Urthboy – On The Magic Of Performing, Rappers And Letting Go Of The Ego

Tim Levinson aka Urthboy waxes with Rip Nicholson about the progressing from the academic to the emotional.

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URTHBOY interviewed April 14, 2016
For Street Press Australia [VIEW HERE]

Images supplied.

“There are so many instances in my creative experiences where I’ve tried to do one thing and it’s ended up at another place. I’ve been in control of every aspect of this song along the way. Where it ends up is not where I had set for it,” says Sydney rapper and founding member of The Herd Tim Levinson, a sentiment that has never been more apparent to the artist than on his latest creative project, The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat.

“Some of that is just because I’m liking things and I’m responding to it and it takes me further down a path, which is not where I set out to go. That’s where you kind of have to acknowledge, even if you set out with a real particular plan, there’s a different compass inside you leading you where it wants to go and just accept that you are not this great, egotistical genius. You’re actually just a vehicle, and I really enjoy the fact that you can separate yourself as an artist from the ego that claims ownership of everything and allow the fact that the audience has ownership over this. We are engaged and participating but we don’t necessarily have to take credit for every single thing, we just accept that we’re all in this together now.”

The project has led him a long way from its conception three years previous. Past Beats had the working title Decades and was initially planned as five lineal EPs, each representing a decade in Australian music between 1950 and the 2000s. Levinson has previously stated “I dreamt up a beast so daunting, that I spent three years trying to tame it” in relation to the process. However, the beast has changed in the breaking, partly from Levinson’s concerns that the project was going down too academic a route.

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“I really enjoy the fact that you can separate yourself as an artist from the ego that claims ownership of everything and allow the fact that the audience has ownership over this.”

“You don’t take the contents and circumstance to a song into account when you’re deciding whether you like it or not,” asserts Levinson. “You just like it or you don’t. So, I found the biggest challenge with it was working out where I had to put the brakes on this quite academic nature of the project, and how I would steer it back into something that felt like it had some sincerity and something personal that was very real and honest. And once I stopped trying to force all these elements and ideas into the music and let it happen more it really flowed more. So the beast was, I think, that the concept started as an academic exercise but it became clear that music isn’t academic. It’s visceral, it’s emotional.”

Another shift in momentum from something strictly conceptual to something with a roaring pulse was the inclusion of several collaborators, such as Sampa The Great and Okenyo on track Second Heartbeat. Sampa in particular goes deep on her own family history in Zambia and Botswana. The resulting verse is indeed visceral.

“With rappers you’re always going to have that because [they] are always writing their own lyrics,” says Levinson. “With singers it’s a little different, sometimes we collaborate and write, and other times it will all come down to the singer’s performance, which is a great thing in its own right. But it doesn’t take an expansion of the song’s theme into a new direction the way a rapper would. And Sampa absolutely nailed the theme that we were talking about and she brought a different expression of the same theme. So it’s not even that she took it off into a new direction, she expanded on it.”

As Levinson gears up take his album on the road, the rapper opines that despite the distance and time already travelled with Past Beats, the most exciting part is still to come.

“There is nothing like the loud nature and the visceral nature of live music. But, it’s not about trying to capture it on a phone and watching it later. It’s about the experience you have with friends at the gig and from me on my side of the fence it’s about diving into the songs and screaming our little hearts out,” he continues. “No matter what you walk into that gig with, you can have the flu and feel like death for the whole day, for that period of time, it’s a fucking weird thing, there’s something magical about performing. The adrenalin just goes, ‘you know what, body? Whatever it is that is currently preoccupying you and making you feel like a fucking deadshit, you’re going to be transported to somewhere else for this time,’ and I love performing for that. It’s a great thing and I can’t diminish that experience.”

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Conversation with Urthboy

Looked like you had some real fun at One Night Stand over the weekend? How has the album been received, live?

