Photo: Hart Lëshkina
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arca Is Expanding Latin Music On Her Terms With Electronic Album ‘KiCK i’
Electronic artist Arca's poppiest album yet, 'KiCK i,' expands Latin music outside its traditional boundaries—and now she has a GRAMMY nomination for it
Last year saw the demise and birth of many worlds. But despite the upheaval, Alejandra Ghersi, the avant-garde electronic music artist known as Arca, streamlined her approach and delivered her most palatable album yet, KiCK i.
Fans of the singer/songwriter and producer know her for her boundless, experimental approach to music-making. Her textured sound design includes instrumentals, futuristic effects and haunting, ceremonial vocals. KiCK i, released June of 2020, is an out-of-this-world bilingual sonic experience that marries the two sounds that raised her: electronic music and reggaeton.
To the Barcelona-based, Venezuelan-born artist, reggaeton and electronic music are one and the same. Reggaeton relies "on the loop of electronic instrumentation," she explains via Zoom. With this album, Arca is taking Latin music’s biggest sound to new dimensions outside of the traditional Latin music world.
The intent is GRAMMY-worthy. KiCK i is nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards. And it has a place on the dancefloor—hip-shaking tracks like "KLK" with Spanish sensation Rosalía and Venezuela’s Cardopusher are pop songs at their core even as Arca maintains her experimental vision.
The album's 12 songs mix reggaeton’s infectious rhythms with heavy, emotive synth sounds and robotic vocals. And the complex themes of identity in tracks like "Nonbinary" and "Machote" are as relevant and cutting-edge as the sound itself. She’s known for her contradictory nature—when asked about the songs, she responds, "There are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in the binary, and there are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in not having to put everything into one of those two boxes."
Recently, Arca spoke with GRAMMY.com about how her transition influenced the expansion of her sound on KiCK i, working with the late singer/producer Sophie on the album and creating reggaeton with Rosalía.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What about the creative process or the creating process gets you excited?
It tends to be the part of making a song or being on set where I'm not in control of what the outcome will be. My favorite part of making something is not necessarily the part that entails having a vision and figuring out how to execute it, but rather the element of surprise that emerges when there's maybe a beautiful mistake or an accidental discovery.
So you don't mind not being in control?
Oh, I crave that. I think in my day-to-day, I want to be in control of my feelings or my practice.
What drew you to electronic music?
I have a brother seven years older, and I would often borrow his music—sometimes without permission. I think his musical tastes left a big influence on me. He had a lot of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher. He had a few Björk records that were very formative in my musical heritage [and] instruction.
Also, I loved electronic music on the radio. Pretty much all the musical genres that I gravitated to when I was a kid were electronic in some way—even if it was like future-leaning R&B. There was [also always] reggaeton on the radio in Venezuela. I considered reggaeton electronic music.
That’s interesting. Tell me more.
It really does rely on the loop of electronic instrumentation.
Before I come back to that thought, I want to get into your music. Your last album, Arca, was experimental. KiCK i is a bit more pop. How did that shift happen?
I can't answer that without mentioning the beginning of my transition. I think the self-titled record was more of like a swan song, as if I was letting go or mourning. When I wrote that record, I was walking in a cemetery every day by my house. It was pretty goth. Beyond emo. After that, I came to terms with a few things and decided to share them with the world.
The immediate result was something more celebrational. I didn't really want to preach to the choir, so to speak. There was a focused intention to try to reach people that might not share the same views as me—but to entice them or invite them by making something beautiful enough or entertaining enough that would compel people to think about the fact that we're each kind of mutants in our own way.
At the same time, we're all brought together in being unique. I don't know how to explain it. I think it's something that's more a result of living and finding a queer family after I left Venezuela when I was 17 years old. The values and the ways of making a new family or finding yourself to be part of a community that you didn't realize existed, it all ties into the reasons why the record sounds so different.
You mentioned people who have different values than you, and then you cited queerness. Is that what you mean by people who have different views?
Definitely, but only because I think everyone is queer. You can self-identify as queer or not, but I think we're all on a spectrum.I don't think it should be something exclusive. It should be something inclusive. I think also each individual has multiple souls. That's something that I talked about a lot on Kick I—that we all have more than one state.
