We were stoked to catch up with sample-influenced producer and Synchedin contributor, simmerdown. Digging into the creative process – what inspires, and the roadblocks that can hamper creativity – simmerdown, aka Zoe Leonard, offers insight into her musical journey, along with some pearls of well-earned wisdom.

Check out the full interview below!

Can you explain how you got into making music in the first place, and what kicked things off for you?

So I started playing piano in secondary school and then moved onto bass. Then I got bored of bass and I moved onto electric guitar. And then I got bored of electric guitar, then moved on to acoustic guitar. And then I spent most of my teenage years being an acoustic singer-songwriter. But, mainly performing covers because I hated writing my own music, or I could never absolutely fall in love with a song I’d written as there was always a certain barrier.

Then I went to university to study popular music in 2014, and I went to Falmouth university. And they really encourage you to think outside the box and try new techniques, and they really put you out of your comfort zone. I completely relished every single opportunity they gave me, and by the end of uni after coming in as an acoustic single songwriter I left having written, recorded, played, mixed, mastered a seven track trip-hop album with like 70 tracks per song. It was something ridiculous. 

And then I had about three years off with a creative depression, not being able to write anything and being very self-critical. And then I read a book called Making Beats by Joseph G. Schloss, and it talks about sampling culture and where it came from and the processes that were involved in it before the digital age. It completely changed my relationship with music and how I write. And now my music making process involves 90% samples, and it’s completely changed my music and how I approach everything and how I look at it now. So that’s my journey. It’s quite a long journey and after a lot of permutations.

You mentioned you had a break from creating. What are the perfect conditions for you to get in the creative zone, and how did you kind of get back into it?

I think it was that everything I tried wasn’t successful. It can really dampen your mood because everyone is trying to help and say “try this try that” and everything you do it just, nothing comes to fruition.

I think the one thing that was successful was not putting any pressure on yourself. If you put pressure on yourself, you panic, or you feel like you’re being unsuccessful. For me, it was just accepting that creativity comes in ebbs and flows, and those ebbs and flows can be periodic in a sense of years, or days, or months. I think just constantly expanding your horizons and your knowledge is something that will naturally lead to inspiring creativity.

If there are times that I’m feeling uninspired, or I don’t want to write a song, I’ll deliberately go sample searching because I know that that will inspire me. So try and find resources, materials, activities that you know will either educate you, increase your knowledge, increase your understanding, increase your understanding of the context your music sits within, or just something as simple as searching for samples or finding new sounds anything, you know, that will light that fire yeah your bum.

“Make music that makes you happy! Make music that you want to dance around your room to, because it’s the best feeling.”

I had a listen to a chat you had with BBC introducing a couple of months ago. You mentioned that you’re moving from hip-hop into more sort of garage and house bits. So do you think it’s important to always seek to develop your style and sound outwardly, or is it just more of a sort of force for creating?

I think people that limit themselves to one genre or are adamant about sticking to one genre can risk really capping their creativity or capping their, maybe not potential is the right word. And so when I started this project as simmerdown it was really important to me that it wouldn’t just span one genre, it would be completely cross genre, and it wouldn’t really sit in one place. 

And that’s what I love about it; that I can go from releasing a beat tape at 75 bpm to releasing a single at 130 bpm. But there’s still, a lot of people say about my music, there’s a really stylistic sound in my music that no matter what tempo or genre it is you’ll instantly know that that’s come from my sort of alias. James Blake is really good at it. He spans a huge, wide range, but always has a very stylistic sound. Romare as well, there’s one sort of delay effect or like the sound effect he has in his music, and you go “I wonder who this artist is”, and you hear it, and you go “it’s Romare”, instantly.

I think artists should definitely challenge themselves and the genres that they’re working within, but always make sure that you’re not forcing it. It has to come naturally and there shouldn’t be any pressure on it. But just yeah go into writing things with a bit more of an open mind as long as you’re just staying true to what your brand and yourself and your ethos is.

So with that sort of stylistic signature that you can pick out in all your stuff, is that something you have consciously done?

Not at all. I think using samples helps because I think subconsciously I chop up samples or modify samples in maybe like a way that people can recognize. But it’s been completely subconscious. It’s just really nice when you send that to someone, and they go, “it’s different from your other stuff, but it totally sounds like you.” Yeah so unfortunately, I can’t shed too much light on how you’d be able to create that cohesion, but I think when you know you’ve got it, go with it and trust it, and really work with it.