It’s been great. There’s nothing like having the privilege of songs getting a bit of play and a bit of support and then being able to experience that in its most visceral form which is in the live environment. It’s like you power-up or something from the experiences had just talking to people and relating to people just purely with the music, which is very personal and you never really get an insight into that. People play it in the car or on their headphones at home and not enough people invite me into their home just to be the creepy guy in the corner listening to them experiencing my music, so it just comes down to that live performance and it’s a lot of fun, it’s so good and I could go on for ages but it would just be another bloody musician rephrasing that experience that you have performing live which is you walk away from it and kinda can’t remember most of it and it’s just a bit of a blur of concentration and adrenalin. Yeah, it was really fun.

When you first play a song before a crowd, do you get nervous, like when you get up in front of class for a presentation type feel?

Well I wouldn’t compare it to getting up in front of class because I think that’s more terrifying. When you are forced to just stand there and talk, I think it’s always a little bit more terrifying than performing a song because in performing a song you have a group, you’ve rehearsed it and you’ve really tried to memorise it in such a way that means you’re kind of buffered a little bit from the how naked you are, just like getting up in front of the class and talking in front of people. At least that’s from my experience so it’s not quite the same but you definitely do have nerves. You sort of like ‘oh, shit’s gotten real now.’ You’re right there and I think there are times where specifically at the start you do tend to overthink things and as you perform the song more it becomes a little more back-of-your-hand and so you enable yourself to just fully go and perform it and then that allows you to just really to just zone in on capturing that song and I think that’s where sometimes it gets really exciting when you’re really going into what the lyrics are about and what the song is about and you’re really trying to make it real for people and I think that’s when it gets exciting because you can’t just be going through the motions in that time that’s like, whatever’s happening in that song you’re really channeling it and it can be really confronting for yourself even performing it in front of people. So, it is exciting and you do tend to find out new things about the song and certain things that are unlocked in a song just by the act of performing it live. You can see the way people respond in certain moments that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of and it does make you form a slightly different relationship with the song. You can think, ‘oh this song’s going to work really well live’ and it doesn’t quite work and it’s not just a simple case of what works and what doesn’t work it’s just a fascinating thing you think, ‘this song has gone from a very deep, insular, studio environment where I’ve just been trying to mold it and bash it into shape’ and then it just goes into the audience, finished. So you can have a completely different understanding if the song so it’s almost like when you go to perform it live you’re getting to know it again and having to understand it from the audience’s perspective and that really reawakens songs for me. It almost brings it back into a … almost like a friend who you’re looking at through a different set of lenses. It’s good, it’s fun. I’m sorry I’m reducing it all down to things like exciting and fun, but I have no skill with words, what can I say.  

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Well your elaborations on how the music re-evolves for yourself as the performer places a whole new perspective on the music as we see it.

You said in an interview recently, that you dreamed up a beast so daunting, that you spent three years trying to tame it – so this album had a kind of three-year pregnancy?

I started off by setting myself a goal of doing something different and not conforming to just some of the structures that we have in place, like albums and EPs. I wanted to do five short projects that was all part of the one thing and have it all linear in that it would be based off decades in our history and I would try and write songs that utilised the genres or at least samples from the genres of the times. So something like a style of music from the ‘50s so say we took it from a jazz perspective and then from the ‘60s, I dunno, incorporating some things that had rock steady rhythms and then 60s rock and roll. I wanted to be very referential but as the project grew I found it quite challenging for that idea to have the sound of the time become influential in the way we wrote the songs. Even how we constructed the music for the songs it didn’t necessarily translate, like it just became a bit academic so if you’re sampling like a ‘60s rock tune or even if you’re just looking at the style of music and seeing how you can recreate that so that it felt like it was being true to the time, that kinda got lost in translation because people are listening to the song now and they’re listening in a way that they are either responding because it’s resonating with them or it’s not. You don’t kinda go,’well I’m going to like this song because of the academic nature of it.’ You don’t do that. You don’t kinda take the contents and circumstance to a song into account when you’re deciding whether you like it or not. You just like it or you don’t. Or it might grow on you or whatever. So, I found the biggest challenge with it was working out where I had to put the brakes on this quite academic nature of the project and how I would steer it back into something that felt like it had some sincerity and something personal that was very real and honest and once I stopped trying to force all these elements and ideas into the music and let it happen more it really flowed more. So the beast was i think that the concept started as an academic exercise but it became clear that music isn’t academic. It’s visceral, it’s emotional. There’s about feeling, sometimes you can have very badly written lyrics but something about the power of the melody and the music and the way it’s performed can make it seem so profound. There’s so many instances of that in music and that’s not to be condescending about that music at all. I mean, if you can stumble upon something that feels emotive, or it feels like it can make you drop to your knees and shed tears these are the great goals of music. And music is not supposed to be as dry as a formula or a theory, that’s why some of the greatest music is the simplest music and that’s why some artists can not articulate any idea to you at all in person will be able to write some of the most grandiose and spellbinding music and that’s really the point I came to with this record. It was just knowing where to stop trying to be clever and be intuitive.

