Henry Oliver talks to Devin Abrams, who makes music as Pacific Heights, about his dreamy new album and making a huge pop hit with Drax Project.
Devin Abrams knew he had to finish his new album as Pacific Heights, A Lost Light, quickly. With a baby on the way, he knew his life was about to get a lot more complicated.
Abrams had been a founding member of Shapeshifter for 15 years before leaving in 2014 to pursue his masters in music production and his solo project. It paid off. His 2016 album The Stillness won Best Electronic Album at the 2016 New Zealand Music Awards (Shapeshifter has won in 2007 and 2013) and was nominated for the Taite Music Prize and the Silver Scroll Award – a rarity for an electronic act.
A Lost Light, which was released late last month, is a continuation of his musical progression – a dreamy concept album that begins in optimistic splendour before hitting rough seas and then, finally, salvation. Or is it despair?
Confused? I’ll let him explain…
The Spinoff: So were you making the record with a newborn around?
Devin Abrams: No, I finished the record in October and we had the baby in January. Working for other people is easy because it’s a job with deadlines, but with your own music, everything flows a little bit differently.
Did the baby’s due date become the deadline for the record?
I did! I started talking about my baby’s release date and my wife was like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot.’ But I had to finish it before the baby came.
You’ve made music as part of a group for a long time, but what does it feel like to be more dedicated to your own work?
My debut record came out in 2001, so Pacific Heights has grown in symmetry with the group. You have to have creative outlets when you’re in a group because it’s constant compromise. There was a hiatus there for a while though, but creatively it didn’t change. It felt like a bit of a release from the shackles. It became a bit more indulgent rather than meeting some commercial requirements to keep the band going forward and keeping doing music that the fans want. Pacific Heights didn’t have all that expectation.
I look back at some of those early [Pacific Heights] recordings and they’re definitely accessible electronic music but the same time very niche – deep, introverted, almost morbid at times. Whereas Shapeshifter is optimistic, everything’s good, a celebration of life.
When you lose that optimistic outlet, do you bring more of that into your other music?
We’re going deep, Henry! We’re going deep! I don’t know, I feel like Pacific Heights is, in some ways, my truest musical personality. I dug a little deep on my last record because I did a thesis on the composition and production of it. But that was more on the technical side than the creative side, more the sonics of the record.
But the last record got a lot more attention than previous Pacific Heights work – you won awards, were nominated for a Taite and a Silver Scroll, the fancy prizes…
Yeah, you have those jumps in your career, and you can put a few things around it which supported that. Being with Warners was a big difference from being an independent artist, leaving Shapeshifter was a story. There were so many things that helped make that jump. And it’s hard to quantify any of those elements should be credited for the entire thing but all these variables came together. it did do a bit of a jump but it wasn’t a departure from what Pacific Heights is. In some ways, it’s become more cinematic and less commercial.
You’ve got a history of making these thematic or concept records. Where did this one come from?
This came for a visceral dream I had. I’ve had a few of these, where the whole story unfolds visually and just stays with me. I woke up from this dream. And it was all there so I jotted down the whole thing in chronological order. A week or two later I knew I wanted to write a record to this story and the whole record came together in two or three months.
What’s was the dream?
I was this young, London-based sailor in the mid-18th Century. Just married at 18/19 years old. It was dismal times in London for a working-class man. I was passing the docks one day on the way home from work. And I heard these sailors talking about this mystical place called the Pacific Ocean. I thought, ‘That sounds amazing – how can I get on a ship and explore these waters and move my family to a better place?’
I managed to scam myself on to one of these boats as a crew hand with no sailing experience and told my family I was going to go find us a new place to move to that’s going to be warmer and a better life. So I said goodbye to the family.
The start of the album is this hopeful optimistic dream, a young person imaging this place and the possibilities. Then, of course, the story takes a turn and this imminent storm is about to entirely eat this ship. And with no sailing experience, I’m starting to freak out cos I see the worry on the aged sailors.
I was thrown off the boat and am clutching for survival and each of the stages that come after is the grieving for humanity. The first stage is the immediacy of ‘Fuck, this boat is not coming back for me, I’m on my own in this massive ocean’. So clutching for survival for a few days and end up washing up on some island and realising that I’m there alone. I might not see my family again. So living with that for several years is the next part of the story.
