@: Phantom Isle

Navel-Gazers #31 is an interview with Ashley Tini aka “@“ who is going to talk to us about Phantom Isle. This is a real left-field production from an artist I have known personally for many years. She’s a mainstay on the scene in Philadelphia where she’s been involved in seemingly countless projects as a composer, performer and recording artist… she’s an accomplished marimbist (which is actually in evidence on ‘Phantom Isle’) and yet I’m no longer surprised to find her turning up in completely different contexts: drumming for a punk band, playing guitar under an alter-ego as an Appalachian folk-singer, or in fact producing this quaint little album. Enigmatic as this music is to me and dissimilar as it seems to those other projects, ‘Phantom Isle’ bears the usual hallmarks of Ashley’s aesthetic, and her personality: the spontaneity, the outrageous humour, the marimba of course, the resistance to all forms of pretence and grandiosity and also a spirit of homage to somewhat unlikely cultural influences as I often notice in her work. To my ears, it’s recognisably hers. But there’s another personality lurking in the caverns of the Phantom Isle and that’s Ashley’s colleague, the 103-year old ethnomusicologist Elisabeth Waldo, who apparently factors into this music somehow…yes, the plot thickens…!

AC: Thanks for doing a Navel-Gazers! The idea here is to talk to “recording artists” which for you is really just one occasional avenue of creativity. You’re one of those artists who’s always tinkering away, you’re always trying something new or different or surprising. Could you tell us how it all started? I think long ago when you and I first crossed paths you were just starting with marimba but were you creative before that?

Ashley Tini: Thanks for having me, AC! Wow I gotta dig deep in the vaults here. I guess we met in 2006/7 and I was improvising on marimba within the Bowerbird community thanks to an encouraging nudge from Mike Parker. Before then, I had played a bit of guitar and took lessons for years, but was frustrated that I couldn’t sound like Nick Drake right off the bat so I started playing it with sticks instead and one thing led to another. As a child, my mother and her father (my grandpa) had a big influence on me. He was a devoted big band era jazz musician (which you remember being part of that project we did together to commemorate him). My mother was a world traveler, reggae DJ with interesting music taste. All these things would be what fed the early itch I’d say!

AC: Do you remember why you went with marimba? Why not say, xylophone or vibraphone?

Ashley Tini: Well originally I was drawn to the vibraphone. I saw it performed once and something clicked. After joining the school band in HS, it allowed some access to one during school hours, but I began searching for something more permanent. A friend of my mother’s got my contact and said he had a 4 octave marimba for sale and I was like well hey! That might be cool. He sold it to me cheap with a disclaimer that it was stolen from his college music department and to never mention that (heh).

The love for marimba was solidified the first time I saw Patricia Fracheschy play a Bach Chorale her freshman year at The Curtis Institute. One of my teachers at the time was a vibraphone player who would kindly bring me to his jazz bop 101 class he taught once a year. He told me all about Patty being this amazing percussionist from Mexico who also had an ear for jazz, despite her classical training etc. She truly was incredible. I cried my eyes out after she played.

AC: You should definitely check out my interview with Limpe Fuchs. She's got a handmade lithophone, the story is fascinating!

I claimed above that there's marimba on 'Phantom Isle' but I don't know if that's actually true. It sounds like it to me...? tell us about some of the sounds we're hearing here. Is it just you or are there others involved?

Ashley Tini: Yes! there is marimba in this gobbledy-gook along with some vibraphone, field recordings of birds, friends, records, ringing rocks of PA, Shop-Rite on a Sunday morning (the food scanning beeps) and a handful of auxiliary percussion from the personal collection of Elisabeth Waldo.

Elisabeth's instruments would be the shakers, rattles, conch shells, bells, etc. Some of these instruments are about 2000 years old.

In the summer of 2015 and 2016, I was working on her estate in Northridge, CA and in my downtime (with her permission) recorded a few of her Pre-Columbian instruments. When I first blew into the conch shell, some serious pre-historic dust flew out!

Elisabeth was often coined as being an affiliated composer of Exotica, but her music leaned more into ethnomusicological research, with a seriousness and classical approach to the folk music she studied and performed throughout her life. Her records always had more of an intensity than say Martin Denny's "Quiet Village".

