This post is part six in my series on this blog called Why We Create, which explores the creative process in conversations other artists. I investigate how others think, feel, and act on their own creative impulses, which helps me better understand my own motives and actions.
This month, I connected with Tone Deaf Jeff, who is producing the excellent IMF MONTHLY – an actual print zine that you can also read online. An excerpt from this post appears in the October 2021 issue of the MONTHLY.
I also worked with Atlantic Canyons to make a track with her narration, where she speaks from the heart about why she does what she does. Check out that track on Soundcloud.
I’m super excited about the way this project is evolving as it moves forward. I feel lucky to be able to have these really thoughtful conversations with creators I admire. These conversations, and my writing about them, give me incredible inspiration, and help me keep my creative tank filled.
I hope you enjoy this series even a fraction as much as I do.
Atlantic Canyons makes airy electronica, reminiscent of the big sounds of late-90s trip hop (think Sneaker Pimps and Hooverphonic), but totally modern. Her silky vocals float and soar over whatever she’s involved in, and she’s got a real ear for space, and melody, and mood. She’s also an accomplished violinist, mother of two, and a really warm and engaging person.
I had the privilege of talking with her recently.
We talked about a lot of things, but one of the things that really stuck with me from our conversation was her talking really openly about her experience as a woman in music production, which is a pretty male-dominated space. It’s great to see that she and other women from the IMF community have created a space of their own, but on the other hand, it’s a sad that this is necessary. Even a pretty supportive space like the IMF Discord, whose lead moderator (Pax Libertas) is a bona fide woman, is obviously an intimidating place for many women. I don’t exactly know what to do with this.
Anyway…Atlantic Canyons new album—which dropped a few weeks ago—is called See The Hue, and you should listen to it right now.
Our conversation is below, edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into making music?
Whew…I’m scared talking about this because music is so much of my identify – I sometimes think, “if I didn’t have music, what would be left of me?”
I took piano lessons as a kid, and had a great teacher who helped me learn to play popular songs I really liked. I sucked at it for a while, but at some point, I hit a place where I really started to enjoy playing, which motivated me to practice, and I started to see my skill progress, which encouraged me to practice more. And I noticed that people actually liked to hear me play, which added to my motivation.
I picked up violin, and became a high school orchestra nerd. I listened pretty much exclusively to classical music for a while – I heard pop music and enjoyed it, but my focus was on the classical. Being part of that orchestra gave me a particular experience of playing in a group, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The experience of playing with other people was really powerful for me.
Did you come from a musical family?
My dad used to listen to classical music, and had a great record collection that I only really started to appreciate when I was playing in orchestra. We used to go to the symphony together, which was pretty great. But other than that, they’re not really music people. Piano lessons for me and my brother were mostly a strategy to keep us busy.
My parents are immigrants, and weren’t all that excited about my musical pursuits. I was on a path to a career in music for a while. I thought I might become a teacher, or a professional player in an orchestra, either of which would have required that I go to conservatory to continue my studies. I didn’t have that option—my parents just didn’t get it. They thought I should keep music as a hobby, but pursue a career that I could depend on to take care of me.
It’s a funny coincidence that I’m talking to you today. I just had lunch with my mom yesterday, and was talking about my new album, and she said, “I know how you felt about music, and I’m sorry that we didn’t support you in pursuing it.”
Wow…that’s a special moment!
Yeah. I guess she sees that I still get so much satisfaction and excitement from music, and she understands now that when I was younger, it was the same. I was really touched hearing that from her.
What came next for you musically?
I met a guy in college who had a rock band. He found out that I could play keyboards, and invited me to join. I spent thee or four years playing with his band, and it was a great experience. He taught me about how to be in a band, how to record in a studio, how to promote music—all sorts of things. I think everything I know today about being an artist I learned from him.
We were called Petland, and you can still find our music online. We played shows all around the area—Philly, DC, Baltimore—everywhere. I had to learn to sing and play in all kinds of different places, and how to work with live sound systems. I had to learn how to perform when there were just a few people in the crowd – how to give it my all no matter what. I made a lot of friends – other artists, and people who came to our shows. It was great to feel like part of a community that revolved around the music.
What role did you have in the creative process?
