French producer Malibu on romanticising her life, inventing new forms of pop and the importance of online community.
This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.
On October 22, 2020, YouTube user belmont girl uploaded their first video. Slow-motion footage of a horse galloping across a beach at low tide is obscured by a thin film of moire, the tell-tale digital detritus of one device being captured by another. Titled ‘love on a real train’, the music fades in as a gauzy, reverberating edit of the Tangerine Dream song of the same name gradually unfurls. The horse is joined by a white smudge of a seagull, each beat of its wings synthetically slowed to a laconic flap. Though it’s clear the animals are moving over sand, the blurriness of the footage gives the illusion of the horse skimming the surface of an infinite ocean, kicking up sea spray as the gull glides overhead.
Further back, in 2017, Malibu whispered the words ‘life hits me hard again’ on ‘Held’, a delicate assemblage of swelling strings and ASMR speech that featured as part of Berlin label PAN’s modern classic ambient compilation mono no aware (もののあわれ), which was, for many, a startling introduction to a new world of sound. At around the same time, an enigmatic teenage producer named DJ Lostboi, the self-described ‘world emo boss’, was looping, stretching and reworking smash hits from Cascada, DJ Sammy, Swedish House Mafia and Lil Uzi Vert into heartbreaking new constructions, suffusing pop music’s serotonin with the melodrama of trance and the expansiveness of ambient.
Though drawing from different sources, each of these projects sheds light on a different side of Barbara Braccini, a French artist and musician who challenges traditional preconceptions about what it is to make and listen to music that privileges mood over form, openness over enclosure and feeling over thought. Initially creating the alias DJ Lostboi as a way to release music uncoupled from the intensity and buzz surrounding her music as Malibu, Braccini’s unique approach to the pop edit informs the tone and pace of United in Flames, her beloved and long-running radio show whose dedicated audience has followed the artist across a variety of different stations and platforms. Comparing the aliases, Braccini references Miuccia Prada’s iconic distinction between Prada and Miu Miu: DJ Lostboi is ‘not as complicated and thought out’ as Malibu, DJ Lostboi is ‘immediate’, whereas Malibu is ‘sophisticated and considered’.
Her newest alias, belmont girl, also serves a specific function, an antidote to the ‘white page syndrome’ Braccini often experiences with Malibu projects, as well as a much-needed outlet for simpler forms of experimentation. ‘The purpose of it is to be automatic music making, as opposed to spending months on a track trying to get it right’, she explains. ‘If I hear a song that I like, I download it, drop it in the Logic file and then it’s done in 30 minutes, but that’s the max. I don’t really allow myself to do more.’ Pairing evocative footage of sleepy backseat car rides, undulating cloud formations and the surge and retreat of ocean waves with identically edited, exquisitely selected loops from some of Braccini’s favourite tracks, belmont girl hits like a concentrated shot of the DJ Lostboi formula. The ecstatic squeals of soprano that open SOPHIE’s ‘Immaterial’ are transfigured into blissful drift as distant flocks of birds move against dark clouds. Fire & Ice’s 2000s trance classic ‘Silent Cry’ is slowed to a melancholy crawl, lending a yearning echo to the orange glow of the setting sun.
‘Malibu is what I say is my main project because I consider it to be a diary. It’s really my story, as me, Barbara’, she specifies. In earlier iterations of the Malibu sound this impulse manifested literally, as diaristic snatches of dialogue evocative of Terrence Malick’s signature use of voice-over. The words heard in ‘Held’ were written on an evening flight to London. ‘That’s just me landing in London Stansted’, Braccini reveals wryly. ‘I made you a promise / a cherry picking folly’, she gently imparts on ‘Soaring X’, a breathtaking collaboration with avant-cellist Oliver Coates. ‘It’s just romanticising your life, I guess’, she posits. ‘For me, it’s really just so I remember, because I have a bad memory. At the time it made sense to do it. Sometimes it wasn’t even actual memories, it was dreams. I would write it in the same way, very cryptically, so I remembered it as something real.’
