Get To Know: Zoë Mc Pherson

Few releases have left us as intrigued as String Figures, the first LP from producer, vocalist and performer Zoë Mc Pherson. After spending the past few years researching Inuit cultures, Kurdish feminism and the practice of Cat’s Cradle, Zoë created her audio-visual album in seven chapters. The first two films, made in collaboration with Berlin-based director Alessandra Leone, are hypnotic amalgams of the traditional and the contemporary, history and the future. Ahead of the live performance of String Figures at Splice Festival, the annual audio-visual event held at Rich Mix from 11th - 13th of May, we got on the phone with Zoë to find out more about her writing process, her collaborative relationships and the importance of audio-visual festivals like Splice. 

Hi Zoë! So, I’ve been listening to your first LP, String Figures, a lot. Can you start by telling me a bit about the creative process behind it? 

Yeah! So String Figures is a collection of compositions I started writing three years ago. I went into the studio with about 20 different tracks, and then little by little I reduced it down to seven. It had to be coherent. It had to be true to what I want to present, to what I am now (or what I was), and what I want to do. 

What brings these tracks together is the evolutive side of things. They’re not songs; when I started making music I was trying plenty of different things including songs, but this time I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to tell stories that can evolve over the course of a journey. 

Do you imagine a certain narrative as you’re writing? 

No, not at all. I just go into a bit of a trance, and it all just comes out. At some point you have to change paths otherwise each track will last 20 minutes, you have to know where to cut it off!

Did you always intend for String Figures to be an audio-visual project?

I’m always interested in combining different disciplines - that always comes first in a way. Alessandra [Leone, the visual director of String Figures] and I started working together on this project a year and a half ago, and at that point most of the songs were already written. Right now we still have three videos to put out, and I’m changing some parts of the tracks in tune with the visuals, so in that way they’re informing each other now. 

How did the collaboration between you and Alessandra come about? 

We met in Berlin at a Female: Pressure meeting and we clicked immediately! I’d put out an open call searching for a director and there were so many responses, but none as complete and mad as hers. We got on super well in going really deep, communicating all the time morning through to late nights over the last year and a half. Now we’re so on the same level for the whole audio-visual project. 

The videos you’ve released so far have been fascinating - first ‘Sabotage’ and then ‘Inui (and free)’ more recently. When you and Alessandra are creating those videos, what did your conversations sound like? 

The beginning of all this is that I had this theme in mind - string figures. I became really interested in Inuit culture and just read so many books and watched video after video. Inuit culture as a microcosm reflects how modernity has fucked up a lot of things. I had thought of Inuit culture as a sort of dreamland but in reality the effects of colonisation have left the people in a bad way. There’s a duality: the people have this amazing connection to nature, but the horrible reality of contemporary Western culture has stripped them of so much of it. This duality runs through the whole visual album. Alessandra and I actually have very similar tastes. 

That duality - between the natural and the man-made - seems to run through your sound in that you incorporate a lot of natural sounds in your otherwise electronic pieces…

Yeah absolutely. I was born in London, and then I grew up in the mountains in the south of France so I have this dual identity as city girl and nature lover so for sure inspiration from me comes from walking in nature, or breathing something that smells not like pollution but which smells good. That’s what I need every ten days, it’s vital. I try to gather sounds when I’m around Brussels, but it’s easier to do when you’re travelling. I have lots from Indonesia and Turkey - when I’m travelling I feel much more open to that. 

Do you gather those sounds with a song or track in mind, or do you harvest them just in case? 

Both! Field recordings are usually the first thing I start with. They often form the bass. Usually, I just go through my bank of recordings and listen out for a sound that could form a rhythm - it’s usually repetitive. That’s my thing at the moment. 

We’re psyched to see you play at Splice Festival on 12th May - what can we expect from your live concert? 

It’s going to be different from the audio-visual album, but still very much in the same universe. You’ll be able to see all the visuals that aren’t out yet, or which will only be shown as part of the live show. I think sound-wise it’ll be a bit more clubby and danceable that the album which is cool! When I play on my own I want to make it possible to move, even though there are awkward rhythms to navigate for sure. 

Why do you feel festivals like Splice are important? 

It’s true that visuals are the most important thing for musicians right now. There are a lot of musicians out there who make bad music but who have great pictures of themselves or whose music is accompanied by good-looking visuals - that’s how it works in this terrible music industry. But if it’s really in an artistic form — something informed by research and which is coherent like I think all the projects that Splice is presenting are — then it’s an art form in and of itself. That’s when it’s amazing.

In general, it’s difficult to find platforms to present audio-visual work properly. Concert venues largely don’t have very good cinematography backlines, except for bigger venues. If you play at a festival it’s sunny outside, there’s a big screen - to be honest you don’t really see shit. You need a festival like Splice at a venue like Rich Mix that takes care of both aspects.

Thanks, Zoë! 

Splice Festival runs from 11th - 13th May. Grab your tickets here