Arts Hero – Rebecca Lee

For the Arts Hero section of the Bronze Arts Award: Level 1 Award in the Arts qualification, young people need to research the work of an artist that inspires them. Ellie from The CE Academy met and interviewed artist and musician Rebecca Lee when she visited us to deliver a sound art workshop.

I would really like to base my Arts Hero on you. I think you are a really interesting person and I like your way of working and all of your ideas. I would like to ask you some questions about your work.

I’m really chuffed that you’re interested in my work. Thank you for asking me! I’ve never been interviewed like this before and some of the questions are really making me think! (I might even learn something about myself!).

Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth, Rebecca Lee and Nastassja Simensky, 2018

1. Have you gone to art or music college?

I went to university in Nottingham to study music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time. The course had some performing on it, which I really liked, and still make use of that today, but most of the work we had to do was essay writing and historical research (a bit like an art history degree compared to an art making degree).

So I didn’t learn to do the things I do now at university. All the sound recording, editing, sampling, and a lot of the composing, I taught myself to do or asked other people to show me. Most of my first experiences of experimenting and trying things out and working with other musicians I did with the band I was in with my friends when I was a teenager and in my 20s. A lot of the people in my band were into art as well as music so we always came up with unusual and some times frankly silly projects to attempt and did recordings and performances in local pubs.

The research part of my degree was useful as I’m a bit geeky and like finding out about things in depth, so that taught me how to do that, but I’d say my non-academic work messing about with a four-track* in a shed in the Lincolnshire fens, listening to Tori Amos and Pavement, was equally if not more important than the university stuff.

*A four-track uses tape cassettes and was a way to record four tracks at once. We didn’t have access to digital things or computers in the 1990s!

2. Do you make a living from your work?

I make a living from a combination of things – all usually related to art or music somehow. Lots of small, connected pieces that hopefully join up to make up my working life. Some of these things use my musical skills and others don’t. Some times I organise the work myself and try to get funding, sometimes, I apply for work with other organisations. It includes:

  • Teaching and leading workshops like I’ve done with you. I do this for different youth groups, arts organisations, schools and universities.
  • Organising and managing projects – I organise a talk series, manage projects, apply for funding, help other people.
  • Making pieces/work that is shown in galleries, or in other kinds of public spaces. Some times I get asked to do this, some times I have to apply alongside other people to get selected.
  • Live performances doing different music projects: as Bredbeddle, with other people or on my own. This usually doesn’t pay very much at all but is a good way to try out new ideas that might feed into other parts of work.

3. A lot of my time is spent listening to music. Sad and depressing music mostly, but some days it is more upbeat – but I have to be in the right mood – or I choose music to go to sleep to.

I listen to Emo music, Goth or ‘NightCrawl’ – where they take songs and change them into a faster or more high pitched and then put an anime character to the lyrics. This is why I enjoyed your workshop because I enjoy re-sampling and mixing.

So – what sort of music are you into?

I listen to a whole range and always have. Some of it is electronic, some of it live, or acoustic and some of it composed and performed- a mixture of contemporary and classical stuff. I like finding unusual or new things but don’t tend to stick with one kind of sound and listen from people from different genres/styles. The Bredbeddle project I do (which is most close to the kind of stuff we did in the workshop) came of out of the fact that I could hear connections between all different kinds of music and wanted to try and find a way to combine them. I also like things that are a bit DIY – just like we made our own recordings in the workshop to use in the loops, and just used the glass that was in the table and the food in the kitchen and the trees outside.

Stuff I’ve listened to recently, after looking at my recent play lists includes!

4. Do you have your own art hero or anyone you look up to?

This is a really hard question and I’ve spent ages on it!

For a long time there were lots of musicians/composers I thought were brilliant – I was impressed by them, but there was no one I really felt I looked up – especially as I didn’t learn about any female composers or musicians on my degree and that was a bit weird (and annoying!). But in the past few years, I’ve caught up and learnt about the work of amazing female composers/musicians who have come before me as well as getting to meet more people making work now. That’s made a big difference to me having confidence in the ideas I might have or want to try out. I find that the people around me are as much my heroes as the big names who might have international fame or importance.

