Mücha (Interview with Amanda Butterworth)

Released (very) quietly on cassette in 2016, ‘The Colour Of Longing’ by Mücha, the working alias of London-based composer, Amanda Butterworth, had, until now, passed me by.  More often than not, much music of the electronica/ambient/drone variety won’t spend much time in my headphones but I found myself inexplicably coming back to this, as a clock maker to a particularly fascinating timepiece.  How does it work?

There’s an ethereal, immersive otherworldliness to this work, which is easy to get lost in, as one might on Summer days, lying on your back, waiting for a plane to exit a cloud.  I’m tempted to mention the similarly spellbinding cavernous dreamscapes of Grouper, though Butterworth’s work is far less eerie, more nebulous.  As Richard Thomas correctly recognises in his Bandcamp notes for the release :  “Materially, the music has cycles and repetitions suggestive of Suzanne Ciani and Systems composers like Steve Reich and John Adams or even Phaedra and Rubicon era Tangerine Dream. It is also ineffable and poignantly vaporous and one can hear traces of rave bliss, Eno and composers of the New Age.”  The analogue arpeggios that permeate many of the tracks here act as delicate pulses amidst a palette of luxuriant synth washes and fogs.  I’m especially enamoured by ‘In That So Often Distant,’ where Butterworth’s seraphic voice, pure, distant, suggests far more innocent bygone times.

I talked to Amanda about her boxes of tricks, leaving things open, time machines and disappearance.

Glen : What was your entry point into making your own music?  Where you ever in bands?  Did you ever study music?

Amanda : As a kid, I always sung.  It was probably when I felt most peaceful.  Apparently, I used to sing myself to sleep every night. I’ve been in a few bands. I learnt piano and flute as a kid but I couldn’t ever read music. I would learn the songs by ear. I had an amazing music teacher at middle school.  He was quite ambitious in the things he got us doing, composing and using percussion and less Western instruments. He was very encouraging to me. I think he instilled in me a sense that music is something I can do.

These days, the lines often blur between analogue and digital instruments.  What’s in your cupboard of sound?  Do you have certain go-to instruments? 

Amanda : My voice, I suppose, was the first thing in my cupboard. I can’t be without a delay pedal. I love the way delay creates rhythm and harmony, like an instrument is accompanying itself.  My 101 (Roland SH-101 analogue synthesizer) is a beaut that I’ll never get bored of. I’ve got a few old drum machines but I’m growing a little impatient with their decrepitude. I like things to happen quickly so I don’t lose the wisp of an idea – I’m not into troubleshooting. I’ve been using a Digitakt (sampling drum-machine) over the last year, which has kind of become the centre of everything. It’s ace; it’s very instant and solid and has a great sound with lots of potential for programming and manipulating sounds. I like a good guitar drone. I’m crap at guitar. I often tune to a chord, I love the warmth. I’ve been enjoying re-sampling drones on my Digitakt and using them as a synth recently.

How and where do you record?  Home studio?  Computer/desk-based?  What’s your home environment?  Pastoral or urban?  Do you source sounds from outside of your boxes of tricks or are your sounds inorganic? 

Amanda : I record at home. I used to always record, mix and produce as a part of the writing process, with Ableton (digital audio workstation). Over the last year (prior to the pandemic), I’ve been playing a lot of live gigs, so I’ve been mainly working towards those gigs and writing stuff with the Digitakt that I can play live.  This has been a really big change. I’ve been recording kind of demo versions of live tracks, so I have a bit of a backlog of stuff to record properly.  For ‘The Colour of Longing,’ I used a Tascam Portastudio Mk11 4 track (which is, alas, now broken beyond repair). I did a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between my computer and tape, processing and layering. At the time, I had a really old Edirol soundcard and the drivers weren’t available for my new laptop. I could just about get it working but there was a massive latency issue. I think this loose relationship to time had a bit of an effect on what I was able to make. When I started to make ‘The Colour of Longing,’ I’d just moved into my flat, which is on the marshes in North East London. I feel super lucky to look out at trees. I feel very close to nature. I find the shifting landscape very inspiring and I began to feel it in my music. It makes me happier to stay in and work on music, as I don’t feel like I’m missing the day. Where I used to live, I was in a basement with no views.  It felt hard to be stuck in there. I sometimes use field recordings but most of my sounds are from my instruments.

Although I think I can detect the influence of artists like Suzanne Ciani and Pauline Anna Strom, who would you say has had the most impact on how (or why) you make the music you do? 

Amanda : I don’t think there is any one artist that I have listened to that has had a massive single influence on me.  Some of the people I consistently love are Shuttle 358, Jan Jalenik, Grouper, Source Direct, Juan Atkins, James Stinson, Autechre, Tim Hecker.  I think the person that has had the most influence on how I make music would be my friend, Andrew Fearn, who makes music as Extnddntwrk and in Sleaford Mods. In the early 2000’s, we were hanging out a lot in Nottingham.  We mucked around and made some pretty silly music.  At the time, he was making kind of (almost) “anti-folk” as Marks Brother.  His approach to making music was really inspiring; it was quite punk in a way. It made me feel like I could do something and it didn’t matter if I didn’t have the technical skills. I wasn’t very good at any particular instrument and I was a bit of a technophobe but I had ideas and ears and he sort of showed me that that was enough to start with. Another mate, Tab, before that, had showed me how to use an Atari with Cubase and a pretty rubbish Akai sampler.  That was really valuable and good fun.  We would go to the pub and start work after, at around 1 or 2 in the morning.  I think friends over the years have been (and are) the most inspiring.  It’s lovely to share music with people; it’s the best!  

I notice that some of your song-titles read like unfinished lines – ‘Swimming In The Waves Of,’ ‘In That So Often Distant,’ etc.  Do you think of your music as finished?  Or do you prefer to leave it open-ended? 

