Jack Garratt On New EP ‘Synesthesiac,’ Touring America & The Creative Process: Idolator Interview

Blending fragments of R&B, rock and any other genre that springs to mind into his dense, multi-layered electronic soundscape, Jack Garratt makes music that defies easy categorization. That originality combined with his knack for literate, heartfelt lyrics has generated the kind of hype that can either make or break a new artist. Given the quality of new EP Synesthesiac, which dropped in April, the former is much more likely.

I recently spoke with the Brit about his critically-acclaimed EP and upcoming North American tour. Jack spoke about having the freedom to experiment and challenge listeners with mind-bending anthems like “Chemical” and the way he goes about creating a song. Which would seem to begin with a beat or chord sequence, followed by melodies and lyrics. The singer/songwriter/producer also gives his own interpretation of synesthesia. Find out more below.

Everyone has a different slant on how to describe your sound. “Alternative R&B” and “down-tempo electro” are two examples I’ve read online. How would you describe it? It’s interesting you bring up that point, because I totally agree with you. There’s been lots and lots of different people saying lots of different things about what they think I do, what they think my sound is. But it’s great. It’s exactly what I wanted their reactions to be. So, because of that, I try not to describe it myself. I wouldn’t want to give someone an unfair or biased opinion of my music without them having an instinctive reaction to it first, which, like you’ve already brought up, has already kind of made itself evident, because no one quite knows what genre to put me in.

As an umbrella term, obviously I can call myself an electronic artist because I do a lot of electronic shit, but to go into more detail, more defined than that, I think that is up to the listener. It’s up to however they want to understand the music, because not everyone wants to… just that some people like to compare artists and like to compare genres and stuff. Because of that, I try not to give myself a genre. I just leave it up to everyone else.

It’s such a rich, broad sound to me. Where do the eclectic influences come from? When I grew up, I had lots of different musical genres available to me, thanks to my mum and dad and their extensive record collection. We always had music playing at the house. It was always something that was just there. I was also very fortunate that I grew up in a house with an attitude that was, just because the music’s there, doesn’t mean you should take it for granted.

Both me and my siblings were placed into music lessons as children so that we could understand and appreciate music. I’ve always been interested in soul music and always been interested in R&B, but I’ve always been interested in… just anything that’s good. I’ve always just liked good music. I mean, to call something good is totally subjective anyway — that’s my opinion. What I think is good could be absolute torture to someone else.

I’m a huge Tower Of Power fan, for example. I used to play trombone. To someone else, that could be just the worst music you could possibly play for them, early ’90s or late ’80s cheesy funk music. That’s just one of the many things I really, really enjoy.

Fair enough. As an artist and producer, I’m interested in how you start a song. Do you have an idea in your head before you begin? It kind of depends. I mean, more commonly than not, I’ll have a beat in mind, or I’ll have a chord sequence in mind. The things, I think, are not necessarily last, but the things that take the longest for me to grab a hold and sort of pick out of the air are things like melodies and especially lyrics.

So, for me, it’s about trying to find an environment first, find a feeling, or find a sonic soundscape that kind of creates an emotion, and then tap into that emotion and create the song out of it, based on my own experiences, or the experiences of other people I know. This most recent record, Synesthesiac, was created with the idea that… this is more of a concept piece, but the concept came together after the songs were written.

The songs had already been written, and I had these ideas in my head, and then I got interested in the idea of triggering senses. My thought was, okay, how can I trigger those different senses just through music? But again, that concept came together after the songs were already there, so I’d already written “The Love You’re Given” and I’d already written “Chemical,” but it just made sense to produce them in a way where I could maybe try and manipulate other people’s senses, their physical sense and understanding of the world.

I think you definitely achieved that goal. As for the title, have you ever experienced synesthesia? It’s fascinating anyway, just as a study of the human body, but to be able to relate it to something artistic is… I’d say it’s one of the only real biological appreciations of art. Everything else is, you see something… the whole point of art is that it makes you feel a certain way. The whole thing gets boiled down to the idea of synesthesia and what that means.

