meta-scriptHow Deafheaven's 'Sunbather' Changed Our View Of Metal | GRAMMY.com
How Deafheaven's 'Sunbather' Changed Our View Of Metal
Derek Prine and George Clarke of Deafheaven perform at Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival in 2014

Photo: Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images

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How Deafheaven's 'Sunbather' Changed Our View Of Metal

Released in 2013, 'Sunbather' is a deeply personal album whose myriad influences drew both critique and mass appeal. GRAMMY.com revisits Deafheaven's landmark album and the way it upended views about black metal.

GRAMMYs/Jun 9, 2023 - 04:31 pm

In the winter of 2013, guitarist Kerry McCoy and vocalist George Clarke — founding members of black metal innovators Deafheaven — went into the studio to record what would eventually come their breakthrough album Sunbather. Armed with home-recorded demos and high ambitions, they were ready, but they were scared as hell.

"I just wanted to make sure that the record was like... not perfect... but like, really on point," McCoy said in a 2013 promo video

Although their debut album, 2011's Roads to Judah, had succeeded in raising a few eyebrows, Deafhaven were still figuring out who and what exactly they were. Clarke and McCoy were still living in San Francisco, still working terrible jobs, and doing whatever they could to pay the bills, and music was their only way out of this life. They wanted their next record to be on point simply because it had to be.

On June 10, their savior came into the world.  An album of beautiful contradictions,Sunbather became one of the most important rock releases of the decade.  Nothing about the album — from its layered arrangements that blend black metal with post-rock, pop, and shoegaze, to its pink, sun-kissed album art —  fit neatly into what black metal (or any genre for that matter) was considered to be. 

Along with new drummer Daniel Tracey, McCoy and Clarke reached for the heavens from within their own personal hell. And that's what Sunbather does so well: finding light within the cracks of darkness. From the epic opener "Dream House" to the gorgeous, knee-buckling closer "The Pecan Tree," the album is in constant motion, shifting back and forth between dreamy post-rock, immense nuclear explosiveness, and cathartic payoffs. Its songs move with a churning fluidity, building to a climax before they crumble again. Clarke's sharp, piercing howls along with McCoy’s cascading avalanche of guitars and Tracey's rapid-fire bursts of drums together created an energy so grand, it could move mountains.

At the heart of Sunbather is a deeply personal album told from the perspective of people yearning to live in peace. Lyricist Clarke would gaze into San Francisco's many penthouse apartments on his walk home after a long day at work, wondering what it would be like to live obviously and carefree. On the album’s title track, a Cohen-esque narrator drives through an affluent neighborhood, only to become more depressed at the sight of a young woman lying on the grass among the green trees. 

While the lyrics are mostly indecipherable on record, if you take the time to look up what’s being said, you’ll find that Clarke’s words grapple with insecurity, the ability (or inability) to love, and whether there is a better life out there waiting. The album is vulnerable, romantic, and personal. As Clarke put it in 2013, "Sunbather is like ripping pages out of my journal." 

With its shrieking vocals and thrashing guitars, black metal is raw, brutal, and by nature, not easily accessible. Born out of Norway in the 1980s, bands like Mayhem, Emperor, and Darkthrone toiled in dark, gruesome imagery and some questionable values. Their music sounded as if it came straight from the depths of hell. They sing about war, destruction, and death; the loud, intense music is meant to invoke a sense of dread. It’s not for the faint of heart, and its bands can be quite intimidating. For devotees, that’s part of the appeal. Being in black metal means surrounding yourself in the darkness; you either get it, or you don’t.

At face value, it makes sense that Deafheaven would be categorized as black metal. Their music can be just as intense as any other band in the genre, but the emotional depth and nakedness on Sunbather is part of what separates Deafheaven from their peers. It’s a different kind of intensity that leaves room for warmth and hope, and ultimately broadened their appeal beyond the black metal scene. 

They bared their souls in a way most metal bands would not dare, choosing not to hide behind corpse face paint or technical prowess. The members of Deafheaven didn’t play the part of a stereotypical Scandinavian metal band: They didn’t have long, flowing hair; they wore skinny jeans and Vans sneakers. Their singer could’ve been a model in a different life, and because they were so clean-cut, Deafheaven were accused of being hipster posers who didn’t make "real" metal music. 

A "true" black metal band would not reach for the rafters like U2 as they do in the "Dream House" finale, nor would their interludes call to mind Wilco or Oasis. A real metal group wouldn't listen to Drake, an artist Deafheaven has admitted to being fans of and whose music touches upon similar themes.

As a result Deafheaven were immediately cast as outsiders in their own scene.

Whereas the scope of Sunbather might have displeased hardcore metalheads, the album's accessibility inadvertently opened new doors for black metal, a genre traditionally against any sort of evolution or deviation. By making heavy music that reflected the music they consumed, Deafhaven became one of the first bands to dismantle genre-gatekeeping. 

Indeed, Sunbather is just as indebted to My Bloody Valentine and Explosions in the Sky as it is Emperor’s black metal classic In the Nightside Eclipse. Sunbather used black metal as a vehicle to amplify a vast palate of emotion.

For its wide appeal and depth, Sunbather received significant acclaim in 2013 from all ends of the critical spectrum. The album appeared at the top of numerous year-end best of lists, and has since been named one of the 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. 

