Empathetic, intuitive, imperfect.

Is AI coming after my job? (I’ll get my coat – but I’ll just say this first).

This is Zoom – a robot created by Eureka Children’s Museum, Halifax in 2013 and one of my earliest notable voiceover jobs. It was a wonderful opportunity (from Limehouse films) and I love how the work has endured, greeting thousands of children everyday. 

Ten years on and the robot (admittedly not a big yellow one) has harnessed the power of the human voice in previously unimaginable ways, since the release of a language processing tool late last year. 

A simple web search tells me I can get ‘AI voices with real emotions’ and if that’s not enough to give you the creeps, it’s now possible for a client to clone my voice and use it however they choose. 

Influential bodies such as the Ada Lovelace Institute have sounded the alarm over the lack of ethical and social regulation in AI. Even the tech giants themselves are now calling for AI development to stop, until it can be implemented safely. And by safely, I guess we’re talking about the short term safety of systems but also the future of humanity. No less.

Naturally I’m nervous that my clients might use an AI voice instead of a me. Like any established voiceover artist, I’ve spent years investing in my skills, business and studio. But we should all be worried. 

In replacing deeply human roles such as art, design, teaching, music and vocal communication, AI would delete our ‘raison d’etre’. Work isn’t merely a matter of cold hard efficiency. It’s how our sense of purpose balances with the skills that society needs. Right now there are humans with fantastic creative and practical skills that may not exist in future, if AI tips the balance. 

What the bejeebers can we do? 

As an individual working within an affected role, I’ve been trying to get my head around all this recently, but I appreciate there are folks who have lived and breathed this concept for years. We can all follow, inform and some of us even implement future policy. Right now we need to celebrate our uniquely skilled humans while we still can, and celebrate them precisely because they are deeply human. 

I have always put genuine and friendly communication at the heart of my work. It makes the job better and it makes life better. I value my clients (who are invariably just as friendly!) very highly. And all the things I am in real life, I am also those things behind the mic. Empathetic, intuitive, imperfect. 

There will be choices to make. And it may be that this will be a moment to drive down fees and make some careers untenable. It could also be that we choose to value our genuine human interactions all the more. And celebrate them consciously and deliberately. 

It’s so much to think about and it feels good to share, so thanks!

Go and visit ‘Zoom’ the robot at Eureka this Easter anyway. They allow a big yellow robot to teach, entertain and make friends with our kids. We wouldn’t entrust an actual automaton with that job. Would we??


#ai #vo

Can we live in this new way?

Saturday has always been the song people mention after gigs. They seem to relate to the lyrics, though when asked directly “what’s it about?” I had to have a think! It’s the latest instalment of my slow releasing album ‘Softly Loudly’.

I used to perform it under the dubious working title A Wee Song, on guitar, with more of a folky feel. The connection to Scotland (alluded to in the lyrics) inspired the folky pentatonic melody (think Auld Lang Syne!) But today’s bluesy piano incarnation is a good reflection of where I’m at these days. I don’t believe songs stand still. You take them with you and as life alters – their meaning is altered. And life has certainly altered, though the lyrics definitely still resonate.

Saturday was written when my children were much younger, and years before lockdown, when travel was an everyday thing, if you had the freedom to do so. A trip to Scotland (although not my own) captured my imagination because of the crossing of a border that is essentially imaginary – i.e. dictated by humans rather than the sea! It’s about the ebb and flow of staying connected and drifting apart, both geographically and mentally, which is incredibly poignant right now.

We’ve never been so physically disconnected from the rest of the world, and politically from our European neighbours. On both counts I hope the separation is followed by a renewed passion and willingness to connect. If we trust the philosophy of Belgian psychologist Esther Perell: “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness”, there is hope at least.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships at a distance and it’s difficult to record too! Most of the album was recorded in a fiddly but necessarily socially-distanced way. So we were overjoyed to finally get together for a day in the summer, to record the drums on this track. But when I fell ill immediately afterwards and I had to isolate for two weeks, it really hit home how important it was to be patient.

Sadly those days are not yet behind us, but releasing music is giving me the steady focus I need to get through this month. I’m not taking anything for granted and because we’re so geographically disconnected at the moment, I’m tuning-in carefully to what the songs mean to everybody. I’m thrilled to have listeners all over the world – and those who I see on local rambles: “Oh hi, just been listening to your new track!” I’m very grateful for all the positivity.

Follow me on Spotify or your streaming platform for more songs over the coming weeks. And if you’d like to support the album directly, buy at https://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly and I’ll keep in touch with you as each song releases. Before we know it, it’ll be spring and we’ll all be together again! xx

Introducing: Softly Loudly

Why not listen instead? I’m no stranger to recording words but I’m new to podcasting about myself. It’s weird. I’ll get better at it! (DISCLAIMER: contains musical sneak preview)

It’s my great pleasure to introduce to you, this year’s labour of my musical love…..

s o f t l y . l o u d l y

……an album slow releasing from New Year’s Day 2021.