You can see an image and appreciate its aesthetic and what it means. You can see that piece of art and understand the technique behind it, and it can be aesthetically pleasing. So, in a way, everyone has some kind of synesthesia. It’s definitely on a spectrum. I don’t think I’ve ever personally encountered it as something that could then be diagnosed, but in the same way that anyone can hear something and feel something, or see something and feel something, as an emotion, I’ve had that since I was a kid and been able to tap into that.

But I know people who have it, and it’s always fascinated me. It’s just such an interesting thing, and such a great way to have your body validate something that you’re experiencing, that it instinctively triggers a completely separate sense altogether than the one you’re using at that moment. I just think that’s absolutely fascinating.

Definitely. I get the feeling, from listening to songs like “Water” and “The Love You’re Given,” that you’ve gone through some personal turmoil… Yeah. I mean, it all comes from somewhere. It’s not necessarily bad experiences, but it’s sometimes people I know, or stories that I read, or things like that. I mean, ultimately I’m still learning a lot about songwriting but it’s very easy for me to connect to my emotions. Putting myself in other people’s positions and being able to vicariously feel emotions based on another person’s experience.

Like I said, I’ve always just tried to tap into that. I don’t know. Probably in the same way that any young person who’s been through stuff that they haven’t understood, it’s usually down to an emotion that they don’t understand. More commonly than not, that’s because of a love interest, or an affection of some kind that’s been taken away from you. Yeah. I been through a couple of those situations, and I’ve created a couple of those situations myself for other people, in the way that every other human being has.

I don’t know, I guess I just sort of expand it. It’s such a deep well that so many other artists have written about. It’s great to be able to then give a unique perspective on it and make something that seems so old and make it fresh. That’s always what I’ve tried to do.

What made “Chemical” stand out as the single from the EP? It was just different. Again, as we spoke earlier about it, I try to do lots of different genres and try… I played with a huge brass kind of thing, or at least I tried to. So I think that “Chemical” was just the furthest that I’d gone. It was just an interesting single choice because it was interesting to see what the reaction was going to be, you know?

I’ve spent so long creating this persona of someone who isn’t necessarily pigeonhole-able, or who keeps doing different stuff. There was an audience that was reacting to that, or there is an audience that’s reacting to that. I guess I just wanted to see whether people would stand next to me no matter what, and just appreciate the effort, understand that music can be challenging and just see if people are willing to be challenged. Not challenged in the sense that it’s too hard, but just to try something different, to take a new route to a familiar place.

“Chemical” seemed like it did that because it still had my voice on it, and it still had moments of me that people could probably connect back to things like “The Love You’re Given.” At the same time, it had a whole new aggression and arrogance to it that I’ve not shown people before. The reaction has kind of been exactly what I thought it was going to be, which is a lot of people really enjoy it and really love it and think it’s great, and a lot of people aren’t quite taken by it, or aren’t sure about it.

But they have the opportunity to listen to it, and that for me is the most important thing. Everyone gave it a try. Everyone who’s listened to my songs before has listened to “Chemical” and has been able to make their own opinion on it. That, to me, is the most important thing. More often than not, people kind of went, “It’s interesting. It’s not my thing, but I’m really excited to see what happens next.” A lot of people now may not be willing to take those kind of risks, and when they do, their audiences can potentially be quite fickle about it.

Their reactions may be to, then, disappear and go off and sort of go, “Well, he or she or they have released a song I don’t like, so I’m not going to listen to them anymore.” Whereas, I think the audience that has been appreciating music like mine has kind of taken their seat back and gone, “Cool. Okay. Interesting, but let’s see where he goes from here,” which I really appreciate. I get a lot of freedom to continue to try new things and do what I want to do.

