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Dro Carey on collaboration, community and his dazzling debut album, 'Nothing Is A Solo Project'

22 September 2020 | 5:12 pm | Emma Jones

Dro Carey's debut album, 'Nothing Is A Solo Project', has been a long time coming, and now it's here he has proven it was more than worth the wait.

Over the last decade, many names have defined the melting pot that is dance music coming out of Australia, but few have managed to consistently defy expectations and genre constraints, as well as evolve like Sydney's Dro Carey. With a steady output of EPs, mixtapes, one off singles and more over the last nearly-ten years, Carey has carved out a formidable presence in dance music not just at home, but abroad as well. Excelling just as much collaboratively as he does in his own solo work, he can easily flourish just as much on a hectic grime joint as he can on a dance pop floor filler, remaining constantly in control while creating enough space for his collaborators to also shine.

While the start of the 2010's saw him deliver now-legendary releases such as the much-revered Club Injury Handbook EP, it was his 2016 EP Dark Zoo that solidified his presence as a true force to be reckoned with as a mastermind of electronic music. Intertwining so many influences while simultaneously bucking trends and rejecting fads in favour of music that remained authentic to him first and foremost, songs like 'Queensberry Rules' featuring KUCKA, and 'Grow Lithe' remain sonically worlds apart, but fit together on this generation-defining EP serving as a testament to not only how ahead of his time he was, but how broad the church of Dro Carey really is.

Now, in September of 2020, after even more standalone singles littered throughout the last two years, he arrives at this moment, sharing his debut album, Nothing Is A Solo Project with the world. Across 13 tracks, Dro Carey explores collaboration and his own solo work once more, but with the air and approach of a producer coming into his own more than ever before. This is saying something given just how formative he has for so many artists and fans alike over the last ten years. There is an element of self-assured confidence and of maturity that can only come from time in his debut album, and its this that has enabled Carey to create what is a truly timeless record.

From the dancehall-infused 'Hold A Vibe', the uplifting euphoria of 'Act Like You're Home' or 'Another Knot', the pensive reflection of 'Boundary' or 'Clear To You', or the writhing frenetic pace of 'Healer' or enveloping dream of 'Hush Biome', there is just so much happening on Nothing Is A Solo Project. But, it never once strays too far or gets lost along the way. Speaking to the strength of not only his ability to pick collaborators, but the respect he holds for them, Dro Carey largely handed over the role of songwriting to his vocalists, switching up the tired trope of just getting someone to sing on a song they had no role in creating. By doing this, he creates the space for each collaborator to explore the mini worlds he's created, finding their own space and creating something fittingly authentic in return. Impressive in how cohesive it is, there is not a single dull moment on Nothing Is A Solo Project, and every song fits so well together despite the multitude of sounds and styles featured throughout. The title of the album is no coincidence either, with Carey explaining it as a way to acknowledge just how many people have been involved in the creation of this record, from the vocalists to the people behind the scenes and even the fans. Expressing genuine gratitude, Dro Carey crafts a special space for himself and the community surrounding him, and manages to provide the ideal foundation for a project which has been a long time coming finally be shared.

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Still as versatile, dynamic and unpredictable as ever, Dro Carey delivers an album which features not just the best of all involved, but of himself too. Meticulously produced, and mixed by Seekae's George Nicholls, Nothing Is A Solo Project proves the wait for a Dro Carey album has been more than worth it. A fiercely dedicated artist who continues to push his sound just as much as he did back in 2011 when we first heard him, Nothing Is A Solo Project marks a real triumph for Dro Carey. One which acknowledges the decade-long run of becoming a revered and wide-ranging producer, one which almost feels so self-actualised it couldn't possibly be a debut, and one which cements his name as one of our very best.

It feels like the moment of a debut album for you with the Dro Carey project has been a long time coming, given your extensive resume already. From your perspective, what was different about releasing this album, as opposed to the EPs that you've already shared?

Yeah, I'd say it was a really different mindset. Basically, I feel with EPs, and particularly with electronic music, you have more of a license to be a bit disconnected in terms of the tracks on the track list, and it can kind of just be a delivery of four or five new things in isolation, that people can use in DJ sets or do whatever they want to do with them. Whereas the album has this attachment to it, that it's like a structure that will make sense as a whole, and when you experience it all together it has some sort of meaning or holds together in some way. And it doesn't have to be really specific, but it's just got to feel a bit like a sequence, that the sequence matters.

That definitely changed the format and my expectations of myself, of how you might create something, and it's like, "Oh, it sounds great." But if it really can't fit into the sequence or really breaks it up in some weird way, then [you've] kind of got to go back to the drawing board a bit, so it's much more time consuming than shorter format stuff. There was pressure. I think part of that is when a greater number of people are involved. So there are seven other artists, there's mixer, and mastering, and designer, and management teams, and label. Particularly in an album with lots of collaborations, the number of stakeholders goes up as well. And you want to make it something that everyone can feel proud of, to be a part of, and that it's a quality thing that they were involved in. So pressure can definitely develop out of that as well. But then there's also the debut album kind of hype thing, and wanting to meet people's expectations there as well.