I was part of the songwriting—I definitely helped write my own parts, and vocal harmonies and stuff—but I didn’t bring the original song ideas, or write the lyrics or anything. Honestly, it never occurred to me back then that I even could.
So, what happened next?
I was in another band for a few years, which was another great experience. We managed to build a big following, and played a lot of great shows. The band sort of dissolved as the original members started having to move for jobs or whatever, and it just got too hard to keep it going.
And then I was part of a project with a drummer that I worked with and a good friend of mine who played guitar, but it never really took off—we never had any original music to perform, and I still didn’t think of myself as a songwriter, so I didn’t bring my own ideas to the project.
After that project fizzled out, I ended up getting a new Macbook, and started playing with Garageband, which I found really intuitive. I had played with DAWs and recording before, and I had seen other people working with recording software while I was recording in those bands, but I had a hard time figuring out how to work that way – other DAWs just seemed too complicated.
But Garageband clicked, and I started making my own songs. I did that for a while, and posted some things online, but the whole experience still wasn’t quite working. After a while, my husband saw that I was doing this, and he bought me a copy of Logic Pro as a gift. And I started watching Youtube videos and finding other resources online, and learned Logic well enough to get confident that I could actually produce my own music.
I made a couple songs, and they were pretty good. But I was held back by uneven motivation. Sometimes I’d stay up all night learning, and making music, and then a week later would totally stop making music at all. I didn’t understand how I could mix and master and release material, so I would just write a song, and then stop.
And then I found IMF, and everything changed.
In what way?
My album and all my material would not exist without IMF. I found people in the IMF community that would call me out when my creative process stalled. They were like my gym buddies, who would remind me that I actually enjoyed what I was doing, and that I need to do it. And there are so many people in IMF who have been so generous helping me learn, and sometimes even doing things for me.
I’m still stuck on my fear sometimes. Luckily I have friends who encourage me to be more vocal—to ask for help, or advice, or whatever. I get stuck wondering why people would want to help, even though I don’t really ever have the experience of people saying no when I ask.
What’s the thing that holds you back when you’re asking for help?
Well, everything, really. I worry that my skills aren’t good, or my taste isn’t good, or that I don’t have anything to offer in return, or that I just don’t fit in a collaboration.
I recognize that all this is irrational.
Have you had the experience of people reaching out to you for help? How was that?
I’ve had lots of great experiences collaborating with others, and I’m often shocked that anyone would ask. I put a lot of pressure on myself in those situations—sometimes to a fault. That pressure that I put on myself can limit my creativity…I feel like it holds me back. It’s a real mind fuck, actually.
Tone Deaf Jeff did a profile of me in the first IMF Zine, and in that profile he said something like, “Atlantic Canyons has managed to get her fingers in everyone’s pies,” which seems like clear evidence that lots of people value my input, because I’m on all their tracks, but for some reason it’s hard for me to internalize that.
How did you find IMF?
I had just finished writing and producing One More Minute, and had this song that I thought was pretty good. I was trying to figure out what to do with it. I had posted a song on r/RoastMyTrack a while before, and it was such a terrible experience that I knew I needed to find another way to get feedback. I had been lurking on the IMF subreddit for a while, but I wasn’t confident enough to post a track there. But I did see that Pax and Vulpz and the community there had created a different kind of feedback process that was more supportive.
And one day I was scrolling the subreddit, and found a link to the Discord, and just pressed the button and ended up joining right in the middle of a Live Community Review. And people in the Discord welcomed me—I specifically remember Starcry and Dolwedge and Pax and Vulpz—who encouraged me to jump into LCR, and to share my track.
And it was such a moving experience—everyone was so kind, and I got such helpful and supportive feedback, and offers of help. And I never looked back—I had found the community I was looking for.
Tell me about Musical Ladies of IMF
Oh, I’m excited to talk about that!
I was afraid when I joined the Discord that if people knew my gender, they wouldn’t take me seriously. I took a generic username and avatar, and it took me a while in the IMF community before I got confident enough to show myself as a woman.