"Phantom Isle" was a modern reflection in the genre Exotica--A popular music of the 1950's for entertaining your friends, making cocktails in the backyard or selling the latest hi-fi record players in Sears & Roebuck. Its purpose helped create a mood of post-war escapism when the economy was at an all time high.

This track was also an exercise in sound collage/editing.

AC: I’ve just listened back to the whole thing to play some Where’s-Waldo. And to pick out the Ringing Rocks, I’ve been there too!

Ashley Tini: Ringing Rocks is a great place and I hear there are multiple locations where you can bring a hammer and listen to the overtones of the quarry rocks. They almost sound like anvils!

AC: There are some other sounds I wanted to ask about, which are all towards the end of track 1… there’s the woozy choral music, there’s a lady talking with a thick New Jersey accent, and then some kind of… explosion? What the heck?

Ashley Tini: Haha yes. The woozy choir is singing a late 50’s rendition of the classic “Aloha Oe” - a Hawaiian folk song written by Princess Lili’oukalani in 1878. It was a farewell anthem commonly heard in movies, cartoons, and pop culture in reference to the islands during the Tiki boom. Seemed fitting to put that towards the end of the track I guess!

The jersey gal was a funny friend who I’ll keep anonymous. She always had a strong accent! We were sitting poolside one summer day where she waxed on passionately about some movie reference. So…I just hit record.

The explosion was a recording I found of a Volcano erupting! If you’ve ever looked through a dollar bin, I’m sure you’ve come across the record covers of Arthur Lyman or Les Baxter. 9 times out of 10, there is an image of a juicy volcano in the distance.

AC: Yes, there is! Ok so while we’re at it, let’s take a closer look at the other two tracks. Saturn Has Water Ice.. the title almost made me spit out my Tastykakes but this is actually a more restrained, formal sort of piece. I’m trying to decipher how it’s composed, could you explain this one?

Ashley Tini: If you didn’t know, Saturn's Rings are made of water ice…google it đŸ€Œ

This piece was more of a long form improvisation on marimba, perhaps a bit of layering, some aux percussion and a dollop of kazoo for atmosphere.

At the time, I was fascinated by that ancient concept: “harmony of the spheres”. There was a bit of research involved to uncover how Saturn’s rings sounded, what pitches they were, etc. but after all that, didn’t bother to consider how sound travels in space, so our modern diatonic system may sound different on earth than it does elsewhere. All that I had uncovered at the time could be total rubbish, but that was a 2016 me.

There was a chart written up with the varying pitches of Saturn which may explain a bit of the tonality. It’s probably collecting dust in an old folder somewhere.

AC: Maybe someday it will turn up in the deluxe edition of 'Phantom Isle'!

The last track.. it's nearly a graceful send-off here with the ukelele, the vibraphone and the lush sound of the waves but then there is that crazy… trumpet? Are you winding us up?? Tell us about this one...

Ashley Tini: Oh yes this is an exotic spin on a traditional American folk song "who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet". The Everly Brothers have a beautiful rendition on their first album "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us". Doc Watson also has a raw more stripped down version.

This track was recorded towards the tail end of my time on the Phantom Isle when my focus transitioned to more Americana Folk and Country. I figured what better way to cover a classic than to give it the ol' island filter. That trumpet you hear is actually one of Elisabeth's 2000 year old sacrificial conch shells. Arthur Lyman always made a point in having a good conch call on his many mood merchant hits. There's also subtle marimba, triangle and autoharp. Honestly, I've found this track to hold more cheesy kitch than the others and can't help but chuckle. That same sort of chuckle Martin Denny or Les Baxter must've had when they watched their comrades record the vocal overdubs of parrot squawks and howler monkeys in those fancy Hi-FI recording studios circa 1958.

AC: It’s interesting that you went through these different phases… how do you think you ended up in the Exotica phase to begin with? Do you think you got it “out of your system” by creating this stuff? Is this your main artefact from the period?

Ashley Tini: I would say these tracks are the main artifacts of the era, yes. Not quite sure if it's something i'm finished with per se, as it seems like my interests feed and blend into the next and so on, but seem to share some core values.

