Heard It: MusicTalks with RH Drexel
Ocean Park Standoff: It’s Somewhere Out There
Let’s take our minds off the things we can’t control.
Let’s take our clothes off and jump into the ocean.
Don’t know where we’re goin’ but it’s somewhere out there.
Samantha Ronson: That’s actually the first song we wrote. We were going back and forth with lyrics. And “Lost Boys” was inspired by Peter Pan...you know, we’re just not going to grow up. I just liked the title of that song.
Ethan Thompson: And we wrote that song at the same time that we were writing “Good News,” as well. They are kind of the yin and yang of each other. “Lost Boys” is about forgetting about what’s going on that’s stressful.
SR: But that is kind of what “Lost Boys” is all about—instead of spending so much time focusing on the things we have absolutely no control over, why not just focus on being in the moment and having a good time.
RHD: It’s funny because “Good News” [the band’s biggest hit to date], seemed to hit the airwaves when there was just a lot of bad news happening in the world. Was that coincidental, synchronistic… intentional?
ET: Well, we wrote that song a couple of years previous to its release. And we wrote it about things we were each going through, and also what was going on in the world. By the time it came out, we were still feeling the same way. I think it’s something we’re always feeling; if we’re going through a hard time, we’re always wondering, when is the good news coming?
RHD: The song off your EP that resonates the most with me is “Photos and Liquor.” The production on that song is so powerful. For me, it perfectly mirrors the narrative of the lyrics. It makes my head feel confused, foggy, and regretful, but in a way I’m okay with. It takes me to a pretty emotional place. Was creating that song a collaboration between the three of you?
Pete Nappi: Well, Samantha always says it the best. What did you say before we sat down to do that one?
SR: I had been DJ’ing the night before, and I said, ‘Let’s make something that sounds like an old Biggie record.’ The idea of having the bass be dirty, soulful, warm.
PN: The first lyrics were completely different.
ET: Yes, all the melodies were there, except the bridge. Then that pulsing sound Pete created was actually from two piano chords that Samantha had been playing, and I just started playing them back and forth, and Pete turned them into this mesmerizing, pulsing backdrop. We kept going back and forth on what the verse melody should be. We wrote the chorus and then the bridge, and then Pete had made this string section while we were in the other room going back and forth on these bridge lyrics. When we came in, we just heard this beautiful section Pete made, so we took that and our bridge lyrics, and it became just this beautiful scene. It was such a moment.
PN: The bridge vocal you hear on the EP was the first take.
ET: That was such a great little moment. It was like “something just happened.” It was nice.
RHD: You three strike me as being intentional and purposeful, but also, when you’re performing, you come across as just three friends jamming. Are you thinking about where your careers together are headed? Are you watching the journey or just along for the ride?
ET: We are just trying to enjoy ourselves. We were all going through different musical journeys at the time that we got together, and we really just bonded. We want to invite people into a world where they can escape what they are doing and do it with us, and be part of our family. And also, we want to remain a family and keep writing music that inspires each of us. Wherever that takes us, we’re happy to go along that journey.
SR: Obviously, thankfully, our label and management have an idea of where to guide us. On the creative level, they leave us to ourselves, and then, once we have a somewhat almost-finished product, they then help us to figure out where to go from there. There are no accidents when it comes to the business side of things. There are a lot of amazing people working together—at Hollywood Records, on the radio—that make it even possible for anyone to hear our music.
RHD: Do you have rituals you go through to stay grounded on the road as you’re all traveling?
SR: Well, we take our dogs on the road with us when we tour.
PN: It’s pretty easy, because we get to be with each other. When we’re on a tour bus, it’s not that different from being at Samantha’s house, just working and hanging out together.
Julia Michaels and Her Brilliant Paradox of Delicate Strength
You get mad and you break things
Feel bad, try to fix things
But you're perfect
Poorly wired circuit
And got hands like an ocean
Push you out, pull you back in.
