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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to NewAgeReporter.com. Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Stephen Hill, Jul. 2005
A Conversation with Jeff Bjorck, Jun. 2005
A Conversation With Patrick O'Hearn, Jun. 2005
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Justin Elswick of Sleepthief
October 2006
After countless spins, I can say without any degree of hyperbole that Sleepthief's (aka composer/producer/programmer Justin Elswick) debut album, The Dawnseeker, is a keeper. Great songs and arrangements coupled with first-rate musicianship have helped The Dawnseeker reach the top of my playlist. My guess is if you're into female-fronted electronic music, this record will be a favourite of yours as well.

Justin and co-producer/programmer/arranger/mastering engineer Israel Curtis worked for two years at Somatic Studios to create The Dawnseeker, along the way collaborating with some of electronic music's top female vocalists. The world-class list of musical compadres includes: Kirsty Hawkshaw (B.T., DJ Tiesto, Delerium, Pole Folder), Caroline Lavelle (Radiohead, Loreena McKennitt, Massive Attack, B.T.), Harland (Ferry Corsten, Delerium, Human II Human), Kristy Thirsk (Delerium, Rose Chronicles), Jody Quine (Balligomingo), Kyoko Baertsoen (Lunascape), Nicola Hitchcock (Mandalay), Roberta Carter Harrison (Wild Strawberries, ATB), san.drine, Jerry Eckert (Desert Wind) and Lauren Edman. To complete the musical picture, Justin also enlisted the help of guitarists Josh Aker and Vic Levar.

I have to mention the artwork for The Dawnseeker. The conception and design of Brian Son, the photography of both Bob Boyd and Justin and the hand drawn African swallow by Daniel Solen on the album sleeve and CD face, in my view perfectly captures the sweeping mystery of the record. If you like impressionist album art, you'll love the artwork for The Dawnseeker.

To learn more about Sleepthief and Justin, please visit SleepthiefMusic.com

Justin Elswick
"...when I write a song, I almost always have a very strong emotional message to convey." - Justin Elswick
Jamie: Your bio describes The Dawnseeker as "a day-dream fantasy (that) slowly morphed into an opus of an album with a literal who's who in the world of electronica's leading ladies". How does the finished record differ from your initial "day-dream fantasy"?
Justin: The album has far exceeded my initial hopes and dreams. When I started, I considered what it might be like if certain of my favorite female vocalists were to be involved. I did''t really expect that most of them would have the time or interest. When the various singers expressed interest and committed, I progressively began to feel more and more that the album could really be top-of-the-line with respect to the music and singers. Additionally, the "ladies" all were able to come up with amazing lyrics and/or melodies for their songs. So... the collaborative results were really exciting. With the vocalists' commitment, I felt that I had to do the very best work I could do. They inspired me to be better. "The album has far exceeded my initial hopes and dreams."

- Justin Elswick
Jamie: That really is the best kind of collaboration... One thing that impressed me about The Dawnseeker is that even with all of the different, and unique, voices on the record there's still a cohesive, defined sound to the album. Not an easy thing to do. What degree of guidance did you, and co-producer Israel Curtis, give each of the vocalists?
Justin: Thank you Jamie! In the studio, we really strove to have an electronic album that was nuanced, but varied. I think many albums in the genre suffer from a "sameness" throughout that begins to generate disinterest. I really wanted each song to be its own "story" while not straying too far from the general tone of the rest of the tracks.

As far as guidance, I spoke with all of the singers about my particular feelings in writing the music. I wrote certain songs with a certain idea in mind. For those tracks for which I wrote lyrics (like JUST SAY IT and TENUOUS), I could obviously express my ideas through the lyrics. On tracks where the singer wrote lyrics to music I had written, I wanted to make sure that they grasped the emotional and visual aspects of the music. For example, I told Harland that, in my mind, DESIRE OF AGES was about the human condition especially as it related to constant change and the quest for peace and safety. For EURYDICE, I told Jody about the myth and why it had so deeply affected me...

