Justin Elswick  

Justin Elswick

Musical Discoveries: What can you tell us about the progress in Sleepthief’s music since The Dawnseeker?

Justin Elswick: I believe that the songs on the new album reflect a bit more of myself personally--my thoughts and feelings on certain issues and considerations in my own life. Also, I think the new songs are more varied and edgy.

With The Dawnseeker, I was making my first foray into music and I felt more constrained in making the album because I was uncertain as to whether anyone would respond to it. Also, some of the songs on The Dawnseeker were written years prior and the album itself took longer to complete.

In having some success with the first album, I came to the write the new album with a bit more confidence and energy. Also, I've noticed that what I write will depend on what I have been listening to. While writing Labyrinthine Heart, I was listening to more 80s music as well as more acoustic music--so some of those influences can be heard.

Also, I did not want Labyrinthine Heart to be The Dawnseeker part 2. I felt that I had to push a bit with arrangements and ideas. For example, the title track which features Jody Quine is a 6/8 time signature and has quite a bit of ethnic/world influence. On the track "A Cut from the Fight," featuring Kristy Thirsk I wanted to do something that was fun and energetic, and not so moody.

What other projects have you been involved in the past couple of years?

I did a remix for Vanessa Daou of her song "Black & White" which was on her last album. The remix should be released in 2010. If not, I am going to see if Vanessa will let me include it on my remix/rarities album that will be out next year. I am very proud of it. It has a solid Goldfrapp-esque dance groove.

Also, I have been writing and working with Israel Curtis and Caroline Lavelle on our Spy Thriller project. We have about ten songs in progress and are going to write a few more. That has been really quite enjoyable. Caroline is a blast to work with. We planned on releasing it this year, but with Labyrinthine Heart in production and Caroline touring extensively with Loreena McKennitt, it just did not happen.

Fear not, though--it WILL be released in 2010. I also co-signed Ken Harrison's new solo project "boywonderbread" for release. Ken's new album is fantastic and will be out in October. I did a little bit of production on that. I am jumping straight into work on Roberta Carter Harrison's first solo album. She has about 14 songs and they are amazing. I am doing alot of programming, etc. for it. I am very excited about this too. It should be finished and released by next year.

Finally, I plan on doing a winter/Christmas EP at some point.

How did you select the individual vocalists?

Again, most of it was already established friendships with singers like Kirsty, Jody, Kristy, Caroline and Roberta. As far as the new vocalists, Joanna Stevens, Coury Palermo, and Zoe Johnston, each situation was different. Coury was a fan of my first album and added me on myspace. When I heard him sing I was floored. I loved his music and his voice. I immediately suggested a collaboration, and it turned into three songs and a great friendship.

With Jo, I was a fan of hers since the Solar Twin days. Carmen Rizzo put me in touch with her, and we got on really well. I flew her out and she stayed at my place while we recorded her two tracks. She is really intelligent, beautiful, and she is a powerhouse singer.

Zoe has been on my radar since I head her with Bent and Faithless. I think she may be one of the most original female singers currently working in music. Her voice is just ... well, it is perfect in my opinion. I contacted her and we struck up a great friendship just writing and sharing. She eventually flew out here a few times with Kirsty Hawkshaw and we are now extremely close. Zoe is like a sister to me. All very strange, because you never expect these singers that you listen to as a fan to be such wonderful people and friends.

The styles of the individual tracks have expanded since the debut.

Addressing the Enya" allusion first--definitely a strong one in the opening track "Here I Confess" with Joanna Stevens--it is interesting, because that song originally was more electronic and less symphonic in concept. More like "Eurydice" from the first album. However, once we got the vocals in place, and we started playing with the strings and percussion, it became clear that it needed to go a different direction.

After laying down the basic strings, Israel also did some arranging and it ended up being quite Enya-esque. I proudly admit that Enya was a major influence on me, so this is a bit of an homage. But I must also say that I think that the dynamics and layers on this particular track are more Adiemus than Enya--more aggressive than restrained. Principally, the subject matter of "Here I Confess" is so serious and intense that it needed something more cinematic.

As for the other songs, each one has a bit of a different flavor. With "Reason Why," there is something almost Vangelis/Tangerine Dream about the music. I was listening to the Legend movie soundtrack and the old synth sounds and pads are just beautiful. So, that song got a bit of retro/ambience.

With "Reversals," I was listening to Robin Guthrie and wanted something more dark and guitar-based. Really, I just think the new album is a more free and open with respect to sonic palette. One of the things that can happen with what people tend to call "ethereal/electronic" music is that the songs all start sounding the same.

