What So Not on his debut album, coming home to Australia and all the beautiful things
Earlier this year, producer/songwriter WHAT SO NOT released his debut album. After what was a duo with Harley Streten (aka FLUME) became the solo project for Emoh Instead (aka Chris Emerson), What So Not hit the ground running, seizing this change as his chance to cut his teeth and make it work to his advantage. What would follow would be years of touring the world, making friends with the likes of SKRILLEX, RL GRIME and more, performing at just about every international festival and many, many clubs, with banger after banger being released by the Sydney artist. Finding a home on the global dance circuit, What So Not began to cultivate an enormous, worldwide fanbase, and he would eventually use this fanbase’s loyalty and trust to commence the next evolution of the project.
Making an artistic statement, conveying emotional themes and making genuine, heartfelt connections are all aspects of music that can sometimes be skipped over in dance music, but for What So Not, these were vital aspects that he’d go onto work tirelessly towards including in his music. We first heard the initial steps of this on his Divide & Conquer EP which dealt with unsettling themes of loss, betrayal and unease, and in turn laid down the foundations for what was to come – What So Not‘s debut LP.
Titled Not All The Beautiful Things, there was intent behind the emotional impact of this record. Taking off nearly all his big singles, Emerson opted to create a cohesive, intimate record that served as an avenue for self-expression, and tapped a whole slew of exceptional artists in their own rights to add and amplify this. From Australian icon DANIEL JOHNS to rising stars SLUMBERJACK all the way through to emerging artists like WINONA OAK and BUOY, What So Not‘s debut album is an emotional journey that encapsulates experiences in Emerson’s life at the time of making the record, but then fleshing it out to combine shared experiences with his fellow collaborators, and by doing this, he’s tapped into universal feelings that consequently meant connecting with even more fans across the world.
Having just wrapped up a South American and US tour after the album’s release, What So Not is now currently in the country, bringing his album home. We caught up with him before his tour kicked off to talk all about it, why it’s important for bigger artists to get emerging acts on as supports, how regulations are crippling Australia’s music scene and how he gets “that feeling” at least once a month. Check our chat with him below and catch him this weekend in both Sydney and Brisbane!
Firstly, congratulations on the album. It’s incredible and I’ve had it on repeat a lot since it dropped. It’s been out for a while now, how have things changed for you since it was released? You did a casual guest lecture at Harvard, that’s not too bad!
I did do that! [Laughs]. That was really cool. They made me a WHAT SO NOT Harvard blazer which I’m looking at right now too. It was so interesting doing that, the types of questions that they asked were quite intellectual so the conversation was very good between everyone. But in terms of in general, I’ve done a lot since then. I was having a conversation with someone about this other day about how 2018 has been so far and I was like, “Well I have done a lot.” I went to Europe before the album came out for a tour run, came back to Australia for some shows, then came straight to LA and did the launch party here, then went straight to South America and did the whole Lollapalooza tour around Argentina, Brazil and Chile, then Canada and then started my bus tour in America with 20-odd stops or so. I just finished Bonnaroo which is a huge festival here and it was insane. It’s been so cool to be touring a body of work that I spent so many hours locked in a basement developing and putting together and that I really believed in. I’m so thankful for the response I’ve been receiving for it and how insanely well the shows are going. Even hearing you say you’re still listening to it on the regular, that means so much for people in the industry to be enjoying it also means a lot.
Well thank you for making the album! You’ve been playing what looks like some amazing shows overseas, especially Bonnaroo. How was that for you and how has it been bringing this record to the masses, now that the dust has kind of settled?
It’s crazy, it seems to be getting stronger. The show at Bonnaroo was insane; the lights from the stage were not even shining far back enough to see the end of the crowd. It went on past where the stage existed. We were really lucky with our set time because it was just me and BON IVER playing at the time for the hundred thousand people there. It was split between the two of us and it was just incredible.
I think what I love about the album so much is how you’ve included a lot of really beautiful and emotional elements and there’s definitely a lot of vulnerability in there which can sometimes get skipped over with dance music. I think that’s why I connect with it so much. From your end, do you think that’s why you’ve been able to connect with people in such a big way on this tour since the album was released because of that genuine connection?
I hope so, because all of these songs are coming from a very real place. They’re not constructed for any real commercial agenda, only the experiences I’ve gone through that I’ve encapsulated in the song and then brought in someone like DANIEL JOHNS or the TOTO guys where we’ve just had this shared experience across our lives and really come together to create music about that moment. It’s all very real, natural and organic. If that’s the reason that people are enjoying it, I’m so grateful that you don’t have to… The album is a prime example of this, I took most of the singles off it. I didn’t want the album to be big songs that I know would work, I wanted to have something as a whole that was cohesive and meant something and be very natural so it’s amazing to hear that in people’s reception of it.
Do you feel that this record was a chance to fully and completely express yourself in a way you haven’t quite been able to before with EPs and single releases?
