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Why The Police’s 'Synchronicity' — Their Final, Fraught Masterpiece — Still Resonates After 40 Years
Released on June 17, 1983, 'Synchronicity' became the band’s biggest commercial success. It was also the Police's final album. Forty years since its release, the "dream-like musical tour" remains a culturally significant sonic exploration.
Flash back to December 1982: A band on the brink of breakup arrives on the volcanic island of Montserrat for six weeks to record what would become their final album.
This six-week sojourn was bittersweet for the Police, whose days and nights spent holed up in George Martin’s AIR Studios resulted in Synchronicity. The British rock trio's fifth album took its title from a word coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who speculated that paranormal events had a basis in physical nature; its themes nodded to Arthur Koestler’s 1972 book The Roots of Confidence.
This Caribbean retreat proved to be a reflective, if not fortuitous setting — while the volcano was inactive during their sessions, there certainly were a lot of eruptions and hot heads between members. By the time the band arrived on Montserrat, frontman and chief songwriter Sting had outgrown the Police in stature; the trio had also taken a sabbatical to pursue solo projects following the release of 1981's Ghost in the Machine. While recording "Every Breath You Take," Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland came to fisticuffs. No one doubted the end was nigh.
This underlying tension shapes the mood of Synchronicity, and its songs are like a weed in your garden. Even after you pull it out, it always returns to remind you that the struggle is real. Despite these conflicts and the unraveling of the band in real-time, the resulting record was well-received by critics and the public.
Released on June 17, 1983, Synchronicity became the band’s biggest commercial success. The record hit No. 1 on both the U.S. and the U.K. Billboard 200 charts and spent 17 nonconsecutive weeks in the top spot — selling more than eight million copies in the U.S. alone. At the 26th GRAMMY awards, Synchronicity received five nominations and took home three golden gramophones: Best Rock Performance by a Group or Duo with Vocal for "Synchronicity II"; Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "Every Breath You Take"; Sting also took home a GRAMMY for Song of the Year for composing this megahit.
This success vaulted the trio to "biggest band in the world" status. But, due to infighting, their domination did not last long. After a world tour throughout 1984 to promote Synchronicity, Sting officially left the band.
Adding to the growing tension, both lead vocalist Sting and guitarist Andy Summers' marriages were collapsing during this period. Betrayal and suffering hang heavy throughout Synchronicity. This is best illustrated in "King of Pain," the final single released from the album, where the imagery of "a little black spot on the sun today" captures Sting’s temporal malaise but remains resonant.
Lyrically, Synchronicity is a final document, even a legacy, made amid creative conflicts and tumultuous times. Yet what makes the record still resonate after four decades is its dense sonic layers and the trio’s musical experimentation that influenced future artists and recordings.
Synchronicity also endures for the way it stands apart from other 1980s modern rock albums. It mingles musical styles — new wave, post-punk, reggae, jazz-fusion, rock, and what, at the time, was labeled world music. The Police had a firm grasp on melodic theory, harmony and were well-versed in the history of the popular song book; these influences all appear and fuse on their collective coda.
Synchronicity is a culmination of all the musical styles that the Police had previously experimented with, plus the addition of many new textures. While their first four studio records fused their reggae and jazz influences with a new wave sound, Synchronicity saw the band generally moving beyond these staccato rhythms, off-beats and improvisations.
Side one opens with the title track and sets the tone for what follows: a musical journey marked by fractured friendships playing out in the atmospheric melodies and the diverse soundscapes that the album travels over a relatively tight 39.5 minutes. Drop the needle on side two, and the first song you hear is the wistful "Every Breath You Take" — one of the most played in radio history, with more than 15 million plays. Many still consider this Sting composition as one of the greatest pop songs ever written.
Lyrically, Sting’s songs are the most cerebral; they are filled with rich imagery and references to literature from past and present. "Tea in the Sahara '' includes nods to American expat Paul Bowles’ "The Sheltering Sky" while "Wrapped Around Your Finger" alludes to Greek mythological creatures. Irish poet William Butler Yeats finds his way on the record too; "Synchronicity II" that closes Side One was inspired by his famous modernist poem "The Second Coming." The mood of the melodies in these tracks reflects the band’s sonic shift. In other songs, the influence of diverse musical styles from world regions beyond North America are also apparent — a territory Sting continued to explore in his career as a solo artist after the Police disbanded.
