What it truly means to be human in today’s data-driven, tech-obsessed society has become an enigma for many of us. Portrait XO is a Berlin-based experimental electronic music artist and founder and member of many collectives who explores the intersection of art, sound, science and emerging technologies in her work. In today’s episode of “The Mix”, Portrait XO will be shedding light on what it’s like to experience the world through sound first, the effect of synesthesia on her music, and how emerging technologies like AI and blockchain are reshaping the songwriting process as we know it.
In this episode we explore:
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Portrait XO on Youtube
Trigger- Synaesthstesia sound project
Meet Portrait XO-Voyage LA
Cari Quoyeser: Hello and welcome. You're listening to Artist Interviews on The Mix, a Musixmatch Pro podcast hosted by me, Cari Quoyeser, the Artist Community Manager here at Musixmatch, and fellow Musician.
Last March, The Mix headed to Austin, Texas for the SXSW music festival. SXSW is renowned for being the launching site of many popular innovations in social media, tech, film, and of course, music.
Appropriately, our next official SXSW feature is the exceptionally innovative Portrait XO. Hailing from LA, and based in Berlin, Portrait XO is a multiple-disciplinarian artist. She's an AI musician who creates immersive multi-sensory projects. In my time with Portrait XO, we discussed AI songwriting, what it's like making music with synesthesia, and her experience selling her creative works as NFTs.
Please enjoy - Portrait XO.
Cari Quoyeser: Thank you so much for coming to join us today Portrait, it’s great to have you in the studio.
Portrait XO: Thanks for having me! Really exciting times, in real life.
Cari Quoyeser: (laughs) IRL. Ok, so starting from ground zero here, as an artist myself with absolutely no experience with AI in songwriting, I’d love for you to explain to me and to our listeners: how do you use AI to write songs? Would you mind explaining a little bit about how your process works?
Portrait XO: Sure. So, the audio was generated using sample R and N by CJ Carr and Zach Sikowski, part of which are a duo of data scientists and musicians that formed data bots. And so they created this AI model that learned how to sing like me by training an hour of my singing vocals for two and a half days.
And then that gave 10 hours of new audio. And I basically kind of cherry picked through that - but I actually never got a chance to listen to all of it. So there's still a ton of stuff that I'm unaware of, but it was a lot of sifting through these short little sound bites of listening to AI try to sing like me.
And a lot of it is pretty glitchy. Some of it sounds like a machine and a voice being mingled together, like a voice trying to make its way through. And it's got this creepy vibe. And then every now and then, I would hear lyrics and melodies just in these little bite-sized pieces.
And so I allowed the process of just surrendering to what I was hearing to guide me on a new way of songwriting and producing. I just found it really fun to write in this way - I think because the AI wasn't actually smart and clever enough to sing full phrases and full lyrics, I played this game of “fill in the blank” with this other version of myself. And that's what gave birth to this process that CJ and I like to call neuro-vocal duet.
Cari Quoyeser: Wow, that’s mind boggling. So, in our most recent episode we sketched out a general overview of AI and how it’s being used, but now that I have you here I’d really appreciate your perspective as an AI artist.
In our recent conversations with each other and in my research, I’ve been struck by your unique perspective. I just really love how you view art holistically. You even told me once that you think artists are by nature multiple-disciplinarians, and that AI is just another tool to explore with, or to stretch your boundaries.
What I’m wondering is, do you ever experience any kickback or criticism from your use of AI?
Portrait XO: Uh, pushback from other people or other artists?
Cari Quoyeser: Other artists, yeah..
Portrait XO: I think the narrative has changed a lot over the last few years because now we’re starting to hear and see some really interesting outputs of what is actually possible and they're all really fascinating. And I can tell because I get asked more interesting questions (laughs).
In the beginning, I feel like there was a bit more pushback because there was this fear that AI is here to replace creativity, that AI is here to replace the roles of composers, and it's very much not that. I mean, it’s just so broad in terms of what you can do with it. So it's all about context and sure, there are going to be some methods and approaches where people will try to create an AI that can, you know, generate a full song from beginning to end.
But on top of that, I think we also forgot to involve the conversation of the people behind the algorithms. And that's where the really interesting conversations actually happen. Like CJ, who's a data scientist and a musician. That already is a really interesting combination and because of that, he has a sensibility of knowing what an artist thinks like when he comes up with code and when he comes up with these AI models, he's also thinking with a musician's hat on.
Cari Quoyeser: Okay yeah, that’s so cool, I can totally see that. So what you’re saying is, with the stage of AI right now, the capabilities really are a reflection of the strengths of the programmer. So, what about lyrics? Have you used AI to generate lyrics before, or is that something you’re interested in at all?
Portrait XO: Yeah. So, in the very beginning of my experimentation with AI, I did try out some GPT-2 stuff back then, which is like AI text generation. And I saw some AI lyric generators. They were fun, but I was really curious to see what this raw audio AI would give me.
