Interview: Five Minutes with Bora York

Bora York is a husband and wife comprising of Chris and Rebekah Bartels who have just released their latest single, ‘Colorado’ via Anthem Falls Music. The track is lifted from their upcoming album, Emotion Vertigo. The album was recorded at their Minneapolis home studio, taking four and a half years.

Chris has been open with the challenges he’s faced over these years as the outfit’s most involved songwriter and producer. With fears and self-doubt creeping in and sowing seeds of disorder throughout the process it’s no surprise that it fed a creative funk. However, between helping to raise three boys under the age of six and coming to terms with the industry expectations we have seen him rise, as a phoenix from the ashes.

We decided to sit down with Chris and Rebekah Bartels to learn a little more about the trials and tribulations the two have faced.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Chris: I can’t not. Creating music is a part of me. If it’s been a while since I’ve written and recorded a song, even if it’s because I’m busy with other things I enjoy, I’m really dying to get back to the studio and see what comes. I think that’s part of the reason I have so many different artist projects too. I’m always itching to try a new style or a new take on a certain sound.

Rebekah: Because it’s a God-given gift, and I just want to do it. I don’t want to waste that. And music can just connect with people on different levels, and affect people, and get them through a bad day, lift their spirits. And you can make that personal connection with them.

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

Chris: Hmm. That’s a good question. And, not sure if it’s one I can definitively answer – To me, a lot of the time, the sound is the idea. Sometimes it’s a chord progression, sometimes just a texture, sometimes a lyric – that starts things out. And with that, I start layering, or it leads to another idea. But, at least the past few years, more often than not it starts with a sound rather than a lyric or even melody idea. I’m so inspired by different sounds, or taking a sound and mangling it somehow. 

Does your material feature any collaborations?

Chris: Yes, here and there. With Bora York, we’ve had other artists (mostly our friends) jump in on songs – writing and recording a bit. Cory Wong, Ben Noble, Ian Allison, Step Rockets, to name a few. I’d like to have more collaborators on future albums – I just think it’s a little tough because of how I work creatively – I sort of, by nature and by necessity sometimes, have to write and record in crevasses of time – an hour here, an hour there. Just with how my other work is, and life in general. Plus, when inspiration hits me, I just want to go right then and there. So sometimes I find it tough to schedule in times to write together. But I just need to make a choice and make it a bigger priority. I have a piano-centric project called Blurstem, where I’ve been collaborating a lot more, at least on the upcoming album.

What’s on your current playlist?

Chris: Gia Margaret, The War on Drugs, Tourist, Bon Iver, Maple & Beech, Day Wave. I also constantly listen to ambient and modern classical stuff – so lately – M. Grig, The Gentleman Losers, r beny,

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

Chris: I’m not quite sure, to be honest. That’s not the most “pro” answer, but it’s honest. I’d like to think we create a live experience that really connects with people, and translates personally to those listening. And I do often go to a place when I’m playing that sometimes feels outside of myself – not in a fake way – but in the sense that I feel really alive when I play, and really at home, and I can become more outgoing. But at the same time, the songs I write are not always the most open, at least in an obvious way. So there is this layer to playing live that is still intimate, and personal, and I’m not going to force a personality if it’s not natural. 

It also depends on not just the song, but also on the album era. For example, our second album, Secret Youth, was a much more dance-driven album, so there’s a personality that comes with playing those songs live. Whereas Emotion Vertigo is a bit more introspective, not always as happy – though there are certainly even more obvious happy parts to it – so it goes back and forth. All that being said, I just always try and be genuine with sharing these songs with people when we play, and hope that that in itself connects with people.

Rebekah: I like to make eye contact with people and I do my best to make everyone glad they came.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

Chris: Emotion Vertigo is full of experimentation, at least in comparison to past albums. There are lots of synth layers here, but this time around, a lot of them were sent through effects pedals or tape, and just in general – meant to create and capture more unconventional uses – as in, not just for pads and leads. We ran stuff through cassette – on the 4-track and some stuff on little dictaphones. I pitched lots of stuff, reversed, warped in all sorts of ways. I have a Rhodes keyboard in my home studio now, and I used that not only for standard keys parts, but reversed, reverbed-out ambient parts. Glitchy stuff as well. 

Experimentation is one of my favourite things about being a musician, and in particular, experimenting with sounds and instrumentation. We also took old vocal recordings of ours, and in a way, sampled them into lots of songs on the new album – sometimes chopping them up, sometimes reversing them, and often warping them to a place where you can hardly tell they are vocals. We also placed in room recordings of ourselves in a room, in the studio, footsteps, chairs being dragged on the floor – random every day sounds like that, to give some depth and life to the songs.

That’s just a glimpse. The experimentation might never end if I didn’t at some point stop myself and call it. I actually go in-depth on this type of stuff on my latest podcast episode (Elskavon Podcast) about our song “I Finally Let My Heart Grow Again.”

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

Chris: So my recording studio – most of the time – is also my office, in a sense. I mostly work from home these days, and the 4th bedroom in our house is also the studio. So, there’s all sorts of work that happens in the studio besides writing – emails, admin things, scheduling, paying bills – it’s not all fun and games. But, when I do get to sit down and write for a while, those are my favourite times in the studio of course. With Bora York, in particular, going back to the previous question – there’s just a lot of experimentation involved. I’m all over the place – writing lyrics, recording parts, mixing – I’ve never had a specific, structured order with all of that – it’s always a melting pot – it’s just how I work and how I’m wired. I do find myself working on a particular song for an afternoon and jumping to different parts within that song, rather than, say, working on guitars for 3 different songs at one time. Once I have an idea or inspiration for a song, I like to hit that hard, rather than jumping around to different songs or projects.

