On September 6, 2021, I aired a short conversation I had with composer Sally Decker on Radio Ravioli.
Her latest album In The Tender Dream came out on NNA Tapes in August 2021.
You can listen to the interview on WFMU's website here.
OLIVIA: You mentioned on Instagram that it was a long process putting together the album and that it defined a whole personal era for you. Can you tell us more about the story of making this album?
SALLY: Yeah um, yeah. This work really feels like this intense, penetrating mirror, which I think creative work often feels like, but I guess with this round of music, it felt the most that's ever felt for me. The creative process really echoed all the personal, emotional, mental currents that have been coming up for me in the last couple of years. So I think the intensity around that is just that in the creative process. A lot of tough, tricky stuff has been worked out. There have been moments of catharsis and escape and easy flow of energy, but there's also been a ton of really ... (pauses) Making the work hasn't always felt great. It's been where I've worked out a lot of this emotional intensity.
Another layer is just really cutting self doubt. Like really cutting self doubt, which is a challenge on its own. To make really great work, you need to challenge yourself and you need some level of critique and discernment and really pushing yourself. But for me that can so easily cascade into really unhealthy self critique and self doubt. So it's been an interesting landscape to work out those dynamics with myself- when I go too far and when I need to challenge myself in a loving way. That self doubt has been the thing that has come up in various forms the most throughout.
OLIVIA: Yeah, I mean I can completely relate to that. Even just having a radio a show, I used to finish the show and be completely cripppled. Second guessing everything I played and said; really hating myself for hours after its finished, when no one even cares. You have to work hard to get rid of self doubt. Or not get rid of it, but to kinda tame it and accept it, let it have its moment and continue on with life.
That's something that listening to you talk and describe what was happening... you can really feel that in your music. Towards self acceptance and self love and self realization. Just being yourself. I found it really relatable and I really connected to that.
SALLY: I loving hearing that because I've wondered about the witnessing element of that. Whether that transformation can be witnessed and heard. For me, it's hard to have any perspective on the listener experience, so that's so cool to hear that it comes through.
A big theme throughout the album is this idea of breaking through old patterns. Whether it's in relationships, or situations, or internal beliefs and the relationship with myself, just trying to break dynamics that don't align with feels good or what I want. Reckoning with those past patterns. It takes a lot of work to prove them wrong and find new pathways when the old ways feel so engrained and so natural. To unsnag yourself and pull myself up, and find different ways, is pretty terrifying. That's a really hard process. That's another part of that transformation is, like, unsnagging, unhooking from those past patterns. That has meant building a really firm foundation with my relationship to myself. That feels like the antidote, or the medicine. Instead of more of these codependent dynamics of looking outside of myself or looking to someone else to fill me up.
OLIVIA: I know what you mean. I've been in therapy for the last year, I guess, but even before that, I was trying to do stuff on my own. Teach myself, or kinda instruct myself a little bit. For years. I feel like I'm kind of getting to a place right now where I'm a little bit more confident and able to just be like, "Yeah, this is how I sound. This is who I wanna be. I wanna strive for this." But it's taken years for this. I mean, in a way it's taken my whole life, but actively thinking about it, it's taken years to break some of the patterns.
SALLY: Yeah. I mean it makes sense that it takes so long. Especially when you're so young and that's just the way you've learned. You have years and years of that way, and to break out of it... it just takes time.
OLIVIA: I was kinda wondering - You used to record under the name Multa Nox; and now you're releasing under Sally Decker. Do you think this is related to your self love and stepping into yourself, or am I thinking about it too much? (laughter)
SALLY: No, I think that's pretty spot on. I think with the moniker and then the switching... This era of work [as Sally Decker] feels really defined by moving here to the west coast, going to Mills. And kinda ever since I came over here and going to grad school, whenever I played shows, I started performing under my own name. I think it's just started to feel like what I'm working on feels more personal. And then when the work became more and more exposed... at a certain point, it just made sense to use my name. Like, "I'm this exposed already. Just go for it." I felt like it would be hiding to use a moniker, maybe? Or maybe that project [as Multa Nox] actually did feel more external. Like it felt like something I was working out. A little bit more outside of myself. Some sort of experiment that was a little bit more removed. Where as this is like, "Ok, this is it. It's just fully me."
