Q&A: Autre Ne Veut On Psychoanalysis, Re-imagining R&B, And His New Album, Anxiety
Early Autre Ne Veut records play out like hazy R&B-infused daydreams — sensual, slightly formless, and more about conjuring a vibe than necessarily nailing down any specific feeling. On the new Autre Ne Veut record — the aptly named Anxiety — Arthur Ashin further explores the funky fringes of bedroom soul music with songs that draw strange parallels between romantic death and … well, death. He also teams up memorably with Mykki Blanco (on “Counting”) and flirts with a bigger, full-band sound. I called him up to discuss the making of the record and ask awkward questions about psychoanalysis.
STEREOGUM: I got your new record sent to me without any press materials, which was kind of great. I got to absorb the album without any context whatsoever.
ASHIN: Sounds like real music fan behavior to me.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s kind of nice … at least for the first few listens. But then I started snooping around and finding out more about the making of the record. I heard that you had been doing psychoanalysis and that it was perhaps an influence on the kind of songs that you made for this record.
ASHIN: Sure, yeah.
STEREOGUM: I keep having that conversation a lot lately … a conversation about how I think everyone should do psychoanalysis at some point in their lives.
ASHIN: I’m not sure I agree. I think there are a lot of people that probably wouldn’t benefit — I also think there are a large group of people that don’t do psychoanalysis that probably should. Yeah.
STEREOGUM: I mean, what made that a good thing for you? How did it affect your music making?
ASHIN: Honestly, I’m not even sure it was one hundred percent good at all. I was going through pretty intensive psychoanalysis — I was in grad school at the time. I had time to go three days a week and it was part of a psychoanalytic training institute so it was on the cheap. And really probably only the first time in my life I went from being the person who, you know, talks to people about their problems to having a context in which I can kind of just stretch out and deal with mine. You know, it was uh … it was uh … I don’t know! It’s hard to say. It’s hard to sum it up in a quick pitch to be honest. It was definitely interesting. Have you ever done it?
STEREOGUM: No. I just talk to people about it.
ASHIN: So you’re a little bit of a proponent of it but not to the point that you’re willing to try it?
STEREOGUM: Yeah. It’s just such a time commitment, you know?
ASHIN: Yeah it really is.
STEREOGUM: If they would come to my house and talk to me when I was like, doing other things, it would be great. Anyway, what were the circumstances leading up to this record after the last one? Did you take time away from making music?
ASHIN: I actually had another record that never saw the light of day just due to label issues. So I didn’t really take time off but I was in grad school during that time too getting a masters in clinical psychology. That also informs the music I guess … but I’m trying not to get too “masters degree” on people so I’m kind of keeping that out of press for the most part.
STEREOGUM: Well it’s interesting, when so much of your day-to-day life is really entrenched in some kind of academic pursuit or school or whatever. I mean, making music or doing some art outside of that often is the best kind of release — not that it also doesn’t involve using your brain a lot but it’s sort of like — I don’t know. I imagine it’s nice to be able to sort of turn off that one part of your brain and focus on this other creative part that’s not being graded or judged …
ASHIN: Definitely. It’s the ultimate catharsis. Frankly, far more than psychoanalysis. In a weird way it was the context — this record was kind of the context in which I, like, actually processed the kind of stuff that I was kind of just thinking about and dealing with during my time in analysis.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a usual way of working? Do you have your own studio set up at home?
ASHIN: I mean, historically the bulk of my recordings were all done at home in and the process was very much to just sit down and start making noise and then build songs around it so that the kind of songs emerged as the production was being worked out. This record was a little different because the label, Mexican Summer, has huge, beautiful, amazing studio facilities that are available for their artists. Knowing that going in I kind of intentionally spent less time working on production and spent more time kind of collecting a kind of sound book of external ideas that I was interested in … combined with sitting down and writing songs in a kind of more traditional singer songwriter sense. And so I think that the sound of it is so different just because the songs were more considered as songs independently. And then the actual sound was the primary focus of the studio sessions.
STEREOGUM: Did you work with a producer?
ASHIN: I was the primary producer on it but Al Carlson worked on it with me. So it ended up being an awesome collaborative effort with me kind of being the asshole dictator.
STEREOGUM: I mean, that can always be either like a great thing or a weird thing when you go from making that leap production-wise from doing everything yourself to having these other people involved.
