Just the Beginning Episode 2

Finding Your Voice

This is the second episode of Just the Beginning, Kickstarter’s podcast featuring stories about how independent creators bring their ideas to life. You’ll hear what inspires them, scares them, and keeps them going — and how they’ve remained true to their visions, even if mainstream culture didn’t buy in.

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Featured in this Episode

What does it mean to sound more like yourself? Stories about people finding their voices both literally and creatively.

Maya and Bosco Kante are the founders of ElectroSpit, a family business devoted to helping people sing like robots. They tell us how an ungainly vintage instrument and a disappointing performance with Kanye West inspired them to create it.

As a teenager, people told Ionnalee that she had a good voice… for singing backup. She started the mysterious Iamamiwhoami project to find her artistic edge and reconnect with the way she sang as child.

What would an AI choose to sing about? Botnik Studios uses predictive text algorithms to create new creative works. Hear a preview of The Songularity, their forthcoming album of computer-aided pop songs.

Transcript

[Sounds of vocal exercises]
[ducks under]

Zakiya Gibbons (ZG): This is Just the Beginning…

Daisy Press (DP): Woo-hoo!

ZG: …from Kickstarter.

Group: Woo-hoo!

ZG: I’m Zakiya Gibbons

(DP): Brrrrrrring!

Nick Yulman (NY): I’m Nick Yulman

Group: Brrrrrrring!

NY: And that’s voice teacher Daisy Press guiding us through some… pretty unusual vocal exercises.

ZG: While you might seek out some voice teachers to learn opera or… you know… try in vain to sound like Beyonce, people go to Daisy for a specific reason: to sound like themselves.

(DP): There’s a ring of authenticity when someone is expressing something versus when they’re listening to how it sounds and judging it. So, it’s like how do I trick people into feeling comfortable enough being themselves to sound like who they are in that moment.

[Laughing]

OK so were you thinking about vocal technique or how your voice sounded during that?

ZG: I was not worried about that…

DP: Fabulous…

ZG: I was like we all sound crazy right now [laughs]

DP: We all sounded GREAT. But yes, restoring some kind of insanity is helpful, generally.

[Theme music: Balún — Años Atrás]

ZG: This episode is all about finding your voice… both literally and creatively. We’ll hear from people who… through their work… found ways to sound more like themselves.

DP: [sighs] I say to students very frequently it is simple but it’s not easy.

NY: We’ll come back to Daisy later in the show… when she’ll give a voice lesson to one of our coworkers here at Kickstarter… But first… the stories.

Preview Montage

Ionnalee: I was very young when I started singing. And I became the soloist in this choir full of old ladies in a church.

Botnik Studios: We collected all the good words that have ever been written — song lyrics, Yelp reviews, a beekeeping manual

ElectroSpit: Ever since that time, I wanted to know how to make that sound. How do they do that?


Maya and Bosco Kante: ElectroSpit

ZG: Joining us for our first story is Michael Garofalo, who produces the show with us. Hey, Michael.

Michael Garofalo (MG): Hey, Zakiya.

ZG: So, who are we going to hear from?

MG: It’s a husband-and-wife team from Oakland, California and they created the ElectroSpit. It’s a new musical instrument that… well, I guess the simplest way to put it is that it lets you sing like a robot.

Maya Kante (MK): A melodic robot. [Laughs]

Bosco Kante(BK): Yeah. That’s a great description. A robot…

MK: Who has a soul.

BK: [laughs]

MK: A robot with a soul.

[Fade up on Bosko singing with ElectroSpit]: Oh yeah. Welcome, welcome, welcome to the Kickstarter podcast with ElectroSpit. EeeElectroSpit…

Bosko continues to improvise beneath intros]

MK: My name is Maya Kante. I am in charge of business strategy, marketing, and cracking the daily whip.

BK: [Laughs] My name is Bosco Kante.

[Singing: My name is Bosco…]

I am charge of engineering, the vision for the company… which is a shared vision.