It’s a collection of songs written over the past 5 years, combining honest lyrics, luscious vocal harmonies, shimmering piano, virtuosic bass, inventive percussion and evocative soundscape, with hints of jazz, contemporary folk, soul and blues. You never quite know whether it will translate in the way you intended. That’s the magic (and the terror ) of this stage!

After so much solo recording and performance, fleshing out the song arrangements with harmonies, bass and percussion has been an absolute tonic! Debbie Harris and Neil Hooton have provided beautiful and rock solid support in the vocal and percussion departments in such generous and caring ways. And Adam Nabarro-Steel agreed to play bass on my songs, something that has surprisingly never happened until now – and I’m so glad he did! After performing live together in 2019, recording was planned for 2020. But we never expected the forever shape-shifting social distancing parameters that would hamper, or should I say shape our recording efforts.

None of the songs are about lockdown – they were written way before, but it’s definitely there. The recording process was turned on it’s head. Some of the drums were recorded remotely and had to be woven in. Daily permitted exercise was often dropping-off or picking up microphones or transferring files. Or walking through a field with a 2 metre head phone splitter trying to discuss takes. I think the time constraints focussed our minds. I had to know exactly what I wanted from every session, because we never knew when the next one would be allowed. There were a few precious moments spent all together, which we mostly squandered on boozy al fresco lunches. (No regrets!) So hats’s off to anyone who has attempt to record in lockdown, or any arts project that requires collaboration.

I found it suprisingly easy to detach from the songs and be objective, distracted by the challenging circumstances. I allowed the ‘process’ to infiltrate them – the influence of the other musicians, the sounds and happenings around me during lockdown. Now that I’m getting ready to present the songs to the world, I’m getting reacquainted with the point of them, only to realise it really is about the process. Even after they are recorded, songs are a never ending story and the next chapter of the story begins with you! I’m hoping to write about, and perhaps record a podcast to accompany each song as they release, so if you think that may be something you’d listen it, please let me know. (And hold me to it!).

On the subject of release, the first track ‘Soul Reserve’ is available on all platforms from 1/1/2021, followed by a song every Friday until the full album on 19th Feb. There was nothing conventional about recording ‘Softly Loudly’ so why be conventional about releasing it? I feel it’s gong to be a slow and drawn-out start to the year. A bleak midwinter. Each song has its own beautiful artwork, details from a larger piece by my eldest daughter Mia Nabarro-Steel. There is no physical album to hold, but the tactile ‘real’ quality in the watercolour brush strokes and the texture of the paper, is the perfect complement to a ‘digital’ album. There is certainly a tactile and ‘real’ textured quality to the music too and I dearly hope you will embrace it.

Softly Loudly can now be pre-ordered here to directly support the album, as well as pre save in your streaming service. Looking forward to singing to you on New Year’s Day! X

In the grand scheme of things…

Listen instead?

The small things still matter to people. Their intricate dilemmas and private challenges are no less vivid against a backdrop of global crisis. Though I devour the news hungrily – and it’s often hard to swallow these days – I’m no less engaged in the minutiae of life. Frequently, I find myself thinking: “in the grand scheme of things…does this really matter?” It sounds defeatist, but this week, it turned around some negative thinking pretty quickly.

I completely missed a self-imposed deadline connected to the release of some new music. And it bothered me – even though the deadline was utterly inconsequential to anyone else but me. I actually lost sleep over it, which is bonkers because “in the grand scheme of things…” You know the rest.

This misplaced anxiety, I soon realised, was just me caring deeply about how the music will be received. But that was really distracting me from getting the work done, so I let go of the arbitrary deadline and decided I could go deeper into this stage of bottling and letting things settle.

Most of the album is about the small and significant details of life, about standing still for a moment and reading them, which feels more and more relevant by the day. The whole process has been genuinely self-exploratory and by that I don’t mean to conjure images of me holed up in a remote state-of-the-art studio retreat in a swirl of uninterrupted creativity – nothing could be further from the truth as my fabulous collaborators will vouch for! But in a reversal of the usual order, the fragmented twists and turns of creating this album have begun to weave themselves into the themes of the songs, written between 1-5 years ago, way before lockdown, but weirdly relevant.

