ARIEL PINK: TUNESMITH FOR ARTISTS & EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
We’re weirdly obsessed with ‘authenticity’ from entertainers of all kinds, considering it is literally their job to deceive us with spellbinding illusions. Yet we still expect to see candid photos and video of celebrities kicking it in their natural habitat on Instagram, even while we subconsciously are aware of Instagram’s uncanny ability to cover any blemishes or fatal humanity peeking through with an artificial antiquated filter.
Our obsession with authenticity in the arts even makes a certain sense, in light of conversations regarding separating art from artists, and whether we should do so. We remain as pop-obsessed as ever. It’s hard to impress our saturated tastes, so we gravitate towards “fascinating personalities of this new era [that] would never present themselves as unwashed or genuinely unplugged. They're show people who are able to dance, crack jokes and work all the knobs that power their multimedia extravaganzas,” as music journalist Ann Powers put it for the L. A. Times.
Truth be told, most musicians (and artists of all stripes) are some composite of originality and pastiche. A good portion of today’s biggest artists have written songs for other pop luminaries, often before their break. They’ve also had songs written for them. That’s not even to mention the time-honored rabbit hole of influence that are cover songs and sampling.
Songwriting is both a craft and a form of expression. We can appreciate a good tune, even if we don’t necessarily like the person that wrote it. Beethoven was kind of a grump, but it’s hard to deny the Ode To Joy. Michael Jackson was treated as a pariah, outcast, and eccentric lunatic before his untimely passing and redemption as Restored King Of Pop, we must remember.
Songs co-written by Ariel Pink
Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, the name behind the avant-pop tunesmith Ariel Pink, has been associated with art, artifice, presentation, and authenticity since the very beginning. Ariel Pink’s earliest works sound like outdated artifacts from a former age - bleary, melted soft rock cassette tapes unearthed from cheap thrift stores. As a stalwart of the Hypnagogic Pop sound - a peculiarly American take on the strange British hauntological current that sounds like the Miami Vice soundtrack heard through your bedroom walls as a small child, zoned out on Nyquil. It’s never been clear if Ariel Pink has a legitimate love of these New Wave melodies, these synth pop lullabies, or if he’s merely making strange art to set our imaginations ablaze.
Scrape off the scuzz from Ariel Pink’s recordings, however, and you will find a keen, classic American songwriter, songs full of flying melodies that get lodged in your neural grooves for weeks at a stretch. They have more hooks than a North Dakota bait shop. There are more bass lines than a funk rehearsal space.
Not only has Ariel Pink been gradually letting his glowing melodicism shine on his last few records, with ever expanding production values catapulting Pink to the orbit of a genuine Pop Star himself, he’s also been coming to prominence as a legendary songwriter for today’s more adventurous crossover pop stars.
CHARLI XCX - LONDON QUEEN
SKY FERREIRA - MY MOLLY
We asked Ariel Pink a few questions to find out about his take on songwriting - his process; his take on originality and artifice in Pop Music; and music as craft. We also find out what it was like working with Miley Cyrus, Carly Rae Jepsen, and about telepathic songwriting algorithms.
You’re quite prolific, with numerous projects and bands under your own name, as well as frequently working with collaborators. How do you decide which artists you want to work with? Or maybe … which songs are for other people and which ones you’ll keep for yourself?
Well I try to stay "mentally active" I guess- step out of my 'comfort zone' as they say. It's easy and fun to work with someone on his/her music, especially if they know what they're going for- I love that aspect of just taking direction and being left to my own devices to whip something together. Unlike with my own songs and recordings, it’s usually someone else's decision whether to keep or scratch my contribution, and in that sense I have little say in the final product, which is fine by me - one of the perks of working professionally as a songwriter (for hire) or a musician on someone else's project, is getting the chance to work with various producers and musicians, who very often are far better at it than I!
You co-wrote a song, “Trouble In The Streets,” for the band BC Unidos, a post-punk project of Patrick Berger, the producer behind Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen on vocals. First of all, how did that collaboration come about. Secondly, did you have any hand in writing the vocals? If so, what are some things that are particular for writing for a women’s voice and point-of-view? Lastly, is it nerve-wracking at all to write for such high-profile artists? How does the added attention influence your creative process?
