LONG READ: ANNA BAINES INTERVIEW AND ‘VANILLA BOY’ SINGLE RELEASE

Photo: Clare Baines

We catch up with Anna Baines — musician, seamstress and budding programmer — for a good old chat on the release day of her brand new single, Vanilla Boy, to talk making instruments, milk and Music and Lyrics (yes, the Drew Barrymore film).


What female producers are you into at the moment?

Well, I worked with Holly (Howe, Bubbles) on Vanilla Boy. We used to live together and we watched Music and Lyrics and both decided we’d each write something in a similar style (laughs). I wrote Vanilla Boy and I don’t actually know what Holly came up with in the end, but she is a really big inspiration for me. I feel like she’s making some really interesting and ‘out there’ stuff. I’m also obsessed with Empress Of — really obsessed. I’ve only recently discovered her. Also FEMME! I’m still a ‘baby’ producer and I still work with a lot of people. I initially write the parts, and then take them to other people to see what they think. On Vanilla Boy I worked with three different producers along the way. It helps the ideas grow, and I’m a really social person so I’m not very good at just zoning-in to my work. I much prefer doing work for one or two hours and then just hanging out!

So you say you’ve worked with three different producers on this track. In general, what is your writing and production process?

I definitely start with words, but I’m trying to change that. I keep a journal, so I’m always writing down my thoughts — and I want my production process to be similar. I want to start doing production as a daily thing, where I just whack something out and run with ideas. I’m getting better at doing that, but I feel with words it’s easier. I just have too many emotions! For Vanilla Boy, I got an apology text from someone I used to see and went home and wrote all the lyrics pretty much in one go. And then we watched Music and Lyrics and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it this way!’ (laughs)

Cover art: Oliver Mitcham

So when you are producing, what DAW do you like to work in?

So, this is the thing! I work in Logic. Well, I used to work in Logic, but in my third year of university I got Ableton and started messing around with that more. I find Ableton easier for developing ideas, but I feel that for me it’s more for live performance. Logic is easier for me to initially build the ideas in and Ableton is for when I’ve got my ideas to run with.

However, Vanilla Boy was done in Logic before I went to Holly. She has Reason which has better drum sounds than I have. Drums are something I’m still really exploring! After that I worked with Saint Torrente to take the drum parts even further.

You make a lot of your own outfits for your live performances. Am I correct in thinking that they’re playable?

Yes! I make wearable instruments out of Arduinos. It’s basically like a midi-controller that I strap onto my body. I actually use this thing called the Lilypad and I just watch loads of videos and online tutorials on how to program them. For my degree show, I made them play bass sounds and electrical-taped them to my body. They’re pressure sensors so when you touch them they’ll trigger any sample you want — just like a hardware sampler. It’s quite cool, though, because you can’t see them. People don’t always realise what’s going on! (laughs)

I also made — you know Imogen Heap’s glove? Well, I did a project on transferring women’s domestic tasks into a male performance context, and I made a marigold drum glove. I also made a dress that when you moved (imitates swishing a dress side to side), it triggered samples of my grandma’s speech. It’s something I definitely want to explore further and I feel like I definitely have further to go. FEMME did a video with Crewdson where they made this amazing hat you could play. I actually worked with Crewdson a bit when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. They’re both a huge inspiration to me in terms of moving more in that direction! But I’ve always sewn since I was tiny. My grandmother was a seamstress, my aunt was a wedding dress maker, and my mum makes all her own clothes — so from the age of three I was always under the sewing machine!

Photo: Caroline Clarke

I bet you get a really interesting reaction to that when you play live!

Yeah! Especially because you can’t see what’s going on. The audiences never seem to know what’s happening at first. I remember in my show at the Albany I had to open up my jumpsuit because I was freaking out about where I’d attached the triggers. One of them had broke! They’re quite delicate. In the end, I strapped them to my belly and wore these massive control pants so they’d stay completely still. But it was fine, in the end.