In an era before streaming allowed easy access to a myriad of musical styles, genre-bending albums like Sunbather were still relatively novel, and even more so in hard rock circles. Sunbather provided the blueprint for bands like Turnstile, whose latest album GLOW ON has seen them to outgrow the similarly cloistered hardcore scene they were brought up in. But Deafheaven's influence can be heard broadly, through the work of artists as diverse as Bartees Strange, Lil Yachty and Taylor Swift — each of whom have boldly embraced genre fluidity.

In the 10 years since Sunbather, Deafheaven have become one of metal’s most vital bands, and continue to change the way we think about the genre. The band have continued to shape-shift with each album release: 2015’s New Bermuda saw them lean more into thrash metal, while 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was a bit sunnier and slightly more indebted to '90s alternative rock. Their latest record, 2021's Infinite Granite, eschewed black metal all together in favor of a gentler, dreamier sound that has  more in common with the Smiths than Cradle of Filth. 

While Deafheaven continues to evolve and move further away from their black metal roots, Sunbather remains their crowning achievement. On that album, they somehow managed to blend oil and vinegar, creating a concoction of genres that remained true to their vision. It couldn’t have been more on point. 

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George Clarke On Deafheaven's New Album 'Infinite Granite,' Finding His Voice & Breaking Out Of Underground Memeification

Deafheaven

Photo: Robin Laananen

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George Clarke On Deafheaven's New Album 'Infinite Granite,' Finding His Voice & Breaking Out Of Underground Memeification

When Deafheaven got huge, a swath of black metal purists went to war while diehard fans exalted them as be-all-end-alls. But their most forward-thinking album yet, Infinite Granite, is—as singer George Clarke insists—"just a record"

GRAMMYs/Aug 18, 2021 - 10:45 pm

Album art should ideally describe what's inside in some way, but Deafheaven's latest is unique in that it literally shows music. What may look like a grainy Voyager photo of Neptune in its indigo immensity is actually the first minutes of the opening track "Shellstar," processed through a visualizer and photographed in long exposure. To singer George Clarke, the resultant orb of blue specks on coal-black connotes "space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic... almost like a place of birth."

The band is also unique in that they treat themselves as solely musicians. In a field of swollen egos, this isn't a given. Ever since 2013's Sunbather, which inspired outsized reactions from zealots and haters alike, the GRAMMY-nominated five-piece—Clarke, guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, bassist Chris Johnson and drummer Daniel Tracy—has made a point to simply write the best music they can and not make a big deal out it. In a hailstorm of memes about crew-cuts and delay pedals and weeping in awe, Deafheaven simply worked hard.

"We're just five dudes who like catchy guitars and fast drums," McCoy told Rolling Stone somewhat tersely that year. "It's not anything special. What we do is just really, really simple."

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Now, with their new album, Infinite Granite, which arrives August 20 via Sargent House, they get to fully enjoy the rewards of not believing their own hype. In what's already the primary talking point surrounding the album, Clarke doesn't scream throughout 85 percent of it, but croons. On advance singles "In Blur," "Great Mass of Color" and "The Gnashing," he displays just how hard he worked to not sound tentative, or coached, but confident—as if he had sung since the very first record.

In a wide-ranging interview with GRAMMY.com, George Clarke opens up about the cosmic and literary inspirations behind Infinite Granite, his creative development over the last year and a half and why, in the end, this is "just a record" and nothing more.

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What's your life been like for the past year and a half?

It was fine, to be honest. The tour cancelations were a bit of a hit, but we were able to do this makeshift live record in-studio featuring songs we were going to play that year. That came together quickly and we were able to do that, which felt good. We were at the end of our cycle for Ordinary, so we had it easier than a lot of people did. We were able to settle into a writing period, so we started taking the necessary steps to get that done.

Which, of course, had its own difficulties, because we were very conscious of everything happening and we wanted to be as safe as possible. People were getting tested all the time and we were traveling to different studios with masks and all that, which kind of heightened the atmosphere of it, I think, and made things a little more difficult. But overall, it was good. We used the period to try to be creative and not waste what we saw as an opportunity.

Once the record finished, I went to New Zealand and lived there from January until about the beginning of May. Then, I've been back in L.A. since then, just kind of rolling out the album. I came back to start this whole experience, which has been really nice.

Was it a shock to the system after riding around in a van or bus for 10 years?

Yeah, definitely, especially this past year. We were spending a lot of time with each other. We worked on this record longer than any previous one, so we were together a lot, and that was great and felt very natural. But it was interesting not being on the road. Being at home for that amount of time is not something any of us are used to. That has increased throughout 2021 because we're not working on the record and not seeing each other as much. We're all eagerly anticipating that side of things to pick up again.

Did the other guys make it through OK, financially or otherwise?

Yeah, they did. That was one of the first things that happened: We had an emergency meeting and looked at all our accounts. We keep things for savings and this sort of thing. We were thankfully able to budget throughout the year so everyone could be as comfortable as possible. And, of course, unemployment as well.

Thankfully, everyone is alright, but there have definitely been times of stress. Everyone has picked up side work here and there, but that's also just in an effort to keep busy, I think. That was the other thing: The extreme boredom, the extreme idle feeling of the last year got to people a little bit.

I'm not sure how other journalists will receive Infinite Granite, but to me, it stands out from the rest. Hearing you let loose with a scream at the end—rather than screaming all the way through—gave me a feeling I hadn't gotten from any past Deafheaven record.

Thank you. I have no idea either! When we were making it, it wasn't a thought. There were jokes and things like that, but we weren't really consciously considering it. And then after the record was finished, we started to. I think that's what happens: Your head kind of clears and you sort of leave the cave and you're like, "Oh. How are people going to hear this? This actually might be quite interesting, to see what the reaction is."