I like the idea of having a few heroes though, rather than one – bit like a team who I can look to or think about when I’m trying out new things, feel a bit stuck or start worrying too much about what other people think of my work. I kind of scroll through to find the person I need at that moment! I’m particularly drawn at the moment to people who have an approach or idea and really stick with it throughout their lives whether it is fashionable or not – they keep to their own path. And not all of them are in music – some are writers, or artists. Some times it is less about the music, but about the fact that they keep exploring and stay curious about things.

So, my team could include a range of people alive and dead, old and young and change all the time. This year maybe they could include: Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Alice Oswald, Kelly Jayne Jones, Sophie Cooper, Kathleen Jamie, Caroline Trutz, Marlo de Lara, Nastassja Simensky, Marie Thompson, Frank Abbott, Mark Dennis off the top of my head!

5. Why did you choose to do that style of music/ soundscape?

I had hoped the stuff we did in the workshop would be enjoyable as it combines two fun things that I really like doing – but you never know if other people will like it.

First was trying out different microphones, with a view to anything being ‘right’. I do a lot of sound recording and in the past, I used to worry that I didn’t have the right equipment or a very controlled approach to doing recordings (I’d forget the wind shield or someone would talk over it) but these days I really love the odd or unexpected things that can come from not worrying too much. Trying out different foods or objects on the glass and contact mic meant we could think more freely about what sounds are and how they’re made. Mistakes can become the thing we eventually work with – for instance, I now really like the sound of wind on a recording (which is usually a no no) and if you want, you can make use of it.

That leads me to the second part of what we did – looping the field recordings with the software. I use that software because it’s pretty cheap, non-specialist, it’s available for mac and windows computers and it’s really easy to use. I think it’s good to use straightforward stuff and nothing too specialist or no one can have a hope to try it at home and I use this for some bits of my Bredbeddle tracks. You can use it to match beats, pick riffs and mix in a slick, “DJ’ way, which is a skill in itself as the folks who worked with Daniel at Fermynwoods will have learnt, or, you can kind of improvise with it and not worry too much about matching things up and make something a bit wonky or weird. The loops can run at different speeds, for different lengths and you can have four at once which gives a lot of flexibility. A lot of field recording projects in the professional music world are about lengthy, quiet or ‘natural’ recordings and I don’t think that they’re very easy for everyone to engage with. Making loops with our field recordings means we can find really cool or unusual sounds that came from our recordings and make the most of them! Putting them in the loop is a really nice way to help focus on them some more.

I really like how the results can be unexpected and was really impressed by how you were happy to keep that approach. There were about 70 recordings you could have used in your performance and mixes. We could have selected a few in advance that you knew well or thought worked to create a good beat, but the fact that we didn’t rename them, we kept them numbered as they were on the recorder and you were happy to pick things out and try them (Logan’s voice suddenly popping up for instance!) made the whole thing more free flowing and interesting. I was pleased that you and the others all got the same enjoyment I get from it.

Taste of a Stone, Rebecca Lee, 2016

6. What sort of things do you like to do – i.e cultural experiences?

My mum says that I’m not allowed to go to concerts because I am too young. There is one band that I’ve been listening to – but I’m not allowed to go until I’m 15 yrs old – and that’s in November! But I’ll have to wait until next year. One of my mates loves them too, they are a pop duo called Bars and Melody, they are Welsh and British.  And they do rap and melodies.

I’m going to have a listen to them now!

I like going to gigs and also started doing that when I was around 15/16 to see local bands in rural Lincolnshire where I grew up. I try and get to a variety of things and like to go to really small venues in Nottingham to see local or weird acts as well as big venues where bigger names play (I saw David Byrne for my birthday last year and it was a huge arena concert!). I always used to feel like I don’t go to enough exhibitions or read enough books or watch enough films but I worry about that less now and often prefer going to small-scale events or unusual projects than keeping up with the large-scale museums, galleries and venues. I listen a lot to music at home and at work, lots of podcasts about writing or music, and usually have a book on the go, and when I’m not doing that, I have a one-eyed cat who loves playing, I’m a massive plant geek, and I meet up with friends – I think non-art or music time is really important or it just gets boring!

