In the process of getting to know Vanessa Lowe through her podcast, Nocturne, the first thing listeners learn is that she is not a night owl. This may seem strange for someone who spends the majority of her waking hours creating stories that “peer into the dusty corners of the night.” But the Berkeley-based producer is both intrigued and at times admittedly frightened of what happens in the dark.
“So many times the things that scare us are things we just don’t understand,” says Lowe, who worked as a clinical psychologist while moonlighting as a singer/songwriter before starting Nocturne in 2014. “I’ve found that when I notice a barrier in my experience that’s coming from within me I feel very drawn to go up against it and see what will happen.”
Nocturne may sound like a form of audio therapy, but Lowe is not just facing her fears on tape — she’s also aiming to build a distinctive emotional atmosphere with each episode. The result is an elegantly-crafted podcast (produced in part by her partner, film sound designer Kent Sparling, who also composes music for movies), that Lowe describes as “a hybrid form of audio storytelling that blends elements of documentary, fiction, and sound-art.”
How has being a performer influenced your podcast personality?
The main thing is I’m not uncomfortable hearing my voice. A lot of people are like, "How can you listen to yourself talk?" And I’m just really used to that from being up on stage. One of the things I’m loving about doing the podcast is I feel like I’m not the focus the way I am when I’m performing music. There’s a thrill to performing your own stuff but this feels really rich and balanced for me and it suits my personality in a more comfortable way than being front and center.
When recording your narration for Nocturne how do you evoke the feeling of the night?
It took a little while in the beginning to come to what I wanted the narrator voice to be. It sounds really cheesy but part of it requires a dark room. Even on episodes that are not quiet and contemplative I am trying to embody some aspect of the night to varying degrees depending on the topic. I try to picture the listener and be aware that I’m in their ears physically. I’m trying to create an emotional space that’s going to be conducive to that and communicating whatever it is that is going on in the episode.
You sometimes do things that seem really scary on Nocturne, like in the episode “Into, Under, Through” where you walk in the woods alone in the middle of the night. Why do you do that?
I think that definitely comes from psychology and my own personal psychology. When I worked as a psychologist it was always really fun to work with people who have anxiety because once you get over the hump of realizing that thing isn’t so dangerous, that it’s the thoughts that are dangerous, it’s amazing what people can overcome.
Why do you find the night unsettling?
There’s an element to the night that often has to do with isolation and for some people that’s something they really seek out. I didn’t grow up in a large bustling family. When I was pretty young my parents divorced and I don’t have siblings. I didn’t seek out being alone. I really enjoy social interaction and being around people. So in that way the isolation of the night wasn’t something that felt like a refuge.
Do you feel like producing Nocturne matches up more with who you are than what you’ve done in the past?
Yeah, just by virtue of time. I’m in my 40s and I spent a good part of my life getting an education in psychology and then practicing as a psychologist overlapping with being a musician. And then I discovered radio and audio storytelling and the things that I love the most are embodied in telling stories with sound—talking deeply with people, listening and getting to explore aspects of human experience. For me this feels like the thing that brings me comprehensive joy and engagement and it just took a while to find the pieces that gel with me.
For someone who isn’t a night time person, why do a podcast on the night?
Because I’m uncomfortable with it. I was talking to my partner Kent about ideas and I was probably struggling with insomnia and he said you should do something about the night. I took out a notebook and started writing down ideas and there were just an endless number.
I realized there were so many facets that it wasn’t going to be all just spooky and scary stories. And my hope was after I started working on it I would gain some comfort.