I will say that we spent a lot of time on it and I think there's a lot of detail in it that wasn't necessarily present in our other albums. I think we really wanted to work more with nuance this time around.

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One thing that's always struck me about Deafheaven is that you guys would open for Lamb of God or Slipknot—and then go play with non-heavy artists like Slowdive or Emma Ruth Rundle—with something of a smirk. I don't sense that you guys had existential crises along the way.

I think that early on, we simply saw that we could do both.

Just by getting the opportunity to do both, we saw that as an advantage, like an interesting position that not a lot of people were able to have. Say another band had the same position: They'd be like, "Oh, even if we can do both, we want to shy away from this and only work within this kind of thing. I don't know how an indie audience is going to respond to this, so we should always just take the Lamb of God opportunities," or vice versa.

"I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art."

We would rather say yes to everything. It's all part of the greater experience of playing music like this. I think there's maybe a bit of a smirk, but it's just like an acknowledgement of how strangely unique it all is. Like, "That does work!" or "We can make it work!" and there's something fun about that. That's part of what makes what we do fun, and we have to have some of that.

At the same time, we kind of had to defend ourselves throughout our whole career, and that's a little tedious. At that point, it starts to get a little self-serious. I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art.

Back in the Sunbather era, I also sensed some bemusement at your haters, like, "We're not really black metal? They're making memes about us? Fine, great, I don't care."

I was kind of surprised by it, really: People really care! Sometimes that's funny. That's the honest attitude that we have maintained, and, in a way, have had to maintain. It gets a little unnerving when people tell you, "I think this is the greatest thing ever made," or "This saved my life."

It's not just the negative things. It's quite often the very true and positive things that make you have to recalibrate and be like, "Look, everyone, while I'm glad people are having an emotional reaction to the music—and while I want them to, and that's part of the intention of making it—it also needs to be stated, for good and for bad, however you choose to see it, there are just songs. We're just people in a room trying to be creative and not be bored." 

Your music is often very heightened and does elicit extreme emotional responses. Have you ever felt invaded by fans or like people were getting creepy about it?

No, no. I've never really felt that. It's always been a lot of love. It's just good to be objective sometimes, I think. Like I said, that recalibration. It's just reminding everyone that, at least from our standpoint, this is just something that we're doing.

That record in particular [Sunbather], I was really surprised at how people gravitated toward it and how it became such a conversation piece, almost like a weird moment in the subculture. From that kind of came what you were talking about earlier, where it's like, "Man, we're like memes. Oh, funny. People are really invested." 

And from it came so much good, so I'm thankful that we're able to experience that, but it was funny.

Deafheaven's George Clarke performing in Oslo in 2018. Photo: Avalon/PYMCA/Gonzales Photo/Per-Otto Oppi/Universal Images Group via Getty Images​

Was there a moment where the irritation of needing to defend yourselves began to loosen up and you guys could just be a rock band?

Yeah, yeah. We talked about this a little bit during Ordinary amongst ourselves. At the time, we were feeling really alleviated from not being so centered in the conversation. 

I think what it was was we just stuck around long enough. Perhaps, if we had gone away after Sunbather, we would always be this thing, but because we continued forward making music we wanted to make and touring and not really making a big deal out of it, I think people are like, "OK, I can focus on something else."

When we were first coming out, there were a couple of different "controversial" bands that have all, I think, outgrown that. [Hunter Hunt-Hendrix] of Liturgy being another one, who just does her own thing and expands with each record. I think perhaps it is just a time thing, but regardless of the reason, yeah, it's freeing to be in that position. And I still feel that freedom.

Even if it is still a conversation—us at large—I don't see a ton of it.

What prompted the move from Anti- to Sargent House for Infinite Granite? I imagine you merely fulfilled your contract, but I don't want to presume.

Yes, that is it—we fulfilled the contract. I love Anti- and we had a very good experience with them.

Since we knew we were going to be working with Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] fairly early on, there was an idea with this record to expand the musical palette and expand the production and, along with that, expand those budgets while simultaneously shrinking the business side and taking more control over it and working closer with Sargent House in a more symbiotic way, because from a management side, we've been together so long.

There was an idea to kind of bring everything home while we were making this sound and delivery and art and all that much more expansive.

Since you guys have been with them forever, it doesn't strike me as downsizing, but consolidating.

That's exactly it. It's just putting everything under a smaller umbrella and having more control. Not to expand on it too far, but there was this idea that people would think the aspirations for this record were more commercial.

I think on a subconscious level, sticking with Sargent House and, in fact, even leaving Anti-, would be kind of a silent response to that curiosity. Just being like, "No, this is purely an artistic move, and we want to do it with the people we've known and gotten to trust over the past decade.

Were people starting to think you were reaching for pop appeal?

I'm not sure if that's a widespread idea, but it was in the realm of what people could be thinking. That's something I anticipated and was conscious of. I think it's an interesting optic to pursue, I guess, this bigger, more rock sound while honing everything in on the business side of things.

When I first saw the album cover, I figured it was a NASA photo. Then I looked at it more closely and realized it wasn't, and then I read that [Touché Amoré's] Nick Steinhardt designed it.

It's funny: Nick and I spent months talking about the album. I sent him the lyrics and said, "This is how I'm feeling about it," and so on. Blue was present very early on, and both of us, honestly, were envisioning this sort of blue mass. We both had this idea of spherical immensity—a strange, strong spherical image.

