Interview: Isaac Dunbar Talks ‘scorton’s creek,’ New Music & Quarantine
In many ways, Isaac Dunbar is a DIY-pop miracle. After being inspired by Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP (true story), the 17-year-old learned production and music theory from YouTube tutorials. Those songs went up on SoundCloud and he has slowly built a following from there. An independently released EP called balloons don’t float here followed in 2019. Isaac made his major-label debut shortly thereafter with the intriguing “onion boy” and has continued to impress with each subsequent release.
I recently gave the Cape Cod, Massachusetts native a ring to find about more about his musical beginnings and heartfelt new single “scorton’s creek,” which is about his first boyfriend. Isaac opened up about quarantine — he is spending his days cleaning, eating and realizing — and his growth as both an artist and human being since the release of his first EP. Other topics of conversation were embracing the feminine and masculine, the importance of visuals and, of course, Gaga. Get to know the rising pop star a little better in our Q&A below.
How is quarantine treating you?
I’ve just been cleaning a ton to distract my mind. My house looks immaculate right now, which is good.
I’ve just been eating, which isn’t as useful.
No, I totally understand. I’ve been eating so much. I just ate two bags of chips.
I was looking at your Twitter earlier and you said you have been doing a lot of realizing. Please explain.
[Laughs]. I have just been realizing so much! I’ve had multiple existential crises. I don’t know. My brain’s just going in so many directions and I’ve just been analyzing every single thing in my life and I’ve just been realizing. My third eye is open.
Anything you care to share?
It’s more just about myself. I’m just becoming super self-aware. I realize I do certain things that I shouldn’t do.
I had the realization that “scorton’s creek” is amazing. Is it an autobiographical song?
Yes. It’s about the first boyfriend that I had, and we had to keep it a secret from my entire family and all of my school. We used to go to this place called Scorton’s Creek, which is near a trail where I live. It was the only place where we could hold hands in private without being judged and do PDAs, I guess.
That’s so sweet.
He studied abroad in Norway and we broke up. That’s what the song was about. I wasn’t able to see him and now it’s awkward because he got sent back because of Coronavirus and we don’t like each other anymore. [Laughs].
This isn’t the happy ending I was hoping for.
I know. At the time I thought I was in love, but I realize now it’s just infatuation because I don’t think I was in love at all — but I thought I was, so I wrote this song.
Do you feel awkward singing about him now?
No, not at all. Whenever I sing this song, I still feel everything but I just don’t like him anymore. He’s wants to talk to me now and I just don’t want to deal with it.
How did you discover your passion for music?
I’ve always loved music my whole life. In 2013, Lady Gaga released ARTPOP. I used to be a huge Gaga fan growing up. I feel like I know every single lyric to every song. She worked with a teenage producer called Madeon on the album and I became obsessed with his music. It was French electronic music and I was like, “Whoa. That’s exciting. I’ve never heard anything like this.” I downloaded this program and I taught myself synths and music theory through YouTube tutorials. I just grew to love creating songs. I thought it was so cool that I could do the same thing as my favorite artist. Also, I love getting feedback from my friends and family and seeing people’s reaction.
How do you feel about ARTPOP now?
ARTPOP was so ahead of its time. My goodness. If it was released today, I think that people would respect it more. There are still certain songs that aren’t [as good], but overall, as an artistic piece, I think it holds up.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
I think “Venus.”
That’s a good one. How has your new music progressed from your first, independent EP?
I think it has definitely changed a lot because my sources of inspiration have changed from when I was 15. Definitely, I’ve gotten a little more grounded when it comes to my personal life. That means going back to what I used to listen to, which was EDM music. This EP has a lot more electronic elements and layering. I try to channel how I used to make music when I was younger, but also put in the techniques that I’ve learned from producers from being in session. I think it’s a much more mature sound and I’m just really excited for everyone to hear it.
How is it different lyrically?
To be honest, I would say it’s less inhibited. I say what I mean more clearly and I would say it’s more unapologetic because I’m not afraid to say what I want this time. I don’t hide behind metaphors as much as I used to. On my previous songs, I was so metaphorical because I wasn’t secure enough to say what I was feeling, but now I don’t care. I’ll say everything.
You’re already so confident and outspoken, particularly on social media. Where does that strength come from?
When I was younger, I was so much more guarded. I suppose in the last year, I’m just finally learning more about who I am and just seeing how other people can be themselves and be loved for being themselves. Honestly, I just want to be myself now. It makes no sense to pretend I’m perfect and I don’t swear and I look like this all the time. Like I’m always wearing a thousand chains and my hair is done. I like to be fun. Have you seen my tweets?
I love your tweets.
It’s all just things that come to my mind instantaneously and I don’t censor myself when I post. Actually, sometimes I do because I don’t want to get canceled.
Same. My drafts are outrageous.
My drafts, oh my gosh. If they ever get hacked, I would be over. [Laughs].
I loved your tweet about embracing the masculine and the feminine.
I’m gay and so for a lot of my life, I was told to oppress that side of me just because of where I grew up and the people around me. I did that for a very long time and it has caused a lot of issues in the present. I learned that I was off-balance with my masculinity and my femininity. I was told to just embrace this one side of me that socially was acceptable and then save that feminine side for when I’m with my friends or just in my bedroom by myself. I’m just doing things that I’ve always wanted to do finally. I’ve broken out of that mental pattern.
These are the realizations that I’ve come to. These are the realizations that I was tweeting about. It’s a process and it does exhaust you. It’s so draining to come to these realizations and actually actively make a change. It’s so much easier said than done just to embrace the masculine and feminine. It’s a process and I think everybody should do it because everybody has a certain amount of flamboyancy in there, so maybe they shouldn’t be afraid to show it.
Absolutely. I love your “scorton’s creek” video. How important is the visual aspect to you?
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. It’s very, very important. Sometimes I actually start off with a visual before I make music. I used to draw when I was younger, I always used to draw. That comes through in my music. Putting different scenes and colors together. I also like collaborating with people. The director suggested making the colors warmer because I usually love cooler colors. Yes, visuals are everything now.
How far off is your next EP?
It’s actually very soon. I found out the date yesterday. I’m sorry I can’t tell you. Another song is going to come out before it. I’m so excited.
Will songs like “Onion Boy,” “Makeup Drawer” and “Isaac’s Insects” be on the EP?
“Onion Boy” isn’t on it, but the other singles are.
Who are your biggest musical influences now?
I am obsessed with Grimes. She has been a real inspiration for me. I’m watching all of her interviews from 2015. I’m just obsessed with her and who she is and how she creates this music. She’s a genius. She’s so cool. And I love her makeup too.
She’s the coolest. Good luck with everything and stay safe.
Thank you very much.