Band To Watch: Sharpless
Sharpless is the project of Brooklyn native Jack Greenleaf, who began writing music in earnest after he went away to school in Chicago. His 2011 debut (+<) served as an ode to the power pop of Weezer, so much so that the band name comes from a character from the same Puccini opera that gave them Pinkerton. The recently released The One I Wanted To Be moves away from that, trending towards jubilant and gorgeously layered pop songs that borrow from influences as varied as J-pop and Broadway show tunes. Lyrically, it’s all about adolescent displacement: “I always thought the adults would be the ones to know/ I always thought I would figure out where to go.” It’s marked by a jaded optimism, a realization that you’re not fitting into whatever expectation of yourself that you had and an eventual acceptance of that fact.
The album was pieced together over a three-year period along with some help from his friends, most notably Montana Levy, who contributes vocals to most of the songs. He’s a member of The Epoch, a collective of artists that’s been on a roll this year with fantastic releases from Small Wonder and Bellows. The One I Wanted To Be is an accomplished collection of majestic pop, just as appropriate to be blasted at full volume as it is to be left wallowing in the background.
STEREOGUM: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first start to write music and when did you start to really focus on it as a “thing” that you could do?
JACK GREENLEAF: I really started writing when I was around 13 or 14, but I don’t think I thought of it as “my thing” or one of “the things” that I could do until relatively recently. I think I started to feel like it was possible when I released my first album in 2011 and people seemed to like it! I usually spent most of my energy helping other people write or arrange, usually with my friend Henry in Small Wonder.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’re going to pursue music as a full-time thing for a while and see how it goes? I know you graduated from college recently. What did you major in and what did you think you were going to do before music became an option?
GREENLEAF: I’m actually sitting at my mom’s house right now thinking about what I’m supposed to do next! I studied in Chicago and I majored in Game Design with a focus in Sound Design. I’m so passionate about video games and interactive artistic experiences so I really enjoyed it. I still want to get involved with video games in some way. I’ve been playing a lot of Kentucky Route Zero recently and really want to be able to make something like that. I think I’m always going to be doing music. I used to think a lot about “the endgame” with music, but recently I’ve found myself trying to be more appreciative and content with the present. I think if you’re upset or sad now, you’re still going to be upset once you achieve whatever you want to achieve. I think it takes a lot of agency and presence to make yourself happy, not really any achievements.
STEREOGUM: I actually really like the direction some video games are going right now. I don’t play that many, but I feel like there are a lot of interesting games that are delving into the psychological reason behind why we play games and why we want to manipulate the world around us. Stuff like The Stanley Parable or even something as basic and stupid as Cookie Clicker are really analyzing why we feel so fulfilled when we gain some sort of “achievement” for doing something virtual and why we enjoy “living through” experience in an interactive environment as opposed to passively watching a movie or television show. I think music is a lot closer to video games that the visual mediums because you can be a much more active participant in it. It can so easily become a part of your life and you can really absorb yourself into a song or album more so than you can a move that you only can watch a few times.
GREENLEAF: Absolutely. Video games (perhaps more directly) and music both seem to deal with the idea of “ownership.” Books do this too. It’s a weird balance because, especially as an artist, you never want to settle for less. But on the other side, as a person, you’re never going to be happy unless you let yourself be content. So it’s like, “When am I allowed to be a person?”
Man, I loved The Stanley Parable, though. Towards the end of the game, if you follow the narrator’s instructions, you eventually make your way to this room full of stars. Basically, he wants you to look at something beautiful and specific and your only option to continue the game is to leave the room and repeatedly jump off a ledge to die. It’s really intense and a great way of looking at creativity. When you make something and you want them to experience something in such a specific way, but obviously you can’t do that because everyone’s going to have a different image in their head when they read a book and everyone is going to play video games in ways that the developers never intended.
STEREOGUM: That’s really interesting. And I think that’s true of all art. You can never really control the context of where the audience is experiencing it. Obviously, John Steinbeck never envisioned me reading Grapes Of Wrath on my Kindle while riding the train. In video games, it’s even more exaggerated because as much as you want a viewer to experience something you’re proud of or that you think is beautiful, they could easily just ignore it or zoom right past it. Even if you “force” them to watch something via a cutscene, you always have the option to skip it or just look at your phone and ignore it. It’s hard as an artist to create a complete “experience” for your art because there are always so many distractions or opportunities for what you’re saying to be misunderstood or interpreted in a different way.