From that, he basically created an MP3 visualizer that rotates 360 degrees as the song plays. It's made up of all these dots and their movement shifts with the song, and then, as the soundbar does its 360-degree rotations, we took long-exposure photographs of those rotations. The cover is actually the first couple of minutes of the first song, and each track has its own corresponding orb that's made of the music.

We were thinking about concept albums and talking about how artwork of conceptual records always reflects the lyrical content. For this, we wanted to kind of flip that on its head and have artwork that literally was a visual embodiment of what was happening sonically.

He did some tests and made maybe 300 or 400 of them, which all looked fairly similar. We just kind of went through and I was really struck by the one that made it to the cover. To me, not only does it have a kind of idea of space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic. I look at it almost like a place of birth.

Did the track title "Neptune Raining Diamonds" grow out of it?

They were kind of separate ideas. I heard the guys making "Neptune Raining Diamonds" and, to me, it just kind of sounds like that. I was doing some reading and there was a National Geographic article on how Neptune rains diamonds. It was talking about all the atmospheric pressure that makes this effect. I thought it was really interesting and, to me, it's what that track sounded like.

Can you imagine anything more visually splendorous than that?

When I saw the headline in the article, I thought the same thing! I was like, "Man, that visual is incredible." I can't really take the credit for it, but it did make me feel a certain way.

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I'm sure some are making a big deal out of the fact that you sing through 85 percent of this record, but to me, it's a completely natural evolution. I think of "Night People" from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Did you always like to sing? Which singers have stuck with you over the years?

A ton. I've listened to traditional singing—or whatever you want to call it—artists forever. Some of my favorite performers are non-metal performers.

But that said, no. It was nothing that I really pursued myself outside of the shower, you know what I mean? Outside of just fun on my own, like most people do, I never really pursued it.

I was in theater for four or five years, and I did musical theater during that time. But even that was mostly secondary. I preferred drama. I didn't do anything for a long time, and it was something we had discussed in the band and something I was pulling toward and experimented with on a couple of occasions on Ordinary.

Once we were given all this time and opportunity to write this album, I decided I wanted to take it more seriously and fully pursue the idea.

Deafheaven at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards. Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Hundreds of shows into your career, did you start to feel limited by screaming?

Not so much in its expression. I still feel like it is oftentimes the ultimate way for me to express an idea or emotion, to express that level of intensity. I still think, ultimately, it is a preference of mine. But in terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else.

Like you said, we tour quite often. I think we had done, in that year, five full tours. That definitely was a catalyst for those decisions as well, or it just reinforced those feelings. I wanted to be fully sure this was a decision I wanted to make before I did it.

I remember playing that show in January, and we had already been kind of working on songs and I had been thinking about the clean-vocal idea. After that January 2020 show, I knew that I definitely wanted to pursue it.

You mentioned in a podcast with [Touché Amoré's] Jeremy Bolm that you had started to be at odds with your position in the band. That you felt like the musical weak link in some way. Was that a motivation as well?

I think so. By the winter of 2019, we had had two songs and maybe the skeleton of a third. I knew at that point this wasn't going to work [with screaming]. We could have pursued it anyway, but I just wouldn't have been happy.

The guys often don't see that juxtaposition as wrong in any scenario. I think they're always comfortable with and wanting a harsh vocal on whatever kind of bed they end up creating. But for me, it was just the artistic aspect of it. I wanted to be challenged in that way.

When people say "Oh, he's singing now," it's so much more than just the tone. The writing is so different. It's not one-note rhythm writing, which is what aggressive vocals are. You're not moving a lot melodically. It's purely rhythm. For this, you need lot more. And if you want to make something creative and not just standard, you need to have dexterity in your vocal and a little bit of range and a lot of confidence.

"In terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else."

It was developing those things with JMJ [Justin Meldal-Johnsen] that, to me, really got it over the finish line. It's not just hitting the notes. It's your delivery. It's wanting to make choruses. And I've said this a lot, but I'll say it again: I've never written a chorus at all.

I've been listening to them my whole life, so it's like, "What eras do I want to link to mine? How am I feeling? Am I listening to a lot of '70s music, or '80s music, or '90s music? Where am I pulling from?" Essentially, I have a blank canvas here. I think that's what made it take as long as I did because I worked on them for over a year, continuously.

You could have easily gone off the rails with overly complex melodies, but the chorus to "Great Mass of Color" is three notes. It seems like you've stripped down your melodic vocabulary for maximum catchiness.

We did, yeah! Especially between me and Justin, there's a lot of those conversations. I was having to rework my lyrics in different ways and there was a little bit of strain. I didn't want to lose ideas, but I did want to filter them in a way that was simple enough to be effective. A chorus is kind of a universal thing. It doesn't need to be the highest brow. It just needs to be impactful and emotional.

But then you have "Villain," one of the first songs we worked on vocally, with all the falsetto things. That was more of a product of what you're saying. It's this big empty canvas where I could do whatever I want, so there are moments where there are jumps into less standard territory. I was hoping for a blend between the two.

You mentioned Chet Baker as an influence on your singing voice. I'm a Chet Baker lunatic.

That rules. A little bit! I was trying to find voices that had a sweet strength to them. When I was deciding on how I wanted my vocal approach to be, one of the things I was considering was shoegaze live and how it's very difficult to mix, especially in smaller clubs. From the top down, everyone has a little bit of struggle. I knew how the music was developing, so I needed a voice where I could compete with loud guitars but not always be full rock.

