Listen With Sarah

•• Listen With Sarah
•• Published: SoundsXP, August 2005
•• Original article:

With a monicker inspired by an old kids radio show, Listen With Sarah's varied palette of electronics, found sounds and spirit of playful experimentation caused a certain John Peel to sit up and take notice, including the bleating, meowing 'Animal Hop' in his final Festive Fifty.
We caught up with the creative brain behind the music, Sarah Nelson, to talk about heroes, Peel approval, and arsey goats.

SXP: How are you?

Sarah: Often contrary.

SXP: How would you describe your music to the unitiated?

Sarah: I'd describe it literally as "computer music": music made on a computer, using electronic and acoustic sounds. I'm reluctant to call it anything other than music inspired by all kinds of other music, but I'll admit to eclectic, quirky and a bit experimental. So far, it has varied between techno, dance, drum n bass and ambient, with influences that include medieval, funk, classical, hippy, blues and prog rock, plus occasional animal sounds and childhood memories. Made-up genre descriptions could include "esoteric electronic eclectica, medieval farmyard techno, pastoral drum n bass and ambient dance blues."

In record shops, look for it in the electronica (quirky, experimental, leftfield or downtempo) sections, or even under 'dance music' (some people dance to my music, especially in Cornwall).

SXP: Dance music is dead - discuss.

Sarah: This depends what we mean by dance music and what world we inhabit. I imagine Cossack or Afro-Cuban dancers would disagree, for example. Perhaps some people are making less money from something they refer to as 'dance music,' but I'm pretty sure there are still plenty of people around the world who want to dance. I don't pay much attention to media trends. Fashions come and go, but music and dancing have been around for a long time. I can't see either of them dying out just yet. Surely not? I predict a waltz revival in the near future.

SXP: What do you draw inspiration from when creating music?

Sarah: The British countryside, birdsong, good music, bad music, silence, everyday sounds, a skillful DJ mix, contrast, harmony, discord, the need to express and create something beyond words, the desire to hear something I've never heard before, love, beauty, joy, sadness, coffee, mary jane, TV & films (Spaced, South Park, Tarantino, David Lynch), a good radio show, animals, comedy, the absurd, the inner voices, cooking, the oneness of all things (or the desire to see it)...

SXP: Who are your musical heroes and why?

Sarah: I have many - here's a smallish selection:
Beethoven, for his passion and tenderness and his expression of contrasts. From banging to exquisite melody. Hendrix, for bringing music from another planet. Scott Joplin, for his beautiful syncopations. Dr John, for his honey-dripping boogie-woogie fingers (even though they hurt him now). He's turned many music lovers on to the joys of Professor Longhair and the roots of New Orleans funk. He's also rather cuddly. Aphex Twin: Beethoven meets David Lynch in the 20th/21st century? From banging to exquisite melody. John Peel, for his eclecticism and open-mindedness to music. His shows provided education of the mid-expanding kind. People Like Us (aka Vicki Bennett) for creating whole new art forms. Delia Derbyshire, for her electronic pioneering. Tangerine Dream, for making the machines sing. Ivor Cutler, I wish he'd taught at my school. Philip Glass, for delicious repetitions and keyboard meditations. Simple yet profound. Arnold Schoenberg for talking so much sense in only 30 pages (that's all I've read so far).

My keyboard heroes include:
Booker T Jones, for understated yet deeply groovy Hammond playing. Billy Preston – quite possibly the funkiest keyboard player ever. Shirley Scott - queen of the Hammond. Professor Longhair – master of the loose and shuffling. Plus Dave Sinclair (Caravan), Greg Rolie (Santana), Ray Manzerek (Doors) & Keith Emerson

For their fine techno: Jeff Mills, the Tresor and Shitkatapult labels, and the Blizzard Boys...

Recent heroes include Venetian Snares, Shitmat & John Shuttleworth.

SXP: How did it feel when Animal Hop got into the festive fifty last year?

Sarah: I felt surprised, delighted, mildly hysterical, proud, honoured and sad because Peel wasn't there.

SXP: Who do you think, if anyone, is carrying on the good work of John Peel?

Sarah: Who could? Many of us hoped Andy Kershaw might take over Peel's BBC slots (with his lovely voice, easy manner and musical knowledge), but it was probably never on the cards and I'm not sure I'd wish it on him. To replace something we need to understand its true value, which I doubt the BBC could, in the case of John Peel. They didn't create him, after all. I imagine the old Peel team is doing its best behind scenes, within limitations, and Rob DB plays good stuff.

Meanwhile I suspect many people are endeavouring to keep the spirit of Peel alive in their own ways, with various interpretations of what this means. Perhaps this includes everyone who makes up their own mind about music and remains open to strange new sounds, and everyone who seeks out and buys records and cds from independent artists, labels and shops?

These people do good things:
Marcelle van Hoof plays fine new music on her internet radio show, Another Nice Mess, which has been running for almost 20 years:
The WFMU: - great freeform radio from New York.
Norman Records: - good ears and fine service.
Unpeeled: - refreshing language.

SXP: You use many different sound sources for your music, but one recurring theme is the use of animal noises. What lies behind this?

Sarah: I think only 2 tracks contain actual animal sounds (Animal Hop and Frogs Sing, Birds Dance), but several of the titles involve animals (My Crow's Soft Sounds, My Dog's Got No Nose). The animal sounds in my head must have filtered into the music. You're right, I'm definitely a fan of animal noises. Sheep probably have something to do with it, their bleats and blarts never fail to make me smile. My folks have kept sheep for quite a few years. I also love birdsong and it's particularly abundant where I live, all day long, deep joy. I do prefer animal chatter to human chatter.

I have a bit of a St. Francis of Assisi fantasy, where all kinds of animals hang out with me of their own free will (if they have free will) and form a spontaneous animal orchestra.

We can probably learn a lot from animals, if we stop projecting our human values onto them. Animals don't have a work ethic. They don't drink coffee, or use alarm clocks and guilt to override their natural urge to rest when tired. You'll find 2 articles about this on my links page at:

SXP: So what's your favourite animal and why?

Sarah: I don't have a favourite as such, but I seem to have a particular fondness for sheep (I was born under the sign of the Ram). They have great voices. I love dogs for their unashamed friendliness and goats for their arsey-ness. I'm even learning to love moths, despite their strange desire to head-butt light bulbs and die on the carpet. I probably feel a special connection to the locals, like foxes, deer, sheep, owls, bats and pigs, but I love them all…komodo dragons, elephants, whales, frogs, wombats and sloths.

SXP: Finally, what's in the pipeline for the future?

Sarah: I'll be releasing a limited edition 7" in the autumn, which will include:

"ANOTHER NICE MIX" - a celebration of unexpected technical faults or spontaneous "art events." This track was originally created for the internet radio show "Another Nice Mess" and made entirely from samples of this show, the John Peel Show and a little Laurel & Hardy. In honour of those "right place, right time, wrong speed" moments.

Beyond that, something I don't yet know.

- Ian Roullier, 08/2005

Copyright © Ian Roullier 2004-2014