Synchronicity was also one of the first to see the other two band members contribute a composition — a parting gift of sorts from Sting to his bandmates; a chance to show their songwriting chops.
Summers’ "Mother," — written in 7/4 time signature that is more common in classical music — is not a great song lyrically or musically, but the short and repetitive track somehow fits. Although the guitarist is singing about the troubled relationship he had with his mum, the song’s frenzied pace and his manic screams match the anger and growing animosity between him and Sting, while also alluding to the end of his marriage. Copeland’s "Miss Gradenko" is slightly better than Summers’ song. Lyrically, the two-minute track speaks to Russian repression during the Cold War; musically it features some fine guitar work.
While Copeland and Summers' participation created a bit of inconsistency, particularly when compared to previous releases, their unique approaches and more direct lyrics make the album even more interesting.
Despite these two songs, which beyond adding to the music publishing coffers of Sting’s bandmates, are forgettable, the album is a reverie deserving of repeated listens to uncover all the subtle soundscapes. The National Recording Registry described Synchronicity as "a dream-like musical tour" and the band's sound as "represented, not a pastiche, but a stylistic ethos."
The album was also musically groundbreaking in terms of the tools and toys used in the studio. Just like the addition of keyboards and horns on Ghost in the Machine, this time around it was the first time Sting had used a sequencer ("Walking in Your Footsteps" and "Synchronicity II"). In Stephen Holden’s 4.5 star Rolling Stone review of the album upon its release, the critic summarized the cohesiveness of the record and its songs like this, "each cut on Synchronicity is not simply a song but a miniature, discrete soundtrack," and "Synchronicity is work of dazzling surfaces and glacial shadows." In a RS reader poll later that same year of the greatest records of 1983, the album topped the list.
Synchronicity also captured the zeitgeist. In 1983, unemployment was at a record high and the Cold War lingered, causing global worries of what these superpowers might do next. For many Gen Xers, this LP was one of the first records they purchased at their local shop. And, for many musicians, it meant "everything." The record remains a masterwork and meaningful document.
In 2009, Synchronicity was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. And, in 2023, the Library of Congress selected the album as one of the newest to be included in the United States National Recording Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Photo: Jessica Lehrman
Exclusive: Stewart Copeland Premieres First Single From 'Police Deranged For Orchestra'
The Police founder and drummer Stewart Copeland exclusively shares “Every Breath You Take,” the first single from his forthcoming orchestral re-arrangement of Police songs. The album, 'Police Deranged for Orchestra,' is out June 23.
In November of 1978, the Police made an emphatic statement with their debut album, Outlandos d'Amour, which featured now-classic singles"Roxanne" and "Can’t Stand Losing You." Drawing from the subliminal talents of vocalist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland, the London-based band created a distinctive sound drawing reggae, pop, and punk. Their songs and sound have become classics.
In 2006, Copeland released Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, a film he created out of Super 8 footage of the band’s early days. The film employed rearranged, or "deranged", versions of the band’s songs to score the film. More than 15 years later, the work evolved into Police Deranged for Orchestra. Copelan's forthcoming album, out June 23, combines his rearrangements with a symphony orchestra and all-star rock band.
The derangements on Police Deranged are far from a paint by numbers revisit of the songs. Rather, Copeland channels his classical and jazz roots in an experimental tweaking of the Police's classics. The resulting songs arrive at exciting sonic destinations with new elements, yet never totally lose sight of the originals.
"I've been mostly erring on the side of pushing it over the edge," Stewart told GRAMMY.com. Indeed, "Message in a Bottle," for example, arrives with a more cinematic atmospheric vibe; its tangents freely wander.
"The hooks of those songs are so strong that I can take wild liberties with every other aspect," he continues. "People are sometimes afraid to look backwards, and that's only a valid fear if you're not going forwards."
In addition to performing with bands, Copeland has a long history of film and compositional work, including the film score for 1987’s Wall Street and the 1983 Francis Coppola directed Rumble Fish. He calls Police Deranged a reflection of his orchestral and arranging work, which has also been an "inevitable byproduct product of scoring for film." He’ll continue the Police theme later this year in the form of Stewart Copeland’s Police Diaries, a new book featuring diary entries from 1976-79.
