Backtrack: PortraitXO

The singer, songwriter, producer, and installation artist reveals the soundtrack to her life

Words By Eiliyas
Photos By Joel Stevenett

We all have our own personal soundtrack – a collection of songs that have defined pivotal moments and that for some mystical reason just stick with us. Our Backtrack series is all about capturing that sonic sentiment. In each installment we sit down with an inspiring Berliner and get the lowdown on records that have shaped their sound, careers and, indeed, their lives.

For the second edition we have singer, songwriter, producer and installation artist Portrait XO. Portrait XO hails from California and is adept at incorporating emerging technologies such as AR/VR/XR and AI into her compositions. Her new album is as strangely comfortable and immersed in its own beauty as it is a catalyst for provoking thoughts on relationships, technologies, and each other. 

This album will be under general release later this year, but fret not! You can catch her at SIGNALS Festival this weekend or pick up a copy of her album, a pioneering project in the vinyl to NFT trajectory, at Berlin-based NFT marketplace Twelve x Twelve.

The song that I associate with Berlin:
David Bowie & Brian Eno ‘Neuköln’

One of the reasons I moved to Berlin started from Bowie’s stories of coming to this city. Funny coincidence that he was also into using tech in interesting ways to help him with lyrics. I love this song for so many reasons: 1) because it was my first time hearing Bowie play sax and create an instrumental track with Brian Eno, who I also love. I love listening to music that was written by interesting artists while being in the places where they wrote it. And 2) The mystery behind the song meaning and title.


A song/artist that opened your eyes to a new genre:

Growing up in LA, what I was exposed to as femme role models looked like hyper-sexualized pop stars wearing very little clothing and showing lots of skin. As a kid, especially in my teen years, I always felt uncomfortable showing skin and wearing skimpy clothes. The hip-hop and grunge kids helped me find a sense of comfort in fashion. Musically and visually, Björk broke all the rules. Seeing the way she dressed in outfits with really peculiar silhouettes, and the way she accessorized to make herself look more like a creature than a human. I really loved how she transported my human experience into another world where my inner awkward self, that always felt a bit of an outsider, felt seen.


The first song that I remember loving:
Björk ‘Hyperballad’

Everything about this song captivated me. I got completely immersed in the unique melodies and production that didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard. I love how the melancholic lyrics are laid on top of this electronic production that’s not for the club but still dancey. I never imagined such a combination was possible. The melancholic lyrics in this context was such an interesting mix, and that’s become a theme in my own productions. It’s these complex layers of emotions I feel when I hear this song – ecstatic, emotional about how challenging life can really feel with everything I need to do mentally before I face the world. 

‘I go through all this
Before you wake up
So I can feel happier
To be safe up here with you’


The first song that made me cry: 
Edelweiss (from musical ‘The Sound of Music’) 

I cried in the scene when the dad sings on stage as a farewell performance before being forced to leave his home country (Austria) to join the navy of Nazi Germany. My mom was obsessed with this movie and she watched it repeatedly all throughout my childhood. At the time, I knew nothing about Germany or the rest of Europe. Now as an adult looking back, I wonder how much of the movie my mom understood. I know she loved the soundtrack because she’d basically swap between this movie soundtrack and Celine Dion – that’s all she would listen to.


The first artist that inspired me:
Fiona Apple

It was so refreshing to see and hear another femme artist go against the hyper-pop aesthetic. I love the way she sings really low and gritty. Her voice reminds me of old smokey and sultry jazz vocals that I love so much.


A record that changed my life:
Björk Homogenic

This album was how I first got introduced to Björk’s work. A friend of mine was really into her and kept recommending me to listen to her. It took me a few listens before I fully got into her work because I think my ears weren’t used to hearing such a cathartic and dynamically different type of music. I was maybe confused but really intrigued. When I watched her music videos and live performances, I fell more in love with her. I don’t think this is because her music needs visuals to make it better, it’s that the visuals, her quirky fashion, and her performances just created a more immersive experience for me to witness. She has such a unique way of presenting art and music. 

I caught myself staring at this album cover for ages trying to guess what her music might sound like before listening. There are so many tracks from this record I love along with the visuals that support them. The storytelling with the music videos really sucked me in and I started from this album then worked backwards – Post, Debut, then her previous music with The Sugarcubes. I was drawn into a trance-like state while listening to her music and watching all her videos. Some of her live performances are even better than the recordings. 

She created so many interesting new feelings I’ve never felt before from hearing music made in such a different way that I felt profoundly because her music made me feel more connected in a new way. Sonically I was feeling nostalgic and inspired at the same time. Now looking back, I think I was feeling nostalgic because of the way I was conditioned with classical music training yet not feeling fully satisfied with creating classical music. This album made me have a new appreciation for my classical training with a new interest in electronic music production. While I didn’t want to pursue a career in classical music, hearing classical instruments composed into electronic music productions like this album was the most inspiring thing I ever heard. It’s become an ongoing balancing act for me to blend sounds that are old and nostalgic combined with interesting new sounds. This album was also what inspired me to start thinking about how to express myself with my music differently. I’d love to be able to give my fans immersive experiences that are hopefully just as memorable as Björk has been for me.


