An interview with
Sacha Mullin

By Beppe Colli
Oct. 19, 2017

OK, so it's not "album of the year", maybe "surprise of the year"? As I argued at length in my review, Duplex inhabits the melodic dimension in ways that one can easily recognize, while at the same time throwing more than a few curveballs, hiding in full sight melodic twists and turns that are guaranteed to keep listeners on their toes.

But who's this guy, how did he manage to bring this album to completion, how does he make ends meet, and who are those fantastic singers who are featured on the album?

We discussed those topics at length, unhurriedly, in an e-mail interview conducted last week. But first things first...

As a first question, I'd like to ask you about something I'm curious to know more about: Does the book Nigellissima really exist, and does it really mention the words "eggs in purgatory" on page 260?

Yes! That would be an oddly specific thing to make up, wouldn't it? Then again, I guess it was oddly specific just to namedrop a cookbook. Eggs in Purgatory (Uova in Purgatorio) is a recipe featured in an Italian-inspired cookbook by Nigella Lawson. It's basically eggs poached in a jazzy tomato sauce. I'm a fan of Nigella's writing, and cook 'with' her often. I treat that recipe as a comfort food, since she notes it's something to eat "when you feel like hell".

Dive is about a bad experience I had within the music industry, so you can gather by the point of writing that song that I'd cooked a lot of eggs...

Duplex is split in two parts, one quite "electronic"- and one very "acoustic"-sounding, which were recorded a few years apart. Would you mind talking about those two "halves", how they relate, and why did you choose to release them under one roof?

I've often battled between wanting to sound slick, and wanting to sound raw, so I decided to just see if I could designate time to do both. Like, in one sitting, represent two aspects of myself. And I think the songs work under one roof because I wrote them all in a similar mindset. Several of them are about unfortunate circumstances, and trying to survive, maybe fight for a realistic sense of happiness. And they all tend to start low, swell up dramatically in sections, use a lot of harmony and countermelody... It's just that some of the songs just felt like they wanted to be dressed differently, so I had to listen to them. They're sort of alive to me. The making of the record was interrupted a few times for one reason or another, but I was always working on it, often reflecting or rewriting. Kind of like kneading dough and letting it rest.

I did the electronic stuff first, mostly because I knew that would take the longest. Cory Bengtsen was a godsend with his programming help. And then for the more acoustic side, I wanted to wait and grow as an individual to be able to perform them the best I could.

At one point I did entertain the idea of releasing both sides separately, but when I sequenced them one after the other, I found I preferred the songs as an album. And I think it works! It's kind of like the songs are shedding their skin on the second half. Like the album evolves into something more human, maybe.

The album has a very fine sound, and I can almost see those data traveling back and forth. I'd like to know more about the way you communicated long-distance with those who contributed to the songs, both vocally and instrumentally: demos or sheet music?

For some reason, I've got a mental image of that really dated Magic School Bus episode where they travel to the inside a computer... But yes, I recorded several demos, and wrote sheet music for their parts, usually by hand. I bought a nice pen and ruler, so they would look nice. Then I would write or call, and describe what I was looking for conceptually. Then they'd record, check in with me, and send me the stems from their recording sessions.

This was my first experiment with having people record remotely, so I'm pleased with how you commented that it still sounded like a group of musicians in one room. Thank-you!

I'd like to know more about two tracks which appear on the album: Eureka, which is sung in Japanese…

Eureka just did not want to be in English. I remember all of those lyrics were awful. I tried a few different things before settling on Japanese. I've studied off and on since I was a child, and I currently take classes at the Japan-America Society in downtown Chicago under Kimiko Nakamura. My friend Keiko Yagashita also helped me sort through some verses and offered suggestions for any changes or alternative ways to phrase things. Writing poetically in another language is such an undertaking, and I wanted it to be great, not just passable. With that in mind, it took about a year writing the lyrics.

Now that I live outside Eureka, I admit it's a pretty weird song, right? It's fairly taxing to sing, the structure is odd, and there are so, so many of layers in its production. I cannot stress enough how difficult it was to finish this song. But I can be stubborn, so luckily I chose to persevere. And I'm glad, because I think there's a lot of beauty in it.

I remember when we were finally finished mixing, Todd Rittmann had me laughing because he said something like, "Well, I still have no idea what you were going for with this song, but I think you did whatever that was."

