Whether it’s to ward off fear of the night or to help navigate a 3:00 A.M. trip to the bathroom, a nightlight is intended to provide a glimmer of brightness when things are dark. So, too, is the function of the new Illenium single of the same name.
Released on Friday (Aug. 28) through 12Tone Music, “Nightlight” is the producer’s first solo track since the release of his 2019 album, Ascend. It’s not an accident that it’s dropping at a time when most of us could use a little brightness. The tracks creates one quite effectively, going back and forth between moments of the grand, rock-influenced electronic music that’s made Illenium one of the scene’s most beloved future bass producers, and quieter, vocally driven choruses, with lyrics about finding your way through the dark, even on the days when doing so feels acutely difficult.
Zooming from his home studio in Colorado, the producer born Nick Miller talked to Billboard about the new single, the creative freedom of departing a major label and the secrets of making something sound epic.
What happens in that moment when a flip switches somewhere and a new song goes live and it then belongs to the world, instead of just belonging only to you?
Last night I was working on this thing until 5 a.m., and I went outside and I was listening to it at night. I feel like I get the most enjoyment and the most peace out of the song at that point, right after I just grinded on it. All the way up to release I’ll have my moments with it, and I feel like I have my more personal connection with it. Then once it’s out, I barely listen to it until I play it live. When it’s out in the world, I feel like I don’t need it as much, and I’m on to the next thing I’m working on.
What are some of those personal moments you’ve had with “Nightlight”?
When I first got the demo, it was just a piano and a scratch vocal, and I was pretty obsessed with it. When I love a demo, I’ll listen to it an insane amount of times, until I realize exactly what I’m going to do with it in my brain and then actually try to do that. Sometimes it turns out totally different and sometimes it doesn’t.
I got that demo pretty early into the quarantine, and I hadn’t really started going super hard on music yet. I was kind of chilling out from touring and getting that energy, and then when I got that vocal it was like, “Alright, that’s the one I’m going to go really hard on.” It kind of started this whole creative zone for me. Like, 10 songs happened after that.
How many times is “an insane amount of times”?
Probably, like, 40 to 50. I listened to it so heavily. Normally I’ll get a demo and I’ll listen to it then I’ll wait for a real vocal stem so I can work on something, but that one I was actually in Ableton messing with this crappy phone recording version because I just wanted to see what some stuff sounded like.
What was it about the demo that struck you?
It’s one of my favorite chord progressions, so that progression automatically catches me. It’s really emotional, and I think it’s the prettiest chord progression. We actually added on that post-chorus “ooh ooh ooh,” the very angelic part, and once we had that, that gave me really ethereal angelic vibes and it was just addicting to listening to.
Something I’ve always admired about your work is how you balance those super ethereal sounds with heavier rock influences. Is that something intuitive, or a conscious decision you make every time?
I think I naturally lean towards it, mainly because that’s the music I love listening to in my free time. I listen to a ton of stuff. It goes from like, Bon Iver to Chance the Rapper to Red Hot Chili Peppers. When I really want to listen to something that’s going to capture me the most, for me it’s that really powerful, heavy rock ballad s–t. The sound of huge drums and power chords and a really amazing vocal and melody is just really good music. Then I kind of just make it my own. I make the drums way bigger and make it as epic as I possibly can.
What’s the actual process for epic-ness?
I think it starts with drums. Like, “Nightlight” could put standard drums and guitar in, and it would be a rock song, but what makes it stand apart is the more unique, electronic-sounding drums that are just a lot larger than what normal drum kits can make. Huge drums and then more synths and stuff make it much more full, along with some sort of blaring lead melody.
What does success look like for new music in a moment when you can’t play it for live audiences?
I honestly have no idea. It’s weird. I’ve gotten a lot of mixed stuff about how streaming is down right now and it’s not a good time for new music and all of this negative s–t, and I’m like, “There are gonna be some people who will f–k with this song.” I feel like I can’t function well if I’m not making new music and putting it out and at least trying to connect.
There are fans that are in s–tty situations right now, and it’s not fun and they’re trying to find some sort of escape or peace or hope in this time. I feel like music should be the thing that they are able to rely on. That’s why I still want to try and get a bunch of new music out there.
It’s been almost exactly one year since you released your third album, Ascend. What’s next for you?
Ascend was the closing album of a trilogy, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do after that creatively. In January and February that was pretty much my focus, what do I want the next message to be. I feel like I figured out a really awesome idea for this whole next phase, and once I got that down, I was itching to make new music really badly.
With the label change [Ed. note: Miller left Astralwerks for 12Tone Music after the release of Ascend], I felt like I was able to make whatever I wanted and was really just free to do what I want and love. With any major label you’re one of hundreds or thousands, and it’s hard to make it perfect.
There were great things I got from Astralwerks, but at the end of the day I feel like I’m much more myself where I’m at now. I’m trying to please people, but I’m trying to please people that are fans and who want the best for me. I want to get them excited with this music versus like, “Oh, they’re going to be excited because this is a hit.” I don’t really care.
Were you getting pressure before?
Probably some of it was my own pressure to keep growing and getting larger and to have some huge radio single. We had some success with that with Ascend, which is cool, but I just put myself under a lot of stress by doing that. It’s just not as authentic and really hard to chase, especially if I was to do it the way I wanted to do it. If I was going to make a pop song, I wanted to make it in my sound and my realm and still have some emotional aspects.
It’s just a hard game to play. I could sit in the studio and make some Top 40 sounding thing, but that’s just draining. I don’t feel like I have to do that at all now.