How did the fun video concept for “Fire Escape” come together?
The Windmill Factory and I got together in the months leading up to Coachella 2015, when we debuted [Andrew McMahon in the] Wilderness. The whole idea of me getting involved with a company like theirs and this artist consortium that they've put together was to bring something whimsical to the stage. What better place than a concert to give an audience a chance to let go of that adult inhibition that keeps us a little bit pent up? On every tour, we put together a different show. The next logical step was to involve them in visuals beyond just the stage and bring them into my world in the music video realm … On a late night in Los Angeles, Jon Morris -- who was the co-director on the video -- and I had this magical evening at the Ace Hotel where we invited a bunch of friends out, rented a suite, got our notebooks out, and had probably more fun than we should have. We just tried to brainstorm what would be the best party trick that you can bust out at a concert. We came up with getting these two wacky, wavy arm, inflatable dancers on stage with us. We brought them out on the [Weezer] tour and had them on stage with us for the whole summer. It seemed like it would be a fun experiment to try and find a way to not just include them in the video, but also show these personalities and create this love story between our little inflatable dancers.
This concept is a departure from some of the other videos you've done throughout your career and this song also feels more whimsical. Is that a direction you’re moving in with the new album?
It's hard to say. I think the record is pretty dynamic. It goes from tracks that are fun and upbeat, like “Fire Escape,” and into some more introspective piano-driven moments. I think that the nature of this Wilderness project in general for me has been about experimentation, about trying to find myself in a comfortable scenarios that inspire my art, and certainly getting out of Los Angeles and coming to New York and digging inwards. The friends that I've made on that coast inspired and informed a lot of what happened, and led to the music and the lyrics on this record. There will be moments that it'll feel characteristic in the sense that it's my voice and it's my words and it's my piano, but sonically -- and then of course in this video visually -- I am trying to take some chances on this record. A lot of that is informed by this idea of trying to grow at every step when I have a chance to make a record. I sort of fall into old patterns and it's almost pointless to make a new record.
“Fire Escape” is a little reminiscent of “Synesthesia” from your EP before Wilderness. Was that on purpose?
Yeah, I don't know that I necessarily saw the specific thread. If I was referencing it, it was more subconscious than intentional. There's certainly some of those synth-y elements and that upbeat piano, where the piano cords lie they do this upstroke thing that is similar to “Synesthesia.” The balance is certainly similar; I can definitely see the comparison.
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Is the direction of this new album more synth-driven in general, or is there a mix of new instruments and genres?
The joy of working as a quote-unquote solo artist -- which is sort of a hysterical distinction if you consider what a lot of my records have been over the years -- is the freedom from record to record to explore different sounds. You will see the use of keyboards on this record very similar to the way that I used them on my last record, just because obviously I'm a piano player. It's a lot easier for me to grab a piano or a synth or something and work from that spot. The palate sonically has grown for sure, from the last record to this one. There's everything. There's a ballad on the record that has a UK R&B influence, by virtue of working with a producer out there. There's a wide range of sounds. There are, of course, songs that are piano-centric, but for the first time in a couple years there are some guitars on this record. That's an evolution that we haven't seen in awhile that I think will probably will make some fans happy to hear some of those things making their way back into the album. I recently had my friend Bobby [“Raw” Anderson] from Jack’s Mannequin sit in on a session.
Does Bobby sing with you on the record?
No. But again, I think it speaks to the freedom of this process after putting my heels in the ground on the last record and saying, "No, no, I'm gonna do this, gonna be all keyboards," I got myself back on track. I loosened the reins a bit. I've been working in New York, Bobby lives in New York, and we hang out quite a bit while I'm out there. I just had this moment on the record and said, "I hear a guitar solo here, it's coming back to me." I called Raw and he came out and played on a song or two, which was an awesome full-circle after a few years of not really being in the studio together.
Can we expect any harmonica on this album?
There's none yet. I am heading back to New York tonight to finish recording, so we have exactly five days left to find a way to get a harmonica on the record for you, Alyse.
What's the timeline of this album? You’ll wrap in five days?
Yes. The vocal recording will wrap at the end of this week. I have one song that I've got to finish in Los Angeles that I'm really excited about, which I'll do right when I get off the plane next weekend. We'll concurrently be mixing the album starting this week. The goal is to have the record ... God, I hate to even say these things; it's such a bad omen. I'm not actually going to tell you. The idea is to have the record wrapped fairly soon, and geared up for a pre-sale before the holiday and hopefully out right around the first or second month of the new year. The idea is that we'll start floating tracks. You'll start hearing more music than just “Fire Escape” probably sometime around November. Then we'll be gearing up for album release at the beginning of the year and a headlining tour in the spring. I'm excited.
How has writing and recording in New York inspired and influenced this album? This is the first record that you've done only in New York for the most part, right?
