“I Like Knowing I’m Alive”: The Music, Origins, and Process of vhvl

A look at the Harlem native’s impressive story and catalog, from early production born out of necessity to the remarkable bravery shown during the recording of ‘evn.’

Gino Sorcinelli
May 29 · 5 min read

When Harlem-based producer vhvl was in second grade, classical piano instruction gave her an entry point for performing music. From there, she expanded her arsenal and learned to play a wide variety of instruments through her middle and high school music courses. “They called it ‘three-ring music,’” she told the website Rock Bottom in a 2012 interview. “Yeah, I’ve even played in a handbell orchestra.”

vhvl’s Boiler Room New York set.

After an unsuccessful stint in a band called the gymnasium, vhvl’s focus shifted to music production. Her initial fascination with the craft was born out of other producer’s disinterest in working with her. Refusing to let this deter her, she learned acoustic guitar and set out to share her musical vision with the world. “I was really depressed and I used to write these songs that were really depressing, all day,” she told Respect. in a 2013 interview. “I couldn’t get anyone to do drums so I had to start doing drums digitally. It was kind of crappy, actually.”

Thankfully, vhvl didn’t let the less-than-stellar initial results deter her. Over time she noticed her style morphing into something new and interesting. “It all started with me recording myself in my bedroom, turned into something completely different,” she told Rock Bottom.

“I was told early on by a peer that I’d probably end up dying from torturing myself in order to call upon abysmal memories in order to create music.”

With continued dedication and practice came the increased confidence to share her work with a broader audience. 2013 saw the release of her hypnotic nine-track debut myrrh on Bandcamp, which proved a notable hit on the artist-friendly platform. Then 2014 brought about an exciting Stones Throw split cassette release with Ras G titled Seat of the Soul. With one solo and one collaborative project under her belt in a two-year span, vhvl had established herself as a major force in the world of electronic music and seemed poised to take her career to new heights in the coming years.

But the creative process that produced such lush, impressive music was not always an easy one. In fact, vhvl admitted in earlier interviews that it could be harmful. “My process can be extremely destructive,” she told The 405 in a 2013 interview. “I was told early on by a peer that I’d probably end up dying from torturing myself in order to call upon abysmal memories in order to create music.”

For vhvl, however, it appears there is a certain catharsis in channeling these dark memories and emotions into a creative outlet. Rather than finding it damaging all of the time, the pain is also a helpful reminder of the human experience. “Ironically, I’d have to say my favorite thing (about making music) is my process, being able to feel a certain level of emotion reminds me that I am alive,” she told The 405. “I like knowing I’m alive.”

“It all started with me recording myself in my bedroom, turned into something completely different.”

In 2015, vhvl found her creative process in a dark space for a different reason. After experiencing a perplexing spinal injury, a failed medical treatment left her unable to leave her bed for much of the year. Having had no serious prior health issues, going from mobile to bed-ridden in such a short time was a shocking turn of events.

Looking back on the life-threatening experience in a 2016 interview with Fader, she revealed that there was still much about the health scare that was unclear, which made it hard to discuss in detail. “It’s difficult to talk about because what happened was something that I didn’t really understand, and still don’t really understand,” she said. “I’m vague about it only because it’s difficult to explain.”

Remarkably, in the midst of such a terrifying ordeal, she still found the strength to make music. As vhvl produced new songs while spending most of 2015 on bedrest, she found it helpful to think of putting out a split project of two shorter releases instead of one full-length album. The first part of the project was the six-song EP evn, released on Los Angeles-based Leaving Records in 2016. “I was still really sick, and in order for me to continue working I said, alright, for me to do this and have it really motivate me, it needs to be broken up in two,” she told Fader. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have sounded right to me.”

“Ironically, I’d have to say my favorite thing (about making music) is my process, being able to feel a certain level of emotion reminds me that I am alive.”

Though the production process was likely grueling and often felt sporadic due to her injury and ensuing medical treatments, the EP started to take on a life of its own the more she worked on it. Then it provided the necessary spark to keep working on new music for the future. “The way that I was working felt so inconsistent that evn ended up making itself on its own, and then became motivational for me,” she told Fader. “[ODD], the second half, gave me another part to work on, which promised me some sort of continuation.”

Her strategy worked, as evn found critical praise upon its August 2016 release and made its way onto Vice’s “The 25 Best Experimental Albums of 2016” list. Yet despite the success of evn, fans are still waiting on [ODD] — which seems to have been postponed indefinitely. Based on a recent pinned tweet, she will likely finish the project at her own pace if she does indeed decide to release it someday.

Though this outlook may be disappointing to fans, it’s a completely understandable stance to have in the breakneck pace of the modern music industry. Artists are expected to make and release new music at rates of consistency, frequency, and quality that were unheard of not that long ago. Some producers may enjoy the challenge of putting out new material all the time, but it certainly isn’t a one size fits all model. For some musicians, it’s an exhausting cycle that leads to instant burnout.

Though the above tweet implies it might be some time before we hear new material from vhvl, a more recent tweet seemed to indicate she might dust off her gear in the not-too-distant future. Whatever the case, she has already given listeners many impressive songs to enjoy for the time being. Hopefully, if she does decide to create and release new music, it’s on a timeline she feels comfortable with.


Connect with vhvl on Bandcamp, Instagram, SoundCloud, and on Twitter @vhlvl.

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Micro-Chop

Dissecting beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling.

Gino Sorcinelli

Written by

Freelance journalist @Ableton, ‏@HipHopDX, @okayplayer, @Passionweiss, @RBMA, @ughhdotcom + @wearestillcrew. Creator of www.Micro-Chop.com and @bookshelfbeats.

Micro-Chop

Dissecting beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling.

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