The seven-time GRAMMY-winning composer discusses his journey revisiting the Police’s music, how he adjusts to playing drums for orchestra, and why he thinks he can push the songs to their limits. Today, GRAMMY.com premieres "Every Breath You Take," the first single from Police Deranged for Orchestra.
Today you're releasing the album's first single, "Every Breath You Take." What was your journey like revisiting the song?
That one I turned over to [conductor and composer] Eímear Noone and Craig Stuart Garfinkel. I had already orchestrated all of the other music and I finally realized, wait a minute, "Every Breath" was never my most fun song to play live. So, at that point, I just handed that one off to professionals. The journey of that one was egging them on and pushing them to get further and further away from the original, which wasn't broke, but that doesn't mean we can't fix it.
And the orchestral interlude was actually conceived of for a stage moment that actually didn't really work. They were going to start playing ["Every Breath"] and then I walk out, but that looks stupid. So, [the song’s prelude’s] just there as an artifact, but it's actually darned beautiful.
So, they were able to find a pretty nice balance between the core of the original and giving it a new spin?
Actually, I haven't been too concerned about that balance. I've been mostly erring on the side of pushing it over the edge because the hooks of those songs are so strong that I can take wild liberties with every other aspect.
What did you learn about the songs while revisiting them?
That Sting is a darn good songwriter. I missed that back in the day. I was at the back of the stage banging s— and all I ever saw was the back of his head.
Doing these derangements really woke me up to the quality of his music. I already knew that, but the lyrics as well. Man, he had a way with words. Don't tell him I said that.
While working on Police Deranged for Orchestra and digging into the band's recordings, it sounds like you gained a deeper appreciation for what made the Police special, from the small details to what each person brought to the band.
Very much so. Both of them, with Andy as well as Sting. Sting turns out to have been a darn good songwriter. But Andy, the colors, the harmonic textures that he brought. He was a one-man orchestra, that guy. And a lot of the orchestrations that I've done are all built on his harmonic voicing and his arpeggiated guitar figures and so on and does sound great in the orchestra.
There were big moments where we just came up with stuff onstage that were very Police-ish because it came from the three of us, but didn’t exist on any record until now.
In what ways did pairing with an orchestra bring out new things from the songs?
The orchestra has its own vocabulary in those swirls and cool swooshes and wangs and bangs. I introduced some elements that are strictly orchestral, just so that you can utilize all of the diverse forms of expression that an orchestra is capable of.
They were all inspired by Andy and Sting. But I also did add a few new ingredients of my own, mostly to do with the orchestration.
Sometimes when artists put songs in a new light, you gain even more appreciation for the song.
Oh yeah, a bunch of stuff. And I want to call those guys back and say, "Hey, guys, all is forgiven." Well, actually, I have called them back and all is forgiven. We actually get along really great now.
Sting is actually very supportive of this mission. He loves to hear his songs performed by other artists, even when they change it up. It makes him feel like Rodgers and Hammerstein, and indeed is of that stature when it comes to songwriting. But yes, getting deep into these songs definitely gave me much more insight into what those guys came up with.
The album features a pretty impressive all-star cast of musicians and vocalists. Can you talk a little bit about some of the players and why you brought them on?
Armand Sabal-Lecco on bass, has been my bass groove for something like 30 years, and he's played with Paul Simon, Seal, Peter Gabriel, just about everybody. He just has that African lilt, which just works for me, and we're real very close friends. But mainly on the bass, he really lights me up, gives me something to work with.
On guitar, Rusty Anderson played in Animal Logic, a band that I had with Stanley Clarke decades ago, and that's where I met him. And we've been chuckle buddies ever since. He's a guitarist who I called when I was doing film scores. When I knew exactly what I wanted, I could play it myself. But when I was stumped, when I didn't know exactly what I wanted, I'd call Rusty and he would come up with something that I never would've dreamed of. He has incredible technique, a really wide vocabulary of style and sound. I guess that's why Paul McCartney likes him so much too.