There are moments on the record where I accentuate more of this rocking voice, but what I described is sweet strength that has legs to it. I find that a lot with [Chet Baker]. I was listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Tears for Fears and stuff that has a dreamy bed of music but doesn't sacrifice the vocal to that sound. It has a very impactful voice on top of it to, in a way, compete.

It's a balancing act between insubstantial, wispy shoegaze vocals and, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Yes, yes, yes, exactly. I dabbled in both. There are so many demos, in part, because I wanted to record everything to hear it back. And, yes, I was going both directions and was hoping to find a middle ground, and maybe I did. I don't know. It's why songs like "In Blur" or "The Gnashing" have a different tonal quality than "Other Language" or "Great Mass of Color."

Chet kind of tossed his voice, but not flimsily. He owned the high notes.

It's that control. That's exactly what I mean. It's less breathy, less careless. They're not supposed to be what shines in shoegaze; it's just another textural element. And we didn't want to be a shoegaze band. I think while this record has a lot of that in there, I wouldn't call it that. Our defining marker was that vocal decision.

Fans glom onto one lyric or another with each Deafheaven record, but I feel like your lyrics remain weirdly underdiscussed. What can you tell me about your lyrical approach for this one? What are you reading lately?

Thank you. I'm into these lyrics. They're a real patchwork of all these different themes, and no song is about any singular thing, necessarily. They have major motifs, but it's all [multifaceted]. The reason is that, originally, I wanted it to be kind of a concept record surrounding family—estranged family, and how those figures find their way into your life in this bigger connection.

But through the course of years, I was reflecting so much on all the heightened emotion of 2020 and the California fires that were happening and the protests and all these things. Those were finding their way into the lyrics, and I just kind of made a patchwork of both things. There's equal parts familial reflection and a present-day doomsday feeling.

I'm trying to think of what I was reading. I've been reading a lot of political stuff in the last year and a half. I felt my headspace was in that area. But, yeah, a lot of Polish stuff. I was reading Aleksander Wat, Szymborska, Milosz. I was reading a lot of Lydia Davis. I got that essay and short story anthology she put out. That's some of them.

You post your photography on Instagram, and I know you put out a couple of books of poetry. It seems like you're finding ways to express yourself beyond this thing you do 10 months a year.

Yeah, I'd like to do more of that. I am doing more of that. Maybe since I turned 30, I've been in this highly motivated zone, just really wanting to do things. Last year probably perpetuated it some, but I'm just looking to be busy. I love all those steps—conceptualizing and then seeing something through, whether it's writing or photography or music. It's all kind of thrilling. I think all that stuff is just in an effort to keep my brain occupied.

Or maybe just becoming a more balanced human being?

And learning! I'd never picked up a camera. I got a camera a few years ago and, through books and YouTube and whatever else, and texting friends that shoot film, I learned all this stuff. I develop and scan everything at my place. It's been cool to exercise that muscle more.

How did you get over the hump of "amateur photography"?

Oh, I'm amateur hour through and through. I'm an absolute hobbyist. Thankfully, a couple of friends have asked me to take their photo and it's great practice, but anything that looks professional or set-up is just [me] having some fun with it. I've taken so many and there's a lot of s**t. My goal is always to have a high average of what I call "keeps" from each roll, and I'm still on the low. [Laughs.]

What's going through your head as you prepare to head back on tour? Do you feel apprehensive about how this material will be received? That some fans might just want the screaming songs?

Honestly, I think our audience is going to be accepting. The show is going to have a lot more [dynamism] now with these new songs. Overall, the picture will be more interesting and varied.

But there's a ton of thought going into the technical aspect of it. We got together a couple of months ago to run the songs as we'll be doing them. Everyone has in-ear monitors now and we have a totally different amp setup with tons of different pedal and synth configurations now. There's a click track, which we've never done before. So, there's different bridges to cross. 

If anything, that's where the nerves are coming from. But we have a lot of time and we are typically well-prepared people, so I feel really good. I feel mostly excited to play shows and see friends and see the country and hopefully see the world at some point soon and just get on with it.

And just play music without being a conversation piece?

If there's anything I want from people or from the record, it's just to take some time with it and to really listen to it. We put a lot of work into it. It's very detailed. When people receive the package, that aspect is very detailed as well. 

And it doesn't really need to be more than that. It's just a record.

The above was drawn from two conversations and has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Freddy Wexler On Helping Billy Joel "Turn The Lights Back On" — At The 2024 GRAMMYs And Beyond
Photo: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

(L-R) Billy Joel, Freddy Wexler

interview

Freddy Wexler On Helping Billy Joel "Turn The Lights Back On" — At The 2024 GRAMMYs And Beyond

"Part of what was so beautiful for me to see on GRAMMY night was the respect and adoration that people of all ages and from all genres have for Billy Joel," Wexler says of Joel's 2024 GRAMMYs performance of their co-written "Turn The Lights Back On."

GRAMMYs/Feb 26, 2024 - 09:11 pm

They say to not meet your heroes. But when Freddy Wexler — a lifelong Billy Joel fan — did just that, it was as if Joel walked straight out of his record collection.

"I think the truth is none of it is that surprising," the 37-year-old songwriter and producer tells GRAMMY.com. "That's the best part. From his music, I would've thought this is a humble, brilliant everyman who probably walks around with a very grounded perspective, and that's exactly who he is."

