‘A lot of us are disconnected’: Georgia’s Sophia Saze on homesickness and vulnerability in electronic music

Sophia Saze’s journey into electronic music has been far from ordinary — involving forced emigration from Georgia, a classical education in the United States, and even a Wall Street job. Pushing the ambient edges of techno, her sound is as heartfelt as it is innovative.

30 January 2020

Listening to Sophia Saze’s intricate two-part record, Self, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was unearthed at a Tbilisi flea market found among the piles of trinkets, Soviet children’s books, and patterned enamel mugs. The Georgian emigre producer and musician wouldn’t think this description a disservice. The album was inspired by 90s cassette tape decks, which she says remind her of home.

“Everything is getting louder and we are getting more desensitised. For me, stripping back and getting to the root of something is really interesting.”

Born in Tbilisi, Saze’s spent her first years in Georgia with her grandparents, after her parents were forced to seek political asylum abroad. Aged five, she left for Russia and has spent a large part of her life on the move. Besides Georgia and Russia, she’s lived across the United States, Canada, and France. It’s no surprise then that she compares her first experiments with electronic music as “being in a foreign country and not being able to speak the language.”

When it came to making Self, released in 2019 on Francis Harris’s Kingdoms label, the Brooklyn-based producer pulled together all of the sonic mementos she’d collected across the globe on her iPhone from intimate voice-note exchanges with her dad to recordings of late-night cab conversations with friends in Bushwick.

Also included are the sounds of her native Georgia, suffused in piano flourishes and scattered like subtle souvenirs across the 29 flowing tracks. Yet, Self is most reminiscent of Tbilisi in its gentle, unhurried pace. The album conjures a terrace with a fig tree, lunches that go on for hours, snatches of conversation, and music drifting from a car stereo somewhere in the background. The track Orbits, with its sounds of birds chirping and the clatter of cutlery, bring an instant calm.

Even if you’ve never been to Tbilisi, France, or New York, Saze creates incredible depths with her samples, combining them in a way that will evoke a place that’s familiar to everyone.

Self is most reminiscent of Tbilisi in its gentle, unhurried pace

“I’m a deeply nostalgic person,” she tells me over a Skype call. As a techno DJ touring between the United States and Europe, you get a sense that she purposefully adds pockets of home comfort into her tracks. She tells me about her first time being away from home. “When I was five, after a mess with immigration, I had to live with another family in Russia away from my parents. To make me feel more comfortable, they would let me watch [Soviet children’s cartoon] Nu Pogodi and give me treats.” A sample from the same cartoon is included in the track Volk. “Little details like that, I tried to reinterpret with this record,” she says.

Image: Andi Elloway

Saze’s samples are shrouded in layers of distortion, so that their origin becomes unclear or details become obscured: “if you sample a track and you can’t hear the words or what’s been said, I’ve found that listeners will understand the message,” she says. Even though Self is dark and brooding at times, to call this an ambient or atmospheric record would be to miss the point entirely. Saze’s use of field recordings are auto-biographial. But they aren’t just inspired by memories; they are memories — unfettered, unreliable, colliding with one another. In her own words: “I really wanted to put you in that headspace, when you’re being sidetracked by different thoughts.”

Perhaps most crucially of all, Self was made after Saze’s mother was battling a serious illness. At the time, she had wanted to create something that was accurate to what she was feeling. The record marks her departure from techno: “I wanted to create a voice that embodied the full spectrum of my musical background — in an honest way.” Music, she says, has always been an escape in challenging times. “When my family first arrived in the US, my parents had to start from nothing. They soon got depressed. My mum signed me up for piano and dance classes as a break from that emotional environment.”

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She reveals her story is not unusual to that of others of her generation, who grew up amid the difficult post-Soviet transition. “I’m not surprised by the wave of music, arts, and culture across the former Eastern Bloc right now. You have to keep in mind the experiences these kids went through.” Her Georgian contemporaries in electronic music are pioneers of their craft: Irakli, hvl, Hamatsuki, Gacha Bakradze, Zesknel, Kvanchi, Michailo are among the home-grown talent she admires. Saze is also quick to mention Anushka Chkheidze, an alumni of Tbilisi’s CES Creative Education Studio, an experimental school specialising in sound, audio, and design.

“I’m very fascinated by this experimental left field that’s happening in Georgia. I was super proud to see a project like CES in my country,” she says. We talk about how many of its alumni were classically trained before joining. “A lot of people in Georgia have a classical background — it’s a tradition. It’s so incredible to see these artists pushing these insane boundaries. The calibre of intellect that goes into creating CES live shows left a real impression on me. It definitely draws upon classical aspects. Everything is so loud now, everything is getting louder and we are getting more desensitised. For me, stripping back and getting to the root of something is really interesting.”

Saze’s own artistic journey also has classical roots. Beginning with ballet at the age of eight, she forged a decade-long career as a professional dancer, specialising in ballroom and Latin American styles. After several twists and turns (and dance-induced-injuries) later, including landing a three-year stint working in banking on Wall Street, she started producing techno before touring as a DJ. Eventually it was techno which brought Saze back to Tbilisi, as one of the city-stops during her European tour.

Anyone who thinks clocking hours at nightclubs is all the experience you need to make head-turning electronic music needs to think again. She credits her “super conservative” Georgian upbringing for always keeping her on track. “I was never allowed to party. My childhood consisted of a strict regimen of school, followed by dance and piano classes. My parents were very traditional, and yet I wouldn’t change it for the world. They instilled so many values in me as a child.”

But despite her own multilayered artistic roots, Saze was still fearful of breaking out of the techno genre to create Self. “There is a fear that to be successful you have to make a 4/4 beat,” she says. As a dancer, she was also used to expressing herself physically — “I had stopped dancing while I played. I had to ask myself, what was holding me back?”

With her record label Dusk and Haze, Saze now wants to step into the world of high-curated music events and shift her focus to audio-visual production. Having released her album last year, she is now working towards her first live show on 27 March. This will be a return to movement for Saze, and the first time she will translate her music into visuals. In addition to opera singer Ricardo Rivera on vocals, Georgia-born, New-York based artist Levan Mindiashvili will make a site-specific art installation. The show will also incorporate projection mapping technology and audio-reactive video, made in collaboration with Savages Studio.

“In a DJ setting, it feels like everything is thrown at you. At other times it’s just a party. In a live show, the audience is stepping into your world and your headspace, and they are fully attentive. The concept of something audiovisual has been in the back of my mind for some time now. I was waiting for the right timing and alignment of concepts both sonically and visually, as well as the right set of collaborators.”

The idea that music should be listened to should not seem radical. Yet when the industry-at-large places so much value on consumption, Saze’s rich and delicate palette and obscure samples offer an experience comparable to rooting around your old family records and stumbling across a long lost treasure. But beyond the sound combination, there is a deeper meaning behind the Self’s “lost tape” feel. For Saze, it’s about staying connected — to her roots, to her family, and to her friends across the world. “Today, we feel we super connected and actually a lot of us are disconnected,” she says. “Looking back on nostalgic memories can be a brief remedy for this feeling.”

Self Part — I and Part — II are now available. Dusk and Haze are launching their third release and first compilation D&H 003 VARIOUS ARTISTS 1 on 7 February. Pre-order here.

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