Ross Harper – Ambient Girl (City Wall Records, CW131) + Interview

Take your time fellas and read into the mind and deep story of Ross Harper …

“I see machinery, I see a man of light holding a key of light, surrounded by the huge machinery, like giant cogs and pistons, he stands on a raised platform amid the machinery, the colours around are browns and shades of darkness, the browns are like beautiful shades of rust, then I notice a slender female figure is kneeling with her head bowed, she is wearing a dark cloak with the hood covering her face, then I see in her hands she is holding a small bouquet of flowers, her spirit is full of stillness, then the man of light anoints the kneeling one with the key of light and there is then an explosion of light.”

Ross Harper

Ross Harper

Hi and welcome Ross, can you tell us about the steps from here to the actual music you recorded for the album. How did this project develop?

It was like a “softening process”, this poem is not the only one. There are several more, and some take the form of mini-stories too. Together these characters and stories began to alter my reality and my actual perception of who I am. I’ve learnt that this is the thing with stories, they have the ability to get deep inside us and change us from inside out. So as I look closer at AMBIENT GIRL, I saw more and more that she was me. Actually, to begin with, I associated myself mostly with the male character. I call him the “Man of Light”, but even from the start of this journey, I could not deny that I also saw parts of who I am in the characteristics of the Ambient Girl. There is something so compelling and beautiful about her. She represents many beautiful things, well, they are wonderful to me anyway!

She is sacrifice, she is one who gladly gives her life as an act of obedience, she is also dark and mysterious. In fact, it is not a good idea to mess her about, because, well, the Man of Light has put something upon her that means people, especially men, must respect her, or well, pay the consequences, whatever that may be, only they know that. There’s so much more I could say about this character! The flowers, being on one knee, the cogs in the background, the darkness, the colours, all of it holds deep and profound meaning.

This story has taken me on a journey, she has taken me on a journey, teaching me about who she is, and the music and the artwork are part of that journey.

For example, I came to see that the Ambient Girl is a form of Goddess. She is like an embodiment of what I would term the “divine feminine”. This is a part of the human psyche that has been utterly and horribly repressed, shut out, pushed out, crushed, put down, disregarded, spat at, cursed, falsely accused of evil and wrongdoing, told it is wrong despite being right, basically just about every attempt to silence and belittle has been thrown at her. Yet she does not respond in anger. Instead, in her divine self, she simply connects to the earth of which she is both master and servant. She does this in the serene knowledge that all attempts to silence her are utterly futile. Deep down, every man who has done this to her also knows her power and this silent truth. They also know she is the most wonderful, powerful, deeply loving, kind, all-embracing force of goodness. Yet, for some insane reason, she is not held high, she does not get the respect and recognition she deserves – instead she gets mistreated.

But there is more to this too! So as I came to know her, I also came across examples of her in real life, echoes of who she is … like the story was unfolding in real life. For example, there is a mountain in India called Nanda Devi, which translates to “Bliss giving Goddess”, and I found she is an echo of the Ambient Girl, or they are one. The same “feeling” and the word “feeling”, no, the concept “feeling”, the “reality of feeling” is absolutely crucial in the message of Ambient Girl, the album is written solely with “feeling” at its core, an expression of the feeling of Ambient Girl. I’ll talk more about his later. But one more thing about Nanda Devi, she is a very famous the world over, not least because many climbers, in an attempt to reach her summit, they lose their lives.

But I am only sharing here a fraction of what I have discovered, like a door being opened slightly and some bright light shining through the crack. That is all I can try and share in this space you have graciously provided. I’ll share one more example of what I have been shown about the Ambient Girl. So last summer, I was in London dancing at a techno party at Egg Club in King’s Cross, and I met a girl, and I knew she was someone special to me. I knew she had the Ambient Girl spirit. The name I knew this girl by turned out not to be her real name at all, b she did tell me her real name a few weeks later, her real name was Cora.

