New Portals: “Some of the best art is created when you have constraint”

New Portals is the title of a new project by longtime collaborators, Mike and Ruth Aiken. You might know them better as The Jepettos, the folk-pop outfit from Northern Ireland that has been enthralling listeners around the world with music that is catchy, lyrical, sweet and thoughtful, even a little bit mystic. But while their roots are in the world of folk, this new project marks a definite step in a brave new direction: to New York and the frontiers electronic music. FDRMX is very interested to see what this creative pair comes up with next, so we caught up with them in Brooklyn in order to ask: “What are New Portals all about?”

The husband-wife duo has been writing songs together for more than 15 years, since their days as childhood sweethearts. Their first gig together was in Belfast when they were 17. Ruth wasn’t allowed in the bar to watch Mike play because she was too young, so they lied and said she was in the band. She got up and sang, and that was how they started. They have come a long way since then.

“Our tastes have always been the same because we started out together,” Ruth explains. She is wearing a black t-shirt that falls off her shoulders–definitely a rockstar outfit–but her comportment is not ostentatious at all. She seems quietly but firmly grounded in herself, and when she speaks her eyes glitter with an inner intensity, a thousand different shades of green and gold. While it is rare to see romantic partners work so well together as artistic collaborators, Mike and Ruth make it work because they are serious and disciplined. They inspire each other, and they have always made a point of making time for their art, and for growing.

During the past few years, the pair has enjoyed some real success with their folk group, The Jepettos, which, stylistically, has worked in a more traditional vein of singer/songwriter, “guy on guitar/girl harmonizing”. But their music is also clearly the product of an equal collaboration, and that is exactly what their newer work is all about. Especially since they started listening to more electronic music, they report. They finally decided to take the leap and figure out how to make electronic music for themselves.

“It came really naturally,” says Ruth. “I’m so excited about New Portals, I’m so passionate about it. It’s just so fun. We have a bit more groove to this stuff, compared to what we were doing with the Jepettos, where we were creating sad music.”

The title for their new project came from a fairytale book that their daughter was reading. Mike describes the meaning: “A portal is a kind of a doorway into something magical or supernatural. That’s what music is. So these songs are some other options for entering into something spiritual or ethereal.”

The pair are currently in the writing/recording phase, which has been a fun and challenging process because they are working in a new genre, with different tools and different technologies. They describe the songwriting process itself as similar to what they already do, but then they need to rely more heavily on producers in the recording studio to make the beats. This is why they’ve had to say no to performing any shows until August. Because they are focused so intently on recording this new album and getting a new set together.

“New Portals has turned everything on it’s head,” says Ruth. “We’re re-learning everything. We even have to re-learn the songs we’ve just written, trying to figure out how to do them live.”

“I’ve stopped playing guitar for the first time in a long time,” Mike adds. “My fingers are starting to get soft for the first time in 20 years. We’re playing synths and drums.”

Their plan is to finish recording by August and then start working on a live set. They still need to figure out how they’re going to perform their new music, but the ensemble will probably include the two of them and one drummer. My own prediction is that this creative duo, with their impressive background in folk music and also the huge amounts of creative energy that they have, will come up with something pretty good.

While their background is in folk music, Mike and Ruth say that they don’t always identify as your typical, traditional Irish musicians. They are extremely proud to be from Ireland because there are so many talented, world-class musicians on the island, and they feel proud to represent Irish musicians while touring in other countries. But at the same time, their own music draws from a variety of influences, and speaks to a variety of audiences.

“We feel like we don’t always fit in back home,” Ruth explains.

“It’s difficult back in Northern Ireland because if you want to be successful you have to be really poppy,” says Mike. “In the rest of the world, especially here in America you can be successful in a specific genre, which doesn’t have to be pop. We always felt like our music would do a lot better in the U.S.”

Fortunately for Mike and Ruth, since debuting the Jepettos on Spotify, the two have enjoyed a lot of success with international listeners. They have been invited to perform all over the world, from Mexico to Sweden, and they’ve received a lot of interest from potential commercial partnerships. To them it’s worth it because they really do care about getting their music out into the world. In fact, this is the purpose of their trip to New York. They are struggling courageously to strike that delicate balance between commercial success and staying true to what they love.

This was a question that I was particularly interested in. I had to ask, “How much is commercial success a driving factor in your work?” Their answer was very thoughtful and illuminating:

“We’re touring because–and all artists face this–when you want to be recognized, you need to identify with a common thread, a popular thread. But at the same time, you want to make something that means something to people. Not just the 18 year olds.”

So on the one hand, you have the ideal of writing in a purely artistic space, and on the other hand, there is the reality of living in the world the way that it is. “Maybe when you’re a kid and you’re writing, you don’t need to think about money,” Ruth says. “But when you get older, you think, ‘If I can make money out of this, then I can do it for longer’.”

Mike adds: “You get these ‘pure’ musicians who write from the heart, but they just end up working in a restaurant or a cafe, or playing cover tunes of other people’s songs, just to pay the bills. Which is great, it’s fine. You can sit there trying to be a pure musician and write some really amazing stuff–.”

“–Or, you can write stuff you like, that other people also like.”

“We try to strike a balance.”

In the case of Mike and Ruth, their efforts at finding a healthy middle ground seem to be working out quite well. They explain about the process of writing with an audience in mind: “I actually find it easier to have some constraints. I think some of the best art is created when you can use your constraints as a context. Art can be overwhelming. For example, I am not a painter, so if somebody gave me paint and a canvas and said ‘paint,’ I would find that very difficult. But if they said, ‘look at this, paint this bird, or paint the sea,’ I would find that easier than ‘paint whatever you want.’ So those constraints can be useful.”

Finally, I asked the pair about the challenges of collaborating with a romantic partner. To me it seems like such a unique situation: not many people are able to live and work that closely together, especially when what you’re sharing is your art.

“There can be a lot of storming out of the room that happens when we’re songwriting,” Ruth admits.

And Mike gives some advice: “When you’re writing together, you need to be very straight with each other to get anywhere fast. You need to be able to shut down a bad idea immediately, so that you can move on to a good idea. You have to just keep spitting ideas out. And you have to trust the other person, when they tell you it’s a bad idea. So you can drop it and not waste time. That can be hard.”

“Even after 15 years we haven’t totally nailed how to not be over-sensitive about stuff like that,” Ruth says. “We’re getting better.”

Now that is a lesson in mature collaboration. The model these two set is something I think everybody should strive for in their partnerships, both professional and personal. It takes a lot of work to create something together, but in the end, it’s so rewarding. I can’t wait to see what Mike and Ruth make of their New York trip, and I am definitely looking forward to hearing their new album. I suggest that everybody keep an eye out for the forthcoming indie-electronic release from New Portals.

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