“…this is the best way to go.”
So, yes: I tracked her down.
I fell in love with Burial’s music inadvertently; unexpectedly—slowly, even reluctantly. But once in, I was (and still am) in. His last EP release, Rival Dealer, had a polarizing effect among fans and impartial listeners alike. I thought it was great. I still listen to it at least once every week or two, a year later.
One of the distinctive elements in Rival Dealer is a woman’s voice, describing a vague, otherworldly visual experience. I was curious about the source of this audio; was it from a movie? Sounded like it; but—what movie?
True to its nature, the internet removed all mystery. And, following suit, I’m doing the same. Spoiler alert: She’s a normal human. So if you want to preserve the illusion with which Burial imbued his music—that of an enigmatic, faceless, ethereal presence, summoning and guiding—read no further.
But if you’re just a curious music lover, like me, here’s a glimpse at the woman behind that voice: Melissa Dawson Higgins.
What’s your role at NASA?
My official title is Earth Scientist, which I am sure leaves much to the imagination. I am with the Earth Science & Remote Sensing group (ESRS), and [I] work with the crew on the International Space Station on a day-to-day basis to acquire imagery of the Earth. Most of what ESRS does is work with scientists and classrooms around the world to acquire imagery from space of a site on the Earth that they are studying. We have also worked with National Geographic and are currently working with IMAX to provide imagery and video for an upcoming movie.
Some of the work you’re involved in is visually breathtaking. It’s not hard to see why it could be an inspiration to someone like Burial—or anyone. What inspires you about your work?
I have been interested in NASA and space since witnessing my first shuttle launch in the third grade. Every tiny aspect about NASA is exciting to me, but viewing our planet from space is probably the most exciting. Some people do not realize that there is an entire collection that compiles imagery taken from space, from NASA’s very first mission to space to their current mission on the ISS. In particular, the time-lapse videos, which I was talking about in the interview Burial sampled, are probably the closest thing we have now for the astronauts to share what they experience from space. These videos, from the aurora to city lights to daytime passes, are stunning. They give an entirely new perspective to how one views Earth.
What do you think intrigues average, everyday people (basically, people who aren’t scientists) about what you do?
I think that space, and discovering the unknown in general, has intrigued people since the beginning of time. [My work] gives people who have always dreamed to be astronauts or explorers a chance to see what those select few who were chosen to go into space try to explain all the time. It is one thing to hear the stories and paint your own picture of what you think they saw. It is an entirely different experience to actually see what they see.
What are your thoughts on recent efforts to raise NASA’s profile in popular culture—i.e., the Mars Rover landing, or the “NASA Johnson Style” video?
NASA has always been a huge proponent of the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and tries to excite children and adults about those fields. One way that I think NASA has succeeded in that is to recognize popular trends and incorporate them into our outreach programs. “NASA Johnson Style” was an example of that. Our NASA Co-ops and Interns put that video together, and it was very successful, with almost 6 million hits. NASA has also gotten involved in social media so the younger generations can relate to them better.
With the entire internet to draw from, what do you think intrigued Burial, an electronic musician from the UK, about your interview in particular?
I have heard Burial’s songs where my voice was sampled. While it is difficult to know exactly why he used my interview, I would guess that he may have wanted to use it because of the subject and material I talked about in it. It may have also helped that it was a recent interview during the time he was creating the piece, so it would have been easier to find. (Sorry, can’t provide much help on this question.)
How did you feel when you learned that your voice had been used in some UK electronic music tracks? How did you discover it?
I had actually not known about the tracks until I received an email from a Burial fan in Denmark informing me about the songs and asking if it was me in the tracks. Once I told him that it was me, he said that he had a sudden urge to tell me and that he found my voice “incredibly fascinating and beautiful.” Perhaps I should be grateful that [Burial] made my voice sound better! Anyway, once I had found out about the song, I dug around a little and gave it a listen. It was certainly not an unpleasant discovery, but more a perplexing discovery.
Did you tell anyone about it?
I told a few people, mostly to ask if they had ever heard of Burial. I’d say, if anything, Burial had a few more listeners that would not normally listen to his music, only because my friends wanted to check it out for the first time!
Were there any NASA-related repercussions? Did any higher-ups take an interest in (or issue with) this use of your voice?
There were no repercussions on the NASA side of things. All NASA media is funded by the public and is therefore able to be used freely, with the hope that NASA is given due credit. It would have been nice to be given a heads-up that my voice was being used, but it’s open to the public since it was a NASA TV interview.
In one of the tracks, Burial edited your responses to imply that you were saying you’d seen something “come down to us” from space. Was this at all troubling, from a professional perspective?
It was quite strange to have my words shifted around to make it sound like I said “…come down to us.” After I listened to it a couple of times, it became a little funny. Especially since you could tell that several pieces of my interview were spliced together to make it sound like I said that.
What do you know about Burial (if anything)? Have you been in contact with him?
Before I heard the songs that he used in my voice in, I had never heard of Burial. It’s a completely different style of music than I am used to, but it was interesting nonetheless. We have not been in contact, though.
Do you like the tracks themselves? Is it music you might enjoy even if your voice weren’t part of it?
I don’t think I would have found his music if it weren’t for someone telling me I had been sampled. After I had the chance to listen to the entire album, I actually ended up enjoying “Hiders” the most, likely because it was little more upbeat than the other songs. This is just my personal opinion though. I haven’t had the chance as of yet to check out the rest of his work. I did get to read some of his fans’ opinions of Rival Dealer, however, and it sounds like he has a very loyal fan base. I will likely get around to listening to at least one more Burial album before deciding if I would like to follow his work or not.
What kind of music do you like, in general?
A few of my favorite artists [are] Aerosmith, Seal, KT Tunstall, Michael Jackson, Tchaikovsky, Pharrell (literally all over the place). I really do enjoy all types of music, with one exception: country. It’s probably because I grew up on country and started to really dislike it. I especially enjoy classic rock, classical, electronica, soul, alternative, and anything that has a good beat to run to.