Autre Ne Veut / Photos by Sarah de Burgh for Noisey
From the most remote exit of the Utica A/C subway stop in Brooklyn, it’s maybe a 300 foot walk straight down Fulton Street to reach Fulton Park. If you were to dictate the directions to someone they would boil down to “walk down the street until you see the park.” In fact, this is the precise set of directions Arthur Ashin, who records music as Autre Ne Veut, gave me on a balmy September morning as I was on my way to meet him. Then, he suggested I plug the address into Google Maps just to be safe—an unintentionally poetic touch considering that we were meeting to discuss his new album, Age of Transparency, which is, Ashin would soon tell me, an album very much about “the way that that technology influences us.” I didn’t use my phone in that exact instance; I walked down the street until I saw the park. But I easily could have. It probably wouldn’t have even seemed excessive. At least I would have known that I was going the right way, that there was no room for error.
Ashin was waiting on a bench, wearing a loosely knit oversize cardigan and a backwards hat, the picture of a cool, collected, tasteful 21st-century artist. I’d seen him onstage performing before: His act is borderline unhinged. Performing, he seems constantly on the verge of collapsing under the emotional weight of what he’s singing—his last album, 2013's Anxiety, contains such lyrics as “I'm gonna die / and I feel it more acutely now / than I have for awhile”. It is an act that is, as Ashin himself described it multiple times while talking to me, histrionic. At the very least, one does not watch an Autre Ne Veut concert and come away with the impression that Ashin is a calm, emotionally balanced person, and the press for Anxiety, which played up the album's titular trait, did little to dispel that notion. Ashin, though, is very calm—and thoughtful and funny, with a wide-ranging set of interests. He has piercing blue-gray eyes that light up when he cracks jokes, which is often. He’s quiet and speaks with a slight lisp, and he wasn't particularly enthused about posing for pictures. But he also summed up his life at the moment as “I'm a happy dude.” In other words, like most people, although he can at times find himself emoting from a point of total vulnerability, he is pretty grounded.
“When I'm being histrionic and I'm putting myself out there, I'm really doing that. It's not fake,” he explained as we walked through a quiet residential section of Bed-Stuy. “But it's also a performance. There's a part of me that can stand back behind it and look at myself over my shoulder.” He suggested that this album and the last are satirizations of emotional expression—a justification that is perhaps a bit of a cop out but gets at something that is inescapably there, the fact that really intense emoting becomes over-the-top and performative as soon as it leaves your head.
It's an issue that everyone’s facing more in our current technological era, Ashin pointed out: We're never quite as cut off from the world as we used to be, and we're compelled to stay connected to social media, even in the presence of other people. We stare at our phones and tweet during concerts; our older relatives browse Facebook at Thanksgiving dinner. Ashin said he's found himself asking questions about “how loneliness functions in a time of kind of oversharing and the way that we can feel addicted to sharing things about ourselves or searching for people in the world somewhere talking about you.” For someone his age—Ashin is 33—it's a question that looms large. He's young enough to fully embrace the internet and be comfortable with a smartphone but old enough to distinctly remember a time before those things. “I don't live outside of it. I'm not a Luddite,” he was quick to say. But he also noted, of the changes technology is creating, that figuring out what humanity is in this new technological context “feels very Lewis and Clark to me.”
What does it mean to say you're sad when you're doing that by posting a nostalgic photo on Instagram or reblogging gloomy quotes on Tumblr? And how does that reflect or differ from the ways we've always communicated our feelings? I thought of the way that I often tend to cry as if I'm proving a point to someone else, even when I'm alone. I mentioned this to Ashin, who immediately responded with a story about coping with the grief of his grandmother's death earlier this year. The story, appropriately, had a digital loneliness element: He'd recently logged into Facebook for the first time in a while and noticed his grandmother had requested him as a friend before dying.