OLIVIA: Yeah, I love that. It can be both. You can still record under a different name that isn't yourself. It's a different experience, a different flavor.
SALLY: Yeah, I like that. A different flavor.
(We hear some different flavors of Sally Decker: a song from her Multa Nox moniker and "The Loss" from In The Tender Dream)
SALLY: So, I collaborated with my friends Breanna and Emily. They were both at Mills when I was there. So, [the track] "Affirmation Pt. II", where they're speaking in unison, that comes from - it's actually a section of a piece that I composed for performance for the three of us. And so, that track - it comes from that section and then it has its own life as a recorded version.
And [the track] "Affirmation" - that's a piece that I specifically wrote for Breanna. It's a text score. It guides the performer through instructions of how to devise a personal affirmation for yourself. So, for whoever performs it, the phrase is going to be different. It's like what you choose. So Breanna chose that phrase. And then the score guides the performer on how to deliver the phrase, sort of in collaboration with the delay pedal. It's for voice and delay. A lot of the instructions about the reading of the phrase are about delivery, intention, and where you can play with the spectrum between sung and spoken.
I wrote it for Breanna really thinking about her as a performer and everything she brings. And then I think the way she interpreted the piece and what she brought to it just really made it its own thing. That track feels just as much hers as mine. It would be cool to see somebody else... I haven't had another performer interpret the score.
OLIVIA: Yeah, that would be cool. So is it just one voice and delay in that piece? That was something I was trying to figure out. Is it a couple voices, or just one and delay?
SALLY: Just one and delay. Yeah. The delayed voice... it kinda gets to that point where... it's playing with the delay time, so how long in milliseconds it takes for that voice to return and playing with that. That distance gets farther and farther. It kinda goes back to that idea of the mirror. Looking at yourself. A way to see yourself or witness yourself. After a while, the delayed voice leaves. It fades away and you're left with just that one voice.
(Then we hear "Affirmation")
OLIVIA: I was really inspired by reading some of the things you said about the song "In The Tender Dream," which is the name of the album, but is also the ten minute song on the album. You said it was "a documentation of my evolving understanding of what self-love really is" and how the feedback in the piece, the electronic feedback, forces you to deal with what you have control over and what you don't, what you can't control. And I just loved that, I thought it was really beautiful! So, I wanted to just hear you talk more about it, and then do you think we should listen to some of it? What do you think?
SALLY: Yeah, so this piece lived as a performance, similar to a lot of the work on the album. It was a performance for a while. This track really feels like this recorded version of this performance, which was constantly changing. The set up has always been this droney landscape with these feedback textures on top. And then it opens up into the voice and this monologue at the end. So there's this thread of the narrative or this voice at the end that speaks to this mode of looking for love. Searching for love within relationships, within others, that are really incapable of providing it. And that powerless feeling, that feeling of not being in control that comes with that set up. That dynamic is something that I've felt a lot of pain around. It's been a hard habit to kick. This performance and these words have been a way for me to work out my feelings about all of that stuff. So in the performance the words would always change just depending on where I was at.
And then the other thread in this is this process of working with feedback. And it's interesting. So working with feedback has brought up a lot of similar stuff for me, just this feeling of not being in control. So there's always this experience of not being in control working with this feedback system. There's this need to really surrender to elements that aren't in my control. But at the same time there's this really collaborative, sweet relationship I've built with the system. I've learned ways to control it. I can reign it in, I can sort of predict in certain ways. But then there's always this wildcard element to it. So I think that relationship has been very valuable. It's been a way for me to work out a lot of the heavy, emotional, association and response I have to that feeling of not being in control and there being certain elements that are never really going to be in control. It's been this way of practicing a type of acceptance.
The throughline with this relationship I've cultivated with the feedback sounds is presence. I've found that if something happens that I didn't expect in a performance and all of a sudden sounds are happening that I don't want to happen and I feel like I've lost all of my control... that's a pretty terrifying feeling (1) to feel that in front of a bunch of people. But what I've learned in those types of moments is to respond from a place of calm, patience. Like, "Okay." Really listening and then navigating a way out, finding a way forward. That's the way. That's the best approach with the system. And it's a great approach to take with myself, too, in moments where you have a gut, emotional response. Instead of always going with that quick response, take a second a be calm. Do whatever you need to do to be present with yourself before moving forward and figuring out what comes next. So it's a kind of presence and attunement that I've practiced with those sounds.
