Name: Elijah Newman
Occupation: Producer, sound artist, soundtrack composer
Current Release: Instrumentals Inspired by the Ghostly in Between, Dreams of the Harvey House on bandcamp
Recommendations: The Mason Williams FCC Rapport is fantastic if you can get your hands on one. I’ll lend my copy out to you if you know me personally.
Agnes Varda’s Mur Murs is also pure and deep good vibes and made me love urban murals very much.
If you enjoyed this interview with Elijah Newman, visit his bandcamp store for more music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
For starters, I can pretty clearly trace the stages in my life through the music I was infatuated with. As a younger kid I was a really big fan of enigmatic musicians like the Ramones and my parents would always play me more intense artists like Low and Tom Waits.I’ve always been enthralled in the intensity surrounding music and how timelessly evocative music can be.
I’ve made music in one form or another for most of my life. I was lucky enough to have my parents buy me a guitar at a young age. In high school I played in post-punk and shoegaze cover bands where we played songs by bands like Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine. I started to collect records and cassettes then and spending time in record stores in Seattle where I’m from, like Spin Cycle and Wall of Sound really helped to expand my taste.
After graduating high school I started to create my own compositions that were heavily influenced by the rich atmosphere in the music by people such as Oneohtrix Point Never and Alice Coltrane. I studied sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a couple years and took some very formative classes before deciding it wasn’t the context I wanted to be engaging with art in. Before I left the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I was fortunate enough to study under a few very special artists such as Whitney Johnson aka Matchess, Joseph Kramer of Coppice, and Lou Mallozzi who co-founded Experimental Sound Studio here in Chicago.
Those professors in particular were unbelievably good educators and also let me make some crazy cool stuff for school and get credit for it. The song Propaganda on my album Instrumentals Inspired by the Ghostly in Between, Dreams of the Harvey House was actually my final project for both Lou and Joseph’s classes.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think copying when it comes to art is a vitally important thing and it gets a terrible reputation because the lack of ownership over one’s own art that a truly free and healthy arts focused community requires can’t be fostered under capitalism. I really don’t feel ownership over the art I make but I’m forced to take some responsibility for it if I want to continue being an artist in a capitalist society.
Copying and emulation have both been very important in developing my own artistic perspective. Emulating Frippertronics or trying to make my own version of a Kelly Moran prepared piano riff have made me a wiser and more developed artist. The emotional insight that comes along with the technical insight from copying is a truly special thing.
Art itself is a reflection and a copy of one’s own perceptual experience and being affected by pieces of art is a co-sign of copying as far as I’m concerned.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I first started out making my own compositions I felt the need to pack every moment and always keep the composition “moving” so to speak. As I’ve accumulated more experience and read writing by Morton Feldman I definitely feel that compulsion and pressure leaving.
Space and silence in music and how sound alludes to or overtly acknowledges space is something that I think about a lot when I make music now.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My studio setup has always been very simple. I like keeping individual elements in my setup small and adaptable so I can easily travel with them. My setup has always included my iPhone, a guitar, and a DAW. A year or so ago I added a cassette recorder and an audio interface to that essential set up and more recently I got an antique horsehair bow and an Organelle. Both are otherworldly levels of useful.
Someday I’d love to own a grand piano so I can properly entertain people at dinner parties.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I think the work that Holly Herndon does demonstrates what is at the core of the relationship between technology and human creativity. Her work is a driving force in my understanding of that relationship. I think humans come up with the divine stuff in art and then technology, whether it is a paint brush or a piece of artificial intelligence, can help us bring out the divine stuff. When I’m engaging with my DAW or Organelle or even my bow, that’s how I’m thinking about it.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My tools are a mix between my best guesses at what might end up sounding like how I feel, and what is immediately available to me. I feel great emotional kinship with my tools and I’d grant them royalty rights to my music if there was any money to be made or if they were sentient.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I recently got to do the score to my good friend and former high school band member, Jimmy Bontatibus’ 3rd feature film called All I’ve Been Wanting, which was titled in dedication to the late and truly spectacular, David Cloud Berman. It was a really unique project because the score had to be performed and recorded live in a studio and simultaneously filmed for the movie. We shot the film in September and it was made with many COVID safe guidelines.
I started out the scoring process earlier this year but ended up scrapping most all of the pieces I’d written in lieu of music directing an extended improvised jam with these other amazing musicians. I just hated the file sharing back and forth and zoom calls about creative ideas. I’ll mostly always opt to just get into a space and improvise over doing something pre-written. That’s where the spicy magic happens. Big ups to Jimmy and all of my musicians for being willing to work with that approach too.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My morning routine usually centers around coffee and reading. Right now I’m reading a book of Leonard Cohen’s poetry which has been deeply cool. My favorite so far is a small but threatening letter he wrote to Norman Mailer. I didn’t know there was any rift between them but I thought it was pretty funny. I’m not sure I could blame anyone throwing shade on Norman Mailer.
I try to blend art and music into my life as continuously as possible. I don’t have a fixed schedule but I do almost always opt to make music at night rather than during the day. I also watch a lot of movies which influence the music I make greatly.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
For my new album most of the songs were structured around first takes. I think there’s a lot of insight to be had in first takes and I wanted to shine a light on my first takes and passes at ideas by constructing compositions that emphasize them.
The idea for each song on the album came from different groupings of words I heard that I found evocative. I let these groupings act as a mantra or thesis in creating each song and by bending and processing the spontaneity in my first takes I felt like I was able to sonically evoke the sentiment I was attracted to in each grouping.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’ll often do busy work and chores to procrastinate getting into that art-making state of mind because there is such intensity and gravity that comes along with engaging with the world in a way that yields substantial art.
To get into that art life state of mind I drink coffee and think about the different qualities in different pieces of art that have affected me. Hard to make that not sound pretentious.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
As a musician I’m very interested in improvisation right now. Primarily pre-written works can often be a more concise embodiment of ideas or emotions but improvisation to me is where we as musicians can make ourselves truly vulnerable and allow our art to have more retroactive meanings and subliminal truths.
Though I don’t think there’s a hard line between improvisation and composition and often music occupies a space in between. It’s all about finding a mix of the two that serves the art.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Right now as an artist I’m more interested in the timbre side of things. Mixing timbres is the primary way that I think about my music. Obviously frequency plays into that heavily but I get more excited about stumbling across a cool sounding timbre of a tone than I get about the note itself if that makes sense. Finding meaningful ways to arrange these timbres that inherently occupy some place in time is my mission as a composer.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Movies to me are the most interesting example of a sense overlap. Sound and vision are each very powerful and when they are each made with the other in mind, like in the case of a film, the product can be an especially comprehensive, engaging, and beautiful piece of art.
I would love to score movies for the rest of my life and I hope to be afforded the opportunity to do more in the future.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is like a decentralized cult and the more people we can get to become artists the greater we’ll all be. As someone who is afforded the ability to participate in creating art I think it’s my duty to spread the gospel and help enable others to engage with the world artistically.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
There are so many inequities in the world of music that provide such a disservice to the world by not allowing disenfranchised groups of people to participate in making music in the same way I’ve been able to participate as a white american man with some financial privileges.
I don’t have a fleshed out enough vision that I could put into words but I do trust that the first step towards an equitable world that fosters art creation is to empower those who have been systemically disenfranchised by reallocating money into their pockets. Here in the US it is important to give money to places like black arts organizations and to fund arts programs for public school students. A society where everyone can equitably participate in making art and music is in everyone else’s best interest.