“I was just alone in my room and started bawling,” he said. “Like properly bawling. Ugly-faced bawling. And then I stood up. I have a mirror that's built into a fireplace in my bedroom... and just watched myself cry for a second because I don't see myself cry ever. I was like 'what does this look like?' But then I realized I was actually performing my crying for myself. Around something that's truly a salient issue, but it was total theater.”
The question of what is and isn't performance naturally looms even larger for Ashin than most people, though, because he has somewhat recently come into his own as a public artist. He's been describing Age of Transparency as a sequel to Anxiety—part two in a loose trilogy. And although most listeners might not see the connection without prompting, aside from noticing the similar cover art, it's clear that Age of Transparency is an album that wouldn't have been made without Anxiety and the phenomenon around it. It’s not that Ashin is Beyoncé-level famous (or even, like, Beyoncé’s choreographer-level famous), but now that he’s become more of a public figure himself, he’s fixated on what that might mean, on how public figures present themselves as authentic.
Prior to Anxiety, Ashin's music had always been a more private thing. He grew up involved in choral singing, and for a while, including a period living with Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never, he made ambient electronic noise music. But for years Autre Ne Veut was simply a cool name he'd latched onto after seeing it engraved on a hatpin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval collection at its satellite museum the Cloisters (the phrase is French for, roughly, “want no other”). During a brief, isolating move to Chicago for a relationship that soon fell apart, Ashin started writing songs, and throughout the late aughts he performed in the Brooklyn DIY noise scene—“because I didn't have any sort of knowledge about how to schmooze in the music world, I would ask Dan to put me on noise shows,” he explained.
Consequently, “to kind of cut through the noise show scene, I felt like I needed to become the theatrical counterpoint to that,” he added. After getting laid off from his job at a medical tech startup, Ashin went to grad school for clinical psychology. He released a critically acclaimed but low profile self-titled album in 2010 and an EP called Body in 2011, but he also remained anonymous to the press for professional reasons, inadvertently placing himself square in the middle of a zeitgeist with similar shadowy experimental pop acts like How to Dress Well and Grimes. With Anxiety, the timing was right and the music was undeniable. Ashin had just finished his master's degree, so he decided to jump ship on grad school and throw himself into the album cycle 100 percent.
“It was like, look, your fucking childhood dream is handed to you?” he remembered. “I'd always been making music and thought it would be cool, but I never thought it could be something where it was like if you just put in the time right now and the effort right now, you can do this.” And he did it well: Anxiety was a huge critical success, and it opened the door for Ashin to tour extensively and make a living with music. Yet that touring, with its powerful live show, came with its own drawbacks. “It's very much an obligation on some level,” Ashin said of maintaining the onstage image people were paying to see. “Now I'm performing this open, honest, truthful self. Which some mornings you don't want to be.” Anxiety is essentially a pop record, heavily steeped in the sounds of 80s and 90s R&B (one song is even cheekily called “I Want to Dance with Somebody”) and showcasing, above all, Ashin's stellar, fragile, emotive voice. It wails and flails and crashes around, but the same songs could pass for pop radio fare with production that was just a shade glossier. Rather than taking things more pop, though, Age of Transparency feels like a sequel to Anxiety in that it's similar but a shade in the other direction, a bit weirder and more off-putting.
"You get tired of hearing that your music is sexy when you don't feel sexy," Ashin said, of the perception around his last album. Age of Transparency is a pivot toward pointing out "like I'm a goofy-looking little dude. Here's my grotesque, guys." To prove that point emphatically, he introduced this new album with one of its more immediately grating singles, "World War Pt. 2," which opens with a disorienting run of synthetic vocal sounds and arrived with a video portraying a bald, nude Ashin creepily intertwined with an equally bald and nude dancer, Macy Sullivan.
Inspired by the dizzying free jazz of artists like Pharoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman and the disorienting effect of Van Morrison's jazz musician-filled Astral Weeks—an album Ashin described as both the one he's listened to most and one on which “there's no concrete repetitive logic to the music”—Ashin decided he wanted to make an album that was equally unpredictable. Working with jazz musicians, most notably the brothers Geoff and George Hazelrigg, he set out to create jazz arrangements of the songs he'd written and then use those instrumentals to build his album.
