It’s always a treat when you can peer inside the mind of a producer through the musical creations they dispense. Australian DJ/producer Chris Emerson, better known as What So Not, has managed to give his listeners a sneak peek into the past six years of his life through his debut album Not All the Beautiful Things (out now via Counter Records/Ninja Tune). After touring for six years straight — with very little breaks — Emerson took time to digest all of the happenings that occurred in that period of time, resulting in this fresh body of work. All 12 tracks of the album are cohesive and raw in tone warranting your full attention and heart.
Ahead of his stop this Wednesday at Houston’s White Oak Music Hall, Emerson chatted with Free Press Houston about the differences between his past EPs and that of Not All the Beautiful Things, the learning process that ensued plus gave a snippet about what we all can expect at his live show.
Free Press Houston: For years you’ve released different singles, EPs and mixes. Obviously, you’ve also performed hundreds of shows. So, how does it feel to finally have an album out?
Emerson: It’s amazing…it really showed me the opportunity you have with an extended body of work; to do things outside of what people might expect of you or want from you — [that’s] probably a better way to put it. It allowed me to do some things that was quite reserved and more cinematic, rather than just something that’s gonna work at a festival. A key track was something like “Adieu” which was just a throwaway idea that I kind of just put together the day the EP (Divide & Conquer) was due because I liked it. It was a fun little wonky idea and that ended up being the most streamed song out of the whole EP. That gave me a lot of confidence going into this album process of really being able to take things into any direction that excited me and not worry about what I thought people expected or wanted.
FPH: I love how cohesive the album is. You touched on how different it is. So, what challenges did you encounter in releasing the album versus that of an EP?
Emerson: (Laughs) Oh man, it was many, many, many challenges. One of the biggest challenges was like, ‘How do I stay alive?’ because it was an insane amount of work. Back in the past, if a band was putting an album together, we’d have a bunch of members that would all be writing together, sharing ideas and throwing ideas around. They’d have a designated producer who would help produce and curate all of the different parts. They’d have studio hands, engineers and all this stuff. Then, there’s a producer and a songwriter writing everything, performing a bunch of it, bringing in a few musicians to perform different components of the pieces, steering the narrative of the entire project, bringing in vocalists to sing songs or to collaborate together to find the common moment and experience and to share that and develop it. That’s just the music part. Then, I had to go into all the other creative aspects like, ‘What does this look like on stage?’ or ‘How do we make this set look like the album sounds?’ and creating show visuals that match up with the aesthetic of everything. I wrote music video treatments for every song on this album simply to have a story and narrative that I could share with anyone I was working with when we’re doing things like finishing off the lyrics or creating a visual representation. That was the challenge.
I got myself into a routine mode where I would sleep four hours a night and I would have two very short 20-minute naps [and] some meditation periods throughout the day. I didn’t drink for pretty much a year and a half. I would only allow myself to go and socialize once every two weeks. I got myself down to eating just one meal a day and snacking on things like nuts, essentially so I could have an extra three hours a day to work, not going to get a meal. So yeah, those are some challenges of this album.
FPH: Wow! You put your blood, sweat and tears into this.
Emerson: Yeah, I did.
FPH: You can hear it. The album itself — putting my fangirl mode on now — aside from being cohesive, I love how emotive it is. A lot of people say that with electronic music can’t be emotional. This album proves that it indeed can. With that being said, what headspace were you in from an emotional angle with this release?
Emerson: I had different pieces that I worked on across the last few years. I really started putting this together when I took time off the road for the first time in six years. I’ve been on tour pretty much for six years straight with very few breaks. There’s even a year and half of my life in that period where I wasn’t in a city for longer than four days. Just constantly moving. With me, this all sort of conceived and started to come to fruition as I was reflecting on everything that happened in the last six years and prior. I finally had a moment to myself to sit there and kind of let it all happen. So, I was drawing from all these different moments and experiences I had in my life across that time. For the first time I was really allowing myself to feel it all. The adrenaline was off the accelerator and I was like, ‘Oh wow, all this stuff happened and now it’s time for me to capture this in music.’
FPH: You definitely can hear that through the album. The theme covers every spectrum of human emotion. So, I can imagine with that space and time with you being able to reflect, that came through in the album. Are you happy with the outcome ultimately?
Emerson: Oh, totally. Usually when I finish a body of work or any sort of project I’m like, ‘This should have been better.’ There’s such minimal changes I would have made with this album. I’m so happy. It turned out probably three times better than what I thought it was gonna end up coming into it.
FPH: That’s great! You mentioned that you were able to reflect for this album. So, what have you learned about yourself in the process of creating Not All the Beautiful Things?
Emerson: I learned the limits of my mind and my body. I really wanted to see how odd and how hard I could push myself and I think I found the limit and border. Every single day I would push right up against that border. I would push right against that until I was like, ‘Cool. I can do no more. I can get no more out of myself today.’ That’s when I would rest. That’s when I would go and take a moment to myself. Those are the learning curves that I had through this process.
FPH: I always like to think that artists can learn different things from each other when they partner up on tracks. You have quite a bit of collaborators on the album. One in particular that stands out to me is Daniel Johns of Silverchair. How did that collaboration come about? Tell me about the mindset behind it.
Emerson: I totally agree with you on that. I love, love, love just getting in a room with people and seeing what happens, especially people I admire or I’m very fond of their work. You dive in the room with people and you all have these different skillsets. You really challenge each other and push each other into directions you never would have gotten on your own.
With Daniel, I just sort of stumbled across or he stumbled across me. (Laughs) He walked into a studio session in a random studio I happen to be working at in Sydney and wanted to get my info to listen to what I was working on. He reached out and invited me out to his house and I went up there for a few days. We just wrote and wrote and wrote. We hit it off straight away with all these different concepts and ideas. We probably wrote seven or eight ideas or songs and three of course ended up on this album.
FPH: That is so cool! I’m really excited that you included live instrumentation, such as the guitar, in addition to the electronic elements. You’ll include guitars in your live show, correct?
Emerson: Correct, yeah. One thing I did for this record was I started singing a lot and not necessarily singing a topline. I did do that on “Be Ok Again”, but I would sing most of my riffs. I wouldn’t write them with a synth. I’d write them with my voice and then I would turn them into a synth. A lot of the guitar in here on this record is actually my voice, it just runs through an amp. Of course, I really want to represent this well live. It sounds so amazing.
FPH: Color me impressed, Chris. That is amazing. The What So Not project launched in 2011. Besides it now being a solo effort, what perspective have you gained from the project’s evolution?
Emerson: A lot. I think it’s just going through this music industry a number of years now, you do learn a lot. There’s a lot of mistakes that you make. There’s a lot of things that happen that are out of your control. Really just maintaining composure and staying true to the core of yourself and what you believe is right and good and what you think is important artistically. I think all of those things are the most important things that I’ve taken from just doing this for as long as I have now.