I chose the voice as the first data set to train because I just have this fascination with human voices. And I think it's the most dynamic and interesting instrument that we all have. You don't even have to be a singer, just talking alone, these are instruments of how we communicate and how we perceive and feel emotions.
And so using the voice as a data set then allowed me to question AI, like, are you smart enough to sing emotionally in the way that I do? Can you give me something that I don't know about myself? I had no idea what the output would be but I did want this process to give birth to new lyrics and new melodies and kind of challenge me in terms of how I view songwriting as well.
Also, I wanted to break free from form. And so that was really interesting, because from the content I got out of it, it was interesting to hear words I've never sung before, melodies I've never sung before, but also the technique.
So there's some samples where the AI mashed up a few different techniques. There's one sample where it sounds like I'm singing from the back of my throat in this really weird way. And I tried to replicate it and I couldn't. And so it was like uh-huh, I have goosebumps, this is creepy and fascinating at the same time.
Cari Quoyeser: (laughs) it lives!
Portrait XO: Yeah. I mean, it's bizarre, but it's something that I've really fallen in love with. I really love the unpredictable nature of AI being used this way. And I think it just allowed me to become even more intimate with my own work. I would love for everybody to have this opportunity to hear what they think of their own sound, regenerated through a machine.
Cari Quoyeser: Yeah, for sure! I would absolutely love to play around with that myself. I think I’d have a similar attachment to it as you’ve expressed, because it’s almost like you’ve given birth to this thing. Because it’s made from you, your sounds, and yet, it acts of its own accord. That's just a lot to wrap my head around.
Cari Quoyeser: Shifting gears a little bit, there are some other very unique things about you as an artist that I’d love to hear more about. For instance, you have synesthesia, which I understand is the ability, or neural tendency to attach certain colors or visuals to sound. How much does that come into play with your songwriting?
Portrait XO: So that I guess impacts more on my production side, yeah, production and mixing. When I found out that lemon was a flavor that I shouldn't eat, it actually took me a while. When I'm mixing and I eat lemon, then it tends to make the higher frequencies more sharp, so it'll be really prominent.
Before I discovered what synesthesia was - I didn't learn about it until like 2000, I can’t remember now, 2007, 2008 or something like this. Up until then, with my mixes, I was always feeling a bit challenged. Like for example, why did it sound a bit muddy sometimes - I'm pretty sure when I was mixing those high frequencies are really hurting, you know?
And then when I learned what it was, I started to dig deeper and I started talking to neurologists and started to become a lot more aware of how I was responding to things. I think also, I just assumed that everybody could hear flavors and taste sounds.
I don't know why I never questioned how other people were perceiving these senses, but maybe because they're invisible, right, to the human eye. I just never thought of bringing it up that I'm sat here listening to bass and I'm tasting peanut butter.
Cari Quoyeser: So it's not just visuals, it’s taste as well?
Portrait XO: It's taste and sound mainly.
Cari Quoyeser: Oh ok, wow.
Cari Quoyeser: Hi there, I hope you're enjoying our chat with Portrait. I paused here to let you know that while we were limited by time constraints during the festival, we think her synesthesia work is super interesting. If you’d like to know more, check out our Portrait XO article on themix.musixmatch.com
There you’ll find articles, links, and even an organization that Portrait founded that celebrates and connects artists with synesthesia. That’s all for now, back to Portrait XO!
Cari Quoyeser: Okay, so you and I talked about this very, very briefly. I actually think we could have a podcast episode that went on for three more hours because you have so many different areas of interest that you implement in your work, which is so cool.
But one of them that is particularly relevant to this podcast is your interest in blockchain technology. What are your thoughts on NFTs for musicians? Do you think it’s becoming a really valuable way of monetizing art, or do you think we’re a long way off from that? What are your general thoughts and experiences on the subject?
Portrait XO: Yeah, definitely. I had a lot of really great conversations about this with other artists as well who are doing really great things with the technology. We have conversations about what does it mean for art, what does it mean for music?
I had my first music NFT sold on 12 by 12, which is a polygon marketplace for music. It was my first experiment, 12 editions for 40 euros. And they sold out in a day and a half or something. I was really boggled by it because if we do the maths and compare it to streaming or, you know, just selling a single piece of music, someone is purchasing it for 40 euros is baffling to me.
I'm still trying to understand, how did this happen? This cultural shift, where in the MP3 streaming era, we've become so accustomed as music consumers that we don't really know anyone who buys CDs anymore, you know?
Cari Quoyeser: Yeah, we don't pay for art.
Portrait XO: It's become way more about accessibility than ownership. And now that's switched. I'm still learning, I'm still researching, and every marketplace behaves differently. I've been mainly interested in the idea of NFTs as breaking down my story into little chunks.
And it's interesting because I think each platform has different file size limitations as well. So, you know, in the beginning I thought, maybe I can have all my music videos as NFTs and then quickly learned, okay, actually that's not possible because there's the file size limitation and the length affects that, and so on.