I can totally comprehend that fine line of wanting it to be an accurate timepiece but not too academic that it fails to be creative and enjoyable. On that thread, you said in a previous interview about this album: “It’s better to respect the listener enough to find their own meaning in these songs, to remind ourselves of what makes us human.” Are you in favour of having punters interpret your music in their own way, as opposed to getting the same message that you wrote?

Not so much because you set the tone with what you created and you communicate that because that’s honest with you so when people talk about what’s going on I choose not to be poker faced with my responses because I’m quite open and genuine in what I’m doing what my songs are about and what i’ve set out to do but at the same time i’ve been making music for long enough as a fan and as a listener, I guess I am a fan and a listener to countless artists it only makes sense to your life and what’s important to you so people take songs and they are their songs to own and have their own personal relationship with them. So if some people come to me and describe the meaning of a song that is so far off the mark it’s not right for me to say I’m wrong. It’s cool, take from it what you want. But it’s not even that. It’s that they’re not wrong at all. Which is an interesting thing because a lot of people will talk about writing a song and only later having a sense of clarity of what that song is about because sometimes you are writing in such a way that feels like it’s directing the story in that particular way and you may, through the creative decisions that you take, not execute that narrative or how you thought you were executing it and later on you see that your unconscious thought processes are actually steering this song into a different direction to what you thought, so you feel like you’re in control and your ego is telling you that you’re in control. Your ego is saying that you’re this great artist that is capable of telling these stories and it is you alone that can do it but there’s a murky area for almost every artist that exists a different interpretation of how that is all coming together and that is to acknowledge that you’re not in control that you are just trying to steer this in the general ballpark of where you’re wanting to go and your unconscious is taking it to places where you are not even necessarily aware of and that might sound like a whole heap of bullshit but actually it’s like where you… there are so many instances in my creative experiences where I’ve tried to one thing and it’s ended up at another place. I’ve been in control of every aspect of this song along the way how did it end up here where I set out to do it here. Well some of that is just because I’m liking things and I’m responding to it and I’m going, ‘I like where this is going,’ and it takes me further down a path where is not where I set out to go. That’s where you kind of have to acknowledge, even if you set out with a real particular plan there’s a different compass inside you leading you where it wants to go and just accept that you are not this great, egotistical genius. You’re actually just a vehicle and I really enjoy the fact that you can separate yourself as an artist from the ego that claims ownership of everything and allows the fact that the audience has ownership over this. We are engaged and participating but we don’t necessarily  have to take credit for every single thing we just accept that we’re all in this together now. Now I know that because I talk too much that’s there a little bit of bullshit wrapped into that answer. It’s not deliberate but it’s just because it’s hard to articulate these things sometimes and put it into easily understandable words but the short and the long of it is, no I love that people don’t take the album and the songs in the exact way that I intended them to be. I love that they have found their own version of it.