I want to make space for each of those to be able to coexist in the same space, not just tolerate each other, but in a harmonious way. I think queerness isn't something that should make anyone feel like an outsider. If anything, it should make everyone feel like part of the same thing.
You have a song called "Nonbinary," but you also have a song called "Machote," which means "man" in Spanish. Why did you decide to name the songs that?
I didn't want to force people into thinking that by being non-binary, you're renouncing the heritage and tradition of these charges between masculinity and femininity. If anything, I wanted each woman to recognize the man inside them and each man to recognize the woman inside them. The words "woman" [and] "man" mean different things to each person.
My idea was that you can know who you are without needing to only choose one side of you. It's like the sun and the moon. I want it to have the pleasure and the joy and the sparks that can fly off of the tension between hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity in the case of "Machote."
At the same time, there are instances where thinking in terms of masculinity and femininity as a binary might not be useful. I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. There are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in the binary, and there are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in not having to put everything into one of those two boxes.
It was a very nuanced message and a layered one that I understood was contradictory upon the moment of sharing it. That was kind of the point.
How did reggaeton and trap make it into the album?
Part of the lifeblood that has nurtured me was music that I heard on the radio. Music that reached me, through not just academic and performance, in more of a popular sense. One of the contradictions I like to relish in is to not think of my practice as academic, but also not to think of it as just entertainment.
Did you plan on making the track of the Rosalía reggaeton since the beginning?
No. Actually, that's not the first song that we've made together. It just happened to be the first song we've been able to share. I'm glad that ["KLK" is] the first one because I'm really proud of it. I hope the other ones make it too, but at the same time, I don't think that our sound has to be shared with an audience for it to be real or for it to mean something.
I'm happy that we've made songs. Whether or not they see the light of day and are shared with audiences is secondary, almost, but I love her so much.
What about the song makes you proud of it?
I want to mention Cardopusher. It was between the three of us that the song came to be. So, I want to do more than a shout-out. I think the lifeblood of that song, the melody that is very hypnotic and has given the song so much of its energy was Cardopusher’s musicality. It's not just Rosalía. It's Rosalía, Cardopusher and I.
It's very important because the collaboration feels like a triangle. I've known him since I was, like, 14 years old. He was and is a local hero in the scene of Caracas. So, I'm proud for, I guess, being a bridge too, between Cardopusher and Rosalía. I'm proud to be a part of that song.
I'm proud because those are the rhythms that Luis and I grew up with, and I know Rosalía really appreciates them too. I love the song because I think it's infectious, but not 100 percent digestible in a pleasant way.
I have noticed that about your music. Some things about it are more poppy and accessible than others. Are you ever concerned about it not being palatable enough for broader audiences?
All the time. It's my nightmare to think that I might make something that means much more to me than it could mean to an audience. I always want to make it possible for people to have their own reading of things without making it sound too abstract. That's something I find myself never figuring out.
Your music is at the intersection of so many things. You're creating a new space for Latinx music outside its traditional boundaries. Do you think so too?
That's the goal. I don't know if I can answer that. I think that's for other Latinx musicians to answer, but that is honestly the goal.
And I think that your music is necessary for that—to push those audiences.
Bless you, for saying so. Thank you.
On the album, you worked with Sophie as well. What did working with Sophie mean to you?
It meant a lot. It's an emotional subject because it's very recent that she passed, and I find myself still processing the emotional side of that. What I can say right now, honestly, that I feel nothing short of an honor to have been able to make music with her and have that connection and be a part of my life for many years.
We met each other before either of us transitioned, so there was this very profound parallel and also similarities and also contrasts. I think Sophie is a genius. Period. She will forever remain someone that inspires me. We had so many plans. We were making so many plans to tour together.
The track with Sophie, "La Chiqui," is more experimental than some of the others. What do you enjoy about playing with sounds?
I like the idea of combining things that haven’t been combined: languages, good print, times, different eras, different materials, even fantasy worlds, like science fiction versus fantasy. Maybe even interpreting traditional things with more contemporary leanings, or interpreting more contemporary ideas through traditional classical beauty.
I try to find combinations that surprise me and hopefully can produce a sense of wonder. Or, at least, inspiration.
This album is nominated for a GRAMMY. How do you feel about that?
I’m still pinching myself. I can't say that I've taken it all in. Interviews like this one are what help it feel more real because I didn't even know that was possible.