I knew this was something to do with Ambient Girl, so I looked into this name, and Cora means “maiden”, and is also another version of the name Persephone. And so I looked into the story of Persephone, the ancient myth, the Goddess of the underworld, and the Goddess of fertility and life. So, I found out more about the Ambient Girl, a deep resonance I guess led me here, the flowers in her hands, representing life, and the darkness and cogs, like the depths of the underworld, but also technology and techno music, my techno music.

And so in the album, in my music, I have tried to embody all this, share the feelings of I experienced in getting to know the Ambient Girl more and more. Oh, and another thing about the cogs, I honestly had never been to Berghain until October 2019, but what did I find outside the toilets above the main dancefloor? A giant interlocking metal cogs sculpture. And I get the sense that the Ambient Girl, she is right at home at Berghain. So cute that Berghain understands her story so well too.

Ross Harper – Ambient Girl

Ross Harper – Ambient Girl

The artwork is exceptional. It’s an oil painting by the contemporary artist Iva Troj she painted exclusively for this album. How did this special relation happen? Can you tell us about her inspiration for this project?

The stories first came to me around November 2018, and from that moment I started a search for an artist who could honour the beauty of these images in my mind. I reached out to friends and on social media. Someone came forward, a friend of a friend, a lovely guy, he took time to come round to my place, I shared all these stories, and we drew up a big “mind map”, I sent him some of my music and left him to get to work. Then an email came a few weeks later, as much as he loved all the concepts, he just couldn’t come up with sketches that worked. So I was back searching again. I remembered a contact from socials who did custom art, I checked them out and found they lived in Canada, you know, random friends. I dropped an enquiry, and she got back to me in minutes, she actually phoned me from Canada, and there was such a buzz as we discussed the concepts. In my email, I just shared the first story, but on the call, I explained more, and we were both really sure it would work, it seemed totally positive. Then I followed up with another more in-depth email and expected to hear back, then it just kind of all went quiet, and I didn’t hear back.

Meanwhile, again on social media, DJ Dave Clarke (the techno baron), put a post about having some really vivid dreams and asking if anyone could give him an interpretation. Well, you know, this is my kind of area, I have a degree in Psychology and have a gift for being sensitive about these kinds of things, so I offered my interpretation. Then I also noticed Iva Troj had commented, and my natural curiosity led me to check out her profile, and I was like “WOW” she is really a very gifted artist, and then I saw she lived in Brighton (my home town), and I was like, oooooh, that’s interesting. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later, I was out in Brighton giving out flyers for a party for my record label, I went into a bar, and someone called my name, I spun around, and there was Iva having a drink! I was like, oh, that’s Iva, the really amazing artist, and here she is saying hello to me, “Gulp!”. So I was like hi, yeah, I’m putting on a party, rah! rah! rah! And I still waited. Oh, yeah, and I remember a post she did about thoughts in her head while she was queuing at an airport and how her inspiration comes from strange and wonderful places, and it resonated with me like I could tell our minds worked similarly.

Then all I remember was it was quite early in a Monday morning, and I just thought, you know, I’ll message Iva via Facebook and just ask if she likes the AMBIENT GIRL story and see if she is at all interested in bringing it to life. And to be honest, I wasn’t even expecting a reply. Then she replied and said she liked the idea, but I had to give her space to “do her own thing with it”, I was like, wow, of course, have “creative licence”! And you know, by this point with two failures under my belt already, and you know, this happens A LOT, I start to work with someone and then boom, something happens, and they fall away, I liken it to white paint falling from a high shelf, relationships can get messy, things often don’t work.

Anyway, so I replied with a private link to the album (it was already finished by then). I quoted the famous Arthur O’Shaughnessy line “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams” (this line means A LOT to me), and then I kind of tentatively added, “but if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work”, and Iva replied, “oh, it will work, thank you for the tunes”. And then I knew it would work. Then I knew Iva was the one, when someone replies like that to me, then I know. So then we did coffee, I shared a lot more of the stories, some of them are quite full-on, but Iva could handle it, we did have some very interesting parallels, not least to do with some common ground around highly creatives, psychology and mental health. But also other things resonated, so yeah, the journey began.