MK: Yeah, I was about to say I don’t know about that. [Laughs]

[We’re going to give you the backstory — oh.]

MG: I got to see the ElectroSpit when we sat down for this interview, and it looks a little like a pair of headphones that you wear around your neck… with the parts that you’d normally put over your ears — Bosco calls them soundcups — resting right on your throat.

BK: So, the way the ElectroSpit works, the sound comes into the soundcups. If I put it on my neck it goes through my neck and out of my mouth. It replaces your vocal chords. So if I talk at the same time you can kind of hear it in the background but if I open the back of my throat now you can hear it now you can hear it oh… That’s what it sounds like.

[Music: Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce”]

MG: The ElectroSpit is actually based on an older instrument, called the talkbox… that was used a lot in the 1970s and early 80s… and that’s when Bosco got hooked…

BK: I was in middle school at the time, and I would ride in my neighbor’s ’65 Impala, and he would play Zapp, “More Bounce the Ounce”, and then we would go to the skating rink and they would have breakdancing and popping competitions, and that was the main song for those competitions. And so ever since that time, I wanted to know how to make that sound, how do they do that.

[Music: Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce”]

MG: Bosco spent years mastering his talkbox technique. And he is a master. Bosco is one of the few go-to guys in the music business and his credits prove it. He’s played talk box on tracks by Bruno Mars and Big Boi.

So, why is he trying to reinvent it?

Well, first, the talkbox is notoriously difficult to play… there are some… let’s say, design flaws… for example… you have to try to sing while holding a plastic tube in your mouth.

BK: You have to figure out how to hold the tube in your mouth, and if you hold it in the wrong place, it doesn’t sound right. And even if you hold it in the right place, it still sounds like you have a tube in your mouth.

MG: And then, there’s Kanye.

BK: Kanye, okay. So, I had the opportunity to play live on the American Music Awards with Kanye West because I did this song called, “Kanye’s Workout Plan,” that I wrote, and there’s a big talkbox solo. But before the show, they’re talking about what the performance is gonna be like and it’s gonna have all these dancers and you’re gonna be moving around.

MK: Because they were doing a workout routine, dance routine.

BK: Right. And the talkbox is not mobile. So I’m gonna have to lip sync. Which sucks because this is my big moment to like show everybody in the world how great of a talkboxer I am and no, I’m out there doing a Milli Vanilli. That was the inspiration for ElectroSpit.

[Fade up on Bosco improvising with ElectroSpit]

MK: Some of our early prototypes we had like a person with a keyboard tie, and you know how they have those snorkeling things where they have the thing in their nose, we thought maybe we could do that.

[Bosco improvising with ElectroSpit]

BK: I had like an attachment to the tube, like I thought of the talkbox as the tube.

MK: And the more you thought about it it was like that makes it so you can’t share it because it make it unsanitary. And that means that less people can use it. When you go to a studio, anybody can pick up a guitar, right? But if somebody has a spare talkbox laying around, unless you have a clean tube, nobody wants to touch that thing.

[Bosco improvising with ElectroSpit]

MG: There was maybe no one more qualified to update the talkbox than Bosco. He’s not only a musician — he’s also an mechanical engineer. He got his first big break in the music industry while he was still in college when he was commissioned to do the theme song for the TV show In Living Color.

And it seems Bosco’s particular brand of genius that combines music and technology runs in the family.

BK: My mom plays French horn, my grandmother plays trumpet. My aunt plays trumpet. My other aunt plays guitar and sings. So, Christmas carols are very lively.

MK: I sit silently. [laughs]

BK: So music was a huge part of our family. And then, in addition, everybody in my family did math. My mom is a math … she was a math professor and now she’s a civil engineer. My grandmother was a math professor, but before that she was working as an electrical engineer and she was actually part of the team that invented the microwave. My mom’s first cousin invented the laser.