7. Did music and art start as a hobby for you or did you always have the ambition to be an artist?

It definitely started as a hobby and although I was studying music, as I mentioned, I stayed in a band on the side in my teenage years and at university and did a lot more interesting stuff with them! After university, I didn’t think I would be an artist or musician for a career I found I got way too nervous and anxious about the whole thing and thought I just wasn’t the right kind of person – I didn’t feel like I was good enough compared to the people around me. I decided I’d work in arts administration and gave up on doing anything creative as a career and it wasn’t until I started doing workshops like I’ve done with you that I got the confidence to try and make things on my own (and Fermynwoods was the first place that asked me to make something!).

8. Are you happy with the level of success you have had or do you want even more success? Is there something specific you are working towards?

Another really good question!! and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In general, I’ve not had much of a plan in terms of my career, or what I think is successful (I’m very slow at making decisions in any case!). The only thing I committed to a few years ago, after first working with Fermynwoods was to try and have half my working life doing teaching/workshops/management and half doing my own stuff. It took a while to get there, but that’s kind of how it is now, although it kind of shifts throughout the year, and that feels like success. For a while, I thought that maybe I should be aiming to do my own stuff all the time, and that I needed to get bigger projects, with more money, at bigger venues and with more audiences, but one, I get super stressed out when things get big suddenly and two, the art world just doesn’t work like that – you can’t really predict, so I stopped bothering. Going back to my art heroes – the ones I admire are the ones who kept making their own work, and following their own curiosity throughout their lives. So if I can just keep some time for making work and maintain that, I think I’m doing pretty well. I also really love teaching and doing workshops, so I wouldn’t want to ever stop that. Hope that’s a kind of answer?!

Making it up, this moment of June, Rebecca Lee, 2018

9. Have you found it harder being a woman in the music industry – or is it more equal now? A term I have learnt today is ‘patriarchal’, (where it is male dominated) so is it now less like that?

I think it still is male dominated – I find that most curators, people running record labels and gigs are male, but I try connect up with supportive networks and projects, so that means most of my regular contacts and connections are with them and that helps to gain some support or just a sense of solidarity if you come up against discriminatory people or projects. Some of my worries a few years back, about not having the right equipment or mindset or standards came from the work which dominated composition, recording or broadcasts that I heard and most of that was by men. So even beyond actual work opportunities, you do find some of the ideas of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ have filtered down from a male perspective and I’ve done a lot of work recently to call myself out if I start to think in that way.

With access in mind, I do try (and could definitely continue to get better at this) to keep in mind however, my own privilege as a white university educated woman in all of these settings. There are lots of situations when other people are discriminated against because of their race, gender identity, class, sexual orientation, age disability, and many other reasons. Those of us working in our sectors have a responsibility to call this out and act against it as much as we’re able.

10. I’ve also learnt about ‘Arts Admin’, all of the writing and organising that has to be done – do you find that easy or hard?
Ah yes, the admin!

I am an odd person in that I quite enjoy the contrast between making work and just getting my accounts in order! There is a lot of organizing, it’s true, and it’s not always easy as a lot of it is about managing relationships with people, but that’s also where it can be enjoyable. So I do try and work with other people a lot and not too much on my own, and I do try and limit the admin work, or at least balance it out and keep in mind the fact that hopefully, it will lead to doing a workshop or a new piece of work. And the plus side in all of it is that I am my own boss and whilst that’s additional work doing accounts, and buying printer cartridges and making my own website, I do get the freedom to choose how and when I work. Speaking of which, my studio isn’t going to tidy itself, so I better finish what has turned into an essay and go do it! (putting off tidying your studio is a regular activity for me so thanks for helping me put it off!)

Hope this is in some way helpful! Thank you for being so up for it in the workshops!