Getting back to music a little bit, I feel that’s why you see many artists nowadays “banning” phones from concerts, even though that’s kind of a futile effort because, if I want to check my phone, I’m going to find a way. But I feel that’s how things need to be experienced from now on and, as an artist, you kind of have to account for and make room for the possibility of distraction.
GREENLEAF: The idea of controlled experiences like that are super weird in music. For a while I was really against my music being released on any kind of pre-existing physical medium. When I write and record, it’s very digital and it’s very cold. I really didn’t want people experiencing my music in formats that I don’t engage with. For this album I brainstormed a lot of ways to try to translate it into something physical, but USB drives feel a bit gimmicky, so I ended up trying to make the digital medium as digital as I could. If you listen to my album on an iPhone, for instance, the cover art changes slightly for each song. However, the reality is that there are lots of people who want Sharpless vinyl or Sharpless tapes and it’s a fun way to re-contextualize your work, so I don’t sweat it anymore.
STEREOGUM: I get where that urge comes from, especially as someone who mainly listens to music digitally. I buy a lot of vinyl and tapes but do I listen to them often enough to justify the purchase? Probably not. It’s just another way of supporting an artist I like and it’s nice to have something to display. I have a record player and I’ll put them on once in a while but they mainly sit there because it’s so much easier to just use my computer and I don’t really notice a discernible quality difference.
GREENLEAF: Yeah, I love the size of vinyl. It’s just so cool to engage with an almost-poster sized version of your favorite album cover. I seriously considered selling download codes inside of vinyl packaging just because it’s so much cheaper. It’s definitely about the experience. There’s something really nice about staring into speakers instead of a screen with so much information coming at you. It definitely works for different albums. I had a really old record player in my room growing up and I loved it. I had Pinkerton on vinyl and my player was so busted that it would always play it a little fast or a little slow so I felt like I had a whole new version of the album. It was awesome!
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s so cool. In addition to changing speeds, obviously, my record player also spins things backwards and I think it’s really interesting to be able to completely re-contexualize an album and listen to it in a way that you really can’t digitally.
GREENLEAF: You can also find all the subliminal messages super easy with a record player. (yvan eht nioj)
STEREOGUM: When I was younger, before I had a record player, I thought it was insane that people listened to stuff like Dark Side Of The Moon and found all of these messages because at that point I had never really interacted with music as physical media beyond CDs. I never understood how they managed to do that but it’s so fun to manipulate albums in that way. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier with music being a medium that’s so active in that way you can participate with it, as opposed to just observing it.
GREENLEAF: Absolutely! Even thinking about the ways that people can literally claim ownership of these things (with sampling and stuff, etc) and totally change the context. I find that super empowering and awesome. I also love the way that certain bands encourage their communities so intensely — it feels like you’re almost in the band. Bands realize that the audience doesn’t disappear when the show is over, they’re always aware and always building something. One band that’s super good about interactivity is probably my favorite band right now, called Shinsei Kamattechan. They broadcast everything that they do and run around Tokyo doing impromptu concerts. They’re so popular but also so incredibly punk. I love it.
STEREOGUM: I love that social media has really broken down the barriers of communication between an artist and their audience. I feel like that sort of relationship can be very manipulative when it comes to bigger artists and that makes me a little uncomfortable (aka anyone on a big label, any fandom with a hashtag) but in terms of connecting smaller artists to their fans, it’s invaluable.
GREENLEAF: It’s really nice and it becomes super weird when you see someone using social media really transparently. Like “RT to Win!!!” It’s like, “Mom … stop embarrassing me.” Smaller artists are the best though. I feel like many of us realize that social media is just another part of it. It’s part of the whole thing, the whole experience, or the whole narrative.
STEREOGUM: Exactly. I feel like this generation is very perceptive to when they are being blatantly marketed to and shy away from that. But social media is so important to establishing a personality and a narrative that it can’t be ignored.
So to steer this back to you a little bit, Sharpless is primarily your project but you also have a lot of people helping you out and a lot of them are part of a group called The Epoch. Could you explain a little bit about what that is and how that informs your music?