Quotes from Iva:

You know how sometimes you run across someone and silly pub wisdom quotes pop up in your head. It happened when I met Ross. I have powerful visual memory, so I tend to look at my feet a lot to avoid clutter, so when we met for coffee, I sort of looked up at this tall person towering over me and thought, “yeah, definitely similar kind of weird”.

It is a rare thing to start a discussion about a project and immediately know what the finished work would look like. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I would have done it exactly like that even if the idea in Ross’s head changed over time (fortunately, the ideas didn’t clash). If you communicate with someone on an intuitive level, you don’t mess with that mojo. You just dig deeper. It’s what happens when you believe in something. If the idea is powerful enough, it would remain in your head throughout and get more and more evident with time. ABBA’s old tour manager told me this story about the way ABBA’s music was recorded. They would go away in this cottage in the woods and jam all night without recording anything, even stuff that sounded really good. Whatever stayed in their heads the day after was what they included in their repertoire.

Listening to Ross’s stories invoked some fascinating images in my head. I don’t usually get the creative license to explore this kind of space in collaborations. These are not purely classical concepts but they work within the same visual realm. The whole point was to mess with people’s perceptions a little. We wanted people to think that they’ve seen this image before (in a museum or a gallery), but that would be an impossibility. Most of what was sketched during our discussions had a richness to it, which implied using a layering technique of some sort. I ended up creating a two-layer painting saturated with symbols and hidden metaphors, much like Ross’s music.

Ross Harper

Ross Harper

This album is very different from other Techno releases by Ross Harper. What’s your personal background story leading into this sound?

This is an interesting question. Actually, if you dig deeper into my musical history, you will find my first album under the name DJ Ross The Red was downtempo, and it came with techno remixes. So this thread is ongoing. And this goes back to my first love of music and my early influences. Getting stoned listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and The Doors. Specifically, the energy found in tracks like “No Quarter” and “The End”. The hazy guitars and incredible organs of those bands, they stay with me. Also, growing up in North London in the 90s, I was heavily influenced by a plethora of sounds, including dub reggae and roots dub music and, of course, the birth of techno, rave, hardcore, drum and bass, garage. I just soaked it ALL up.

But it is the hazy deep stuff, like the early 70s synths in “No Quarter” and the dub music bass lines that reflect through Ambient Girl like white light hitting a prism. There is a line in “No Quarter”, it goes “close the door, turn out the light”, it is that deep beautiful inner darkness where she is happiest, in that space of dark earth and mystery, the soul space, the womb space, the other world, yet surrounded by spiritual light. And all this is in my techno music too, just more intensely and intricately, my techno music demands very close attention. It’s funny, a friend I met a while ago was listening to some of my unreleased material. He was like, “this sounds like sodium rock music to me”. I just laughed to myself, what a perceptive person to hear that early influence in my techno. Another friend said my music reminded him of writings in The Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson, that thought stays with me after many years.

But then another layer influences musicians like Moby, specifically his “Everything is Wrong” album, where he effortlessly crossed the divide between thrash, industrial metal, rave, hardcore, techno and deep chill out. And then there was the incredible influence of chill-out spaces in the London clubs in the 90s. It was nothing like what it is now. London was much more like Berlin back then. The chill-out spaces were super cool, everyone just lying around telling one another their life stories, some ambient chill music playing, people smoking whatever they wanted, doing whatever they wanted, giving one another massages, hours would just drift away talking to strangers. So this was all with me. But you know it was listening to Apex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92 that really glued it all together.

So the Ambient Girl stories, the artwork and then this desire to create an album, to pick up where Richard James left off. To create a series of albums actually, I never felt like Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92 was enough, and I never felt that he continued that work in the way it should have been continued. Why did he leave it there? Why not carry on producing such beautiful electronic ambient music. So then it all fitted together, a series of album centred around these mythical stories, in this new style which is in a culmination of my many influences, but essentially all about looking through a lens into an alternative reality where the Ambient Girl will look after everything.

And actually there is more I could share about the Ambient Girl’s world and also parallels to the artwork for my first album The Chrysalis Project. But that’s for another time.

Concept albums like this are rare these days with all the software artists can produce tracks easily. How do you translate what you have inside into sounds?

