Jessica Vale is a multimedia artist based in New York city. Her debut CD, The Sex Album, features eleven tracks made from the sounds of recorded sex, manipulated into melodies, beats and ambience.
“Every sound you hear that is not a vocal, was once live sex,” explains Vale. “We did not use a ‘traditional’ instrument on any piece.”
Vale and Ivan Evangelista collaborated with fellow musician Jean-Luc Cohen to electronically transform the sounds into a usable sonic palette. Vale notes, “The reaction to the music is affected by one’s voyeuristic tendencies, and a subconscious recognition of the carnal. It’s as if the listener is laying next to me.”
In this interview with Synthtopia, Vale talks about why she wanted to make an album from sex sounds, using vibrators to get bass lines, and her unusual recording sessions.
Synthtopia: Tell us about your background. What led you to make this CD?
Jessica Vale: I’ve done a lot of work in multimedia, working with video in particular. There were a lot of concepts and ideas that I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. I’d actually been putting them into a screenplay I’ve been working on.
Ultimately, it wasn’t really working out. It didn’t feel like the right medium to get across what I was trying to say. Making an album seemed like the best way to do it, because of the sexual themes that I had in my head that I wanted to get out, and that I wanted to write on worked really well…That’s what started the ball rolling.
Then I found Ivan & Jean-Luc & talked about it.
Synthtopia: How did you come up with the idea for The Sex Album?
Jessica Vale: Originally, it began like any other music out there…the different tracks started as writing lyrics & what not, deciding what sort of songs I wanted to write. It seemed that they were mostly sexual themes. It seemed kind of obvious to try and go ahead and record live sex, and see if we could make that the source material.
We use it more as puncuation, to bring out what the actual content is. We weren’t really sure how it was going to work, right off the bat. It’s not like we set out to make an album out of sex sounds. It was more like, “Here’s the ideas that Jessica has, here’s what I’ve written, and what’s the best way for us to do this?”
We decided that, rather than trying to get a band together, why not actually compose it out of sex?
It’s one thing to write music with a guitar and know exactly how to make it happen, and another to want a certain bass line and have to figure out how you are going to get that out of breathing, smacks and various other things that are the result of sex.
Synthtopia: The CD comes out Feb 14th?
Jessica Vale: We’ve got a preliminary release online. It is a limited edition. We are currently weighing our options and negotiating for a larger distribution in coming months.
Synthtopia: What sort of reaction have you been getting from people?
Jessica Vale: A really good one. A lot of people are telling me that it seems very genuinely erotic, as apposed to cheesy, which is great…
Synthtopia: That’s always a risk when you are doing something specifically sexual – the worst thing you can do is try to be sexy and then have it be lame….
Jessica Vale: That was something that we really paid very close attention to. One fear I had, right off the bat, is that as soon as you bring not just sex into something, but sexual sounds, you run the risk of being very superficial, very cheesy, and even pornographic. I didn’t want that to be the case. So we really spent a lot of time, very meticulously, deciding how much to process the sounds.
It depends on the context. Do we process it so much that you can’t really tell what it is, or do we leave a little hint of what the sound is? In some cases, it’s pretty obvious…but it really is very difficult to make something sound sexual and not make it sound cheesy..
Synthtopia: Were there ideas that you had, or sounds that you put together, that you listened to and decided “Scratch that off the list!”?
Jessica Vale: Yeah…there were times when were were aiming for a certain sound. “What if we use a moan to create that?” and we put it in and in some cases it would just sound completely wrong. It was a very heavy step-by-step process, with every single sound, trying to make sure that it blended in with what the air of the song was.
Synthtopia: Did you come up with the idea or concept for the song and then go through the process of getting the sounds & working with Ivan and Jean-Luc to create the music, or what was your process?
Jessica Vale: I had a lot of the concepts of the songs fleshed out. I didn’t necessarily have all the lyrics written, but I had some ideas for most of them. We then went ahead and did the recording of the source material, and it was kind of a long, very awkward process, because we used a lot of couples that, in some cases, would be really into the idea, and then chicken out, so we’d be left with nothing. Then we had other couples that were great, and they went through with the entire thing. The agreement was that they would remain anonymous. We had to spread that out over a while. We initially wanted to get it out of the way right off the bat, but when you have people freak out and decide that they can’t go through with it, it kind of changes your plans a little bit!
Once we had adequate source material, we went ahead and started doing the processing and writing, and in a lot of cases we had to go back and get more. It wasn’t very cut and dry.
The Sex Part of the Story
Synthtopia: Tell me about the process of getting the source sounds…that’s got to be one of the most interesting aspects of making the CD. What did you tell people when you decided that you wanted to get their input for source material?