Rebekah: It’s definitely a more raw and real experience when you’re working with your spouse in the studio. You don’t hold anything back. That’s both a good thing and a… challenging thing. Chris usually has the music and lyrics prepared, and I come up with the melodies.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

Chris: I don’t know if there was necessarily one specific “mountaintop” type moment, but I do know that when I was 21 I enrolled in a university where I thought was a good place to go, and thought I’d figure out what to pursue there. It didn’t take me long to realize that it wasn’t the place for me, mainly because it was far from what I knew I was really passionate about – writing and producing music. It just felt like a safe choice. But it was the wrong choice. So I only was there a semester and then took a semester off from school after that. Had it not been when I also met and started dating Rebekah, it would’ve been a pretty depressing season of life for me. But there are just some growing pains there – it’s not like I didn’t learn from it. Through all that, I did finally realize I needed to go all in on music – that I’d be miserable if I pursued anything else for a living. So, I took a turn and decided to never look back. Still and always a journey, but that was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Rebekah: College years. I knew I wanted to do music before I met Chris, but I didn’t know what genre or style or what it would look like exactly.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

Chris: Lyric cues… for my own songs…

Rebekah: Hot tea. Lipstick. Gum.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Chris: Ben Noble is a friend and contributed a bit on this new album. But his new album that he’s working on right now – it’s going to be so good. Maple & Beech – another Minneapolis band, insanely creative.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Chris: Just listening to other music really makes my mind go. Sometimes it’s a bit of a bummer that I can’t listen to music without my producer or songwriter hat on, but at the same time, it’s great that I’m so often inspired. Almost any style can get my creative juices flowing, I guess. Movies and shows can as well – either the music that’s a part of them or the stories within.

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

Chris: For years, I worked mostly with a few guitars and software synths… it’s all I could afford. The past few years, I’ve slowly but surely started buying more analog synths and hardware and implementing that into my workflow a ton. I’m babysitting a Rhodes piano for the foreseeable future, so that’s been great, and put to use a lot on Emotion Vertigo. The Moog Mother-32, Korg Minilogue, Prophet 08, Yamaha DX7 – these are the main synths I’m using these days. I also have a small Eurorack skiff, which I most often use for processing rather than synthesis. I love using guitar effects pedals unconventionally – sending all sorts of instruments and sounds through them. Recently, I’ve also been using my Ditto X4 loop pedal and in interesting and random ways – not necessarily for standard looping, but messing with randomization of playing loops with each other and then messing with its effects on the fly, all while recording. Within the past few years, I’ve bought a few cassette recorders – 4-track recorders as well as small, cheap dictaphone recorders for that lo-fi touch – half speed is beautiful on so many things. I also now have a 1/4 inch reel-to-reel tape machine which I use for things here and there. 

But I do still love to write and mess around with things “in the box.” I’m a Logic guy, through and through. And I use all sorts of samples and soft synths – Spitfire, Arturia, Native Instruments, TAL – and various plugins – Soundtoys, Klevgrand, UAD, Steven Slate, Waves, Logic stock. I love honing in on effects and things in both conventional and unconventional ways.

Any side projects you’re working on?

Chris: Yeah, too many probably. Elskavon and Blurstem are the main side projects right now. Mum Child is a once-in-awhile fun one as well. A few others in the works that I’m also excited about.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

Chris: Well, I guess working on my craft pretty much every day is the biggest thing – naturally, when I hear “craft” I think of songwriting, recording, producing, etc. But, of course, it’s probably more than the creative aspect of what I do. Running my own label, per se, as well as writing and licensing music for film clients, there are lots of different elements to it all. Whenever I am able, I’m always trying to learn – learn about the creative aspects of it, about the industry, and everything in between. The nice thing is, these days, there are so many resources. Of course the best way, and my favorite way, is through other people directly – meeting with other creatives and people in this industry and hearing and observing what they’ve done and such. But I also listen to lots of podcasts on all of the above, and there’s a wealth of educational and inspiring stuff on youtube and around the web. One thing I do need to get better at is actually intentionally practising my instruments – running scales, theory, etc. When you get busy, it’s easy to let that stuff slip through the cracks, but it’s still so important and something I want to keep doing. In particular, I’d like to improve as a piano player – that’s a goal of mine in the next couple years. I’ve thought about taking lessons again.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

Chris: If we’re talking about the rest of 2019, you can certainly expect this new Bora York album to be out – November 8th, to be specific. If you’re curious about my other projects, I’m also releasing a debut Blurstem album. So I’ll be quite busy with independently releasing two full-length albums in back to back months. Yikes. If we’re talking about 2020, I’ve got lots of exciting things in the works – plenty of collaborations with my Elskavon project and beyond. I’m already thinking about and recording demos for new Bora York material as well. As with all my albums, I’m seeing things taking a creative turn again with that. So, basically… you can expect lots of new music. Constantly writing.

Famous last words?

Emotion Vertigo is all about the roller coaster ride that is life. We all have ups and downs. I guess one thing I’ve learned is that tough seasons of life do not need to be wasted seasons of life. There’s lots to learn and so much potential to grow out of every season, no matter how difficult.

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