James K – Regaining Control

Jamie Krasner discusses the concepts behind her work as James K with Aurora Mitchell. 

“I used to imitate Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,”” Jamie Krasner reminisces about her first experiences absorbing music at a very young age. “When I was a child, one of my friend’s mother was an African princess,” she continues, “she had the most amazing music room with this beautiful harp and violins. I wanted to play harp, but violin was a bit more manageable.” From the age of five, Krasner started picking up instruments – starting with the violin before teaching herself the drums – however when she was gifted a guitar at age 12 it was then she found the instrument she wanted to focus making music with.

“I started writing songs that were more developed; though they were actually very sad and introspective,” Krasner reveals. At the time, a precocious 12-year old Jamie was attending open mic nights in her native New York at places like the long-running East Side establishment, Sidewalk. She acquired her first synthesizer and 4-track recorder a few years later and started producing her own music in the basement-turned-studio of the person who introduced her to that equipment. The musical skills Krasner was learning throughout those formative years have been solidified into the experimental pop productions that she’s now released through labels such as UNO and 1080p under the name James K.

It was after moving to her current home of New York from Providence that Krasner started connecting with these labels. She released two 7”s, Luv Me Too and Sokit To Me Baby on UNO before hopping over to Vancouver label 1080p, the home for her work with fellow NYC producer Gobby under the name SETH. Some of the reactions to their collaborative work on that label ended up being a source of frustration for Krasner. While she co-produced, laid down vocals and created the project’s artwork, she found that people would often inaccurately refer to her as the “vocalist” of SETH. It perhaps goes some way to explain why she tells me later in our conversation that she prefers to work alone.

Suzanne Kraft, Joane Skyler, Patricia, SOPHIE, Lucy – these are a few examples of how we’ve become accustomed to men adopting female pseudonyms in electronic music the past few years. To see Krasner flip the tables and choose to record as James K is quite refreshing. In broader cultural terms, this is not a new concept as there is a long history of women using men’s names in literature. For Krasner, it wasn’t meant as an intentional trick as James K is a nickname she’s always had.

Still, it did cross her mind how it may be perceived to some people. Having had promoters and listeners falsely assume her gender, Krasner comments on the subversive effect the inevitable subsequent revelation has. “The trick of it can reveal a lot about the perception of a female’s role in music. It brings to light preconceptions. The reveal that I’m a woman admits, in the end, that gender is in a lot of ways irrelevant.”

Gender is a subject Krasner has studied a lot, having pored over the texts of Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, authors who explore concepts of gender and identity. She was particularly interested in Butler’s Gender Trouble and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Six years ago, Krasner wrote her own, The Venomist Manifesto, going in-depth on the subject in more abstract terms through conversational tone, poem with reference to ‘90s cult teen horror film The Craft. (You can read it here)

It’s all fed heavily into her creative processes, informing much of her debut album PET. “The music of PET is a mix between the organic and the technological,” Krasner states. “For instance, I tend to keep the vocals very organic and soulful; this is where the human body exists.” The album’s recording process involved live instruments being morphed through software and machines, she says, “with the intention of creating a sonic landscape where the organic and electronic could be enmeshed, yet still feel fragmented.” Working with melancholic guitar plucks, she places them alongside frenetic synth loops, sparse drum claps and lightly placed piano chords.

There’s a strong emotional resonance to PET that filters through to the soft, warming tones of her voice. What Krasner is singing about is in relation to feelings of being hurt, objectified and owned – her voice itself provides an incredibly relaxing effect. “At the time, music seemed like the only space where I felt completely safe to plumb deep into my thoughts and externalise some of these feelings. It still does in a lot of ways,” Krasner tells me, delving into the experiences that shaped her debut album.

A way for Krasner to purge herself of these emotions is through the creation of personas; her video work features almost 20 of them. “Creating these personas also serves a function in terms of allowing me to access and examine certain aspects of myself I might be hesitant to delve into otherwise,” Krasner states, adding these personas offer a secondary vantage point and a sort of protection. “It allows me distance, to separate myself from the work, and critique elements of myself outside of myself.”

The idea of separating and escaping from one’s self is something integral to PET and Krasner’s mental state while making it – the record is her critiquing that choice of coping mechanism. While the album is full of hazy textures and dreamy sequences that take your mind to a more peaceful place, Krasner points out that placing yourself away from the realities you have to deal with doesn’t always turn out how you would like. “The more one tries to escape, the more one will feel lost, and a contradiction of that escape occurs,” she suggests, “PET is about trying to escape but, ultimately, being owned.”

The album was recorded between 2011 and 2014, mostly in New York. It was largely a solitary experience, which is how Krasner is most accustomed to working. “I much prefer to record on my own,” she confirms. “I find it difficult to translate feeling when there is an issue of time constraint and looming expense factor, which is generally the case in a studio environment.”

Krasner explains she’s always had her studio set up in her room, describing it as, “whatever gear I have, an audio interface and my computer – so I’m used to producing and recording music in this way.” The only part that was recorded in a studio was the vocals for “Sokit To Me Baby” – laid down at the headquarters of Mute, the London-based independent record label run by Daniel Miller.

This track opens the album, introduced by warm chords before Krasner whispers with titular refrain. “Sokit To Me Baby” is also accompanied by the below video she directed and edited herself which takes the viewer on a whirling neon tour of art installations, the streets of New York and padded rooms. All these scenes are linked by TV screens depicting Krasner and other women, filtered through video effects. Krasner, unsurprisingly, takes full control of the visual and artistic sides of the James K project.

In specific regard to the album, Krasner starts to tell me that when creating the aesthetic behind PET she was trying to push this fetishized idea of a girl. “Certain movies like Perfect Blue, and mangas like Chobits (Clamp) represent women in this very-objectified manner, or they comment on this theme,” she says, expressing her love of Japanese anime, manga, and cult-horror.

This representation of women works well with the concepts explored on PET. “The female is extremely fetishized, as is sexuality in Japanese culture, which I feel is an integral part in the construction behind this PET persona,” Krasner confirms, adding the artwork is meant to both “function within this world of objectification as well as be a protest against it”

Krasner admits some rocky experiences with record labels led to her decision to form her own, She Rocks. PET is the first project to be released on the label in conjunction with Hamburg’s Dial and Vancouver’s 1080p; having the full rights for her work was a very important move. An earlier version of the album was initially finished in 2013 but Krasner had trouble finding a label that understood what she was doing.

“PET is about trying to escape but, ultimately, being owned.”

“A lot of the themes within PET reflect a lack of control. I feel we don’t have control in a lot of parts of our lives and our histories are almost written for us in a lot of ways before we even get there,” she contemplates. “But other elements, like making my label; that is something that I could change,” she says, “that I did want to change.”

When asked for her thoughts on scenes currently being cultivated in New York, Krasner mentions she likes to check it out and be involved, “but I tend to stay on the outside of things.” She has previously worked with close friends Galcher Lustwerk and DJ Richard but doesn’t associate them with the city – having met both in Providence. She confesses to me that she has somewhat of an aversion to the current electronic scene in New York, or any scene, mentioning that it’s strange observing everything going on as she grew up here and has seen the evolution of musical movements.

She notes, however, that there are people in New York who excite her and that she enjoys watching artists who take residence in the city to perform and collaborate. Talking of its personal resonance, she offers me her own view on her home. “Staying in New York, I find my own history here, and it is important to me that my work remain honest.”

Interview by Aurora Mitchell 

All photography courtesy of Nata Failde

PET by James K is out now on She Rocks!/Dial/1080p (buy on Juno)

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