Ah! Well, I was really dreading anyone asking this type of question. Why? Because of this culture we live in, especially within the music industry, and with opinions on social media, there is so much unnecessary harshness and negativity, for example, the vinyl vs. digital debate, the “sync” button debate, the hardware vs. software thing. And you know, as I’ve already touched on, the whole concept of Ambient Girl, or at least a large portion it, is centered around loving kindness as simple devotion. She doesn’t really care about all that stuff, she is just happy “doing her own thing”. And so that was the attitude I took when producing these tracks. I didn’t want to try and conform to anyone else’s expectations or preconceptions. I just wanted to make beautiful electronic music.

But I did set myself some principles and concepts to work within. I find it really helpful to do this when it comes to music production. I have found that having “too many options” actually makes for a difficult time for myself. Allowing myself too much time for a project is also unproductive and can lead to frustration. I read Julia Bondar’s interview on Its Sounds Future, and she said, “do not search for perfection – otherwise, you will never create anything”. This immediately meant something to me, I have a similar saying, “he that seeks perfection, seeks madness”. There was a time when I would spend months on a project and still never be happy with it. Anyway, so that is NOT what Ambient Girl is about. In fact, the stress of searching for perfection is the exact opposite. Ambient Girl is about creating a feeling of “lightness”, an antidote to stress, so I certainly wasn’t going to allow myself to get stressed out producing the album. That would be a kind of sick hypocrisy.

On a convenient level each idea for each track was laid down in about 2 hours, while gazing out of a window over forests, hills and distant mountains in a remote part of North Wales, actually at a location very close to where Led Zeppelin wrote several tracks in 1970. I purposely stuck to some self-imposed “rules” but always had in mind that “rules are there to be broken”. You see, I have learnt that music is an art and not a science, whatever all the YouTube videos, ignore them all, just create something! And yes, I have studied the “science of music” extensively and having a degree in music production is helpful, but actually I have had to “unlearn” some of it. Perhaps the greatest rule is that that “there are no rules” when it comes to creativity, so guidelines are great, but that’s all they are, it’s good to go “off-piste”, that where the adventure and excitement is.

But that said, one guideline I did take into this project was to not have more than 8 tracks in the mix. In my average techno track, I’ll have as many as 24 tracks to give you an idea. Shall I give all my secrets away? Well, why not? Another thing I have learnt is there is nothing wrong with giving EVERYTHING AWAY, because more will always be given to you, but if we try and hold onto things, then we lose it all.

So, in laying down the drums, I purposely went for a non-multitrack sound. By which I mean, I reflected that some of the electronic ambient music I love the most would have been produced in on a budget bedroom set up, probably just a drum machine, one or two compressors, a reverb, a delay, maybe 1 or 2 synths and or a sampler. So I limited myself to that kind of set up.

Samples and synths. Well, I always had Ambient Girl in my heart, so I was looking for soft voices. I wanted to give voice to the feminine, so even the track names are subtle hints to feminity, balance and nature. So I was manipulating the synths and samples in a way that would have been the case 30 years ago, no fancy autotunes or super-powerful effect processors, just filters, delays and reverbs. Also, any pitch shifting was purposely done in a way that would create time alterations. I also, in many cases avoided strict quantisation to some degree to give a free and loose feel.

And once I had laid down those 10 ideas in “sketch format” in deepest darkest North Wales, I returned to my home city of Brighton and again set a little guideline of “a maximum of one day per track” to sequence and mixdown. And again, this was not about “stressful” pressure to cram the track into a day. But it was about chill, and breathing, and taking time and letting the Ambient Girl do her thing. There are plenty of breaks to do some stretching, breathing and simple meditations, some writing in my journal, and making another nice coffee. You see, I am someone who is susceptible to get easily “stressed out” even though everyone I know says I am “so chilled out”. I always tell them it’s because I fell into a THC bucket when I was a baby, like Asterix and the magic potion. But really, I guess they say that because I have learnt ways to manage my stress, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still “lose it” every now and then.

