Moving on from years of performing with complex hardware, Nora Jane Messerich, a.k.a. Zora Lucent, has plunged into the software universe and designed a whole world of sound inside a digital audio workstation (DAW). Messerich released her first solo EP, Verilux, this summer and is already on to the next. With new sounds and new inspiration, she’s taking us further down the audio rabbit hole, creating complex soundscapes with an average of 150 layered tracks per song, each of which she carefully crafts and manipulates.
You’re currently doing an online mentorship in music direction with Katarina Gryvul. How did you meet her?
She’s amazing! I saw her at CTM Festival last year in Berlin. It was so hard to find her at this venue. Her stage was in this outdoor space. Jules [Messerich’s partner] and I were running late, I had an issue with the bouncers coming in, and one of my other favorite artists, Aïsha Devi, was also playing and we wanted to catch her too. So we get inside, Katarina’s set has already started, we bought a guy a drink for giving us directions, but they were the wrong directions. Running around, we finally made it and caught at least 25 minutes of the set and I was just [sings] “Sooo in love!” I started to listen to her music a lot and follow her online.
Did the relationship start there?
After making Verilux I was finally in a flow with Ableton. I was pretty clear on the direction I was going in with my solo music and I knew what I wanted to do next: learn different sound design techniques, get better at mixing, and have someone to give me feedback and help me keep that flow going. When I looked into Katarina, I found out she’s a music educator and that she has a music production course offering, but she lives in Austria. With the time zones and stuff, it only made sense to do one-on-one lessons. At first I thought, “I can’t afford this” and then it quickly became the best thing I’ve ever done.
Is your setup similar to what you saw her do onstage? Is it mostly programmed?
She’s an incredible violinist but she doesn’t do it live (or didn’t when I saw her). I’m trying to not oversaturate myself with live controls either because I want to be able to be present in the music, able to enjoy it and sing with feeling and be immersed in the sound world itself, not thinking and moving constantly.
You don’t want to be “loop pedal guy.”
Ha. No. I think that looping can be magical; however, it takes a lot of skill and an insane amount of practice to perfect. And it is so limiting because of you having to go in this particular order and wait and space things in a certain way and you’re stuck on a grid, so I’ve moved away from that. That’s why I switched into working in Ableton—it’s much more of a blank canvas that I can paint on.
You put in your time with hardware, though. Didn’t you literally play a glass harp onstage with your band Pink Lion?
Pink Lion was instruments and hardware, mainly. I had a vocal pedal set up. I would buy guitar pedals, test them out on my voice, see if they were the right fit, and keep ‘em or sell ‘em. So I ended up with a[n EarthQuaker Devices] Rainbow Machine for chorus and weird harmonizer effects (it only worked in certain modes—people don’t really use it for harmonizing) [and] a [Line 6] DL4 Delay [Modeler], which works really well for the voice. Then I had a [Moogerfooger] Ring Mod[ulator]. I was inspired by Annette Peacock for that. I was able to use an expression pedal and be very organic with that one. Those were my main pedals for voice and I had a phaser and the glass harp, which was amplified through a contact system, running through a preamp and then running into a[n Electro-Harmonix Micro] POG, which I controlled with an expression pedal, which was running into this ginormous fucking amp. It was so extreme but we had to ‘cause the signal was just so low. Then comes me, post-Pink Lion, thinking, “I want, now more than ever, self-sufficiency in my creative process.” Increasingly, the music I was most drawn to and in love with was stuff that kind of requires working in a DAW.
with Pink Lion (photo by Rachel Watson)
How did you make that transition?
Before I got to that stage, I was still thinking about incorporating voice looping in a more expansive way, so I got a [BOSS] RC-505 [Loop Station] and a KORG electribe [Music] Production Station, ‘cause I wanted to work with a drum machine. I just wanted to start making beats and I hadn’t really done that before, which is crazy, ‘cause I’d written atonal orchestral music but I hadn’t fucking made beats. So I had some fun, wrote some songs with it. My unreleased track, “Church” (working title) was started on that, the church bell sounds… but I got really frustrated with the grid. You can’t load your own sounds onto the electribe. I just got annoyed with all the limitations. I couldn’t do all of the things I wanted to do because I was trying to keep all the parts moving!
Your songs don’t follow a typical structure. Listening to Verilux and the new, unreleased tracks, I don’t think I made out even one “verse, pre-chorus, chorus” transition.
That doesn’t happen from me knowing that’s what I want to do. That’s a result of the process of experimentation and very intuitively composing as I go along. I’m able to actually do that in Ableton.
And you don’t box yourself in with the English language either.