I think doing a large body of work like an LP gives you time across the length of the record to push things into different fields that you couldn’t go to with a shorter body of work. I think for me, it’s a moment in time that I made in a certain state of mind, like in an emotional state that all became reflected in the album. I’m even to the point where I’ve grown past that now, and everything I’m writing is in a different space and it’s sort of the evolution of where the album was.
Each song seems to have such a rich story behind it such as how ‘Stuck In Orbit’ came together with Jono Ma and BUOY. Do you think because of your constant travelling and having to pack up and go to new places a lot, that that has inspired your music, and if so, how?
I think it definitely has and in some cases, ‘Stuck In Orbit’ in particular. That was one case for one song, whereas I think the travel element has definitely tied into the music, but not for the same reasons. A lot of the songs are inspired by the culture I found myself in because of my travelling, or hearing some new sounds or a different way of writing or even meeting people who sing in a totally different way with different melodies and intentions, or just my experiences independently in those places with whatever went on. I think that’s how it all ties together.
You spoke earlier this year about how you have created this entirely cohesive narrative where all the different elements of What So Not have really come together, particularly in terms of the live show – why was this so important for you as an artist to get to that point of being really self-assured?
It’s essential, I think. If you’re not firing on all cylinders and everything’s working together, it’s like a computer that doesn’t have a hard drive – it’s not storing information but you can kind of use it. You need everything, you need at least one of everything and then you can start upgrading it and further developing it.
The tour is enormous this time around, you’ve got Chrome Sparks and Kota Banks joining you plus some amazing Unearthed artists too. How important is it for you personally to bring along these up-and-comers on such a huge tour for you on a personal level?
It’s so important. We’ve seen some crippling effects in Australia due to regulations and I’m seeing stuff now about sniffer dogs in NSW. Really what that’s doing is inhibiting young artists from having multiple opportunities to perform and having a healthy music culture and arts culture that exists in our country. We’re seeing such an absence of anyone new from Australia breaking through overseas because back at home it’s just been crippled by regulation. The culture itself and its developing ecosystem for young artists has been crippled. Often the only time you see acts coming back to Australia and no longer doing clubs are doing big events, and the only place you can put supports like this on is big events so I’m so glad Triple J Unearthed are on board with this and we were able to do this. I really love all the acts that have been selected and I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll do during the shows!
In a way, the way Australia is being seen as being crippled by regulation, but because of this it feels like artists are turning to each other and helping each other out because the industry itself is just not able to help artists. Is that how you feel?
It’s difficult for me to comment because I’m not there on the ground, so I’m not seeing a lot of it. I know when I come back, I ask, “Who’s doing what? What’s happening?” And it’s often, “Oh, this kid is making great stuff but he’s not getting any shows because there’s no shows he can get because he doesn’t have the value for what they need to take a gamble and put him on.” The culture is so volatile and so on the edge of existence and falling apart, so from my understanding of it, I hope everyone is getting together as much as they can and supporting each other as much as they can because that’s really what’s going to get everyone through this period.
I think I’ve seen you live maybe 6 or 7 times, and for me the progression from when you played Oh Hello years ago to Listen Out just last year and Field Day before that is just incredible. I wondered if there’s been a particularly special moment for you over the years where you’ve been able to be like, “Fuck yeah, I did that.”
What’s crazy is that I get that at least once a month. I’m so grateful that everything has been growing in a way that that happens. In particular, one that comes to mind is that very festival you mentioned, Field Day. That was my first time coming to play in Australia in three years so to come home and play my hometown and have such an incredible day with everybody and have a set with so many people there. I had a similar experience where I was in Chile for Lollapalooza and I played in a stadium for my first ever show in that country. It was packed front to back, all the way up the sides and they couldn’t let anyone in for my set and a few sets before and after. It was insane to step into a place you’ve never been and have an experience like that.
It’s pretty amazing you get that feeling so often. Obviously it means that you’re in the right place and doing the right thing because I think it’s so easy to lose that.
It is! I think there were some periods where I’d have it much less frequently, but I think it was more that I wasn’t approaching things in the right way or my direction was being inhibited by certain forces. I wasn’t able to execute things I was really passionate about, but I haven’t had that problem for quite a while now. Everything that I love and think of and envision, I get to discuss with everyone I work with and we bring in people to help us create the visuals or the team who came in and developed the concept of the stage design. Even this last tour that I did in America that I’m bringing to Australia for the first time, it’s the first time it’s ever been a live show. It makes every show so exciting because it’s really new for me again, it’s all my favourite things about electronic performance and then infusing that with the warmth and energy of the live instrumentation.
Not All The Beautiful Things is out now.
Remaining WHAT SO NOT tour dates:
Friday, June 29 – Hordern Pavillion, SYDNEY
Saturday, June 30 – Brisbane Showgrounds, BRISBANE
Interview by Emma Jones