal record. I am proud that I was able to make it at all under these chaotic circumstances. It was incredibly tough and finishing Loom felt like a win. At a certain point I got to the point where I didn't want to make music anymore. I didn't even want to eat or get out of bed anymore. My mother is unfortunately no longer there to see it completed, but I feel that at least I can now move on.”
Curiosity at the helm
Katie Gately started behind the scenes as someone who 'photoshopped' movie dialogue, now she's on stage singing and playing in front of people. That brings a whole new load of challenges for her. You can quickly link a certain feeling to a dramatic guitar solo or funky Hammond riff. Gately's work comes from complete abstraction, the intense gut feelings that are less defined. That demands a deeper investment for the listener, and that's not something you can just translate to the stage with a regular live band.
“Nowadays I take lessons from a singing teacher via Skype,” she reveals. “She lives in Turkey and I happened to speak to her for this interview. The main thing she teaches me is not so much singing, but helping me remember when I'm not open. That's the goal for me: to forget when something ends or begins, and to be absorbed in the moment. That is a huge challenge when you have to press all kinds of buttons and pedals or have to check whether all the equipment still works. No one wants to watch an artist shut themselves off. When you sing you have to dare to be vulnerable. People are unconsciously aware of it when you are not present. Even if you hit every note perfectly, they'll drop out. And not if you sing a wrong note but are present in it. That is how you make a connection.”
Gately is slowly but surely coming out of her shell. In the clip of 'Waltz', for example, she can be seen for the first time as a performer. “I work with a brilliant professional dancer, a master of the craft. And strangely enough, that's exactly what made me feel comfortable. I still have a lot of stage fright and get nervous in front of a group of people. That's still an obstacle for me. Often it all works out great. People are generally very friendly.”
For now, Gately is happy that her curiosity is back in control after the exhausting process surrounding Loom. Fortunately, curiosity arises in advance from the unknown. “The most important thing is to stay out of my own way. I never write music with the intention of making something good. Never. It's often about stepping out of the way and letting my curiosity make all the decisions. If I let my ego do the work, nothing exciting comes out of it. That sometimes makes my process a bit chaotic, because in a sense you have to relinquish control in order to guarantee it. I'm getting more and more comfortable with it. Maybe I should come up with some mantra or spell to help myself remember, haha!”
Loom, Katie Gately's second album, is out now via Houndstooth. You can buy the album here. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.