So that is one thing I set out as an “intention” when I was making this record. I set the intention that I wanted the music to be like a “chill pill” for anyone suffering from stress or anxiety. Like a place, people can go, through a “portal”, into space where the worries of this life seem smaller and less critical. That intention was translated into sound by acting like a conduit where my inner chill would resonate with a certain sound, and I would then work that into the track. I did of course, break the rules a few times and went back to one or two mixes to neaten things up, but on the whole, each track was done in a day.

I told my brother about this, and he said it reminded him of a Chinese Proverb. An Emperor sends for an artist to paint him a fish. The artist goes back to his hovel to paint the Emperor a fish. After a year, the artist has not returned to the Emperor. Now this is a particular patient and kind Emperor, so he decided to wait. But after 5 years, the artist still has not returned to the palace to present the fish painting to the Emperor, so the Emperor sends a messenger to the artist, but the messenger returns empty-handed. 10 years pass and still no fish painting. The Emperor sends another messenger, again the messenger returns empty-handed. Finally, after 15 years!!! Yes, 15 years!!! The Emperor has lost his patience. He gathers his entourage and heads to the artists meagre home. “I asked you to paint me a fish 15 years ago, and you have given me nothing!” he boomed, “Now paint me my fish”. The artist grabs his easel and in 5 minutes, he paints a fish and quivers it to the Emperor. The Emperor stares in absolute wonder at the most awe-inspiring fish painting he has ever laid eyes upon. More gently now he asks the artist “This only took you 5 minutes, why did you not just give it to me sooner?”. At that, the artist walks over to a very large cupboard and opens the doors, upon which thousands of fish paintings tumble down.

When it came to the mastering I took a similar alternative approach in that I did not want to follow the crowd or “hanker to expectation”, so I left the temptation to make everything “as loud as physically possible” at the door, that is definitely not Ambient Girl style right! And I focussed solely on allowing the inner voice of each track to shine through and endeavoured to create a “feeling” throughout the album, which would mean it can be enjoyed as a “whole” with no specific track sounding “out of place”.

This album is the beginning of a series. You are exploring the character of the “Ambient Girl “in the poem. So what do we have to expect next?

Yes, as already mentioned, this is very much a journey, it’s very much “her in control” I’m just following along to see where she takes me, which is kind of beautiful and fun too, exciting. She’s a bit like a wife I never knew I had, a part of my soul that I ignored for a very long time, but now I have started listening to her, she is very beautiful and wonderful and showing me all kind of things, and taking me to all these places that I have never been to before.

So musically, my absolute intention is to create an abundance of Ambient Girl albums, continuing this trippy alternative sound, sometimes meditative, sometimes uplifting, sometimes mysterious, but it is a journey, and like all journey’s I don’t know where it will go, and I know at some point it will come to an end, and not always a happy end. Only the Ambient Girl knows when this journey will end, but it is definitely not yet.

The next album has already been sketched and I have put aside some time to visit the West Coast of Scotland to work on the ideas some more. The story that inspired the next album is also in existence, and I have a title in mind but I’m not sure I’m ready to share it yet. As for Iva Troj, will she do the artwork for the next installment? Well, that is up to her, I certainly hope she will, but you know I mentioned this earlier, I have learnt, however hard it is, never hold onto anything in this life, always be willing to give everything up, be prepared to give up everything, love, hopes, dreams, property, family, just like the Ambient Girl has given up everything.

You are also the label boss of City Wall Records. It would be great to know more about the label concept. Any releases we should look forward to?

City Wall Records has been doing its own thing since 2008. After the intensity of the London 90s rave scene, I studied music production for 5 years. I graduated in 2007 and started the label in 2008. We’ve had well over 100 releases, and although many people have probably never heard of us just many, many A-list DJs have played our tracks at some point. Honestly, the list is endless. The concept was, is and always will be to simply release quality electronic music. I never have and never intend to be a “genre-dependent” label. I very much focus on “artist relationship” and with “relationship”, naturally comes “development”, as long as the relationship remains intact that is. City Wall is very much simply a “vehicle” or “platform” for quality artists to release music, whereby I oversee the process, often do the mastering, and then help the artist where I can.

