An Extensive Interview with Ebony Bones

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The singer/songwriter/producer gives a comprehensive overview of her upbringing, influences and why it’s important for female artists to produce themselves.

Ebony Bones has built a large following in the last few years, yet it’s disproportionately difficult to find biographic information about her, especially in interviews. The widely available facts are that she was born and raised in South London to a family of Caribbean descent, trained as an actress and later began to write and produce her own music, including her second album Behold, A Pale Horse, which she recorded in India with Bombay’s Symphony Orchestra. She’s spoken here and there about going to school with Amy Winehouse, growing up in Brixton and self-producing her own music, but never (from what we can see) in-depth. In anticipation of her show at the Pop-Kultur Festival on August 28 in Berghain, we sent veteran music journalist Max Dax to get the scoop on a surprisingly mysterious monstertalent

Ebony Bones, American producer and musician Arto Lindsay believes that the producer’s role is “to live ahead of your time.” He basically says that it doesn’t make sense to reproduce something that already exists.

Living in the future basically means that people might understand what you do in hindsight. I’ve been through that; I know exactly what he’s talking about. I actually quite like his way of seeing things. It probably suggests that people will finally understand me and my music someday.

I wanted to ask this right at the beginning of our conversation because you make sure people know that you produce your own music: Do you live in the future?

Well, you’ve just described in your own words the fundamental basis of what I do. I grew up working with my father at his street stall selling vinyl, so I basically grew up in the company of vinyl records of all kinds and styles. I listened to all of them, intensely, and eventually I noticed that the names of certain producers reappeared on a lot of records by various musicians. I also found out that, if I liked the sound of a producer, I could reencounter it by listening to completely different artists. I understood that the producer is the architect behind a specific sound, and if I liked that sound, I wanted to hear more. I would become obsessed with the work of these producers.

Which producers left profound impressions on you when you were younger?

 P.I.L. comes to mind. E.S.G., too. And then, of course, Fela Kuti, Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers. I was especially intrigued by Nile, because he produced Madonna, Chic and Duran Duran, which were completely different genres of pop music. Or Brian Eno with Roxy Music, David Bowie and U2—I thought that was cool. And by the way: I noticed that none of them were women, but a lot of the artists were. That has always intrigued me. At that young age, it didn’t cross my mind to be a musician myself. I didn’t think I had had the opportunity to do so, and I definitely didn’t think I’d have the skills. In life, you can only be what you see, so if there are no examples of someone who looks like you and is a female producer, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to do the same thing.

Did you have any epiphanies about female producers?

I stumbled across a record by Kate Bush, who was her own producer at that time, and eventually I discovered Missy Elliott and Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes. But even more important was an encounter in a London pub many moons ago where I met a phenomenal drummer, Rat Scabies, who used to be the drummer of the Damned. We had this crazy conversation about music, and I mentioned that I was into acting but that I wanted to do music—not as a singer, but as a producer for other artists. He said, “So why don’t you do it? You’ll learn by doing it.” That really changed my life and my whole attitude. It ended up with me doing demos and us editing them into real songs. At a certain point he said that we should release that music and that he would call me Ebony Bones.

Is editing key to producing music?

Absolutely! Rat always encouraged me to pick up an instrument and just play it. “Trial and error,” he’d say. “We’ll assemble everything in the editing process.” That, to me, was the essence of punk music: its perfection comes from its imperfection. Of course, we used editing to amplify the imperfections so that my music had its own signature. My music is human. In an age where human flaws are erased from music, the imperfect can be very striking. I really have to give credit to Rat, because without him encouraging me to trust these imperfections, I wouldn’t have had the audacity to record my own music the way I did. I eventually went to India to record with members of the Indian Symphony Orchestra, and I needed guts and audacity to suggest that they record music with me. When I work with others, I always tell them that they have to step outside of their usual pattern and not to anticipate what others might want from them.

Did accepting accidents, praising imperfections and embracing the unexpected enable you to live in the future?

