Last Saturday night at The Lab, roughly 50 people tripped — on music.
Around 10:30 p.m., after a number of failed attempts at setting up the projector, a petite, flaxen-haired woman by the name of Marielle V. Jakobsons took the stage, along with backing bassist Chuck Johnson. Conversations among audience members faded into silence as Jakobsons, robed in a white dress with red stitching, adjusted her position under the lone spotlight. A ray of light beamed from the projector, and psychedelic, abstract patterns fluttered in the background — the result of an instrument Jakobsons built that uses sound vibrations and light to create images in a small pool of water.
Things were already starting to get trippy, and the music hadn’t even started.
Holding a flute to her lips — the same flute that she played in her middle school band class — Jakobsons blew a long single note. Using her laptop to loop and distort it, the 34-year-old waited as the note replayed through the speakers, coated in feedback. Buzzy streaks of synthesizer that sounded like shots from a ray gun peeled through the air, followed by a weightless, tinkling piano melody that sounded like it could defy gravity. And then came the violin: hypnotic and flirtatious, with an exotic bent that could have been culled straight from the 1970s Alejandro Jodorowsky film Holy Mountain.
As blurry swathes of orange, pink, and purple morphed into indecipherable shapes on the screen, the crowd sunk into a stupor. In place of the sounds of whispers, clinking beer bottles, and creaking chairs that once filled the room, now all that could be heard was breathing. Calm, measured, and relaxed inhales and exhales from a room of people who hadn’t ingested drugs but were definitely off in a far away place.
For the past few years, Jakobsons, who resides in East Oakland and works as a sound designer for The Sims, has been toiling away in her spare time on her second experimental solo album, Star Core, which will be released Friday, Aug. 19. On the surface, she says her goal was to create calming, chilled-out instrumental and electronic music that would pair well with driving or completing a task. But the longer she worked on it, the more complicated the music became, and Jakobsons soon realized there was another message she was trying to convey.
“I’m a deep believer in psychedelics and the ability for our senses to change and to play with our perception, whether or not that’s through substances or through art,” Jakobsons says. “Creating those experiences that make us think twice about our position in space or time are the kinds of experiences that I find really worth continuing to look for in my art.”
For someone whose stated purpose is creating a “super-calm, happy, psychedelic vibe,” you might expect Jakobsons to be a long-haired, crystal-wielding, kaftan-wearing hippie. But she’s not. Granted, she does have shoulder-length hair and was wearing a quartz crystal pendant when I met her, but she’s not easy to pin down. Growing up in Ohio, her parents were far from weed-smoking, Eastern-religion-worshipping yoga acolytes, and, when asked what kind of crystal she was wearing, she answered bashfully, “Oh, I don’t know.”
Though she says she has identified with being “weird for a long time,” it is mainly through Jakobsons’ music that said weirdness comes through. She grew up playing classical violin, but by the time she hit college, she had grown tired of centuries-old music, gravitating toward noisy rock and aleatoric compositions instead. At Mills College in Oakland, she earned an MFA in electronic music and recording media, and started creating interactive installations like a self-oscillating violin that uses electro-magnetism to vibrate the strings and make sounds as if by magic.
Jakobsons also formed a few bands during that time, most notably Darwin’s Bitch, a theatrical solo violin act that often involved oddball non-traditional instrumentation like bones and pine cones that rattled in metal pans. After graduate school, she formed the classical Indian-inspired duet Date Palms with keyboardist Greg Kowalsky, and also began working on solo projects under her own name. Her first record as Marielle V. Jakobsons, 2012’s Glass Canyon, is similar to Star Core in its experimental and surrealistic nature, but with a more terrestrial bent. Sounds like sifting sand and crashing waves can be heard in the music, which, Jakobsons says, was a more simple endeavor created mainly through the use of two instruments: synthesizer and violin.
“Star Core is more complicated,” she says. “In Glass Canyon, I really wanted to simplify the elements I was using, while Star Core was much more of an abstract concept. It was about bringing in elements of the cosmic and the meditative qualities of my prior music into one complete thing. I didn’t want to restrict myself too much, but at the same time I also didn’t throw the entire kitchen sink in either.”
Jakobsons might not have thrown in the kitchen sink, but she did add more instrumentation to Star Core, such as a flute, electric piano, and bass with the frets removed. She also added lyrics to the music for the first time. In the album’s first track, “White Sparks,” she coos what sounds like a mantra — “Seep in the sun / Lay one more day / Rise to the moon / Weave a new way.” In other songs, her vocals are less decipherable, merely murmurs and moans in what Jakobsons calls her “non-verbal voice.” But the two styles of singing share the same purpose: They bring both a personal touch and a human quality to the spacey music.
“For me, that was a huge step even though there’s not many words in there,” she says of the lyrics. “Singing feels so personal because your body is the instrument. And it’s still grounding the music in something identifiably human, instead of letting it be entirely celestial.”
When Glass Canyon was released, Jakobsons didn’t go on tour or promote it very much, describing it instead as an “underground side project record” that came second to her work with Date Palms. With Star Core, she’s taking a different approach, embarking on a six-city tour that includes stops in Chicago and Brooklyn, and releasing a limited edition clear vinyl of the record.
Back at The Lab, the last notes of Jakobsons’ set petered through the speakers. The light installation clicked off, and the white wall behind it became just a white wall again. Applause echoed through the room as audience members stood up, no doubt hoping for an encore. But, alas, an encore was not in the cards for the night, as signaled by the harsh fluorescent lights that flitted back on in an almost painful fashion. Eyes were rubbed and more than a few people yawned their way back to consciousness.
The opiatic qualities of the music began to wear off and reality seeped back in. It was just another Saturday night in the Mission District. But at least, for an hour, everyone had been able to escape just as Jakobsons had hoped — and without even taking drugs.