Interview: Autre Ne Veut talks astrology, psychotherapy and competing with Kanye West
October 9th 2015
Despite lumping himself in with the other “white, indie kids in R&B”, Arthur Ashin’s musical pseudonym Autre Ne Veut is so much more.
Since shedding anonymity with his breakout album Anxiety two years ago, Ashin has consistently pushed the emotional and intellectual boundaries of pop music. Drawing more assuredly from a long-standing love of jazz, with warmer acoustic tones complementing his distinctive palette of fluttering synths, his new album Age of Transparency dares to explore darker themes. These are not only intuited from his personal experience, but also from the depths of a collective unconscious fomented in an era where communication has never been so accessible — yet so impossible at the same time.
Ashin opens up below about being in a mental conversation with Kanye, his love of astrology and how music is his therapy.
Xiaoran: There’s a strong jazz influence on your new album, Age Of Transparency, which is not immediately noticeable in your previous work. What inspired this?
Ashin: It’s a function of my personal listening practice. My grandparents on my father’s side had a fairly extensive jazz collection on vinyl, and I converted my parents’ record player into my record player. From a really young age, I was excited by jazz, listened to it a lot and I’ve never had an opportunity to come up with a way to incorporate it into what I do as a musician. It just seemed like the time to try.
Anxiety and Age of Transparency have been described as the first two members of a trilogy. Did you intentionally conceive of the albums as a trilogy or did their relation to each other develop more organically?
Anxiety was not designed to be part of a trilogy initially. As I was getting into the process of making Age of Transparency, it dawned on me that there was another record’s worth of material that I was writing at the same time that didn’t fit with it, but still fit with music I wanted to figure out a way to make. It’s more a conceptual trilogy dealing with trying to be a human in an era of social media, the Internet and global, rhizomatic capitalism.
You’ve spoken in the past about how Anxiety was a cathartic record for you. Would you say the same anxieties that motivated you to make Anxiety are still motivating you now? Is Age of Transparency coming from a totally different emotional space?
There was a whole new set of life challenges that I had to think about in this record. The last one was more immediately intimate, and related to very close characters in my life. The “me” was most often me; it was biographical. This record is not aiming to be biographical in the same way. I like to use the “me” and “you” pronouns because they naturally come out of my mouth more than a third person one does.
I don’t want my songs to feel bookish or pretentious, but I did manage to squeeze in some fairly pretentious little things that are probably indiscernible.
That’s one of the benefits of singing the way I do – no one has any idea what I’m singing about.
In the middle of ‘Never Wanted’, there’s this Keats-ian passage where I personify Time, Love and Faith as these capital letter versions of themselves. I imagined it to be like a Keats poem, where [Time, Love and Faith] are battling each other’s intentions. My goal with music in terms of the lyrical, vocal aspect is to evoke feelings rather than evoke ideas. I’m far more intellectual about the way I produce, but I am an overthinker anyway, so there’s usually some reason for a lot of things I do, unfortunately.
How do those two elements interplay? How do you reconcile the emotional with the intellectual when you write music?
That’s my personal great struggle: how to navigate between the “me” that feels and needs to fuck and needs to be a body on the planet and relate to other people, and the “me” that sits behind me, who processes and sees irony and satire in everything and doesn’t take those feelings seriously. It depends what I’m doing, but as a singer, it’s very immediate.
If I go somewhere, I let myself go there – as opposed to trying to nail what the thought was initially. But as a producer, it’s almost the opposite. I’m trying to harness and strap down all the weird loose ends, and especially with this album, there were so many loose ends to strap down. It was like preparing for a hurricane or something: the whole last year of producing the record just felt like boarding up the windows and getting things ready for some weird storm. I think I just navigate that by allowing myself to have a schizophrenic relationship with myself.
Falsetto features prominently on Anxiety, but only makes cameos on a few tracks on Age of Transparency. You also just spoke about trying to find a balance between earnestness and irony. Given that this album is about trying to locate the personal in impersonal times, does your decision to move away from falsetto signify a newfound comfort with earnestness?
Falsetto as a physical act is a very particular thing. It’s like a different way of singing. It’s funny that the falsetto thing became so prominent… On Anxiety, it was almost an accident. A big part of it was that when I was tracking vocals, the engineer involved was encouraging me to just go up high and wail. I think I wanted to be clearer on this album.
I don’t think people can understand the lyrics on this album any better than they could on Anxiety necessarily, but there was some theoretical aspiration to be clearer.
Is the need to be clearer related to the need to be transparent? There seems to be some thematic link there.
Yeah, that’s absolutely it. I’ve had a raspy voice since I was a little kid and I may or may not participate in certain behaviour that exaggerates that. The way I produced the vocals on Anxiety, there was a lot of effort to hide [my raspy voice].
On this record, I just wanted to be raw and naked. There was so much detailed working on the vocal effect chains on Anxiety that I did consciously move away from on this album. It’s me trying to be brave or something, a silly way of trying to prove to myself that it’s OK to just be the mess that I am.
You underwent psychoanalysis as part of your Masters degree, which you were studying at the time you wrote Anxiety. Is this something you still engage in?
I totally stopped. Leaving grad school was a really intense thing for me. It felt inherently like a failure, even though it was a function of a different success for me.
There was just so much weird stuff happening in the analysis. Part of it was that [my analyst] was relatively new… I’d been studying psychoanalysis as a philosophy student and as a grad student for such a long time that I had these notions that I knew what I was talking about, even though I’ve never used it clinically. It was a more loaded experience than simply getting my brain shrunk. It was a battle every time I went in. I’m actually at the point now where I think I’m ready to go back to therapy, but maybe not formal psychoanalysis. Maybe something a little behavioural, so that I can stop doing the things I don’t like about myself.