Jessica Vale: None of them were close friends. None of my close friends wanted to get that close. Some of them were acquaintances that I approached and said “Listen, I have this album that I’m working on, and we decided that we wanted the source material to come from recorded sex, and we’re looking for people that might be willing to let us record them.”
I got a few people that were acquaintances that I went to right away. I had a feeling that they might be more OK with it than the average person, just from knowing them, and those people were. So I kind of asked “What is the place and setting that you’d be most comfortable with, so that we could come and do this, that is also conducive to recording?”
I didn’t want to just throw them into a public studio, and ask them to get into some pretty intimate situations!
We had to work around how they were comfortable, which also made the recording kind of difficult at times. We just worked as long as we needed to get what we had to.
Synthtopia: Were there any surprises in the process?
Jessica Vale: It was just a very fun process, I have to say. When it comes down to actually recording people having sex, it’s a very technical process on our end, so we’re trying to make sure they’re doing things that are appropriate for getting microphones in the right places. It’s sort of difficult trying to direct them, but also try to keep them having an air of intimacy. I didn’t want it to just seem very cold and calculating. I wanted it to sound somewhat real and natural and emotional. We tried to get as many people to be involved as we could, for that reason.
Synthtopia: Listening to the CD, the sounds aren’t obviously people having sex…it sounds like electronic music. If the sounds aren’t explicitly people having sex, what is the motivation for the process you went through to create the sounds?
Jessica Vale: It was very important to have the source material start from sex, given the subject matter of the album. We wanted the listener to pay attention and listen more closely than he or she would normally. These tracks work in a club atmosphere, over loud booming speakers…but they are meant for more intimate settings. We want the sexual sounds to resonate subconsciously. We want them to show themselves subtly. In certain tracks you really can’t tell it’s sex at all until listening a few times.
It lends itself to a more emotional and sexual experience, given it’s source. Even if your conscious mind doesn’t know for sure what that sound is, I do think that it affects you on a deeper level. There is part of you that will pick up on that.
Synthtopia: Let’s talk more about the music. It’s really varied. There are some tracks that are ambient, some that are almost disco, and some tracks that are closer to performance art. How would you describe the music?
Jessica Vale: I didn’t want to pinpoint sex as being one particular type of experience, and because of that I didn’t wan the music to be just one type of experience. I wanted it to kind of move through different emotions. That’s why it starts off ambient and builds, not so much to represent one isolated sexual experience, but more just the different types of emotions that myself and most people have in relation to sex. The music has its ambient tracks, it’s got a few that are more along the synth-pop new wave side of things, and a few that are even more towards disco that I think would certainly work in clubs.
Synthtopia: Tell me about the track Welcome. It starts out sounding like guided imagery, and then adds sort of fantasy undertones. What was your concept with that?
Jessica Vale: Ivan and I sat down and were talking about wanting to do an introduction, something that would start you off, get you into the music. We decided that we wanted to make it sound clinical, like we were instructing . It ended up not being the first piece.
Synthtopia: I love the way you’ve got Ivan’s voice speaking the text, and it almost imperceptibly fades between his voice and yours.
How about Boy in Black. What were your ideas with it?
Jessica Vale: That track stems from something that I’ve thought about through most of my life, this idea of one projection of a person, that I didn’t necessarily think existed, but I had wanted to. The writing on that is basically stream of consciousness about this idea, because it’s not really a person, it’s just this idealistic perception of something that fulfilled a need that one might have.
Synthtopia: How about Sweet 16. It’s way outside the norm of what you’re going to hear on pop radio…
Jessica Vale: That is the most personal piece on there. It’s sort of read as a diary entry.
Synthtopia: It sounds like an audio diary that you might have done….
Jessica Vale: That one definitely has the more serious weight to it. It’s sort of about the experience of having sex, especially as a very young person, and the strange reaction that young girls have to this. It’s sort of a comment on that.
Synthtopia: One of the things I like about the track is that it’s sort of the complete opposite of what you hear in terms of the way popular music normally tries to deal with sex. It’s usually very one-dimensional. Sweet 16 seems like it talks about desire, but also a lot of complex emotions that come with desire, like responsibility, regret, and all of these things….
Jessica Vale: That’s correct. It fits into the idea of the album. I obviously wanted to portray sex in a beautiful, loving way, because that happens plenty, but sex can also be very dark. Sweet 16 has very dark elements, but also a very raw, very real element to it. Ultimately, that’s what I wanted to go for, something that’s not sugar-coated in any way, shape or form.
Part II: More Sex Talk