...and Questions, a cover, from a Disney serial called So Weird (like the spoken fragments that open and close Dive, I suppose), which is totally unknown to me.

Dramatic little song, right? And for a 90s kids show? So Weird was a science fiction vehicle for Mackenzie Phillips. It was this bizarre mix of things I loved as a child: mythology, mystery, and music. I appreciated how it never condescended to its young audience. Questions was from an episode that guest starred Jewel Staite as a siren, in a sad café. It’s a bit naff looking back on it, but I was totally absorbed in Greek myth angle, and all the soft lighting they used.

Over the years, that wordless vocal riff would randomly pop in my head, plus that bizarre lyric, "watch TV"... After the millionth time this happened, I was finally like, "OK, OK, fine brain, I'll record this obscure song, shush!".

Anyway, back when, I befriended the songwriter, Annmarie Cullen. She's got great pop instincts in her writing, and a really passionate voice. In a way, recording Questions was my thank-you to Annmarie's influence and kindness, plus other various sporadic elements from growing up. And not only did Annmarie like the arrangement, but she also agreed to sing on it, alongside Emily Bindiger, and Judi Donaghy-Vinar, my former voice teacher. Hearing these close harmonies anchored by pillars of my life was an intense experience. And Judi is amazing, and absolutely nails this high note near the end.

Also, Questions is the only song on the record not produced with Todd (Rittmann), but by James Sanger. I was a fan of a record he produced for Siobhán Donaghy from the Sugababes, so it was an honour to work with him. He's in France, so we did a lot of the session via email and Skype. It was difficult to work that way, but I was grateful for the experience, and especially for his patience with me!

There are a lot of very fine vocalists who appear on the album, and I'd like you to talk about them all, but especially Emily Bindiger, who's a co-vocalist on all tracks on Side Two.

Several of the singers are friends of mine from Cheer-Accident. I love them so much, and wanted to work with them in a different context. Evelyn Davis is my total twin of spirit - a huge goofball with a heart of gold. Her voice is stunning and elastic. Amelie Morgan has this strong sensitivity going on: crystalline, but full-throated. And Carmen Armillas is an actual force of nature. Her singing is rich, textured, and warm. But also strong, and warrior-like. Just like her.

But yes, Emily Bindiger. Super kind, incredibly witty, and one of the most fully-realised musicians you'll ever meet. In all honestly, she has a lot to do with my love of music, so it was important for me to include her here. This is odd, but I remember wanting to be "the disembodied voice at the end of a movie when the credits roll". I was very young when I came to this decision, like maybe 10? Younger? I would read album credits, and pay a lot of attention to the people in the background, wondering if I could meet any of those disembodied voices. I kept picking up on Emily's singing in particular in fairly random places, like in an Advil advert, or Donnie Brasco, or The Baby-Sitters Club. 10 or 12-year-old me decided to be bold and write a fan letter. Then we became pen pals, and then real life friends. It's kind of bizarre, thinking back on it. I'm now 28. Good lord.

Anyway, Emily's a real champion of my work, and someone I greatly cherish knowing. Duplex was our first collaboration. I've always wanted to sing with her, so I wrote a lot of the album's arrangements with her in mind. She bookends too, as a lot of the voices in Intro are hers, and Accept Treasure has her voice dissolving into the ether. I find her singing to be pretty lilting, but also grounded. And there's truth and empathy in there, and like a hidden darkness too. Emily's got the whole human condition thing going on in her singing. I have no idea if that makes sense, but just go with it. And she's incredible at recording her own harmonies, so I joke that she's the Overdub Queen. When she finished recording for me, she returned the favour and dubbed me King Tritone, because of all the dissonant harmonies. I replied with a picture of Ariel's father from The Little Mermaid, King Triton, - to which I received a reply of, "OH MY GOD, SACHA."

Regardless, if she can survive more "dad jokes", I hope to work with her more. I at least owe her brunch.

Clear production, fine mixing, very musical-sounding mastering. Where does Todd Rittmann enter the equation?

Todd is totally responsible for how great it sounds. He bleeds magic, doesn't he? He's so good. I initially went to Todd with a bunch of chaotic session files from the electronic half, and basically gave him the unenviable task of helping me sort through it all. Todd and I have a history of working together on other things, so I knew he had the musical sensibilities I was looking for.