I like how you’ve likened yourself and your work to being a vehicle. And in that vehicle you have a lot of artists in there with you. Do your guests sometimes drive a track a different direction to what you had envisioned? For example on Second Heartbeat with Okenyo and Sampa the Great who you let go HAM on a verse about her own family history in Zambia and Botswana – were you aware that she would bring that to that track taking it to a new direction?

Yeah, absolutely. With rappers you’re always going to have that because in Australia I don’t think we have that same culture of ghostwriting which is prevalent at the top level in the States. It’s probably inevitable but at this point our rappers are always writing their own thing but with singers it’s a little different sometimes we collaborate and write and other times it will all come down to the singers performance which is a great thing in its own right. But it doesn’t take an expansion of the songs theme into a new direction the way a rapper would. And Samba absolutely nailed the theme that we were talking about and that theme came about, it was really the theme of the record and she brought a different expression of the same theme. And I came to Sampa and we talked about it and she nailed it. So it’s not even that she took it off into a new direction, she expanded on it. There are songs that I did with Montaigne, Rubble of the Past where it is exactly as you said. She is just a very vibrant and creative individual and is not at all weighed down with any feeling of self censorship at least that’s not what I took from her. Just one of those artists who are like, ‘let’s do this!… No, No I wanna do this!’  She is just very upfront with trying out ideas and I had to really let go of that song a little bit. Like, she wrote the hook of that I almost always write the hooks in my songs. And part of letting go is allowing for the fact that you gotta trust people that you’re working with and when you’re in a close and intimate environment writing songs generally, trust is a big deal. You gotta establish trust and establish it quick. Because you’re kinda going deep with people in that creative environment and I found it really easy to go, ‘you know what? I just wanna go where you are going and it’s not about hierarchy or status, we’re equals in the studio. So, yeah sometimes you’ve just gotta let go. It was very liberating actually. I really enjoyed it.

So there is never a sit-down over the direction of the album you impart unto your collaborators, especially rappers so they can get into that same head space?

That’s the craft, I guess of the whole thing, being able to bring people along with you. Most people need direction, they need to go ‘well I can try to write about anything, so can you give me some sort of ballpark where I may need to be.’ For me, a huge part of the creative endeavours I’m involved in is that simple act of communication and trying to get someone enthused by the theme that you’ve decided upon. And if that theme is open-ended then maybe it’s like anything else where good ideas come from and that’s when two people talk to each other or three or four or whatever you generally, through the act of going back and forth bouncing ideas off each other, the ideas improve to the point where you’re thinking of things that hadn’t occurred to you before and suddenly it’s like ‘OK, cool I’ve got five ideas’ because when two minds come together generally you’re encouraging the other to kind of take your idea and run with it and then they do the same to you and it’s a good way of developing an idea. But, for me with collaborators if I can’t communicate an idea and get them onboard they’re not going to be very willing participants because first of all they don’t quite understand it and second of all why would they be invested in this song, and we’ve gotta put songs up on pedestals because if they’re going to mean something to us we’ve gotta be as ambitious as we can to try and do the best that we can in writing that song. This all leads to a much bigger likelihood of the song being shit. I mean, it’s the same with Elefant Traks or working with anyone in any capacity so much of it comes down to the ability of drawing other people in and getting them invested in it. Not just so that they will work for you but so that they are actually, genuinely into the idea and that’s a huge part of what I do and I’m not saying that I am great at it I just acknowledge that if I can’t do that, I’m fucked.

I’m also not like a Kev Parker, I’m not an individual who runs things and so much of it is funnelled out from him. I am a collaborator and I enjoy the process and so it’s a different type of funnelling out. It’s not just delegating it’s sort of trying to get a little momentum from forward motion. Let’s all go together on this and work towards something better or better. That’s at the heart of a lot of things I do. It’s the same with trying to work someone like Kiera or Bertie. Each of us are pretty cool and we can do our own thing in ur own time but sometimes when you come together you can just do things that are unforgettable.

It’s kinda like knowing how to read when the momentum is taking the work somewhere good, having faith that it will land somewhere good.

