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The artist making physics and a conspiracy theory into music

Engadget Engadget 27/05/2016 Joseph Volpe

© Provided by Engadget

Peaches is her aunt. Jared Leto's a fan and so is Jean-Michel Jarre, who sent her to live with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon. She's modeled for Diesel and composed for German theater. She's conducted magnetic resonance imaging studies on mutated HIV cells and had paintings featured in galleries in New York. She taught herself the piano at age 10. At 15, she successfully petitioned the Los Angeles courts to be home-schooled; one year later, she enrolled at the University of Maryland. Her upcoming album incorporates the synthesized sounds of actual stars, physics themes and pitch-shifting conspiracies linked to Bob Marley and Hitler. Her list of professional accomplishments puts other so-called pop culture multihyphenates to shame. She is Simonne Jones, and you will know her name.

Gravity, her forthcoming EP (due out May 27th on Universal Germany) and moody first single, explores a familiar theme: the push and pull of an irresistible lover. But this being a Simonne Jones' joint, that heartache is wrapped in a blanket of industrial beats and physics-based metaphor. "You've set me in motion / The stars are blurs around the sun / The push and pull, the force of your body / Closer you get, I'm overcome / Bound by attraction / Floating on axis / Around your atlas / You're holding me like gravity, all around."

In less skilled hands, this scientific approach to lyrical matters of the heart could've come off as ham-handed, and run the risk of alienating listeners from the song's emotional content by shoehorning it within dense concepts. Yet, it succeeds, lending to the seductive timbre of Jones' soft voice, because this is how her mind works. As her resume can attest, Jones is equal parts creative and analytical; right- and left-brained.

"The problem-solving processes around math and music are really similar in terms of pattern recognition and the type of out of the box thinking," says Jones, 29, speaking to me over Skype from her adopted home of Berlin. "And for me, I'm really scientific about the way that I write songs. And then I'm really artistic about my approach to science ... and just understanding the philosophical concepts behind science. It's like why are we exploring the unknown and why are we looking for patterns in the universe to make predictions and what it all means. And when you like art, thinking really hard about that, it becomes this creative process."

Image credit: Till Janz

Though it's tempting to believe all pop stars-in-the-making are contrivances borne of the music industry, Jones' tendency to wax philosophical is not a calculated quirk designed to make her more marketable. Nor is her scientific knowledge base merely some gimmick she leverages for dramatic effect. In fact, it pervades her forthcoming EP. One song in particular, Spooky Action, is inspired by Einstein's theory of quantum entanglement.

"It's the most romantic idea in the whole world," says Jones. "That you have two particles and they're combined on the nuclear level. And you get separated, even if it's by an entire universe. But mysteriously and instantaneously, whatever you do to one, will happen to the other. They remain connected forever. I love that idea."

Given the themes threading through her work, it's clear that Jones, whose own life has defied convention and been guided by extraordinary serendipity, is enamoured with and inspired by the greater mysteries surrounding our universe.

Take, for example, the conspiracy theory Jones latched onto and, alongside producer Liam Howe, experimented with in the creation of many of Gravity's tracks: pitch shifting to 432Hz. In the Western musical scale, the note 'A' above middle 'C' is designated as 440Hz, an arbitrary standard set by the International Organization for Standardization in the mid-1950s. But that frequency, so the conspiracy theory goes, is unharmonious to the human body and environment -- and it's rumored that Hitler even used this as a means to provoke feelings of anger and aggression by playing it for crowds during his speeches. Tuning to 432Hz, however, supposedly makes for a more natural and comforting sound. Bob Marley, Beethoven and Prince are said to have dabbled with composing works tuned at 432Hz, though no concrete evidence of this exists.

"432Hz... it just feels more therapeutic and just relaxing, calm. And then that 440Hz is a little bit more tension. It doesn't ride into you like a summer wave," says Jones.

Born in Hollywood and raised around LA, Jones, who has mostly Cherokee and Caribbean roots along with Italian, French and Irish ancestry, is an entirely self-made creature. She does not come from a musical background and, her recent Peaches tutelage excepted, owes her virtuosity to a well-trained ear and the sort of color-coded, teach yourself to play books found in the library. At age 11, Jones quickly progressed from playing very basic songs on the piano to mastering Beethoven and Chopin, writing her own compositions, and developing an appreciation for classical music along the way.