Would you say making music is much more therapeutic an exercise than therapy itself?
Yeah, definitely. Therapy on occasion would feel therapeutic, but when I really need something in an animal, base way – like need to let go or need to do something intensely – going and writing a song is the best cure on an immediate, symptomatic level. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that.
Age of Transparency contains a track billed as part two of ‘World War’, the song that closed Anxiety. In what way are these two songs linked, and why was it important for you to write a Part Two for ‘World War’?
‘World War’ is about the weird space in between where you understand a partner and where you fail to understand them. It’s that gap between people that will inevitably come up in any close relationship. Both ‘World War’ songs are relationship songs, and they’re actually the only relationship songs on either of the records.
That’s interesting, because I’ve been listening to Anxiety as a break-up album for a long time.
That makes sense because [the songs] sonically signify so many of those things. Obviously, ‘Play by Play’ is a song about jealousy and that’s a function of being in a relationship… I guess the songs are analyses on the battle that takes place in very intimate relationships where you’re trying to negotiate that inherent failure to understand one another.
I think the [way I title songs] is also a way I make myself important by saying, “You deserve to have canonical milestones.”
I definitely think about my songs in terms of my fantasy as to what impact they can have on the world. I think it’s hard to not. As you gain access to the ability to impact the world in little ways, it’s nice to fantasise about who you’re holding your stuff up against. They’re always embarrassingly aspirational, or at least mine are. The real person I’m in conversation with now is Kanye West.
You made this album pretty much boarded up in your room for an entire year, which is in contrast to the collaborative nature of Anxiety, where you worked with Mykki Blanco and Dan Lopatin. Was there a reason for returning to self-producing and how did that approach affect the finished product?
There are multiple reasons, some of which are super petty. I wanted to prove myself and to other people that I could produce a record. It wasn’t that I wasn’t participating in the process of producing Anxiety, but when you have someone more established as an artist and as a producer working on your record, the assumption will always be that all the great decisions are made by them.
There is also the less petty reason that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. But also, I couldn’t verbally communicate what I wanted to accomplish with this record to anyone. I did try in the early stages to bring some people on. Joel Ford, who worked on Anxiety, really helped to flesh out the early demos. But I really couldn’t articulate to anyone else clearly enough – and I think it was my failure, not anyone else’s – what I wanted to accomplish with it. I needed to do it. My astrology was all telling me that it was my time to stand on my own, so I listened.
Did you say your astrology?
What star sign are you?
I’ve got Cancer rising. Taurus is my sun sign but I’m on the cusp of Aries. I know my whole chart, but maybe I won’t go there.
Tell me more about your astrology.
I have four really embarrassing vices, two of which are hippie vices and two of which are nerd vices. My nerd vices are Star Trek and board games, and I can’t get support for either of those from anyone. Nobody cares.
Which games do you play?
I’m actually not a fan of particular games. I just like any weird, super complicated strategy game like Risk. I like things that take a really long time and a lot of brainpower and then you feel extremely disappointed when you lose for some reason.
Well, that explains why we get into relationships…
Yeah, exactly! That’s it. I also whole-heartedly half-believe in astrology… I have a friend who reads my tarot, which I have allowed to guide some weirdly huge life decisions over the last couple of years. Tarot, I’m a little iffy on. I haven’t rationalised it to myself yet, even though I’ve made life decisions based on it, but I also think with most big life decisions, you just need to make one. That’s really what’s important.
How did astrology and tarot come to be a part of your life?
Astrology I got into in college from a friend who swore by it, and at first I was like, “yeah, right, whatever.” They were like, you have to check out your full chart – and then I was like, this is crazy, it feels super right. I don’t believe in astrology’s ability to predict the future. My rationalisation is that over the centuries in which astrology has developed, it has come to be what it is through subjective behavioural observation.
Astrologists have been able to see general tendencies in people. Here’s my logical leap: physical bodies in space actually have an impact on your neurology, because it’s a sufficient amount of gravitational pull or whatever for microscopic objects.
“Neuro-physics”. That’s incredible.
Yeah, these are the ways we allow ourselves to live with mythologies… I mean, why not? But, yeah, those four things are now on the record as my four embarrassing personal hobbies.
The music videos for singles on this album were made in collaboration with Allie Avital and pay homage to Michael Haneke’s films. How does Haneke’s approach of juxtaposing the grotesque with the sublime relate to the music on Age of Transparency?
Allie’s a really good friend of mine, so a lot of these videos were a function of us geeking out about things we both love. For instance, because of the space we ended up getting for the ‘Panic Room’ video, we thought we’d make it a bit more interesting and do a geeky homage to the Dogville lighting scheme.
For me, what’s really incredible about Michael Haneke (and I don’t think any of the videos reference him explicitly) is that he has this way of doing daylight horror that I find to be really poignant and impressive. He finds the horrific in the mundane. The Puck-ish character in the ‘Age of Transparency’ video is built on the same psychological scene that plays out in Funny Games, which is called gaslighting, where you create this sense that something is alright or as it’s supposed to be, but really, there’s this insidious, sociopathic behaviour in the background.
I was really invested in trying to expose myself and show some of my darker, pathological behaviours – as satires of them, obviously, trying to be honest by over-illustrating. For example, the obsessive over-attachment in ‘World War Pt. 2’ and the gaslight-y style, manipulative behaviour and playful behaviour are both things that are a part of me in a real way. It was really exciting and arduous in a lot of ways to try and create videos that reflected some of the same intensities and themes that took place in the music… it was cool to work with a director that I trust aesthetically and personally so much.
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