Philip K. Dick says that artists have the capacity to accidentally predict the future. This comes naturally to them, he says. It’s in their essence as creators. But I don’t think about it too much. Once I’m in the studio, everything becomes very organic; nothing’s laid out. The songs materialize in the studio. It’s very much about the momentum. Quincy Jones once said about producing Michael Jackson that he was basically praying that God was in the room, because he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. When I produce, I always seek to have enough room to breathe and to be spontaneous. I really want to be in that moment where everything is possible. And that’s also why I love to perform live.

How would you compare the momentum of the live performance to that of a studio recording session?

Things really come alive onstage because you’re reacting to the energy that comes from the audience. At the same time, everything can go catastrophically wrong because it is chaos. And I love that. I was never interested in being that perfect ideal that female singers are expected to be. Ownership also means a lot to me. I’m completely aware that the industry is changing in such a way that the artist is being pushed away. It’s becoming impossible for artists to make a living.

And that’s why you founded your own record label, 1984 Records?

That initially came about because no one wanted to sign me. I couldn’t find a record company—not even an independent label—that would believe in me. Maybe they were afraid to step outside their comfort zone, as there’s less money involved and more to lose. You just have to turn on the radio to realize that music’s become homogenized. Every high street in every city has a Starbuck’s, an H&M and a McDonald’s franchise. But I have a free spirit that was kind of indoctrinated to me from Rat and also from my former stage director when I was still acting. I was twelve at that time, and when someone says “I believe in you” when you’re at a young age, it means a lot. That stays with you forever. It needs to be someone else than your parents, though. You need that confirmation from the outside world.

When you act, you follow a script and leave only a little to improvisation. But you’re allowed or even obliged to make mistakes in music.

That’s difficult to compare. I had just turned twelve when I had that epiphany on the theater stage. I was playing Shakespeare then. I wouldn’t compare it to going to the studio and letting things happen, or travelling to India to play with the musicians from the Symphonic Orchestra.

Did you write and arrange the music you wanted them to play beforehand?

I probably should have! I didn’t have a clue that orchestra musicians don’t jam. They read and play musical scores, but they can’t improvise. That was a huge learning experience for me. I had to write and arrange on the spot. Then the girl from Brixton and the orchestra musicians from Bombay came together and something stellar happened, and that’s what made the Indian experience so magical.

Do you seek culture clashes?

Absolutely! Cross pollination of cultures. The power of juxtaposition. The melting pot.

Did your upbringing in Brixton prepare you for this life?

I’d say that the city of London is the true cosmopolitan experience. My parents came to the UK in the ‘60s from the Caribbean, after my dad had stayed a couple of years in West Berlin, of all cities. He had lived under the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and that was his first experience with Europe. My parents then went to London, and they brought a very strong work ethic with them, which they also taught me. My mom was into fashion, whereas my father was into music. I was surrounded by a really eclectic selection of music all the time. As a young girl, I always passed by Brixton Academy and read the names of the bands who’d be playing that night. I always dreamt of playing there.

Has it happened yet?

Nay. I’ve never played there. Who knows—fingers crossed. From the Clash to David Bowie, Brixton has always been a melting pot of cultures. You’ve got Irish, you’ve got blacks and you’ve got the Polish community. There’s just so much going on. And to answer your question: you take with you a spirit of how you grew up. That’s only natural.

Did you have musical heroes, apart from the producers you mentioned before?

Sure! I love the Slits and Ari Up. I once toured with her. She was completely wild. Another artist that means a lot to me is Nina Hagen. They’re both women who totally embraced who they were. When I saw them on TV as a little girl I knew that I wanted to be like them. Another big role model for me is Poly Styrene from the X-Ray Spex. They all weren’t trying to feminize what they were doing. It was just about this raw energy that women more often than not are simply not allowed to live out. And that was so much more soulful to me as a music lover than listening to whatever pop singer had perfect hair—beauty queens, so to speak. But these three girls were doing it themselves. They insisted on creating their art themselves. You can count Kate Bush in. They all share that they haven’t been manufactured. That’s why people so strongly gravitate towards them. And I only thought: If I want to create art, I have to do it myself.

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