Talks With Robert de Fresnes
Robert de Fresnes
Visions Talks with....
AV: Tell me about that Roland JX-8P that you bought when you were 15. What kinds of plans did you have for it at the time?
RF: The Roland was bought because I was keen to start expanding on the tunes I'd been writing on the piano. It was a great synth in it's day and was so expressive. The only real plan I had was that I wanted to be in music in some way, shape or form. I'd soon linked up with a few friends and before long we'd got a band set up, called Rio. We had a sort of funk / rock sound. It was great fun, but was never really treated as more than that. It was more a form of self expression for all concerned.
AV: Did you already have a background in music at this point in time or did you learn after you bought the Roland?
RF: I'd been learning the piano for a few years up to this point and had got up to grade 5. Buying the JX allowed me to learn about music from a totally different angle though, not so much about the theory and practice, but about atmosphere, texture and sound production. I bought a book about synth sound creation soon after buying the JX which was great. It had an interview with Eric Persing of Spectrasonics fame, at the time he was one of Rolands sound designers. In the book he set tasks for you to create sounds on your synth one of which I will never forget - ' Create the sound of falling snow ' - Wow, that was it, I was totally hooked on sound creation. Within a few weeks I'd created about 150 new sounds for the JX.
AV: How long did it take you to set up a working studio by picking up a few pieces here and there? What kinds of music were you interested in at that time of your life and how did this translate into what you were making with your studio?
RF: It was a gradual process really. Once I'd mastered the JX I then wanted to layer sounds and create some kind of production, so I saved my money and bought a Tascam Porta Two 4 track porta studio some months later. That was a real buy, it allowed me to really start to produce the music I was writing. As time went on I added a TR505 drum machine and soon after that I bought an Atari computer, which allowed me to make use of midi and total synth control, plus another couple of sound modules a Kawai K1 and probably the most important piece of kit I'd ever bought a Roland s-50 sampler which totally unlocked my creativity. The s-50 allowed you to manipulate any sound any way you wanted, it was truly amazing. I was listening to bands like ' The Art Of Noise ' , ' Yello ' and ' Vangelis ' at the time and trying to emulate there production ideas. Every time I thought I was getting close they'd bring a new album out and move a hundred miles ahead of me again ! Still it kept me on my toes forever experimenting.
AV: When was it that the idea first struck you to make a living using your keyboards and your studio equipment?
RF: By the time I'd bought the s-50 I really wanted to start to get something back for my investments. I'd been writing with several partners up to this point trying to get some sort of record deal, but that was getting me no where fast. So I decided to go it alone with the ultimate plan being getting a solo deal which I knew was not going to be easy with the style of music I was starting to develop - very ambient, very chilled, and along the way try to get some work either locally or nationally from TV or video companies.
AV: Tell me about your business partnership with Alex Clarke and where the idea originated to release a sample sound library disc called the Korg Palette.
RF: I first met Alex just as I was beginning to tout for work as a jobbing composer. Ironically my trusty JX died on me while moving house. The local music store put me in touch with their Mr. Fixit who happened to be Alex. We got on from the first moment, he is probably my closest friend apart from Catherine my wife and was best man at my wedding a few months ago. He had a great collection of analog synths including a Korg Trident that he had found in someone's attic and bought for £100 !!! He was always being asked if he would hire out his synths which he was very reluctant to do because they didn't travel well and parts were a nightmare to buy. So we came up with the idea of putting all the best sounds onto a CD and selling that instead. Before long we'd come up with some hopefully useful work horse type sounds the majority of which came from Alex's Korg synths. We'd come up with a name for the CD library ' The Palette ' we then tweaked this to ' The Korg Palette ' and just kept the Korg samples. We pitched the idea to Korg UK, they loved it and endorsed it which gave us a real bonus prior to the launch.
AV: How did the release of the Korg Palette affect your career and was it something that you expected to happen? And was this the reason that you formed RDF Music Production?