It's interesting for me to research how format sometimes influences how you break your process down rather than the other way around. Because I think sometimes people get a little bit too caught up in calling themselves NFT artists. It's just a way of putting your work out there. And I think all of this is offering a lot of interesting opportunities for music artists to give your fans exclusive content.
I think it's really common when people have their mastered versions of music out and they're like, oh, but there's this really great demo. And maybe I wanna put it out in a really special way, or maybe there's three versions, you know? Or multiple versions - I know that's definitely happened to me where I'm just like, okay, there's the official version, but then there's three other versions that are completely different.
I feel like I would want to purchase exclusive content from bands and artists that I love. If Radiohead and Björk B York were like, oh, have five versions of Kid A, you know.
Cari Quoyeser: Would you say that Bjork and Radiohead are some of your influences, because hearing about your creative process, that would totally make sense.
Portrait XO: Yeah there's definitely a few artists like that and bands who have really opened my own mind in terms of, you know, a creative burst of breaking free from form. And I come from a classically trained background, so it took a while. It was quite a journey to break free from form.
So I really appreciate witnessing other artists push themselves to try different things and experiment. But I also have a real love for the craftsmanship of lyrics and melodies.
Cari Quoyeser: On that, I really like the themes behind the song that you did today, “Basic Quest”. You’re so clearly embracing technology, but even within your lyrics you’re addressing the issues that come along with technology, things like social media, issues with human disconnection that come with an increasingly digitized society.
It’s cool to me that you can have both. You can love technology, you can be totally future thinking, and also be concerned about human connection and place value on that, and even make it centric in your work.
As a lyricist, that’s the first thing I look into, the lyrics. And I have to say that when I viewed your project - because it was a holistic experience - it gave me the feeling that I get when I watch a film or ingest other types of art, not just when I listen to music, because it was done so intentionally. You were activating so many spheres of the brain, you know, you’re highlighting so many different parts of the brain with your project.
And it’s really special, it’s unique, and just very different.
Portrait XO: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I think it's also really nice to finally share the project, it's kind of my way of helping democratize AI. And I know that CJ and Zach are both on a mission to make their AI models more accessible - I'm just one person that's part of this dialogue.
There's other great artists who are also doing really cool things like Holly Herndon and Reeps, who actually also worked with CJ and Zach. We’re all in this interesting time where things are being put out in all these really strang and inspiring ways. I'm also curious to hear other artists take similar approaches and methodologies and see what they create.
I guess because I was born and raised in LA and was surrounded by pop music growing up (I used to do studio sessions for other artists and stuff) I have this kind of pop culture that's been ingrained in me. And when I heard artists like Björk and Radiohead for the first time, that was when I was like, wow, what are these sounds, how do they make this type of music? And that took me down many rabbit holes which brought me to where I am now, I guess.
Cari Quoyeser: Do you feel like the market in Germany, especially in Berlin, is a little closer to what it is you're trying to do?
Portrait XO: It’s funny because, before I moved to Berlin (I moved to London) and the reason why I moved to London was because of my love for Radiohead and the UK. I tend to get really obsessed with certain artists and bands that I really love, and I'll just read about their whole history, like where were they when they wrote certain music?
And I'll want to go there and understand and soak up the whole space, the environment, and try to understand, where is this inspiration coming from? And I loved that when I was living in London, I could hear the influences of you know, traveling underground, the sound of the trains, and then hearing the similar kind of warmth in the music coming out of the UK specifically.
And David Bowie is the reason why I ended up in Berlin - I was really inspired by his stories. And I wish he was alive to also experiment with AI because I'm pretty sure he would. I don't know if you know of the Verbasizer? So it's funny because I didn't plan on coming to Berlin and using AI in this way, but I feel like he'd be interested in the Verbasizer because he was really interested in, you know, chopping up his words and lyrics.
Cari Quoyeser: That's so special. I love the way you approach songwriting and inspiration. That's really cool. I like how you tie it to place and taste and smell and, you know, it's so awesome that you're using your senses in this way.
Well, Portrait, it's been an absolute pleasure having you. Thank you so much for joining us during your busy SXSW schedule.
Portrait XO: Thank you so much for being here with me. It was really cool to have this conversation and thank you for being interested as well.
Cari Quoyeser: Totally, we are so down with it, and we really hope that we can talk to you again in the future as well.
Portrait XO: Yeah, definitely. Anytime.
Cari Quoyeser: All right! Cheers.
Cari Quoyeser: Thanks for tuning in to The Mix. We’re a Musixmatch industry innovation podcast, powered by Musixmatch Pro. If you’d like to learn more about Portrait XO or what's new on The Mix, find us at themix.musixmatch.com.
Better yet, join the conversation on the Musixmatch artist community Slack channel. Don’t forget to hit subscribe so that you never miss an episode. Until next time!
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