Multi-talented Greensboro performer/producer Imani Pressley lets the sound dictate
Submitting to the Music
Imani Pressley — a singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer — got her first thrill from music-making by tinkering around with a drum machine when she was nine. Pressley’s parents both make music; her mom sings and her dad does some studio work and plays several instruments. Her parents played together in a band for a while. So there was equipment around their house in Greensboro when Pressley was young. She heard her father making some drum sounds, and she asked him to show her how it worked.
“That changed my life — him just showing me how to hook up the drum machine,” says Pressley, 24, who just released Feelings Like These, a poppy dance-minded EP, earlier this month.
“Drums were my first instrument. I started playing in my church,” says Pressley. From there she moved to piano and guitar. Eventually she got a degree in audio engineering and turned the tricks of the studio — sampling, multi-tracking, sonic textures — into another area of expertise.
“Being a drummer, I have a lot of rhythms in my head,” says Pressley. “I can just literally start with a beat,” she says of her writing process.
“Rhythm is the centerpiece,” goes one line from “Hot Sauce,” the opening track on the new EP. And that’s true, to a point, with Pressley’s music, with layered patterns wrapping around each other, choked Chic-esque guitar rhythms, funk bass riffs with plenty of rubbery popped accents and repeated snippets of synth strings, piano or drums. But as central as the interlocking rhythms are, it is the stacked textures of sampled vocals, harmonized with actual multitracks in some cases, maybe reversed or sped-up, that are turned into key parts of the rhythmic groove.
Listen to “I’m Not Sharing,” a clubby track Pressley released earlier this year. With a steady four-on-the-floor beat, Pressley threads in a sparse syncopated counterpunch made from what sounds like a detuned sample of someone saying “Ok.” It’s poppy, but it’s also a little surreal, bringing to mind the occasionally abstract club music of Caribou. It’s not clear if the rhythmic/vocal detail is someone else or a pitch-adjusted sample of Pressley singing, digitally altered to sound like a linebacker. Something similar happens on “Beside You,” which is dense with her harmonized vocals.
“I have fun sampling myself,” says Pressley. “I do have a lot of fun with that.”
Pressley is young, but she’s been making music most of her life, having released her first record, a gospel album called I Ain’t Ashamed to Praise God, when she was still a teenager. The turn from sacred to secular was more about a desire to connect with people than any particular spiritual reorientation.
“It’s sad to say this, but your music can affect a larger amount of people in the secular world,” says Pressley. “I wanted to go into another realm and touch that world.”
The music meccas of Atlanta, L.A. and New York have been pulling Pressley in their direction. But she’s remaining at home for now.
Pressley still retains a connection to the fundamental elements of gospel. She gets energy from “the inspiration behind it, the message, the positivity.” Still, on a song like “All Night Long,” there’s a theme of self-sufficiency that’s about not seeking help from anyone or anything.
“Sometimes I chill by myself/Drink a little bit by myself/All night long/Dance in my room with nothing on,” sings Pressley.
The guilt-free pleasure-seeking isn’t something that would necessarily fly in a worship-music context. But the song is really more about a kind of proud independence than about hedonism. Pressley says the song came out of realizing that seeking affirmation from other people isn’t always a worthwhile effort.
“When I made that song I felt like the world was shut down and I was the only person in it,” she says. “I felt like ‘You know, it’s cool if I’m the only person.’ Sometimes you feel like you need the acceptance of other people, and then you realize you don’t really need that.”
Taking the I-can-do-it-all-by-myself ethos seriously, Pressley often works alone in the home studio that her parents had built in their family home where she still lives. She’s a serious student of the music of Prince, working in dense vocal harmonies that can tug at the tight funk underpinnings of the songs. She points to a list of other music and production influences that would make for a righteous dinner party: Outkast, Queen, Dr. Dre and Enya.
Pressley’s EP closes with “I’m Gat,” a tune that goes from subdued guitar arpeggios into a dubstep-flavored chorus powered by a smudged and bottomed-out synth bass line, something that sounds like someone driving a spacecraft into the ground. She feathers in echoing vocals that sometimes soar up to high-pitched chipmunk frequency. The “gat” of the title isn’t like a gat in an Ice Cube song; Pressley says it’s more of her own personal lingo. It’s about submitting to the power of music.
“I wanted something that people don’t specifically say in conversation,” she says. “It’s my slang. The message of the song is ‘I’m gotten by the music. I’m drawn in.’ It’s ‘gat’ me, every time I hear it.”
Pressley’s attention is drawn as much to sound, texture and rhythm as it is to melody, chord changes or traditional song form.
“Your sound dictates the song,” she says. Pressley is willing to go wherever the songwriting and recording process takes her.
“There’s nothing pre-planned,” she says. “When I go in the studio I accidentally make tracks.”
Wanna go? Imani Pressley will perform her mixture of Pop, R&B, and European dubstep at noon on October 29 for the GHOE Aggie Fan Fest. Visit www.iamimani.com for more information.