As the Malibu sound developed, the words ebbed away, and Braccini’s cinematic view of the everyday found its way into belmont girl’s videos, many of which are composed of her own footage. In 2019, she was put forward by kindred spirit Julianna Barwick to record an EP for Joyful Noise Recordings and UNO NYC, a project that would prove to be a landmark release for the artist. ‘I first heard Malibu’s music when a friend synched her music to an Instagram post’, wrote Barwick upon the record’s release. ‘I let the video cycle seemingly endlessly as I thought, this is maybe the most beautiful music I have ever heard.’ Over the five tracks of One Life, Braccini layers soft synths, clouds of reverb and ethereal vocals with recorded cello and guitar parts, played by Coates and Florian Le Prisé, respectively. ‘I still keep the original synthesiser strings – for my tracks it doesn’t work as just cello’, she notes. ‘I like the synthesised sound, I think both work together perfectly. It’s the perfect amount of space.’ It’s this dialogue between more traditional forms of experimental composition and the anything-goes philosophy of laptop production that allows Braccini to transpose the build-and-release euphoria of the pop hook into transcendent passages of overwhelming beauty.
‘You find your sound, whatever that means’, she continues. ‘When you do, you feel it. It’s when you let yourself go, when you stop thinking.’ This turn away from theory, symptomatic of a concerted effort to avoid foisting too much intention on her music, fuels the artist’s reluctance to categorise Malibu, DJ Lostboi or belmont girl as inherently ambient projects. ‘What is ambient anyway?,’ questions Braccini. ‘I’m not even considered a woman in ambient, I don’t think,’ she jokes. ‘I’m not invited to the Women in Ambient Music Business Conference’, mimicking Lana Del Rey’s breathy delivery on her 2021 track ‘White Dress’. ‘I’m not trying to impose a narrative’, she insists. ‘When you are listening, you do whatever you want.’ Rather than bracketing her sound within Brian Eno’s 40-year-old definition of music that is ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’, Braccini is content to use her own signifiers: a blurry ‘good, lo-fi’ visual aesthetic that has become a signature of each new instalment of United in Flames, a non-hierarchical, non-judgemental approach to sound design, synthesis and sampling and, flowing through it all, a deep and profound connection to the ocean.
Like Braccini, musician and writer David Toop found in the ocean a useful analogy for these sounds. In 1995, the year the MP3 file format was christened, he asserted in his book Ocean Of Sound that ‘music – fluid, quick, ethereal, outreaching, time-based, erotic and mathematical, immersive and intangible, rational and unconscious, ambient and solid – has anticipated the aether talk of the information ocean.’ Two decades of social media, peer-to-peer file sharing software and streaming services later, in the foreword to the 2018 edition of his pioneering work of sonic history, Toop defines his interest further, pointing to ‘the web of relations, those labyrinthine connections that link the most unlikely subjects, regardless of genre, era, geography, social class, race, language, age, sexual preference and all the other cultural and demographic factors used to divide music (often for commercial reasons) into neat categories.’ It’s a sentiment that Braccini shares. ‘Nowadays music genres are kind of overrated, especially in what we do’, she says of similarly omnivorous listeners. ‘We all are inspired by so many genres and so many things, everyone makes something different, it’s hard to categorise it.’
Flash forward still further and a loyal online community of close listeners can be found submerged in this ‘information ocean’, charting the ‘web of relations’ within Braccini’s own open music. The United in Flames Discord was set up when the show’s listeners had nowhere to convene. ‘I don’t remember why’, admits Braccini. ‘I think one time we didn’t have a chat and they really needed to talk!’ In recent years, this community has taken on imperative importance for the artist, an expanding light within a sea of data, proof that her signal is being received. ‘All of this wouldn’t have been possible unless there was a chat’, she levels. ‘It’s kind of weird when you’re making a mix and you don’t really know who your audience is. If I listen to the mix without being on the chat it just feels whatever. There’s no reward. My reward is seeing their reaction to it.’ Each month the community comes together to talk, exchange music and to share in the expanse of Malibu’s sonic universe – as Toop describes, ‘to float free in a liquid world of non-linear time, heightened sense perceptions and infinitely subtle communications’.
