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How James K's Sound Collages Helped Her Take Control of Her Life

THUMP Spotlight: The New York producer/songwriter applies a collector's eye to abstract electronics.

Nina Mashurova

Photos by Rob Kulisek

Jamie Krasner, the multidisciplinary artist known as James K, lives in a rent-controlled studio apartment in Lower Manhattan's Alphabet City. It's a small but neatly kept space in a crumbling building, painted in a peaceful deep blue-green and filled with a precise arrangement of objects: stones and candles, cassette tapes and old magazines, vintage synths and a four-track recorder she's had since she was 15. The cover art from her long in-progress debut album PET—out April 15 on Dial Records and her own She Rocks label—is hanging on the wall. It's a drawing she bought off of a guy in a bar—a portrait of a demonic creature with one arm outstretched that's a sinister contrast to the peaceful space that surrounds it.

The room resonates with a truth that most New Yorkers know all too well: you can't always control where you live, but you can curate the things you bring in, and thereby the energy they create when you arrange them. That proves true in the sonic spaces of her music as well. Across the string of singles and EPs she's released over the past few years—some self-released, some issued on local experimental label UNO—Krasner has approached composition as a collector. The New Rochelle, New York native records piecemeal, generating electronic and analog instrumentals, dazed vocals, and augmented found material at home, in studios, and at friends' houses. Later, she processes the material into obsessive assemblages, like little safe spaces of emotional resonance in a chaotic and confusing world.

Though Krasner grew up making music with voice, guitar, and violin, she didn't start making electronic productions until 2007, when she moved from her hometown to Providence to study printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design. There, she fixated on Judith Butler and Donna Haraway's feminist theories, which she worked into her senior thesis: a performance piece called the Venomist manifesto and the related Water Signs video installation, exploring the fragmentation and "flattening" of personas in the social media age.

Those postmodern fixations were mirrored in her musical interests at the time, as she immersed herself in Providence's ever-vibrant noise scene, experimenting with Ableton and home recording and collaborating with Galcher Lustwerk and White Material's DJ Richard and Young Male. She even formed a band called Vikki T. Honda with DJ Richard and Lustwerk—a "deranged force" which once made a nine-track album in a few hours before playing it at a party. "It's very collage-like," she says, speaking of the musical and video practice she was developing at the time. "The way I think is through processing, which is totally related to printmaking. Printmakers think in this certain way which is like, 'Let's try a bunch of processes, put this through that.'"

I saw no hands reaching out to help me, so I helped myself.

After graduating in 2012, Krasner moved to New York City, and the collaborations continued: she sang on tracks with Physical Therapy and Mykki Blanco, and formed a noise-pop project called SETH with Gobby, whose solo productions mine a similarly fractured headspace. She played out at popular Brooklyn hangouts like Bossa Nova Civic Club and Home Sweet Home, where she and Gobby had a night called Life Alert. But New York's relentless capitalism, present even in its creative communities made her feel trapped—it was certainly a far cry from Providence's more home-grown experimental art scene.

"I felt that I was a pet, owned by something else other than myself," she says, explaining the album's title. She hesitates to go into the explicit details, but explains that unhealthy situations in her personal and professional life, combined with unstable mental and physical health, made her feel like she was losing control of her life and values. Perhaps worst of all, the work she was making didn't feel right. "Throughout the album's production and after, I was sick mentally, and very sick physically, and I saw no hands reaching out to help me, so I helped myself," she says.

She grounded herself in singing, recording intuitive, off-the-cuff vocalizations. After, she listened back to the recordings to find the words. Sometimes the things she found surprised herself, like discovering the morbid refrain "I die" on the hazy "Drunktrack," a song that would later find its way onto PET. "It's funny because the meaning usually does come at the end," she says. "My art is really about getting to know myself and finding out what I'm dealing with and what it is I want to say."

Krasner thought she had a finished version of the album ready in 2013, but after two record label offers fell through, she decided to wait. In 2015, Krasner released a 7" with early versions of two PET tracks, "SOKIT To Me Baby" and "Paranormal," on UNO, anticipating that she would put the record out with them as well. But 2015 brought other developments that Krasner's more excited to discuss—she took steps to cut drugs and alcohol out of her life, refocused her energy, and decided that she wanted to release the album herself, forming a label called She Rocks, which will launch with PET's release. Krasner has plans to eventually put out music by other kindred spirits, including Gobby and the Berlin-based producer Wilted Woman.

The album will be co-released by German label Dial, whose founders Peter M. Kersten and David Lieske Krasner met while living in Berlin in 2013. Vancouver-based tape purveyors 1080p, who released the 2015 EP by SETH, will issue a cassette version. Working with people she could trust and respect was crucial to Krasner's process of self-reclamation, and with the cast in place, PET was finally back on track.

Just as expert printmakers combine multiple layers and different consistencies of ink, PET stacks and processes its samples and recordings to dazzling effect: sounds ebb and flow into each other, surfaces shift and warp, colors bleed. Pop fragments disintegrate over sparse industrial beats, washed in gauzy darkness. Krasner's dark and poetic lyrics converse with hardware glitches and melodic synths. The raw sound material Krasner has collected is slowly made flesh, a pet to tend to in an often hostile outside world.

And by caring for the music, Krasner created an avenue to care for herself. "I'm glad nothing worked out for me in 2013, in a way," Krasner says. Now, when she talks about the album and the label, she is clearly excited, showing off the inserts she printed and unpacking the idiosyncrasies of the record with the pride of a wanderer showing off a home they've created. Outside in the courtyard, AirBnB tourists are dragging suitcases and talking loudly about where to go on a Friday night. Inside, the room maintains its hard-won calm.