Classically trained opera singer, turnt rad lady beatmaker, turnt record label CEO. Dot is awesome. Turnt up.
Kate Ellwanger, otherwise known as Dot, started her musical journey with piano when she was 5 years old. She grew up in Olympia, Washington where she was classically trained in vocals, piano and musical theory. She credits her incredible teachers for her start in songwriting and her current sound’s classical influence. “The melodies and harmonies that I tend to gravitate toward in my songwriting are a little more traditional. I don’t know, I might just be crazy. I’ve been getting really into jazz lately, but sometimes it’s challenging to loosen up because of my classical training.”
Although her current focus is producing, she was raised in the Washington music scene where there’s not much of a beat community. She was influenced by a lot of indie music from The Shins to The Mars Volta. “I’m from Olympia, so Nirvana and all of that. But my dad actually turned me onto a lot of jazz - I love Billie Holiday, she’s an incredible vocalist and inspiration for me. My dad’s really into big band and swing, so I listen to a lot of that - he’s actually 80 years old and grew up with that music.”
She moved down to SoCal to be a voice major at Chapman University. She had planned to pursue opera, but quickly realized that it wasn’t her passion. She had a way better time in her music theory classes, and was composing on the side - “But I hadn’t started producing at that point, was just writing weird...future-y string quartet stuff… haha.” She then took a music technology class with Steve Nalepa [of The Acid] which introduced her to the world of producing, and she was immediately stoked, “It was like, yes, this is what I need to be doing.”
She’s now heavily involved in the LA beat collective, TeamSupreme, whose founders she met in Nalepa’s class.
“I sang in choir with Preston [of Penthouse Penthouse], Henry [King Henry] and Dane [Great Dane]. Dane and I were opera scene partners one semester, and there’s this really awkward footage of us somewhere, I think my parents have it, and there was a kiss at the end of the scene… It’s just the most uncomfortable thing you could possibly watch. So I’m going to have to destroy that. Or just put it up on YouTube - “Dot and Great Dane collab…” [LOL PLEASE RELEASE THE FOOTAGE]
All jokes aside, TeamSupreme was instrumental in launching her beatmaking career. What used to be a weekly project and mixtape release has now become a staple collective in the LA beat scene. The pressure of putting out a new beat once a week for TeamSupreme pushed her creative boundaries, and helped her progress as a songwriter.
“My best ideas always come under some sort of pressure or time crunch. That helps me to get out of my own head, instead of just sitting there and feeling scared for an hour. Pressure is definitely good in that respect.”
Her songwriting process is unique in that she knows what instruments she wants to use before she starts. Instead of writing the melodies first, she works with a whole palette of sounds from the beginning.
“If I have an idea in my head, I’ll just start with that and let the rest come. But if I start just kind of scratching my head and I’m not sure what I want to make, I find it helpful to get all of the textures and colors dialed in. It sounds kind of weird and spacey, but makes sense in my head.”
Although they don’t do the TeamSupreme tapes every week anymore, that training has made her a stronger songwriter today, and the network and opportunities to collaborate through the collective have been awesome.
Her moniker Dot was inspired by her grandmother who played the banjo and sang in the 20’s and 30s and was the only other musician in her family. “She actually passed away before I was born so I never got to meet her, but I’ve always felt a strong connection to her. All the stories I’ve heard about her, she seemed like a wonderful person. I got her tattooed on my arm. Her name was Dorothy and her nickname was Dot, so that’s how I got my artist name.”
She moved back up to Washington after graduation to work on her second album. She is busy getting everything ready for its release this fall, including a video and original album artwork. I used to paint a lot - so my plan is to create a series of paintings, one for each track on the album, and then the album cover too, obviously.”
The upcoming release is going to be a vocal debut record, and showcases more lyrical work. The vocals will be textural. While recording, she treated her voice like an instrument, heavily processing her lyrics, singing a line, chopping it up and then resampling it. “I get really self conscious about singing because it’s such a personal thing. It’s how you communicate, it’s a part of you - so if someone criticizes that, it can be a lot. But I’m really excited about it.”
