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Todd Edwards: “If Enya Didn't Exist, Neither Would My Work”

Ahead of his UK tour, the garage legend shares memories of Daft Punk, his early days, chopping voices and parting ways with his lifelong label, i! Records

We spoke to Todd ‘The God’ Edwards to find out more about what is up with him right now: the status of his future album, his opinions about being increasingly worshipped by dubstep positions, and his memories of the early years. A privilege.

It’s impossible to entirely explain Todd Edwards’ importance to today’s dance music—there isn’t enough space in an introduction, however long it may be, to take a good look at the family tree running from his first beats, in the early 90s, to inevitable current figures like Burial, Joy Orbison and (if we go back in time a little) Daft Punk. All of what they are, and many more as well, wouldn’t have been possible if this New Jersey native, with an unfading smile and a sensitive soul, hadn’t started producing garage-house like he did: sculpting fragmented vocal lines with rising and falling pitch –which he says was inspired by MK’s art of sampling and Enya’s vocals– that create a kaleidoscopic illusion, a rollercoaster where the typical disco diva ends up sliced as thin and fine as a slice of ham shaved off by a master meat cutter.

Edwards’ vocal science, in which a melodic line was reduced to a handful of voices taken out of context—almost never a melody, always a sort of garage-style Morse code—was what inspired speed garage in England, and later 2step with a healthy resemblance to R&B, and the use of voices and rhythmic patterns that accelerate and distend in current post-dubstep owes everything to it. Burial spoke very well of “Odyssey” –Edwards’ 2006 album– as one of the best experiences in his life, and the recognition of the new generation, although late in coming, has given Todd Edwards a privileged position that he had been denied until recently: he is, over a period of 20 years, the most influential American house producer, objectively speaking. While current house can live without Todd Terry or Armand Van Helden, it’s impossible to interpret the last decade and a half of the British hardcore continuum without seeing his mark, influence, and inspiration. A mark that is becoming more deeply branded all the time, more frequently mentioned in the canon, fixed there forever.

Todd Edwards is a tireless producer who has been producing tracks since 1992, gathering them up on albums and remixing ceaselessly –from Robin S to St. Germain, from TLC to Daft Punk, from Beyoncé to Enya, many titles are spurious remixes, but they are as basic to his work as any official record– except at those times when, as he admits during this interview, he was overcome by reality and had to set music aside to focus on more conventional jobs in order to survive. But since he went back to producing, cheered on by the heroes of dubstep and UK garage, his life has turned around, and he has overcome the stage fright that kept him away from DJ booths. He has entered a second youth in which life has smiled at him (settled now in sunny California, having left New Jersey behind), and recognition and the affections of the younger crowd are raining down on him. Right now he is planning the continuation of “Odyssey”, a new album that we will have to place next to house masterpieces like the two volumes of “Full On” –which brought together various songs that had appeared on 12”s– or the mix “Tales From The Underground part 1”, which as early as 1998 exemplified his way of doing things: an exultant combination of hard, jumping basslines playing a counterpart to his usual chains of vocal plays.

This weekend we’ll have Todd Edwards DJing close by: two dates in the UK –today, Friday, at the club Life in Brixton, and Sunday at Parklife Weekender in Manchester, with a stop along the way Saturday night in Barcelona, where he will be blandishing his songs and refixes in the club Nitsa– and we thought it would be the perfect time to talk to him and find out more about his immediate future and more-than-illustrious past. It’s an honour because, although he might not like to hear it—he is a devout Christian and the Third Commandment says not to take the name of the Lord in vain—the god of house isn’t Todd Terry. The real Todd the God is him, Edwards, today and forever.

"I intend to continue the pursuit of creating art till the day I die"

You’re from Jersey, and Jersey is acknowledged to be the birth place of garage in the late 80s, at the Zanzibar club where old school masters such as Tony Humphries used to play. Did you have the chance to visit Zanzibar in your teenage years? If so, what do you recall of it, how was the atmosphere?

I did go to Zanzibar once when I was around 18 years old. The club had a good vibe, but it was actually listening to the great DJs like Tony Humphries on the radio that had the bigger impact. Radio stations like Kiss FM and WBLS always played house music on Friday and Saturday nights. The shows would last for hours. I would stay up and tape them on cassettes and then listen to them non-stop. I still have a lot of those cassettes sitting in my garage.

It’s been 20 years since you started making beats and playing out, and it’s in 2012 when you’re stronger than ever with your music, lots of praising from artists all around the world. I wouldn’t say you’re a late bloomer because obviously that’s not true, but aren’t you thrilled about this second youth? Did you ever imagine your career would be so strong and lengthy?