‘My experience with Malibu feels extremely personal, yet I have found through the United in Flames community that my sentiments are shared amongst many’, writes Discord member Pablo González. ‘I feel like she’s modernised [ambient music], incorporating pop and trance elements into soundscapes that feel endless, spacious and relatable.’ For some, Braccini’s approach signifies a radical shift towards a more interdependent model for music making and listening. ‘I truly believe that anyone can make music the way Malibu and others do’, writes Owen z. ‘The way UIF makes use of so many top 40 edits points to this, as does Malibu’s generosity in sharing the files for those edits. I think it points to a music economy that’s less about authorship and artificial scarcity and more about community and collective creativity.’ This resonates with Braccini’s own views on contemporary music production. ‘Unless you invent a completely different way to make music, you’re not making new music’, she says. ‘The only way that music today can be new is just in the way that late eighties and nineties babies reinvent all these pop codes that we grew up with and that we make our own.’ This drive to reinvent, to take the most irresistible parts of the pop music she grew up with and tease them out into refined sonic pleasure, runs deep in her work.
‘It took me a while to understand what I wanted to say, what I had to say’, she explains. ‘I think today I’m mostly interested in making something that I’ll be happy to listen to in five, ten, 30 years, and I’ll look back to it and still feel the same. If I had a goal, that would be my goal, to make something that is perennial.’ For Braccini, One Life remains her most personal project, one that, two years after its release, she feels confident can stand the test of time. ‘I like it’, she says simply, ‘that’s me’. As with so much of Braccini’s work, following this facet of her practice to its source ultimately brings you back to the ocean. ‘Without being super spiritual or whatever, maybe that’s why people make the connection between ambient music and water, it’s this idea of timelessness’, she submits. ‘With the ocean, because it’s so immense and vast and endless, you can look at this thing that’s bigger than you. It’s a good metaphor for life. There’s also a link to when you’re in your mother’s womb, when you are in this liquid. It’s very fundamental to human beings.’
While what Braccini might seek to achieve with her work as Malibu is some kind of permanency of expression, sounds that will evoke similar emotions and images heard decades into the future, you get the sense that the inverse is also true, that something in Malibu’s connection to the ocean and DJ Lostboi’s hauntological relationship to pop nostalgia simultaneously reaches back into the past. ‘I’m sure that’s why music that’s super nostalgic or melodic pleases a lot of people’, continues Braccini. ‘It tickles their inner child. It’s something that everyone can relate to, everyone can appreciate it because it does tap into something, somewhere in our brain, something that we all come from.’ When Braccini plays live as DJ Lostboi, she hires local teenagers to appear on stage in her place. Inspired in part by a hatred of performing live, she controls the sounds and lights from off stage, hidden away in the technical booth. ‘Because the character is a teenager, I thought it would be fun to actually have a teen on stage’, she explains. ‘Can you imagine being 11 and being asked to fake DJ in front of hundreds of people? The next day when you go back to school and you tell your friends, they probably wouldn’t believe you!’
‘I’ve had instances where venues didn’t want me to have kids, which was very frustrating’, she continues. ‘They hired people my age who looked like teenagers. It’s just not the vibe! It’s not about the height of the person. I’ve had DJ Lostbois who were taller than me. It’s about being a kid. There are things that you do with your body, the way you move, that you don’t when you’re starting to have life experiences.’ It’s a gesture that can be understood in the same terms that Braccini approaches music making, an attempt to remove the marks of experience from performance, just as she works to remove overthinking and intention from her sound. ‘I really think that you just have to let yourself be surprised and not force it’, she asserts. When Braccini was a child, growing up in Angola as an ‘emo, MTV teenager’, she obsessed over pop icons like David Guetta and Paris Hilton. Just as generations of exploratory listeners before her taped Peel sessions to cassette from the radio, she would sit with her laptop hooked up to the television with a Cubase file open, recording music videos straight to MP3 to share with her friends at school, complete with adverts and station idents.
‘It’s very genuine at that age’, she recalls. ‘You’re genuinely interested, you just do it.’ In a sense, every aspect of Braccini’s work flows from, and back into, this process, from the child’s-eye view of beaches, motorways and aeroplanes captured by belmont girl, the awkward teenager you may find hunched over a pair of turntables at a DJ Lostboi show, to the rumble of waves that opens Malibu’s track ‘Nana (Like a Star Made for Me)’, named after her younger sister. By connecting to her inner DJ Lostboi, Braccini is reimagining what it’s like when you’re learning how to listen.
WORDS: Henry Bruce-Jones
PICTURES: Igor Pjörrt
STYLING: Ailton Pereira
ASSISTANCE: Melek Zertal
This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.
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