For the next few weeks, Digital Minds will be featuring a series of interviews with some of my recent collaborators. Today, I'm sharing an e-mail interview with Black Esther who remixed my latest single, "I Don't Feel Alright." You can listen to that remix here:
Black Esther is the project of Bryan Byers, a producer and songwriter based out of Bloomington, IL. With a synthpop/electronic sound that draws influence from Phoenix, Passion Pit, and Miike Snow, Digisaurus had the pleasure of playing with Black Esther to close out our Fall tour this past November. Flanked by Ryan Johnston on stage, they provided a powerful and technologically advanced performance full of energy.
Digisaurus: So for those unfamiliar with Black Esther, give us a brief rundown of your sound. Taking it a step further, what are your philosophies when it comes to song-writing and production?
Black Esther: As a teen, I always fought against pop music, and things that were mainstream. You know the type. I lacked confidence in myself, and made up for it by being weird. Once I matured a bit, I started to accept that a lot of the things I 'hated' for no real reason were actually quite good. That's where I am with Black Esther. There are a lot of sounds in music from the 80's and 90's that really trigger something nostalgic and emotional in me. When I'm writing music I feed off of synths and drum sounds from that time that evoke some sort of emotional response in me. Then I build on it, pulling from my passion for a lot of pop music, but also letting my art-school weirdo shine through. While the music doesn't sound Top 40 necessarily, it's still got pop sensibilities, and enough of a twist to make it interesting.
Additionally, as I've really become more comfortable with who I am, I've found that vulnerability and true honesty is important in my songwriting. While I used to always write very generic lyrics that were basically a regurgitation of what I heard on the radio, I really feel like I came into my own when I started drawing on my own experiences and struggles. While the depression and anxiety that I've wrestled with, exacerbated by a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis a few years ago, are things I wouldn't wish on anyone, they are a goldmine for writing lyrics that are vulnerable, and resonate with so many people with their own struggles. It's kind of messed up to call it a goldmine, but you've gotta try to pull something positive from the shit that life deals you.
Digisaurus: In terms of songwriting and studio production, What are some of your favorite instruments, programs and/or plug-ins to work with? How have you successfully implemented those tools as an artist?
Black Esther: I, like so many new artists, am a big proponent of Ableton Live. It gave me a workflow that just worked for me. Other DAWs just never felt natural to me, or conducive to creativity, but with Live, it just clicked for me. In addition to my DAW, there are two synths that end up in almost every song. The first is a freebie called Synth1. I'm a super tightwad, which largely influences my DIY philosophy with a lot of my music, and Synth1 is super simple to use, and has a huge community of people that create patches, and make some really cool sounds with it. On top of that, I decided to splurge a couple years ago and dropped a whopping $40 on KV 331's SynthMaster. This is a beast f a synth that can rival the capabilities of synths that cost 10 times more. I haven't completely wrapped my head around everything it can do just yet, but it's a fantastic way to just start tinkering with knobs and find some cool sounds.
Digisaurus: I was lucky enough to meet you at a show we played at “The Bistro” in Bloomington, IL over the Summer. Fast forward a few months, and we were able to set up a show with Black Esther at the same venue in town. I was very impressed with the sound of the set and production of the show considering this was a venue with no sound or production staff. How has technology helped you realize your ideal live production and what improvements in technology would you like to see to help expand that vision?
Black Esther: I was in a rock band through high school and college, and that band played a HUGE role in developing my passion for writing music, and performing it for others. When the band dissolved, I needed some way to continue to write and perform, but I knew I didn't want to have to depend on others, in order for me to do it. With producers like Deadmau5, Avicii, Madeon, etc., putting on sold out shows playing music off a laptop, it made me realize maybe it's not such a far-fetched idea for me to get on stage and perform my music. In order to be more than just some guy with a laptop, though, I've created a MIDI interface with Arduino to control a home-made light show that is synced to my music. I also have a guitarist, Ryan, that plays with me on stage to help keep things interesting. For performing the music itself, I sing live, but also do a fair bit of live-looping, play synth and guitar, and even have a RockBand drum kit with me on stage that I use to trigger samples and sounds.
So for technology I'd like to see in the future? Some way for me to run all this stuff without so many damn wires! It's like performing in a spider web up there with cords running to monitors, peripherals, guitars, lights, power...EVERYTHING!
Digisaurus: We’re releasing a remix you did of my single, “I Don’t Feel Alright,” this week and I really love it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure you said this is the first remix you’ve ever done. The concept of “remixing” is often left pretty open to interpretation to artists, and you took the approach of largely leaving the arrangement/vocals in tact and completely redoing the instrumentation. How did you decide on this approach and give us some insight into the process from when you received the stems to completing the final mix?
Black Esther: You're absolutely right, this was my first remix. I've always been interested in it, but just haven't taken the time to do it until now. I had a blast with it, and did my best to minimize how much I listened to the original instrumentation, so that I could make something totally new.
And you're right, I did leave the song structure and vocals largely in tact. I did this intentionally, because I wanted there to be some familiarity to the track when listening to it. It's got a solid pop song structure and good melodies, and I wanted to leave these in tact, but re-imagine what the song could sound like. When I listen to remixes, some of my favorites are ones that I can still sing along to, but totally flip the mood of the song on it's head. Taking an upbeat dance track and turning it into a somber ballad, or putting some rap verses over the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song. I don't typically enjoy extended remixes that chop up the vocals and turn the song into something largely unrecognizable. I liked the song for a reason, and I want some of that appeal to shine through in the remix.
Digisaurus: Lastly, What’s coming up for Black Esther in 2017 or further in the future?
Black Esther: Things have been a bit slow for Black Esther in the last couple of months, but I'm gearing up to start recording a new EP to release in 2017. I've spent the last couple of months exploring some new genres, writing some rock tunes with friends, and just generally trying to break out of my synth-filled box. I want to try some new things on this EP, and the best way for me to do that was to step away from Black Esther for a bit, and explore new territory.