Photo: Anna Baines

You must be quite good at soldering then?

Well, once you get the hang of it it’s not actually too hard. My housemate Mimi was doing a project on circuit-bending at the same time, so it was nice to be able to learn from each other and help each other with different bits. We kind of worked together, and made it work that way.

Mimi is in your live band as well, along with Holly and Gillie (Ione). Was it a creative decision to have an all-female band?

100%. I feel like the viewpoints in my songs are from a strongly female perspective, so it wouldn’t make sense to me to have men in my band. Also, I feel a lot more comfortable working with women. Not that I wouldn’t work with men in my band, I’m sure one day I might! There’s a whole thing of not feeling like you’re good enough, or that you don’t know what you’re talking about, whereas when it’s just me and my friends I don’t feel like I need to prove myself.

It’s also very collaborative this way. Like Holly will say ‘why don’t we try this’, or Gillie will show me a cool thing she can do on her VoiceLive Touch, or Mimi will show me something crazy she can do on the keys because she’s a great pianist. So, it’s good that way. It seems to work well.

It’s really interesting that you all work in each other’s bands as well. You must have a great dynamic.

Yes. I love working on their individual projects as much as my own! I get the same feelings from being a part of them. Bubbles, for example, is a huge part of my life. It’s like an extension of mine and Holly’s friendship. I feel super connected to that. The same with Gillie, we both sing together a lot and we know what’s going on because we’re used to singing with each other. It’s nice to have that relationship with someone — like, I know who you are, I know where we can go with this.

Photo: Anna Baines

So lets talk about Vanilla Boy! What kind of style would you say it’s in?

Well, friends I’ve show in to so far have said it’s like PC music meets girl pop. I think through living with Holly, the PC music has swept in because I didn’t know anything about it before! It’s electro-pop, I guess.

And you said you’ve got Bubbles and Saint Torrente producing on it?

Yeah! They’re both quite experimental which is great. When I was working with Saint Torrente we made a shared playlist and added things we each thought we’d like or would be good for the track, which was really nice. Our listening was in tune with each other, and I also discovered lots of new music through that process too!

You’ve made a video for Vanilla Boy too. How did you go about making it?

I originally made a video in mine and Holly’s flat. All of the lyrics are food themed, as so we thought we’d just mess around with loads of food one afternoon. But yeah, it was super DIY and I looked like a baby in it — I still had all my long hair and looked really funny so I decided I had to re-film it. I really wanted to take it to the next level, but I actually ended up doing something super DIY again! I filmed it with my little sister, Clare, and we just had a great time! We were trying to get our hands on a good camera and then everything fell through, but I just had to do it. It had to happen. So we just used my sister’s crappy camera on a tripod in my parent’s house. We had a big fight before the milk scene, because I wanted to spell out ‘VANILLA BOY’ in alphabet spaghetti — I wanted to spell it on my chest but Clare said no. She said it was a horrible idea and wouldn’t even try it (laughs). So we filmed the milk scene instead — both of us in my parent’s bathroom pouring milk after we’d just had a huge fight. It was the worst thing ever! But we did it, and it was fine.

Photo: Clare Baines

It’s a bit gross. I definitely felt a bit sick filming it. It’s a lot of eating. I put a whole cake in my mouth, I ate a whole load of pizza really grotesquely — mouth open, with it all coming out all gross. The milk smells and has a weird texture after a while! I went off milk for a long time! For the first film me and Holly made, she’d baked this amazing cake with loads of icing on it, and wanted me to rub the icing all over my face. I started doing it but regretted it almost immediately and had to stop (laughs).

Videos are funny. When I perform live I work with a lot of videos too. Literally every song has a video. I have a song called Somebody Boy which is loads of screenshots of Facebook messages and memes. All the songs are named after boys, because I did this show which was about 21st century dating and how it’s really disposable — you’ve got things like Tinder and Bumble and Grinder and everything is at your fingertips but you could be dropped in, like, two seconds. So that was the whole concept, and all the songs are about different boys. I have a song called Beautiful Boy, where I made (with some help) a web app similar to Tinder. I sent it to all my male friends to sign up to, and gave them character which I wrote bios for so that the audience could download the app and see information about the songs.