[Music: ElectroSpit “Now Is So Last Year”]

MG: Like I said… Bosco seemed destined to build this instrument.

And with a backstory like this, it makes sense that Bosco and Maya really do consider ElectroSpit a family business… even if what they are doing doesn’t exactly look like a mom and pop type of thing.

MK: Some people were like, “How do you work together and live together and you’re married?” And I was like, “Well, we actually really do like each other.”

BK: That’s right.

BK: But when we first got together, Maya had come from the corporate world.

MK: There was some learning to be done about what looks like work. Entertainment looked like kick it time to me. He’s like, “No, this is a business meeting.” I was like, “No, you’re having drinks.”

BK: And I had never had a quote unquote job, I mean…

MK: You’ve always been an entrepreneur.

BK: I’ve always been-

MK: And people don’t think of that as a job, but it’s so much more grueling than a job because nobody tells you what to do, there’s no set hours. Like, he had way more of a job than anybody that I’ve ever known.

BK: Well, yeah, if I didn’t sell this particular song then I wasn’t gonna be able to pay my mortgage. So initially anytime we would face some adversity in our entrepreneurial ventures, Maya would, she started looking at the job-

MK: Job boards.

BK: Job boards.

MK: And I’d be applying for jobs and stuff. He was like, “What are you doing here?” And I had fooled myself into thinking, “Oh, we travel so much, well, this will help.” And he was like, “You’re just fooling yourself.”

BK: You’re just wasting time. Now, when we face some type of adversity or challenge, it’s we can do it, we can figure this out, we’re gonna get creative.

MK: We’re doing it. It’s always we’re doing it.

BK: See? We’re doing it. It’s done. Consider it done.

MK: Yeah.

[Music: ElectroSpit “Now Is So Last Year”]

BK: Initially, she looked at ElectroSpit as “this is Bosko’s thing. He’s the producer, he plays talkbox.”

MK: This crucial turning point where our son was trying to give me a compliment, and he goes, “Mommy, maybe when I grow up I wanna be a music helper like you.” And I was like, “What?” I was like, “I’m a boss.”

BK: Dipped in sauce. [laughing]

MK: Dipped in sauce. [laughing]

[Music: ElectroSpit “Now Is So Last Year”]

MG: And how about their son? Even though he’s still in elementary school, he’s already angling to take over the family business.

MK: At his school, they had a project called The Living History of Hip Hop. His dad came in as a part of that whole project and did a demonstration of the ElectroSpit. And all the kids got up and tried it. And then after school that day, our son said, “Okay, so I need to be the salesman.” Because he said, “Everybody in class says that they each have $100, so I think that’s a good price point, around $100.” I was like, okay, you’re in the fourth grade and you’re nine years old and you’re trying to basically pimp out your classmates to buy the ElectroSpit [laughing]

[Music: ElectroSpit “No Chute”]

MG: When I spoke to Bosco and Maya, the ElectroSpit was just about to go into production. And I couldn’t help but notice that as they talked about the upcoming release, they sounded a bit like parents watching a their kid grow up.

BK: The talkbox has been behind closed doors basically for so long, it’s gonna be like this girl whose parents are in the church and now she’s gone off to college.

MK: Uh-oh! Preacher’s daughter syndrome!

BK: Preacher’s daughter syndrome!

MK: She’s about to get buck wild!

BK: She’s about to get buck wild and she’s gonna be … you know, the talkbox is gonna be out there and people are gonna do all kinds of stuff. And I know that there’s gonna be some kid that’s gonna pick it up and be 10 times better than me and play it upside down or behind his back and that’s the exciting part.

MK: We don’t wanna put any limitations on it. We’re just excited to see what other people do.

[Music: ElectroSpit “No Chute”]

ZG: Maya and Bosco Kante… since they spoke with Michael, Bosko has been back and forth to the factory in China that’s making the ElectroSpit… follow their project updates on Kickstarter… and their website… electrospit.com.