I think the only time he expressed concern was when he opened the Dive. He was like, "Do you really need all 64,000 layers of guitar?" To which I replied, "Yes, Todd. Yes I do." Once we finished that set of songs, we worked on the acoustic side from scratch, and proceeded to finish the record.

He has a sweet studio he built that we worked in, with these kaleidoscopic lights, and wood flooring. He maintained a positive atmosphere when things got hard, offered important suggestions, and basically helped me realise the music. Everyone should have the chance to work with someone like him. At this moment, he's on a US tour right now with his group Dead Rider. If anyone's near their schedule, go see them!

I know you also sing with two groups, Cheer-Accident and Lovely Little Girls, which I've never listened to. Talk about this.

They're both avant-garde bands in their own right. I just sort of fell in with them. I moved to Chicago in 2011, and was already friends with the then-drummer of Lovely Little Girls, Charlie Werber. At the time, I was on a self-imposed musical hiatus, but he sent me an email anyway saying they were looking for keyboard player, and wanted me to audition. I declined. Then they found one, and I was met with, "OK, now they need a backing singer". After some back and forth, I relented, and it turned out to be one of the most fulfilling and musically challenging experiences of my life. The music is insane, like a funk band from Uranus or something. Gregory Jacobsen, the lead singer, has such a presence. He's an excellent painter as well. I did two tours and two records on Skin Graft Records with them, and I'm proud of that work. I decided to leave the group last summer, but keep in touch with them all. Totally amicable, I just ran my course.

Lovely Little Girls was, in a way, sort of a spin-off band of Cheer-Accident, since a few members came from there. Because of the mutual connection, I ended meeting their guitarist, Jeff Libersher, who asked me to sing on a demo. The recording ended up becoming an actual Cheer-Ax song called I'm Just Afraid, and then suddenly I was performing with them. They've got a great catalogue of music. I actively performed with them for maybe three years or so? They're sort of like a rotating collective these days, so if the opportunity arises, I'd love to perform with them live again. This year, as a group, we released Putting Off Death on Cuneiform Records.

"Making ends meet". Discuss.

I teach private voice and piano lessons, and the occasional master class. Being a teacher is a rich exchange. I learn a lot about people from it, since my students are of various ages, backgrounds, and skill sets. Just hearing how someone's day is is oddly one of the more fulfilling parts of the job. I also occasionally work with a classical music-focused PR and consulting firm called Peter McDowell Arts Consulting. It's been great to sharpen my computer skills, and help make connections for different artists. I'm also pretty solid at sending international parcels now.

I'm quite curious about your background. Did you study music, etc.?

I attended the Perpich Center For Arts Education, an arts high school, where I mainly studied music. I later went to McNally Smith College of Music, and graduated with a Bachelors of Music in Contemporary Vocal Performance. My family is also musical, so I picked up a lot just by being around them.

I'd like you to talk about what you consider as your main influences, both vocally and instrumentally.

I feel like I really owe a lot to listening and singing along to Geike Arnaert. Her voice deceptively sophisticated, with lots of style and inflection. It's fascinating to hear her progression from a delicate whisper into a sinister torch singer. What else... Growing up, I was obsessed with the Mamas & the Papas, which probably accounts for all the voices in my music. And anyone that knows me knows that Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush are kind of in my marrow. They're different musicians in many ways, but both are so fearless and harmonically rich. They both take on their surroundings and face them in fascinating ways, both in sound and lyrics. I learned to be brave with them.

Oh, and Lisa Fischer, my god. I must have seen her perform maybe 5 times when preparing for recording the second side of Duplex, just trying to take in that spirit. Lisa exudes music. She does this two-mic thing that I've lifted when I perform, one dry, one drenched in reverb.

Yoko Kanno was definitely an early inspiration for me in terms of warm synth production, and for appreciating intentional dissonance. And I think Bill Evans and Ryuichi Sakamoto have a lot to do with my piano chord voicings. I love how reflective they both are. Laura Nyro probably belongs here for piano too. I don't think I particularly sound like her, but I’m super into her rhythmic style.

Your next move?

Continuing to plug away, promoting this record with my live band (Mike Baldwin, Matt Precin, Gabe Riccio). Plus I'm preparing material for another solo work, which I hope to begin recording this winter. Wish me luck!

© Beppe Colli 2017 | Oct. 19, 2017