Grayson Gilmour is getting older. I say that not to be disrespectful, but because there’s something about his new album, ‘Otherness’, that feels more mature. Not mature in a way that goes to bed before 9pm, rather mature in a way that feels more assured, perhaps wiser, or unafraid of commitment – the kind synonymous with… self-knowledge?
You can see I’m having trouble describing this record. I have trouble describing the person, too – it’s hard to describe a face when it’s buried beneath so many hats. Film composer, singer/songwriter, band member and educator – Gilmour does a lot.
Playing as part of Wellington live favourites, So So Modern; completing a Master’s degree in film composition at the NZ School of Music (out of which he produced award-winning soundtracks to The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, Shopping and Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story); releasing a string of startlingly creative solo albums, both independently and on Flying Nun, since 2006. Between it all, you would be forgiven for thinking the guy doesn’t sleep.
It’s notable, then, when Gilmour mentions a feeling of relaxation he had upon reaching the end of his 20s. At first it seems like a joke – how can he talk about relaxing while he’s still designing the sprawling, multi-platform experiences that make up the current roll-out of ‘Otherness’? In addition to the album itself (which features beautifully abstract cover art from frequent collaborator Henrietta Harris), there are 360° Youtube videos, complete with binaural audio; a website that doubles as a sample-player – allowing the visitor to remix the two singles with a variety of samples and loops taken from their stems – and even a brief hint at the potential of a filmed live performance.
All this material serves as a fascinating attempt at extending the idea of the album to engage with its audience in a way that makes use of the wide range of experiences technology can offer us.
“I do wonder about the future of the album format. If an album’s still going to hold true as an artistic statement, or if it’s going to be more about experiences that move on from that format? That’s why I’ve been doing 360° videos.”
It might be more obvious, now, how I could misread this a joke. That he can talk about relaxation right after describing such an immense load of work – it’s a conversational turn that has some humour in it. He’s not joking, though. When Gilmour refers to relaxing, he’s not so much referring to it in a sedentary way, as in doing less, but relaxing in a way that comes from having a deeper understanding of how something works. The kind of relaxing that allows for even more to be done – bigger ideas to be handled in better ways, more risks to be taken. It’s the kind of calm that only comes with age and repetition.
“[Earlier in life] I was trying to make sense of my existence as a musician. There was a lot of anxiety that surrounded that. You spend a lot of your 20s finding out your place in the world – in the musical landscape and whatnot. Once I’d closed the book on ‘Infinite Life!’ – which is pretty much peak paranoia – and starting another [album], I felt a lot more sure of myself and sure of what I was doing. And okay with the chaos. The whole thing with this album is really that shifting of perspective and trying to find beauty within the chaos.”
Somewhat ironically, it’s this larger, existential calm that seems to allow Gilmour a new degree of boldness within his music. He explains how his vocals are considerably louder in the mix than on his previous recordings.
“With this album, I felt like there’s a certain construct around pop music and a certain way it engages with listeners. The human voice being the most immediate layer of communication in a pop song, it should be treated with that kind of placement. And I felt more confident about treating my voice in that manner. It’s the most immediate thing that jumps out to most people – the sound of another person’s voice – so I just wanted to embrace that with this record.”
It’s not just the vocals, though. Gilmour’s willing to abstract certain elements more and embrace ambiguity in a way that his previous albums (arguably) might not have, particularly in his arrangements.
“In Otherness, the track, I wrote that song with a really strong, lovely chord progression underneath the whole thing. But I ended up taking that out and just leaving it with this arpeggiated line and a looped guitar texture that evolves for about a minute… and slowly makes its way through the chord progression and kind’a establishes itself and subtracts from itself as it goes. It’s like taking the chord progression and smearing it.”
This kind of abstraction is even built into Gilmour’s writing process. The beginnings of the album are experimental and loose. It’s almost a state of play.
“A large way I like writing, to begin with, is just happy accidents. Especially making weird noises and then building more of a coherent piece of music over the top of it.”
It’s only through a heavy editing process, continued throughout every stage of making the album, that his songs are refined and brought to mesh with each other.