The 24-year-old gifted songwriter-turned-singer/songwriter Julia Michaels makes me feel very much the same way I did when I was 12 years old. The first time I heard her current hit, “Issues,” off of her superlative EP Nervous System, I cried alone in my car. It’s not a sad song—the unexpected tears came from an overwhelming sense of relief. Like Peters, Michaels owns her vulnerability like a badge of honor. She has a strong presence on stage, and is no wilting flower, but every note, every inflection, is softened by a quiet empathy and nakedness that comes through in her voice and her brilliant lyrics, many of which she pens herself or with frequent writing collaborator Justin Tranter. Some of the songs Michaels has written include: Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar,” Linkin Park’s “Heavy,” Kelly Clarkson’s “War Paint,” and Ed Sheeran’s “Dive,” among many others. Her presence and her music are reminders that to be strong does not mean one cannot also be delicate with oneself and with others. Recently, I got to catch up with Michaels between shows.
JM: I love the combining of minds. Sometimes there’s a lyric, melody or production element you just wouldn’t think of. I love a different perspective…the feedback. When someone says, “Let’s take this out and put this in.” Or, “Let’s make the chorus bigger or bring it down.” I just love the joy of it. It’s so exciting! When you feel like together you’ve done something great and you can just feel it in your body. It’s like fireworks. It’s like flying.
JM: No, but I do have favorite words that I love, which is funny because a lot of the words I love are used to describe horrible things. Like I love the word “ostentatious.” Or “egregious.” Words that describe awful things, but I love how they sound. Another one I love is “tempestuous.” Such a great word.
ZZ Ward’s Old Soul Permeates the Modern Music Landscape
Crown and Coke on a table by my bed
I'm laying here like it's my grave
A bag of bones with a fire in my head
Oh, yes, I am
I tell you, "No," then I start to give in
You tear me down, then we do it all over again
ZZ Ward’s sound is an amalgam of the blues, hip hop and country—an amalgam that at once feels completely unpredictable, yet comfortably familiar. Having previously collaborated with Kendrick Lamar and Ali Shaheed Muhammed on her debut album The Casket Drops, Ward’s latest album, the striking, deeply evocative The Storm finds her paring down to soulful, bluesy essentials. So unsparing is the starkness of her honesty that I felt as though I might be imposing on Ward when we met to chat before a recent performance. Seemingly an empath, Ward immediately tried to put me at ease, reclining her slim contour onto a plain, white sofa as our interview began. Though due on stage about a couple of after before we sat down, she was relaxed, focused and present.
ZZW: I don’t think you can ever go back to that same place. When I wrote that song, I was living in that place. That song came to me very quickly…like a breath…like crying. It poured out of me. I think it’s really important to be sincere and tell a story when you’re on stage performing a song. Every day I find emotions of sadness, or helplessness, emotions that I can draw from to convey real emotion when I perform. You get inspiration every day from different emotions, but I can never go back to the exact place I was when I wrote that song while I’m on stage.
ZZW: A lot of Howlin’ Wolf. Big Mama Thorton. I do like old country. I recently performed “The Home You’re Tearing Down” by Loretta Lynn at a tribute show for her at the Troubador.
RHD: Damn! How did I miss that?
ZZW: Yeah, it was really cool to dive into a bunch of her songs. What an incredible artist. The things she was writing about were things that were happening to her in her life. I’m also really inspired by Vera Ward Hall. She had a very haunting voice. Growing up, I felt like I had a kind of different voice and Vera Ward Hall also had a very unique voice, so I was very drawn to her growing up.
Magic Giant: Reviving the Traveling Music Show for a Gypsy-like Fan Base
If time travel existed, my first stop would be March 3rd, 1968, when the Grateful Dead put on a free concert at the corner of San Francisco’s counter-culture mecca, Haight Ashbury. It was a performance that shattered the existing paradigm of “the concert.” The band didn’t plan in advance how the afternoon’s performance might go. From song list to the number of attendees, the entire concert experience—for the band and the audience—was unfettered by logistics. Concert-goers lined the streets, sidewalks and tops of buildings, and even poured into adjacent neighborhoods, all responding to a seemingly mutually-agreed-upon act of deep communion. Untouched by commodification, this brazen act of generosity and rebellion forever inducted The Grateful Dead into the Collective Unconscious Hall of Fame. They cemented the launch of The Grateful Dead culture—a culture as vital as the music itself. A culture that embodied the spirit of improvisational creative expression, the unrepentant pursuit of fun and an abiding resistance against the cult of fame and the formulaic pursuit of wealth.
