Interview with U.K. Synthwave Artist Michael Oakley
Michael Oakley is a U.K. based synthwave artist who is inspired to create music to express himself and to share his passionate love for the synth-drenched sounds of the '80s. He combines that passion with thoroughly modern production values to create a unique sound. In an interview, Michael told me about his start in music, how he creates new music and talked about his upcoming album entitled Introspect.
Interview with Michael Oakley
Karl Magi: What first sparked your interest in making music?
Michael Oakley: Honestly, my earliest musical memory is being captivated by Michael Jackson as a singer and performer. I used to dress up like him as a kid with the hat and outfit and try to dance like him (unsuccessfully). In terms of making music it was without a doubt hearing Depeche Mode's Enjoy The Silence for the first time. That, to me, is the greatest synthpop record ever made. So much so I have a tattoo of the black rose from the cover on my arm. New Order and The Pet Shop Boys reinforced my love of synth-pop and I pestered the hell out of my parents to buy me a Roland XP10 multitimbral synthesizer that I plugged into a old crappy Pentium 2 PC using a cracked version of Cubase to record with. Those really were the days when you had to make a little go a long way.
KM: How and why did you become interested in synthwave music?
MO: My initiation into synthwave was Betamaxx. I heard his remix of Tangerine Dream's Love On A Real Train one day on a total fluke and from that I discovered FM-84 and The Midnight which was a revelation for me. I had become disappointed with the direction of mainstream music and for many years didn't feel there was a place for someone like me who made the kind of music I do. As such I stopped writing for a few years. When I realised there was a growing scene that loves and embraces all things ‘80s, I immersed myself in that.
Just before discovering the synthwave scene I started writing again after a painful breakup. It was really only meant to be a sort of cathartic form of therapy for me and wasn't meant for anyone else to hear, but after encouragement from friends I took a chance on sending my song Rabbit In The Headlights to NewRetroWave. This took me on a wonderful journey that I'm still on to this day!
KM: Which artists have you found inspirational and why?
MO: My biggest inspirations are a mix of old and new: Pet Shop Boys, Tears For Fears, New Order, Depeche Mode, Italo Disco, The Midnight, FM-84, Washed Out, Nina, The New Division, Phil Collins, Duett and Peter Gabriel. People like that have really inspired me and as you can probably see from that list they are either from the 1980s or have a very ‘80s kind of sound. Out of all the decades of music I found that the ‘80s resonated with me the most. It has a really emotive, warm and fuzzy sound and I also feel like that was the decade where musicianship, technology and recording was at it's peak. Synthesizers were a new world to explore and also they became affordable to musicians. It's for sure the decade the evokes the most nostalgia for me and it's no surprise that it keeps on having a resurgence.
KM: Tell me a bit about the process of creating new music and how it works for you.
MO: Well, honestly, I only write when I feel like I have something to say. Michael Oakley is my story and all the songs are true stories about me and my life. So when I sit down to write it's a very emotional process for me. I like to start by finding around 10 or 12 sounds/patches that work well together sonically, so that I have the right colour palette. I then play around with chords and melody riffs to get something working and then hopefully things start to come together from there. Sometimes I'll make a full demo up and scrap it because chordally/melody wise it's not hitting the mark for me, but I'll keep the project and start composing from that palette of sounds because I know the sounds within the project work really well together.
When composing I'm looking for something that moves me and also excites me. When I find that sweet spot, that’s the moment the song takes life and I run with it. I get obsessive with it ‘til it's finished. I also like to take my time on songs and can take months to finish one song because obsession with my idea of perfection drives me to keep pushing for that highest benchmark.
KM: Tell me more about the Introspect project?
MO: Shortly after the release of California, I started mentally preparing the direction of Introspect. It's all about my life in Glasgow. There’s themes of loss, holding on to the past, running away from your past, and finding your place in this world. It's about not listening to your intuition and from that becoming your own worst enemy. It's about the every day struggle to be your highest, authentic self. There's lots of things going on but by and large, It's a very honest meditation on my life so far.
Introspect is also going to be my first release with NewRetroWave which is very exciting. When I started writing it I was contacted by Ollie Wride from FM-84 to potentially help work on his solo album. I jumped at the chance to do that and asked if we could maybe swap talents. I would help mix/produce his album and be there for him at any stage to help lift what he was doing. In return Ollie has been an invaluable sound board and co-pilot for my demo ideas.
Looking back, some of the times we would talk over lyric ideas was kind of like a therapy session. I would explain what I was trying to say and he would take what I had said and any lyrics I had initially written and just made it way better. He has helped me to tell my story on this album. Ollie is without a doubt one of the best writers/composers out there in the scene. From this partnership we have become great friends and I was privileged to share a stage with him when I supported FM-84 in Toronto in October.
KM: What is your view on the state of synthwave music in the U.K. ?
MO: That's an interesting question because it has grown so much in the past couple of years. I think for me I look at the synthwave scene globally, rather than locally or by region. There has been so many new artists emerge and thats great. Synthwave now seems to have branched off into various sub-genres like popwave (vocal based stuff) and darkwave. This helps to decipher the different shades of sounds into its own category but for me I would like to see more diversity in the scene.
There's a lot of music that follows the same formula and sound. I feel like synthwave is a new way of saying synthpop. It sounds really ‘80s but has modern polish and production techniques to make it sound fresh. There's more and more higher quality producers coming into the scene to help raise the production values too which is making it more competitive for the regular names on the scene.
KM: Where would you like to take your music in the future?
MO: I honestly haven't thought that far ahead but I can definitely see myself collaborating/remixing/working with other people after the release of Introspect. When the chance to work with Ollie Wride came along it was the right time for me because I wanted to get out of my comfort zones that had developed while recording California. I didn't want to write California part two. It was important for me to chart new territory in my sound and push into something new. Now that I'm done with Introspect I now have to find ways to get out of the new comfort zones and push again to find a fresh sound for my next album. I like feeling challenged.
KM: How do you reinvigorate yourself creatively?
MO: Listening to new music is very important. That's where a lot of my inspiration comes from. It also comes from collaborating with other people. Even if you don't provide the main idea and help produce/remix then you are getting the chance to open up new ideas without the initial pressure of having to come up with the golden idea that triggers it. Taking a break away from doing all music is also very helpful to make you build the desire to want to get back in the chair and do it. Find a new sound source: If you are used to using analog-type sounds then stop and start using digital or DX type sounds to open your senses.