The final stage is: if there’s no humanity, is it worth living?
That’s the question that the last song I sing ends with. Hence ‘A Lost Light’. If the light of humanity is gone, is it worth living? That’s the question that finishes the album. And it’s a beautiful production where it could be a very optimistic goodbye to life but it could be a sad one. Like fuck, the whole story’s over.
How did you approach that musically? We’re you soundtracking that narrative?
In some ways, I was trying to soundtrack what I thought would be the visuals would be but the first port of call – excuse the pun – was what was the intuitive emotional feeling. Trying to recall what I felt at each stage of that dream. So that it was honest. I wanted it to be like what it felt like in that dream – to be in a huge ocean. Alone. It was informed by the emotional response, but writing those chapters down. Whatever I could write down I would.
I gave the whole story in a snapshot to these artists and leave it with them and see what they came back with. So it was collaborative. You have to give liberty to artists to let them be themselves. What’s the point of a collaboration if you don’t give that person the ability to be free. If you just say ‘do what you did on that track, bring that to me’ they might not want to do that and you don’t get the best outcome. You have to give people liberty.
You sing a little bit on the record, but most of the vocals are by your collaborators. How do you know when to or not to use your own voice?
I’m a producer and I can hear when I don’t have the right emotion in my voice or I don’t fit in the harmonic range correctly and I feel like a female voice would be better or a deeper male voice would be easier. That’s an easy thing. I’ll hear it straight away.
I still don’t consider myself a singer at all but what I feel when I sing on my own records is when I do capture that take, there’s something so brutally honest in that take – it’s a really connected feeling like it’s a creative decision where I feel connected to that song. I felt a rush or I heard the passion in that take then I run with it. It’s still nerve-wracking to sing live because I’m definitely not a vocalist, but I became a vocalist by realising as the producer that sometimes that first take of a song is going to be the best, emotionally. I had other singers who I really respect say that to me – ‘that take is great – run with it’. I have no range, no real dynamic range. It is what it is, but if it’s right…
Tell me about the experience of producing for other artists. What do you get from that?
It all adds value to my sonic skills and my production skills. There’s definitely tangible skills you take from every genre – the way you think about melody or song structure. Like, I didn’t realise I loved pop music until I left Shapeshifter and started producing Drax Project.
Yeah, you produced their huge hit ‘Woke Up Late’, right? How did that happen?
That was a crazy ride. I started working with them they were basically a Wellington covers band playing modern hits. Great musos with a live following in Wellington. Then that song, ‘Woke Up Late’, has been a crazy journey for all of us. It’s had so much major label interest around the world. They’ve done a big Europe tour with Camilla Cabello, one of the biggest artists in the world at the moment. They’ve just come back from the writing work in LA, they’re going back soon. That rush of the pop world, I’ve never experienced before. That intensity. How fast everything moves, how fast the interest from one song, from New Zealand, it’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
But I’ve worked with them for a few years now. The first EP we built from the ground up together. This one had some of that but ‘Woke Up Late’ was a song they had the bones of and we finished writing and fleshing it out together. But I was quite lucky with them because when a pop act blows up that team becomes so much bigger, but to be in a room when it was just me and them. Kind of like with Joel Little and Lorde – that intimate creative relationship. We built a lot of that together and it was a really cool experience to work with musicians that are super sharp – those guys are killer players, amazing at multiple instruments.
It was very different from Shapeshifter, which was in the drum n bass world which was not necessarily about songs, it was about grooves and making people dance. With Drax, that was part of it but it was about making something people can sing the whole song to. It was a whole different way of thinking. And that’s what pop is. We want to make people smile, we want to make people feel something straight away.
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After that song, you’ve been able to go to LA to write and produce. Is that something you want to pursue?
I think you look at the Swedes who make incredible pop music because they do shoot leftfield. These geographic locations can harbour really interesting ideas. Like Lorde and Joel in New Zealand or Tame Impala in Australia. If you don’t necessarily thrust yourself into it full time, you can have a sound that sits outside the norm. So I want to be quite careful that I’m still being me, which is being here in the Pacific. Working here and living here and breathing here and creating here. And taking that overseas and seeing what happens when you mix that world and this world.
This piece (as well as Pacific Heights A Lost Light) was made possible by NZ On Air