When composing the soundtrack for a thriller called The Murderers, there was no choice but to try and inhabit the mind of a murderer and sing a story from his perspective, says Portrait XO. Blood on the trigger hits the ground between your toes are the opening lyrics of “Trigger Runs Free,” the darkly atmospheric track she wrote for the film.
The song’s mood picks up on the mystery, stillness, and hauntedness of an English farmhouse in the dead of winter. It could not be more different from the home studio above a daycare facility in Echo Park, Los Angeles where the 30-year-old composer, singer, producer, and keyboardist works.
“Whatever I write musically is going to be personal, because I make an emotional connection with whatever I do, even if it’s not a personal story I’m telling. The director wanted three full tracks, so I dissected every section of the film trying to find a way to explain or retell that story in the voice of the character — the murderer. It’s been an interesting mental journey, to say the least!”
Portrait XO wrote the track on the Seaboard RISE, which has become her go-to tool for composing as well as performing. Her sound has changed since she discovered the RISE in early 2016. A classically trained pianist who composes through a spontaneous interplay of vocals and keys, she believes the RISE is a perfectly expressive partner to her voice.
“I way I compose is keys first and then vocals, because that’s what I’m most comfortable with. The most amazing thing I’ve found with the Seaboard is how expressive it is when I sing and how I can elevate sounds and textures with it. There may be parts I really want to belt out when I sing. When I do I have this instantaneous connection with the keys, so that a deeper press on the surface elevates the texture of the song in the same way. It’s a really interesting bond. It’s like whatever I’m feeling, I can just express it so much more easily and quickly on the Seaboard.”
Only in the past two years has she transitioned from pure piano and vocals to electronic sound. Her “live production” performances around Los Angeles are eclectically balanced, but the synth component is taking on a bigger presence.
I love the Seaboard most for live performances where I’m singing and improvising, because all parts of the song can build together and mimic each other. Emotionally I just feel the song much more.
“In my live production sets I perform electronic and acoustic at the same time. It’s a mixture of DJing and live looping instruments and beat-making, but also I’m singing and playing the piano. And maybe I’ll have a horn or guitar player join me. There’s a trend toward live production performances like this, but it’s rarely so balanced between acoustic and electronic.”
On stage she moves between the the piano and Seaboard RISE and synthesizers, improvising freely. “There’s one song that I’ve performed at Sofar Sounds and other places, and it keeps evolving. I started soloing with the Seaboard — it wasn’t until recently that I felt I could make that leap — and it’s totally changed the song. I now have this specific way of performing it with the Seaboard. I love the Seaboard most for live performances where I’m singing and improvising, because all parts of the song can build together and mimic each other. Emotionally I just feel the song much more.”
The Murderers will soon be premiering in London, then showing in cinemas across Europe and the US. With that project over, Portrait XO has moved on to a variety of others. She is finishing a full-length album in Berlin, booking more live-production performances, and working in artificial intelligence. She recently became the creative director for IV.AI, where she is researching “A.I. for social good” and exploring how A.I. can be applied to music creation.
Her sound continues to evolve, but she knows that it will always be a special hybrid. “I’d like to keep pushing that boundary between electronic and acoustic. I’ll keep combining the two as much as i can. I can’t ever let go of the acoustic world. I know there are purely electronic artists. I’ve tried that and some of the music I write is pure electronic. But I just take a lot more joy in blending the two worlds.“
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