Ionnalee: Everyone Afraid to be Forgotten

NY: Zakiya, does the name Iamamiwhoami mean anything to you?

ZG: I am who i am i….

NY: I am am i who am i?

ZG: I have no clue what that is… who or what is that?

NY: Well, for a while, that was the big question. At the end of 2009, a YouTube account with that name started putting out these compellingly weird music videos featuring a singer who never showed her face. People loved her voice but no one knew who she was. There was a lot of speculation — was it Lady Gaga? Bjork? Robyn? Christina Aguilera?

ZG: Wait, so who was it?

NY: Well, It turned out to be a Swedish singer named Jonna Lee. Jonna already had a career as a kind of poppy singer-songwriter but used the mystery surrounding iamamiwhoami to reinvent herself as an artist.

And when her recent world tour, which she launched on Kickstarter, brought her to Brooklyn, we invited her to stop by and talk. She starts by telling the story behind one of her most personal videos, “Dunes of Sand,” and how it took her back to the place where she first found her voice as a singer.

Jonna Lee (JL): I was very young when I started singing at age four or five. And I became the soloist in this choir full of old ladies in a church. It’s in the middle of the nowhere. Basically, there’s just a church and two houses and that’s it. I had to ride my bike three kilometers to get there. And on Sundays at 3:00, I would perform and sing different hymns.

JL: That’s when I found out that I could sing and eventually I started writing songs.

[Music: Ionnalee “Dunes of Sand live in Fivelstad”]

“Dunes of Sand” is about being in a very dark, low place and trying to get over this enormous emotional hill. I filmed a live video for it in the church where I started singing as a kid.

[Music]

I hadn’t been there since I was like 13. It was a powerful thing to stand there and sing for the janitor and my dad.

I think I’m using my vocal more now, the way I did when I was a kid than in my previous solo career.

[Music: Jonna Lee “And your Love”]

I was told sometime when I was 19 I remember that I had a good voice for being a backing vocalist and that for many years was like something that I had in my head like “ok I’m a good kind of plain voice.”

[Music: Iamamiwhoami “Goods”]

It was like with “iamamiwhoami” that I found my edge. Now I can connect that to when I began singing. That voice that I sort of had but then I erased some of the characteristics in it to sort of be accepted.

NY: With her true voice no longer muted, Jonna found a new sense of freedom in the work she was making with iamamiwhoami. Then, she got some frightening news.

JL: I found a lump on my throat and I went through a couple of years of trying to figure this out and what it was. First couple of months there was a cancer scare. And umm… finding out that it wasn’t cancer obviously was a big relief. But there is a risk that I will lose my voice permanently.

[Music: Ionnalee “Dunes of Sand live in Fivelstad”]

NY: Jonna is still facing this uncertainty about her voice. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. And the name of her latest album speaks to the anxiety that comes with that. It’s called: Everyone Afraid to be Forgotten. Like losing her voice would somehow erase everything she’s done.

JL: This album here is more of the honest truth about what this does to a person when you do a lot of things on your own and the solitude that comes with that as well. Because that’s what the Internet does, there’s a distance. It’s a safety in the distance, but there’s also a kind of loneliness in that.

NY: That distance and anonymity of the internet is something Jonna has explored from the start She almost uses her online community as a creative medium. Like, one time she decided to perform a concert for a single person — and let her fans decide who that would be. She drove him out to a remote forest in Sweden, performed for just him, and then appeared to sacrifice him at a burning altar. And she live streamed the whole thing for other fans to watch.

But with all the elaborate creative projects she’s done to connect with her audience, there’s one kind of obvious thing she hasn’t done much

JL: We haven’t been able to tour a lot. It was hard to translate an online project to a live stage. And so I was a little bit afraid of that physical meeting. But now, with this album, it felt extremely important, because I know that there are fans who really want to see a show — especially when we we went to Brazil for the first time. It’s one of the shows that I will remember as one of the best.