RF: We certainly hoped that it would do well after all the work we'd put in and thankfully it did. Before long we had signed a European distribution deal. Although it had been a great experience I felt as if I was moving way from my original intention of writing music. Our distributor wanted us to do a Yamaha Palette, a Sequential Circuit Palette and so on. By this time I'd bought Mac for editing and hard disk recording, but I wanted to spend my time on it doing music not editing it also meant that we would have to spend time and money finding rare and exotic synths which neither of us wanted to do. So we decided to call it a day with sample CD's and concentrate on other things. I was starting to get work writing for TV and video companies on various projects, I also was hired to write some Muzak for a local background music firm for one of their clients. As time went on I gradually increased my work load to incorporate voice overs and advert production for the same company which made use of the Mac's hard disk recording.
AV: Give me an idea as to how you go about creating music for the clients that hire you? Do they give you direction or is that left strictly up to you?
RF: Nearly always the client has an idea of what he or she wants, but usually little idea of how to express it. Why should they, in the case of video and TV they are visual people so it's up to me to get the music right for them. It can be quite difficult at times depending who you work for. I had one very tricky client who kept changing his mind about the final mix. After the seven re mixes he once more asked for the track to be tweaked. For the life of me I couldn't see what was wrong with the track after all we had gone through seven mixes so I decided to leave the track as it was and a week later brought him the very same mix as last time ' That's much better ' he said ' It sounds great now ' !!! That is an isolated incident though and most of the time it's fairly smooth working with clients. I find it helps to talk music with them and find out what kind of stuff they are in to themselves. What they are looking for will nearly always have a bias towards their personal tastes.
AV: What was you first exposure to music that might be classified as ambient, new age or space? Did you immediately see the potential for your music to exist within that genre?
RF: I suppose Vangelis was the first though I did discover the Penguin Cafe Orchestra very early on and they made a lasting impression on me. Alex also introduced me to early Mike Oldfield albums like ' Incantations ' which was wonderful. The Orb were another band which really turned me onto the ambient scene. While I was working writing for other people I was developing my own sound and style in the background and at the same time looking for a label to send it to. I did quite a bit of market research and felt that an independent might be more willing to give my stuff a go than a major who may not get the point of it all. So yes I guess I realized my stuff would fit into the ambient/new age genre.
AV: So once you realized that your music had an identifiable genre what was your first step in actually recording something that would eventually be used on your first release?
RF: I suppose writing in an Ambient style really came about from my work as a freelance composer. I was writing exclusively to someone else's brief nearly all of the time and I think it got to the stage where I became desperate to write something that was truly me and not have the end result pulled about by a third party. The first steps towards recording what would eventually become Atlantis were really based on two things. firstly I had an old book of my mother's which was all about the Atlantis mystery and secondly I'd just purchased a sound FX CD library which had some wonderful sea / ocean samples. Hearing those really inspired me to write some music based on a sea theme. Having the book sitting on my piano at the time was probably an act of fate .... you never know.
AV: Was there a theme that you were working towards with the songs that you were recording and did you even have an idea that the songs would make up a unified piece of work when they were finished?
RF: The theme for Atlantis was set from the first samples I used i.e.. the ocean waves. They make up the opening seconds of track one on the finished album. It took a few days to get the feel of the opening track right. I didn't want to do a purely synth album, I like to have an organic element to my music so I always try to use vocals, guitar samples and weirdly ambient backdrops to enhance the atmosphere. I was very lucky in the fact that my wife is a professional opera singer and that she was happy to record some vocal fx for me. Once I had got the feel right on the first track which I surprisingly called Atlantis the creative juices really started to flow and within a few days tracks two, three and four were pretty much complete. This gave me about a third of an album so themeing the remaining tracks wasn't too much of a problem.
AV: What kinds of equipment were you using at this point and how different was it from the equipment that you were using at age 15?
RF: By time I was writing Atlantis my studio was getting smaller, but more powerful in what it could do. It was / is pretty much all centered around a Mac running Logic Audio which replaced my Atari. I also had an Akai 3000 sampler, a Korg X5DR and a Kurzweil Micro Piano as my sound sources. My mixing desk was a Yamaha Pro Mix which allowed me to save whole mixes in it's memory banks. Eq, fx, volume the whole lot ! So if I left a track for a few days I could come back to the mix exactly as I had left it even if I'd been working on something else.
AV: How long did it take you to complete your first CD and how is that you know that you have the right material and that it is truly finished?