The ladies are from three different worlds; they're triple scale alpha vocalists here in Los Angeles. Backing singers generally have more technique and more exactitude in their performance than do star singers. So, these women are all really technically proficient, but I egged them on. I exhorted them to step forward, take the mic, grab the spotlight. And they really did. They really did put stuff beyond what you would get from session musicians and they really lit it up, all three women in very different ways.
Amy is the big, huge Earth mother voice. Ashley is a tinkly on top, very agile. In opera, we would call her a coloratura soprano. And Carmel and the alto range, she's the rock upon which all the others build, very solid and with a lot of unique personality. Carmel is into heavy metal and country, so she has a cultural makeup that is very interesting.
I should also mention our conductor, Edwin Outwater. He really brought a lot of extra X factor out of both the singers and the orchestra. When we developed the show originally for live performance, that's what this all came from and what we got organized for, he really worked with the singers to get them confident, because they're complicated arrangements. I'm reproducing Sting's quite exotic, rhythmic phrasing. And for them to learn it took a lot. What conductors do is they bring all the elements together into one thing. And similarly, Craig Stuart Garfinkel, who actually mixed and recorded it. These were people that I really relied on to make it become real. Now we can move on.
(L-R): Rusty Anderson, Armand Sabal-Lecco and Stewart Copeland performing in the studio | Photo: Jessica Lehrman
What songs surprised and challenged you most?
"Tea in The Sahara," [from tk year's album] which was always an obscure favorite of mine, became my favorite piece of orchestration. The rolling waves of the sand dunes really inspired the use of the orchestra in that way..
"Message in a Bottle" was like a diamond and I could not mess with it; the form of it is what it has to be. I did mess with the orchestration, with the sound textures and so on, but the song itself resisted all of my attempts at de-arrangement. But I did orchestrate the heck out of it.
Percussion and rhythm are things that overlap in a lot of styles of music. What’s it like playing drums with an orchestra and how do you adjust compared to other forms?
The orchestra sounds bigger and more majestic and has more presence. The actual volume is not so much; the drum set is designed to compete with big amplification. I had to really adjust my technique and there were some unexpected benefits from that. One is that all kinds of techniques that I had learned as a kid, rudiments and so on, things that just don't read in a rock environment, have a place in an orchestral environment.
So, there's all kinds of cool little stuff that I can do with the drums that would never exist in rock 'n' roll. And also, the drums sound better when I'm not trying to kill them. I guess nobody gets a headache with this quieter technique.
In the '80s, you focused more on your classical roots and, later, the film scores. How do you think that decision has made you a more well-rounded musician?
Well, the two informed each other. Like I say, the film music brought me back to orchestra. My daddy raised me to be a jazz musician, which was going fine until I heard Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile, my mother was playing 20th century classical: Stravinsky, Revel, Debussy and such, and that really stuck emotionally. So that sound of the orchestra was always there in my heart.
But then when I was doing film music, I was pointed in various directions by my bosses, the directors, that I never would've gone voluntarily as an artist or never would've crossed my mind. But when Francis Coppola [whom I worked on the score for Rumble Fish] turns around and says, "I need strings," I went off and learned how to work with strings. And the rest is history, of working with orchestras, because I was told to. And so that's the benefit of going through a phase as a professional [hired gun]. I'm back to being an artist now, where it's my medium. I do what I want and I follow my own artistic instincts, but I learned all this cool stuff when I was an employee.
What do you recall of your first time hearing classical music?
The first time hearing classical music was kind of beyond memory. It was in the house before I remember, but I suppose the first conscious memory that I have is "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff and crawling around in our house in Beirut, Lebanon, my face in the Persian carpets that my mother bought in Isfahan. I'm looking at one of them right now.But those patterns, the combination on those Persian rugs of chaos and order, are pretty much exactly what my music is all about.
U2 had an interesting quote recently about their new album where they were revisiting their old classics, that a great song is indestructible. Do you agree with that?
A good song is a good song and there are many ways of slicing a really good song. And Sting really appreciates this too. And so, for U2 to go and go back to those great songs and reimagine them was probably very healthy for them artistically.
