Unpacking the process with Ableton x Naarm producer Pretty Girl

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Unpacking the process with Ableton x Naarm producer Pretty Girl

Pretty Girl
Words by Isabella Venutti

"Honestly, the Ableton Push is such an integral part of my writing process."

Naarm producer Pretty Girl is on the precipice of a meteoric rise, with word continuing to spread, within the underground electronic dance music space and beyond, about her transcendently emotive live show. Finding her calling in dance music early on, having cut her teeth making soft bedroom-pop on her school laptop with Audacity and Garageband, Naarm’s prolific club scene provided fertile ground for the young creative to develop her sound in her early twenties, honing her skills with Ableton Live, analog gear, and sound design, pairing everything with her delicate vocals.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

Mixdown was lucky enough to sit down with Pretty Girl and take a peek at the production workflow that informs her bleeding-heart breed of dance music; as applicable to the club as it is a moody Sunday morning.

To start things off, we’d love it if you could tell us about how you found your footing in music production – I read elsewhere that your journey started on your laptop in high school on garage band, and expanded as you began to cut your teeth in the Melbourne/Naarm club scene?

I think I’ve always had an innate need to make music. In childhood I would write songs using my mum’s Casio keyboard, and then when I was a teenager I spent hours messing around on Garageband, making songs that I would post to Soundcloud. So when I started clubbing and immersing myself in the world of dance music, the transition to more club-ready productions, and to Ableton Live, came very naturally. Along the way I met some great people who passed on a lot of knowledge on production – I got to meet some producers through The Push (a community music program), and also a friend Jack McAllister (Willaris. K). I also learned via Youtube tutorials, but also just through a lot of trial and error with Live. I’m still learning and improving every day. 

How has Melbourne’s rich live electronic music scene influenced your work? Has building a network of like-minded creatives impacted your music making process in any significant ways?

Melbourne’s scene is really beautiful, or at least in my experience was really beautiful, in terms of young musicians supporting each other. I got a lot of opportunities just from meeting like-minded people, whether that be gig bookings in the early days, or invitations to record mixes, etc. I think just having people around me who believed in me, and then also wanting to pay it forward myself, was so inspiring and always made me feel like I was part of a bigger network, a bigger scene, rather than feeling isolated and competitive. In terms of inspiration, I try to make an effort to regularly attend more underground events with live electronic music rather than seeing DJs at clubs. There are artists in Melbourne who do incredible live sets – Sleep D, OK EG, Jennifer Loveless, to name a few. I think this “live” element is a lot more prevalent in the underground scene, and that’s something that was so exciting for me as an aspiring live act.

Pretty Girl 2

Tell me about your songwriting process – do you begin with a skeleton and build? What are the key tools/workflow practices that help you get in the zone creatively?

Normally I’ll start by opening up a project file and using it as a sketch board for ideas, not having any significant process except just jamming until something clicks. I find if I start writing a song with the intention of “writing a song” I get stuck in the wrong part of the process at the wrong time – I don’t think I can make a unique song if I begin the song with the structure. I just write melodies and chord progressions, then add percussion and samples (I have a bank of my own vocal samples to sketch ideas quickly), then just spend a bit of time moving stuff around until I get the right feeling and everything locks into place. Once I have the key idea, maybe a 16 or 32 bar loop, I’ll move to the structure of the song, which I try to do quickly. I think working quickly and intuitively is the best way to do it. If something isn’t working, I just keep the rough idea and then move on to a new section. 

Talk me through your recording workflow from demo to track completion. Do you begin in the bedroom or head straight to a studio space? Any preference of DAW/special or demo setup that goes the extra mile?

I’ve learned that the best demos come from an emotional place, when I have intense feelings and I just need to put them into a song, rather than starting a song for the sake of it. If I don’t have a microphone handy, I’ll just sing into my phone and Airdrop the recordings to my laptop to get the vocal ideas in. Because of this, I’ll always start a song at home in a relaxed, private environment, where I feel really connected to the music. I struggle to come up with good ideas in a studio, or a session with other musicians, where the pressure is on. The most important part is the idea, then I’m less deep about it as I turn it into a song through the arrangement and processing stages. 

Are there any pieces of gear you’ve acquired, be it something cheap that punches massively above its weight, or a less-wallet friendly splurge, that have tangibly influenced the way you write and record music to this day?

Honestly, the Ableton Push is such an integral part of my writing process. As mentioned above, I think working quickly is the best way to write ideas. I use the scale function to write melodies, add layers of chords, add percussion using drum racks, and then play with automation and effects. It makes the writing process much more hands-on and I can actually play with an idea rather than getting bogged down by the production process. It’s great for producers like me who don’t have any formal music background. 

What does your current touring rig look like/comprise of – does your recorded material undergo any tweaks to suit a live context?

Every song I play live is a live rendition of a released song! I really enjoy making edits of my songs to play live, where I can bring new energy to a song and make the sets much more enjoyable in a live setting. The live edits are generally 2-7 bpm faster than the originals, with much heavier percussion. I love doing this, I think it’s really fun and exciting for the crowd, and for myself as I’m able to bring more energy into the set. I use a mix of hardware and software live, running stems from Ableton and then layering loops, synthesisers, and my own vocals on top. I also use the Roland TR-8 for my percussion, running it through a Strymon Compadre compression pedal to beef up the signal. All the sends go through a Pioneer mixer, so I can use the inbuilt FX and EQ. 

How do you recharge your creative batteries? What in your life inspires your music that isn’t music? It could be as logical as watching a film or listening to records, or as obscure as gardening or taking a long walk.

I find stillness, or rather nothingness, to be really inspiring creatively. I have to get away from distractions and just be and do nothing in order to recharge. I’ve learned over the years that inspiration comes from just being open and being a vessel to your world, rather than hunting it down or desperately reaching for it. I have to feel relaxed and safe to really connect with my creative side. Dancing really helps, whether formally or informally, to help me get out of my head and into a more creative energy. I also like to take walks without my phone, either leaving it at home or driving to a beautiful place and leaving it in the car. Everything can inspire you, it’s just about the right intention and being in the right zone to receive that inspiration. 

What’s on the horizon? What exciting things can we expect from you for the remainder of the year?

I’ve actually just come out of some of the most exciting and intense months of my life doing my first UK/EU tour, so I’m taking the rest of the year to recuperate and just have fun making music. I wrote my third EP while on the tour, so I certainly have lots of music coming, which I think is my best so far. I’ll be DJing at Strawberry Fields, and also bringing my live set on the Laneway tour in early 2024. So there are some exciting things happening, but I am currently just enjoying being back home in Melbourne and taking it easy.

Keep up with Pretty Girl here.