“I was the guy who cleared the room at a noise show.”
At the start of Autre Ne Veut, Brooklyn’s Arthur Ashin was alone, crooning wildly over iPod backing tracks in the hot, grubby rooms of the city’s outsider music scene. Like other subversive turn-of-the-2010s acts, How to Dress Well and Holy Other, he took shapes that had familiar from decades of pop and R&B radio and distressed them with lo-fidelity, deconstructive concepts, and a palpable mania in performance. As ANV’s profile has grown, so have Ashin’s ambitions. His second record, Anxiety, brought a new confidence to his production while carefully avoiding the familiarity of well-worn radio hits. This week, he releases Age of Transparency, an album he first recorded fully with a live jazz band, just to capture pristine pieces he could blow up and stitch back together in his home studio. As intended, it’s a record that’s undeniably pretty in bits, yet deeply strange throughout. “I’m maybe embarrassingly proud of this record,” he says. “I’ve never worked harder on anything in my entire life.”
It’s the second piece of a trilogy Ashin didn’t really know he was making until well after its first chapter was released and received as one of the most critically adored records of 2013. (“I mean it could end up being four…”) In his head, the trilogy centers “around the relationship between one’s humanity and social media and the Internet and capitalism. It’s about the the way that we exist in this time, how they all kind of interface with each other, the habits that come from them. The thematics are super nerdy and intellectual but also half-baked,” he says with a grin. “I’m a musician, I get to be half-baked now, it’s awesome.”
We sat down with Ashin over a beer, to go deep into Age of Transparency, and the big, lofty ideas about pop music that he feels able to execute only now.
On this record, the singing style is still very emotive, but your hand as a producer is more apparent than ever in the extreme degree to which the tracks are warped. By making your after-the-fact manipulation so clear, are you putting into question the idea of transparency, or sincerity?
Maybe they are being conflated a little bit, for sure. Probably both. But, I think sincerity is a tenable construct. We can in any given moment be sincere. Some people might have a harder time than others, but it is a possibility. Transparency, in my mind, is a farce. There’s no one thing you can do that is, as a human being, truly transparent.
When we talk about a soul-singing style, or an R&B style, it’s usually thought of as a way to make the internal external. At what degree of manipulation do you run a risk of people asking, “Wait a second, can this be an inner soul declaration if it’s so obviously fucked with?”
I mean, I am a fan of ambiguity. I’m also a fan of straight-faced satire, and I think the thing that’s really incredible about the latter is that satire can function both as a critique and be earnest at the same time. It can be a good representation of a state or a culture or a moment but also, there can be a cognizance of the fact that there’s something false about that as well.
So you consider the songs you write satirical?
I consider what I release to have an element of satire. On some level it’s probably a personal crutch. I’m really out there. I’m like naked, flapping around in the wind. But on another level, I’m mocking myself for doing that.
But in the moment of performance, are you striving for a kind of emotional purity?
Yeah, but it’s also hard to find. Because caricatures calcify in the progress of becoming, to whatever degree I have become, a public figure. You end up recognizing this notion that I need to be performing a character of myself. It came from an earnest place at one point and there are times when it’s super earnest, and there are times when I really have to find it. Maybe I’m tired, or maybe I’m bored, or I’m whatever. But when I’m performing live, if I’m not that character, I’m failing. I’m not doing my job.
Do you associate certain pop characters, maybe from your youth, with different parts of yourself? Is it that in order to access this feeling that I have…I need to make myself this?
It is, but it’s an invention that I made over time. I don’t think of myself as neccessarily being unique in any way. It’s a hybrid of my influences, but they’re mostly subconscious at this point. There’s moments where I’m super John Secada. There’s moments when I’m super Phil Collins. That stuff’s way less cool. I did listen to a lot of that stuff when I was a kid, it’s really in me. I also listened to a ton of Prince. Of course I would rather read as Prince than Phil Collins! But…I’m just me.
