Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!
Sheaf combines his love for "bathing in the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia" with musical influences as diverse as jazz, '80s pop and video game and movie soundtracks from the '90s to create a unique take on synthwave. In an email, he told me about his musical roots, his approach to creation and his latest album Providence.
Karl Magi: How did your passion for music first emerge?
Sheaf: The very first album I got as a kid was a compilation album of synth-based music called Synthesizer Greatest, so I guess the synth seed was planted at a young age. I'd say my passion for music first emerged after I started playing piano when I was 12 years old or so.
In my twenties, I spent quite a bit of time producing mostly drum & bass, but it was kind of frustrating because I never really achieved the sound I was looking for. After being musically burned out for a while, the passion for music was reignited when I started making synthwave.
KM: Talk about the elements and ideas that drew you to making synthwave music.
S: When I first discovered the genre through the music of Mitch Murder it moved me in a way that no other genre had done in years. I have always listened to a lot of music from the '80s, and synthwave managed to bring out the same feelings. In general, I also love to bathe in the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, so anything that harks back to the past is usually interesting to me.
Around that time, I also got an Oculus Rift development kit, and I decided I wanted to make a music-centered virtual reality experience. The music had to be synthwave of course. I hadn't made any music for a long time, but I bought some new audio plugins and got to work. Making synthwave turned out to be a much more enjoyable experience than making drum & bass, so much so that I couldn't stop. When I already had enough tracks for the VR experience, I decided I might as well launch a music project and try to create a full album.
KM: Who are your artistic inspirations?
S: My musical influences come from different genres. I'm of course influenced by other synthwave, but also by 80's pop, jazz, drum & bass, game and movie soundtracks (especially from the '90s).
Some of my favorite synthwave artists are Timecop1983, Crockett, Duett and Mitch Murder. They are a definite influence stylistically. When it comes to jazz, I've picked up a lot of interesting chord voicings from piano players like Kenny Barron, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly. From the '80s, there is too much to mention really, but some bands/artists I really like are Swing Out Sister, Level 42, Johnny Hates Jazz, Sade, Tears for Fears, Hall & Oates.
KM: Walk me through the ideas behind your Providence album and how you went about producing it.
S: My goal for the album was to make something that has a good amount of variation but is still cohesive. I didn't want to make 12 similar sounding tracks so I worked out some ideas with very different vibes and energy levels. I had ideas for some mellow and bright tracks such as Breeze and Right There, some more energetic bass driven tracks such as Anything and Presence, and some deeper atmospheric tracks such as Latent and Aether. I guess it would be too much of a cliché to talk about "taking the listener on a journey" so I'm not going to do that.
Getting those different vibes to sit well together on one album was a bit of a challenge. One thing I did to glue the tracks together was to keep a palette of sounds that I would reuse in several tracks. In many tracks the drums are based on the same kit for the cohesive sound, but with an additional layer for individual character. When all tracks were done I also made sure they all had a similar tonal balance and perceived loudness. I think this worked well to make the tracks sound like they really belong together.
KM: Where do you want to take your music going forward?
S: I still have enough ideas to complete another album in a similar style, though I'm probably going to pull more influences from jazz this time. I've been listening to a lot of fusion from the '80s recently, which is giving me some new ideas.
I also want to see if I can make one or two tracks with vocals. I absolutely can't sing though, and I don't know any vocalists so I'm going to have figure out where to source vocals first.
Beyond that I probably will want to explore other genres again, but right now I'm not sure where that would lead me.
KM: Give me your thoughts on the Twitter #synthfam and what it means to you.
S: I'm not very active on Twitter, but the #synthfam is a very positive and supportive community, and I'm glad to have found it. I've connected with many interesting people through it, and also discovered a lot of cool music. It's nice how the Internet allows you to feel part of one scene even though we're all in different parts of the world.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
S: When I hit a creative dry spell I stop making music for a couple of weeks, I usually increase my piano practice time and try to learn some new techniques. At the same time, I try to discover new , interesting music to listen to. Ideas will eventually start popping up again and the itch to sit down and write new music myself will soon follow.