A lot of what I sing is fabricated language. I’ve been experimenting with using vocables or wordless vocals for a long time, and I think back to when I was studying jazz a bit and scatting and appreciating being able to approach the voice as just another instrument rather than “the part that sings the lyrics.” Marina Herlop, who I met briefly in college—she’s popping off now and I am so inspired by her music and was from the start!—also had this very intuitive compositional approach with just voice and piano back then. She spoke Catalan, so I wasn’t sure what she was singing, but I learned that she was just singing her own made-up language. It was during college that I started to accept that as being a valid approach to vocals. So you’ll hear some of that in Pink Lion but I’ve gotten more abstract as time has gone on. Sometimes I’ll write a vocal part and try to put words in it, and it just ruins it. The vowel shapes that I use intuitively are what are needed to produce the sound and the shape that make it sound right. The words just aren’t necessary.
And are some of the lyrics completely reversed?
I do a lot of reversing. I love reversing! What I originally recorded is very different from what you hear. It’s probably embarrassing ‘cause there’s pitch shifting as well.
Let’s talk about some of the plugins that you use to create your distinctive sounds.
I use Portal [by Output] on most of my tracks because it has so many different presets and they’re all very rich. I’ll sometimes pitch shift up to change the formant, so my voice is a bit higher and more alien. [Little] AlterBoy by Soundtoys—there’s one that’s very similar by Waves but y’all, wait for the sales—allows you to alter the pitch and the formant of the audio you’re inputting, separately. Also, Alterboy has these filters that make your voice sound digital or Auto-Tune-y—I like subtle Auto-Tune in specific contexts. One of my crack plugins, this is so exciting, is Mysteria (but also Thrill). These are by Native Instruments and they’re usually used in cinematic music, even horror movie soundtracks. Mysteria is a choral plugin. It’s largely foreboding, kinda epic, weird choir samples. It’s literally giant recorded choirs and they recorded so many different samples. It’s such an aesthetically pleasing plugin too.
Do you have a favorite instrument plugin?
Abbey Road [Two]: [Iconic] Strings by Spitfire Audio. Again, wait for a sale. Don’t freak out about the price. Everything goes on sale. Also, pro tip: I use PluginBoutique.com. It was only strings on Verilux but now we’re bringing in woodwinds. I played flute when I was young, so I’m bringing flutes back into my music now.
There’s a lot of choral influence in your music; I’d imagine you were in choirs?
I joined all the choirs in high school. I was in the madrigal singers. I was a section leader for alto 1, 2, soprano 1, 2 (It was a small school, so there wasn’t a lot of competition). I was deep in the choir world and we did a lot of Renaissance and sacred music, which was pretty influential for me. The space that I find really exciting with voice explorations is this intersection of something that feels very ancient and timeless and sounds that are very progressive and futuristic. I am increasingly drawn to that and exploring that. I also bring into my musical practice all of my spiritual and magical and energy practices that I was really deep in. It’s not always that explicit but it allows the music’s roots to be felt. I think I’m so far gone that I don’t realize how experimental my music is. I’m becoming more and more niche with time and I just feel like an alien, but anyway…
Do you have any regrets about going all digital with your instrumentation?
Once you have the DAW, everything else is so much less expensive than the hardware versions, money-wise—also space-wise—and the plugin won’t break, while the pedal might. My Ring Mod, that thing was probably $380 and you can get the plugin version for, I think, $60. I do understand why people love hardware. The physicality can be really nice and there is a time and a place for all of it but for me, personally, I’ve been able to take it so much further by switching over.
You also performed with one of the most unwieldy instruments I’ve ever seen.
I did! I used to bring around a five-foot glass foot harp made of actual wine glasses and water and a 60 pound amp. It was the biggest nightmare. I couldn’t dump the water out of it myself, I didn’t have a car then… I will not be bringing out something that is that much of a pain in the ass again for live performances.
Were you telling me that you actually, partially made the instrument?
Most people have glasses custom made for the instrument. We, on the other hand, went to every Goodwill in the goddamn area multiple times, with a jar of water, and we would sneakily pour it into the glasses, because there are a number of things involved here: the quality of the crystal, the shape of the glass, the thickness of the rim, the shape of the opening, and the depth of the cup. Typically, a glass will range a fifth but there will be a couple whole tones range that will actually sound really resonant in that glass—it can’t be too full. We wrapped fabric around the stems to dampen the overtones so you only get the dominant frequency when it vibrates down the base and hits the contact mics on the board. I’ve paid my dues.
On average, how many tracks are in a project for you?
In Ableton, these days, 150 is my average. There are a lot of sounds mixed in to create the world. I’m my own backup singer, so I try to accomplish the variety of a choir by formant shifting some tracks, recording whispering layers, and by also physically placing my voice differently. Katarina has been pushing me to make weirder sounds with my voice again, so I’ve been mixing that in as well.
150 tracks per song. Your poor computer!
This is a new refurbished computer and it’s still struggling… even though it wasn’t supposed to… but, yes, my poor computer. Katarina says she sees it as a success when your music breaks your computer. She sees it as an accomplishment, so I’m gonna go with that.
For more info on Zora Lucent, check out zoralucent.bandcamp.com.
Top photo by Sabrina Stone