Laura Bettinson of UltraÍsta Talks Music, Collaboration and Inspiration



What do you get when you combine a hint of pop and a welcomed excess of electronic synths with three artists that have an extensive amount of years in the music industry? You get UltraÍsta, the brainchild of Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich. The two other band members consists of producer/multi-instrumentalist Joey Waronker (Atoms for Peace, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins) and vocalist Laura Bettinson. “It’s a very beat driven, forward looking music with a pop element to it,” states Bettinson in a summation of the band’s overall sound. “It’s just loosely based around afro-beats, driving rhythms and electronic synths. Pop, essentially.” With a tour planned for this month and their debut self-titled album released today, Bettinson expounds on the answer of the question: Who is UltraÍsta?

Life + Times: How do you feel about working with Nigel? He’s the producer for Radiohead. Then, Joey has a massive background in music as well. With the various creative strengths, how did you three collaborate together for the process of creating this new record?
Laura Bettinson
: That’s one of the most important and kind of main thing in this project is that we do get along so well and we have really since day one. We’ve all been on the same page at all times. We all kind of share the same influences and vision for the project, which really helped carry it along. It’s great! It’s funny because I’ve never been used to producing and making music. I had to do it myself really as a solo artist. Nigel is actually the first producer I’ve worked with so intensely over just a long period of time. We spent a lot of time just getting to know each other and just all hanging out at the studio until, like, three in the morning. Just hanging out essentially which I think really helped the creative process. It was very easy; it never felt like a chore or a job. It felt like it was making music with your friends, which is amazing.

L+T: How long did it take for you to complete the album?
: We basically started writing things when we first met which was about three years ago, but then, we would only hook up for short periods of time. We took a little bit of time off, Nigel did a couple of other records, including [Radiohead’s] King of Limbs and Joey was in the studio doing all of his stuff. Then we basically took some time away from it and then Nigel revisited it and suddenly things came together, like a few of the songs, hooks and forming it into what it basically turned into and finishing it. We all came back together in the last six to nine months and finished it off.

L+T: It’s very interesting that everything kicked off three years ago and you all just finished it within the last nine months or less.
: Yeah, we took a long break from it! We didn’t touch the music for a little while. It’s been an interesting process. We’ve been rehearsing for live sets and it feels like a band. I don’t think any of us really expected that in the beginning.

L+T: Focusing on you now, I checked out your Tumblr. You have different photos that display fashion shows, vintage art and everything in between. The UltraÍsta music videos are very colorful and seem cohesive with your Tumblr. Do you come up with the concepts of the music videos?
: For the music videos, it just kind of happened naturally that way. Nigel has always enjoyed making videos and has all this vintage ‘80s gears. I think when you’re producing something, it’s being visual. How are you seeing it? Like during a vocal performance, I’ve got a character in my head and I know who that girl is and who she wants to be. There are a lot of low budget disco lights from an electronic shop and a lot of hours of standing in front of a flashing strobe light. We had a lot of fun. I think we make some really great videos. There’s a lot of personality in them.

L+T: I read from your blog that the band is named after Spain’s Ultraist literary movement. What compelled you, Nigel and Joey to name the band after this?
: We bounced around a lot of ideas. The name kind of came quite later on in the process before we finished the record actually. Nigel had read up about this poetry movement which is basically based on futurism, it’s very visual and colorful and it’s actually cut up quite abstract, surreal poetry, which kind of fed into the way we approach the music. It’s very cut up and deconstructed all of these ideas at the same time, but not really concentrated on an individual song or structure. It’s abstract and always forward-looking.

L+T: You just spoke of the Ultraist movement as the inspiration for the band name. Moving into the album, what can listeners expect from the album? Some musicians are inspired by love, nature or life generalities; tell me about the band’s overall emotion behind this record.
: I don’t think we really set out with any ideal influences in particular. We all just brought our own personality and influences to the table really. I grew up listening to a lot of ‘60s groups…Motown and all those harmonies certainly inspire me in my melodic kind of writing. So, I brought that pop element to the table. The guys have actually worked together on different projects. They like all the same things and we all do really. For the inspiration, I just wanted to make something that would be impactful and be nostalgic enough for people to connect with immediately, but it not be retro and not imitate anything else. We just wanted to make something that we all enjoy doing and that we’d be alright listening to if we weren’t involved in it.

L+T: What would you say you have learned from Joey and Nigel as bandmates?
: I think, for me, it would be the collaborative lyric writing. That was the first time I’ve ever gone in so deep with other writers, like with lyrical content. It was fun and challenging, but ultimately most rewarding. We were all really open with our opinions. We were also trying to keep it as something abstract, but also trying to make some sense of it in places. That was really good for me. Also, the way Nigel treated my voice because it’s very dry in some of the songs and very direct, there’s not really a lot of polish on it, and it’s very raw. We used a handheld mic for the vocals and that really opened up my eyes in terms of how my voice is treated on this record. Also, playing with Joey especially since we now are working on the live sets, he’s the best drummer ever; it’s great to be working with him.

L+T: What would say has been the most valuable lesson you have learned from being involved with UltraÍsta?
: This really has been an extension of everything I aimed to do before. My intentions have always been to surround myself with people I get along with and that I think are talented and creative for the right reasons. Like working in UltraÍsta, all those videos and stuff that we did together was kind of an extension of what I was doing before just with different people and personalities. I would hope to carry on with what I’m doing with this project and maintain that into the future.