Long-read:

“Just outside My Window”

An interview with Teen Daze

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words by guia cortassa

Lie down, close your eyes, listen. Even when you think you’re perfectly still, everything in and around you is in constant motion, ever changing, impossible to stop. There is no way for mankind to arrest the course of nature, but a lot can be done to interfere with it and chances are few this meddling might be a positive one. Yet, we’re all just a minuscule particle living in an infinite space, and it’s distressing to realize how small and irrelevant each and every one of us alone is within the big system of the world.

Jamison Isaak knows it very well. He learnt it all first hand: it was 2015 when he traveled for long in a foreign country, discovering new places and witnessing how our planet is quickly changing. He then got back home just in time to set off on tour; Playing and moving every day put him in a state of big anxiety, to the point that he decided to call off all the gigs and return to his secluded home in British Columbia to work on new music. The result of all of this is Teen Daze’s latest album, ‘Themes for Dying Earth.’

“Experiencing more cultures, and more countries and more places, opened up the amount of things that I care about, like climate changes: it affects everyone, all the world. Doing that traveling definitely gave me a greater empathy for people. As a person, that trip certainly shaped me and shaped what I wanted to talk about with the next record” Jamison tells me about the seven months he spent with his wife in Australia. He’s talking to me from his home in the Fraser Valley, B.C., on a day off among a few live shows. “I didn’t really do any recording or any writing when we were travelling, just a little bit if we were in a space that kind of allowed for, but for the most part I listened to a lot of music, and when I came home it was so much fun to get back into the act of recording again. I think it was pretty immediate, as soon as we moved into this place I set up the studio and started writing songs that ended up being on the record.”

‘Themes for Dying Earth’ sounds somewhat different from its predecessor. Soft, dilated sounds have taken over the indie guitars, so I can’t but ask him what were his listenings of choice at the time, to understand what could have possibly inspired this change of mood: “We listened to a lot of Nils Frahm, and to a lot of new age artist Laaraji’s ‘Essence Universe’ and that Suzanne Kraft record that came out in 2015 [‘Talk From Home’]. Yes, a lot of ambient and new age music, which is perfect for traveling because we got to see some incredibly beautiful places and those are the best soundtracks for those types of experiences. Also, when we were in Australia we met up with many new people who are also doing music, and I feel that I got trained to a lot of good Australian music, they make great dance music there, like the duo Ara Koufax, and Andras Fox–– Andras & Oscar’s ‘Cafe Romantica’ is very good. There’s a lot of cool stuff in Australia, music-wise.”

‘Themes from Dying Earth’ bears an intrinsic complexity, as it layers three different starting points Isaak’s been working on: between his personal experience struggling with mental health and his concerns towards the planet as a whole there is his relationship with the immediate geographical space he is inhabiting: “The thing that I’ve come to do while dealing with something like anxiety on tour is trying to organise my thoughts and my feelings, and ask myself, “What can I control in this situation? What I can I basically feel good about?” When I look at this record it’s a similar thing, it’s like first I started with the personal stuff, and then I looked at my direct community and area: what are my anxieties and my feelings about living specifically here in B.C.?

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And what can I do about it? And then, again, to the broader scale of the planet as a whole. There are obviously some very heavy anxieties that can come along with what’s happening in the world right now, and it can be so overwhelming that it is good to be able to break it down and say “well, ok, so, climate change is something that is truly scary to me, what is it that I can do in my own life, what can I control in that situation in order to hopefully try and make something different?” And then also to be able to set up boundaries and say, “No matter what happens, there are just some things that are gonna be out of my control, like, I can recycle and reuse as much stuff, I can lower my energy consumption, my water consumption, but, at the end of the day, if the entire world is gonna be buying cheaply made goods made by some factories, then… It’s out of my control. I can’t control what other people are gonna do, but I can control my own experience.”

