Five (or more) questions with Sai

After a stint in Knoxville, electronic musician and producer Sai (aka 9th Phoenix) moved her family back to Asheville. She draws creative support from the local community where, she says, she finds a lot of synchronicity — such as her connection with fashion designer Danielle Miller of Royal Peasantry. “The amazing scope of her designs was such a great pairing with my tracks, so it blew me away when she agreed to work with me.” Miller will stage a runway show, lending a visual element to Sai’s release show for her new album, Iyen. That event is on Saturday, Dec. 7, at Club Metropolis. E8 electronique and Sonen open, Dj Arque closes. 9 p.m., $5.

Mountain Xpress: Where does the name 9th Phoenix come from?
I had written a song in the summer of 2012 called “9th Phoenix.” At the time, I was still learning to produce music, and I was going through a lot of chaos and heartache in my personal life. I find it difficult to express emotion through words, and writing music is a much more comfortable conduit through which I can release a lot of pent-up feelings.

Later that year, after the dust had settled and my life was on a more even course, I decided to try and make music a career. I chose that song as a sort of umbrella title for my work as a producer, with the hopes that I could occasionally bring other musicians on board for collaborations and performances. The phoenix of course is a cyclical being that cruises through periods of darkness with ease, knowing it will regain the light, and the number 9 has always been a lucky one for me.

What are some of the themes on your new album?
Iyen is an album of duality — the title track is about needing both the love of self and the courage to love someone else. Other tracks, like “Sakura-red,” are instrumental but move through a dark beginning up into a brighter, more positive finish, kind of like the track that started the whole project. “Dragonfly,” which features guitar by Paul Seegers of Assemblage 23, was written this past summer and was inspired by my love for magic and fairylore. My writing moves with the seasons, so there’s a sort of summer fading into autumn feel to many of the tracks.

DJs often play music for fashion shows, but with your album release party, you’re kind of turning the tables and having a runway show take place while you debut your new tracks (not that you’re a DJ). How did that idea come together?
Actually it’s funny, because there’s always this debate about whether DJs can produce and producers will ever make decent DJs. When I decided to start performing live, I knew my game would have to change a little, and I wasn’t going to be one of those artists who just push play, so learning the art of DJing became a priority.

And in that direction, I really love a total immersion kind of experience when it comes to electronic music. Electronic music is vibrant and hypnotic, and having visually delightful things to coincide with the music is a great idea. I was reading an article about what to do for an album release party (because this is my first), and when I read, “have a runway show,” I immediately thought, “that’s perfect.”

Then I had to do some research to find Asheville designers. One of the first three I contacted was Danielle Miller of Royal Peasantry. The amazing scope of her designs was such a great pairing with my tracks, so it blew me away when she agreed to work with me. The songs from Iyen are really going to come to life in a way that, up until now, I’ve only seen in my own head. 

There seem to be fewer women creating electronic music. Do you think this has to do with an intimidation factor around technology? And do you think that the field will open up to women in the future?
What I see is that there aren’t as many women in the topmost spotlight in electronic music, but when you do some digging, there are actually a ton of female producers and DJs out there paying the bills with their work. And producers like Lady Faith, Kate Simko, Sydney Blu (who’s on Deadmau5’s label) and Mim and Liv of Nervo are making more room for women up at the top, which is awesome! I also think women love tech as much as the guys do. Michelle Moog is a perfect example of this, and she’s working hard to continue her dad’s legacy as well. My friend Sara Snyder from the duo Stereospread is a genius when it comes to the science of sound; she mastered my album.

I think the field is open to women as long as they’re willing to work hard, learn their craft and write with honesty and power. The world responds to that, no matter if you’re a guy or a girl.

You’re a mom as well as a musician — is it hard to make time for both your family and your art?
It’s really hard. I have three boys in elementary and middle school, and honestly they are the sweetest, most understanding guys a mom could ask for. They do get frustrated when I’m working in my home studio a lot, and they miss me when I’m out all night at a show. But they give me tons of support, too. During a show I’ll often sneak in a track that reminds me of them — like some Minecraft music or Tetris, or the Zelda theme — just to make myself crack up a little.

When did you live in Asheville in the past and what brought you back?
We lived here back in 2010 and moved to Knoxville for a while. Knoxville’s a fun town. There are some great electronica producers out there and awesome DJs. But inevitably I think Asheville is a better place for us. There’s something about living in the mountains that just clears your head and makes your soul more at ease. And the crossroads of culture that are here: So many transplanted Northerners (which I am) combined with that Southern sense of community and expression is wonderful.

As an electronic musician, do you feel supported by the local community?
I really do! The people I’ve met and have worked with really make me feel as if I’m making the right choice and heading down the right path. There’s so much serendipity here. I feel blessed by all the help I’ve received and it all leads back to giving me more opportunities to continue to do what I love.

Photo by Rudy Aguilar


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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