“Our Sound Is A Hybrid Of Who We Are”: An Interview With Port Of Est

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Hannah Tarkinson and Todd Kitchens, the pair behind the experimental electronic pop Port Of Est., combine organic sounds with electronic-based production on their trip-hop-infused future-pop music. Tarkinson provides the lyrics and her subtle to expressive, Bjork-like vocals, while Todd creates an atmosphere of richly textured instrumentation that balances between melody and noise. Port Of Est. just released its dazzling debut album, Onyx Moon, April 26th on the band’s own Delphinium Music.

Stereo Embers Magazine: Hello Hannah and Todd! It’s so great to touch base with you about your music, including your debut single, “Valentine In My Headphones”, that was fittingly released this past Valentine’s Day. Your new single, “Clash”, is already out. How are you both doing and what has the reception been like to your songs?

 The reception has been quite positive so far, which has been really inspiring.

 SEM: You formed Port Of Est. about 2 years ago. How did you two meet up and what was the spark behind establishing your music project?

We met in passing at Running With Scissors Artist Studios, here in Portland, ME where Hannah has her jewelry studio. Todd’s partner and long-time collaborator, Honnie Goode, had a space there at the time, so he was there a good bit as well. We got to talking one day and after discovering that we’re both musicians, we decided to meet up. The timing was perfect. Todd was just getting out of medical residency and was itching to get back to making music again. We’ve been writing together ever since.

SEM: You combine elements from various music genres on your tunes, mixing bits of pop, alt-folk, and trip/hip-hop into your electronic and analog-based foundation.   Why did you decide on this type of sonic blend as opposed to a more straightforward electro-pop sound?

Hannah Tarkinson: Our sound is a hybrid of who we are and where we each come from musically. It’s the natural outcome of merging our individual tastes and styles. We knew early on that the magic would be in honoring our differences, so what you hear isn’t a decision to sound a certain way. It’s just how our dice authentically roll.

Todd Kitchens: Totally agree. Something I remember is several surgeons saying to me in the OR is “you need to belly up”… to the sterile field (btw, I am an Integrative Family Med doc; not a surgeon). What I took from that is we all bring something to the table and you’ve got to own all of your stuff… insecurities, fears, passions…. In medicine you have to learn to love this place of creative uncertainty, which rests on a foundation of everything you knew before. It’s the same with music.

SEM: Hannah, your alluring, richly hazy, and subtly emotive vocals are definitely ear-catching on the two singles you have out now. Have you had formal training as a singer? When did you realize that you wanted to be a vocalist?

HT: Thank you. I’m self-taught both vocally and instrumentally. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been playing with sound, exploring the boundaries of my vocals, and jotting down lyrics. Full disclosure: by the age of 12, I was fired by a piano teacher and 2 guitar teachers because I played by ear and didn’t easily take to reading music. It was more natural for me to hear a song and play it than it was to learn how to read music and perfect it.

I come from a family of creatives. My mother is a poet and I grew up watching her process of reflecting on life via pen and paper. My father sings and plays the autoharp. He was always free-styling lyrics about my day… He’d customize songs and switch the words around to humor me. I learned how to harmonize by singing along with him and by listening to him blaze his own harmony trails around his favorite blues/folk songs.

SEM: Todd, you provide the complex, dynamic to calm layers of instrumentation that make up the body of your tunes. Have you had formal training as a multi-instrumentalist? When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician?

 TK: I have learned several instruments including trumpet, French horn, piano, guitar. Forgotten most of it. These days you would be more likely to see me picking dried lupine from outside my studio, sampling and detuning it for a shaker, and to add texture to a bass synth. Actually, I did this on “Lupine”, which is the first track on the upcoming album. Yes, I have had some formal training, which is definitely helpful from a theory point of view. I know just enough to enjoy not following the rules.

SEM: Who is the lyricist of the band or is that a shared duty?

HT: I’m the lyricist. Occasionally I’ll throw out a, “I need a word that has 2 syllables and rhymes with shatter… go!” But for the most part, I’m playing around with the nuances of the vocals/lyrics while Todd is playing around with the nuances of the music. We work side by side in that way and we give each other our opinions as needed.

SEM: Todd, what kind of keyboards/synthesizers do you use to get that fuzzy, trip-hop vibe going on both “Valentine In My Headphones” and “Clash”?

TK: I love to sample random sounds and manipulate them. This often becomes texture to a synth element. I use several software synths including iPad synths. I really like SoundPrism on the iPad for melody inspiration. You can get some really cool effects when you record the midi from this app and apply a more robust synth plug in or route it to a hardware synth. I also frequently route various audio to my NI S8 controller and manipulate the live audio which is recorded and used compositionally for dynamic texture and lends a human performance quality to the electronic foundation. Jonathan Wyman and I did this a good bit during the recording process, which was a ton of fun. As far as software synths, I am really enjoying all of the stuff being developed by Output.

SEM: What inspires your sound? Based on your 2 singles, I’d say you’re interested in artists like Bjork, Portishead, and Massive Attack who have a more experimental, electronic, and vocal-centric sound.

HT: You nailed it for the musical influences. We’re also both influenced by our everyday surroundings, art, the news… Lyrically, nothing is off limits. If it strikes a chord (pun), I’m all over it.

TK: Yes to all of those artists. Absolutely love Massive Attack. All of the early 4AD artists like those who appeared on Lonely Is an Eyesore. That record changed my life. Squarepusher, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Erik Satie, Coltrane, My Bloody Valentine, and many more…

SEM: What is the process like to self-record “Valentine In My Headphones”? Did you have access to a studio or was it made as a bedroom production?

HT: We wrote and composed all of our songs in Todd’s studio, “VIMH” included. We went into The Halo to record vocals and some live instrumentation with Jonathan Wyman and he also did the final mix on all of the tracks. Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering did the final EQ. It is such and honor to be working with these two masters.

TK: I actually offered an associate producer credit to Jonathan given his significant contribution, but he humbly declined stating “I make a fair wage”. That kind of blew me away. He is a super-cool guy and really talented. Also, the most efficient engineer I have ever worked with, which is a huge plus when you are on a budget. We brought Tim Watts and Chandler Rentz in from Atlanta to perform on the album. I have worked with them for over a decade so they knew exactly what to do.

SEM: You’ve formed your own record label, Delphinium Music, to release your creations. Is taking on the business side of music-making something you’re into or is it all one big headache?

TK: The music industry as a whole is failing both artists and fans. I wouldn’t say I enjoy it because I would rather be making music. That said, there is a creative process on the business end of things that makes it fun at times. The trick is to be consistent and avoid being too obsessive. You can’t just put your music out there and expect anyone to care. The music business today, now more than ever, is a collaborative process. It’s about putting the right team together. I am also working on establishing an artists’ collective and this would give me a platform to build upon.

SEM: From what I understand, you’re both originally from the Portland, Maine area and that’s how you picked your name, Port Of Est. Are you still based in Maine or have you now migrated to a music hub like NYC or LA?

HT: Actually, Todd had already come up with “Port of Est” years before we met, but we both liked the name for this project. As for our relationship to Portland, neither of us are Maine natives, but I grew up here, left for college, and returned several years after graduating. We both currently reside here with our families and we love it dearly. Maine is one of our greatest inspirations.

SEM: I’m digging the cover art designs of your singles. Who is responsible for the work?

Thanks so much. The singles art design is a combination of original artwork by Honnie Goode and graphic design by François Matus. You can find François on Fiverr and Honnie at hgoode.com.

SEM: What’s the latest news about your upcoming debut album? Are you currently deep into it or putting on the finishing touches? Any update you can give is appreciated!

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