I feel very blessed to have a following after almost 20 years. There have been many high and low points over the years, but I have never lost the desire for creating and composing. If anything, it's stronger now than it was when I was younger. I agree with you 100% about the late bloomer comment. My creativity was paired with a great emotional immaturity that made it difficult to do face challenges that others might have found to be easy to deal with. However now with this “second youth” I'm facing similar situations but with a wisdom that comes with maturity and growing up. It feels like I'm re-taking a test. In any case, I intend to continue the pursuit of creating art till the day I die.

Were where you, back in 1997, when you first learnt that some young kids in London were making beats and chopping voices in a similar way you were practicing? How was your reaction?

At the time I had moved on from the cut up style and was attempting to create music that sounded like a full disco band with the use of samples. I was evolving into this different direction so, revisiting this sound at first seemed redundant to me. I actually had to relearn a sound I came up with. The first of the revisited tracks was “Never Far From You.” After that, I embraced the sound again, and the rest is history.

At that moment in history, you were in a similar position to other house acts in the US, like Deep Dish: strong in the underground, very well known to the connoisseurs, and about to break out and gain new audiences. How do you recall those times before “fame”, was it a good era, or was it painful in any sense?

I was a very insecure producer, and questioned myself every step of the way, but every time I had a thought about quitting, something positive happened. It was very uncanny, but it happened all the time. After a while I just looked at it as God telling me to stop with the self-doubting nonsense, and do what I'm meant to do. Even after that though, I still wasn't that confident. The heart of my fan base was 3000 miles away from where I lived. Though I was getting a lot of remix work, I didn't DJ at the time so, I wasn't connecting with the fans. I dealt with bouts of depression in my 20's as well. It was a hell of a time. The tortured artist... how cliche.

"If any producer is inspired by what I have done, and if they can take it, add their essence to it, and become successful doing it, they have my complete support"

Do you think British house, as made back in the day by Tuff Jam, MJ Cole, The Dreem Team, Architex and the like, made a significant difference compared to US garage? Where they revolutionizing something, in your opinion, or just stretching a branch you and other producers started to cultivate a few years back?

The UK Garage scene became its own entity. The artists that you mentioned helped it to grow into a large movement. It was different from what was going on in the US. I recall some drama between UK Garage and US House. I didn't really follow what the conflict was about. I was doing my own thing.

You’re one of the most influential producers I can recall in recent years, so for me it was quite shocking reading Burial saying –when he was doing interviews– that “Odyssey” was his favorite album of 2006, and a complete open-minder. Then, one year later, he was pitching the voices even higher and lower in “Untrue”, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. What happens when you think about this?

Honestly, I didn't know that he said that about my album. It's a really honor to hear that coming from him! That album has all of me in it, and became a bit autobiographical. If any producer is inspired by what I have done, and if they can take it, add their essence to it, and become successful doing it, they have my complete support. I'm happy to be a part in a much greater machine.

The current UK scene is dealing with some of your aesthetic innovations, such as high pitches voices, chopped vocals to form dynamic rhythms, a fragmented beat, etc. And this is in parallel to something like a comeback of 2step garage. Does anyone from this new school inspire you, do you collect this new stuff? Is it something that can feed your work, or you DJ sets, as guys like Basement Jaxx did in the past?

I don't spend as much time listening to other producers as I would like to. Time management is not one of my best attributes. When I do podcasts for magazines or radio shows, I'll do research and find tracks that would fit with mine to promote other producers in the podcasts. When I'm at a club I play a lot of my own material as well as classic House and UKG. There is a lot of room for growth as a DJ and I am looking to expand on what I play.

You mentioned a few years back that the inspiration for your vocal work came from listening to Enya, which was a shock for me as I had always thought her way of dubbing hundreds of vocal layers had to be influential in a way. Can you describe in detail how Enya’s tracks helped you to find your style? Do you remember which tracks where, and which moment it was?

When I first heard “Orinoco Flow” I thought, ‘I can't make out what she is singing.’ Her lead vocals blended so well with the other elements of the song. I never heard anything like it before. I really loved her album “Shepherd Moon”. That still is one of my favorites. I started to experiment with my tracks following what Enya did using vocal harmonies for sounds instead of just contemporary instruments. After a while it developed into a style for me. I didn't expect it to catch on in the way it did. If Enya didn't exist, neither would my work.

In your Fact Mix of 2009 you even played a refix of “Trains And Winter Rains”, the first single for “And Winter Came…” (which obviously is well known for her fans, but it’s no “Orinoco Flow”). So this means you’re not a one-time fan of Enya, but someone who has followed her career for years. Is she still that important for you? How big?