Heavily influenced by The Grateful Dead, Magic Giant is slowly and organically appealing to a broad base of gypsy-like fans who follow the unpretentious, gifted trio around the country, spurred on by an almost feverish optimism. The first time I saw Magic Giant perform, I was seated next to a couple of their devoted fans. They had lyrics from the bands popular song “Jade” tattooed across their forearms. They knew every single lyric. They were hard to categorize; they looked like normal folks…people you might otherwise see at the local movie theater on a Friday night. While I filmed the band on my phone, I noticed that none of their fans around me are viewing the concert through the screen of a smart phone. And there was plenty to film; the band danced and played multiple instruments with unbounded amounts of joy and energy. Their interaction with the audience was spontaneous and natural; they disappeared into their songs as deeply as the audience. Curious, I asked the young woman beside me why she isn’t filming the band. “I just want to get lost in the music. I don’t like anything to interfere with that.” She may have also been talking about me, so I took her lead and allowed the music to carry me away.
Before a recent performance, I was able to join the band for a little chat. Band members Austin Bisnow, Zambricki Li and Zang surprised me a little by greeting me with genuine embraces, even though I’d never met them. Uniquely attired in a style that might be best described as traveling-minstrel-meets-woodland-forest-sprite, they lounged comfortably while we spoke:
RHD: Your debut album is titled In the Wind. Tell me about that title choice.
RHD: That must have been like recording inside a womb!
Zambricki Li: Yes! And we recorded inside a tunnel in the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington.
[In the Wind also features songs recorded on a daisy field near Crested Butte, and an airstrip in Marble, both in Colorado.]
This represented us just giving ourselves over to the road and to nature. Instead of just playing shows, we wrote, created and made this album while out on the road, as part of the journey.
RHD: You make seriously good music without taking yourselves too seriously. Your song “Window” has an almost childlike sense of wonder. It’s kind of a like a fairy tale set to music. Does that song in particular reflect the Magic Giant culture, if you will?
Zang: From the very beginning, we’ve said that you don’t have to be big to be a giant. You don’t have to have an empire. From very early on in the shows, we noticed people leaving with huge smiles on their face. There was also this sense of community among the fans. We’ve been vibing off that. We try to be intentional in what we do. We do things that are importance to us, and other people have kind of just gravitated towards us, so we have a really strong community that comes along with us on the road.
AB: I saw a couple of our fans out in front of the theatre when we got here. They’ve probably been to about 30 of our shows so far. We have ambitions of having a traveling circus of like-minded people.
RHD: That’s interesting that you use that word “ambitions” because in many ways, you also strike me as quite unambitious, when compared to so many other contemporary artists. I don’t see you and think, ‘those guys are obsessing about winning a Grammy.’ You kind of present like that doesn’t even really matter to you because there’s nothing formulaic about you guys. Like your song “Jade.” Let’s talk about that.
Z: That was one of the songs that got the most attention when we were on the road. It’s very intertwined with our community in that we played it untitled and unfinished at a few shows just to see how it would go. It was only half-written. The lyrics weren’t even finished. We played it on this mountain top in Tahoe; it was kind of a small crowd. And this girl comes up to us after the show in tears about that song. She told us she’d lost her best friend at the age of 16, and she felt her presence throughout that entire song. And her name was Jade. So we then shaped the song around her story and this person Jade we had never met but felt so connected to, and ultimately named it after her.
RHD: “Jade” feels almost tribal to me, in that it’s trance-inducing, or nearly trance-inducing. From a production level, it’s unpredictable. Another tune I connect with a lot personally is “Nothing Left.” It’s got this pretty depressing title but it’s very redemptive. I find there’s quite a bit of tension in that song. Are you able to recreate that tension when you perform it live?
Z: The main emotion in that song is very recurrent. It’s basically about the triumph of the human spirit, the human soul. Life isn’t always easy, but one thing to look forward to is just the ability to get through these difficult moments. We’ve all experienced that so we can recreate those emotions when we perform that song.
ZL: And there’s is a seed of hope there. That’s something we really try to focus on. Just connecting with people through our music. Spreading love.
All photos by RH Drexel.
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