When the label mentioned that it was nominated, I wasn't even told that it was a possible candidate. It's a great honor because I've studied not just music, but the history of recorded music. The GRAMMYs are very much about albums, which is a format that I'll always believe in. And then to have the recognition and the honor of it being nominated for me is already more than enough. It just gives me a lot of fuel to keep doing what I'm doing as best as I can.
Outside of your music, what do you want to be known for?
That’s a big question. I want to be known for not ever fully being known. I'd like to remain something of a mystery. I'd like to make it so that if you study my tracks, or the gestures, or the decisions that I took throughout the course of my career as a musician or as an artist working in more than one medium, it would be to make it hard for people to reverse-engineer and figure out who I was without hiding from people.
To find this place where people can feel like they don't have to know exactly who I was in order for my work to mean something to them—that would make me happy.
Burna Boy accepts his 2021 GRAMMY
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Burna Boy Wins Best Global Music Album For 'Twice As Tall' | 2021 GRAMMY Awards Show
The Nigerian powerhouse Burna Boy takes home Best Global Music Album at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony
Burna Boy won Best Global Music Album for Twice As Tall at the Premiere Ceremony of the 63rd GRAMMY Awards. This marks his first career GRAMMY win. They are the first winner of the recently renamed category, formerly known as Best World Music Album. Watch his heart-warming acceptance speech below, given in English and Yoruba.
Later, Burna gave a fire performance to close out the Premiere Ceremony, featuring two Twice As Tall tracks—watch it here.
Stay tuned to GRAMMY.com for all things GRAMMY Awards (including the Premiere Ceremony livestream), and make sure to watch the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show, airing live on CBS and Paramount+ tonight, Sun., March 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT.
Check out all the complete 2021 GRAMMY Awards show winners and nominees list here.
Watch The 2021 GRAMMYs Nominations Livestream Online In Full
Relive the 2021 GRAMMYs nominations livestream event and find out which of your favorite artists got nominated for the 63rd GRAMMY Awards
Updated Jan. 5, 2021.
The 2021 GRAMMYs nominations are finally here! Earlier today (Nov. 24), the Recording Academy announced nominees in 83 categories for the 63rd GRAMMY Awards during an hour-long livestream on GRAMMY.com for the first time ever.
Relive the livestream experience in its entirety above, and find out which of your favorite artists got nominated for the 2021 GRAMMYs.
The 63rd GRAMMY Awards will be broadcast in HDTV and 5.1 surround sound on the CBS Television Network, Sunday, March 14, 2021.
Backstage At The 63rd GRAMMYs: Brandi Carlile Praises The "Artistic Threads That Chain Us All Together" Ahead Of Music’s Biggest Night
Brandi Carlile, a singer-songwriter and Highwomen member, is up for Best Country Song and Best Song Written For Visual Media at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show
What is Brandi Carlile thinking about as she prepares to find out if she’ll win Best Country Song (for "Crowded Table") or Best Song Written For Visual Media (for "Carried Me With You" from Pixar’s Onward)?
Above all, she’s ruminating on the often unspoken rapport musicians share.
"It feels so good to be on set and see people around," a grinning Carlile says in the latest episode of Backstage At The 63rd GRAMMYs. "That’s one of the things I love about the music business the most, is that everybody has these artistic threads that chain us all together."
Carlile, who also performs in the country rockers The Highwomen, goes on to note that the GRAMMYs' celebratory nature is a peer-to-peer phenomenon. "Nothing feels better than getting recognized by other people that you admire," she continues, "and getting to show other people that you’re recognizing their work."
Check out the complete list of nominees at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show, watch Carlile’s pre-show expressions above and don’t forget to tune into the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show this Sunday, March 14 to watch Brandi Carlile perform—and find out if she will win!
Photo: Brian Ziff
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: How Illenium Went From An "Obsessed" Dance Music Fan To An Arena-Filling DJ & Producer
With his fourth LP, 'Fallen Embers,' Illenium kicked off a new era that blends his love for electronic music and pop-punk. As he celebrates a GRAMMY nod, the producer looks back on his journey to stardom and shares how the dance genre changed his life.
Growing up, Nick Miller never really listened to dance music. Now, he's one of the genre's most prolific stars, better known as Illenium — and is celebrating a GRAMMY nomination as a result.