People are sometimes afraid to look backwards, and that's only a valid fear if you're not going forwards. If you're moving forwards with great velocity, it's fine to look over your shoulder and check out where you've been and put some of that to good use.
You’re going to be touring with the orchestra later this year.
It’s not so much a tour. I mean, I play 20, 25 shows, and they're all individual events. I fly to Atlanta, I play with the Atlanta Symphony, I fly to Cleveland, play with the Cleveland Orchestra, fly to Nashville. Rather than me hiring an orchestra and 50 hotel rooms, they hire me. And I just show up with my singers and guitarists and it's a much better business model.
I'm going down to Cannes to be a judge at the Cannes Series Festival. And then I'm going to play a show in London at the Coliseum in London and then come back. Then this summer, I'm playing an Italian tour and then a one-off date in Luxem.
I imagine each orchestra has their own unique personality.
Yes, they do. In spite of the diligence, they play exactly what I put on the page. And the more detail that I put on the page, the more detail is their performance, and that shapes what they do. They don't just play the notes. And their philosophy, their reason for living is to faithfully execute what they see on the page.
Nevertheless, the Cleveland Orchestra has a different personality from the Atlanta Symphony or the Chicago. They swing together as one thing, and that one thing has a personality. Sometimes the brass are really crisp in this one here and the other one, it's the strings that shine and so on.
You have a few other projects coming up this year, including a reissue on Record Store Day.
Yeah, that's going to be a deluxe version of my [1980 album as] Klark Kent, comprised of the original tracks, plus the demos that I did at home in my home recording studio and various other pieces to go with that.
Ricky Kej — my buddy with whom I won a GRAMMY this year [for Best Immersive Audio Album] and another one last year — is doing a version of the album, which tentatively titled Police: Deranged for Paradise, with the Soweto Gospel Choir and other ethnic artists from around the world. [It is a] completely alternate version of the album, using all of the Derangettes, my American singers and American players, and the Irish Orchestra, but adding these otherworld elements. That's going to be a cool record.
Yeah, it'll be neat to hear those songs in that context as well.
Yeah, absolutely. In Zulu, in Hausa, in Mandarin, in Tamil. That'll be interesting. And Armenian.
This fall you’re releasing a new book, Stewart Copeland’s Police Diaries.
Yes. That's based on my diaries of the starving years of the Police. I've got every day, what concert we played, how much we got paid, how many people were there. I gave myself reviews, but also I've got the receipts for the trucks that I hired. For some reason, I don't throw stuff away and I've still got all this stuff. And they tell an interesting story.
And the main surprise of that story was how we stuck together before we had any idea what music to play. We were playing crap punk songs that I wrote with yelling, because that's what we had to play to get by and get hired and play those clubs. But we bonded musically and starved until Andy joined and he starved with us. And then it was like a year or two into the Police mission that Sting started coming up with those amazing songs that turned everything around for us. So, we bonded musically before we had any idea of what to play.
Up Close & Personal: Shaggy And Sting Discuss Their Musical Beginnings, Songwriting Processes And GRAMMY-Winning Collaboration
Two GRAMMY-winning musical legends joined together in this Nashville Chapter member-exclusive program, which was filmed at Nashville's Ocean Way and moderated by Chrissy Metz.
Friends and collaborators Shaggy and Sting came together for a conversation at Nashville's Ocean Way Studio recently — and the result was a lengthy discussion about the way they write songs, the backstories behind some of their biggest hits, and of course, their GRAMMY-winning work together.
In an in-depth installment of Up Close & Personal, presented by the Recording Academy's Nashville Chapter and moderated by "This Is Us" star Chrissy Metz, the member-exclusive program presented an informal conversation that took fans through both artists' careers to date.
The two stars hail from very different parts of the world — Sting grew up in England, and became the frontman for legendary rock group the Police, while Shaggy was born in Kingston, Jamaica. but over the years, they've found layers of commonalities in their work.
In speaking about his songwriting process, Sting — who has written classic-rock hits like "Roxanne" and "Every Breath You Take" — notes that he mostly writes solo, a rarity in the famed songwriting collaboration hub of Music City.
"I've always been envious of people who have a writing partner," Sting says. "Lennon and McCartney, they were constantly playing off each other, competing with each other, and that was one of the engines of their success."