ASHIN: There were definitely fights because everyone kind of came into the situation with their own ideas. But at the end of the day it was actually really fun just having other people’s opinions involved. I mean I’ve always mixed with engineers that are also really creative. I’ve always had a phase with all of my releases where somebody else was also in there making things sound really different and better but yeah, this was definitely different. There was about a two week period of time where Dan, Joel and I were all in this big room facing each other. Joel had a drum kit and Dan had some keyboards set up and I had some keyboards set up and we’re all just kind of dicking around and jamming out and that actually ended up being the basic structure of all of the songs. That was good it was essential kind of the sound was essential — or the collaboration was essential to the sound.
STEREOGUM: Will you perform these songs with a live band setup?
ASHIN: Well I’ve been stretching out … I mean, all my old performances were really solo — I did Europe in 2010 with another singer who sang backing vocals on songs. I’d love to have a band. But one of the functions of having a really studio oriented record is that you need really phenomenal like, technically phenomenal musicians, not just vibey phenomenal like, good, but really efficient musicians to pull that off and of course, anyone who’s spent a lot of money and time getting to be the best at what they do is gonna cost a lot of money. I think the live configuration that I’m going to be going on the road with is a drummer and a backing vocalist who’s also running some samples.
STEREOGUM: That sounds perfect, actually.
ASHIN: I played at PS1 with four other people: drummer, sample trigger, and two backing vocalists and that was awesome. But that’s also a little pricey for a full tour.
STEREOGUM: How did you get involved with Mykki Blanco?
ASHIN: You know, we just have a bunch of mutual friends and I was also fan so I asked Mykki about doing a collaboration and eventually sweet talked him into coming onboard for a verse.
STEREOGUM: Well it sounds great and I love the video too — how was that experience?
ASHIN: It was interesting, I mean, it was … well, that was another example of me fantasizing about something very Terrence Malick-y and then kind of within the constraints of our budget kind of having to pull a left turn. The idea was basically to kind of create this space of mourning but also to kind of self-celebrate. It was interesting making a video, I have trouble being in front of a camera and the video involves me in front of a camera a lot of the time … so I have a hard time watching it.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy performing?
ASHIN: Uh, I have the same kind of feelings about performing as I do about cameras, but there’s this inherent release built into performance wherein I’m terrified — totally petrified of going on stage — but once I’m there I can just kind of like zone out and kind of let go. I mean, my performances are pretty aggressive and histrionic and I basically have to do that in order to feel comfortable.
STEREOGUM: There seem to be a lot of young artists that are doing these sort of really interesting reinterpretations of R&B. Do you think of yourself as an R&B artist? Were you really into that music when you were younger?
ASHIN: I’ve definitely been into R&B my whole life. My parents are both ex-pats and they lived in Kenya for a long time right before I was born. My mom was actually eight or nine months pregnant with me when we came back and out there it’s just like reggae, American R&B, and mostly West African music. So that’s the stuff that I grew up on. That was just the culture of my home. You know, R&B and soul music, Motown, Stax Records, etc. As I got older I didn’t think it was cool or something, I just thought of it as my parents music … meanwhile I started getting into rock — Sonic Youth and Pavement and stuff like that. Just like every other kid in the suburbs basically. But R&B has always been the deep in the fabric of how I think about music. I think people have been experimenting with R&B for pretty much as long as it’s existed and right now there’s definitely more of an active back and forth discourse between commercial R&B and what kids are creating in the bedrooms. It’s probably a really racialized weird kind of culture conversation that you could have about the appropriation of R&B — I don’t want to analyze too deeply and get uncomfortable. I respect that discourse but I’m also not sure if I’m ready to delve into it to the degree that I used to think about Paul Simon making Graceland.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s complicated for sure, but also really interesting. I know you’ve also been busy studying psychology, but did you always know that you would be a musician? Was making music your primary life pursuit?
ASHIN: Well I always kind of deep down somewhere want to do music. When I was a kid my dream job was to be a pop star. Actually — weirdly enough — I wanted to make soft rock when I was a kid. I had a “soft rock” drum pattern pre-set and everything that I wrote was to like, different speeds of that same pattern. So that made me think that I wanted to be making soft rock. A soft rock star? I don’t even know if that exists as a thing — I mean, maybe it does. But what is happening for me right now is really exciting. This is definitely a fantasy and I’m in a position where I think it can become at least partially a reality … so I’m going for it right now but it’s definitely a crapshoot.
Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety is out 2/26 on Software Recording Co./Mexican Summer.