Illenium's fourth album, 2021's Fallen Embers, is up for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. It's a pinnacle moment for Miller, who became "obsessed" with the electronic music world in 2009, launched his career with a self-released EP in 2013, then made his major-label debut in 2016.
Since then, Illenium has put out three more LPs and countless singles, teaming up with fellow dance titans like Gryffin and the Chainsmokers, as well as a variety of singers, from Georgia Ku to Jon Bellion. His versatility is perhaps most apparent on Fallen Embers, which features Tori Kelly, iann dior and Thirty Seconds to Mars, among others.
Though he's already teasing new music — which will debut during Illenium's set at Miami's Ultra Music Festival on March 26 — the producer/DJ feels the next chapter of his career truly began with Fallen Embers. With a GRAMMY nomination to validate his new direction, it may really just be the beginning.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Illenium to discuss the importance of Fallen Embers, how he transitioned from the crowd to the stage, and the role music played in changing — and saving — his life.
What initially made you realize that you were interested in producing — and that you were actually pretty good at it?
I started messing around in GarageBand in high school, and it introduced me to the idea of spending time creating something — even though that stuff back then was really bad. I moved to Colorado, and had some life-changing moments, and I started putting a lot of my time into it. A lot of the encouragement I got from friends, even though it was just mediocre music, was really exciting.
I was writing for music blogs, and I just loved the whole electronic music scene at that time. I would try to create what my idols were doing, and try to learn how they were doing it. I became obsessed, passionate and excited. I got addicted to trying to make songs. The feeling of doing it yourself, and being able to control every aspect of that, was really addicting.
I went to a Red Rocks show in 2012, and seeing that community, especially in Colorado — the Denver-based music scene is really tight-knit and communal, and it's really genuine. It was just really special. It was an experience that really drove me to want to succeed in it.
Was dance music your No. 1 genre growing up?
No, not at all. I didn't listen to much dance music until, like, 2009. I first got into it when I was living in San Francisco. I really liked a lot of the house stuff and trance, and then once I moved to Colorado, it turned into the bass music scene.
I grew up listening to a lot of pop-punk and rock, and my family listens to country a lot. A lot of hip-hop [too]. So I was all over the place in middle school and high school.
That's kind of all I listen to now. I listen to some pop, and a little bit of hip-hop, but it's almost all rock music and pop-punk.
Considering you were a teenager during the pop-punk explosion of the mid-2000s, that makes sense.
Totally. I feel like there's so much emotion and — it's not even aggression, but it's like, intensity, in that kind of music, where it can be really pretty melodically or lyrically, but the instrumental stuff behind it just like, hits. It hits me more than a lot of electronic music does nowadays. So I think that's why I'm transferring it into my type of thing.
Fallen Embers is the first album that doesn't start with "A," but its title still fits into the overall theme that Ashes, Awake and Ascend present. What's the story behind that?
My logo is a phoenix, [because] the imagery behind the phoenix really relates to me and the music that I make, and why I make music in the first place. So my first three albums were kind of this whole birth cycle of a phoenix. They all started with "A," it was a trilogy of that cycle. So Fallen Embers was kind of my take on what pieces were left — the embers fallen from the phoenix throughout that whole journey.
I made that album when I wasn't touring, and that's the first album I made in a long time [that] I wasn't touring, because I've been touring like crazy. It turned out much more calm and much more like a recharge album for me. Lyrically, it [details] the ebbs and flows of a relationship — it doesn't have to be a relationship, but just through finding yourself, and forgiving yourself for making mistakes and moving on.
Sonically, Fallen Embers has more rock elements. It's definitely calmer than Ascend. I love emotional music, so my music is always going to have an emotional aspect to it. That is not going to change. But I don't want to just keep repeating and chasing [the same sound], so now I'm moving very — like, totally — different, post-Fallen Embers. Fallen Embers, for me, was like a farewell, almost. I just wanted to be very clear that that was a trilogy, and now we're departed.
When you announced Fallen Embers, you said this is "the start of a new chapter." So is that kind of what you were talking about?
Yeah. I've been in LA five out of the past six months to start from scratch and write rock songs, and heavy aggressive s***, because I feel like I took a break and made music that's kind of calm. Now I'm [going] a little more aggressive and adding some metal aspects.