“It was completely spontaneous,” Geoff Hazelrigg elaborated over email. “We didn’t know the artist, and we hadn’t heard any of the songs before we were rolling on takes. We didn’t have to play conservatively at all, as there was never any expectation that any of these parts had to be relied upon in a structural way, so we got to really stretch out as players. The whole session was really emotionally charged, and that’s what you get with the record; it draws you in, even when it’s not comfortable.”
Although Ashin has billed the album as a jazz record—a label that he, in true performativity-scrutinizing fashion, explained was a kind of a puckish attempt to get bloggers to call it that—there’s not much about it sonically that immediately leaps out as jazz . There are certainly some clearer instrumental sections than on Anxiety—bursts of saxophone and the like—but it’s still heavily electronic and roughed up.
Yet there is a feeling throughout that relates pretty directly to jazz, a sense of being taken by surprise (there is also an entire jazz arrangement version the Hazelrigg brothers put together on their own). Like Ashin’s description of his beloved Astral Weeks, there’s not always a clear logic to what happens in the songs. Choruses buzz up and reveal themselves slowly—you might find yourself wondering if the sing-along part of the title track is the emphatic hook of “don’t you know it’s never enough,” the “ooh-oohs” that well up shortly after it, the strings that float through the whole production, or the quick guitar riff that introduces the final verse, for instance.
“Suddenly you'll get kind of tugged into this world of digitalia,” he explained, getting animated. “I wanted that feeling of just being grabbed and dragged into places that you might not want to go to be part of the experience of listening to it.” If Anxiety was gut-wrenchingly immediate and emotional—many of its songs coming through as devastating breakup anthems—Age of Transparency is a touch more cerebral, its composition almost part of a puzzle to be solved. In several instances, like the jarring “Switch Hitter,” it’s downright annoying. But those same willfully mischievous tics also make it compelling.
There's a part in the second-to-last song on the album, “Over Now,” a song that Ashin described as “really just a simple kind of end of relationship jam,” where a spike of blown-out electronic distortion cuts through the balladry as through intent on ruining the whole thing. A few piano notes rattle aimlessly. It's one of the points on the album that I've found myself drawn to the most, though, the one that seems to capture the way that the pain of a breakup or some other personal tragedy can flare up unexpectedly with an almost paralytic effect. It's also a moment in which the systems of pop music break down, which is appropriate: Those flashes of pain or sudden revelation don't fit within the structure of even an angry pop song. You can’t account for the moment when you go from generically sad to suddenly, grippingly angry for a few seconds within the confines of, say, a Katy Perry ballad.
Pop music is by definition performative, which is why we like it so much: Drake lyrics make great Instagram captions; Beyoncé lyrics double as personal mantras. But they also feel a bit like an aspirational facade: You can make your life look great by tagging your social media posts #flawless, but that doesn't mean you don't personally wake up feeling like extremely flawed garbage. Online, all the knowledge in human history is basically just a Google search away, and great moments are permanently preserved on your timeline.
Outside the confines of the digital world, life tends to be a lot messier and full of mistakes. But then again, that unpredictablity—the same thing we’re attracted to in jazz or live performance or any lived-in, participatory moment—is what makes it great. Age of Transparency’s willingness to intellectualize itself and disrupt its creator’s safest tendencies are a welcome addition to the pop conversation, and Ashin himself is kind of what I think we’d like our digital era intellectuals to be like: entertaining, irreverent, hard to pin down, and interested by how to best articulate experience. He told me, at the end of our conversation, as we sat in yet another park, watching a tennis lesson unfold behind us, that he’s drawn to music that looks to magnify the commonplace. He added, “I just throw a little tweak to the lens so that it like becomes perverse and big.”
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.
Sarah de Burgh is a photographer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram.