A cold day in the run-up to Christmas finds Sarah Badr in the newest branch of a Finnish café in London’s Covent Garden. The place has just opened but is heaving with tourists, resting between credit card-facilitated dopamine fixes. It’s a nightmare of reverb, as the walls reflect the chatter of shoppers and the roar of a single-engine espresso machine, but Badr’s voice comes through clearly. A fitting metaphor, then, for FRKTL, her solo music project, which first cut through the background noise of Soundcloud with Atom.
An apple bun and coffee provide fuel for our conversation, but Badr is still up after a night of clubbing, riding a wave of energy that never seems to slacken. It will carry her to New York shortly, and then to the next node in her global network. A child of the internet, Badr is like a character from a Bruce Sterling novel, coding and communicating digitally while moving through the analogue world with a data packet’s disregard for borders.
In her FRKTL skin, Badr has just released Qualia, an album of processed electro-acoustic music that sits high up our list of 2016’s best releases. She also works in a world of graphics, interfaces and words that spans multiple disciplines and media. Our conversation occasionally takes a technical turn, but it is a relief that Badr consumes coffee as easily as machine code. Over a cup of Java, she tells the story of FRKTL.
In the fall or winter of 2010, I was loading everything on Soundcloud. People started getting in touch to see if it was available anywhere, so I took all those demos and put them in consecutive order – and that is that album. I didn’t sit down and make an album. It was more of a mixtape, in a way. And then what didn’t fit was the B-Sides [Ed: The companion album to Atom], and I just made that a free download. I was trying different things, different approaches.
Badr’s choice of instruments is very traditional, considering the level of processing that she subjects sounds to. A piano, violin or guitar are her tools of choice, rather than synths, and with Qualia she has added her voice to the mix. That leads to discussion about her musical training.
I did classical guitar as a kid, and then I started playing proper piano with recitals. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and there is a piano federation where you go and they mark you.
I played festivals and did marching band and jazz band. When I moved to Cairo to finish high school, I continued on with piano but independently; just learning songs that I liked.
Badr was born in London but moved around the world with her family. She speaks with a neutral American accent but is a polyglot. She champions obscure experimental music but grew up with classic pop. The conversation moves towards the evolution of her tastes.
The music I grew up with was classical Arabic music, which was more or less like pop music back then, and oriental, instrumental, modal music. I remember hearing The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” – my Dad had a huge tape collection that I still have in Cairo with me. It had Abba, jazz – I listened to all sorts. It was more about exposure – it wasn’t that I was actively listening.
The first tape that I bought was Ace of Base. My second was Janet by Janet Jackson, and I might have had a Michael Jackson, as well. That was before the Free Willy soundtrack came out, so there was a track on there, as well. The first CD I ever bought was Hootie and The Blowfish. That was around the time when everyone was into Nirvana, GooGoo Dolls – grunge, Metallica. I liked rock and hip hop and watched a lot of music videos on MTV, when they still played music videos.
Electronic music came much later. I started to like trip hop – Massive Attack, Portishead, Mandalay. I was into Radiohead, as well. I guess with Kid A they started to become more electronic, and with OK Computer. There is that one track, “Idioteque” – Thom Yorke’s solo albums started to sound more like those tracks.
I just like good music, and I tend to go for more things in minor keys or modal. I like dark music. I’m a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails. I used to listen to Marilyn Manson. I went through all the music phases. When I was working out in California in 2012, I went to a country music festival.
I listen to Depeche Mode and David Gahan’s solo material. It’s really good. I’m now revisiting Tangerine Dream and synthwave stuff. I’m a huge fan of Vangelis and John Carpenter. I love soundtracks. That’s why I’m applying to sound engineering school – I love both sound and visuals. I’m happy to do them both together or separately. That’s why I’m obsessed with music videos.
Badr’s phone vibrates throughout our chat. The world is calling. Certainly, there is recognition growing for her work: she was chosen to attend the Red Bull Music Academy in Paris as Egypt’s selection.
I got in, but I didn’t go. I might be the only person who didn’t go. Things got really hectic towards the end of last year and I took a break from the internet – regrouped – and had that not happened, I don’t think I would have made this album.
Part of the distraction came from Badr’s involvement in documentary film, a publishing channel she founded called Cairowire, and strings that wrapped around the world.
I’m trying to reel it all in and just focus on the audio and the visual – just make music and stick to sound and sight in different contexts.
So what about a FRKTL live show? Plans are in the works.
I want visuals. In terms of my set up, definitely much more than a laptop. My set up is quite low maintenance – I don’t have a modular synth. I have an Ableton controller and my guitar and violin. I have a pitch-shifting pedal and a microphone. I still don’t know – that’s what I have to work on next.
I leave Badr in the café, but it seems unlikely that she will sit still for long. Her plans include a move to Berlin to study sound engineering, and from there to jack into the media currents flowing through the city. Collaborations have been mooted, and the promise of live shows offers new possibilities, but first there is an apple bun to finish and a stack of texts to catch up on.