interview: Michele Mercure

Michele Mercure

Michele Mercure has existed largely outside of the public eye, developing her own dream-like soundscapes since the 1980s. Combining looping synths with guitar, found sound, chanting and poetry, her self-released cassettes fascinated the select listeners who procured copies. In 2017, RVNG imprint Freedom to Spend reissued her 1986 album Eye Chant, introducing a wider audience to Mercure’s work. That album was followed by 2018’s Beside Herself, which compiled material from Mercure’s obscure tape releases.

Michele Mercure will be performing in Austin at Interference Fest, a four-day celebration of women making music, noise, and sound art, taking place at the Museum of Human Achievement and The North Door September 5-8. We spoke with Mercure recently to learn more about her work and her upcoming performance. Dive into Mercure’s electronic explorations and experience it in person at The North Door on September 8 at 9pm.

You grew up playing guitar and at some point moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and began making experimental electronic music. What brought you to Harrisburg, and what fostered that transition?

MM: As many people do, they move away from home for a relationship. That relationship didn’t last but it brought me to Pennsylvania which has been my home ever since. I live east of Harrisburg now and I love where I’m living because it’s close to NYC, and Philadelphia and DC, and if I long for a big city, which I often do, I don’t have far to go.

I still play guitar and often incorporate it into my work. Back in the late 1970s when I moved to Pennsylvania I became very interested in sound as an art form. Musique concrète and work like that. I started experimenting with creating audio environments, tape loops, etc. I was involved with an experimental theater and did some sound installations and scores for a few of their plays. One thing led to another and eventually I started working with synthesizers and computers.

What instruments and equipment did you use to create music back then?

MM: Back in the early 1980s I was working with various synthesizers. I had a Moog, Korg Mono/Poly, ElectroHarmonix Micro synth, Prophet 5, and a Mirage sampler, which I loved. The Roland Juno 60 was my baby. And I used a lot of effects. Really, though, I used anything I could get my hands on. I rented or borrowed a number of synths to be able to work with them. That’s not as easy to do now where I live, unfortunately. I used an Atari ST for sequencing. I still miss that thing sometimes!

Was there a musical community in Harrisburg that influenced you to create more experimental sound art and move in that direction?

MM: There was no real music community for experimental sound but I was encouraged by other artists and theater friends that I hung out with at the time. The theater company I mentioned previously was very instrumental for me. They are no longer around but they were called The Commonwealth Stage Company. It was with them that I was able to start developing my art and then actually present it within plays that were produced. Also, there was an animator that I worked with for a time. Back when MTV was first starting out and they played primarily music videos, this animator produced a series of 10 second animated intros with the MTV logo which I did the music and sound design for. I also started doing live performances.

You would then trade tapes with artists in Europe, yes? I’m curious, why did you feel particular affinity with European artists, and how did you build that connection?

MM: Yes, I started trading tapes with others in the US and abroad. That’s how I got to know Lauri Paisley, Tara Cross, The Nightcrawlers and others. It was a very slow process in that everything was snail mail back then. I got my tapes reviewed in various electronica/art magazines. The big one was OPTION Magazine. Back then it was common for magazines to print your address along with the review. That’s how we artists used to find each other. If you liked how someones music was described, you could write to them and ask if they’d like to trade music with you. As to an affinity with artists—I think I can appreciate music from everywhere, but I do lean towards European artists.

Your music veers between gorgeous melodies and hypnotic rhythmic loops to sound collage and musique concrète, often incorporating stories and chants, creating a dream-like atmosphere. Nowhere is that more present than in “Proteus and the Marlin,” one of my absolute favorites. Can you tell me the story behind that song and the inspiration behind it?

MM: Proteus and the Marlin was inspired by the poem which I recite in the piece. It was written by a Harrisburg poet and I just loved it and it really inspired me. I felt it painted a beautiful picture, really a whole movie in my mind. I like to use ambient sounds and create environments within my music and this really called for it. It also has a complex emotional quality that I love. It gives you the ability to feel a lot of different things as you listen it. In general, I like that quality in music.

You are coming to Austin to participate in Interference Fest, which I am very excited about. I hear you are performing a piece called “Cold War.” Can you tell us a little about it?

MM: Yes, I’m looking forward to Interference Fest too! “The Cold War” is actually what I’m calling this show. I’ve been doing some historical research and, as is my way, I am inspired by what I’m learning. The Cold War era was a fascinating time. There was so much going on in terms of spying, the space race, hypnosis, the atomic age. I explore those themes within this show. It’s an audio/visual performance so I’ve incorporated some great old black and white films like Duck and Cover, space flight and old OSS training films..

How has your approach to creating music changed over the past four decades? What is better, now, with the advent of advanced technology, and what is worse?

MM: That’s a great question. In many ways it’s easier. Sampling is much easier and recording is much easier. I do sometimes miss actually cutting tape to make loops. I love those wonderful accidents that can happen when you are improvising and creating. And you now have the ability to fix all the imperfections and make it perfect. I used to really fight against making any changes like that but eventually I learned to “embraced the grid”, as I call it. I was a very early user of computers for music but I never quantized anything because at that time quantizing was very rudimentary and I hated what it did to the music. Now, I use it sparingly but I do use it. My approach to music is different depending on what I’m writing. I still use guitar. I use a combination of actual synthesizers as well as soft synths and effects. I also write music for films. That music is usually very different from the experimental electronica we have been talking about here. There are so many wonderful and different tools for creating music now. And I really enjoy trying out new things. One of the biggest differences for me is performing. It used to take me a couple hours to set up for a performance and then another stretch of time to sound check. I had a lot of equipment and it was very cumbersome to for live performance. Now it’s so much easier for me. Equipment is smaller, my laptop is much smaller and reliable and I’ve found that I really enjoy playing live again!

What, if any, advice would you share?

MM: One question I have gotten a lot over the years is, “How do you start to make a new piece”? There seem to be no limitations now that there are such things as soft synths and internal effects. So many wonderful possibilities. But, sometimes I can really get lost for a long time trying to figure out what I want to use. So I will choose what I call a “sound palette”. I will choose sounds that I want to use and then work with only those sounds. I’ve found that giving yourself limitations can sometimes be a good thing. To choose my sound palette, I determine what the piece will be about, what emotional qualities it will have, etc. I create the concept and have it aspect worked out in my head first. Then, after I have a good start I allow myself to break the rules. For me, that’s a great place to start.

Interview by Sean Redmond.
Photography provided courtesy the artist.