“I was born in Auckland, I’m not originally from Wellington… I went to school in Avondale. I grew up loving music. I played piano since I was seven, I sang since I was a little kid. It’s just come naturally to me in that way, I’ve always wanted to create.”
The piano remains a lingering influence over Arjuna Oakes’ songwriting approach, arranging and performance, as he sings from behind the keyboard and leads the ensemble from there. He works as a teacher, working with students around piano and writing (among other things).
“I love teaching because music can feel very selfish sometimes… I’m very proud because basically all of my students write music now,” he says.
Releasing music is a relatively new development for the 21-year old.
“Before , I hadn’t released any music, but I’d been writing since I was little. I’d recorded demos in the past… and so beginning of 2019 I decided to move down to Wellington. It seemed like such a natural choice, it’s a beautiful city and there’s a lot more arts stuff going on, in a different way to Auckland.”
His touring experiences with The Shamblés, who he played with prior to releasing his own music, gave him a strong idea of what Wellington had to offer. For one thing, he notes, musicians seem to place less emphasis on staying in a practice room and more on getting out and doing things.
It’s also a city where musical networks are common, and there’s a growing gigging scene anchored in jazz and soul music – genres that Oakes is no stranger to in his own music. And everyone knows everyone else.
“Even musicians who are grunge, or heavy metal musicians know the jazz and soul ones!”
‘The Watcher’ is released through Rain&Shine Records, a not-for-profit label established out of Auckland in 2017. The label specialises in re-issues or unreleased music, particularly old soul records, with direct relationships built with the original artists and/or their families. Releasing ‘The Watcher’ is a different direction for Rain&Shine, pouring their resources into a young artist producing new music.
“I just got hit up by this guy Jeremy Morris who runs this label that has been going for a few years as a hobby (not-for-profit) releasing old soul records. He rang me up and said, ‘I want to work with a local artist’, and it just went from there! It was amazing because I’d like, run out of money [laughs] to get the last songs mixed, and it was taking ages and I was getting frustrated, but it just worked.”
The opportunity to be backed by a local label and pour his own ideas into that structure is not lost on Oakes either, noting the backing is mutual.
“I’m their only artist and I’m putting so much into them as well. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to sign other artists and help other people and get my mates involved.”
Building on his writing and arranging approach, he speaks passionately of instinct and technicality.
“My goal is to reach a mid-point between the technical and the emotional. I think the best way to write music is always just with a sense, instinctually. But what technicality can do is when you get stuck, or when you feel like your instincts are treading similar ground, you can push yourself in a different direction and then let your instincts pick back up again.”
His sketches begin on the keyboard, then organically develop as he works with other musicians or returns to earlier material.
“It took a long time,” Oakes says of the writing process. “And I kind of like that, because the songs grow organically in a way. They present themselves in a way, and the longer you sit on something, the more it will brew and become organic and natural. Deep End I wrote three years ago, and most of the other songs were last year . It took a while to fit, some of the parts were written right at the beginning, some just before I recorded them.”
His EP moves through numerous subjects and sonic palettes, from the smooth soul of Lost to the gritty, political title track. Much discussion pivoted around Oakes’ idea of not playing it safe, and one way he manages this is through lyrical content.
“Love songs and romantic songs are such a trope, and so cliché. If you write a song about something good, people are going to think it’s a love song.”
Lost is not a love song, then, rather “…a song about being lost in a moment or a feeling,” and Old School Heart deals directly with a relationship. The title track is the curveball on the project, dealing with political ideas of mass surveillance.
“I wanted it to be about this big existential problem, this big political thing, but we always think of it as that, a big political thing. At the end of the day it does affect us on an individual scale, it affects all of our lives… so how do I bridge the gap between the big and the small? The idea was to forge a project that talks about both, and the little things hold as much weight as the big political things.”
The Watcher projects a different set of lyrical ideas through the same underlying approaches Oakes expresses on the more personal tracks across the rest of the project. He was looking to find ways to communicate personalised, individual experiences in non-cliché ways.
“I don’t want people to listen to it and say they all sound the same.”
There’s a distinct neo-soul palette to the EP, but Oakes is determined not to be defined by any one genre, saying rather he just wants to make music. Quizzed about influences he suggests that the title track was influenced by contemporary jazz like Aaron Parks.
“And the rest of the record was influenced by neo-soul that doesn’t play it safe,” he adds, singling out sort-of-New-Zealander Jordan Rakei specifically. Oakes had Jim Macrae, a member of Rakei’s band, mix ‘The Watcher’, strengthening the link between artist and influence.
‘The Watcher’ was recorded in various stages. Drums and bass were recorded in 2018, and then the remainder (horns, keys, vocals etc) were recorded at Oakes’ home, produced by himself – a first-time endeavour for the artist.
“I had never produced before, so that’s why it took so long is because I was learning… I was learning how to mix sounds and how to bring this whole thing to life. I didn’t want to play it safe and make something that sounded like we were playing live. At the same time, I love that live element. I love that there are live drums and he’s not playing the same pattern the whole song, but I also love the texture and the atmospheric stuff and the layers that make it juicier.”
Musicians in the large ensemble include members of bands like Dr. Reknaw and Sky Canvas, as well as many regular contributors to the bubbling Wellington jazz scene. Oakes points to drummer Rhohil Kishore as a key link to the band and the sound of the ensemble on the record.
“We met at uni, and just had this telepathic thing where, if I did something weird rhythmically, he would catch on and we’d start to throw things at each other, and it was so cool, so I wanted to capture that… He’s not a quintessential groove drummer, and that’s why I like him because he’s a bit more heavy, disjointed in a good way. Such an amazing chops player as well, and so it gave it a really cool, raw, organic feeling rather than being clean.”
That’s an especially important link given the size of the ensemble, which features a traditional rhythm section (with both upright and electric bass, as well as two guitars), and a horn section.
Oakes has been making a name for himself as live performer, recently playing at Rhythm and Vines, dates in Auckland and Wellington, as well as Tora Bombora and 121 Festival. There are plans for further recording in 2020, with hopes to release some new music later in the year.