It's interesting when you talk about the collaborators and how involved they were, because you largely handed over the lyrics of the singers that you worked with, and there was a lot of trust there. Well, I was thinking that would be largely an exercise in trust of knowing that they're on the same page, trusting them to kind of take it to the right place, especially when you look at a song like with Beni Moun, who co-produced 'Act Like You're Home'. Being able to give him the stems and trust the production as well, which is what you would be in charge of, that would be such a big thing for you, I can imagine, as someone who has spent so long honing your sound and what you produce. Was it easy to hand over your songs in this way?

Yeah, I found it exciting actually! The more that someone wanted to interact with the structure and the arrangement, the better for me. I found that really interesting. There's an element of you don't know what you're going to get back. The more freedom the collaborator has to work with everything, the more of an unknown that is. but I found that exciting. I think I reached out to these artists because I was enjoying what they do creatively, and so I had a confidence in them for that reason. I didn't get too worried in that way. But yeah, definitely when you open up the email and you're wondering what is going on, and yeah, can be very surprising, but they were always positive surprises.

You've always had collaborators and you've always kind of opened up in that way, from way back through to now. Has this always been a part of your process to be able to share in this level of collaboration, where you're having a lot of their input as well and their contributions? Or is that something that's kind of evolved over time?

No, I think I brought the same approach to this album, except, as you were saying with Beni Moun, that was probably the first time where it's working with someone both on vocals and the instrumental. But in general, the kind of approach was definitely the same as I've gone with in the past, which is actually typically doing things remotely because it actually gives a lot of freedom to artists if I'm not there when they check it out and start thinking and writing. But it's almost like, "Here it is!" and they can go off and totally independently respond to it. That is quite different I think to an in-studio thing, where there'd be more directives being given more frequently. I'm also equally happy if they do that, and then they're like, "No, I want to get on a call with you and ask what you're thinking," then that's fine as well. But I think as a first step, I'm very focused on just getting their totally free response to it.

There's no real through-line in regards to who you've worked with on this record, they're all so different. What do you look for when you're looking out for people to work with — is there anything in particular, or does it change each time?

It's really just basically exploring new music, or new things that I find, and kind of noting down people. Then when I have a demo and then in my list in my mind, I can kind of think, "Oh, I know this artist, I think there's a reasonable chance that they'd get back to me," that's another criteria. And then basically go from there. It's very much just being a fan of their work and just having that naturally in my head, and then matching that to something I've worked on. It's not a very rigid or complicated process. It's pretty spontaneous. It's just like, "Yeah, I really like them."

That would make for such an already respectful collaboration because you're a fan of their work, they're a fan of yours, therefore it would make sense that it would work well. That's what I hear because the way that the artists have fed into the music, it's very authentic and kind of just really lovely to listen to how they all kind of fit in this big project together. I feel like that's something that can't really be forced. There's a part of the songs that feel like it can't be forced, and I think that might come from that mutual respect that you clearly have with your collaborators.

Yeah! I know actually with some projects that are similar in the sense that they're an electronic producer, and then they call up all these collaborators to feature on the songs, you sometimes get this thing where the part that the featured artist contributes feels like, I don't know, not very connected to what's going on. It can still be pretty good and enjoyable to listen to, but kind of is just sitting a little bit detached from the actual spirit of the album or something. I think that kind of comes from people getting something back and refusing to think about what that artist does, or what works for that artist, and just dropping it back into whatever they had before. Whereas with this, once I had demos in, the electronic arrangement aspect of it wasn't over. I kept working on things that I felt would fit what they do. I think that has the effect of they're all very distinct artists, and then they're very distinct tracks, but that it's kind of tied together by the approach maybe? [It] helps to make it feel like, "Oh yeah, I can see how these are on the same album! There's something joining them together, even though they're so different as each artist comes along."

In a way, the process that you're describing almost liberates both parties to do whatever feels right to them, and then you end up with this really authentic, genuine song that's connecting with you both, therefore it's more likely to connect with the listener. Because I can hear that as a listener.Like with 'Hold A Vibe'. It's so different, but it feels really genuine. It doesn't feel forced. It doesn't feel like you went, "Okay, let's make this kind of song," and just ticking the boxes to create the track. And I guess that kind of comes from that respect, being able to create the space where you both could kind of do what you do, and then come together to be able to make it.

I think Hold A Vibe's a good example of that, where I was taking steps towards what Alexx does quite strongly. There were discussions with my manager and the label about, "Oh, do you think we could go somewhere more experimental now that we've got parts?" It was just sort of like, well, his work's very melodic, it's very poppy, and I want to make something that I'm totally happy with, but has also taken steps towards meeting what's strongest for him. That's kind of just how it had to keep that, and not chop up his work into a dance thing. Actually make it a bit of a dance hall trap thing.

Looking at the influences, you created the playlist to show a bit more of an insight into the record. And a lot of those make sense, like Laurence Guy, Bonobo, Four Tet. But there were a couple in there that I was surprised by, including Rihanna's 'Needed Me'. I love that song. That song is one of my favorite songs. Can you tell me a bit about what it is about that song that influenced you?