One of the things I loved about your last EP (Remnants) were the remixes. Will you be doing that again? That was a lot of fun, actually, because we just trying to… the great thing about music is that once it’s finished in one incarnation, it can be reincarnated. It can be continued to be reincarnated forever and ever and ever. The beautiful thing about the digital age that we live in is that all these parts of all these tiny pieces that make up the music that everyone listens to can be traced back and found and used again.

You know, it’s easier to do a remix of an entire EP that was made in 2014 than to make a remix of one song that was recorded back in the 60s. So it’s just great to utilize that. It’s great to use that to its potential. And we got some great people on board who did some great remixes. It’s just great to sort of give those songs out to people and just go, “Hey, try something out. Here’s the song. What do you want to do with it? You have total freedom.”

I’d love to do it again. I would absolutely love to do it again. In fact, I love doing remixes myself. There’s nothing like it. You can take somebody else’s voice and warp it and make it your own, and that’s a really freeing, really invigorating experience.

I’m really looking forward to seeing you live. How do you translate these incredibly multilayered, intricate songs? I almost, kind of, don’t want to go into it too much, just because… if you haven’t seen anything, if you haven’t watched anything… there are a few videos up online, and if you haven’t seen anything, and you don’t know anything about the live set, more than anything, I’d be really interested to see if you thought I did do that, what you’re asking me… if I was able to give all those intricacies, to put them across. Sorry, to take all those intricacies and put them across properly and in respect of the original recordings or the original songs.

I do everything myself, and I try not to do it in a gimmicky way. I try not to do it in a way that’s been done before, and I try to keep everything as live as possible. There’s no track going on underneath. Everything that’s being heard is something that I’ve triggered myself at some point, or that I’m playing live in front of them. Yeah, it’ll be interested to actually hear the opinion of someone who has never seen it before, and to see it, because it’s something I’ve been working on, me and one of my very good friends, who is also one of my stage techs.

The reaction has been kind of exactly what we were hoping it would be. It was a case of, like, how do we get the audience to see me creating a song, live in front of them, like I would do at the studio. So it will be interesting, when you see the show, if you come out to the show, it will be interesting to see or hear your reaction to it. I’ll ask you the same question: if I actually do or not?

I can’t wait! How have your previous tours been received? I’ve been out to America a couple of times now. I did my first run of headline shows very recently. I did that last month. I did a few days at SXSW, and then flew to New York and did shows there, and then a show in L.A. and a show in San Francisco.

This is the first time where we’re coming back, and I’m trying new territories, and I’m going to places I’ve never been before. I’m a big fan of America. I love the country. I love the people in it. I love the attitude to music and to art, and the way that it’s just so friendly and open. But it’s very judgmental. You know, they only like the good shit, so I’ve got to make sure that I’m the best shit I could be.

I’m really looking forward to going back to Chicago. I’ve been there a couple of times, but I’m looking forward to going back and playing there. I’m looking forward to going to… I think I’m doing a day in, like, Minneapolis as well. It’s just going to be really interesting to go to the Midwest and try out some stuff over there and see how that’s taken. I’m really excited about it.

Jack Garratt’s North American tour dates:

May 28 New York, NY (Le Poisson Rouge) May 29 Washington, DC (DC 9) May 30 San Francisco, CA (The Independent) May 31 Los Angeles, CA (Troubadour) June 1 Los Angeles, CA (Troubadour) August 4 Philadelphia, PA (Milkboy) August 6 Nashville, TN (The High Watt) August 7 Chicago, IL (Schubas) August 8 Minneapolis, MN (7th St. Entry) August 11 Edmonton, AB (Rexall Place*) August 12 Calgary, AB (Scotiabank Saddledome*) August 14 Walla Walla, WA (Gentlemen of the Road Stopover) August 15 Vancouver, BC (Biltmore Cabaret) August 17 Los Angeles, CA (The Forum*) August 21 Salida, CO (Gentlemen of the Road Stopover)

*supporting Mumford & Sons

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