Artist Tips: Sapphire Slows

The gifted Tokyo-based artist shares advice on confidence, technique, and experimentation.
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Although she's a relatively fresh face on the electronic music landscape, in just a handful of years, Sapphire Slows has carved out an intriguing sonic space for herself, one born from unbridled experimentation and a lack of self-imposed limitations. Her music has an otherworldly, ghostly feel to it, floating into your consciousness via a collection of broken, frayed synths and drum machines that are wrapped up in a cocoon of her whispered vocals.

A restless artist, Sapphire Slows produces, DJs, and plays live on synths and keyboards; an artistic pursuit fuelled by "the brutal awakening of the 2011 earthquakes in Japan." Sapphire Slows is now a familiar and loved figure in Tokyo’s electronic music scene and, in recent years, has extended her fan base with tours in North America, Europe, China, and all throughout Japan. On the production front, she has released on labels such as Japan’s Big Love, Los Angeles’ Not Not Fun/100% Silk, and, this month, patten's Kaleidoscope, with her 2013 debut album, Allegoria, landing plaudits from industry heavyweights such as Planet Mu's Mike Paradinas and Crack Magazine.

In November, Sapphire Slows will be a featured artist at Ableton's Loop summit where she will be leading at studio session and participating in a young producer's roundtable. Other notable artists and companies on the Loop program include Jenny Hval, Ben Frost, Visible Cloaks, Nosaj Thing in collaboration with Japanese artist Daito Manabe, Laurel Halo with drummer Eli Keszler, JD Twitch, Goth-Trad, Jlin, Machinedrum, mastering engineer Mandy Parnell, Berklee professor and Prince's audio engineer Susan Rogers, William Basinski, and music tech innovators Teenage Engineering.

In the lead-up to Loop, Sapphire Slows has provided seven tips that range from confidence advice to more technical know-how and ideas for experimentation.

My solo music career is only six-years young, but these days I feel one of the most important things in music is not to push yourself too hard or sacrifice your life: always be comfortable, safe, and confident!

Don’t compare yourself with other musicians

Everybody has a different schedule, direction, and attitude. When you have less (or too many) gigs, releases, or simply have a different way you go about music-related things, sometimes you might feel a bit anxious or afraid, like "Am I doing it right?" What you should focus on is not what the other artists are doing, but on yourself and try to find your own way of doing things. Once you find out what’s comfortable and sustainable for you, be confident with it. Things will fall into place and people will support you.

Be open-minded and create your own way to deal with people

Put yourself in different groups of people from different backgrounds—see things with your own eyes, experience, and build up your own method to deal with people. When you are alone and have to meet lots of different groups of people, you might feel a bit confused, nervous, and maybe you feel you can’t express yourself enough when there are a lot of personalities. When this is the case, I try to not see somebody as a member of a group and try to talk to them one on one—it's much easier and something special always starts from a personal level of communication. Pre-judging people and situations is a dangerous thing and, most of the time, you will find that you had it wrong all along.

For example, I met my current booking agent in this way. I met her through our common friend in Mexico, who asked me to make my first-ever DJ mixtape in 2011. It was even before I released my first record, but she found me on some music blogs and sent me an email. I didn’t know who she was but I made a mixtape for her. Two years later, I played a US tour around my last album Allegoria, and I wrote to her that I was playing in LA and, from that, she booked me for a few shows in Mexico—although, I didn’t really know she was working as a promoter. We kept in touch over the years after meeting in person and she told me to go and meet a good friend of hers when I was in Barcelona the first time I played for Sonar in 2016. I went to a hotel bar—where ‘Futura Night’ was going on instead of Sonar by Night—after my show and I knew nobody there. At first, I felt a bit excluded and weird but I decided to stay there to hear Lena Willikens DJ—Lena really impressed me with her DJ style, too. After a while, the friend I was there to met (now my agent) came to a bar and we finally met. That’s how I connected with my agent across time and places. This kind of encounter has happened to me several times over the years. Because I’m living in Tokyo, I’m geographically separated from Europe, America, and most of the world's music industry, so I get most of my collaboration requests online but sometimes I can’t decide or choose what is best for me. In that case, I still believe in the intensity of personal connections.