Amanda : When I made this album, I was having a bit of an issue with my voice. I felt a bit blocked in terms of sounding authentic. I had a lot of doubt over lyrics and the sound of my voice. That’s kind of what lead me to making instrumental music – my voice mainly appears as just another instrument, drenched in delay and reverb. The only song on the album, ‘In That So Often Distant,’ took me ages to record and I’m still not sure I nailed it.  It makes me uncomfortable if I hear it now. It was a really difficult one to sing, the subject was pretty raw. I think maybe that’s why I kind of lost my voice a bit – it was a bit too hard to sing about the stuff I was feeling. I wrote the track titles to read as a poem, so that’s why they seem unfinished in themselves; they are carried over to the next line. I’m not sure that’s obvious. I think that was a sort of way for me to verbalise some of the stuff. The album title refers to the fact that the music is the sound of the emotions I was going through at that time, like the soundtrack. The first and last title are linked, to read as, ‘Swimming in the waves of an imperfect devotion,’ as the first and last tracks are different versions of the same theme.

I didn’t really think of this album as unfinished. When I make music, I take breaks to lie on the floor and listen (I’m pretty lazy).  If I can listen without getting up to tweak, then I feel like something is done. I might be wrong of course – there might well be more I could/should do but I feel content; I feel happy to just lie down. I felt like this album was done when I could lie on the floor and not get up throughout the whole thing (see I’m really lazy!).

I might start adopting that technique myself! Another part of what I like most about your music is that it can’t be easily date stamped.  In some ways, it could’ve been recorded any time in the past 40 years.  Is this intentional?  Or do you feel very much of now

Amanda : For this album, I was quite into that kind of New Age 70’s thing and Library Music.  I love the sound of synth recorded on tape – it’s so warm. I was into that stuff, so I suppose that’s a bit what I wanted to recreate.  The stuff I’m doing now is a bit more now.  Maybe that’s a bad thing? If it’s too now it’ll be very soon then. I should probably make something that sounds like it’s from the future. The future kind of terrifies me though. I’m not sure I’ve got the stomach for that kind of dystopian vibe.  But then again, maybe I have.  ‘Might be cool to make something like Arpanet. I mean, actually if I could make something like that I’d be well chuffed.  I’m not sure I can let things be that cold though.

One of Amanda’s more recent tracks, ‘High Speed Travelling’ :

Where and when would you go back to if you had a time machine? 

Amanda : This is a bit of an unadventurous answer but I think it’d probably be late 80’s UK –  maybe Manchester or Sheffield – Acid House and all that and before the internet.  Bliss. I mean I was alive then but too young to “be there, man.” Or maybe Detroit, late 80’s, might be more of a change for me, bit more adventurous!

Where do you stand on the subject of trying to reach listeners?  There’s a lot of music out there and it’s never been easier to access it. Do you feel you’re being washed away on this great tide or are you just happy to be producing something the listener may stray upon by chance? 

Amanda : Music means a hell of a lot to me. I feel like it expresses a part of me that I can’t express in another way, so it means a lot to connect with people, to kind of feel heard. I don’t want to be massively famous (when I was younger I did!)  but I feel like it’d be nice to reach people that would be into my stuff and sometimes I feel like that’s not possible. I’d like to be able to, practically, do more music and I’d like for that doing to sustain itself a bit too but making any money from music seems like a ridiculous notion right now. I’m not at all business-minded either, so that doesn’t help.

I do feel a bit like I’m lost in the ocean of sound sometimes. There’s so much access to really great stuff and it’s hard not to just keep moving onto the next thing.  It’s harder with the internet to really cherish music. I’d like to have a bit more of an established platform, a bit more support in that way. This year, I’ve been a bit more positive about being out in the world doing stuff, away from my sort of reclusive studio thing and I feel really positive about that. I try not to focus too much on how good or how bad my ‘career’ is musically because it’s a bit of a waste of energy. It’s better to put that energy into making stuff and nurturing the connections that I have made. It’s all love really and that’s the thing to come back to. If I connect genuinely with even a couple of people, that’s ace and really that’s something to focus on, rather than focus on who I’m not connecting with.

This blog concerns records that may have fallen through the cracks or perhaps didn’t receive the recognition they deserve(d).  What’s your favourite lost album?  Can you tell us a bit about it? 

Amanda : I don’t know that I know anything that is that much of a lost album. I’m not much of a digger. I normally come to things that other people have already found.  One of my favourite albums of this year was by Mister Water Wet. I mean, he’s not selling quantities of albums like Beyoncé, so compared to her he’s a bit lost. I get the impression he’s quite happy to be lost. It’s a really wonderfully strange album, these sort of misfitting samples that clunk along together and have moments of synergy and mad beauty.  It feels like something I couldn’t ever make. I like listening to stuff that is pretty different to what I do, stuff that I don’t think I could ever make.  It’s nice to not analyse it too much, to just feel a bit awestruck and lose myself in the music.

Footnote : An equally mesmeric collection of analogous work from 2012 – 2018 was released in 2018 under the rather apt title of ‘Misc. Works.’  Limited to 100 copies. 60-minute white and gold cassette album with lenticular-animated timelapse cover.   Here’s a taster, ‘South Ends’ :

In the wake of this interview, started back in February, Amanda has been obscenely busy with new work. Aside that standalone single, ‘High Speed Travelling,’ there’s a wonderful suite, ‘Slow Notes For Piano and Voice,’ which, as its name suggests, employs only two sound sources – these, sampled, processed and improvised over, live. Listen to the latter here

Discover much more Mücha, including the tremendous 2013 album, ‘Brynhenllan,’ on Bandcamp here

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