The Curious Life of Cashmere Cat
A face-to-face interview with the Grammy-nominated producer, whose new album '9' pushes pop into another dimension.
All photos by Cait Oppermann
Magnus August Høiberg has started off his morning questioning the nature of reality. It's a warm spring day in April as we walk down a busy thoroughfare in West Hollywood, with the sort of bright yellow sunlight that causes people to move to the West Coast. He's in the midst of explaining his current living situation—he rents an apartment in New York, but hasn't been home in five months—when he pauses, staring at a child-sized, chrome-plated skull in the window of an art gallery. His long blond hair blows in the breeze. "Do you think we're living in a simulation?"
Before I can muster up a response, Høiberg laughs and continues down Melrose, en route to a cafe for some cold brew. There's a spring in his step as he talks in a nasally Scandinavian accent about his latest theoretical obsession. Recently, he saw a video of a talk by Elon Musk in which the tech innovator, extrapolating from recent advances in VR, suggested that there's a "one in billions" chance that that we're not living in a computer-generated version of the world.
Benny Blanco, a longtime friend and collaborator who owns the house where Høiberg is now staying, catches up to us on the sidewalk and weighs in: "This is his thing—well, simulations, and whether he's going to hell or not."
Høiberg's openness catches me off-guard. Our chat today is one of a handful of interviews he's ever done, and the first in-person interview he's ever done in English. Since he started making music as Cashmere Cat six years ago, he's developed a reputation for reclusiveness, shirking most interview requests and obscuring his face in most photographs—even as his productions have exuded a cartoonish, childlike warmth. But none of this feels accurate to describe how Høiberg's acting this morning. 11 AM seems a bit early for getting so deep into the great questions of life, but he relates these worries with a knowing smile, like he's more curious than anxious.
The producer is clad in an oversized grey hoodie that falls to mid-thigh, Nike joggers, a pair of black Converse high tops, and a flat-brimmed hat bearing the logo of experimental club label Fade to Mind—a conspicuously comfy outfit that I notice is nearly identical to the one he wore on this year's Grammys red carpet, where he and Blanco were nominated for Best R&B song for their bubbly work on Tory Lanez's "LUV." Walking along, he offers a possible explanation for how fast his brain is moving. "Now or Never," a recent collaboration with Halsey, is set to drop at some point today, and just yesterday, he capped off nearly two years of restless tinkering on his long-in-the-works debut album, 9, which is set for release April 28 on Blanco's Mad Love Records and Interscope. Following a 48-hour stretch without sleep, he finally nailed down the mixing and mastering, settled on a tracklist, and turned it into his label. After nine hours of rest, he's ready to go again.
Further up the street, Høiberg reaches over, grabs my recorder, and freestyles a few bars about a shuttered Balenciaga store we pass. "That was just the intro," he says, handing it back to me and grinning. At the coffee shop, he gets side-tracked by a pitbull named Tyson. Blanco—who's about a head shorter than Høiberg, but has enough curly hair extending upwards to make up some of the distance—"helps" the staff by loudly echoing the names they call, then politely instructs the amused restaurant-goers not to spill their overflowing lattes as they walk back to their tables. After the stress of finishing the record, today is a good day. But then you get the sense that these days, Høiberg has a lot of good ones.
Høiberg started Cashmere Cat when he was living back at home in Norway, combining lustrous synthesizers, playful squeaks and cracks, and hopscotching kick drum parts within the confines of his room. The beats were still colorful enough to earn him slots at EDM festivals like HARD, but—cocooned in Silly String synths and more muted drops—they also made sense for more introverted audiences. Through a couple EPs for tastemaking labels like Pelican Fly and LuckyMe, he landed at the center of a scene that sanded down the edges of dance music and gave it a gaseous glow. Like those of his LuckyMe labelmates Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, his productions maintained the euphoric energy of club music, but they were "soft," as Høiberg puts it. "When I was making that music I was thinking more of a girl or a boy alone in their bedroom listening to it than a crowd full of people going insane," he tells me.
But that idea has since morphed into something different altogether. After Blanco—a producer and songwriter with past credits on radio hits for Kesha and Maroon 5—heard an early remix that Høiberg made, the pair became fast friends and creative collaborators, bonded by a unique ability to communicate more or less telepathically. In the years since, with Blanco's assistance, Høiberg's had the chance to produce for some of pop music's A-list eccentrics. He's contributed instrumentals to songs by the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Kanye West, Charli XCX, and even Ludacris, knocking some of the world's most popular music slightly off-balance.
