When Ellie Herring returned to Morehead State University to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts, she had a big request for her mom and dad.
“I actually begged my parents to move my grandmother’s piano up to where I was living,” Herring recalls.
She was a lifelong music fan and had taken piano lessons for seven years as a child. Then she “sort of outgrew it for a while,” said Herring, who initially went to Morehead on a soccer scholarship.
But music made a comeback, though she quickly lost the need for muscle men to move her instrument around.
Herring was drawn to electronic music, where she has made a name for herself creating moody, atmospheric and increasingly danceable tracks with a modest array of gear that could fit into a backpack.
They might be some of Lexington’s last chances to hear Herring. She plans a move to New York late in the year, though that is somewhat dependent of her day job, contract computer work at the University of Kentucky.
Her performances are the result of more than 10 years of work in a genre Herring stumbled upon.
“I was working on some music and some sound bites for video installation projects … , and I think that kind of pushed me into seeing how well MIDI equipment could function and interact with computers and all those possibilities,” Herring says. “You grow up playing just a stand-up piano, and then you suddenly have a keyboard in front of you that can play thousands of sounds.
“That kind of blew the roof off of it for me. Once I figured that out, I just started making anything. I wasn’t even in a style, and I was also playing guitar at the time, which is funny because I had this weird transition from always being involved in acoustic music to being solely involved in electronic music.”
Electronic music appealed to the “tech geek” side of Herring’s personality that loves finding out how things are done. In her early days, she was going to a lot of shows by electronic artists such as Orbital, Robert Miles and DJ Shadow to scope out their performance setups. Now, she says, it’s easy to check YouTube to see how fellow electronic artists work.
At 32, Herring has been around long enough to watch music distribution change and have intense nostalgia for the old days, when she would rush down to a store to buy a new album by R.E.M. or Groove Theory.
“It’s an interesting dynamic in the music industry now,” she says. “There’s a lot of things that I miss, and a lot of my musician friends are in the same boat. We remember when we used to go have that CD or cassette in your hands and that packaging in your hands was a pretty awesome feeling — you couldn’t get into the plastic fast enough.
“There are things that I think Soundcloud and the Internet have taken away from the music world, but it’s probably contributed tenfold.”
In addition to formal digital and physical album and EP releases, Herring is one of thousands of artists introducing music on Soundcloud (find her at Soundcloud.com/ellieh), where users may listen and comment. Herring says her 35 tracks on Soundcloud just received more than 20,000 listens; she is fascinated by where those listeners are.
The instantly uploadable world of music has introduced numerous conundrums: When is a track ready to be shared? Is she putting out enough? Once a voracious reader and listener, Herring says she has had to dial back her consumption to concentrate on creating her work.
Herring, who pursued visual art as an undergrad at Morehead, says, “I learned my lesson being a painter before I ever started working on music, which is not to overwork something. I find in music just layering and layering a track and then just pulling things out and simplifying. There’s a tremendous relief when you simplify something and it still sounds great.”
When she reaches a point where “my ears are dead to it, and I don’t know how I can make it any better,” she says she’ll send the track to a small circle of friends to get their thoughts.
The Institute 193 show will be a chance to see Herring in the process of creation.
“There’s something very comforting about that space,” she says of the art gallery, “and that’s probably why I’m more comfortable doing something on the improv side there.
“The set is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but I never felt like I had a gig and a chance to do that.”