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Navigating silence with Jack Grace

27 March 2018 | 6:49 pm | Kyle Fensom

Jack Grace talks about the release of his sophomore EP, If I Tremble, a quiet but emotionally intense portrait of a disintegrating relationship.

Watching the rollout of JACK GRACE'S sophomore EP has felt like watching an artist open up the mechanics of their own artistic development, reintroducing themselves in the process for the next phase of their career. Over the course of four remarkable singles, this new iteration of Jack's artistic persona gradually took shape as the Sydney producer revealed new depths to his music, whether that's the abstract, nocturnal intensity of 'BE4UGO', the JAMES BLAKE-inspired vocals of 'Us', the vulnerability on show in 'row me home',  or the narrativity of the recently released 'Downstate'.

The end result is If I Tremble, a collection of seven tracks where each individual note is made to bear the weight of its own existence, where the negative spaces are always felt and where lyrics and melodic ideas loop and fold into themselves like meditative mantras. With intricate, beautifully delicate production and affective songwriting, Jack imbues the melancholy and the subtle fragmentations of a disintegrating relationship with glimmers of hope and beauty across the EP's quiet but emotionally intense journey. If I Tremble draws its resonance from the spaces in between - from the spaces in between the chords and notes, from the spaces between emotions and languages, from the space left when Jack's fractured vocal lines trail off, but most of all from the fragile space between lovers, the growing distance of ex-lovers and the silence of things not said. On If I Tremble, Jack Grace provides a soundtrack to navigating these silences.

We caught up with Jack ahead of the EP's release to chat tension and release mechanisms, the creative importance of collaboration and why cutting down on the creative gestation isn't necessarily helping his anxiety.

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Structurally speaking, I love the composition of the tracks, how every element is made to carry so much weight. It makes tracks like ‘Us’ feel that much more intense. How did you develop this appreciation for minimalism?

I guess really early on when I played classical piano. And then I had a teacher when I first started learning piano at jazz school, who was very methodical in the way he taught me how to play and just made sure every time I went to play a note, he would question whether or not the note was something that deserved to be played. So it just grew from this mentality around playing the piano, and then I carried that through into production. It’s just been something I’ve found that I liked in other music. It just made sense to me, and I just wanted to try make everything work, rather than just add on it.

Sure. I guess that ties into the use of silence and negative spaces in your music. What’s the significance of negative space, musically speaking, to you?

I guess it just focuses you on what’s there. I think when you do have negative space it just focuses and makes what is there feel that much bigger than what it might actually be. I don’t know if that actually makes any sense, but that’s the way it plays out in my mind is I’m piecing things together.

Absolutely. It’s like a way to speak without speaking.

 100 per cent.

But at the same time, your productions feel like really meticulous, complex works working around ideas of simplicity. So is restraint important to your artistry?

 Yeah. It’s something that you strive for, and then you don’t really know until it’s all done and you listen back to it maybe, and you realise what you’ve got isn’t as tasteful as you want it to be. So it’s a hard thing to keep a lid on, especially when you’re working by yourself. But it’s definitely something that I respect in other people. I’m never really trying to be loud with it, I just want it to be as nice as it can be. I don’t know how to describe it, but the restraint is intentional, 100 per cent. Sometimes I get there, sometimes I don’t.

How do you make sure you get there when you’re working by yourself, like you said?

I’ve got people around me, like friends and other artists who I’ve worked with for a while, who will pull me up quite often and help me to reel it in. I think that that’s been something which is really helpful, learning when you need to play it to other people to get a bit of perspective on where you’re at with it. And it doesn’t have to many people, like I work a lot with this guy called Christopher Port, he mixes a lot of the stuff, and Simon Lam who plays for Kllo and Hamish Mitchell. Everybody kind of looks out for one another, and if it feels like somebody’s kind of overstepped the line, it gets said.

The EP feels a bit darker and more emotionally dense than your debut. What kind of emotional space did the EP come out of?