So not only can you solder and program wearable instruments, you can code a bit as well?

Well, no not really! I have a sister who does electronic engineering, and another sister who does programming so whenever I’m stuck I can go to them. Also with the website, Holly helped me out massively. It’s all collaborative. I definitely want to learn more about coding, though! I know some basics, but I really want to get into it properly.

Photo: Clare Baines

How do you feel about social media as an artist?

I’ve actually just gone through a massive change in how I feel about social media. My phone got stolen on the night bus, so I was off social media for a good while until I could get a new one. Also at the same time, the WiFi had been cut off in our house so I had no contact with the outside world. But that ended up really weirding me out! I realised I didn’t like that with social media, anyone can message you and get in your space, which made me really think about what I was putting online. Before, I was just really willy-nilly posting anything thinking it would be fine. I don’t know. It is good, because you can engage with people around the world and see who is engaging with your music. But, I feel like you can get very hung-up on how many likes your getting, or about how a person didn’t message you back — and I just don’t have time for that any more, I’m so done. And it means nothing! You could have 200 likes on a page or 2000 or 15,000 — I mean I know it means something to labels or management or whoever — but unless you’ve actually got people listening to your music, it can just be a number on a webpage.

Do you think that’s going to change? The importance placed on ‘likes’ etc?

Well, I feel like I know more and more people who are deleting their Facebook pages and things. I feel that more and more people are just texting or just ringing and I find that so much easier. You can’t get tone across a message. So much can be misconstrued! You can say one thing and it can be taken completely the wrong way! I’ve also just finished an internship at a PR company. I saw what goes behind actual artist’s campaigns on Twitter and Facebook and everything — it’s all fake anyway. Nothing is real!

Photo: Katherine Baines

What are your go-to bits of gear?

My go-to when I start working stuff out is my VoiceLive Touch. I’m obsessed with harmonies and I’m obsessed with the voice, so that is often where I’ll start — making loops with the voice. I used to be really into the guitar for writing, but I don’t really touch it anymore. Now I’ve just got a midi keyboard, and I’ll just go into Logic and open any sound and just start improvising. Ableton is a big thing I use for writing, making bass loops and things. I feel like I’ve got a very basic approach to production, like for Vanilla Boy I just had a simple bass line looping with a three-part vocal harmony over the top to start. I was trying to challenge myself because I usually work with chords, so I wanted an arrangement of just parts — if that makes sense? I’m basic with gear too, I just use the VoiceLive for performance, and we have a midi-keyboard and Ableton, keyboard and bass guitar! Sometimes I have my guitar, but the only thing I really use with that is the Space Echo pedal. And I love my tremolo arm!

I feel this is the same with all my practice. With making clothes I just fumble through, making instruments I fumble through and making music I fumble through. And I really enjoy it! But I’m definitely not particular about gear. One thing I really remember about working with Mikko (Gordon) is that its really good to have limitations. By having limitations, you can really thrive. Besides, by working with other people I get to use their lovely things too! When Holly and I lived together we actually shared a desk — I brought the monitor and she brought the speakers, and we just had it set up to share in our little flat. I work on my headphones a lot, though. And before I could afford a MacBook I used Audacity!

There’s definitely gear that I want to buy though. I want some really nice speakers, and some more pedals for my guitar because I’m thinking I actually want to integrate it more into my live set. When we play live we swap instruments around a lot, which is kind of riot girl-y in its approach, which I like doing.

And finally, what can we expect after Vanilla Boy?

I’m working with Holly and Gillie again. With Holly I’m working on a song called Beautiful Boy, and with Gillie I’m working on Catcall Boy. So hopefully those two will be out as singles soon! And more gigging!