GREENLEAF: The Epoch is a collective of artists and close friends who love, support, and challenge each other’s music. All of us have been making music together for so long, it felt right to name it and to establish a more concrete network of support for each other. It’s sort of like our version of the Justice League. We all do our own separate things, but always have each other’s backs! I wanted everyone’s voice on my albums because I wanted it to feel like a big crossover event or something. I am really moved by “scope” — things like Lord Of The Rings or TV shows like Avatar The Last Airbender — so I wanted everything to feel super important, like I had to get the whole Justice League involved. Also, I just adore working with these people.
STEREOGUM: Who is in Sharpless “the band”? Is it just you? Montana is on most of the songs as well. Basically, when you tour, who would you go with?
GREENLEAF: It’s hard to say, but it keeps evolving! The only person who plays instruments on the albums is always me (though I think Felix from Told Slant put acoustic guitar on a song, I can’t remember though). Part of me likes to think of it as a sort of Annie Clark/St. Vincent thing. Montana is invaluable to the sound too, though. She’s such an incredible performer and has this thick laser-like voice. I think of our working relationship less like collaborating musicians and more like a director and an actor collaborating. We usually don’t collaborate on notes, but we definitely collaborate on feelings. We spent so much time in my room trying the songs with different intentions, she’s a real maniac with that sort of thing — it takes serious emotional intelligence to pull it off and she could do it in her sleep. I don’t know how she puts up with me. Sometimes I get really possessive about Sharpless, and I think it’s really ugly. It’s something I’m working on for sure. As for the touring band, we’re working on stuff for the summer right now – but the band has always evolved!
STEREOGUM: Is The One I Wanted To Be all bedroom recordings or did you actually go into a studio for any of it?
GREENLEAF: All bedroom. I think that’s why the band feels so malleable. It feels like I’m putting together a cover band in a way. Like, “Let’s listen to these songs and see what happens when we try to play them.” It’s very backwards.
STEREOGUM: That’s awesome, though. I love that technology has freed people to become really creative. The album sounds good and it’s amazing that you can do all of that in a bedroom. I feel like that’s so liberating. What were you listening to/playing/reading/watching while recording and writing? Any specific influences that you think really shaped the record?
GREENLEAF: Oh man, definitely. It was a really long process to get it out — about three years of my life. I was re-reading a lot of Haruki Murakami and Salinger and playing a lot of that videogame Braid. I was burying myself in art that was simultaneously hyper-emotional and hyper-abstract. Art that was surface level engaging and moving but digging deeper to lead to greater rewards. I guess I was taking in a lot of media that sort of used a “bait and switch.” Braid, for instance, makes you think it’s just a Mario-esque platforming game but it’s really about regret, objectification, and The Manhattan Project. FLCL, the anime, is another huge influence for me. I re-watched that a few times as well.
STEREOGUM: I feel like there’s a pretty big shift from what you were doing on the debut to what you’re doing on The One I Wanted To Be. The first album was definitely more rock-influenced and, really refreshing to listen to. Was that a conscious shift or did it just sort of happen gradually?
GREENLEAF: With the first album, I was really all about trying to channel Weezer and the Pillows, which were two bands that really changed the way I make music and especially the way that I play and identify myself as a guitarist. I think with The One I Wanted To Be, I was really into the idea of channeling more of the J-pop and musical theater that I grew up on. They’re two genres that are almost constantly made fun of by lots of people, and I think they’re so effective both emotionally and aesthetically. I was really into the idea of the album sounding a bit like those karaoke versions of songs that people sing over — the ones that sound like super fake MIDI. I wanted to incorporate and utilize the feeling of removal that pop music can give us and violently contrast it with grounded, specific lyrics about divorce, and other things that aren’t really allowed to be talked about in pop music. It’s a weird album because I wrote “Greater Than” and “You’ve Got A Lot Of Feelings” on the same day in June of 2012 — it’s just been such a weird evolution. I feel like I let the whole thing marinate and rot before putting it out. I kinda want to play with releasing things faster in the future — not let anything collect dust.
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting because I feel like we’re heading more in that direction. I love albums that are a complete “thought” but feel like it’s more and more acceptable and making more sense to just post a song on Tumblr the second you write it because that’s what you’re feeling right then. Not necessarily the tired conversation of moving away from albums and towards “singles” but just something that’s more based in the “now” than the “then.”