"But I never actually found that person, and I'm still alone," he adds, with a joke: "Isn't it sad?"
But he found an unlikely but fruitful creative partner in Shaggy for the two collaborative albums they've released together. One of them is 44/876, which won Best Reggae Album at the 2019 GRAMMYs — and includes a number of songs that the two artists co-wrote.
Shaggy explains that one of the reasons their songwriting partnership was so successful was because of their friendship: Where songwriting can be a tedious, solitary struggle, the two artists found that heading into the writer's room together broke some tension.
"I write a lot of songs, I'm pretty successful at it, but I don't particularly love it," Shaggy notes. "I like the live aspects of it. That's why I like working with him, because it's not as intense. It's more [like] we laugh, and out of that laughter comes something that works, that we hopefully both like."
To learn more about the two artists' creative processes — plus Shaggy's stint on The Masked Singer, and why they think the original James Bond might have been Jamaican — press play on the video above to watch the full episode of Up Close & Personal.
Photo: Shawn Michael Jones
Cécile McLorin Salvant On Triangulating Grief, Longing & Hope With New Album 'Ghost Song': "That's The Moment Where Your Imagination Takes Flight"
For singer/songwriter and visual artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, loss — which so many of us suffered during the pandemic — is a prism. And on her phantasmagorical new album 'Ghost Song,' she turns it in the light to stunning effect.
Grief. If there was only one word to describe the past two years of enduring the pandemic, it would be "grief."
In addition to grieving loved ones who have died because of the coronavirus, many of us have rued the loss of social gatherings, traveling, job security, and stable mental and physical health, among other crucial things. Coinciding with all that loss is our longing for either pre-pandemic times or hope for a better tomorrow. And on her phantasmagorical new album, Ghost Song — out March 4 on Nonesuch — Cécile McLorin Salvant articulates how grief, longing and hope are facets of the same prism.
Although she recorded the album during late 2020 and early 2021, the three-time GRAMMY-winning jazz singer/songwriter and visual artist (dig her vivid work on the cover of Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars) doesn't explicitly address the pandemic. Instead, most of her songs address affairs of the heart and mind.
Salvant conveys the maddening feeling of isolation and being trapped in one's thoughts on her haunting original, "I Lost My Mind," the desire to flee an oppressive romance with "Obligation" and the anguish of a crumbled relationship on "Ghost Song." The album also offers some striking covers, like Kate Bush's extravagant pop hit, "Wuthering Heights," Sting's cinematic "Until" and Gregory Porter's soothing soul-jazz ballad, "No Love Dying."
Salvant's penchant for imbuing her work with literary references then delivering them in inventive, deeply personal ways that are empathetic and translucent reaches a height on Ghost Song. References to Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo intermingle with selections from The Wizard of Oz and Robyn O'Neil's "Modern Arts Notes" podcast.
She ventures beyond her usual piano/bass/drums setting too. By incorporating somewhat unconventional jazz instruments such as the pipe organ, banjo, and lute, Ghost Song also finds Salvant singing in a grander aural environment than ever.
Just days before the release of Ghost Song and before embarking on a month-long European tour in Sweden, Norway, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, Salvant spoke with GRAMMY.com about her creative process and artistic decisions in crafting Ghost Song.
Talk about the creative decision and process of singing in a new sonic environment.
I wanted to have different sonic environments. I wanted to have a little bit of field recordings, some clean studio sounds, and echoing church. I really wanted to play with the different colors of environments and contexts, because that's how I listen to music. This is what I like as a listener — a lot of different textures. So, we were trying to go for that to an extent.
But it's quite different from what I've done in the past. We recorded with great studio microphones but also with cell phones. Children recorded themselves on cell phones in their homes. I recorded my nieces in my sister's house on the cell phone. Then we recorded inside the St. Malachy's Church in Manhattan. So, there were a lot of different textures to play with.
Talk about the creative choices of some of the instruments such as pipe organ, banjo, lute, and Latin percussion.
There's nothing calculated. It's all something that's reflective of my life and the people around me. For instance, something like the pipe organ is there just because of [pianist] Aaron Diehl, who plays the pipe organ on the album. He has such a love for that instrument; and he kind of introduced it to me. He took me to my first pipe organ concert. And I really feel in love [with the pipe organ] as well. So, I thought it would be fun to do something with him playing the organ.