9 is his attempt at bringing that studio work into his solo practice, and it features performances from Lanez, the Weeknd, and Grande, along with Ty Dolla $ign, Francis and the Lights, Kehlani, MØ, Selena Gomez, Jhené Aiko, and even ex-Fifth Harmony singer Camila Cabello. With a resumé like his, on a day as beautiful as today, it's easy to see why he might be wondering if this is all real.
Blanco's place is a two-story house with white wooden shutters open to the morning sun. Inside, we pass a coffee table festooned with a colorful tome called The Big Book of Pussy 3D, then head out back to the pool deck and take a seat, surrounded by cacti and other greenery. Here, I recognize a couple of recurring characters from Høiberg's Instagram account: Blanco's French bulldogs Larry and Disco, who run around, tongues wagging, before plopping down in the early spring sunshine. Disco's head is embroidered on the tongue of one of Høiberg's shoes. Høiberg gives him an affectionate pat, then begins talking about how his world got so weird.
Høiberg was born in the late 80s in Oslo, Norway. His dad worked in IT, and their family moved around a lot, doing stints in cities in Norway and Denmark, as well as a brief stay in Austin, Texas when Magnus was five years old. His family didn't make music, but his dad ran a fan website for the Americana legends the Band that was so popular that they eventually adopted it as their official internet presence. One of his earliest musical obsessions came courtesy of his mom, who bought a copy of Daft Punk's Discovery at a gas station on a family road trip.
"When I was making that music I was thinking more of a girl or a boy alone in their bedroom listening to it than a crowd full of people going insane."—Cashmere Cat
The family ended up settling three hours away from Oslo, in Halden, a town of only 29,000 people. It wasn't really a cultural hub—Høiberg's said before that there were no DJs there, and no one listened to hip-hop—but his parents allowed him to pursue his own interests. At first, that meant piano lessons and theater, as well as tennis, hockey, and soccer. "I did everything," he says with a smirk. "And I sucked at it." But one hobby eventually ended up sticking, after he stumbled upon some videos of turntablist DJs as a teenager. "[My parents] were really worried because all of a sudden there was all this stuff that I had to get that cost thousands of dollars," he says.
Alone in his room, he started practicing scratch routines for hours on end and scouring the internet and local stores for records, gravitating to the cerebral hip-hop of Jurassic 5, Madlib, and J Dilla. These were out-there interests for a kid growing up in Halden—ones that distanced him from other kids his age.
"I didn't know anyone that did DJing or scratching," he says. "And the guys who liked hip-hop would beat me up. There was this one guy at my school who liked Tupac, and I remember one time he was playing the song by M.O.P. called 'Cold As Ice.' I was walking over and I was like, 'Hey man, cool song.' Then he just headbutted me. I got knocked out."
Music was a solitary pastime, but soon he found a way to make it a little more social, by participating in local turntablism competitions. His mom drove him to his first one, where he got trounced by a DJ who lit up the crowd with a particularly virtuosic flip of Fabolous' "Breathe." Høiberg came back the next year in a Rocawear sweater ("I really stepped my shit up," he remembers) and did a little better. In 2006, performing as DJ Final, he won the Norwegian national competition, and found himself representing his country at the DMC World DJ Championships—the world's premier competition for turntablists, which also counts A-Trak and Hudson Mohawke as alumni. He returned to the event over the next three years, once placing fourth in the world.
Eventually, he burned out on the competition lifestyle. "I kind of got my first girlfriend," he says, "and whatever my low level of technical ability was at that point just went out the window." He started developing other interests, deciding the time he spent sharpening his turntable skills could be better spent elsewhere. "I wanted to be a real person," he explains. "[Scratch DJing] is something you would never listen to, you know? It looks really cool, but imagine having a guitar solo be your life for like, six years. You'd go insane."
Hoping to try his hand at production, he bought an AKAI MPC1000—a standard for sample-based beats—and got so obsessed with it that he broke the sample pads within two months. His first efforts were simple riffs on the collagist hip-hop producers he idolized. "I would make like ten beats a day," he says. "I tried to buy the exact same equipment as them and to sample the same artists."