The Fraser Valley in British Columbia is, in fact, one of the main actors in the landscape of the album: “In my past records I’ve done a genuinely intentional job of trying to build a new world, with an escapist mentality,” Jamison explains, “and this time I felt much more inspired and conscious about trying to create more of a soundtrack for what’s actually just outside my window; it was so absolutely natural to try and represent the amazing scenery I see outdoors. I think I also probably just missed home, and when I was finally back after all of that traveling, I felt so good about being here that, again, it was just this natural thing that happened.” I ask him how did this course from his own person to the whole world take shape and he reveals that the path of the record almost parallels the path of actually making the record: “When I started, a lot of what I was writing about was a personal working through some stuff. The more I worked on it, the more I started to realize that a lot of those personal things that I was wrestling on, were indeed me trying to grasp much larger concepts. It was so natural, and, as I sequenced the record, because of the way the album came together, that was definitely on my mind. I put “Cycle” at the very start because it’s no doubt the most personal song on the record, and I wanted to set the tone like we’re gonna start inwards and like slowly make our way outwards.”

Though it may seem like, it isn’t odd for Jamison Isaak to use the first person plural while talking about this album: despite being such an intimate trail, on this trip from the self to the universal, he had, as a matter of fact, many different musician friends to aid in the work, establishing and strengthening human relationships in the most organic way. “That’s how all the collaborations went,” he reports, “It was my favourite part of all the process of making this record, getting emails back from one of the collaborators reading “Take a listen to what I’ve done, let me know what you think.” Every single time, I would hear it and just think it was perfect. Sometimes they would take the song in a direction that I wasn’t expecting. I think it was really good for me, on a personal level too, just to be able to involve more people in the project because, again, I think I couldn’t have done what someone like Dustin [Wong], who plays guitar on “Cherry Blossoms”, did; which makes sense, we are different people, we have different bodies, different minds, totally different ways of even playing the same instrument, but it was so incredible to hear what he did with that song and that that song wouldn’t have existed even close to the same way if it weren’t for him, there’s no way that I could duplicate what he did. I loved getting to share these experiences with all these other people, so, even though it was, definitely, a very cathartic personal experience for me to make the album, I got a strenuous amount of support from everyone that was also working on the record which was what I needed.”

That also happened with Nadia Hulett, who sang in ‘Lost’: “I was listening to that song, it was instrumental at the time and I thought it needed some sort of vocals to, kind of, lead it. I also wanted to have as much of a feminine presence on the record, I knew that Karen from Sound of Ceres was singing on another track and I felt like it would have been good to get another one of my female friends to sing and be involved in the project as much as possible. So I just sent Nadia an email saying “Hey, I don’t really know what your schedule’s looking like right now and all but if you’d like to contribute I would love to have you sing on this song” and the relationship that was formed over that was really really special. Her response to the record was extremely encouraging, she told me she loved to hear the songs because she felt in the same place and feeling a lot of the same stuff. For us to come together and make that song was really unique, because it felt like such a right place right time, we were just feeling the exact same way about this situation and it seemed almost random for us to come together and be able to make a song like that.”

And ‘Lost’ is emblematic within ‘Themes for Dying Earth’. Apparently the most outgoing and, if not the lighter, maybe the easiest track to listen to, deep inside it has an enormous meaning and message to share. “In the process of making this record, I listened to that Blood Orange album from last year so much and I was so incredibly struck by how he can put such a strong message and such important thoughts and statements, creating something that’s just so powerful, without having to sacrifice melody or catchiness. I mean, that record is so easy to listen to and also comes with such a strong message,” Isaak reveals, “I did a version of that song which was much more dreamier and shoegaze-y, the vocals had a ton of reverb on them. Then, for whatever reason, I became obsessed with the Francis and the Lights record from last year, with all the vocoder and the autotune in it, and with Chance the Rapper as well, they used that technique in such a beautiful way that I was like “let’s see what it sounds like, is it crazy to think of doing a track having this effects on the vocals?” As soon as it was done, I noticed it sounded pretty pop-y, that there were elements that sounded pop-ier or mainstream, and I realized that that’s the best way to get the messages processed, to make it as pleasant to listen to as possible but still be dealing with my anxieties in the world.”