There's this middle ground of electronic, rock and metal that can be really cool. And I feel like there's a lot of people doing similar stuff, but the songs can be really authentic and healing to people — right now, especially.
You also said this album was "an incredibly personal journey for me." Since it was so personal for you, did you see an even more meaningful impact from these songs?
Yeah. I mean, these past two years have been really challenging for a lot of people, myself included. Especially since shows have come back, you can definitely see in people the excitement to get a release of some sort. And to [just] enjoy — it's hard after a long time of people just going through the motions.
Especially in the electronic music scene, a lot of these people use these shows and the music for their healing and their escape. And that's really important for 'em. So to be able to give them a show and also give them new music, and see how that music has been their kind of crutch this past year, has been really beautiful for me.
You had everyone from Tori Kelly to Angels and Airwaves on Fallen Embers. What goes into finding the right vocalist for a track?
It's a mix. A lot of it is availability-based. When I first am working on a song, especially if it's a demo, it'd be like, "Who would sound good on this?" The "Blame Myself" demo had Emily Warren, who has a really amazing voice, and a very unique tone. So it's hard to fill that.
You get this thing called "demoitis," where you're used to the demo so much, it's hard to separate. But you've got to just find the right vocalist that is gonna bring her own or his own whole attitude to it. And you just kind of have to sit with it for a second because you're so obsessed with the first version.
It's not about, necessarily, the skill of singing. It's a lot of tone. Sonically, how you make a whole song, and you have a vocal in there, you need someone that fits that exact same spot. And that can be really challenging.
For "Paper Thin" with Tom and Angels and Airwaves, that was just a bucket list [thing] for me, I've always wanted to work with him. When we sent it to him, we were like, "They're probably not going to do this." Same with Jared [Leto, Thirty Seconds to Mars' frontman]. I'm the biggest fan of all of the people I collaborated with, so it's really been special.
I feel like a lot of people who aren't as familiar with the dance music scene may assume that producers like you, who aren't on their tracks vocally, might not write them. But you, and people like Kygo and Zedd — all of these huge names in the producer world — have proven that wrong. Do you feel like that's a common misconception?
I think there's always gonna be a misconception of a DJ/producer type thing. I don't think there's any way to get around it, unfortunately. But at the end of the day, it's okay. People [who like] different music have a whole different perspective.
When people see "DJ," they're like, "Oh, like, Vegas DJ. Throw a party!" They have no idea the complexities that go behind that. There are some producers out there that can do insane stuff. It's hard to even start describing that. There's some songs where we start with a guitar, and we write from scratch. It's just about having an ear for what is going to be successful, and also just having an ear of what you enjoy.
In 2018, you shared a really personal story about how music changed your life. Was it a certain song, album or artist that did that for you? Or was it being able to use the music that you were creating as your outlet? Or a combination of both?
It's definitely a mixture of both. When I turned my life around from that time period, it was a mixture of getting so curious about music production, but I was also obsessed with music — I was like, "How do these producers create these things?"
That little thought sparked so much curiosity in me, and [I] wanted to figure out how to implement my love for music and love for different genres. For it to change my life, it had to have all of those aspects — being obsessed with music, loving other people's music, and wanting to create my own.
Doing an action in one of those phases every day is what got me going and got me into the scene, and into my career. But also [made me] confident with myself and feeling like I had some sort of purpose. It was a really healing process for me, because I was kind of a s***show before that. I needed something to put all of my energy into, and something that my family supported, and I had friends that supported me. So that was just really cool.
When I was so low, I had no faith in myself at all. You just have no confidence, and you're pretty broken. For you to even have an idea of "I might be good at something" or "I might get good at something if I work hard enough at it and I love it," then it's just full speed ahead.
What does 2012 Nick at Red Rocks think of 2022 Nick being a GRAMMY-nominated producer?
It's just mind-blowing. You know, I told myself when I saw the Red Rocks show in 2012, I was like, "Maybe in 10 years, I'll get to play at Red Rocks." I wasn't even saying headline or anything, just play at Red Rocks. I apparently set a very low goal for myself. [Laughs.]
Constantly having goals set and then reaching them throughout my whole career has been amazing, but it's crazy to think about being a GRAMMY-nominated artist. That is a whole different world that I never even thought — I just got into bass music and EDM, you know? To think of that transition, that's crazy.