It actually came out of a lighter emotional space for me. Maybe that comes as a surprise if you’re comparing it to what the last EP was. But I sort of tried to get some sort of optimism in there. It comes from a sad place, but I’m trying to look towards the future a bit more, and that was sort of the mentality I was in when I was putting it all together. I don’t know if that really answers the question.

Sure, so it’s kind of like an exercise in therapy more than it is in pessimism.

I guess so, I try not to make the listener my therapist. I don’t really like that idea. But I try to draw a bit on experience and then draw a bit on what I think my situation is. I definitely draw on a lot of experiences I’ve had. For instance ‘Downstate’, the track which I’ve just put out, that’s a narrative driven song and I haven’t really done anything like that before. I’m just sort of playing around. That’s the nice thing about doing an EP is like I’m learning how to write more lyrics, and I think the last EP was a little more narrow than what this EP is topically.

That’s something you’ve learnt in the time since the release of ‘River’?

I guess so, yeah. I think it’s just like this natural thing that you start to go, “Well, I’ll like to try and write more and, you know, try new things”. It was just a natural progression thing, more than anything.

The rollout of the EP felt like this steady trickle of singles building up to something bigger, almost like you were reintroducing yourself and opening up the creative process. Was it important to you to bring fans along to these new sounds and this new phase of your career in a careful, considered way? 

Yeah. There’s something in the way in which we’re presenting the work that brings people along and provides a link to the sounds of some of the stuff before, but there’s also new stuff that we’re introducing into the palette. And there’s more stuff on the EP that’s maybe opening it up more towards where I’m gonna push it next, you know what I mean. But I think there was a bit of time in between the releases, and some of the music was almost finished for the last EP but didn’t make it and then I sort of kept working on it more. It’s always a tricky thing, because you’ve got stuff which almost feels like it belongs to different periods. I think when you listen to the whole EP together, I hope it makes sense.

One of the things that I really love about the whole EP is the way that lines and melodic ideas kind of loop themselves like a mantra. James Blake does a lot of it, Caribou did it too on his last album. How did you go about giving a musical language to the emotionality of the EP?

I don’t know, I think that that whole thing, for me, is always centred around a tension and release mechanism. That’s something that you work on, from the first time that I started writing music when I was eleven or twelve years old, you work out how to play off tension and release. And then what happens is you eventually transfer whether it’s playing that on piano, no matter what the format is or what the genre is, it’s the same mechanism. And I think that when it comes to producing new things, finding new sounds, you’re just working out where the tension and release lies in the new sound palette. So I guess on this stuff, I’ve played around with using different vocal samples and finding different things that created the right amount of tension for sections. And yeah, you’re right, I guess on this EP some of those are vocal loops or little ideas like that. I don’t know, I don’t remember that being a conscious thing. It’s like that thing where it’s something that’s obviously of a period of time at the moment, and you reach for the stuff that feels relevant. And that’s what was feeling relevant at the moment.

Absolutely. I think it’s really cool how you can build so much tension into the same looped vocal line on ‘BE4UGO’, for example.

Sure, yeah. That makes sense to me too. I know exactly what you’re talking about, it’s just hard talking about it in reverse. There just things that you come across in the process, and while they’re intentional, you sort of don’t think about doing it. But I know with the last EP I was probably using more synths and drum sounds to create tension. But production styles change, it’s like fashion I guess. Whereas songs are always the constant format, the other stuff’s fun because it’s less serious and it’s there to be experimented with. That’s sort of where that part of it ended up.

Your music is influenced by a range of genres, from gospel to UK garage and footwork and hip-hop. How have your influences changed over time? How do you keep finding new ways to incorporate them into new material?

 I always consciously try to not shut anything off. When I hear something that’s obviously popular and people are into it, just because I might not know it or might not be familiar with it, I don’t shut it off as an option or as something I’m interested in. So I just try to consume stuff that I find that sounds new to me. I think then I try and let the process of amalgamating that stuff be as natural as possible. It takes a long time for genres to seep in, and for them to become part of your sound and work out how to recontextualise stuff without just completely ripping people off. And that’s something that I’m happy to take time with. There’s no right way to do it, but I think it’s kind of easy to fall into traps where if you’re not confident with that process of just sounding like everything else. I always try to be open and be optimistic about where genres are going, and just be confident in what I like.