Yes, Enya is still extremely important to me. I definitely will continue to collect her work. She is actually an example of what I hope to achieve. Enya has her own style. Each album has new melodic and harmonic ideas, and yet they still can be grouped seamlessly together with her other albums. She is expressing herself through a unique musical art form, and she has a vast audience. Enya is one of the best selling female artists globally. Her sound is timeless, and there is no need to change that. To have your work be so unique and continuously enjoyable is every artist's desire. It definitely is mine.

When chopping voices, are you making a statement against the full-on diva vocal exhibition, in a gospel o disco way? I’m not meaning you dislike that kind of working, as you’ve done this kind of tracks, but do you find the soulful way of house unaccomplished in a way, insufficient for you?

No not at all. I started cutting up vocals because of my other great influence, the legendary producer MK. He is the second part of my style. As I followed his lead in cutting up vocals, I started using vocal cut ups more rhythmically. Again, they became the backing track as well as the lead vocals in my music. There are so many amazing vocals out there from different generations and styles of music. I don't hold cutting up vocals in higher regards than full-on songs. When I have a remix or even an original production, I still use the full vocal as the lead.

You’ve launched your own label, Nu Trend Music. And, at the same time, you’re no longer recording for i! Records. What’s the goal behind Nu Trend Music, what do you want the label to become? Will it be just for you, or are you thinking on signing people?

I never owned my own label. That being said, there are always elements out of your control when you are on someone else's label. That can get frustrating. Nu Trend Music is about full creative control. The music I put out on Nu Trend may succeed or fail, but it will be by the choices I make. That freedom is important to me more so than if I was successful under the terms of another individual's or company's control. If the label becomes very successful, I will be very happy to release other producers' music. If I get other producers involved, it will be so they can benefit, not me.

"Emotional chord movements stay with you. They give music longevity"

What made you depart from i! Records? It’s been like your lifetime label (and they’ve had a couple of releases this year, so they’re still operating).

I could give a text book “creative differences” answer... but I won't. Without going into the personal details, I will say that the situation at the label the last 3 years grew more and more negative. I was completely devoted to that label. The same could not be said in return. Everyone comes to their crossroads and must chose to make the proper decision. The label didn't so I decided it was time to leave. The more time passes, the more I see the situation for what it was. It was bad, and I didn't heed the warnings given to me by the friends, family, and peers that tried to tell me how bad it was. A lesson learned the hard way. It's caused me a lot of anger and resentment that I have to let go and move on from. There are many negative things I can share about my time at that label, but I'm moving on. I have a great manager Alexis Rivera of Echo Park Records, and I have tremendous support from Scion A/V. Both are significantly responsible for my resurgence over the last few years. I also have a new group of musical friends in LA, my new home. I'm blessed to have new beginnings!

One of your newest tracks, “This Generation”, is influence by a bit of the “Aliens” soundtrack written by James Horner (as you said in Facebook weeks ago). Is there any other story like this, a hidden background for any significant track you’ve done? What kind of inspiration do you take from movies, or soundtracks?

I LOVE chord movements. Film scores express such emotion. I try to bring those ideas into my work. Another example of film score influence is in the song “Silent Prayer” from Odyssey. The chord movements in the chorus follow a movement from Jerry Goldsmith's score of “Twilight Zone: The Movie”. The track “Beckon Call” (remix) I used chord progressions from “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”. I used Howard Shore's score for “The Fly” as the basis of a remix I did as well. Emotional chord movements stay with you. They give music longevity.

In your Facebook there are some pictures on you in Halloween disguised as Terminator. I can’t help to make the James Cameron connection. There’s something here?

Well... I am a Sci Fi nerd. In senior year in high school I made the Predator costume. (Took first prize) I've made the Tuscan Raider costume from Star Wars. The only major creature I haven't tackled is Alien... That might take a while. :)

Will you disguise as a Nav’I from the Pandora planet the next October 31st?

Ha-ha. I was probably one of the few that wasn't a big fan of “Avatar”. Although it was a ground breaking achievement in 3d visual art.

You’ve been writing a new album in LA. What plans do you have for it? Is a release date scheduled yet? What we’ll find there?

I'm very thankful and proud to say that Scion A/V is backing me for this album. I have a lot to accomplish. It's only in the planning stage. The challenge will be to create the sample sounds without using samples from copy written music. I have some tricks up my sleeve for that. The album will be a full vocal album with different tempos and different styles in there. The cut up vocal style will be thematic through out. I'm excited. It is going to be a CRAZY, CRAZY summer for me!