Yeah. It's funny. The idea was that I was going to be out there for the last month and a half, and then I had a little bit of a freakout and ended up coming home for a little bit to work… I have a history with New York. I was diagnosed with cancer in New York. There's a lot that I think ended up being attached to that. I hid out there quite a bit when I was just out of recovery, and indulged myself pretty heavily in the nightlife, where bars stay open late. My goal was to return to New York and beat it, but it beat me for a minute. Now I'm heading back to try and regain some ground in that fight. It worked its way into a lot of the music on this record, especially in the last few weeks that I've been home and writing and curating my experience out there in late August and early September before I got back here. It's a beast of a town and it has a way of getting a hold of me, that's for sure.
What producers and any co-writers did you work with on this record?
I worked with a guy named Gregg Wattenberg who's the producer primarily for the album. We've written a couple of songs on the record. A guy named Dan Omelio, who's gone by the name of Robopop and has done a bunch of work with Lana Del Rey and Maroon 5. They have been pretty focused in the production process as well. Gregg and I have really dug into the record along with his engineer and another co-writer in his studio, a guy named Derek Fuhrmann. It's been really amazing. There was this moment where a lot of the New York writers and producers bailed and went to Los Angeles and I felt in that moment, this is my time to go to New York and feed on this vibe because everybody's defecting. Derek and Gregg especially have championed not just the songs that we've written together but whole handfuls of other really beautiful tunes that have come into the process. I've worked with Morgan Kibby -- who goes by White Sea in her solo career and played in M83 for a lot of years -- and a guy named Daniel Nigro. Morgan, Dan, and I wrote one of my favorite songs on the record, "Walking in your Sleep." I worked with a guy named CJ Baran who's one of the dudes in Max Martin's camp, and a really, really talented writer … It's all culminated. I showed up with a bag of tunes in New York and then we wrote a couple more and started producing what was in that bag. Now I just have this crazy last-minute surge where I wrote five new songs that we're going through, trying to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.
Your collaboration with Lindsey Stirling was beautiful. Are there any other artists you worked with on your latest album, or ones who you want to collaborate with?
Gosh, that was an incredible thing. Lindsey is fantastic and I certainly am down to work on some more features and get some more collaborations going. There aren't any very specific musical collaborations on this other than having Morgan from White Sea and M83 sing with me on “Walking in my Sleep.” … The door for collaborations and features and things like that opens up a lot more once this record gets finished. I've just been so laser-focused on leaning into the writing process and making sure I give everything to my record, selfishly. But I'm certainly hoping that after this album is wrapped up that I'll have some time to get in with some other artists.
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When you’re writing, do you ever think, “This could be a great Jack’s Mannequin song” or “this could be a great Something Corporate song”? Or do you just write in the moment?
Never. I don't think I've ever had that thought in my life. Even when writing Something Corporate or Jack's Mannequin songs when I was in those bands I was never like, "This is great for the band." I've never thought like that. What I write for is whatever I'm working on at the time. With the idea of sandbagging songs, it’s something that you do if the song isn’t that good. [Laughs] If you're writing a good song, you want people to hear it right away. I don't really know another way to write. Truthfully, with Jack's Mannequin or with Something Corporate, those are projects that are so dear to me but they're also projects that are in the past and don't link up to any current thought process for me. To be a writer, you have to operate in a contemporary way. The songs that you wrote years ago, at best you're lucky and they're timeless songs that can move with you into the future and that you can carry on the stage. I think there's a thread of modernism that has to travel with you as a writer. The idea of trying to attribute something modern to something that is in the past doesn't make a ton of sense to me.
You were a bit hesitant to do a Jack’s Mannequin 10-year anniversary tour for Everything in Transit because you didn’t want to divert from the progress you've made with Wilderness. Now that you did it, would you consider one for Something Corporate?
Transit was a very special record to me, for a million reasons. There's a trend in music and live music to sort of cash in on nostalgia. I don't have any judgement for that, for other people I think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do if that's what mode you're in and you want to pay homage to important moments in your life and your career. I think it's dangerous. If your goal is to be relevant in a modern landscape and to make music that people take seriously and grade on the level of how you stack up in today's pantheon of music, then to be running around touting old achievements becomes a dangerous thing to do. To do the 10 or 11 Transit shows in small venues for people who really loved that record and leave it there, I think in a lot of ways was about reclaiming a record that I never really got to tour officially. I was in the hospital when it was released, and the subsequent touring on that record came more than year after it was out. It felt like a moment where, you know, I'm 10 years recovered from cancer and I'm going to play this record that was symbolic in that fight. I'm certainly not itching to go do some victory lap on old music. I'd rather do a hard push to get new songs heard, and things that I'm really proud of, and hope that they get graded accordingly.