In terms of future releases to look forward, well, obviously Ambient Girl, then next in October, expect some stomping dancefloor techno from an English producer by the name of Soul Alt Delete. I met him at a Len Faki gig at Phonox in Brighton last year. We were both the first people to arrive. I always like to get to a party early if possible, it’s important to me to be part of the energy from early on, and it’s great to hear the warm-up DJs, sometimes they play better music than the headliners! And you get to meet cool people too before it all gets really hectic. So I got chatting to this guy, he had some interesting stories and I could tell he was totally committed to the scene and had a really good knowledge of the music, labels etc, he even knew a load of tracks from the 90s. I was actually blown away by his depth of knowledge. So that relationship grew and he has now put out a few releases on the label, his last one “Encounter”, “blew up” and ended up getting played by Belgium DJ Maxim Lany in front of a grounded aeroplane, the Live Stream just “had it” and ended up going viral with over half a million plays, you can find it on the City Wall socials.

Thanks a lot Ross for your massive insights!

Ross Harper

Ross Harper

Our Friday selection:
Ross Harper – Ambient Girl (City Wall Records, CW131)

Ambient Girl is the third studio album by Ross Harper and begins a series of works exploring the characters of the Ambient Girl and the Man of Light, characters inspired by a poem Ross wrote:

“I see machinery, I see a man of light holding a key of light, surrounded by the huge machinery, like giant cogs and pistons, he stands on a raised platform amid the machinery, the colours around are browns and shades of darkness, the browns are like beautiful shades of rust, then I notice a slender female figure is kneeling with her head bowed, she is wearing a dark cloak with the hood covering her face, then I see in her hands she is holding a small bouquet of flowers, her spirit is full of stillness, then the man of light anoints the kneeling one with the key of light and there is then an explosion of light.”

As well as the music, Ross Harper also sought the help of artist Iva Troj to bring the story to life. Iva is a prestigious award-winning contemporary artist whose fine art pieces seamlessly merge Renaissance aesthetics and techniques with postmodern praxis. Troj has exhibited both nationally and internationally and her work is in collections in the UK, France, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, China, USA, South Korea, Australia and Japan. Troj reflects, „When I was first commissioned to do the album cover piece, I focused on creating something that does more than illustrating the theme of the album. I couldn‘t have done it without Ross Harper‘s immense storytelling effort. Sharing his passion has been the key in creating a painting that not only conveys the feeling of the album but also delivers a message of its own.“

The album begins with “Axis”, bubbles of sound swirling into whistles of love, as light as the fairies and then into “Newt”, a nod to Aliens film, here is ‚space ambient‘ with beautiful intensity. To the openness of “Pure Love”, breath again and a voice which radiates out like precise words clearly spoken. Quickly on to “Watery Pillar”, back to the land of alien and fantasy, of intrigue and the prayers of a pipe playing mystic. With “Spheres” the voice matures into one of utter serenity and pure completeness. Yet with “Rushing”, it is an alien language again, nothing seems to make sense, then the calm, the breath, the piano. Oh “Air”, like a water baby touching the void, one thousand people grooving to the bassline. “Balances” is grinding kick drums, thick and strong, breeze and colour, air and earth. And the butterflies, oh, the butterflies, floating like mini cocktail umbrellas spiraling in the wind. “Important” is a march to paradise, she now proceeds, heaven’s crowds cheering her, And the violinists pay homage as they strike their perfect pitch, it is not over but the end can be felt. “Low” is light, Low is free, everything blows in the wind together. Hands in the air, reach for the stars, FEEL the fresh, fresh vibes. Let the cotton wool kick drums gently soothe. And let the mystical alien pipe player play his final, final, pure, pure tones as he carries us away on his smoke of many colours.

Tracklist: Ross Harper – Ambient Girl (City Wall Records, CW131)

01. Axis
02. Newt
03. Pure Love
04. Watery Pillar
05. Spheres
06. Rushing
07. Air
08. Balances
09. Important
10. Low

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Listen on: Spotify // YouTube

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