There’s a song about stillness entitled ‘We Could Just Stay Here’ which is oddly prophetic, one about decluttering, one about stashing away good memories for a (mentally) rainy day, another about the nature of interrupted communication (it isn’t called Zoom!) and one about the quality of vulnerability that accompanies ‘wholehearted’ connection. I did say it was about the small stuff. Perhaps I mean the small details within the big stuff…

And it does matter. The details of our complex humanity matter, reflecting in the need to protect the arts and our mental health alongside the economy and our physical health. Slowing down felt almost impossible a year ago, but for many of us, it’s now a necessity. Resisting the urge to rush is an art. A steady surprise, I think, if we allow it to be.

My new album is coming soon! Please follow on IG, Twitter and Spotify for updates.

The Inconsequential Bittersweetness of Lemons

A quick post which began as a runaway Instagram caption.

Inspired by Bandcamp.com, the music platform who are waiving their revenue share today (2nd May – also on 5th June and 3rd of July) to help support artists, I’m feeling nostalgic about the last time I recorded an album – in 2016. Wow, things were different then. I took a picture of the album today, with some lemons. I’m not sure why the lemons…

I can’t wait to share with you the music I’m recording at the moment (more about that soon) but in the meantime, you could catch-up with this very heartfelt album (Leaving a Space) http://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com today to support this and other independently produced music. You could also listen to the album on whichever streaming service you subscribe to (links below) – don’t forget to hit the follow button. Let me know which songs you like best and why. The feedback would be particularly useful to me at the moment.

I do feel a little squeamish about looking back to old work, as I think we all do at times. Naturally, I want the new album to be ‘better’ in all sorts of ways. But I put my heart into ‘Leaving a Space’ and I learnt a lot from recording it. Enough time has passed now for me to have compassion for the person who wrote and recorded those songs, which have a sense of tender honesty about them. Surprisingly, they’re much brighter than I remember too! But things always seem different in retrospect, however hard it is to look critically at the past. It’s bittersweet…..and we’re back to those lemons! 

That’s what we lyricists do. We take seemingly inconsequential details and squeeze them.

Avian love song…and a mysterious hush!

I’ve been recording the birds. I know I’m not the first, but as I hit record, creep back from the open window and back into bed, I wonder why I’ve never done this before? I’m not exactly an early bird (excuse the pun). But many of us are finding ourselves doing things we’ve never done before. Tuning into things with fresh ears. With the skies and streets quieter, the air clearer and, well, nowhere to go…indefinitely.

So I record my first ‘dawn chorus’, using a small stereo recorder on the windowsill. I don’t have to set an alarm – the birds take care of that! Listening ‘live’, I enjoy every tiny detail, dense and varied songs/calls, mimicry, call and response, even an owl joining in from afar. Feel free to have a listen while you read?

I feel the same kind of stupid tingling excitement as when managing to record a favourite song onto cassette from the radio! (“I’ve GOT this!”) Always missing the beginning. Always!! I resolve to record again the following morning, this time capturing the start, the earliest awakening of tiny sounds

The expected tentative awakening turns out to be more of a razzmatazz opening number! A blackbird (I think) who I recognise from the day before, is the soloist at close range – and what a crooner?

“What better way of advertising to a passing female that you are here and would make a fine father for her chicks than by having a clear, loud and recognisable song?” RSPB

Well, if this male hasn’t fathered chicks by sunrise…..? Another bird, fainter, in the distance, responds to every call with imitation and counterpoint. I feel like an eavesdropper on an exchange I will never fully understand the meaning of. Whether an interested female or a rival male, the fact that only male birds sing turns out to be false, interestingly (cue more research).

But where are the others? There are definitely less members of the choir, and none of the richness and variety of the day before. In fact, hardly anything. I’m going to get technical here. Compare the waveforms from day one and two at the same time:

However woefully unscientific my analysis of the situation, I begin to plan day three – just as two cats start wailing (you can hear toward the end of the blackbird recording). Aha! Maybe the difference is threat. Fear. After the initial blackbird showstopper, only faint twittery, nervous calls can be heard. The audible presence of cats seems to coincide with a reduction in the volume and density of bird noise, but also the quality, variety of the song (or ‘vocalisations’ as I’ve just learned they are called). The auditory mood has swung from joyous to nervous. So domestic cats could be having a powerful effect on birds and their ability to sing and breed (cat owners don’t judge me!) but what’s fascinating is how fear affects the quality and nuance of communication.

I think back to all those tense performances where the hands won’t quite make the effortless shapes I want them to and the voice won’t improvise as freely as I know it can. Music is, after all, just another form of communication, and it is unlocked in moments of overcoming. Overcoming fear, I suppose. I’m going to try and notice when I’m recording this month, how many proverbial cats are wailing in my ear? It certainly brings a new meaning to the phrase: “Cat got your tongue.”

Oh and day three of ‘project dawn chorus’?

I slept.