With the actual vocals, we did give some direction for harmonies, etc. Particularly when we recorded the singers who came to Utah. Amazingly, the singers who recorded in their own studios did an amazing job with vocal lines, etc.
Jamie: I have a sense that the totality (music, lyrics, artwork, etc.) of The Dawnseeker is important to you. Even the Sleepthief website seems to reflect an overarching concept and works to complement your music. Do you write/record with a visual theme in your mind's eye?
Justin: You are absolutely correct in your assessment. Although I did not really consciously think about it at first, as I began preparing the visuals to go along with the music, I found that I was drawn to many of the photos I'd taken while traveling... many of them are evoke a feeling of mystery and ghostliness. I found that many people are drawn to images of foreign locales and ancient places as well as epic landscapes. So... I just felt such visuals would match the music quite well.

As for composing -- when I write a song, I almost always have a very strong emotional message to convey. Often my inspiration comes from reading or watching a movie, etc... So (for example), with TENUOUS, I was inspired by Celtic laments, many of which often deal with the death of a loved one; or with Fire From Heaven, I considered how some people become involved in unhealthy relationships that are based on intense physical attraction, but little else. Sometimes (like with one of the new songs I am working on for the next album), I have in mind a specific place I've been to and seen. So... making a long answer longer... yes, I often visual people and places!
Jamie: You've studied philosophy extensively and, in fact, have a Masters degree in the subject. Since you've mentioned the human condition, myth and relationships in your last couple answers, I have a feeling your music is also strongly grounded in a philosophic viewpoint. Am I wrong?
Justin: That is a very good (and original) question. My mother taught me to read before I even started school by giving me a book on Greek myths. Therefore, I was familiar with many of the most well known stories from an early age. Obviously, the myths are replete with ethical and philosophical and religious overtones. Also, I think my study of various philosophical systems has helped me appreciate more fully the human impulse to make sense of the universe. I do not subscribe to any one philosophical scheme per se. I think that there are important points to be gleaned from many of the greatest thinker's constructs. I am, however, an active member of my religious faith. Accordingly, I think that all of these areas have converged and shaped my ideas about morals, the human condition, love, history, and time... "...I think my study of various philosophical systems has helped me appreciate more fully the human impulse to make sense of the universe."

- Justin Elswick
Jamie: With the notable exceptions of vocals and guitars on a few tunes, you've chosen a predominantly electronic sound palette for The Dawnseeker. I'm sure part of the reason is that you enjoy the sonic character of electronic-based music, but I'm wondering if there is more to your choice. I know this is a bit open-ended, but what does electronic music mean to you?
Justin: One of the principal benefits of writing in the electronic genre is that you can utilize endless textures and sounds to create very lush and dense sound. Samples have gotten so good that strings and many acoustic instruments that are sampled sound close to original. With that said, the next album will almost certainly feature live strings. I love organic instrumentation as well, and I very much respect those artists who are masters at their craft.
Jamie: Sleepthief with live strings -- I think it would sound great! For your next record, are you considering a solely acoustic album or a combination of acoustic and electronic textures?
Justin: It will definitely be a combination of both. The next album is developing into something a bit more epic. I definitely plan on bringing in more live instruments. In fact, the opening track is going to feature a massive church organ! Expect a bit more Hans Zimmer-type amplitude (haha). "The next album is developing into something a bit more epic."

- Justin Elswick
Jamie: Oh man, does that ever sound interesting! I'm a huge Hans Zimmer fan, so bring on the amplitude : )

Just to backtrack a bit... I'd like to hear about how you wrote and recorded a "typical" track on The Dawnseeker. Did you start with basic chord/melody arrangements and then build the tracks from there?
Justin: Typically, I would have a certain melody in my head. Most often a chorus. With that melody, I would record in my home studio a basic piano melody. From that point, I often layered various percussion and string effects to "flesh out" the song. After finishing a song, I would take it over to Somatic Studio (Israel's studio), and we would transfer all of the data. From there, I would work with Israel selecting different instruments to build more arrangement. I am presently working to get my own studio more developed so I will be able to do more of that at home for the next album. I am excited to learn more of the tech side of things.
Jamie: Sounds like you've caught the gear bug -- there's no going back now!

I try to ask each artist in this conversation series his or her take on the state of the music industry. As you are also a full-time lawyer, I think your perspective is unique, and I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on where you think the business is headed.
Justin: My opinion is that the major labels and commercial media outlets are primarily concerned about money, not about art. In fact, one of the great tensions in the music industry (and film industry too) is that people that are not necessarily artistically minded are making business decisions for artists. Historically, that tension has stifled creativity. It still exists today -- I mean, look at MTV. They have 15-20 "pet artists" each month or so whose videos the replay over and over and over. And when they do play an "emerging" artist or group, that act usually sounds like 10 other acts that came before. Most of the media outlets are psyched about promoting and selling anything that makes market sense to them. Thus, we had Britney Spears and then 20 replicas that all sounded and looked alike because Britney was selling albums. Part of the problem is the laziness of listeners who simply dial in what is being played on air or on TV.