Still, things didn't really start gelling until he happened upon a video of A-Trak, one of his heroes from his DMC days, playing a DJ set in the mid-2000s. A-Trak was still scratching and playing rap, but he was also making room for weirder stuff, like the DayGlo strains of the Ed Banger stable. "I had never heard this music in my life before, but he was playing it in this way I knew," he remembers. "He'd be scratching a Mr. Oizo record, and the crowd would go insane. It was like a concert; it wasn't ten guys in hoodies looking at you blankly."
So Høiberg decided to make tracks that elicited a similar genre-crossing confusion. As DJ Final, his first efforts approximated the peak of the bloghouse era—first "fake Justice" then "fake Gesaffelstein." "I would find some hero and then try to copy it as much as I could," he says. Eventually, he grew tired of failing his own high standards, and he started making what he described to me as "joke songs." Realizing that he could replicate numbers by groups like Swedish House Mafia song "in, like, three seconds," he began churning out compositions that poked fun at the dawning trend of commercial EDM, uploading them to SoundCloud under the name Katten, which is Norwegian for "cat."
Soon, he made an attempt at R&B. He was looking to reproduce the pillowy 808s and glossine harp sounds of a Jeremih or R. Kelly song—but with a few tweaks thrown in for absurdity's sake, including an ecstatic EDM buildup and some Jersey club bed squeaks. He thought it was hilarious, but when he sent it to friends, their reactions were different. "One of my friends told me it was the most beautiful song she'd ever heard," he says with a laugh.
Around the same time, Høiberg went out to a show in Oslo and was surprised to discover a local DJ playing one of his tracks in the style. "I was like, 'What is happening?'" He says. "This is a DJ who's playing really great dance music, and they're playing my song."
After a point, it wasn't a joke anymore. He changed his name to Cashmere Cat in 2011, started remixing his favorite songs in the same cushiony style, and began making more originals—some of which would end up on his 2012 release for Pelican Fly, Mirror Maru. The EP's synthesis of R&B pacing, dance music dynamics, and Candy Crush synth sounds cemented a dreamy aesthetic that would go on to inspire legions of SoundCloud producers. Even five years later, there's something about the way he combined them that still feels a bit dangerous—as though his songs aren't just sweet treats, but jawbreakers you could crack your teeth on if you aren't careful.
"His brain works very differently than mine and yours and everyone else I've ever met."—Benny Blanco
As press requests began rolling in, Høiberg kept his distance. He didn't appear in his own press photos, instead submitting pictures of his friends, and he didn't do interviews, which he says was mostly practical. "I didn't have anything to say," he says. He was still living in Norway, and he'd never really had people outside of those closest to him paying attention to his music. Soon, though, he'd have a lot more to talk about.
Benny Blanco first heard Høiberg's music while on vacation in his native Virginia, driving around with one of his managers and an old friend, who was playing remixes of pop songs over the stereo. "He played a Jeremih remix and everyone in the car was like, 'What's this?'" Blanco tells me over the phone, a few weeks after my interview with Hoiberg. The next week, he flew Høiberg out to LA.
With the exception of his times travelling for the DMCs, music had been mostly a solitary activity for Høiberg—something to be done in the privacy of his own room. But meeting Blanco changed that. As a writing and production team, they fill in each others gaps. Blanco's productions show a knack for writing simple chord progressions and hooky melodies, while Høiberg, Blanco says, can turn those chords into something "you've never heard before in your life."
From the get-go, Blanco also put him in rooms with superstars. The first week he was in LA, Blanco brought him along to hang out in the studio with Maroon 5.
It wasn't an environment he felt immediately comfortable with. Over the phone, Blanco recalls a studio session he and Høiberg did with Rick Ross nearly six months later. "I went into the bathroom and Magnus was in the bathroom crying and putting water on his face," Blanco says. "I was like 'What's going on man, are you OK?' He was kinda hyperventilating and he said, 'You didn't tell me that DJ Khaled was going to be here. I'm so starstruck.'"
Things moved quickly from there. In 2014, Høiberg moved to the States, first to an apartment Blanco owned in New York—and then, when it came time to get his own place, to a flat in the same building, one floor up. Soon after they'd met, thanks to Blanco, Høiberg had ended up in the studio with Jeremih himself. Those sessions eventually turned into Ludacris' 2014 single "Party Girls," which ended up charting in the top 40 of both Billboard's Rap and R&B charts. That same year, he released another EP, this time on LuckyMe; a string of high-profile collaborations followed, culminating in him and Pelican Fly labelmate Sinjin Hawke contributing a beat to "Wolves" by Kanye West, who Høiberg describes as "maybe my favorite artist ever."