We came to São Paulo and our luggage went missing. The gear that we have is extremely important to make the show happen.

So I felt, “Okay, this is not gonna work. “ we had so little time and we were so tired. We borrowed things and I made costumes on site, and as the show went on, it was such a highlight because it became something totally different.

We had this moment where one person from the audience do a dance-off. And it was part of the Kickstarter that you could dance with me for one song.

[Concert ambience]
Jonna : Let’s dance!
Crowd: Let’s dance!

JL: This really sweet boy was going to dance with me and I took him up on stage and we did that song and that was the end of the concert. Then we went offstage and he said, “Jonna, can I ask you a favor? I want to propose to my boyfriend. He’s out there.” And I thought, “I can’t say no to that,”

[concert ambience]
Jonna : Hi. So, we have a little special thing that you would like to say to your dearest one.

[crowd cheers]

Felipe Leite: Gabriel, You are not like anyone I ever know…

JL: And it was amazing, just that was a big moment. It’s never happened to me before. It was very tearful.

NY: And by the way, he said yes. This may have been the first on-stage proposal she’s inspired, but browsing fan sites, you see that Jonna has had incredible interactions with her fans everywhere she goes. They dance with her, make art for her, come to her concerts dressed in elaborate costumes. And so, by finding her voice, she’s kind of helped many other people all around the world find theirs too.

JL: When you’re touring, all of a sudden, you see that these people are there for real. You feel a lot of appreciation and love and then I almost feel silly for feeling frustrated at times.

[Music: Iamamiwhoami “Play”]

NY: Ionnalee’s newest single “Open Sea” is out now. To see the video for it and find out about her upcoming album and tour, head to ionnalee.com.


Botnik Studios: The Songularity

ZG: In the stories we’ve heard so far, technology plays a big role in helping people find their voices

But what about the opposite? Can humans help a machine find its voice?

That’s what a group of writers, artists, and developers called Botnik is trying to do.

You know how when you’re sending a message, your phone suggests words that it thinks you want to say next? That’s called predictive text. And Botnik wrote a computer program that uses that same technology to generate new creative works.

You feed it some kind of text and it helps you write something new in the same style.

So for example, they fed all the Harry Potter books into their program to create… a new book in the series.

[Reading] 
 
Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash by JK Rowling. Magic: it was something that Harry Potter thought was very good.]

ZG: And last year, they started working on an album of pop music. The machine spits out the lyrics, and the humans behind Botnik create the melody. And they call it…

Announcer: The Songularity!

Botnik Spokesperson: We built a computer program that helps you write lyrics in the style of any text you feed it. Here’s a song written with half Morisey lyrics and half Amazon customer reviews of the P90X home workout DVD

[Music: Botnik “Bored With This Desire to Get Ripped]

Botnik Spokesperson: We collected all the good words that have ever been written — song lyrics, Yelp reviews, a beekeeping manual — and we mixed them up into one perfect album:

Announcer: The Songularity!

ZG: That was from the video for Botnik’s 2018 Kickstarter campaign.. And we have a preview of a couple of other tracks from the album.

Here’s a song that mashes together Ronald Reagan’s speeches and Beach Boys lyrics.

[Music: Botnik “Soviet Nights”]

ZG: And here’s one based on gadget reviews from Wired magazine.

[Music: Botnik “Manual for being human”]

ZG: Botnik’s album of computer-generated pop music, The Songularity, is slated to be released in June. Human beings Jamie Brew, Michael Goodman, Lumi Yasin, and Chris Weed helped create the songs we heard. Actress Rainee Denim narrated Botnik’s Kickstarter video.

To learn more and to generate your own predictive-text masterpieces, head to botnik.org.


A Voice Lesson with Daisy Press

Nick Yulman: We’ll wrap up this episode where we started, singing with voice teacher Daisy Press, whose specialty is helping people sound like themselves.