With your first songs, the novelty of it was, this is a stripped down, deconstructed version of this big, pop thing. So as you sort of ramp back up, add in jazz bands, sophisticated production, do you worry about how to avoid just ending up with a patly reconstructed version of the thing you were once deconstructing?
Yeah, I think that was a huge part of…I mean this record took a long time to make. Really like, every day, day-in and day-out work. I think there were maybe like, two finished iterations before the final thing. I love challenges, I love giving myself goals that I can’t really attain. Part of the last two records for me has been trying to figure out how to improve fidelity and still make music that, to me, is somehow novel.
The thing is, I would also love to participate in making fully constructed pop music. That would be really fun. I’ve sat in on some writing sessions in that world, in a very limited capacity, and kind of seen what it takes to really do that. And it’s incredibly difficult! For me, the most exciting aspect of all this, is to be able to be in a studio and make a recorded document. But I also like thinking about the limitations of a surface of a document. How can you fuck with listeners expectations and drag them from one notion of what’s real sonically to another one? I stopped at the point that I felt like I was close as I can get on my own right now to succeeding.
But plugging yourself and your ideas into that machine is that a real ambition of yours?
As a producer and songwriter? Yeah, definitely. Not as a performer. I want ANV to be an art project forever, because I really need it. It’s sustaining. I have the capacity to do other things if I really wanted to, and so I really feel like if I was to sacrifice that in the process of trying to make a living doing this stuff, I might as well do a job that has a more steady income. (laughs)
Going into this record did you feel more secure, or did you feel the same amount of, anxiety, I guess, for the lack of a better word?
I think once you have a record that has any kind of feedback that’s positive at all, there’s a certain pressure that comes along with that. And my response is the same response I’ve had my entire life, which is, “How do I placate…no, OK, fuck that, how do I totally say fuck you to everyone that I’m supposed to be placating?” (laughs)
Has that been healthy?
No! It never works, so we’ll see how this goes.
At the end of the day, I’m not a session musician, I really can only be me. The second I sing on a song, it will sound like an ANV track, because my voice is particular. I like pop music and I like writing songs, and that’s one of my favorite parts of all of it is being alone and getting to play around at the piano and write new songs. That’s always going to be at the core of things. I think that helps, at least in music, to push away from my penchant to screw up my whole life.
Do you find performance calming in any way?
I still get stage fright before every show. But I also, on some level, am aware that I foster that feeling because it helps me access the more histrionic aspects of myself. If I have fear going into something, then I can let loose. It’s easier to be a total mess than it is to maintain some weird Beyonce level balance.
I’ve also eliminated a lot of the other cathartic practices from my life. I don’t abuse substances anymore, I don’t do karaoke, or go to parties or dance. My reasoning for it was always just to find some new outlet, some new approach, some new thing. And music does that also, which is cool.
With all these tools that you are now able to access, whether it’s more resources in the recording process, or the ability to pay and tour with a live band, has it been an accelerator for ideas for you?
It’s funny, in the process of making this record, I went full studio just to realize that what I really needed to be doing was making it in my studio, all alone. I now know when the right time is to access these resources, and when the right time is to rely on myself, to do it myself. Most of the generative stuff comes when I’m alone, because I get awkward and shy about my ideas around other people, so I kind of have to feel like they are developed and presentable before I bring them to other people.
I’m not sure, listening to this record, that shy is among the top descriptions I would use.
Shyness is subjective. (laughs) Like I said, it’s easier for me to go fully out all the way than it is for me to be somewhere in the middle. When I’m the ANV character, because as you can tell, I’m not freaking out right now, not super histrionic at the moment, when I’m that part of myself, it’s like blind release. I know that it’s going to be polarizing from the get go, so I don’t care, ultimately, what any individual thinks about it.
It’s like, whatever, I’m the asshole. I know I’m being the asshole, here’s me being the asshole. Maybe you’ll dig it, and maybe not. But it takes me a while to get to the place where I know what asshole to articulate.