“You said NOV-ell-er. I pronounce it No-VELL-er.”
“It doesn’t have any specific meaning outside of something that appealed to me at the time. I didn’t think that I would honestly be living with that name seven, eight years later. It’s interesting to hear what people make of it, and how people pronounce it, which is interesting, but it’s not a real word. It is a word in Swedish – it just means a novel, a book. Whenever I’m touring over there, they think it’s funny. They’re like, “Oh, why’d you choose a Swedish name for your project?””
Sarah Lipstate, the New York-based artist who records and tours as Noveller, speaks not with frustration but gentle humor and thoughtfulness on this and many other subjects over the phone. Her newest album, Fantastic Planet, her first release on Fire Records, is a collection of striking electric guitar instrumentals, blending everything from quietly rigorous rhythms to breathtaking solos, all with a cool, clean soaring air that implicitly suggests the work of New Zealand’s Roy Montgomery or England’s Vini Reilly.
It’s also the latest release in her decade-old discography, covering a slew of compilation appearances as well as a series of self-released and short-run cassette and CDR efforts that can be sampled via her Bandcamp page, reaching back to her earliest work while attending college in Austin, Texas. Other recent high points include her collaboration with Brooklyn’s thisquietarmy and a live effort with Sonic Youth veteran Lee Ranaldo, as well as coming off a well-received opening stint last year on St. Vincent’s tour. With her arrangements expanding to include more keyboard parts and loops on Fantastic Planet, Lipstate sounds like she’s right where she wants to be throughout the conversation, putting words to an art form that by default goes beyond language.
Let me just start with a basic background question: where were you born and raised?
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but I have no memory of that because we moved to Louisiana when I was two years old. So Lafayette, Louisiana is where I grew up, and when I was 18 I decided to move to Austin, to go the University of Texas for college. It was pretty funny – when I first went to Austin to go visit UT, I was like, “whoa, this is a big city.” So moving there broadened my horizons and was the big first chance where I was able to find people who were into the same type of music that I was into, and actually find people that I could start playing music with. So that was a really big change for me, but I’m definitely a Southern girl, even though people always say that you can’t tell from talking to me. And I think a lot of people are disappointed, they’re like, “wait, where’s your Southern accent?”
Had you been playing guitar already?
I started playing guitar when I was still in high school, so before I moved to Austin. I had been interested in it for a while, probably starting around when I was 16 – that’s when I first had access to music that you weren’t just hearing on the alternative rock radio station. That’s when I first started getting into Sonic Youth and the Pixies. I told [my parents] I wanted to play, and for Christmas, I think when I was 16, they got me an acoustic guitar.
But in my mind, the stuff that I was interested in, I really wanted an electric guitar. So I had to get a summer job when I was 17, and I was getting paid like five dollars and 15 cents an hour working in a music store;I was able to save up enough money to buy my first electric guitar. So when I was 17 I started really spending a lot of time in my room after school, by myself, just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this instrument.
When I moved to Austin, I had a little cassette four-track recorder – I had this little recording setup in my dorm room in my freshman year, and I’m sure it was a total nightmare to my roommates, but that was really important to me.
One of my friends in my freshman year of college gave me an EBow [an electronic gadget that plays guitar strings like a bow] that he said his uncle had given to him, and he wasn’t into it. It was actually kind of insulting! “I think this thing’s really boring, but you’ll probably like it.” That’s really where it all started, and it was interesting how in playing with other people, I discovered what I was really interested in.
So you’re recording, you’re obviously exploring this more, but at some point you not only move to New York, but also come up with a band name or a project name, Noveller. What was the importance of the move and the origin of the name?
When I was in college, I formed this duo with this guy that I was dating at the time, and we called ourselves One Umbrella, and this project was born out of me playing guitar with a delay pedal and a looper and him playing a synthesizer, and just recording these improvised longform pieces, guitar and synth. So we had a few recordings we really liked and decided to do a CD-R release, and my boyfriend said, “alright, we’re going to call this One Umbrella, but we can’t just put our name on it. We have to come up with aliases.” He was just really devoted to this idea of having these aliases, so I decided on an alias: Novella. I don’t know, it just grabbed me. We lived in Austin, applied to South by Southwest. We got to play there, I think we showcased for three different years. My senior year, I decided to apply to CMJ, and we were invited to do a showcase up there.
What year was this?
This was in 2006. Our showcase was on Halloween at the old Northsix venue, which is now the Music Hall of Williamsburg. But it was in the basement level at Northsix. The only people that we knew at the time were these guys from the band Bear in Heaven — we’d played the Table of the Elements festival in Atlanta that year. Adam Wills from the band let us stay at his apartment in Williamsburg, so we got to spend a week there playing a couple of shows. It was really cool, and during the experience I thought, “well, I’m going to graduate in a few months. I know I don’t want to stay in Austin, and this seems like maybe a place where I can come, try and find work, and pursue music.”
I graduated in December, and on January 3, 2007, I came up to Brooklyn. I had a month-long sublet in Greenpoint, and I was just like, “I’m going to give myself a month and see if I can find a job and make this happen.” Back to the name: I started getting asked to submit solo pieces for these compilations. There was this compilation called Women Take Back the Noise that asked me to submit something. Since they were interested in only women, I couldn’t submit a One Umbrella piece, and so I submitted a solo piece I recorded. They liked it, and they were like, “what do you want to release this as?” So I took Novella and just modified that.