Find a good team

A team can include your manager, agent, record labels, media, companies, and friends. Powerful support by your team is necessary. If you are working with people who make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, you probably need to leave them and take action to get out of the situation now. People in good teams are warm and honest, sometimes strict, but always kindly lead you in the right direction. They will support your vision, share new ideas, and never force you to do something. They will try their best to protect you from bad situations, too. Finding a good team could be a long process, but you can plant seeds with people by meeting them and interacting with them, while also continuing your music. Trust and valuation will follow as a result, so always respect people as they do to you, and be confident and positive. And when you have something you are unsure about or unclear in your mind, don’t hesitate to express this to your trusted network.

Always have more than two backups of your music in different places

Okay, let's get away from the self-help-ideas and talk about functional things. This may sound obvious, but when you are on a tour, if you are a DJ, you should always have at least two USBs and one hard drive. If you perform a live set with your computer, for example, always make sure your laptop is backed up with the latest Time Machine backup—this will seriously save your life! I've never experienced any equipment failures while on tour, but once my laptop completely died the day before I left for my European tour. It was the evening, everything except my MacBook was all packed and ready to go when it happened. I ran into a nearby Apple Store just before it closed to get a new one and restore my Time Machine HD—it was a thrilling experience, to say the least.

These days, I think it's also a good idea to backup all your music files on the cloud-based services such as Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive. All my music related files (Ableton Projects, Rekordbox, and other WAV samples) are, most of the time, less than 300 GB, so something like a 500 GB paid account would be enough. If $5/month saves my music, it’s a reasonable and fair trade. Also, when I’m on a tour I put all my important documents in cloud storage: passport scans, E-tickets, gig itineraries, and my basic press kit that includes a tech-rider and press photos.

Go to thrift stores

I love thrift stores. I got my JUNO-6, CZ-200, CT-615, RX-15, and other '80s junk toys from different thrift stores over the years. Sometimes they aren't well maintained but cheap enough to take the risk and buy, and even if they are kind of broken, I can at least sample the broken sound or noise and use that creatively. Different equipment, or even faulty equipment, can give you a different sound and sometimes it can help you to be more creative, compared to when you are stuck using the same gear or plugins as everybody else. I mean, maybe it’s not necessarily a thrift store, but something or somewhere that you can find unexpected things without financial or technical pressure.

For example, when I got Yamaha’s rhythm machine RX-15 for $5 in a thrift store’s junk box, it was half broken. It still made an okay sound when I pushed each pad once every three times, but I couldn’t record a sequence with it. What I did was simply record each drum shot into Ableton and made a sequence by copy and pasting the samples one by one. I didn’t know how to use a sampler or how to program midi at that time. I edited and mixed them with using lots of preset effects and made whole drum part for my first EP, True Breath. I did exactly the same thing with my Casio SK-1’s rhythms, too, which I found in my parent's closet again 15 years after I was playing with it as a kid. Now I know how to program synths, but I still use those original sample packs I made in my productions.


Don’t over gain your pre-master track

Maybe this is the only technical tip I can give about mixing. When I recorded my first EP in Ableton, I was doing really terrible mixes. I put +8dB limit gain on the master track and compressed everything. It was mastered and released as a record—I’m still very happy about that, though—but I still feel a little embarrassed when I look back at the project files. These days I’m trying to leave at least 2-3dB headroom on the master track before sending it to the mastering engineer. This sounds simple and obvious but some (not just one) label owners who I know actually said lots of artists don’t do this and it bothers their mastering engineer. I think even if you like a loud and compressed sound, you should keep this rule because the professional engineer knows a better way to make it loud.

Layer vocals

When I sing on my tracks—I would actually say it's a whisper—I usually use more than four recorded tracks for the vocals. I always double or triple the main vocal melody, and use at least two tracks for the chorus. I then pan each vocal track and give each one different effects, for example, slightly different delay times or reverb depth. I do this because I don’t sing like a diva and I’d like to give my vocals more texture and spatial feeling to fit the other parts of the track. It also helps my bad vocal tuning, though that sometimes give my music more character and emotions than using only perfectly auto-tuned vocals.

Be healthy

Touring is hard, clubbing needs energy, and to perform your best—as a dancer or the one on stage—staying healthy is very important. When you are on a tour, you have to deal with jet lag, different diets due to cultural changes, different beds, and hangovers. What you should always try to do is eat well, find time to rest before or after your show, bring your daily medicines/vitamin tablets with you, and get travel insurance.

As a final note, commit absolutely no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other discrimination or abuse. These will never help you as an artist, though you can always fight against them with your music :)