When British electronic producer Jon Hopkins released Immunity in 2013, rapturous reviews sent him around the world on tour for more than 160 shows. The experience was at once thrilling and depleting.
“The exhaustion got pretty extreme,” he tells Billboard. “I needed to do something or I wouldn’t have been able to carry on living in that place. So I took a month off to get deeply embedded with a transcendental meditation technique.” Hopkins now meditates daily and evangelizes — convincingly — for a regular practice. He says the benefits bled into his new album, Singularity, and helped him out of several creative blocks in the studio.
Billboard spoke with the producer about the making of Singularity, why the album is more “progressive” than its predecessor and the value of swimming in cold water.
Did you expect your last album to blow up the way that it did?
Not at all. I don’t think you get into this genre of music expecting many people to be interested. I’d already released three albums of, to me, similar stuff. I’m an example of someone who got a bit more focused as I got older. So I listen back now and I do see that album has a bit more energy than the previous ones. But I still feel very lucky that it connected.
Why did it resonate so widely?
A lot of things coincided. There was more general interest in the genre. But also I did work harder on it. I was much more focused in that time. During pervious albums, I didn’t really have the luxury of doing nothing but that. When I did Immunity, even though I did a film score at the beginning and also at the end, I was left uninterrupted during the middle bit. I got a good year of just writing and focusing. That, to me, is when I make the best stuff. And maybe that clarity helped it connect with people.
Did the success of that record mean you couldn’t find the same isolation again?
That’s why there will be a five-year anniversary about a month after this one comes out. I spent two years doing 165 plus shows, touring heavily. I took some time off, did work on a theater production of Hamlet in London, and then took more time off. At the end of 2015 I started writing again. Then I spent about 18 months spread out working on this. I did almost nothing else, work-wise.
This one had a bit of a different genesis: I had the idea, the concept of this record, like 15 years ago. I had this idea when I was 23 for a record called Singularity that had this beginning point on a very simple tone and everything expanded from there. Back then I really wasn’t able to write something that would be this complex to put together. I tried to write it in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound complex to listen to. But in reality, the building of an album like this — I wouldn’t have had a chance of making this at 23. So I just left it and parked it for all those years.
I didn’t know what was going to happen through the album, but I knew that, by the end, the last track had to be the polar opposite of the first in every way, and yet end at the exact same point the first one began. So it was like a circle, almost something purifying itself. After that, there’s always something that sparks. For me, at the beginning of the third track, there’s quite an interesting gated, weird pad sound that turns into a rhythmic sound. That was the first thing I made where I thought, this is an interesting enough starting point to say, I’m in the process now.
And you link the album’s cycle to the meditation practice you’ve spoken about in past interviews?
I think that’s true. Transcendental meditation in particular is very useful in terms of unlocking those deeper parts of the subconscious where ideas are floating. And also, I feel, it gives me more confidence to be more free with the song structures. On this one, tracks are more progressive — they don’t tend to circle back to the start like previous ones I used to do. They could end in very, very different places. A lot of things come from visions I’ve had or trance states of being.
What first got you headed towards a daily meditation practice?
I think, like with a lot of people, it was necessity. If you talk to people who do yoga or meditation everyday, it usually comes from some need. Some demand that the body places on you to do it. For me with TM in particular, it was experiencing exhaustion from touring. A couple years into the Immunity tour, I was feeling like I wasn’t getting any rest. It’s the best job in the world, I’m not complaining, but there’s a huge toll on the body. You can’t expect yourself to just be active and energetic in the middle of the night without some consequences. Also changing time zones all the time. These things disrupt your natural rhythm. Meditation gives you back one or two sleep cycles every time you do it. Do it every day and it goes quite a long way towards helping insomnia.
Of course, quite soon after that, you start to notice the other benefits: Generally increased empathy, more sensitivity to your surroundings, more mindfulness and definitely a bit boost on creativity.
Forgive my ignorance — do you teach yourself to meditate or take classes?
For TM, you need a course. It has a section done by personal instruction only. I learned in California, which seemed like a good place to learn, following the cliché. There’s a reason it’s a cliché — it’s a great place to learn, because I think it’s the first place that movement landed, so it’s very well integrated there. There’s other forms of meditation I do on my own which I learned from online courses and some from a book. I don’t think you can learn without any help unless you’re a natural guru, which I’m not.
You took to it pretty fast?
It’s like diving into a super-deep pool. The feeling takes you over and guides you down. It’s a very appealing thing. There was never any question of not keeping it up — it becomes your favorite part of the day, a neutral point from which everything else work. You need that deep rest if you’re going to have a crazy, overactive lifestyle.