OLIVIA: Yeah. I was listening this morning before we talked. And your voice comes in so late... it's a ten minute track but you don't start talking until 8 minutes in. It just makes the things you say sound so much more like... It's like, "Oh! A voice!" And then I'm listening so much more to what you're saying. It really made them pop. So this idea of patience and listening deeply and flowing more with it, seeing what unfolds...
SALLY: Yeah, there is a kind of patience with the way that voice ... it's almost like before it comes in, it's somewhere there in the texture. In that meditative space. But it hasn't gotten a chance to vocalize or put things into words yet. And then it kinda finds its moment.
As I've grown out of, or started the process at least, of growing out of the codependent dynamics, it really does feel like there's this parallel between what helps and assists in getting out of patterns is this building up of this clear channel of seeing myself. Loving myself. Providing myself with the nourishment that I'm seeking. I think that's where the voice really gets to at the end. This clarity.
OLIVIA: Yeah, I'm thinking now. I think it starts... in the first track, the voice is really processed. It [The voice] probably gets more and more clear as it [the album] goes on.
SALLY: Definitely. I was thinking about that. In the first two tracks especially, the voice is part of those noisy textures. It's not that legible. You can't really hear what I'm saying. It's more this force. And then, in the LOss, the third track, it's clearer in some ways but its also.. I think tonally it holds itself at a distance a bit. I think it's this track where the voice finally surfaces or something. It's not weighed down.
OLIVIA: And then you follow it with "Affirmation", which is totally stepping into something else.
SALLY: Yeah, totally, that piece really does feel like a stepping in. And it's also the transition to another voice. To people outside myself. I think that's another thing about collaboration. Those two tracks need to happen after that title track because only with the safety and security of that foundation can including other people feel safe. If that makes sense. The process of collaboration is also vulnerable in that way. There is some sharing of control. It's a different type of letting go. So I think finding that with Breanna and Emily was its own part of the process. It brought up lots of other stuff, but it feels like a different phase.
(Then we hear "In The Tender Dream")
OLIVIA: You also chose two songs for us to hear. What did you choose and why did you choose them?
SALLY: The first one I chose - I've been really loving Rachika Nayar's Fragments, I don't know if you've heard that one?
OLIVIA: Oh, is that on Commend?
SALLY: Yes. It is. And she also released something on NNA. An album before this. I chose the track "Clarity." It's the second track on that album. I've been loving this track. I've been loving this album. It feels really nostalgic in certain ways. It brings me back to listening to emo music growing up. What's fascinating to me is that it's super nostalgic but it feels also like music that belongs here and now. It's tricky for music to strike that balance of not being overly nostalgic. And I think nostalgia is played with in an interesting way. So yeah. And it's a blissful listen these days. It feels a little like an escape right now.
OLIVIA: Yeah. I haven't really listened to it that much but then I hear a track somewhere - like some people have played it on FMU, or I hear it digitally, and I'm like, "Wow, this is really beautiful!" So I'm excited to listen to that one.
SALLY: Yeah, yeah, it's gorgeous. Gorgeous music. And then the other piece I've been loving this whole summer is - have you heard of Ellen Fullman and/or Teresa Wong?
OLIVIA: Yeah, I know Ellen Fullman... or I know *of* Ellen Fullman. I don't know her personally. (laughs)
SALLY: They're both bay area artists. The track is Harbors Part 1. The Part 1 is like twenty minutes, so you can just play some of it. It's a collaboration, so Teresa Wong is a cellist and amazing composer and improvisor. Ellen Fullman is known for this instrument she built called the long string instrument, and it's essentially like an installation she built. Like, tons of wires. Super long, like 50 feet or more. It's tuned in just intonation and she uses resin on her fingers. And she also has other ways of playing it. It's just mesmerizing what this instrument sounds like. They have this really incredible dynamic with this piece. So I've just been really loving it.
OLIVIA: I'm so excited to hear it. I don't know this piece.
SALLY: It's great, it's really great. It's so otherworldly. I guess that's kinda like the similarity between these. They kinda take me somewhere else (laughs). So I guess I've kinda been into music like that these days.
(Then we hear "Clarity" and and excerpt of "Harbors, Part 1")