It took about 3 months to complete Atlantis which I suppose I
reasonably fast to complete an album. I'm not sure that anybody ever
knows when something is finished. Who was it who said ' A work of art
is never finished, it's only ever
AV: Tell me about the relationship between you and AD music and how it came about.
RF: As I said earlier I'd done some market research about the labels I was going to approach with my music. At the time 1996/7 there were several independent ambient labels in the UK, but AD stood out because of their world wide distribution network so they became my first choice. David Wright who runs AD and is also one of the founding artists was playing a gig in Derby close to my home so I went along clutching my demo tape. At the end of the gig I managed to meet him and gave him my tape. As it happens he left the tape in Derby so I had to send him another. Once he'd actually heard it though he was straight on the phone offering me a deal. My relationship with AD has grown steadily over the last few years. They are very rare in the record industry in the fact that they are very honorable towards their artists and they don't pressure you or steer you towards their own musical preferences. That is why I think they have such diverse musical styles on the label.
AV: What kind of reception did Atlantis...? receive when it was released? Did this offer you encouragement for all the efforts you had put out to bring this CD to fruition?
RF: Atlantis was very well received when it was released in 1998. It's done especially well in the states. Although it was a new album by a new artist there was still a certain amount of pressure on AD to release something to the same standard of their previous releases. Thankfully Atlantis passed the test. It's always encouraging when your work is well received. Getting emails from fans, DJ's and reviewers saying how much they like your work makes it all worthwhile.
AV: Tell me about The Sky Goes All the Way Home project and how you became involved in it.
RF: The Sky project was put together by Radio Derby presenter Ashley Franklin who many of your UK readers will know from his radio show Soundscapes.
Ashley's younger daughter Claire has down's syndrome and when her school Parkwood in Derbyshire needed to raise much needed funds Ashley decided to put together a special charity CD involving both well known musicians such as Gordon Giltrap, Anthony Phillips, Rick Wakeman etc and some of the lesser known whom Ashley had championed on his show which included some guy called Robert de Fresnes. The theme of the CD was based around a phrase Claire had uttered while travelling back from a family holiday when she was just 12 - " The Sky Goes All The Way Home ". Ashley provided all the musicians with a CDR containing samples of the children from Parkwood saying the ' Sky ' phrase and asked them to produce their own Sky goes all the way home track. I was fortunate enough to kick the whole album off which was a great honor.
AV: What was it like working with some of the artists who are very well known musicians in their fields?
RF: I didn't actually work with any of the artists on the album, but I did meet the likes of Gordon Giltrap and Peter Hammill at the first launch party.
AV: Have you ever had to work with someone long distance as you created a musical piece? If so how hard is it to collaborate with someone that is not physically present with you?
RF: I'm currently working on a new project / album called Parallel with a friend of mine who lives in London which is about 120 miles from me. Although it is proving an enjoyable experience it hasn't been without it's problems, most of which are technical. My writing partner - John Lloyd Davies -works on a PC using Acid whose files up until recently weren't able to be read on a Mac, so we've had to re save all the samples he has used to a universal format. thankfully there is a new program for the Mac called Phrazer which is the equivalent of Acid and reads Acid files. The production is being completed at my studio, as John works as an opera director predominantly in Germany and Austria so with his schedule and mine it's often difficult to be in the same place at the same time. It's no problem keeping john up to date with mixes though because of MP3. Sending an MP3 file via Email doesn't take much time due to it's file size and the quality is great and you can send it anywhere in the world. So when we do get together we can spend time creating tracks and fusing our ideas rather than mixing and producing. So far it seems to be working well.
AV: Tell me about Mythology and how that CD came to be. Is there an underlying theme to the music and if so what did the particular themes mean to you personally?
RF: Mythology was actually going to be my third release, but when I was putting ideas together for my second album my thoughts kept coming back to the Mythological theme. It also seemed like a natural progression from Atlantis. I wanted to present the album in 3 suites each with music inspired by a different Mythology.
I've got ideas on the Mac based around several mythologies so there might even be scope to release Mythology II at some stage.