That groundedness made possible "Turn the Lights Back On" — the hit comeback single they co-wrote, and Wexler co-produced; Joel performed a resplendent version at the 2024 GRAMMYs with Laufey. Joel hadn't released a pop album since 1993's River of Dreams; for him to return to the throne would take an awfully demonstrative song, true to his life.

"I think it's a very raw, honest, real perspective that is true to Billy," Wexler explains. "I think it's the first time we've heard him acknowledge mistakes and regret in quite this way."

Specifically, Joel's return highlights his regret over spending three decades mostly on the bench, largely absent from the pop scene. As Joel wonders aloud in the stirring, arpeggiated chorus, "Is there still time for forgiveness?"

"Forgiveness" is a curious word. Why would the five-time GRAMMY winner and 23-time nominee possibly need to seek forgiveness? Regardless — as the song goes — he's "tryin' to find the magic/ That we lost somehow." The song's message — an attempt to recapture a lost essence — transcends Joel's personal headspace, connecting with a universal longing and nostalgia.

Read on for an interview with Wexler about the impact of "Turn the Lights Back On," why he thinks Joel took such an extended sabbatical, the prospect of more new music, and much more.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

**You did a great interview with Rolling Stone ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs. Now, we're on the other side of it; you got to see how it went down on the telecast, and resonated with the audience and world. What was that like?**

It's why I make music — to hopefully make people feel something. This song has really resonated in such a big way. More than looking at its commercial success on the charts or on radio, which has been awesome to see, the comments on Instagram and YouTube have been the most rewarding part of it.

Why do you think it resonated? Beyond the king picking up his crown again?

I don't think the song is trying to be anything it's not. I think it's a very raw, honest, real perspective that is true to Billy. I think it's the first time we've heard him acknowledge mistakes and regret in quite this way. And to hear him do it in a hopeful way where he's asking, "Is it too late for forgiveness?" is just very moving, I think.

Forgiveness? That's interesting. What would any of us need to forgive him?

He has said in other interviews, "Sometimes people say they have no regrets at the end of their life." And he said, "I don't think that's possible. If you've lived a full life, of course you have regrets." He has said that he has many things he wishes he would've done differently. This is an opportunity to express that.

I think what's interesting about the song is it has found meaning in various ways with various people and listeners. Some people imagine Billy is singing to former lovers or friends. Other people imagine Billy is singing to his fans asking, "Did I wait too long to record again?" Other people wonder if Billy is singing to the songwriting Gods and muses. Did I wait too long to write again?

In Israel, where the song was number one — or is number one, I haven't checked today — I think the song's taken on the meaning of just wanting things to be normal, wanting hostages to come home and turn the lights back on. So, you never know where a song is going to resonate, but I think that Billy just found his own meaning with it.

You know the discography front to back. What lines can you draw from "Turn the Lights Back On" to past works?

I think it draws on various pieces of his catalog, right? "She's Always a Woman" has a sort of piano arpeggio in the chorus. To me, it feels like a natural progression. It feels like, on the one hand, it's a new song. On the other, it could have come out right after River of Dreams. To me, it just kind of feels natural.

**Back when you spoke with Rolling Stone, you said you couldn't wait to hear "Turn the Lights Back On" at Madison Square Garden. How'd it sound?**

Amazing. Billy is a consummate live performer. I think he's one of the few artists where everything is better live, and everything is always a little bit different each time it's played live.

It's been really cool to watch Billy and the band continue to change and improve the song and the song's dynamics for the show. He told me tonight that tomorrow night in Tampa, I think they're going to try to play with the key of the song, potentially — try it a half a step higher.

Those are the sort of things I think great artists do, right? It's different from being on a certain type of tour where every single song is the same, the set list is the same, the key is the same, the arrangements are the same.

With Billy, there's a lot of feeling and, "Hey, why don't we try it this way? Let's play it a little faster. Let's play it a little slower. Let's try it in a different key." I just think that's super cool. You have to be a really good musician to just do that on the fly.

What have you learned from him that applies to your music making, writ large?

I've learned so much from him. As Olivia Rodrigo said to us at GRAMMY rehearsals, "He's the blueprint when it comes to songwriting."

He has helped raise the bar for me when it comes to melodies and lyrics, but the thing I keep coming back to is he's reminded me that even the greatest artists and songwriters ever sometimes forget how great they are. I think we need to be careful not to give that inner voice and inner critic too much power.

Can you talk about how the music video came to be?

Well, I had a dream that Billy was singing the opening two lines of the song, but it was a 25-year-old version of Billy. It was arresting.

When I woke up, I sort of had the vision for the video, which was one set, an empty venue of some kind, and four Billy Joels. The Billy Joel that really exists today, but then three Billys from three iconic eras where each Billy would seamlessly pick up the song where the other left off.

The idea behind that was to sort of accentuate the question of the song — did I wait too long to turn the lights back on?

And so, to kind of take us through time and through all these years, I teamed up with an amazing co-director, Warren Fu, who's done everything from Dua Lipa to Daft Punk, and an artificial intelligence company called Deep Voodoo to make that vision possible.

What I'm driven by is the opportunity to create conversations, cultural moments, things that make people feel something. What was cool here is as scary as AI is — and I think it is scary in many ways — we were able to give an example of how you can use it in a positive way to execute a creative artistic vision that previously would've been impossible to execute.

