As a solo performer, Sarah Lipstate has toured as an opener with St. Vincent, Iggy Pop, Wire, and others, weaving elaborate soundscapes through her deft use of a wide array of pedals, anchored by multiple loops—initially via a Line 6 DL4 and today via a Boomerang III Phrase Sampler. Photo by Priscilla C. Scott
Guitarist and composer Sarah Lipstate works under the name Noveller and creates luscious, expansive soundscapes with a guitar, an amp, and an overwhelming array of pedals. Her looped textures are mood-inducing works of art. They conjure up images of wide-open spaces and infinite horizons, and, despite their electronic origins, they evoke an organic, meditative space.
Although Lipstate is a guitarist, it may be more accurate to say that her principle instruments are pedals. She works with a mind-boggling number of devices. We discussed almost 40 in the course of our conversation, and that’s just scratching the surface. She also uses a cello bow and copious amounts of rosin, mechanical bowing tools, and a custom BilT Relevator guitar with three circuit boards built into it. She uses pedals to get her creative juices flowing, and they’re often her point of reference as she moves through the creative process—at least until it comes time to name her compositions.
“When I’m writing these pieces, I start up a session in Logic Pro, and then I have to come up with a file name to save the sessions,” Lipstate says. “Usually, the initial session is named after whatever pedals I’m using.” For example, one song on her latest release, Arrow, is built around the Montreal Assembly 856 for ZELLERSASN. The file in Logic was saved as, “ZELLERSASN,” which, by the time the album was finished, had morphed into “Zeaxanthin.”
“When the record is done, I can’t have all these tracks named after guitar pedals,” she laughs. “For that track, I was visiting my parents, and I asked them to help me come up with a word that starts with a Z, which is similar to ZELLERSASN, but different. My parents are really into crossword puzzles and word jumbles, and my mom found zeaxanthin. It’s a cool word. I found it to be aesthetically pleasing and exciting, and that piece on the record is the one I’m probably most proud of, and I thought the name fit.” (For the curious, zeaxanthin is an alcohol found in paprika, corn, and other plants.)
Tongue-twisting song titles aside, Arrow is a collection of what Lipstate does best. The album features eight original compositions that loop layer on top of layer, drawing from a palette of sounds so broad that at times you forget they were generated by a guitar—although, she will, on rare occasions, sometimes add subtle synth textures as well.
“The guitar is the main instrument on all of the tracks,” Lipstate says. “Two of the tracks, ‘Canyons’ and ‘Pattern Recognition,’ are guitar only. But I also used the Folktek Nano Garden—it’s an electro-acoustic instrument that I use to create a pulse. And, on some other tracks, like ‘Zeaxanthin,’ I use the Moog Mother-32 and the Moog DFAM. Those are two semi-modular synths. The second track, ‘Effektology,’ uses an Omni Board, but those are the only other instruments that I use.”
Lipstate is a solo artist, and usually works alone, although she isn’t a loner or averse to collaboration. She’s opened for acts like St. Vincent, Wire, and the Jesus Lizard, and recently collaborated with Iggy Pop. She created soundscapes for three of the songs off his 2019 release, Free, and toured as a member of his band until the coronavirus brought touring to a screeching halt.
Like most touring musicians, Lipstate is itching to get back on the road. When she spoke with us, we talked about her unique compositional process, some of the multimedia collaborations she’s done, her love for the Boomerang III Phrase Sampler, the inner workings of her BilT Revelator, and her experiences touring and collaborating with a rock legend.
I saw somewhere that you got a late start on guitar.
I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, and I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 17, which was pretty late. I started with piano lessons when I was in second grade, and I did that for eight years. I played the trombone in the middle school and high school bands, and I was pretty serious about that. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I started developing my own taste in music, and I got really into noisy guitar music. I was really into Sonic Youth and I loved the idea of alternate tunings.
I really wanted to start playing the guitar, but my dad was like, “If you want a guitar, you should get a summer job, save up money, and then buy what you want.” So that’s what I did. Once I got my first guitar—which was a Danelectro—I didn’t want to take lessons, because I’d spent so much time being forced to study piano seriously, and even playing the trombone, which I really enjoyed, it was still a lot of pressure to do well at competitions, not to mention everyone telling me the proper way to play the instrument. I didn’t want that with the guitar.
From the beginning, I had a non-traditional approach to playing the instrument. I would move the tuning pegs until things sounded interesting to me. I didn’t try to stick to standard tuning or learn how to play chords. I experimented from the beginning, even before I ever had any guitar pedals. At the time, I didn’t know people who were interested in the same type of music that I was into. I didn’t have friends who were also picking up instruments, and saying, “We should form a band.” I’m a solo artist now, and it’s not surprising to me, because from the very beginning the guitar was something where I was in my room at home alone just messing around. It was always a solo journey to make interesting sounds.
TIDBIT: While they’re in process, Sarah Lipstate’s compositions are often named after their key pedals. Arrow’s “Zeaxanthin,” for example, was originally labeled “ZELLERSASN,” after the Montreal Assembly 856 for ZELLERSASN stompbox.
When did you start using pedals?
I didn’t start using pedals until I moved to Austin to go to college. Austin has some great guitar shops, killer pawnshops, and a place called the Music Lab. It’s a place where they have rehearsal spaces, but they also do gear rental. I would rent some of the more expensive Electro-Harmonix pedals and try out different things. Also, when you go to a pawnshop, you’re getting a pretty good deal on pedals, and it’s a way to see an assortment of things. My very first pedal was an Ibanez Tube Screamer TS7, and then I got the Boss DD-6 Delay. After that, I got a Moog Moogerfooger Ring Modulator and a Line 6 DL4.
You transitioned from a safe choice to pretty-out-there quickly.
I did. But having a delay pedal and a looper really opened the door for me to start coming up with guitar compositions and to create rudimentary soundscapes. But before I got any pedals—right after I got my first electric—that Christmas my parents got me a Fostex cassette 4-track. In a way, that was my first pedal. I was able to record layers of guitar on top of each other and fill up a tape with these weird guitar experiments. That concept was imprinted on me, with that being my first tool for recording and experimenting.
Is that your process? Do you start with an idea or do you just turn stuff on and see what happens?
It is 95 percent the latter. I look around my studio, grab the pedals that I feel will produce some interesting results, put a board together—make sure I have the looper ready—and start experimenting. My playing style is built through using a looper to create layers. I don’t tend to play a lot of chords. There’s not one main melody and then some ancillary stuff. I create different layers, and the way the layers interact with each other is what builds the interest, adds movement, and makes things work. And it’s through experimentation that that happens. But once things start sounding cool, I press record and lay down a couple of layers in Logic. Then, once I’m coming up with the arrangement for a piece, or once things start forming an actual composition, I’ll start hearing things. It goes from experimentation to a more focused idea of what a piece of music needs.
Are your pieces ultimately through-composed? Do you improvise live, or are they worked out?
For the live show, I’ll come up with a live arrangement of a recorded piece of music. A lot of what you see when I perform live has been very much thought-out and rehearsed. You are going to get a different experience even if you see me perform the same set twice, but they are compositions that I’m playing. They are live arrangements of compositions. It’s not improvised. Unless I’m specifically asked to do an improvised set, and then who knows what it’s going to be.
Do you get asked to do those often?
The most recent one was at the Broad museum, a great contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, and they had an amazing exhibition of the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms. They did three nights—a whole weekend of performances—that were inspired by Kusama. They had the Joshua Light Show performing the live visuals, and they asked the same three acts to perform a set each night. They told me the idea was a loose improvised vibe to be inspired by the environment, and to be inspired by the exhibition.