Last week, Auckland-based producer and musician October released her debut album, Ultra Red. She tells Henry Oliver about how, two months before the album’s intended release, she took the recordings back and remade it by herself.
“I had my pre-album release freak out – no big deal, I just reproduced the entire album, as you do,” the Auckland-based producer and musician October (real name: Emma Logan) said with a sharp, raw-nerved laugh when we sat down to talk about her new album, Ultra Red, in a record label office a week ago.
The last time we talked was in August, a couple of weeks before the release of the album’s first single ‘Pure’, a fervent burst of over-driven synths, scrap-metal drum samples, thickly-fuzzed guitars, avant-R&B production techniques and a chorus that would have filled a stadium with bouncing bodies in the mid-90s. The album was then due for release in October (the month) and October (the artist) sounded assured in the progression her music had taken, from the downbeat loneliness of her first EP, Switchblade, to her break-out industrial-pop song ‘Cherry Cola’, to her then-unnamed album which, while mostly written and produced by herself in her bedroom, included the results of her first collaborations with professional songwriters and producers (including Joel Little, most famous for co-writing Lorde’s first EP and album, and Thom Powers of Naked and Famous).
“I was kind of reluctant at first,” she said at the time, “but the main reason I warmed up to the idea of writing sessions was not so much for the writing but to learn from these great producers, just to be in the same room as someone like Joel Little and watch how he goes about the whole process.” But, as she got closer to putting the album out into the world, she found herself increasingly uncomfortable with the results.
“I spent a lot of time listening to it – over and over and over and over and over – and I just realised that it didn’t sound like me,” she said six months or so after the album’s intended release. “I’d spent a lot of time in writing sessions with other producers doing the production for me. And my entire musical identity is rooted in the fact that I’m a producer. So I was like, ‘Why the fuck am I releasing an album when I’ve barely produced the thing? I’m a producer, not a singer. I’m a producer!’ So I called my management and I was like, ‘Um, so I want all the stems back and I’m going to reproduce a lot of the songs’.”
The music she’d laboured over for months in bedrooms and professional studios in Auckland and LA suddenly sounded “far too pop” to her. “Everything just felt like the edges had been softened, all of the grittiness had been sucked out of it and muted a bit,” she said. “I just wanted to harsh it up, make it the abrasive sound I’d always envisioned. I came to the realisation that my vision for the album got lost in the pandemonium and excitement of working with other people. I wanted to work with other producers because I wanted to learn as a producer but the number one thing I learnt was that I like to produce myself.
“For a long time, I was like, ‘I’m a control freak,’ but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because I just have a really firm idea of how I want things to look and to sound. And for me, it was just a lot easier to do it myself rather than relay my ideas to someone else who would then filter it through their idea of how it should be. It can be scary, especially working with older, more established men. It can be a little difficult at times to really ask for what you want. Even though I’m working with great people, I still catch myself asking three, four, five times for something to be changed or done. Where if it was just be doing it, I’d do it like [clicks fingers] that.”
Without a record label schedule to adhere to (Ultra Red is self-released but distributed by Universal Music NZ), October took much of the album apart and put it back together again. “I spent about three to four months over the summer reproducing most of the songs and I finished a few days before Christmas and let out a big ‘thank fuck’ of a sigh that I’d done it and I had the guts to stand up for myself and do what I wanted to do.”
Ultra Red sounds like nothing else around right now. By combining punk’s anger, post-punk’s discordance, goth’s metallic nihilism, rock’s anthemacism, industrial’s harshness, trip-hop’s sub-bass percussiveness, alt-R&B’s experimentalism, and an emphasis of pop songwriting buried under layers of distortion, reverb and delay, October has found something rare in the contemporary music landscape: an unguarded hill on which to raise her flag.
‘Cherry Cola’, a standalone single released in 2016 (with the help of NZ on Air), established the sonic template: clean, almost sweet vocal melodies and synth harmonies over overblown drums, clanging percussion, samples of chains and metal; retrained verses and loud choruses. ‘1000 Eyes’ is built around a stomping, four-to-the-floor bass drum, fuzzy synths and barely recognisable guitars, all building a platform for what are amongst the driest and most direct vocals on the album. ‘Candy Talk’, co-written with Little, combines pummelling overdriven drum samples, waves of fuzz and perhaps the records most obvious nod to contemporary pop, the sickly sweet chorus (“Candy talk to me / Candy talk to meeeeeee…”).
‘Interlude/All I Wanted To Feel’ is October’s version of a lonely piano ballad, three repeating piano chords chiming around and around with a melodramatic build of guitars and bells heightening October’s desperation: “All I wanted to feel was something,” she sings over and over again (“The most spontaneous song I’ve ever written,” she said. “I was just sitting at my piano, miserable, hammering away at the keys.”)