That lyric and vocal, if my memory serves, was all Carly - I basically came to the sessions "blind", at Patrick's request- he played us a short loop/sample of a highlife recording and I quickly armed myself w/ an acoustic guitar, and went about writing chords around the loop. Patrick hopped on guitar and we bounced Ideas back and forth for a while. Little by little, we arrived at a chord structure that would constitute the verses, bridge, pre-chorus and chorus respectively, working out the transitions between them. Carly sat listening attentively the whole time, penning lyrics to the melody she had in her head- Patrick comped the loop and layered a simple 4/4 kick-snare-kick-snare drum groove over it for about five minutes- then we both took turns on acoustic guitar and I laid down a bassline and Op 1 flute on the bridge- then it was Carly's turn to lay down vox - she cold nailed it! Voila - we had a song!
BC UNIDOS - TROUBLE IN THE STREETS FEAT. CARLY RAE JEPSEN
“Trouble In The Streets,” kicks off with a sparkling, chorused guitar tone that sounds straight off of some of the earlier Haunted Graffiti records. What makes musicians seek you out for collaboration? What aspects of your music speaks to different musicians that they want to capture?
Hmm. Not sure. Over the years, I've gone in and out of style at different points without changing my Formula too much- early on I was crowned the the 'King of lo-fi' and shortly thereafter was pegged the godfather of Chillwave- these were passing trends and had more to do with the compressed audio fidelity of my own records than the music itself- a more discerning ear would point to a melancholia or longing, or a nostalgia for earlier pop music forms- a pairing of innocence and whimsy with foreboding uncanny in the danger of the ridiculous.
How do you hope to influence the mainstream, with your songs, in a best-case scenario? Or do you have an interest in tapping your toe into the mainstream in a bigger way?
I hope to still be working the way I have over the last 15 years - maybe even pen or land a hit! If there's such a thing in the future. Would be nice not to have to tour my own music so much...that's a lot of time and hard work, better spent on writing and recording imo.
What is the most unsuitable request you’ve had from someone who just wants you for your name/fame. Ie. has Mountain Dew asked you for a jingle?
Mountain Dew would be a gas- there's almost no gig I would turn down on the face of it...love a good challenge and always pleasantly surprised when my name gets dropped for commercial work...
A children’s choir, the PS22 Chorus, recorded a version of your hit “Round and Round,” “Picture Me Gone” and “Jell-o.” What have been some of the most surprising places where you’ve seen your music turn up? What would be your dream musical configuration to write for, if logistics weren’t an option? What makes you want to write for that grouping?
Dream configuration...hm. I have no idea. I'd like eventually to design an algorithmic device or an app that can "predict" and "compose" the way I would write.
Crafting songs for Pop musicians has helped to boost the careers of numerous gifted singer/songwriters. Aretha Franklin's sublime, soulful rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" introduced a generation to the low-key, blue-denim charms of Carole King. Certainly some savvy trainspotters were introduced to Tom Waits' rusty baritone psychotic carnival via Rod Stewart's infinitely-more-Dad-Rock take on "Downtown Train." Surely a few savvy Pop savants got into Sia via her songwriting credits for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Ariel Pink has a number of high-profile collaborations lurking in the wings that could stand to do just that for his outre lo-fi pop. Most likely, his upcoming collaboration with Felix Snow "Adrenal Ghost" will sound more timely than Pink's usual AM gold, if Snow's crisp trap beats and post-r&b vocals are left intact.
Then there's "Bambu Katz/Bogalusa" - an upcoming release co-written with Black Moth Super Rainbow's Tobacco. "Bambu Katz/Bogalusa" stands less of a chance of widespread, mainstream appeal as Tobacco is every bit as surreal-and-strange as Pink himself. Instead, expect "Bambu Katz" to be a match made in some psychedelic purgatory, as the pair draw out each other's eccentricities.
Finally, "Live42morow (Die42day)" with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange could split the difference. Blood Orange mines a similar style of soupy 80s lite funk rock, that sounds like it's been let sit in a cellar too long and gone soft.
Let's hope so, if it means it frees up Ariel Pink to pursue his unique songwriting and sound worlds. Imagine what he could do, freed from the grinding wheels of capital and industry? How much stranger and more wonderful might this world be, with more Ariel Pink in it?
J. Simpson occupies the intersection between criticism, creativity, and academia. Based out of Portland, Or., he is the author of Forestpunk, an online journal/brand studying the traces of horror, supernatural, and the occult through music, fashion and culture. He plays in the dreamfolk band Meta-Pinnacle with his partner Lily H. Valentine, with whom he also co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective focused on elevating Pop Culture to High Art.