In the end I decided on the Nordic, Druidic / Ancient Britons and the American Indians not really because they were my favorites, more because the ideas seemed to flow better with them. I also wanted each track to be vastly different from each other so you could take any track from the album, play it in isolation.
AV: Given both the titles of your work, do you feel that your music has something of a spiritual component to it? Not a specific brand of spirituality mind you but simply because your music creates an otherworldliness in the mind of the listeners.
RF: I suppose when you take into account the titles of my first 2 CD's there is bound to be a link to a spiritual context. I haven't planned it that way. I find it much easier to write instrumental music when it's based around a theme, and coupled with my leaning towards a gentle ambient style then I guess there could be a spiritual side to the music.
AV: Did Mythology receive the same warm welcome as your first CD did? And as an artist how does that make your feel?
RF: Mythology is actually selling better than Atlantis did in it's first 6 months. I guess I'm a known quantity now and retailers are not so unsure of taking a gamble and buying my work in. The reviews and comments from fans and reviewers alike have been very positive as well. I think many people were expecting Atlantis II so they got quite a surprise especially with the powerful dance style opening ' Runecasting '. It's been interesting to read the reviews because no two reviewers can agree on liking the same tracks, they all like something different from the album. It's always good to have positive feedback it means that the original conception wasn't such a bad idea after all.
AV: When did your professional and personal collaboration begin with Catherine Foster? What did her vocals bring to your music?
RF: Catherine and I first met when we were both having singing lessons with the same teacher about 10 years ago, but I didn't really involve her in my music until Atlantis was being written in 1997. Her voice does bring a unique quality to my music, how many composers have a professional opera singer at their disposal ? The opera style gives me amazing dynamics and timbres to play with and can be equally expressive with fast or slow tracks. As our working relationship has developed it has become easier and easier to work with Catherine as she can now tap in to what I want musically virtually straight away. She is also equally at home working in a pop style. On Mythology there are two singers credited, Catherine Foster for the opera bits and Lusia for the pop vocals. They are in fact both Catherine it's just with the styles being so different I thought inventing a new singer seemed a good idea. Catherine and I got married in August 2000.
AV: I've noticed that Catherine has done vocals for other AD artists, is this something that she is going to continue doing or was it just a one shot deal?
RF: It's probably only going to be a one shot deal as Catherine has just got a 2 year contract to sing for Weimar Opera in Germany singing roles such as Mimi from La Boheme and Elizabeth from Tannhauser. It really boils down to a time factor and how little there actually is !!
AV: Tell me about the collaboration that you are working on now with David Wright, Dave Massey, and Bekki Williams? Is it difficult to put all these talented folks together to form a temporary team and create music as a group?
RF: This was the initial idea behind Parallel. It ultimately proved too difficult to get everybody linked in to the project at the same time, so I reduced my expectations and decided to work with just one person which in the case of the debut CD is John Lloyd Davies. I hope to work with the other artists on future Parallel projects.
AV: Is there one person with whom you've never worked before that you would really love to collaborate with on a project? Why is that?
RF: I'd love to work with William Orbit, Brian Eno or Vangelis. They are all masters of their art and it would be a great learning experience. If I had to choose one it would be William Orbit, his music was once described as ' so simple it's complex ' and this musical structure / idea really appeals to me.
AV: Anything else on the horizon for you that we should be looking for? Any final words for our readers about what you do and why you do it?
RF: Well, 2001 will see the debut release of Parallel with ' The Edge Of The Ocean ', updates on the albums progress / audio clips will appear on my web site: http://www.robertdefresnes.com/
I have been signed up as a ghostwriter to produce some dance music for The DVD Company - again information about this can be found on my web site.
I'm also going to begin work on my 3rd studio album which will be a collection of simple ambient textures layered with piano and voice. The provisional title for this will be ' Music in quiet places '. Apart from the title there won't really be a set theme to this album like my previous CD's, it will just be a collection of works that will hopefully develop into a relaxing and chilled listen.
As for what I do and why I do it. I try to write emotive and melodic music based around an ambient / new age theme that offers the listener something a little different. I write music because a) it's in my blood b) it's my form of self expression and c) I don't know what else I'd do if I didn't !
AV: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us and I'm sure that we will be hearing much more of your music in the years to come.