Daisy Press: Vocal technique for me and what I teach is based on sensation as opposed to listening. Because you’re gonna be in a million different acoustic environments. Like it’s different in here than it would be in a cathedral than it would be on a subway. And so how do we know when we’re singing well? It’s not going to be how it sounds to us. It’s gonna be how it feels to us.

NY: We got a peek at how Daisy does this. She did a quick voice lesson with our colleague Maura Lynch who, when she’s not working here at Kickstarter, sings in the indie rock band Blush. They were kind enough to let us listen in.

DP: Have you ever taken a voice lesson before?

Maura Lynch: Once when like in 10th grade because I was really shy. It was to help get me out of my shell.

DP: So what’s your relationship with your spoken voice and then your song voice?

ML: The feedback that I get a lot is that it’s very quiet. Even just speaking normally. But also when I’m singing it’s like we really gotta like crank the mic.

DP: So to speak louder it’s focusing the effort of our voice up into our faces. We use that space inside of us to create a sound that’s going to carry. So, was there anything you wanted to just work on?

ML: I have many karaoke songs.

DP: Oh yeah? [Laughing]

ML: I mean, I always sing that Lisa Loeb song.

DP: Oooooooh. The “You say?”

ML: Yeah, yeah.

DP: Do you want to sing it along with a karaoke track?[Laughing]

ML: So we’re going to sing this together?

DP: Oh no, you’re going to sing it.

ML: OK, I’m gonna have to close my eyes.

Maura Lynch singing with Blush (Photo: iwaseasymeat on Instagram)

[Maura sings “Stay”]

DP: Good job! How’d that feel?

ML: It felt like a little shaky — a little tight.

DP: Here around your throat? It felt a little, kind of, stuck?

ML: Yeah

DP: What you did sound pretty darn good. But how do we get it deeper in your body — and access the ease of you spoke voice?

DP: So it’s like [singing] You say

ML: You say.

DP: Now say, “You say.”

ML: You say

DP: Yeah, so we’re like sing-speaking it.

ML+DP: [Singing together] You say.

DP: I only hear what I want to.

ML: I only hear what I want to.

DP: I only hear what I want to.

ML: I only hear what I want to.

DP: Right there.

ML: [Singing] I only hear what I want to.

DP: It’s really nice. It’s a much more bloomy sound.

ML: It feels like, “Whoa, where did that come from?”

DP: The change is big on the outside too. It feels more like you. Speaking and singing are actually the same thing. They come from the same physiological mechanism. The tool really is you — your own resonance, your own just creatureness.

NY: After this lesson, Daisy did one last vocal exercise with us. She pulled out an Indian instrument called a shruti box, which is kind of like an accordion that only plays long droning notes. And as she pumped it, she had us take deep breaths… and sing a single note as we exhaled… picking a different note to sing with each breath…

ZG: It was kind of like singing in slow motion. Not worrying about how you sounded or what part of a song comes next. Just feeling the physical sensations of vocalizing.

NY: After the credits, we’ll just leave the drone going for a couple of minutes so you can try it too if you’d like.

Credits

ZG: Thanks for joining us for this episode of Just the Beginning.

This episode was produced by me Zakiya Gibbons, Michael Garofalo and me, Nick Yulman. Elyse Mallouk is Kickstarter’s Editorial Director.

Special thanks to Zoo Labs in Oakland California, Daniel Sharp, and Tony Hollingsworth and our very brave colleague Maura Lynch — you can hear her band Blush at Blush.bandcamp.com.

And thank you to voice coach Daisy Press! Head to soundlikeyourself.com to check out her classes, performances, and recordings.

Visit us at podcast.kickstarter.com.

And tell us what you think of the show — leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts.

And don’t forget to call in with questions about your creative work for Advice Columnist Adam J Kurtz! The number is 914–381–0233

Or tweet at Kickstarter using the hashtag #JTB

Until next time, I’m Zakiya Gibbons

NY: I’m Nick Yulman. And this is just the beginning

[Drone]


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