What about some of the Afro-Latin percussion?
The percussion parts came through an actual band that I played with at the Village Vanguard. It was one of the last concerts before the pandemic. It's almost less about the instruments; and more about the people who played them. So, the instruments like the banjo, the percussion, the flute, the piano — that band, which appears a couple of times on the album — was the band that I was with at the Village Vanguard right before everything shut down.
I really wanted to record and capture that moment with that band because it was such an inspired experiment — putting together all these instruments that I really love with no bass, which was a bit strange. I just wanted to test it out. We finished it out feeling like we really found a band sound together as we were playing two concerts a night for a full week. We felt like we were cut off when the pandemic started because suddenly, we couldn't play with each other. So, it almost felt like the studio was an opportunity to revisit that experiment and continue that moment.
It's very sentimental. It's also very natural. It wasn't anything calculated; it was very intuitive. This album is so much about intuition, memory, nostalgia. So, it just felt right that we would record together.
Talk more about the themes you wanted to address in Ghost Song. A lot of these songs touch upon grief and the fleeting nature of romantic love.
I've always gravitated toward songs that are about longing and desire – more about wanting than about love itself. It's about that moment before you get something or after something has been taken away from you. That's the moment where your imagination takes flight; you start to build stories and try to fill absences with these stories. And that is something that I'm so excited about. I'm fascinated by it. I think it's such a big part of our lives. It just made sense to try to synthesize that idea of ghosts.
Explain how the works of Proust, Brontë, and Dumas filter into the album.
There are ways in which you can't have control over what filters into your work. You sometimes think you have control on that as a songwriter. You can say, "Let me transcribe this and see if I can make something similar or let me keep this [literature] in mind." But I think ultimately the most real stuff is that stuff that happens through osmosis — when it just becomes a part of your life and culture, and you don't necessarily actively think about it.
There is no coincidence that something like Wuthering Heights and A la recherche du temps perdu are heavily about memory, thinking, neurosis, and [the act of] really spiraling in your thoughts, memories, self-consciousness and desires — this album is about that.
But that the same time, I wonder if I read those books because I was already attracted to those notions; and I wanted to read something that felt familiar and were better versions of things that I think of, because [those books] contain more eloquent and elegant ways of distilling these really specific feelings that I have, and many other people have.
Talk about the creative process of pairing "Optimistic Voices" from The Wizard of Oz with Gregory Porter's "No Love Dying."
Going back to the idea of things being very intuitive – that's number one. I can't overstate that a lot of this resulted from just feeling different songs. But when you start tying some songs together, you realize "Optimistic Voices" and "No Love Dying" are both different approaches to optimism and hope. When I look at a song like "Optimistic Voices" — this is the song they sing in a poppy field in The Wizard of Oz.
One could argue that they are high on some psychedelic trip because poppies are opium. The singers are manic and hallucinating. They are so lost and desperate to find their way home that they've become crazy. So, they sing this song when they finally see Emerald City. It's almost too good to be true. So, that's one side of it.
Then you have this other song that's about optimism but also incorporates death, bones, sadness, gloom. I felt like those two ideas were so complementary.
Are there any songs you love but you believe that you can't yet render properly? If so, what are they?
That is such a good question. There are so many that it's hard to choose one. What happens for me a lot of times is that if I really adore a song, I hesitate to sing it, because I feel like it's going to ruin it for me. Because suddenly, I'm singing it many times or making an arrangement of it like I'm dissecting it. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the song as a listener.
So, I think it's less about me being afraid of rendering a song, because I'm afraid of rendering every song. I don't think I can get away with anything. I just suck it up and try. It's more that I'm afraid of ruining a song for me.
Talk about "Obligation." It's one of my favorite songs. The lyrics remind me of some of the sentiments Abbey Lincoln sang, but some of the inspiration came from Robyn O'Neil's podcast.
I love that you mention Abbey Lincoln, because she's the reason that I started writing songs in the first place. I was not at all in that mindset; I didn't think I could write a song. Then I started listening to Abbey Lincoln.
