“as soon as you start talking about a guy and a girl then listeners think ‘oh this is a love song’…Not being able to use pronouns, but still make moments feel warm and intimate is hard!”
***This interview was conducted PRE-COVID and myself and Wolfjay can confirm that we are both exercising COVID safety-no mask no play-don’t leave your house unless buying tomatoes-walk around in hoop skirts to stay 1.5m away from people at all times- in compliance with lockdown regulations in VIC***
Wolfjay is a powerhouse of creative and authentic expression of self in both synth-pop-rock bangers, and expertly executed photoshop meme-lordery. It was a delight to sit down with them a number of months ago and catch up like old friends who had actually never met before, and enjoy some brunch (does anyone remember brunch?), although the food went cold pretty quickly as we were both talking way too much. Since first conducting this interview, Wolfjay has gone on to do some amazing work with extremely talented people in this industry, and I regret that none of this is talked about, but I will leave some links at the end so you can check out everything they are up to xx
I’m really hoping it doesn’t pelt down with rain later because I am completely unprepared for that
Yeah I walked here from Fitzroy-
Oh my gosh why!?
I know, it was like 40 minutes! And right at the end my umbrella folded into itself and all the arms bent
You can’t win!
So do you produce the music that you make?
I produce all the demos, and I try and bring a few different things together that you might not expect to sit next to each other in a track. I worked with a producer for the last couple of songs and we co-produced the tracks together, but I’m in the process of changing my methods up a bit
What’s the ideal situation for a Wolfjay track
Maybe that I do it all myself, but I have a lot of friends who add little touches
So kind of collaborative?
Yeah I think so
It’s hard when you feel like you’re hiring someone to do a job for you when you prefer a more organic process
Yeah, and you want to make sure people are fairly compensated. Previously, I haven’t had a lot of time or a lot of money, so it’s been about trying to get the best sounding result with minimal spend, which has meant that I haven’t had a lot of control over the process. You’re kind of at the mercy of when the producer is free or when the studio is free. And you don’t end up with the files when you finish, and sometimes it can take 6-9 months between recording and getting a mix back. I like taking apart my songs and rebuilding them, so when you don’t have the building blocks then it’s hard to envision it all
And I think you end up compromising what you really want to do because it’s frustrating to wait on other people, and you end up saying ‘oh its fine’ when really you would love to spend more time with it. It’s hard to play around and experiment with a song when you’re paying so much to be in a room with a producer, and you can end up doing something a bit safe because at least it gets done, but if you have the tools at your disposal then there’s a likelihood you’ll make something you think is a bit more interesting
Definitely, and I think it’s been about investing in the songs and getting them really finished. I’ve worked on and released all 5 songs I did with a producer, and it feels like there’s nothing left in the tank which is a little nerve wracking! But I’ve been working on all these new songs- mixing and producing them myself and running them by friends. I’m at the point where I’m working them into live shows and seeing how people react to them, and I think it does sound like I’m taking more risks- which is a reflection of being able to just go into my study at home and just work on breaking apart songs and seeing where they land
What do you find are the main differences when you’re working with a producer compared to working by yourself?
I think when I’m working with a producer I’m a lot more goal driven- we’ve got two hours and we have to get everything done! You end up powering through the song, which is great because you get to the end of the day-
And you have an entire song!
You’ve tracked a whole song in a day! But I find that there are less happy accidents that way, but at the same time you’re listening to the song for so long that you can kind of visualise a sound and put it down right away. It’s nice to have that instant validation- you have an idea, track it, it works, move on- and you don’t question yourself so much. I do think that a lot of my songs get to where they are because I question ideas, and I’ll go back and change the key, change the speed, change the beat, and the song is constantly shifting until it hits a point where I reach the top of the mountain and it kind of sits there. There’s nothing more to break and rebuild
When do you know it’s gotten there? Do you have indications you look for that help you to know when the song is done?