Admittedly, art is subjective and no two people are going to like exactly the same thing. However, I am sometimes amazed at how much homogeneity exists in the mainstream music media. As if there is no room for original-sounding music! I wish more people would explore the music of other cultures and places. I gained an early respect for artists like OFRA HAZA and DEAD CAN DANCE and CLANNAD who write such beautiful and expressive music -- but how many people in the US have even heard of this music?

But, the nice thing is that with the advancement of technology, people are having the chance to explore new music and diversify their listening experiences. I think that with the Internet, many people are NOT satisfied with what they are being fed by MTV and major radio stations. I know it is a touchy subject, but even p2p technology has helped promote new music. I think that "illegal" downloading is inevitable. My plea is simply this... if you like more than one or two tracks on the album, purchase it to show support for the artist.

I read today that MySpace is going to allow artists to sell their mp3s on their profile pages. Stuff like this makes me excited because it removes the oppressive taskmaster (the label) from being a middleman and allows artists to profit more directly. I know NARAS and the major labels are freaked out by these developments -- and they should be! We are finally in an age where the public doesn't have to accept only what is crammed in their ears every day.

I think the general public would be shocked if they knew how little artists and songwriters actually earn for their labors. And labels withhold any expenses they put out in manufacturing, promoting and distributing an album before even paying songwriters their artist shares. The whole traditional system reeks to high heaven; but that system is being outmoded by technology. So, I am honestly optimistic.

That said, I must be clear that my label (Neurodisc) has been great to work with. I made the choice to go with a strong indie label because of the personal involvement of the label and their respect for the music. I am one of the few fortunate ones in that regard.
"My opinion is that the major labels and commercial media outlets are primarily concerned about money, not about art."

- Justin Elswick
Jamie: I completely agree with you that technology is playing a huge role in reshaping the industry. I was just reading an article in Wired magazine (September 2006) that talked about the Bare Naked Ladies and how their manager, Terry McBride, is rethinking his approach to the business. I think he has some amazingly creative ideas, including his views on P2P networks. As Terry states in the article, "If you could monetize the peer-to-peer networks, everyone would make more money." Do you think this would work? And, perhaps more specifically, do you think this type of model could work for indie musicians?
Justin: Well, I think it could help ensure that artists received compensation. Again, though, even if there was a way to monetize the current P2P networks, you would have people who would set up non-controlled sites that would allow free downloads. One of the problems is that any P2P network can be established in countries where there are limited copyright laws or in countries where there is no real desire to enforce any such laws. I don't think there will ever be a way to put the "horse back into the stable" because the public is too tech savvy and invested in getting free music. The music industry doesn't want to spend enough money or take the time to monitor every possible P2P network and sue them, or develop sufficient technology to prevent the copying of songs. Even if they did, you would find people who would quickly be able to bypass any such protections. The best thing (IMO) is to simply educate people and let them know that if you really like an artist and have downloaded their music for free (especially independent or small-label artists), then revenue is the only thing that will keep those artists alive.
Jamie: I was just on the Sleepthief website and I was checking out your forum. Looks like you have a great group of fans! You have a number of in-store performances coming up in Utah. Any other live events in the near future that you'd like to mention?
Justin: Well, I am looking to do a more fully fleshed out concert in November. Kirsty Hawkshaw is flying in for some other performances in Oregon and Washington. Kristy Thirsk and Jody Quine and Jerri Eckert and Lauren Edman are all interested... But, we are trying to secure the venue here in SLC. I do hope it happens! If not, I would like to plan for a few shows in the Spring. The biggest problem as a new artist is funding the tours. It is like you have to get out there so people can hear you, but unless you draw decent crowds, it becomes expensive. A bit of a paradox. But I am fairly certain that live performances are likely. "The biggest problem as a new artist is funding the tours."

- Justin Elswick
Jamie: You're absolutely right about how tough it is to fund tours. If you can ever get out on the road, please think about booking a date here in Toronto.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation. Best of luck in the future and please stay in touch!
 
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