I read that this EP has had a shorter creative gestation than ‘River’, which is something which is a bit new for you. Was it liberating to cut down on the creative process, or does it make you anxious?

Everything makes me anxious. I think the difference is that now I’ve worked on a bunch of different projects and I think now because I’ve just decided to focus on my own stuff, it was like well I’ve just got to do it. So it was liberating, I think. It was really scary to just focus on my own thing, for starters, and I realised that in the last six months I haven’t collaborated on different things as much as I normally would. But at the same time, I’ve got a lot more music now to release. I think that after this EP’s out, I’ve got a bunch of stuff to move on to. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but I think it’s definitely nicer to… I think if you are putting stuff out, the sooner that you can do that, it’s better for the listener as well cause it’s nice to hear where people are at at a natural point. I like that, when I hear music that I feel like I’m keeping up with the artist, in a way, as a fan. I think it’s beneficial from that perspective. But in terms of anxiety levels and stress, it’s pretty similar.

It must be nice for you as an artist to not be feeling this disconnect between having recorded something a couple of years ago and just putting it out now.

 Sure. I think there’s also a thing when you do it a few years ago, it feels weird; you’re a bit easier on yourself because it’s like “well, you know, that was back then and I’m in a different spot now”. But the grass is always greener, that’s the one thing I’ve learnt about my personality.

So are you looking to bring this shorter creative process over into future projects?

Yeah, I did an EP with a singer-songwriter recently in the last year called Eliott. And that EP we worked on really quickly, like we wrote songs together and then recorded them in the space of a couple of months. And then the EP sat there for a little bit. But when I listen back to the music I’ve worked on, it’s more like if you can work on it and then not change it, finish it, that’s the best prognosis, in my view, for the tunes rather than tweaking them forever. I’ve got stuff that I’ve recorded and then put out that’s just sort of suffered because it’s been over-tweaked over a period of time. But I think the difference between that and then doing something and letting it sit for a bit, retaining the urgency and the lightness around the process when you don’t weigh it down with time. I want to do that more, I want to try and capture moments more. And then try and release it as soon as I can, but not edit and not get caught up in trying to get it to some weird concept of what you think might make it better, because most of the time that’s bullshit.

You’re a pretty generous collaborator – I just heard that Eliott track the other day – and in the past you’ve produced for BUOY and your friendship with Christopher Port is of course well-documented. What is it about collaboration that’s so important to you creatively?

Well I never got into music to make music by myself. I never wanted to be the focus of a project, I guess. There’s a bunch of stuff that coincided when I moved to Sydney for the first time. We had a band, but it was just too expensive to have a band, so we started producing in bedrooms and stuff. So just the process of making music, for me, became more and more solitary. And then I started to feel like I like to work with people, especially with friends of people who I very deeply respect, and for me it’s just more fun, which makes it easier. The creative process is a little more like you have to fight for your ideas, but then also if you lock yourself in a room for six months you fight against yourself for your own ideas anyway. I think there’s as much inner turmoil either way you go. So I just think it’s nice to be around people working on music, and it’s something I want to do more of. I think I always learn something in the process as well that I would not have learnt working by myself, you know.

The EP has obviously been in the works for a little while. Are you holding looking at what’s to come next, or are you happy to let this project reverberate? 

No, I’m pretty keen to move onto what’s next. I’m playing a bunch of shows for the EP, and I’ll definitely focus on it and try to let it have a life for a bit, but there’s definitely a lot more music to move on to and new ideas that I’m excited to explore.

If I Tremble, will be out April 13 via. Of Leisure - you can pre-order it here.

Jack will be heading out on an intimate headline tour of the east coast behind the EP - find all the details and tickets below:

Saturday, June 9 - 107, Sydney

IMAGE: Adrian Price