Yeah, so I'm pleased with it and I'm thankful that Billy did a video. He didn't have to do one, but he liked the idea of it. He felt it was different, and I think he was moved by it as well.

What do you think is the next step here?

It's been a really rewarding process. And Billy is open-minded, which is really cool for an artist of that level, who's not a new artist by any stretch. To actually be described as being in a place in his life where he's open-minded, means anything is possible. I could tell you that I would love there to be more music.

I'd love to get your honest appraisal. And I know you're not him. But his last pop album was released 31 years ago. In that long interim, what do you think was going on with him, creatively?

Look, I'm not Billy Joel, but I think there were a number of factors going on with him. Somewhere along the way, I think he stopped having fun with music, which is the reason he got into it, or which is a big part of the reason he got into it. When it stopped being fun, I don't think he really wanted to do it anymore.

Another piece to it is that Billy is a perfectionist, and that perfectionism is evident in the caliber of his songwriting. Having always written 100 percent of his songs, Billy at some point probably found that process to be painstaking, to try to hit that bar where he's probably wondering in his head, What would Beethoven think of this? What would Leonard Bernstein think of this?

I think part of what was different here was that, perhaps, there was something liberating about "Turn the Lights Back On" being a seed that was brought to Billy. In this way, he could be a little disconnected from it, where maybe he didn't have to have the self-imposed pressure that he would if it was an idea that he'd been trying to finish for a while.

Ironically, he still made it. Well, there's no "ironically," but I think that's it. There's something to that.

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Inside Residente's 'Las Letras Ya No Importan': How His New Album Shows The Rapper In Transition
Residente

Photo: 5020 Records

interview

Inside Residente's 'Las Letras Ya No Importan': How His New Album Shows The Rapper In Transition

"It’s an album that marks a musical transition for what’s coming for me," Residente says about his sophomore record, 'Las Letras Ya No Importan.'

GRAMMYs/Feb 26, 2024 - 08:07 pm

Puerto Rican rapper Residente wants to embark on new adventures.  

The artist born René Pérez Joglar has dreams of directing movies and acting, writing books, and making for pleasure — not to pay the bills. These goals reflect a new attitude, one resulting from time spent reflecting on the passage of time and the presence of death.

Residente's sophomore album, Las Letras Ya No Importan (Lyrics No Longer Matter), echoes this transitory period. An extensive body of work, featuring 23 tracks, with several songs surpassing the five-minute mark. Las Letras is an act of deeply intimate rebellion.

"It’s a very personal album, and I sought to connect with myself in many moments throughout," Residente tells GRAMMY.com. 

While Las Letras explores topics already a hallmark of his music — the music industry, political systems, Puerto Rico — it's also exceedingly vulnerable. The 28-time Latin GRAMMY and four-time GRAMMY winner opens up about depression and personal relationships, and confronts mortality.

Lead single "313" is inspired by Residente's late friend Valentina, whose voice appears in the first interlude. As Residente recounted to El País of Spain and GQ Spain, Valentina was a violist, and the last messages they exchanged on WhatsApp were at 3:13.

The song begins with a French verse, fulfilling Valentina’s wish, expressed in the first interlude, to do something in that language. "Les paroles n'ont pas d'importance," (words no longer matter), a female voice whispers, followed by a spectacular string arrangement.

Residente revisited older works during this period of creative transition, and the record features previously released tracks  "René," "This Is America," and "Quiero Ser Baladista."

 Las Letras Ya No Importan features many collaborations, with actress Penélope Cruz, Spanish singer Silvia Pérez Cruz, Rauw Alejandro, Ricky Martin, Christian Nodal, Arcángel, Jessie Reyez and others making appearances. Hip-hop icon Busta Rhymes is featured on "Cerebro," while Big Daddy Kane makes an appearance on "Estilo Libre" with Vico C.

GRAMMY.com spoke with Residente via Zoom about the process that led him to his second album, the symbolism behind "313" and the artistic connection to Spain.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to create Las Letras Ya No Importan?

It’s an album that marks a musical transition for what’s coming for me. It feels diverse; it also has songs with which I may not feel as connected [to] now because several years have passed since I made them. There are newer songs with which I do connect, which have a bit more to do with the way I want to start working on my music in the future.

"René" is part of this album, even though it came out four years ago. This is an album I was going to release during the pandemic. 

We have "René," which is very personal; we have "313," which I also feel is personal; then "Ron en el piso," [a song about the passage] of time, the collaboration with Nodal ("Pólvora de Ayer") also touches on the theme of time, of enjoying everything.

You confront death in several songs. In "René," you sang about losing a friend; in "Ron en el piso," you see your funeral; and in "313," you draw inspiration from your late friend Valentina. What is it about death that inspires you?

It’s something I’ve been going through in recent years. I lost many people I love, and it made me much more reflective when it comes to understanding time, the things I want to do, and the things I’ve stopped doing.

That’s why I’m also transitioning to cinema. I’ve always wanted to make films, directing, being behind the scenes, not being on stage.  I’m crazy about dedicating myself entirely to that.

I discovered acting now in a movie I starred in [In the Summers] that won the Jury Award at Sundance. When I saw it, I didn’t know I was the protagonist until I watched it. [The film] encouraged me to follow that too, and I’m going to want to act, direct; I want to dedicate myself to that for a while fully.

The album has a lot of life, and even though the lyrics no longer matter, you still have much to tell. You already said the album is very personal, but how would you describe it?

I can describe it in two years, not right now. It’s transitional. That’s what happened with Calle 13; everything was a musical and lyrical change from the second album onwards.