There's so many things that influence me, but that playlist is meant to be things that I can draw a specific line to a specific track on my album. And with that one, there's a track called 'Boundary', I worked with an artist from the Melbourne named Zellow. 'Needed Me' was an influence on that beat, and on the tempo and this slow stepping feeling, and the way that the bass interacts with drums. It was just this specific technical arrangement influence. And honestly, yeah, I really like that song, that Rihanna song, but it was like, "Oh, what if I thought about doing something a bit like that?" Then I ended up adding a lot of other weird stuff. There's like drum breaks that get chopped up with it. But yeah, it was basically a direct inference on the beat for 'Boundary' on the album.

When listening to this record and comparing it to your previous releases, it just feels like this really lovely, natural evolution of the Dro Carey project so far. Is that how it feels for you looking back at this body of work, and maybe seeing how it sits in everything else?

It's kind of hard for me to step outside and look at it in that way. I do feel it has evolved out of many different things I've learned over time, particularly with collaboration, how to achieve something that makes sense for both sides of the collaboration and at the same time be something that's like, yeah, this is a Dro Carey thing as well! So I think definitely I feel some natural evolution of the collaborative tracks and how that's been done. With instrumentals, yeah, I think that's kind of hard because that's something I've tested out in so many different directions over quite a few years. I basically had to step into quite a new form of instrumental writing for this, that it's almost not so much an evolution, it had to be deliberately thinking of a new step somewhere. Because they could not be club tool-y really kind of things, because it would take you out of the narrative feeling of the collaborations. They had to be more emotive, or just a bit more structurally composed. The instrumental stuff less of an evolution and more of a new approach actually, I think.

Interesting. Yeah. I can hear that for sure. And I wanted to talk to you about the title of the album as well. It's a way to signify not only the collaborators, but all the people behind the scenes as well. Why was this so important for you to acknowledge in this way?

Basically it's reflecting what could be bodied in this album, but was something that was nothing was definitely prescriptive. It didn't tell you what the album was about too much, but wanting to be a message that I wanted to convey or reflect. It was responding to the risk that I see come up with people being really focused on that individual, we need to acknowledge how especially in the work to produce a album, there's obviously so much software going into it, and samples, and other stuff. I was basically saying, can we think about these electronic producer albums a bit differently? I think that's what was driving that. I wanted it to be something that was relevant to the themes of the album, but not be something that set up the expectations too much about the content of the album. So that's why it's like a remark about the process and the contributors. It could still feel like a kind of unique title. It's almost named after the process rather than the content.

It goes back to the respect that you have for the people that are involved in this process, your collaborators, but also you've mentioned your label, your management, the people that were involved in the mixing and mastering. The Dro Carey project is so much bigger than just yourself. I don't hear many producers talk that way about their music. It's something that is obviously a part of you in your respect for communities in general. You released three albums at the start of the year with proceeds going to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. You're clearly very respectful of your collaborators and you almost make mini communities with the people that are on your records as well. You've also got two of the strongest communities on your side, in dance music with Astral People and Soothsayer. I wondered, how much has that played in your music over time? Is that something that you've learned to appreciate over the years or have you always kind of maintain that community spirit with what you're working on?

I think it's something I had to grow to respect I think, because I began making music when I was very young, and there can be a tendency to be more individualistic when you're younger. And there was also a sense of being socially-isolated, and not being aware of communities. So, no, it definitely was a process of recognising and understanding ideas of mutual support, and having to really gain an insight over time into the value of communities of all sizes. It was probably quite a slow process really, to be properly aware of that. But then it's also something that once that clicked, it was kind of like, "Oh, these are the things that have kept me going in wanting to do this," and gaining that kind of insight and that appreciation. Then you're kind of thinking, "Oh, what do I do now that can make people think, yeah, I'd like to keep engaging with this?" Even when someone doesn't make money or whatever, is there a kind of spirit or appreciation that is out there that makes it worth being a part of something? And wanting to convey that to people listening, that there's a lot more than just you put out a product, or whatever. There's a lot of things to be aware of.

We're in a time where we are very isolated in a lot of different senses, and I feel like people are turning to music in this really interesting way. The music that I'm hearing at the moment, obviously this album has existed for quite a long time before all of this kicked off. But it's interesting that in this time that you're now releasing it in, people are turning to communities and really maybe re-appreciating or getting a new sense of gratitude for the people around them. It just was quite poignant and nice to think of that while I was listening to the record over the last few weeks, thinking about how many people were involved in this and how clearly grateful you are for their involvement, and how respectful you are of their contributions. So, I mean, that must be a nice warm feeling for you, to have that on your record and say thank you to these people.

Yeah! I didn't set out with that in mind as the title or as the direction, and for a long time it was just making each little song each and each bit of it, and then wondering how it would tie together, and then actually thinking, "Well, maybe it's just about this, about this process and these relationships." And yeah, I'm really glad that that would then get "enshrined" in the album because it can be, I think an idea that I can look back on and think, "Yeah, I'm sort of proud that it says that."

Nothing Is A Solo Project is out now via Soothsayer. Buy/stream here.

Interview by Emma Jones

Image: Supplied