Is recording something that is continuous? Are you always creating, setting things aside? Does a certain point come where you’re like, “okay, this is an album”?
I’ve noticed, for the past few albums, that there will be one piece that I start working on when I’m rehearsing for a show or something like that, or I’m just by myself at my apartment and I’m playing guitar. And I’ll work on that for a while, and at some point, I’ll probably start playing that piece live, and after I feel like it’s at a stage where I feel comfortable recording it, then I’ll sit down and just work on this one piece and try to get it to a place where I’m really happy with it. At some point, something will happen. I’ll have that touchstone piece that I’ve been kicking around in my live show and sitting on my hard drive, and that’s what will be my reference point for writing new material that will eventually become a cohesive album.
For Fantastic Planet, that touchstone song is ‘Pulse Point’, and I started working on that before I did the tour with St. Vincent in March and April of last year. I was really interested in seeing what would happen if I started playing it live, so I threw that into my live set for the tour. I actually opened with it a lot. If I had all the time in the world, I’d probably prefer to come up with live arrangements and have the songs be developed organically while I’m playing a show or doing a tour and then record everything. But it doesn’t really work that way for me.
What is your studio and/or live setup in terms of what you prefer to play?
My studio setup is very simple. I, for the most part, use all of the same pedals and same guitar, which is a Fender Jaguar – it’s a Japanese reissue – that I use when I play live on tour. When I record, I do everything myself at home, but I go direct into my Mbox into Pro Tools. I don’t mic and record it through an amp. I did do that for my earlier albums, maybe even through Glacial Glow, but because I have so many effects pedals that I’m going through I find that I don’t really need that sound from the amp to enhance it. I just really want a very clean sound when I’m recording.
There are a few software effects that I use in Pro Tools, mainly just a reverb or the EchoBoy delay. There is one effect called the Crystallizer and I was using it a lot in Pro Tools, and then when I was going and trying to make live arrangements of these songs I was like, “man, I’m really missing this effect.” And so it was an instance where I had to try and find a hardware pedal version of this software effect that I had gotten hooked on. And I ended up finding that in the Eventide H9 Crystals effect – it’s a preset called Crystals. That was an interesting process for me, and now I’m able to pull that stuff off live. But in the studio I have the luxury of having as many tracks as I want, adding in synths, which I started doing, starting with my No Dreams album, and other software that I have that I use for some film scoring stuff.
There are some tracks where I just feel like I’m never going to be able to pull this off live unless I have three other people onstage with me. But I try to keep it true to my sound and try to keep in mind that it started out as solo electric guitar, and I only have two hands, and one looper, and all this gear. I really enjoy coming up with live arrangements of the songs, so I try to keep it, when I’m recording, to something I feel is within the realm of possibility, so that I can come up with a decent live arrangement and pull it off.
How important is sequencing in any particular release to you? I’m thinking of ‘Into the Dunes’ as the first Fantastic Planet track, which opens with a very, I hate to say, “doomy” bass line – but it’s very dramatic, like, “oh, okay.” It makes you sit up a bit.
It takes me a lot of time to figure out a sequence that I’m happy with and the most important tracks in an album. For some reason, when I recorded ‘Rubicon’ and ‘Sisters’, which I think are the third and fourth tracks, I recorded those together. They’re in the same Pro Tools session. So those automatically were tandem tracks, even though sonically they’re not really related. I really struggled with coming up with the opening track that really felt right to me, and ultimately I think ‘Into the Dunes’ was the right choice. It’s also been interesting that that was the track that my label, Fire Records decided to use as the single. It’s the first thing that anyone heard off of the album, and that made me feel pretty confident about my choice. You want to feel like people will hear a track that piques their interest and get them excited to listen to the rest of it. I didn’t name any tracks on the album ‘Fantastic Planet’, but I feel like that one goes well with that theme, even though it is dark. But I love that.
A final question: as with any primarily instrumental artist, since there are no lyrics, one has to use the language to describe your work, sometimes throwing terms out. Do you find it’s something you can easily put into words, the feeling of what you’re creating and its intent, or is it something that only makes sense to you?
It’s oftentimes for me hard to articulate, but because it is instrumental music, I feel like there’s a pretty heavy weight to the title choices that I make for the songs and for the album, and the artwork. I just agonize over that – all this stuff that will explain the music and influence the way people are going to hear it. The live performance really changes the perception of the music, and for me, that’s when I feel like I’m most effective at communicating my intention and my experience of the music to the audience. I think that’s something that gets transferred in a very visceral way when I’m performing live for an audience.
With Fantastic Planet, I felt torn about using it, because it’s the title of a Failure album that I liked a lot when I was in high school, and it’s the title of an animated film. It’s already significant to people for other reasons, but it just felt so right to me. I think it’s interesting that I’m able to take that, apply it to my own creation, and breathe a different experience into that. It’s also the first time where I decided to use an image of myself on the album cover, and I was really curious to see if people would connect – if it would have any sway on people’s connection with the music or if it would just be insignificant. I feel like it’s a different approach for me, and ultimately I just want it to reach new eyes, new ears, a new audience, and I think there’s a good chance of that happening this time around, thanks to Fire Records. I’m very, very curious to see what happens after the album’s officially released and out there in the world.