I picked up on one the BBC introducing chats that you have often turned down the opportunity to perform live. I know tonight is the first time in six years. So, do you prefer working alone on the production side more than the performance?

I think it was important to me to spend these two years focussing on production because I wanted to get my sound. I wanted to get my own notion of my brand and what my music stood for. And get it really set in setting stone. And I wanted to get a bigger discography together and more music written, so I knew exactly where I spanned genre-wise and where I comfortably sat. Because the samples I use in my beat tapes and instrumentation I use in my beat tapes are completely different to that of my more up-tempo stuff. Then that’s completely different to my track it’s all mine that’s this weird meld of electronica – I’m not really sure where it does sit.

So I do much prefer the production side of things because there are less nerves, it works on your own schedule, you can do it anytime. However, it’s been an incredibly long time coming for me to form live, it’s the next natural progression for me to take.

“’Opportunity is work in disguise.’ And so don’t think of it as effort – just totally jump into, immerse yourself in it and just let it motivate you and inspire you.”

The feeling I get when I show people my music just through listening through speakers, I get such a good feeling inside, and so I think that think a lot’s gonna be learnt and hopefully good things are gonna be felt performing this live. I really hope that I get to see the reaction that people have when they listen to my music rather than just assuming what their reaction is or what their feedback has been so far.

Are you feeling excited then?

I’m quite nervous, because it has been a long time. But I spent the past two months practising to the point where I wanted it to almost be like driving a car. You know when it’s second nature? And yeah last night I think I’ve almost practised as much as I possibly can so that it seems very natural. Because when you’re performing live you want to enjoy yourself, you don’t want to have to think about lots of things. And the more you enjoy yourself the more the crowd will connect with you and your music. 

If you could pinpoint the biggest challenge within your musical pursuits, what would that be?

The biggest challenge for me was hands down those three years of creative depression. Because it started after I’d finish my degree, and I’d done that seven track trip-hop album, and I’d made such ground, such progress, such growth as an artist… And then you find yourself just completely falling out of love with it and not being inspired and everything you do create, you constantly beat yourself up. Everything I recorded myself, I just couldn’t get past that barrier of “you recorded it, it’s not good, or it doesn’t sound right.” If someone else had recorded it, I’m sure I would have loved it, you know? They could’ve played exactly the same chords and I would have actually loved it. It’s this weird psychological thing. 

But yeah, those three years, it really gets you down. I’m sure in every other musician and producer can really connect with that, because when you’re so passionate about something in your life, and you can’t fulfil that or meet that, then it’s hard to perk yourself up. And so when I did come across that book and samples and using samples as a compositional tool basically, and writing all my stuff with it, oh my word, it was the biggest sense of relief. 

I was just like finally I found a cohesive way that I can make this work for me and completely bypass all those concerns I have of me recording my own stuff. So yeah, just going back to when the previous questions just, I know it’s really difficult, don’t put their pressure on yourself because it’s only going to become detrimental. Just carry on learning as much as you can with things related to your practice. Even if it’s looking at how a compressor works or how an ASDR curve works, you know, that’s very statistical matter of fact stuff, but it will 100% inform your practice and hopefully inspire good things to come from it.

Finally, if there were any of insights or a piece of advice you could impart to your younger self, starting your musical career, what would it be?

I do wish that. I wasn’t so daunted by DAWs and production. Because if I’d started using DAWs four or five years earlier, I’d be on the next level by now. A lot of people find it quite daunting and don’t understand how to get into it, and my advice is to get hold of a DAW and practice. Do it yourself, watch YouTube videos and just be proactive. There was a saying that one of my lecturers told me ages ago, and it was, “Opportunity is work in disguise.” And so don’t think of it as effort – just totally jump into, immerse yourself in it and just let it motivate you and inspire you. Accept that you’re gonna have some low points and some very non-inspired moments, but work through them, and you’ll be swell. 

And make music that makes you happy! Make music that you want to dance around your room to, because it’s the best feeling.

You can hear simmerdown’s creations on Spotify and SoundCloud. Keep up to date with new things, and hopefully many more live performances to come, by giving her a follow on Instagram and Facebook too.

Check out The simmerdown Collection, a Synchedin curated playlist of some of the fantastic simmerdown tracks available to license for any content project!