As if that musical rearing wasn't prodigious enough, Jones leapfrogged past her peers in high school, successfully petitioning the courts to be homeschooled at age 15; a fast track that led to early college admission at the University of Maryland. It was there that she solidified her foothold in the worlds of art and science with a double major in biomedical research and visual arts and a double minor in biology and art history. That education led to a brief stint at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a biomedical engineering lab based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

But as with most of Jones' career twists and turns, fate intervened to indulge her artistic leanings: In 2012, having left Baltimore to pursue music in LA, Jones got a call from Peaches asking her to sub for a tech that had fallen ill. Soon after, she found herself touring Europe and trading LA's celebrity-adjacent glitz for Berlin's hipsterized Bohemia.

"I like to say that she threw me in a sack and kidnapped me and brought me to Berlin," says Jones. "She's been like a really influential mentor keeping me from signing bad contracts."

Image credit: Yamaha Synths

More than that, Jones credits Peaches for encouraging her to ditch modeling, which she'd undertaken on and off since the age of 16, and pursue music production.

"She kind of locked me in her studio and made me make beats and play on her analog synthesizers and get on her drum machines."

With Peaches as her guardian angel and Berlin's DIY music scene as her backdrop, Jones began merging her creative inclinations with that of technology and science, eventually securing an artist residency at Platoon Kunsthalle.

"I'm really scientific about the way that I write songs. And then I'm really artistic about my approach to science and just understanding the philosophical concepts behind science."

Simonne Jones

"I had no idea how to do this when I started," says Jones. "But I'm like, okay, I'm a really good researcher and I'm going to figure this out. Everything is on the internet. ... Then it just exploded into this thing where I built midi controllers and synthesizers, and on / off switches. ... And then really building complex loop machines that were highly customized. And then I did this art installation in Berlin that was about different topics in physics and creating a little painting LED universe about the Big Bang all the way to thermodynamic laws. And then it just became this explosion of I guess just who I am -- this mashup of both worlds."

A stint modeling and performing at a Diesel runway show led to more gigs at various fashion events and art galleries, all of which culminated in Jones landing the cover of Germany's feminist-focused Missy Magazine. It was an achievement that, while it opened the door to many new opportunities, baffled Jones considering she hadn't released any music.

"You couldn't even find a song of mine on Spotify, or Soundcloud or iTunes, or anything like that. So it kind of like was the running joke: You haven't released any material and you're boring," she says of that early press attention.

Image credit: Robin Thomson

But it was precisely thanks to that bevy of premature coverage that Jones caught famed French composer and electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre's attention. Jarre, who at the time was partnering with UNESCO on a documentary designed to follow four artists to four different countries, had read an interview with Jones on music software production company Ableton's site, and selected her as one of the four.

"I was like, I'm going to Brazil and then talk to an indigenous tribe there. I want to go and live with them and sleep in the jungle in one of their jungle huts. And that was a really intense experience," she says of the Amazonian visit that saw her inducted into the Guarani tribe via a sacred music ritual. While there, Jones busied herself with recording ambient sounds, which were then turned into a "Simonne Jones" drum kit plug-in created by Native Instruments.

Her musical meanderings -- which included a job composing music for the play Jedermann (Everyman in English) at the Thalia theatre and a gig opening for the Italian leg of Thirty Seconds to Mars' tour (better known as Jared Leto's band) -- eventually snagged her a recording contract with Universal Germany. She's since recorded with a wishlist of producers who've worked with the likes of Madonna, Adele, Florence Welch, RuPaul, Lana del Rey, Esthero, Kelis and Bat for Lashes.

Image credit: Platoon Kunsthalle

Of that bunch of producers, Jones seems to have formed a close bond with Howe, better known as one of the founding members of mid-90s trip hop band Sneaker Pimps. It was Howe who alerted Jones to the existence of recorded star frequencies, carried out by an observatory in Paris, and suggested she use them in the production of her debut album. After Howe successfully obtained the samples from a UK-based researcher, Jones began experimenting with these cosmic sounds. She describes the net effect as "pads that are barely visible and very subliminal underneath the tracks, but definitely add this layer of atmosphere that's really spooky and kind of weird."

"They sound like if a star could hum," she says.

Ultimately, listeners will have to decide for themselves whether that celestial presence, in combination with the 432Hz frequency change, has any subtle effect on how positively they perceive the music on Jones' EP. But, regardless, it's further evidence of how she's striving to unite the seemingly disparate worlds of art and science that intermingle within her, rather than merely crafting an earworm song of the summer pop hook we'll be glad to forget come fall.

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