New video due next week (20 April) Daughter of the Light. You know when you watch a film after reading the book it never compares. Was there a fear that your video would fall prey to the same syndrome?

All the time, I mean,  we also don’t work on huge budgets so when working with creators and directors you have to compromise a lot. You can’t just say, ‘hey, here’s this small bag of coins can you follow my artistic vision to a tee?’ It doesn’t work like that. You either pay a lot and demand or you have to come together and collaborate not just in an equal capacity but let them really drive it. Anyway, even if you had a lot of money there is still a lot of that where you have to trust the talent and the people who are involved in the visual side of the thing. But the flipside of course is that they have their own take on the music and that may be arbitrary and not to in any way dismiss the processes for directors but the simple fact is that it might not match what you have created and it might be something that they are really proud of but you may not see eye to eye on it so, quite often you will come across parts that were not what you had imagined but that’s the reality, baby. I mean, far out you don’t have a whole lot of money you’re kind of trusting people to somehow make a visual interpretation of your song and how many thousands of things can go wrong through the course of that. And I am so happy, and most artists are so happy when you get a clip that you’re proud of because it’s quite hard to find yourself in that perfect little symmetry with the visual team. And it’s something that you’re constantly trying to work towards, I know a lot of artists that don’t want to do any videos  and that’s often because they still cost a quite a lot even when you’re working the director to the bone and working off a showstring, it still costs a lot for a musician. But they are really important to do because a great video can turn a really good song into an incredible song. I look to a song by Joelistics from his last record Out Of The Blue and the way that they trated that, they took quite a literal interpretation of it but the way they executed it, it made it completely bubble over the surface for me. It turned it into an even more emotive experience. Sometimes I watch that clip, even two years later, and I can well up thinking of it, how beautiful it is and when a visual meets the music in a very genuine way it’s awesome.

Tour opens up in late May – How does a project like this translate live? In terms of, is there an order of sequence to the album or can you break it up like any set list?

Well I’ve got a new show that focuses a lot more on vocals, so we’re trying to work a lot more on enriching the harmonies and developing that side of the live performance. There is nothing like the loud nature and the visceral nature of live music so rather than trying to sell it based on what I’m going to play it comes back down to, it’s not a hellova lot of times where you play live in one town, maybe twice in a year, but it’s not about trying to capture it on a phone and watching it later it’s about the experience you have with friends at the gig and from me on my side of the fence it’s about diving into the songs and screaming our little hearts out. It’s a little tricky talking about what i have planned, i don’t know what i don’t have planned, I also don’t want to reduce performing down to something, ‘this is what we have on offer, do you want to buy this or not.’ It’s more spiritual than this. Now I don’t always think that because I’m tired or hungover or overworked and you get to the gig and you go ‘alright, let’s do this!’ Now, no matter what you walk into that gig  with, for that one hour or one hour twenty, all of that is put to one side. You can have the flu and feel like death for the whole day, for that period of time, it’s a fucking weird thing, there’s something magical about performing, the adrenalin just goes, ‘you know what body, whatever it is that is currently preoccupying you and making you feel like a fucking dead shit, you’re going to be transported to somewhere else for this time,’ and I love performing for that. It is a great thing and I can’t diminish that experience and that kind of phenomenon by simply saying, ‘oh, we’re going to play some old songs and a few new ones.’ Of course we are but it’s bigger than that.

Hey, it’s like you said at the top of the interview for that period of time you get to resurrect your music and see an old friend through different lenses. That’s gotta be worth getting up and out there for, alone.

It’s just indulgent central, right? Ground zero of indulgence. It would be like the epicentre of indulgence from each of the guys’ evening and I hope that we can  all indulge together.

Almost every Australian rapper is very humble to the core when being interviewed so I often think on stage it’s their moment to get all that indulgence out.

Tim, thanks for your time it’s been real waxing philosophical over the new album and  what it is you do. Cheers, man.

Thanks, Rip. I really appreciate the chat.

Urthboy [May16]

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