New York - Google “tiny dance” in your nearest computing machine, and you are likely to find a results page filled mainly with references and links to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. Over the years the 1971 hit has been covered by everyone, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Tim McGraw, but only now has its peculiar title been turned into a genre all on its own. “Tiny Dance” is the creation of Ela Minus, but the Brooklyn based synth artist isn’t drawing much influence from Sir Elton’s mega hit. Instead, her dreamy pop gems are something from the future or maybe even the dance floors of another planet in itself.
Growing up a percussionist in Bogota, Ela moved to the United States to pursue music at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, in 2010. There she double majored in Performance and Electronic Production and Sound Design but her original background back home was actually in hardcore music. “I am a drummer first and foremost. I started playing drums when I was ten and I had a hardcore band. I want to say hardcore, but I am sure it is emo now. I listen back, and it’s emo… I felt so hardcore but I was just this emo kid.”
Her transition from emo kid to synth obsessive producer came via the most natural means possible: Radiohead. “(When I got to Berklee) I was really into Radiohead and because of them started getting more into electronic music… I really got into synths.” Now she finds herself building synths part time at a Williamsburg synth shop, in between shows from Colombia to Mexico and around New York. But her transition to external hardware instruments didn’t come immediately.
“I realized that looking back on my life that a lot of the stuff that has gotten me into other stuff has been the contrary. While I was in school for electronic production, I was very laptop oriented, and I learned how to program all of this stuff like that. And I didn’t really want to do that. I really didn’t like the music that I made… ever.”
“I got curious about building synths so I started buying DIY circuits and started making synths on my own and realized that I liked the music that I made on hardware way more than with laptops – completely on my own and outside of school, so it was the complete opposite of what school taught me.” From there, Ela Minus was born as a side-project, in addition to her work with two other bands. As she continued to study production, as well as the intricacies of jazz percussion, she also developed her own voice within the genre she was creating.
“My teacher told me that I have to find my voice. My voice isn’t in jazz. I grew up in Latin America listening to hardcore and rock… it doesn’t matter how much I practice, I just have to find my own voice and not try to be somebody else.” From there, Ela Minus honed in on her love for straightforward grooves and rock rhythms and began experimenting with all of her new gear. It wasn’t until she became bored touring with her indie rock band around a year ago that she actually began putting her independent ideas down to tape.
“I rented a cabin on my own, Upstate, and went there for ten days and made the first EP. I was just going to challenge myself and do everything I haven’t done before, like sing and write songs.” First Words was the three song EP that came from this enforced isolation. Filling the gap between the straightforward attitudes of hardcore and spacey vibes of Radiohead, Four Tet and other contemporary influences, these melodic tracks drift between delayed syncopation and dreamy youthful vocals en route to the very definition of her “tiny dance” styles.
But this defining process didn’t come easily, of course. As with any electronic producer, the limitless possibilities of hardware based production proved to be a challenge, rather than a blessing. “I listen to some music, and there is so much that I want to take off. There are so many synths under so many layers under so many tracks, and I’m like, ‘WHY?’.” Instead, she uses her background in drums to drive her minimalism forward, rather than allowing these limitless production capabilities to clutter her mixes. “My approach was to create electronic music as if it were with a band: one synth for bass, only one polyphonic synth; everything hardware, no laptop with the same sequencer – so everything sounds as one.”
This has lead her to her own manifesto, “Less is more.” Her minimalism starts around one main idea, or as she says, “The essence of the song.” This rule of thumb is what helps Ela Minus keep her ideas and melodies organized in a way that maintains this stripped down style. “It doesn’t have to be something so obvious as the voice. It could be the kick or the relationship between the kick and the snare. But if that’s what your song is, then you have to have everything else around it serve that. That makes everything easier… Just to help organize what is important to you.”
Ela Minus’ attention to detail doesn’t hold her back from allowing her creative instinct to take over. Immediately after releasing her first song on Youtube, Ela Minus was asked to return to Colombia to perform at a music festival. “I took everything I produce with, and this gave me the ability to produce and write songs anywhere.” Grow was written in her mom’s picturesque countryside house two hours from Bogota and then co-produced in Chile, in order to capture the Chilean electronic sound she has been obsessed with.
The product was another batch of synth pop gems that capture the interest and imagination of the listener. Her latest EP, due out early this month, is just another result of her “toy box” that she aptly labels “MY LIFE IS IN THIS BOX,” when traveling. This box is also the key to her energetic live shows. With her variety of synths and effects units, Ela carefully controls her sound and mix directly from the stage. Her drum sequencing commands the audience, bringing in bouncy rhythms, as the melodies and chords come in and out of the tracks.
Even more intriguing is her ability to capture the audience by directly addressing them during verses. “Its been a little confusing for me because I never used to sing, and I forced myself to sing on that first EP.” You would never believe her supposed inexperience considering her perfect recreation of the child-like high pitched vocals that are so vital to the “tiny dance” sound on her recordings.
“It has been barely a year since recording the first EP, and I have stopped everything else in my life. Put it on hold. So I am either playing live or producing the music. Even though it’s really new, it’s evolving really fast. But the live show is the best feature. I’ve always felt that way.” Her enjoyment while playing live is unmistakable when she walks around the stage, even walking into the crowd at times, singing and smiling the whole time. As her synthesizers bounce chords and melodies off of each other, Ela steps away from her toy box and searches the crowd for eager members to make eye contact with. She clearly feeds off of this energy and excitement, and it gives her the confidence to perform the tracks the way they were meant to be performed.
This energy and excitement is only going to grow as she continues to release experimental synth pop grooves tailor made for 2016 and beyond. As her grooves persistently capture the attention of both fans and industry minds alike, we can be sure to see her playing bigger and bigger venues, both here in the United States and abroad. As a fan myself, I can only hope that by this time next year, we will be enjoying the debut full-length tiny dance masterpiece from Ela Minus. But I don’t expect any Elton John covers to feature on the record.
Ela Minus has a show on September 24th at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, as well as October 1st at Mercury Lounge. In between now and then, expect the release of her new EP. Follow Ela Minus on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Photography by Julio Muñoz.