Besides, you’ve been working a lot with some producers, such as Surkin. Are these collaborations for the album? It seems that you’re collaborating more than ever now, what does this work process adds to your music? Did you need it to keep it fresh?

I will be collaborating with different artists for the new album. Collaborations are a great way to stretch your boundaries and get you out of your comfort zone. They create music that you most likely wouldn't have thought to do on your own. My collab with Surkin is the perfect example of that. When I was younger I felt I had too much to prove to myself and others, and wasn't as open to the idea. Now that I'm established, it's very enjoyable and refreshing to work with others. I'm always looking to learn new techniques for composing music. Surkin was amazing to work with. It was so fascinating to see how he creates music! It's important that both producers are confident in the other's ability or it turns into one being the dominant producer and the other one being what I call “studio bitch.” Everyone that I have been collaborating with has been a pleasure to work with.

"I like dubstep. I don't foresee myself jumping into that arena, but I might dabble a bit with the tempo and the style in my own way"

You’ve also cited Imogen Heap as one of your favorite voices. I understand you believe in angels. Is she one?

I can't say for sure, but if she told me she was, I would believe her, and it would be no surprise to me. If she allows me to remix one of her songs, she will always be an angel to me. [smiles]

Jersey, again. There’s this hip hop producer from Jersey, Clams Casino, who samples Imogen Heap heavily. Is this a Jersey thing, or just coincidental? Well, I’m kidding, actually, but I think it’s interesting this connection between two Jersey producers, very different at what they do, united by the love of one voice, and the way they stretch and chop it.

There is a lot of talent in Jersey. I think because Jersey is so close to NYC it might get overshadowed a bit. But anyone that can appreciate Imogen's work is ok in my book.

I’m living in Europe, and the most hyped stuff we get from the US are all this “dubstep” craze leaded by Skrillex, the underground variations of former ghetto house in Chicago know as juke and footwork, of the new wave of spiritual / deep tech-house by Omar-S and the like in Detroit. How’s your house scene connected to all this? Are there any links, any friends, or not at all?

I was uneducated about dubstep until I played near Washington DC in 2008. My first thought when I heard the tempo and the style was, ‘This reminds me of Timbaland's production.’ A year later I was doing a phone interview. The interviewer asked me how I felt that there were dubstep producers sighting me as one of their influences. That was the first I had heard of that, but it reaffirmed the path I was on. For two years I had taking a break to clear my head of the exit form i! Records. I actually did a regular full time job. At the height of the Economic recession in the US I decided to quit the job and make music full time again. It might not have seemed to be the wisest decision, but I felt convicted to do it. I like dubstep. I don't foresee myself jumping into that arena, but I might dabble a bit with the tempo and the style in my own way.

You were in the “Discovery” album by Daft Punk. Will you be in the next? Did you like “Face To Face” accompanied by the animation images of “Interstella 5555”. As a fan of anime, I get goose-bumps each time I watch the movie…

Thomas and Guy are geniuses in their own right. Each project they touch even on an individual basis has amazingly positive results. They are more than just producers. They are musical entrepreneurs. Their music is one of many elements revolving around a creative center. God puts people in the world to move us forward in technology, philosophy, art, etc. Thomas and Guy are definitely two people that were blessed with that purpose. I'm happy to call them my friends. I actually call them brothers. :) Being a part of “Discovery” was one of the high points in my career, and I will always be honored to work with them if they asked.

You’re playing the Parklife Weekender and the Life club in Brighton this weekend. In between, you have a gig at Barcelona, at the Nitsa Club, which is your fist Spain appearance ever. Isn’t it weird that you’re still hitting new territories?

For a long time DJing was a secondary thing to my production. I didn't start DJing until I was in my early 30s due to a massive stage fright... Now I bounce around the DJ booth. Yes... as you stated before, I am a late bloomer. I have an amazing booking agent Belinda Law at Elastic Artists, and she has gotten me a lot of exposure since I've been with Elastic. I'm basically doing in the established stage of my career what most producers experience at the earliest stages of theirs. It's all good. I actually appreciate it more now than I would have when I was younger.

This last question I want to make in a very sincere and respectful way: what can we see from God through your music?

You can see that God is about Love and celebration. Not judgement, not guilt, just Love. I hope that's what people are getting from the music I make. That's the purpose I'm making it for. Yes, I do have personal goals that I would love to see accomplished that I wrote about earlier in this interview, but not at the expense of the center of what I do. I make music to spread the Love of God. Some may condone it and some may be against it, but that is the purpose.

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