“Musical weirdo and visionary” (Vice) Beatie Wolfe is an artist who has beamed her music into space, been appointed a UN role model for innovation and held a solo exhibition of her ‘world first’ album designs at the V&A Museum. Named by WIRED as one of “22 people changing the world,” Beatie Wolfe is at the forefront of pioneering new formats for music that bridge the physical and digital, which include: a 3D theatre for the palm of your hand; a wearable record jacket – cut by Bowie and Hendrix’s tailor out of fabric woven with Wolfe’s music – and most recently an ‘anti-stream’ from the quietest room on earth. Wolfe is also the co-founder of a “profound” (The Times) research project looking at the power of music for people living with dementia. The Barbican recently commissioned a documentary about Beatie Wolfe’s pioneering work titled “Orange Juice for the Ears: From Space Beams to Anti-Streams”.
Tell me about your early life, discovering music, and your journey to where you are at present…
I’ve always loved the stories of albums, the tangibility of records and the ceremony of listening. From the time I started writing songs (age 7/8) and discovered my parents’ record collection, I saw records as musical books, with the artwork providing the perfect backdrop for the story, and I loved opening them up and entering into the world of the album. There was also a ritual to the whole experience. I started imagining what my album could look like, what it could feel like, what worlds I could create. When it was time for my first album to be released, it was a very different era with the digital replacing the physical. So I thought about how to connect the two and that’s what my work became centered around: reimagining the vinyl experience, but for today.
Wired magazine called you one of the 22 people changing the world. How would you say you’ve changed, or impacted, how people experience music?
I hope to have impacted the way people see music (and art) in this digital age and to remind people why it’s so important to us all. I want people to know they can still have deeper, more ceremonial, experiences around music today and that music goes way beyond entertainment as something core to us all as sentient beings as one of life’s ultimate connectors.
When do you write/create? Where? What’s your process?
Anywhere and everywhere … there really isn’t one particular time, space, process. It happens often when I least expect it, just as the projects have all come as magnificent detours and not part of any “plan.” So for me it’s just about staying open and acting when inspiration strikes. One thing I do find though is that I often get my best ideas while walking. And with songs, a lot of them come all in one: words, melody and music.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
I really like all stages of the process but there is something wonderful about both the first forming of the idea in your mind’s eye and then the final realization. There is something very special about those two points in time; seeing something you first imagined come to be.
What creation are you most proud of?
I’m proud of every creation but more importantly, perhaps, the body of work as a whole. I think for me it was never about one definitive idea but the exploration itself. Raw Space was particularly satisfying because it was the most realized version of the vision I had opening up records as a kid and entering into the world of the album, this kind of fantasia experience, and then of course getting to beam my record into space with Nobel Laureate Robert Wilson via the Horn Antenna that captured the sound at the birth of our universe and proved the validity of the Big Bang. So Raw Space was the most fascinating journey.
You talk about never forcing a project, an album, a creation, but rather allowing ideas to organically flow to you. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we get stuck in a creation block. How do you get past these walls?
I have a lot of trust that if it is right, it will unfold. While I have been very lucky to have these projects unfold in ways that seem to me so magical, there were of course speed bumps along the way and then I find it’s about staying true to the vision, the intention at whatever cost. And as with any block, I think it’s about looking at it from a different angle, finding a different way in.
What advice can you share with musicians and artists with regards to making their practice profitable?
Some of the best advice I had early on was from my friend and early mentor Wynton Marsalis quoting his father: “If you’re making music to make money, don’t! If you’re making music to uplift, do!”
Greatest influence(s) on your style, voice, practice?
Nature, Jim Henson, 14th century poet Hafiz, neurologist Oliver Sacks, inventor & actress Hedy Lamarr, multi-media visionary William Blake, oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, The Beatles, Otis Redding, David Bowie, Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith, my dear friend Allee Willis, humanity … All those who wish to leave the world a little better.
What rules do you live by?
Intention is everything.
How do you get into creative flow?
Go where the energy is.
What’s your philosophy for life?
Hmm… probably this: “What is now proved was once only imagined” (William Blake).
Describe your dance between science and the esoteric in a climate that says it’s one or the other?
I think we can get very lost as human beings when we start dividing things up, putting things in boxes, imposing parameters that don’t exist. The human way of understanding this planet, and beyond, is so limited so I try not to limit anything. I think, like a bee, it’s about taking wisdom, inspiration from all places if it resonates with you. And I have only my own experience to draw from so that has informed a lot of what I believe to be true.
How has your work evolved over the years?
It has expanded to encompass many more fields and encircle many more worlds than I could have ever imagined.
Throughout your career, why has it remained important to you to continue to fuse your creative process and music creation with technology?
Well technology for me has provided a way of re-presenting the familiar, the traditional, the tangible. Tech is just the magic dust that transforms a phone into an 80s viewfinder, an album cover into a musical jacket, a physical record stream into a Fantasia experience. It’s not about the technology but what it facilitates, for example, making the new feel nostalgic, and the familiar feel magical. And it’s also about being as inclusive as possible, so that everyone from a child to a grandparent intuitively knows how to interact with it.
What are you trying to convey/achieve with your work?
My work is directly about creating new tangible formats (or ways of seeing/experiencing music) that can imprint in this age of the intangible. And the bigger picture is about conveying the value of art (in the broadest sense) as something core to our humanity, our identity, our wellbeing. At a time of more access than ever music cannot simply float around as part of the background noise along with everything else that lives there. So it’s about reminding people of the magic of music and how they can still experience this today.
My current project From Green to Red is an environmental protest piece built using 800,000 years of NASA’s historic data to create a stirring visualization of the CO2 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere that is simultaneously a protest song, a timeline of the planet and a reimagining of the music video format. From Green to Red uses the power of art and music to re-present data in a way that people can relate to. The reception so far has been incredible and it’s only the beginning. Although a number of the festivals From Green to Red was invited to this spring/summer have been cancelled or postponed in light of the current times, it looks like the first public installation will be at the London Design Biennale which runs throughout September in Somerset House.
What’s your hope for humanity?
That we remember to celebrate those experiences that keep us alive inside; that remind us of why we’re here in the first place.
I think it’s really important to remember right now that there is a fine balance between what needs to be preserved and what needs to be innovated.