On his new album, Ukiyo explores the sounds and influences of his past, from Jon Hopkins to Owl City, and reimagines the music he loves for the present. Still, he has a sound and style that are his own; Ukiyo goes with feeling, and this much is felt in an album that evokes both happiness and nostalgia, dwelling just enough on the past for it to feel like a reprieve. No stranger to movie features with his music, his self-titled album, Ukiyo, feels like the closing credits to a bitter year and one that leaves the listener with hope for the future.
Thanks for speaking with us, Ukiyo. First off, what made you decide on your stage name?
It’s not as cool a story as I wish. I was just scouring Facebook late one night and came across a random clickbaity article about Japanese words that don’t have a direct English translation. Ukiyo was tucked down at the bottom somewhere, and means living in the moment and detaching yourself from everyday stresses. I thought that fit my music pretty well.
Much of your new album was created in Perth in a kind of isolation before the pandemic. Is this your preferred approach to making music? How did growing up in Australia help inspire your approach?
I love making music with other people and I very much came from that background of writing songs in groups and bands, but I find that I’ve got to be locked in a room by myself to make what I call an ‘Ukiyo’ song. I don’t know if it’s really an Australian thing that’s pushed me towards that approach, but it definitely comes from growing up through high school racing home to make music in my bedroom.
At only 23, you’ve already made a name for yourself and attracted the attention of big industry hitters. Have you been able to come to terms with your success so far? Is anything about your success different from what you’d imagined?
It’s something that hasn’t sunk in yet, especially with such a digitally-centric career it’s very hard to fathom that the big numbers I see are actually people. I have high expectations on myself, so as much as I make sure I’m content with where I am and living in the moment, I’m also always thinking about how I can make the most out of it to get to the next level. Probably the biggest thing that’s different from how I pictured it is how much work it is!
Many of your songs have an electro-pop feel, but there are tracks on the new album like Aqua Skies where the production alone feels quite cerebral and introspective. With this in mind, we’re interested in your approach to making these songs. Did you start by thinking about the potential for marketability, or do you prefer to go with feeling?
I don’t have much of an approach to making songs; it’s just about how I’m feeling at the time. Sometimes I’ll hear something out and about and want to make something inspired by that. I remember watching some old space videos with the astronauts coming back to Earth into the ocean and being inspired by that.
One of the standout album moments for me has to be when you follow Runaway with Sputnik. Can you tell us more about what it was like producing and recording those tracks? Did you intend for them to fit together when selecting the tracklist?
Thank you! Runaway was a fun one; there was a tonne of experimentation that went into that one on the production side. Frankly, the inspiration was just me wanting to make a song like Jon Hopkins with my own spin on it. I absolutely love his Singularity album, and I put that on a lot even still. I liked the contrast moving from the quite sad ending of Runaway to the bouncy warm synths of Sputnik. All the transitions on the album are certainly intentional, and I went through a lot of different variations.
One of the closing tracks on the album is Make It Better, featuring Bajillionaire and Brewer, and which you’ve recently released a video for. Can you tell us how this song came to be? How did you decide on it as a lead single?
Make it Better started as a completely different instrumental demo called Hurt, which I sent over to Bajillionaire, and he wrote the MIB lyrics over that. I really liked the lyrics that he’d written but decided that my production wasn’t pushing them to their max, and I had a little eureka moment when I laid them over another demo I’d been working on called Don’t Forget to Breathe, which was all about anxiety; it sounded great and the themes of the instrumental and the lyrics aligned perfectly. I loved this song ever since the first demo; it’s definitely one of my favourites on the album and somehow became even more relevant to me since making it, so I knew it had to be a single.
Watching you surfing through the clouds in the video for Make It Better feels like a happy trip in the style of MGMT or Tame Impala. How did the idea for the video come about?
Make It Better is all about overcoming anxiety, so I wanted the video to be something where I put myself out there, something that shows I don’t care about what people think and something that I would never have put out even a few months ago. I’d had the idea in my head for a while to do something a bit more space-related through some crappy green screening, and I ended up mixing that with some backgrounds in the style of those terrible old karaoke videos which I thought helped to bring it home.
Keeping with the visual, how much of a lifeline has the green screen been in the pandemic era? Have you had to adapt to new ways of creating?
I haven’t had to adapt all that much, to be honest. In fact, I think the pandemic was one of the reasons I’ve been pushed into making videos in the first place. I wanted 2020 to be the year I inject a lot more of my personality into the Ukiyo project, and with everything going on in the world, I wasn’t able to do that in the official music videos, so I decided to turn it up to 200% in the videos I’ve been putting out between them.
Your track, My Eyes, also caught the attention of Will Smith. Any dreams of collaborating with the Fresh Prince, Jaden or Willow any time soon?
I certainly wouldn’t say no. That’s hot.
You’ve mentioned in another interview that you’re quite a nostalgic person. To what extent do you try to recreate experiences and feelings from your childhood and adolescence in your music?
I forget the saying, but it’s something along the lines of how nostalgia makes everything seem better; you only remember the good things a lot of the time. It’s something I think a lot about and bring on to my music. I still remember clearly how I felt listening to my music on the bus home from school, so my music is a mix of being inspired by nostalgia for moments like these as well as trying to create something that I could’ve been listening to instead.
Speaking of nostalgia, are there any artists you grew up listening to who inspired you to make music on your own, or who we might hear elements of in your songs?
The big two that I grew up on and who opened my eyes to the world of music were John Williams and Owl City. I’ve always been obsessed with movie soundtracks and no one competes with John Williams. I very consciously try to create a similar journey through my music as I feel listening through a movie soundtrack.
Owl City was a huge influence on my music when I was first learning how to produce, so he’s a huge part of my musical foundation. I’m constantly using techniques I learnt from his music and trying to bring the kind of happiness his music exerted into my music as well.
There are a fair number of collaborations on the new album as well. How do you decide who you want to work with? For the album, were these artists you’d admired for a while or was it a case of producing a track and reaching out to someone who you realised might compliment it?
I live in Perth, which doesn’t have a lot going in terms of musicians and a music scene, but that means that I’m nearly always working with people I admire because I have to reach out. I’d heard and loved everyone that I ended up working with for the album before we worked together.
This is definitely an album that feels like it should be shared and enjoyed by a live audience. Do you have any plans to tour your new music when you can? How do you hope to bring the music to life in front of a crowd?
Of course! I’ve already got a bunch of shows planned but still unannounced; I’ve been working on a brand new live show for quite some time now, so I’m sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to bring it to a wider audience. I come from a musical background first and a production background second, so I’ve always found it pretty easy to mould my music into a live show where I’m showing off a bunch of instruments and all that.
Finally, it might be overstated to say we’re living through hard times, but your feel-good music feels like a kind of balm for that. How do you hope the new album will make people feel?
There’s been a bunch of albums that I hold really close to my heart and that have gotten me through some pretty rough times. Flume’s debut album, Porter Robinson – Worlds, Tourist – U, and Jon Hopkins' Singularity, to name a few. I hope that my album can connect with people and bring some comfort like those albums have comforted me. The Japanese word ukiyo is all about detaching yourself from everyday stresses, so that just about says it all.
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