One of his earliest musical obsessions came full circle when he ended up on the same record as Daft Punk, even though he didn't end up working with them directly. Last year, Høiberg helped produce four tracks on the Weeknd's 2016 album Starboy, to which the robo-duo also contributed a couple songs. He remembers the sessions as hard work; after weeks working for as long as from 11 AM to 5 AM the following day, he says he mostly developed a working knowledge of which takeout spots would still be open in the wee hours of the morning. But he also lights up when he remembers spotting Thomas Bangalter in the parking lot one day.
"Usually, when I take a break, I go and ride on my scooter and talk on my phone or something," he says. "One day I saw Thomas sitting in a convertible. And I totally froze up. I was too scared to say anything to him because he's like… Jesus. I just stared at him and then drove away on a scooter."
Still, he's been getting more at ease in these environments—and navigating the music industry in general. Over the past couple of years, he's started showing up in his own press photos; when our photographer shows up later, he mentions repeatedly that he wants to look like "zaddy" and even suggests that she shoot him while he brushes his teeth. In conversation, he's hesitant to draw direct connections between his personal life and his music, but no subject really seems out of bounds. He's grown up, or at least he's comfortable showing everyone else the goof he's always been.
"His parents came out to visit him six months after he first came to LA," Blanco tells me. "And they were like 'Oh my god, I can't believe [how much] you've changed Magnus; he's so outgoing now.' Now in a session he's like, 'Hey Ariana Grande… why don't you try it like this.'"
9 is a document of that newfound confidence, and well as his commitment to tossing gumdrops in the gears of the pop machine. After his years working with vocalists, he realized that he wanted his first full-length to demonstrate that side of his style, too. So across the record's 10 tracks, he'll take someone like Fifth Harmony's Camila Cabello, and throw them in the mix with an elastic, experimental producer like SOPHIE.
Elsewhere, on "9 (After Coachella)"—a collaboration with SOPHIE and MØ—he interrupts a pining pop song with a brittle metallic drop, made all the more absurd for the fact that one of the drum hits is very clearly a mutation of a dog bark. (The track's lyric video confirms the bellow belongs to Larry.) Dance producers with outré ideas have long been involved in the production of big pop singles, but 9 feels different. Instead of bending his sound around the vocalists, he brings them into his own vibrant world—putting people like Cabello on beats that are both profoundly strange and strangely affecting. It's like he's opened up a seam to an alternate reality where FM radio's a little more uncanny—one that will feel potentially just as foreign to pop audiences as it is those who came into his music from the club world.
"Something in me just loves the idea of a girl or a boy in the car with their mom on their way to football practice, and they're like, 'Ah! New Camila Cabello song!'" he says. "And then it cuts and goes braaaahhhhh boom. 'What just happened?!'"
When I arrived at Blanco and Høiberg's home on the day of our interview, their block was quiet, save for a few rustling palm trees lining the street. But as I waited at their front gate, I noticed some sounds emanating from a windows upstairs: a few seconds of acoustic guitar punctuated the near-silence, then a fuzzy synth line, then the acoustic guitar line again. Each snippet of audio was only a few seconds long, signalling the sort of detail-oriented playback that can only come when you're deep in the weeds of production.
A few hours later, the track seems to have come together a little more. Save for our coffee shop trip, Blanco's been up in his studio all day, working on a new song by Tory Lanez, the Canadian R&B singer signed to his label. After some time chatting by the pool and a quick visit from a friend, Høiberg decides it's time to join Blanco, so he heads up a set of stairs, past some houseplants, to a studio on the second floor of the house.
Inside, the walls are lined with pictures of Nick Cave, Lou Reed, the late wrestling great Mr. Perfect. Høiberg takes a moment to yell out the studio window at the friend who's just leaving, ordering him, first, to take his shirt off, and then, after he doesn't oblige, to dab.