But it wasn’t just music his source of inspiration.”Someone that had such huge influence on this record almost subconsciously is Keith Haring, he’s an artist that I’ve become so obsessed with over the last couple of years. I was so incredibly struck by how his work could reach people on such a huge mainstream level, and how there’s a simplicity to it, almost like a cave drawing style, still coming with such a strong message. There is no pretension in terms of only wanting his art to appeal to a certain crowd, he was like “no, I have a positive message that I want the entire world to share”, which is incredible. I think that, in music, and of course in the art world as well, that’s not something you hear every day; It usually tends to be one or the other, like, either “I want to make the most mainstream thing and I don’t care how I get there, I just wanna be as well-known to as many people as possible, no matter what I’m singing”, or other people who are like “I don’t care who hears it, I’m gonna make what I’m gonna make and it’s gonna have this strong message” and I believe he did such an incredible job bridging those gaps. Which, again, brings it back to that Blood Orange album, I think he does the exact same thing, he can reach a ton of people but there’s such substance in his music. All of that was incredibly inspiring to me.”

Besides his house, Jamison finished the album in a studio facility on Protection Island, another wildlife marvel in British Columbia: “I intended to make the whole record at home, and then my friend Jon Anderson, who runs the studio, emailed me out of the blue. It was very good timing because I was just listening to the tracks, and some things made me ponder that it would have been really great to get into a proper studio just to be able to make the overall quality of the record that one little step better than what I could do there. I live in a house where my wife and I have the entire basement but then upstairs is a family, so I can’t, like, record drums at home or make a ton of noise. I thought of my limitations, so as soon as Jon messaged me and said like “Hey, if you need a place to do some work definitely come over” it ended up being amazing. I’m so glad that I did it, because I think the record sounds way better than it would have had if I had done it all myself. Also, it is a beautiful place.”

Wide spaces, pristine landscapes, human existences, changing environments: all abstract concepts that found a concrete expression in the ten tracks of Teen Daze’s album, creating a panorama to behold in the mind of the listener. An inherent cinematic quality that materialized in the visual edition of the record, reminding to Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’ ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ or Ron Fricke’s ‘Samsara’ and ‘Baraka’. “That process was really cool, because I was really involved in the entire vision behind it,” Isaak says, “and Casey [Kowalchuk] has been making visual and films and video for the last 5 years or so, but he’s just a friend from down the street, basically. I knew he was gonna be available to do some work, and so for, like, 6 weeks, every Monday night, we would get together at the coffee shop and just brainstorm, talk about ideas, look at how much money we had and how much we could budget and what we could do with the money that we had. The first thing we said was that it would be awesome to do visuals for the whole record, something that people could engage with. And then we started going through every song and I would tell him some of the visuals that inspired the record, we started creating these situations where we could essentially get in our minds a visual that represented what the song was about. I’m just so proud of it.”

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Something that is also expressed in the short documentary about the making of the album. “That was a very kind of last minute –I mean, not last minute but it was almost an after part, we got some extra time and we thought it would be cool to do a little behind the scenes about how the record was made. I think he did such a good job, really, creating a story and helping it all come together. Something I said to Casey early on was that I never really felt like I have a strong visual presence, at least when it comes to film, a film presence I should say, because I love all the album art I had made for me in the past, it was all made by the same artist and I think he’s done such a good job representing the sound of these records. But I really wanted to have some videos involved in the process and I’m just so happy with how everything turned out.”

