Little more than a year into her recording career, Dunedin native Abigail Knudson has already proven herself to be incredibly prolific, establishing a digital release profile that is elegant and darkly artful – a good match to her genre-blending musical output that combines elements of choral and classical with hip hop and electronic pop. Amanda Mills talked with the inspiring songwriter/composer about her debut album, packaged as ‘Nicotine’.
Abigail Knudson has an intense relationship with music. From an exceptionally musical family (her mother was director of Dunedin’s Knox Church Choir and an uncle plays drums in The Chills), she describes herself as “indoctrinated… from a very young age.” Her adventures in music started with playing the violin (which she gave up by the age of six), and then the cello, while also singing in choirs.
“Whether I wanted to or not,” she laughs.
Classical vocal lessons followed for a couple of years. Her start in songwriting came from an encouraging music teacher at high school, who she remembers as being incredibly supportive and giving her opportunities to develop. However, any epiphany on a music career came recently.
“Obviously I was thinking, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do’, but I wasn’t 100% focused. I was always unsure of how I could make it work.
When I decided to start doing my own production was when I sort of had that lightbulb moment of confidence.”
Knudson’s solo artist career started with a bang, with the release of an EP, ‘Religion’, followed by a debut album called ‘Nicotine’ in 2016 – both opulently produced recordings. While mostly created with studio production wizardry, Knudson plays cello on both releases, while her father Dean Hollebon plays violin on ‘Nicotine’.
Having amassed a small number of songs she wanted to produce her ‘Religion’ EP was recorded in a studio on Dunedin’s Bond Street, with co-production by Timothy Greenslade. The dramatic and lush three-track collection incorporated classical music, choral vocals, hip hop and beats.
The debut EP largely slipped under the radar, though it was given airplay by Dunedin’s locally supportive Radio One.
“I don’t think there was very much of a response… but it was a good way for me to open a conversation with other people in the music industry.”
She continued writing, and collaborated with others, before deciding to go it alone for ‘Nicotine’, including producing the record herself.
“The decision to start producing things on my own came more from taking agency over my work and completing it within a timeframe that was reasonable – and be able to finish the product in a style that I was happy with. I gave myself a month to finish the album, which is insane, but I just really wanted to have something out.”
‘Nicotine’ was recorded in her bedroom at her Dunedin home. She admits having to teach herself production as she went along.
“I didn’t have a budget for ‘Nicotine’, or else I would have loved to get a few other people on board to help with production advice and mixing,” she laughs. “I was, like, ‘I will complete this project to teach myself production… I’m going to work at it for hours and hours until I know how to do it!’
“‘Nicotine’ is more sort of me gathering everything – all the scraps of songs that I have – and trying to flush them out there and start fresh. I wanted to go for a really big [sound], I love the choral sound, that was me just at the start, just when I was starting to branch away from I suppose you’d say my roots, which are obviously choral music … I’m still finding my way to a style that I mesh with.”
On both recordings, Knudson’s lyrics are subjective.
“A whole album is personal, and impersonal… I do discuss our addiction to relationships that aren’t necessarily good for us,” she smiles.
“I’d like to continue to develop a way of talking about feminism in music in a way that is non-confrontational, and also listenable… feminism also branches out to talk about body image, and how pop music negatively affects it… I’m still developing the lyrical and songwriting ability of bringing in what I think is important myself into my music.”
It’s of little surprise that she is already working on new recordings, planning another EP then album. The EP, she says will be more in the vein of ‘Religion’, though she does have her sights set on a particular sound, one similar to Missy (trip hop beats mixed with classical music textures), which she considers the best track on ‘Nicotine’.
“Objectively… Missy is my best song, but my personal favourite is Ever Since, which is very poppy, and it came out unexpectedly so.”
“I needed to bring that one in more, so that the next release is not so much a shock to the system, you’ve sort of heard something like that… I’m very dark when I write music, and ‘Nicotine’ is very happy sounding… I prefer the orchestral, very moody music.”
She’s unsure about what influences her work, saying she doesn’t actually listen to very much music.
“I suppose Brahms, and then I did start listening to Lana Del Rey. I think she’s a very good example of the kind of music I’m interested in. It should eventually be like classical hip hop with electronic pop undertones. I’d love to do way more choral hip hop, I’m a big fan of that combo.”
Having recently made the move to Auckland, Knudson is looking squarely at the future, lining up her potential gigs.
“I’m setting up and figuring out a live set… I’ve been gear shopping this week! I also want to expand on my abilities, learn a lot while I’m up here, see lots of other musicians who are doing lots of other things and are incredibly talented.
“This is my starting point. I’m going to continue to get better, and I just need to let go of it, finish it, move onto the next project.”