With the freshly released Warm Heaven EP, Magic Island is floating between DIY dreamworld and pop perdition.
Canadian electronic musician Emma Czerny has been a fixture of the Neukölln scene for the past several years as Magic Island. The singles that have trickled out since her 2017 album, Like Water, reveal a more refined approach with vocals front and center. This culminates with her new Warm Heaven EP, ranging from R&B to techno-pop, with an accompanying state-commissioned performance installation.
How would you describe your new EP?
It’s probably my most polished work to date. The sound is stepping out of the bedroom production. I’ve been having an existential crisis lately about my music: how it’s developing, what I want it to be, external influences, pressure from the mainstream world. I’ve been listening to a lot of different stuff in the last year, much more experimental compositions, but I’m still writing very produced, simplified pop music. I think that’s going to change soon.
Creating polished pop music can be harder than making something experimental.
I start with just a solo piano composition that’s usually more abstract than my songs end up, and then I take a couple of loops and build them into verse, chorus, bridge or whatever. I’m starting to feel like I should just release the original compositions, but I’m a control freak, so I tend to turn messy songs into something more accessible. Then, once it’s out and I start getting feedback, and booking agents and management and labels are looking at it, I also feel the pressure to feed people what I think they expect.
Your vocal performance sounds more developed on this new album.
I grew up with classical training, but when I started producing electronic music, I was covering myself in reverb so that I would be more ‘protected’ artistically. Now, I’ve realised that my voice is my most powerful instrument, so I’m starting to experiment with it more. “High Note” is very intimate – it’s about having sex – whereas “Warm Heaven” is about death and existential confusion, and with my screaming, you can even hear my voice crack. Sometimes you can hear me breathing, sometimes I’m smoking and I leave the lighter clicks in the takes.
How do you deal with bending to expectations?
That’s the thing – I’m not. I’m floating between this mainstream pop world and the experimental DIY scene, and that’s where the pressure lies for me. What I’ve learned from all of this is that I’m not made for that mainstream thing. I have to be true to myself. I think I’m a good songwriter, so maybe I’d write songs for bigger artists, and they can do all the bullshit. I think my next move is going back into the bedroom – it’s my favourite place.
Have you faced any heavy career decisions? Deals with devils?
It’s started to come up. A big hotel chain asked me to play a series of concerts for their new Sony Music collaboration. The money was really good, but they wanted me to be their temporary brand ambassador or some shit. I’m an artist working freelance jobs to pay my rent, so I thought about taking the money. But after a few days of mulling it over, I thought: no way. I feel good with that decision. My manager and my team give me freedom and are super supportive, but in the end, when there are people to pay and an infrastructure around your project, there is more pressure.
Your commissioned work for Pop-Kultur is supposed to span multiple rooms, representing hell, purgatory and paradise. Will you also be performing live?
Yeah. It’s an immersive multimedia production and performance theatre. It’s at midnight every night of the festival. I’ll perform the soundtrack live, with three versions of “Warm Heaven”: two are electronic and one is with a string quartet. In a way, it’s about human suffering. When I first saw the space – in the cellar of the Kulturbrauerei – I started to think of Dante’s Inferno and the circles of hell, but also the typical basement clubs I go to. Berlin is a hedonistic city. Whenever we party there’s this question: Are we actually free? Is this the safest, purest space? Or is it simple escapism? I’m still looking for the real truth.
Pop-Kultur Aug 21-23 Kulturbrauerei, Prenzlauer Berg