When The Dawnseeker came out, I was compared to Delerium and Balligomingo and Enigma. Obviously, this was a compliment, but in writing the second album, I realized that I did not want to do another album of female-fronted, "lush" music. So many artists already do that and I felt the need to let some of my other influences shine through. Some people--like the massage therapists--may not like the new album as much, but I am very proud of it, and I feel like it is an accurate reflection of my life and ideas.

How did you work with the individual contributors?

Kirsty, Zoe, Coury, Joanna, and Jody all came to Utah. Caroline, Kristy and Roberta recorded in their own studios and sent the audio tracks. I actually like having the singers present, because the feedback is instant and direct. Plus it is just fun to share time with people. I think it helps in developing the emotion of each track. However, with Caroline, Kristy and Roberta, they are such professionals and such good songwriters, that their work situates extremely well, even without me there. Of course, there is always the cost/expense issue. However, I hope to get Caroline and Kristy down here one day and also to meet Roberta and Ken in Canada!

What was the production process like?

With these new songs, I began most of them on piano as I usually do. I then layer/program and develop the sonic quality of the songs. After that, I usually head to the studio to fine-tune with Israel. This album was made a bit differently.

With The Dawnseeker, I sent heavily textured, near-finished songs to the singers. I think it made it a bit tougher for the singers because there was so much going on musically, and they had to write melodies around the music. With Labyrinthine Heart, I kept the initial tracks sparse--maybe just piano and a beat. This allowed the singers to write with more space.

Can you tease us a bit with bonus tracks?

Yes--the next single will be "Reason Why." The third single will likely be "A Cut From The Fight." There are two tracks that are non-album that should appear with the singles. A song with Kirsty Hawkshaw called "Gethsemane" that my sister, Crystal, actually wrote. Then another song with Coury Palermo called "All of me Forever." Also, I am working with Mirabilis on a track called "Asunder" and writing a few more new songs for the remix album next year.

What do you think contributes to the immense popularity of Sleepthief's music?

Well, I can speculate based on peoples' comments. I think that it is the melodic quality of the songs and the vocalists' amazing performances. I try to write music that sweeps and evokes emotion. My chord progressions tend to have an epic/soaring feel and the layered harmonies add to that effect. For me, a strong "hook" is always important, because it makes a song stay in the mind longer. Also, I think the lyrics of the songs are meaningful and poetic. The collaborators always do such a fantastic job of writing words that are vivid and thought-provoking.

What can you tell us about plans to do some live performances?

Live shows--I really look forward to doing a few this time. I have spoken with several of the singers, and they would love to do it. The biggest challenge is expense because to do the music live, I would need a string quartet, guitarists, percussionists, and so forth. I would want it to be "live" and not full of backing tracks. With my job as an attorney, finding the time and money can be tough. If the album performs well, I would definitely like to try it. In fact, I am pretty determined. We may do a small tour taking in a few large cities like LA, Seattle, New York, and Miami.

And music videos?

Music videos--there is a video for the next single, "Reason Why." It is different in that it is a performance video filmed while recording the song with Zoe and Coury. The next video if I do one will be for "A Cut From The Fight." Kristy Thirsk just became a new mom, so we need to make sure she is fully recovered.

What else piques your interest and occupies your time?

Obviously, my job. It requires quite a bit of focus and energy. During my free time, I exercise quite a bit and stay really active. I also enjoy traveling. I am a voracious reader and love good literature. Many of my musical ideas come from literaute. Also, I love photography and film. I have several screenplays that I have started that I would love to finish.

What can you say about MySpace and FaceBook?

I think they are doing a good job of letting fans connect more directly with artists. That has been a really nice aspect of the entire online community thing. One thing that is unfortunate, though, is that MySpace has essentially became the MTV of the networking world.

They promote the same top "pop culture" acts and artists that already receive 90% of the media attention. I had hope that MySpace would allow lesser-known artists a bit of a forum, but once advertising dollars come in to play, I guess it is hard to say "no." I think new networking platforms will appear in the future and I am excited about such possibilities.

And about digital distribution?

I can see pros and cons. In the last year, I have really gone back to buying CDs. I was never a big fan of downloading mp3s because I want the full resolution quality of the songs and I love the artwork. So, for me, buying the physical CD is always preferable. With Labyrinthine Heart, the artwork is really integral to the music, so I hope people buy the CD. However, I am glad that people in other countries can download my music where they might not have direct access to the physical.

Is there anything else you'd like to leave the readers with?

Just a massive thanks, as always, for the very kind support of Musical Discoveries and the listeners. It would be very hard for me to make music without the fans!

More Sleepthief
Sleepthief The Dawnseeker (2006) w/Interview
Sleepthief Labyrinthine Heart (2009)

interview, review and HTML © R. W. Elliot 2009
images © Sleepthief 2009
last updated 29 August 2009

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