How did I end up on Exotica island? I'd say it was a combination of discovering a handful of these LPs in a dollar pile and seeking the rest amongst the Beautiful World Syndicate record store archives. Once it was obvious to me that the instruments required to create the atmosphere of a 50's south pacific pop culture reference were things I had already owned (vibraphone, marimba, auxiliary percussion, hand drums, bongos, etc) it seemed like a fun challenge to create something fresh, but with the same raw materials.

There were also some close friends who had direct contact with the bigger named Exotica composers, which led to my connection with Elisabeth Waldo. My dear friend Skip Heller, who lived in Audubon, NJ as well as West Philadelphia in the mid 2000's had made the decision to move to LA in the 1990's to study under Les Baxter's wing. Which he did until Les's passing in '96. Skip's brain is like a juicy history book. As a music historian, he could rattle off names of studio musicians, composers, their significant others, criminal offenses, record industry drama, etc. Mainly LA specific, but not limited. We are still good friends and he's helped me out immensely over the years and especially during this time. While working with Les, I believe one of his bigger compositional claims was writing the music for "Dexter's Laboratory".

AC: I remember that guy, he used to come into Sound of Market.

You and I have known each other a long time, we often talk about music in a sort of anecdotal way. Stuff we’re working on, records we like and so on. Here’s a deeper question I don’t think we’ve ever really gotten to: what do you think creativity really… is? So when we make art, especially a discrete art object like ‘Phantom Isle’, what are we actually doing? or I suppose, what are you doing? And what motivates it?

Ashley Tini: It's funny you asked this question because I've been talking about it with my clients quite a bit as of late. Given the last few years yielding a lot of isolation for all of us, creative types have had it harder. The sharing aspect of creativity was limited to social media or streaming apps, but they can only provide so much.

The opportunity to showcase a part of yourself obscured by the medium you choose in hopes someone else sees or appreciates this vulnerable artistic act, and applauds… and the icing on the cake is if audience members are "moved by it" or recognize a part of themselves in your work that is linked by a complex human emotion or energy that is better communicated through this medium. I think sharing is a big aspect of creativity whether it’s a performance for one or 10,000. Not having the opportunity to share these moments can be terribly unmotivating to the artist, to even pursue creation without seeing a carrot at the end of the tunnel. Some of my friends get their motivation from watching others perform and being vulnerable as a healthy competitive driving force. Others find a more quiet way of creation, pursuing art as therapy to get these energies out like demons. I'd go out on a limb and say creativity is one of the oldest and most important human expressions we have....yes even in light of NFT's. I'm sure this argument will continue as AI gets closer and closer to being able to mirror these things. A big difference I see is that I'm not sure if AI has intention, as it’s programmed to create, not "hope to do and see what comes out". Intention is also a key part of creativity. I could go on...blah blah

For me, I personally like to wear different hats. There's enjoyment in obscuring myself in different genres no matter how drastically different they may seem, it’s still me under the hat. It gives an excuse to connect with a plethora of people and learn a bit about the skills required to execute these projects well. Creativity has always played a big role in my life and I'll continue to see how it expresses itself. Yesterday, it was a pine needle basket, tomorrow it will be a sardine salad and on Thursday a haircut.

Phantom Isle was a fun project that led to Jo Nelson, my Americana alter ego which morphed into my current project Artificial Rose that uses English and Scottish folk songs in a dream poppy way... But these were all examples of songwriting and arrangement. I'd like to get back to free improvisation once people can be with each other again comfortably. Spontaneous composition is a totally different animal and sadly, I haven't played the vibes in almost two years now.... It's not as fun playing it alone!

AC: Certainly not and I think many artists share your frustration. We are not robots… motivation and intention are intrinsic to creativity and we also need some sort of live interface with other artists and with the public. Here in London we have seen a resumption of live improv, it’s a vital way for musicians to connect and I’d want to see those opportunities become available elsewhere.

In the meantime I hope ‘Artificial Rose’ has been keeping you sane (I love what I’ve heard of that!), do you have anything else in the oven or final thoughts for our readers?

Ashley Tini: I'm happy to hear about the resounding resumption in London. I'm hoping for the best here, but if it doesn't happen soon enough, I'm coming over to hang for a week ok?

Nothing else is cooking in the oven just yet, but some concepts have been floating around me noggin.

Thanks for having me, AC and for asking such good questions. It has been a pleasure going down memory lane with you.

So long folks!

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