Residente represented a fusion of world music and rap. Now, in this one, I’m using a lot of strings, cellos, and double bass. I’m going to experiment a lot with different instruments in different ways. I’m going to be creative without the need to balance the album.

What’s coming next doesn’t have that artistic pressure. The only artistic pressure I want to have is to do the highest I can, which happens organically, not feeling pressured but naturally.

I want to do art as I did in college [at Savannah College of Art and Design]. I was never thinking about people or trying to convince anyone, and I was completely free, and that’s what happened with "313." I had the freedom I always wanted to have.

There’s substantial symbolism in "313," from the faceless dancers, the color pink. What was your vision with the visuals?

The dancers represent time. Penélope [Cruz] can represent many things, from life to Valentina, my friend, who inspired me to make the song. Penélope controls me, holds me, flies me, brings me back, and then I decide to control my life and time. That’s why I raise my hands, and everyone raises them, and time is running out, and then you see a sunset.

Sunset marks the end of something. The colors of the costumes also have some dusk elements. You can see at the end when I’m disappearing; it fades and blends with the end of the sunset.

These are decisions I make that are both aesthetic and technical. I put masks on the dancers because I liked it aesthetically. It also helped me speed up the process with makeup. I had to find creative ways to maintain the video’s aesthetics and make everything more agile because in filming, everything is time, and I had little of it.

What’s the idea behind the song "Las Letras Ya No Importan?"The arrangement is magical, with a numerical sequence from one to eight in different languages and a voice spelling of the alphabet.

That was the initial track. Before "313," I had this idea that I dreamed of with some basic notes, and it turned into something big.

There’s a voiceover of Penélope [Cruz] that says that we were eight [people in the studio], we are on an 8th street in New York, in studio B, which, if you look at it, it resembles the number 8. Everything connected with eight and [that number] also at a time level can mark infinity. So, I connected all that with the immensity of letters and languages. That piece’s runtime is five minutes. I think it’s pleasurable. I like that music, which resembles what I want to do.

Leo Genovese, an excellent musician and musical genius, made the arrangements. I greatly respect him.

In "Cerebro," you showcase your skill and vocal speed; what was it like collaborating with Busta Rhymes, whose own flow is iconic?

We met, and he loved the concept of what I was working on. He was a very humble, good person to me. After we met in person and talked for a while, he went to write after I sent him everything I had written in English.

I created ["Cerebro"] a while ago…. That’s why I tell you that the album has several concepts that I had to let go of because it was too much, and a lot of time had passed. I had a previous concept when I released the song "René" [in 2020], which is why it’s on the album. [At that time] I was working with the brain waves of different animals and people, and I made music with those brain waves.

This song ["Cerebro"] is part of that, and that’s why it’s called "Cerebro." The album was originally going to go that route. Then I didn’t do it; maybe I’ll connect to it in the future because I loved that idea.

What has Spain meant to you? The country has been so prominent in the trailers you’ve released and in the collaborations in your latest songs.

I've been making frequent trips to Madrid. This past year, I was there a lot; I was more in Madrid than at home. I traveled, wrote, and filmed videos like "Problema cabrón" and "313."

 I grew up with Spanish cinema by Almodovar and a bunch of directors I admire, and I wanted to collaborate with the actors I grew up watching in movies.

This album has many personal elements, and cinema is very intimate for me. I saw [Penelope Cruz] in [the movie] Abre los ojos when I was a kid; working with her now is a dream. The same goes with Javier Cámara and Najwa (Nimri) [who is in the film] Lovers of the Arctic Circle by Julio Medem. I saw all these people, and now being able to collaborate with them, be friends with them, talk to them is a dream. Everything is very connected to my life.

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Positive Vibes Only: 'Choirmaster' Ricky Dillard Shares The Joy Of Worship In A Live Performance Of "Bless Your Name"
Ricky Dillard

Photo: Courtesy of Ricky Dillard

video

Positive Vibes Only: 'Choirmaster' Ricky Dillard Shares The Joy Of Worship In A Live Performance Of "Bless Your Name"

With the help of a choir and band, worship musician Ricky Dillard leads a heartfelt performance of "Bless Your Name," one of the tracks from his latest album, 'Choirmaster II.'

GRAMMYs/Feb 26, 2024 - 07:30 pm

On his newest project, GRAMMY-nominated musician Ricky Dillard uses his impact to unveil the peace and hope that arrives while worshiping God.

"I believe Choirmaster II is not just an album; it's a divine encounter," he explains in a press statement. "Each song is a testament to the faithfulness of God and the joy that comes from praising Him. I poured my heart and soul into this project and believe it will resonate with audiences and serve as inspiration for years to come."

In this episode of Positive Vibes Only, Dillard offers a live performance of one of those glorifying hymns, "Bless Your Name," accompanied by a choir and band.

"No other name shall be exalted/ No other name shall be praised/ No compares to all you do/ We will bless Your name," the chorus cheers in the intro verse. Midway through the performance, soloist Annalisha Jacobs steps in with her electrifying vocals to help take the moving performance home.

In addition to the release of Choirmaster II, Dillard also served as the gospel music arranger for the 2023 adaptation of The Color Purple, starring Fantasia, Taraji P. Henson, and more, and made a cameo in the film.

Press play on the video above to watch Ricky Dillard's comforting performance of "Bless Your Name," and check back to GRAMMY.com every Monday for more new episodes of Positive Vibes Only.

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