“I had this mantra…’Remix, Rework, Rearrange’. So all of the songs were constantly evolving because I was always dropping stuff out and putting things in. It was never really concrete until I handed it over to Simon [Gooding] at Roundhead, who did the real polish – the proper mixing.”
The mixed tracks were sent to Japan for mastering by Yosi Horikawa – a friend from Gilmour’s time at Red Bull’s Music Academy, who he describes as “a total physicist of sound”.
Recorded primarily in his home studio, with drums and a string quartet tracked at Wellington’s Blue Barn with James Goldsmith, the album leans into texture, using it to colour and connect ideas that are perhaps denser, yet at the same time more refined. It almost seems like a more holistic approach to making an album.
“I feel like, on ‘Infinite Life’ I was opening a lot of doors and it sounded like a lot of quite disparate things all just coming together. But with ‘Otherness’, what I learned from that process was a way of making all of those weird, wonderful sounds in my own way and not having it so reliant on external sounds… This album is a lot more intimate and personal on that level.”
Many of the processes involved in scoring films have propelled this shift.
“Only in recording this album have I opened myself up to MIDI, I think as a result of a lot of the film work I’ve done, where you’re working against the clock. That’s informed how I now work with a lot of my synths and pianos and other instruments that I can program. I started programming lines and that freed up my hands to manipulate the sounds more. Instead of having to perform it again for takes and takes and takes, I could just make little changes [each session].”
Gilmour’s experiences in film also had a lot of influence on the way the string sections were designed to fit the record.
“The scores weren’t bar for bar. I had written them up as cues, ‘…at the opening, we’re gonna do this and then skip forward to the next part of the song and do this,’ instead of having them do a take for the whole song and eat up time. That’s something I learned from film scoring. When you’ve got to work with people to a schedule, you’ve gotta do things really time efficiently – just get the bits you need.”
So efficient was the process that getting all the bits they needed took the quartet, made up of Charley Davenport, Elyse Dalabakis, Vivian Stephens and Salina Fisher, only a single day in the studio. Though, Gilmour concedes, “… it was a really long day.”
There’s an inclination I have to describe Gilmour as somewhat of an auteur – to paint the tired picture of a restless musical dictator or obsessed perfectionist. With quotes like “…complacency is probably my pet hate,” he can even make it tempting. But, despite the more personal nature of the record’s conception, it’s still a description that doesn’t really fit. As he recounts the process of piecing the album together I can’t help but notice the amount of room he left for the few other players to bring in their own ideas.
Gilmour would record demo tracks of Cory Champion‘s drumming before re-arranging them in his DAW, then handing them back to Champion to re-interpret in a way that was playable and interesting.
“I would cut his demos up, build something out of what he tracked in that session and play it back to him and be like, ‘Is this possible?’ And he’d be like, ‘Nah, but I can do this.’ The ideas evolve on the fly.”
A similar process happened with Holly Beales’ backing vocals.
“She’s got a great ear for harmony and also backing vocal lines that, me being someone who’s generally taken the lead in a lot of scenarios, I didn’t have the mentality for. She brought that sensibility. There were certain ways of singing lines that I hadn’t thought of, that she would bring up while we were tracking, and I’d be like, ‘That’s cool! Go with it!’”
Considering the album’s more refined and focused composition, this way of working might seem counter-intuitive. In fact, through allowing enough room for these players to bring their own musical personalities to the record, Gilmour was able to achieve a consistently distinctive new sound.
Importantly, it’s this sound that defines the album. It engulfs the listener in a way that’s hard to capture through text but is beautifully represented in the 360° videos. Abstract and textural, but still ornate and balanced and composed. It’s a sound (and a world) pieced together in such an organic and lively way that it manages to extend, both metaphorically and literally, beyond the constraints of its format.
It’s a sound that says a lot about its creator. One that shows him willing to work towards the image of something somewhat unimaginable. As someone able to fully expand, refine and realise an idea, from even its most opaque beginning. Which is a special kind of wisdom, to say the least. It’s also the kind of wisdom that can only be acquired through years of practice, patience and experimentation.
Call it maturity, or self-knowledge, or ageing. Or call it nothing. Maybe just, y’know, relax a little.
By Sam Carswell