This time, instead, the album art was made by Jamison himself: a close-up shot of a cherry tree in bloom under the bluest sky. “I took that photo a year ago, while I was working on the record, and then I asked my friend Nathaniel [Whitcomb], who’s done all of the album art for the past albums, to serve a bit as an art director and make sure that all the design stuff that I’m not well enough equipped to be able to notice worked. I was happy to have him involved even if just to touch a thing up here and there.” Isaak also took the 300 photos that accompanied the vinyl release: “That was a project that I think came together a lot better than I maybe expected it would. I wanted to have a unique photo for each of the vinyl records, because I released the album myself and I thought that it would just be cool to put a bit more of a personal touch to it. I’m just one of those people that really likes coming up with ideas, and in all the situations I tend to get distracted by coming up with other new ideas before actually finish the ones that I came up with before, so, when I thought of that, it sounded really great and a fun thing to do; then, a month before the record was done, a lot of the logistic started to get piled in on, but everything ended up working really well.

I did two shootings basically, one in this community forest in my town, that is a very peaceful place, very indicative of what the general vibe of the record was like. I think I probably shot a hundred photos there. Then there’s been one at a lake that is maybe fifteen minutes from where I live; I spent a lot of time there in the summer and I’ve been going there my whole life, so, it’s a place that I get very nostalgic about. I took about three or four-hundred photos there. When I came home I went through all of them, picked the three-hundred that I liked the most and got them all printed and then, somehow, all the project worked out. I was a little bit in shock that I actually managed to do it, but, yeah, I hope people like it, it’s one of those things that I think makes something special about the record and I would like that.

At this point, Jamison Isaak’s fascination with nature feels so strong and tenacious that I’m curious to know where does it come from. “It almost seems weird to me that other people don’t have that same inspiration,” he states, “I’ve realized specifically with this record that it’s not a normal thing ––obviously nature has been an inspiration for art for as long as there’s been art, but I think a big part of it for me is that artists that I always come back to, over and over, are the ones for whom nature is always working its way into their music, like Brian Eno, or Bibio: he’s the reason I started making electronic music with live instruments involved, the one that ever made me think, “this electronic music is not really dance music and there’s lots of acoustic, it is kind of folk-y”. Because those artists are at the foundation of why I was inspired to start, in this project and in general, it’s funny to realize that other artists don’t necessarily base so much of their influence in nature, because it’s totally ingrained in me. I think a big part of it it’s living here, because I’m surrounded by so much of it. We have such an incredible landscape up here, the ocean is an hour away, there are mountains everywhere, forests, a lot of mountain lakes, tons of hiking paths, it’s so easy and it’s such a common, day to day thing to find yourself involved in nature somehow. I’ve also never really lived in a city before –– at least, a big city, the biggest I’ve lived in maybe has 150k people or something, I’ve never lived right in Vancouver or anything like that. I’m drawn to more peaceful experiences in life in general. Peacefulness, balance, moderation are all things that I feel very comfortable in and I think that to me there’s an appeal and a feel of strong connection between the peacefulness of nature and the peacefulness of a lot of the music that I really like. That Laaraji record it’s something that I could throw on and it’d immediately come into effect, and I get that same sort of effect when I go for a walk on a trail in the forest. There’s actually a lot of chaos in nature and I know that, for sure, but in the same way that I search out very peaceful music, I tend to search out a lot of peacefulness in nature, and I think my music is a very natural extension of that longing or wanting for peacefulness in my life.”

I mention to him that the name he chose for his own label, Flora, which released ‘Themes for the Dying Earth,’ in Latin means “the plants of a particular region, habitat, or geological period.” “That’s perfect!” he replies, “There’s a series of three lakes, they’re called Lindeman, Greendrop, and Flora. It’s about an hour hike, 3,5 km of going uphill until you get to this mountain lake in the middle of nowhere. It’s this totally surreal place, the water all year round has this incredible emerald green look to it, it’s incredibly beautiful. The label was just my homage to that lake and, yes, of course, nature in general.”

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Themes For Dying Earth‘ is out now – buy it here

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