She deceptively makes you feel like you can write a song. I thought, "Maybe I should write something that is personal to me." I think that it's a sign of her generosity as an artist and as a songwriter, because she encourages the listener to express themselves. So, she is the reason I started writing. She's a huge part of the reason why I started writing songs.
"Obligation" is sort of my take on something my friend Robyn O'Neill says often in her podcasts, which is "expectations are premeditated resentments."
I understand that on "Dead Poplar" you also got inspiration from that podcast. Talk about that song.
That song is basically me setting to music a letter written by [photographer] Alfred Stieglitz to his wife Georgia O'Keefe. He wrote her this letter, which was very mundane and about him going through his day. Then all of sudden, he goes into this super poetic language that hit me so hard that I started crying the first time I read it.
Then what I ended up doing was that I wrote the letter out on posits and put it out on my piano. I set it to music actually not necessarily because I wanted to make a song on my record, but more because I wanted to memorize it. I find that singing is the best memorization tool that we have. It's one of the first mnemonic devices.
So, I just set it to music for myself and also because it was on my piano. Then little by little it became clear that if I wanted this record to feel like a diary — which is what I wanted: like you were opening pages of my journal — that song had to be in there.
Talk about the impact of receiving the MacArthur Genius Fellowship ($625,000) and a Doris Duke Grant (worth up to $275,000) in 2020 for artists such as yourself in terms of actualizing new goals and just survival.
The impact is changing for me as time goes by. When I initially got the fellowship, the first reaction was "This couldn't come at a better time!" after I had lost all the gigs for the remainder of the year [because of the pandemic]. We didn't know when we were going to play again. There was no source of income. So, we were panicking as musicians. So, that was the first reaction.
Now, as time has gone by, and we are going to play live again and things are coming back a little bit, I can look at receiving these grants as encouragement to continue pushing myself through boundaries and try to actually think like an artist without worrying about expectations of other people.
Really challenging myself was a real big part of it. And then I started thinking about projects on a larger scale and the ways that I can include more people in what I do. I can hire more people. I can teach more people. I can really start thinking about giving back in whatever ways that I can — whether that's through education or collaborating with people. It's huge; it's just such an honor.
Photo: Andrew Lee
Up Close & Personal: SHAED Talk New Music, Allyship & Collabs With ZAYN, Sting & Steve Aoki
The "Melt" band reveal how fun it was working with Sting and Steve Aoki on the dance producer's 2019's track "2 In A Million"
Alt-pop trio SHAED consisting of twin brothers Max and Spencer Ernst and Chelsea Lee (who is married to Spencer), had their big break in summer 2018 with their infectious hit "Trampoline." It was followed by a whirlwind 2019, where they played major festivals and shows around the world and dropped some big collabs, including a ZAYN remix of "Trampoline," whose vocals brought new life—and his massive fan base—to it.
Like so many other artists, COVID-19 put a sudden halt on their packed, globe-trotting schedule. The pause and new perspective have proven productive for them, and resulted in a lot of new, yet-to-be-released music.
"We had a group of songs before this whole quarantine situation and we kind of took a deep listen and realized that we wanted to change it up a bit," Chelsea told us. "Most of the songs we've written for this album, we wrote during these crazy months, so it definitely reflects, emotionally and mentally, what we were feeling. These songs really hit home for us and we're super excited to release them."
We catch up with the Washington D.C.-based group for the latest episode of GRAMMY.com Up Close & Personal interview video series to learn what they've been up to during quarantine—in addition to creating a new album, they've also protesting with local Black Lives Matter marches and been relaxing in their backyard.
Sharing what he learned about being an ally to the Black community, Max said, "I think it's important to listen. There's all these kind of sub-movements within the Black Lives Matter movement that are really important. Black Trans lives Matter, is super important… I think it's important that all these communities within Black Lives Matter, their voices are being elevated."
"Chelsea loves Sting," Spencer said, smiling. "Steve Aoki is a fan of ours, and he reached out and said he'd love for us to feature on a song. So we were listening to some demos and trying to figure out which one made sense. And then he said, 'Hey, actually hold on, I got a song with Sting.' And that's when Chelsea was like 'We're doing this right away!'"