‘Ultra Red’ takes her desired grittiness to new levels: drums, bass, synths, circling samples and October’s voice are all drenched in digital distortion. Its companion, ‘Ultra Red Pt II’, is what happens to that same palet when any rock is taken out of the equation – a twisted bit of electronica that sounds like an early-2010s Warp Records release played through a guitar pedal and a practice amp. ‘Bruxism’ and ‘Not The Sweetest’, co-written by Powers, adds a melodic sensibility in the choruses that could have almost have been written for The Naked And Famous. ‘Body of Desire’ is a slow-burn beat, eschewing the album’s rock tendencies entirely, instead building its own internal vocabulary of samples and synth modulations that, after spending enough time with the album, just sound like October and no-one else.
Ultra Red is a memoir of late-teen/early-20s malaise, covering the trivial (bad friends, bad parties) to the serious (social anxiety, depression) with repeating allusions to red and to candy and sugar. The red, she said, represents anxiety, anger, love. “I also think it was just clever branding and I’m aware that’s what you have to do as an artist. I’m not stupid when it comes to branding.”
That knack for branding is pervasive in October’s output; not just her music, but every piece of imagery or content that she puts into the world (much of it made with her boyfriend, designer Connor Hickey). “October is this hyper-extended persona of myself,” she said. “I’m very reluctant to say alter ego, it’s like the other side of the coin. It’s more bold and commanding and confident version of myself. And I have a very clear vision of what October sounds like and what October looks like – I craft the way everything looks.”
But, she said she’s keenly aware of the gap between Emma and October, between her life and her Instagram. “The public see one side of me and my friends and my boyfriend see a different side. I’m a very shy person. I get scared very easily. And I’m very introverted – I don’t enjoy social situations very often and I don’t have a huge mass of friends, I have a very close circle of friends. And I prefer it that way. But put me on a stage in front of a thousand people – easy! I can do that!”
And despite its maximalism, there’s a loneliness that pervades many of the songs, both lyrically and sonically. “A lot of this record is talking about an extreme anxiety that I feel and the depression that I feel from time to time,” she said with a growing intensity, leaning forward and focusing her eyes. “But you don’t want to glorify it and you don’t want to romanticise it in any way, because there’s nothing romantic about being depressed or suffering from extreme anxiety every day. But you want to be honest about what it feels like. It was really difficult to talk about. Because you want to show off your poetic prowess but you don’t want to make it sound nice.”
Emma Logan grew up in Blenheim in a musical family. When she was in kindergarten, her mother, a music teacher, would make her do a brain puzzle or read a book while listening to classical music: Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff. Despite the parental pressure, Logan eschewed a formal music education, instead focusing on musical theatre and, later, a covers band that would play regularly around Blenheim, earning her good money for a high school kid.
She moved to Wellington to study music, dropping out after the first year to move to Auckland with a “bag full of hope” to pursue a music career. “The first year I spent in Auckland, I learnt far more about the music industry than I could have ever been taught in a school situation,” she said. “Learning about the industry firsthand, going to meetings with label heads and being the only one there as an artist. Having one on one meetings with a music lawyer. Things like that, which you don’t get taught.”
Since ‘Cherry Cola’, October has had a lot of opportunities to learn. She signed with Ashley Page and his management company, Page 1, which represents some of New Zealand most successful acts (like Broods) and producers and writers (like Joel Little). Together, they seem to have focused on her recording career in a way much closer to an aspiring pop star than someone recording their vocals through their laptop’s microphone over blown-out industrial beats. In the last couple of years, she’s only played a handful of shows (perhaps as many industry showcases as public performances) and has no confirmed shows following the album’s release. While she said a tour is likely at some stage (“I love having a band. I want to start a band, like a band-band”), she’s already looking for other outlets for her work.
Since finishing the album for good, she’s been writing songs that are “not October”. “I think I’m going to need a break from October,” she said. “Just for a little bit, just to regenerate my creative well.” She said she hopes to get the opportunity to produce for other artists, telling her manager: “Put me with whoever. I just want to make a sugary lame pop song!”
“I want to be known as a producer, I don’t want to be known as just someone who sings over beats someone else makes,” she said. “I’m not just a singer or a lyricist. When I was young and playing the piano I used to think the piano accompaniment or the instrumentation would support the lyrics and the melody. But for me, having spent three or four years producing, I totally think about writing a song in a different way. The production comes first and then the vocals and melody and lyrics are there to support the overall sound of the song. Production is so important to me because it defines the song. And I’m very pedantic about what it sounds like.”
This piece was made possible by NZ On Air and, like all of The Spinoff’s music content, by Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.