She also used a vintage, 4-string banjo that was passed down through her family from her Grandmother. The instrument has a darker sound than a typical banjo, that contributes to the unique mood and collection of sounds on her record. There are also tracks that employ traditional song structure with verses and choruses, and lyrics about finding herself and finding her independence. Writing the album was therapeutic for her.
“If I didn’t have music to get me through a recent breakup and just through life experiences… It’s like the one thing that has always been there for me. Pretty much all of the album was written back home in Washington, and I think that’s definitely had an affect on the sound of it, too. Being in my home state, being in the rain, with all the trees and green - it’s just a very different vibe.”
Along with mastering her album, her current focus is on developing her new record label Unspeakable Records. The label grew out of a need for a camaraderie among females in the producing industry. She wanted to eliminate girl-drama and start a network of females that could help each others' careers. The label’s emphasis is on collaborative projects, compilations, split EPs and LPs and focuses on bringing women together.
“I noticed a ton of really talented female musicians out there that I don’t think are getting the credit they deserve. This industry can be really intimidating. There’s just so many dudes making music, it can be a little off-putting, especially if you’re just starting out. And there just wasn’t a place for girls to come together. I noticed this underlying tension of female producers being competitive with one another and I wanted to completely get rid of that catty-ness. I was just like, this is dumb. It would be so much better if we joined forces and started making shit happen.
“Unspeakable” is a play on how women in history have not had strong voices, how they’re traditionally judged based on only their appearance and not for their ideas, what they have to say or what they have to offer. It’s an all-female operation, even down to their graphic designer, our good friend Katrina Alonso. The logo was inspired by the don’t speak monkey emoji, and it’s genius. Hehe.
The Unspeakable roster includes a stack of radical ladies including Low Leaf, Suzi Analogue, G.L.A.M. [CD’s been in my car for months...], Youngmin Joo, Kittens, Teri Gender Bender, Cherry Chan, Vendetta and Amy Cherette, to name a few.
Sometimes she’ll have guys sending her stuff that miss the fact that it’s an all female label. “There’s this other project, a male-female duo called Technicolor Hearts that approached me. I heard the music and it was so incredible, and I just thought, if I say no to this because of gender, that’s so backward - exclusion is the reverse of what I stand for. Just as long as everyone’s down for supporting women in music, I’ll let a few guys play along.”
The support has been unexpected and awesome, and she’s already at the point where she needs to bring more people on board. Long term, her goal is to start a monthly event, an all female residency, and she’s looking for the right spot to host it. We can’t wait for those parties to start. Dot is rad. Girl power.
Favorite brunch spot?
There’s a spot in Eagle Rock that I love called Camilo’s. They just have really good eggs - anything with eggs there is great.
Bloody marys or mimosas?
Mimosas. I didn’t used to like bloody marys but they’ve kind of started to grow on me now. I just have such a bad sweet-tooth.
Usually just a Jack & Coke, that’s just my standard go-to. I like wine too, a lil pinot grigio…
Favorite LA venues?
I like the Echoplex when it’s full… I just really like the vibe there. Of course the Airliner is always fun.
Who do you look up to?
I mean, I feel like this is sort of a cop-out because everyone’s so inspired by him, but I really love Flying Lotus - he does really incredible work. J-Dilla, huge influence. And I’m just really inspired by 20th century composers - just that impressionistic sound, hearing the range of colors in their music is really inspiring to me.
What have you been listening to lately?
I really love that EP by FKA Twigs, The Acid, Teeb’s new album… I’m working on putting together a sleep mix right, so lots of dreamy spacey music.
I’d really love to work with more singers, definitely Janelle Monae, that would be amazing. Pharrell... haha that’d be cool.
Was there one show that you were particularly hyped on, or like a wow moment? Memorable moment?
The last time I played LET I felt really good actually. I did a lot more singing in my set, and the energy from the crowd was really awesome and supportive. That always makes it for me I think, really good energy to work with, it’s going to be a good night. Really anytime I’ve played there actually has always just been really positive. I went back and counted actually, I think I’ve played there 6 or 7 times now including the Beat Invitational.