I’ve also been doing a few slightly more extreme forms of meditation — or I guess breathing methods, or forms of yoga. One involves extreme, conscious hyperventilation, which essentially gives you a very powerful natural high, which can give you energy whenever you want. And also learning to tolerate extreme cold, which is something I never thought I would enjoy. I’m into all this stuff — expanding my own experience as much as possible and trying to live to my full potential. It feels like the way things are set up for us are very unnatural. We don’t get to be in our bodies so much. I love all these practices. They get you back into that.
How do you increase your tolerance to extreme cold?
Basically cold showers. Very, very cold showers after doing this breathing technique that keeps you warm internally. The capillaries on your skin get very adept at closing off so the cold doesn’t get allowed into your core. Then whenever possible, if you’re by the sea or by a lake, you just get in. Very often it’ll be cold, particularly if you live where I live in England. Wild swimming has become a bit of a passion as well. These practices definitely inspired the more open, positive sounds on this record compared to the last one.
I had a relative who was part of a winter swimming club in Denmark. I thought that was crazy.
It’s pretty cool, you hear about that in Denmark and Sweden and places in northern Europe. They’ve grasped the health benefits of this. It should be coupled with heat — that contrast just feels incredible. The body loves that, and it will send you rewards almost, in the form of endorphins and dopamine. People who do that tend to be pretty healthy.
If you want the benefits of these things, you really deeply need them, and you will find the time to do them. And ultimately, they allow you to do more. If you’re more well, with more energy and more focus … It’s an investment. If you invest 20 minutes in TM, you get more than 20 minutes back later in the day.
You feel the impact in the studio?
Say I’m working on a track and I hit some sort of creative block, which happens with all artistic processes — you don’t know where the track needs to go, and you’ve been listening for four hours, and you can’t figure out what’s wrong with the mix or whatever. Stop for a bit. Go and do this breathing method or TM or whatever. When you come back to it, generally you find that you know the answer.
What I’ve learned over all these years is that sitting there, staring at the screen and listening to the same thing over and over again and getting more and more annoyed, that really never works. Stopping, refreshing, changing or subtly altering the balance of hormones in your body so you’re feeling more energetic or positive will unlock that thing pretty quickly.
Are there others in the producer/DJ community who also use TM?
Not that I can think of particularly. I know the lead singer of Braids, she does it. There are quite a few challenges to this lifestyle. In general I notice musician friends getting more interested in at least exercise. We sit in rooms staring at screens in the dark. We didn’t evolve to do that. Very often you get a lot of problems.
I want to make it clear that this is still very fun and I still like partying at the right time. It’s just that you can’t operate without sleep, without rest. You just have to factor in things to counteract the unhealthier elements.
How did you manipulate the human voices on this album?
I worked with the same singer on Immunity as well; she’s on “Collider.” She sings on “Emerald Rush” on this album, and I wanted her to sound alien and weird. She’s half-Swedish, so I got her to sing in Swedish, but I wanted the lines to sound like they’d been reversed. We worked out the melodies I’d written, reversed them, and got her to copy the reversed one in Swedish. They sound very mysterious, very other worldly. The way a voice transitions between two notes when it’s reversed, you can’t really replicate that in a live performance.
What about the singers on “Feel First Life?”
That’s a 15-part choir, eight male voices and seven female. We recorded that in a big orchestral studio in northwest London. It’s the first time I’ve had the amazing privilege of working with a choir. It’s something that I wanted to do since I started writing music. That was sung live all in one room in one go. I love how that turned that out. I love the idea that we have an instrument physically inside of us. There’s a beautiful sound that can come directly from the body. In unison, it becomes exponentially more magical. You get them all singing in an acoustically tuned space like that and record them really well? There’s no replicating that. There’s no software or samples that can come close to making a choir sound like a choir.
The track before it has quite a heavy techno ending. The idea of just a choir starting straight off of that would be ridiculous. It had to feel like it emerged out of the same essential musical fabric that the previous track had died into. I had this very filtered synth sound underneath, and then I wanted the choir to feel like it was emerging out of that, like the stereo field is opening up so you only gradually become aware that you’re listening to a choir. And then by the end of the track, it’s natural, fully acoustic.
Did you hear the new Nils Frahm record? It seems like choirs are in the air right now.
It’s funny, I recorded that over a year ago. His choir usage is very different. But it’s funny, these things do happen. There are creative similarities between me and Nils. We’re both pianists, and in some ways strive for some of the same effects in our music. I’ve done shows with him; he’s a genius performer.
You knew you had to get back to a set endpoint, was that challenging?
There’s things I find difficult in music and things I find easier. The difficult things for me are making beats that I find exciting enough. The things that come a bit easier are melodic construction. I’m good with keys and which notes will link things back together. There are several sections on the album when one note will link completely different keys together. I love that stuff.