I noticed that there were (and are) a bunch of women in the IMF community, and it struck me that they were nowhere near as visible or active as the men. That seemed strange—these ladies were making music I really enjoyed, and as I was interacting with them, I saw how amazing they all are. I was in a chat with Flora Lin, and we were talking about the idea of creating a space for all of us, and she encouraged me to move forward. I mentioned it to some other women who were supportive, and I finally just took the plunge and did it.
I created a new Discord server and invited all the IMF ladies I could think of. Pax joined, and invited a whole lot more women that I didn’t know, and it’s been really special and great. It’s a calmer space, with less going on. We don’t have games or events, but we have feedback channels and promo channels, and just a bunch of discussion.
I find that the IMF Discord is so active that it can be overwhelming, so it’s nice to have a smaller thing that has the same spirit but is maybe less intimidating. And I’ve spoken with so many amazing women on the server who have shared their hesitation to speak up in other spaces because of their own struggles with self-confidence or whatever.
And now, we’re just about finishing our first all-female IMF round robin track. Six of us contributed to the track, and I’m excited to hear how it comes out. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing – opportunities for women to collaborate with each other. We even have our own merch in the official IMF store now, which is also fun.
Before I started the server, I started a playlist of all the women artists I could find. I did it for myself, and didn’t really expect other people to be all that interested in it, but a whole lot of people follow it now, and it’s taken on its own momentum. Pax is so great at helping things like this get seen and heard, and she’s been super supportive about everything that comes out of the server.
How can women join this server?
Why do you make music?
Because it makes me happy. I love it so much. I hear music in my head, and I need to get it out. Sometimes songs come to me fully formed, and I just need to get them recorded. I feel like these ideas come from outside me sometimes, and I’m just channeling and packaging them. That feeling of having an idea, and being able to make it real, and that other people can experience what was once just an idea in my mind…all that makes me really excited.
I’ve written songs about pain that I’ve had, and in the process of turning those feelings into music, I find a way to detach from the pain. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m sad and depressed—I’m really not! But I’ve had plenty of turmoil and struggle, and the process of making music is therapeutic in that way.
I get a dopamine high from making music, and I think probably other creators do as well. That feeling is enough to pull me through the frustrations that I have to go through to create.
I feel really compelled to create…I just have to do it, regardless of whatever else is going on. It’s not for the money, or the fame, or anything. I feel like I just can’t stop it from happening. Music is just who I am…it’s who we are. I resonate with the idea that there’s a creative genius inside me, that’s separate from me. And when that creative genius shows up, I feel like I have to follow it where it goes.
I feel sad for people who don’t have this experience—who don’t feel the power of music. My existence is much fuller because of having music in it.
Why is it important for you to share your music with others?
There’s definitely a connection I feel when other people hear my music and ‘see’ me because they can identify with it. Because I have this problem of believing that I’m the only one who has these struggles, it’s really powerful when other people can tell me that they’ve been through the same things.
As I’m talking with you, I’m realizing that I haven’t really thought about my music having the same effect on other people—that my being vulnerable and putting those thoughts and feelings into my music allows other people to see that they might not be as alone as they thought. If other people do have that experience, that also makes me happy.
What about your new album?
I’m really proud of it. And I’m super grateful to everyone who helped with it.
It’s loosely tied together with nautical things – seas of emotion, and storms, and actual oceans. But it’s a bundle of feelings—fear, and sadness and isolation that I associate with being at sea.
See the Hue is about being at the beach—about being underwater. It’s a love song to the beach and the sea. One More Minute is about an ex, who I discovered was searching for me online. The song is a conversation with myself about the relationship, and why it didn’t work. And in the end, I’m talking to myself, and reminding myself that I’m OK, that I don’t need to feel anymore that the bad parts of that relationship were things I needed to blame myself for. Always is in the same vein—it’s an encouragement to anyone who might be feeling discouraged.
What do you think about when you think about making music?
I think about my most formative years—my adolescent years…I think about that girl. She doesn’t know that I make music. And so, I feel like I write a lot of songs for her. And…I wish I could go back and share it with her, so she understands. That everything is going to be OK. That she has value.
I also want that for everyone who listens to my music. As much as I am conveying a message to myself in the past, it would make me very happy to know that anyone who listens to it that may have felt the way that I felt also gets some comfort in it.
That’s a new idea for me, and the thought of it makes me really happy.