Høiberg plops down onto a mattress on the floor in a corner of the room. Blanco is seated behind a desk, staring up at a massive LCD screen up on the wall, which shows the many colorful tracks of a ProTools timeline. After letting the Tory Lanez song play for a second, he kicks away some clothes balled up under the desk, and implores me to mention that the socks he's wearing today may have been stolen from Høiberg. He walks over to one of several synthesizers that line the walls of the space, and starts rapidly cycling through preset sounds, as Høiberg narrates the action.
"Benny Blanco kneels in front of a keyboard..."
At a certain point, the conversation dies down. Blanco repeats a ten-second segment of the song—which features Lanez's disembodied croon, singing about a lonely night in—for minutes at a time, tinkering with the layers of percussion. Høiberg mostly sits in silence, nodding his head to the beat. At one point, he mimes a drum part, which Blanco summarily replicates, then looks to him for confirmation: "Like this?"
"Yes, but make it good," says Høiberg.
The loop repeats again, scarcely different than it was moments before.
The session is a reminder that not every day is glamorous for a successful musician, even those who spend a good chunk of their lives in the studio with stars. Most afternoons—even the good ones—are just spent lounging in your house, tinkering with small fragments of sound for hours at a time.
Høiberg and I head back outside to a small guesthouse on the property, where he says he tracked some of the first demos for 9. It's a single dark room, empty aside from some floral wallpaper and another mattress in the center of the floor. He explains that while spending some time in the studio with California songwriter and producer Francis and the Lights—working on his 2016 album Farewell, Starlite!—he was introduced to a software plugin called a prismizer, which turns any instrumental or vocal note into a kaleidoscopic harmony. "It's essentially a polyphonic autotune that you can play like a keyboard," he explains.
The effect long been a tool of some interest to those working on the outskirts of pop music—among them Bon Iver and Frank Ocean—but it ended up being a key to the creation of 9. That's partly because the harmonies it creates feel of a piece with the neon landscapes of Cashmere Cat songs, and partly because it formed the backbone of one the record's first songs. One of the first things Høiberg recorded using the plugin was a skeletal version of "Wild Love," a track of downtempo squelches and vocal corrosion that feels like an R&B song beamed back from a Voyager probe. He asked Francis for help with an early version, and the pair spent four hours in the guest room playing around with the prismizer, making Francis' vocals do backflips.
"It felt like learning a new instrument," Høiberg enthuses. "I really like embracing a sound on a record, and 'Wild Love' was the first song where I felt that."
The prizmizer pops up elsewhere on the album's slower tracks, adding splashes of color to otherwise downcast moments—like its Kehlani-featuring opener "Night Night," which uses the plugin to tie-dye the California singer's simple vocal run. But the tool is only demonstrative of what's made Høiberg's music great since the beginning: a refusal to stick to obvious sounds or structures. When I speak to Blanco on the phone later, he enthuses about Høiberg's risk-taking side. "He just does things that other people won't do," he says. "He'll take [the sound of] a coin dropping and stretch it out and turn it into a harp or something. His brain works very differently than mine and yours and everyone else I've ever met."
Taking risks has served him well so far. It's what got him to LA, in a room with Blanco, and on tracks with his heroes. Why should his debut album be any different? Now, he says that pursuit means doing things like talking to me and putting himself out there more. He says that the scariest thing he has in the works now is the video for "9 (After Coachella)"; nearly six years into the project, it'll be the first Cashmere Cat video that he appears in personally. "I don't know why I should be so hidden anymore," he says, folding up the remains of a Chia Pod that he'd just slurped down.
Still, he sighs and leans forward when I ask him about the backstory of the song. He won't explain the significance of the number 9, or why the record's title was changed to that single digit after was originally announced last year as Wild Love. "It's not a secret...I would totally tell you... I just don't know if I have a good answer for you," he says.
After a bit more prodding though, he opens up about the of the song itself, which came together—as the title suggests—following the Indio, California megafestival. He was at the end of a long tour and was both tired and happy to be done. He started talking to a woman he felt drawn to backstage, but in the post-show delirium both forgot her name and most other identifying information about her. He went back to his hotel room and searched fruitlessly on the internet for her—going so far as making a LinkedIn page, hoping he'd be able to track down the company she worked for. He eventually found what he believed to be her work email address and decided to send her a note—because who knows what could happen?
"Afterward, I just felt like such a moron for having creeped on someone on the internet for so long with maybe no outcome," he says. So he decided to make a song, something he knew how to do.