GREENLEAF: Yeah, totally. I mean I feel like how people are always talking about the “death of the album” and I really don’t think that’s gonna happen. That fast “now” immediacy can exist within the album format — I think Frankie Cosmos does a beautiful job of it.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, absolutely. Frankie Cosmos is a perfect example. Besides Zentropy, which was more fully formed, most of what she releases are basically sketches of songs. And that’s ok. It’s fine if you’re an artist that wants to polish things and not release something until it’s “perfect” but I tend to be more attracted to things that feel raw and immediate. A recent example — I’m sure you know Sam Ray. Well, he released a song a couple of weeks ago that was just a song — he was very adamant about it not being part of a project, not Julia Brown or Ricky Eat Acid or Teen Suicide or anything. I think something like that’s hard for the current musical conversation to deal with because we’re so obsessed with classifying things and shoving into movements or genres or “something.” It’s hard when someone comes along and says, “Ok, this is just a song I wrote. Here it is whatever.” We want everything to “mean” something so that we can talk about it, but that’s not really how art works. It’s more of a gut feeling. Albums obviously still have their place but I hope that the definition of an album changes — why isn’t something like Affirms Glinting, which I think is devastatingly beautiful and heartbreakingly honest, just as important as anything else. I think it’s something that’s going to change, but slowly.
GREENLEAF: Totally. It’s weird, I think that band names are so cool. Actually, I was just talking with Greta and Aaron — how it makes you feel like a superhero. Aaron has a new name with “Ronald Paris” and it’s sort of separate from Porches., and sort of not. There’s just something super empowering and awesome about giving yourself a new name — it really makes you feel like you can do anything.
STEREOGUM: I feel like that’s something great about the immediacy and anonymity of the internet. Before, I feel like you had to have an established “brand” and everything you did had to be within that “brand” or else some music magazine wouldn’t pay attention to you. But now it doesn’t matter because you can just post something on twitter and say, “Ok, this is something I wrote but it’s not part of Porches. or not part of anything I’m doing but it’s something.” It allows us to change our identity so easily and there’s something so relieving about that, that you’re never constantly tied to one “thing” or one persona. Especially because a lot of artists that I like that are releasing music are young — it gives you a chance to explore different aspects of yourself.
GREENLEAF: It’s nice. It’s like Bowie gets to evolve with Ziggy and Thin White Duke, etc. It’s all still Bowie, but it gets to have its own flavor. I really like that. I hope I get to evolve that way too. Kanye’s great at doing it too! Graduation Kanye and Yeezus Kanye are literally worlds apart.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, Kanye’s transformation is fascinating. What are some of your other favorite “pop” artists, mainstream or not?
GREENLEAF: Well, I definitely adore Kanye — I’ve been a huge fan of his since day one. I really adore Maltine Record artists, people like Tofubeats. I love Taylor Swift, I think her songwriting is unreal. Kate Bush, Drake, Lorde, etc. I’m honestly so fucking obsessed with Sia’s new song “Chandelier.” Every time I hear it, I have to hear it again. I always listen to it at least twice. I wish I could get into songwriting and arranging for pop music. I want to write a song for Ariana Grande to sing — I am so into her voice.
STEREOGUM: “Problem” is amazing. At first I didn’t like it, but every time I listen to it I like it more and I’m bordering on obsessed. I like that Ariana’s voice is so close to Mariah but still has a sense of naiveté and innocence.
GREENLEAF: Yeah totally! She’s just a machine. I also really like her song “The Way.” think there’s something so controlled about her. Like Ariana Grande is so effortless and calm, it feels like oxygen. Sia on the other hand works for like completely opposite reasons. Sia feels like she is just PUSHING and violently trying to hit these notes, she is so desperate and it adds so much emotion to her performance. I’d say I would want to write songs for her too but I really just want Sia to like, give me a class on songwriting. She is unbelievable.
STEREOGUM: Definitely. So what’s next for Sharpless?
GREENLEAF: We’re working on finishing booking a tour and I’m already working on the next album already. Not sure what it’s going to be like, but I think I’m trying to write some more instrumental songs and just play around. I’m also currently helping Henry record the new Small Wonder album, and helping my friend Gabby with the new Eskimeaux album. Both are going to be the best.
[Photo by Richard Gin.]