My favourite song as a kid:
Chopin ‘Fantasie-impromptu’ 

I really wanted to learn jazz as soon as I heard a live jazz band for the first time, randomly walking with my mom. She never allowed me to learn because she strictly thought classical was the only ‘real music’. When my piano instructor taught me how to play ‘Fantasie-impromptu’, it was the first time I got to play a classical piece that had an odd time signature to what I was used to (cut time) and cross-rhythms (the right hand plays sixteenth notes against the left hand playing triplets). Without knowing it at the time, as a kid I was drawn to the improvisational spirit and odd rhythms of jazz.


A song that reminds you of someone:
Celine Dion ‘My Heart Will Go On’

My mom because she’s been obsessed with this song since it came out. She loves to sing karaoke and still sings this repeatedly any chance she gets.


A song you wish you had written:
James Blake ‘Retrograde’

I love how James Blake sings so smooth and powerfully while throwing his vocals around in really interesting ways. His range and the way he sings so many interesting textures is so incredible. Reminds me of Jeff Buckley, who I also love. I had this song on repeat for so long when it first came out. Every time I hear it, it sounds just as amazing as the first listen. The melodic hook that repeats throughout the song is so beautiful and hypnotic. I love how his productions are always simple, soulful, and powerful. Every instrument sounds to me like they’ve been so carefully crafted with not too much happening. I’ve gone through phases of overproducing tracks, so I love hearing tunes like this that are simple and beautiful. I also love how the journey of ‘Retrograde’ isn’t like a traditional pop song with typical verses and choruses. I love the constant progression all the way to the end. It always leaves me wanting more. 


A song that’s your guilty pleasure:
Britney Spears ‘Toxic’ 

I love songs that combine acoustic instruments in electronic productions in quirky ways. The strings with this simple beat production is so moving. The way the guitar is produced in this track gives me James Bond vibes and the whole production is just so quirky. It’s got such a fun mix of different styles, I think most people who hear this can’t help but get moving even if they’re not Britney Spears fans.


A song that you made that made you feel like you unlocked the next stage of your discovery, or that made you feel like you arrived where you were supposed to be going creatively:

This was the first track I made during my artist residency at Factory Berlin X Sonar+D. This was a big creative shift for me because I had been creatively depressed for a while before this point and meeting CJ Carr (½ of Dadabots) opened me up to the fascinating world of AI for music. Whether it’s a new plugin, interface, or instrument, I’m obsessed with discovering new ways to help me break free from form. I always look to new technologies to stay inspired and learn something new. Similar to how much I love discovering new music that makes me feel free, I find similar feelings when I discover a new tool or method that makes me create and/or think differently. 

I’m so grateful for this collaboration with CJ Carr (Dadabots). I never imagined I’d be co-writing lyrics and melodies with my own voice in the way I have been with this ‘other’ version of my voice. This ‘other’ voice you hear in this track are all AI generated from a custom SampleRNN AI model created by Dadabots that took a 1 hour recording of my singing vocals from unreleased music and used it to train the AI model to learn how to sing like me for 2 ½ days. This Ai model then generated 10 hrs of new audio and AIV1 was my first stab at composing with the glitches I found the most interesting. The process of working with such weird sounds helped me redefine my creative process. This is the first time I’m releasing a research-based album. Focusing on highlighting the most interesting aspects of my independent research made producing and writing exciting again. It was no longer about making anything that sounded like anything I heard before because I was composing with a really strange set of audio based on my voice that behaved in new, strange, and weird ways I’ve never heard before. As an audiophile, this was such a dream. While some of it might sound creepy, it was so invigorating and exciting. 

This change of focus and perspective meant that I got to change the way I produced by no longer overproducing, but instead I kept the focus on the most exciting sounds from a research perspective. The glitchy AI vocals were the focus with a stripped-back production built around them with less layers. Each song on this album has a very different sonic journey and AIV1 is just one of tracks that’s basically me trying to make sense of whatever I felt at the time while sifting through all the weird audio. Out of the 10 hrs of audio, I think 5-10% are usable in terms of lyrical and melodic content. My research with this project was to find out if AI can sing in an emotionally cohesive way with full lyrical and melodic phrases. In the end, it ended up being a 50/50 co-creative process that involved me picking out my fav WTF moments. Some tracks are a neural vocal duet involving me singing with my other voice, but AIV1 is purely AI vocals with a glitchy beat production to try and abstract the chaotic feelings I felt of being overwhelmed with data and the peculiar behaviors of AI.


A song that makes you think of 2022:
Hudson Mohawke ‘Cbat’

The story behind this track blowing up this year is mega LOL. I love Hudson Mohawke because his music soothes my ADHD. 2022 has been such an intense year, the chaos of Hudson Mohawke’s production to me feel like parties canceled that could’ve been and his latest album Cry Sugar encapsulates the feelings of chaos I’ve been feeling so much so well. Interesting coincidence – his last release was in 2015 which was when I self-released my first album Portrait. During a weird time in life while feeling my way through life with sounds, I love this wonky production cause it’s one of these tunes with a really quirky melody that makes me giggle and bob my head at the same time. The Reddit story that blew this song up this year of it being someone’s fav song to have sex to with a partner who hates it is kinda funny but I get it. How much music can impact the sexual relationship between two people is so interesting to me. I totally get it though, there are some types of music I don’t like listening to and I don’t know if I could be with someone who listens to a lot of music I don’t like, especially in the bedroom. Overall I think it’s pretty cool compliment for someone to want to have sex while listening to your music. 

Keep up to date with Portrait XO on her website and Instagram.
You can catch her at Signals Festival this weekend, and pick up a copy of her album at Berlin-based NFT marketplace Twelve x Twelve.