I think it’s different for every song, there are songs I’ve worked on in the studio with a producer and it’s the end of the day and it’s like well that’s what we got! The budget is exhausted! I have to fly home, so that’s that! Or like my voice has given out and I can’t record any more vocals so I guess what we got is what we have to work with! With other songs, I’ll have a demo I’ll make and I’ll leave it aside for a year and maybe just listen to the MP3 on repeat, and I end up falling in love with the unfinished demo, and I think okay maybe this won’t have drums or all these other elements I thought it would need. This half-finished things becomes finished on its own which is nice
I think sometimes we feel like there’s a formula we have to follow, but you don’t have to have everything that every other song has
I think if you have a place that you want to take someone with a song, and the song does that without being complete, then it’s achieved its goal. It’s like if you budget 10 hours to drive somewhere, and you get there in 7 hours, you wouldn’t just drive around in circles for 3 hours because oh I budgeted that much time for this trip. If you can communicate the song with 4 instruments instead of the 8 you thought it would take, then just leave it at that! There’s a principle in small development start ups- minimum viable product- and when you have the most basic stage of a product or an idea, even if it’s not pretty or polished, you need to put it out and put it into peoples hands, and make the tweaks from there. I try and think like that with my songs and I’ll play very simple versions of my songs live with almost no backing tracks, and if people like it then I know not to overcook it, but if it doesn’t hit right then I know I should add more and change things. ‘Together’ was like that- I played a very basic version and people were like ‘this is just a pop-punk song’ and I’m like okay I need to add more. We ended up recording three different drum kits, and a string section, and rave synths from the 80’s, weird iPad app synths-
iPads are so underrated as instruments
So good! I fuck with iPad synths. We added guitars as well, which was something I had never really made a focus in my tracks before. After adding all these things people started to see it beyond a pop-punk song
I got real Gang of Youths vibes
Yeah, I wanted it to be something that you wouldn’t have to think a lot about, but if you did want to think about it, then there’s depth there- that’s something I definitely get from Gang Of Youths. To have the option of putting the song on and not thinking too much, or putting your headphones in and really focusing on the different parts
Let’s talk a bit about the EP. You start with the song ‘Spectrum’, how much of that did you produce yourself?
Technically I produced the whole thing myself, but it’s actually a secret remix of ‘She Calls To Me’
Yes! I knew it! See I wrote that down!
Yeah! So I got all the stems from ‘She Calls To Me’ and cut them up. I thought that the original song didn’t get the love that it deserved, so I wanted to secretly re-release it. I originally made it to be the opening for my live show, because at that time I was closing my show with ‘She Calls To Me’- I would open with this interlude and then finish the set with ‘She Calls To Me’, which had a nice synchronicity. I did the arrangement myself on my laptop at an airport on the way to Melbourne to play a show, which was the December before last- I was still living in Adelaide then, and I was playing a Christmas hip-hop show at the Workers Club and I didn’t really suit the line up at all but it was really fun. I had never played in Melbourne before, and all my Melbourne friends came and saw me, and then left as soon as I was done which was the strangest vibe! I made the track for that show, but it flowed perfectly into ‘Together’, so we added it to the EP which worked nicely
It’s the most beautiful way to start an EP, so dreamy. What did you hope would be communicated with the track?
The ‘Together’ EP, and with the press for the EP, it was the first time I talked about identity and sexuality, and I think that because there was so much that I was trying to communicate with the EP and with the press release, the goal of this track was to have a moment to breathe at the beginning. Calling the song ‘Spectrum’ was all it needed to be. A lot of the feedback I got from ‘She Calls To Me’ was about how it was a great love song, ‘ ohI played this to my girlfriend!’- it was a lot of straight couples- and I was like this song is about me fighting with my sister? It’s not a love song! It was just very funny to me that people saw it as a love song, so I wanted to take the song- this thing people thought was my big love song- and kind of-
Give it this new context
Yeah, give it a new story. I think opening the EP with that, and given what the artwork of the EP is- this big rainbow- I was like ‘Spectrum’, a rainbow
You can’t get it wrong this time!
I was like how simple do I have to make this! But at the same time it’s a bit abstract and I don’t think everyone picked up on it. It’s a nice way to set the tone of the EP
It definitely feels like a second to breathe, and when you’re addressing content that is so close to you, it can be hard to just jump right into it
And especially when the start of ‘Together’ doesn’t give you a moment to breathe- it’s just so into it. We edited it so the tail of ‘Spectrum’ is at the beginning of ‘Together’, so when you start listening to ‘Together’ it kind of feels like you’re interrupting something. It throws you into the bedroom of a couple, and I wanted it to feel like you’re kind of intruding on an intimate and personal moment. I wanted to make it a process for the listener when they listen to the three tracks together
I think more people should utilise that music can have that effect, create pause and moments to reflect, and a story arch. It can be easy to add extra verses and extra synths, and just create this wall of sound because it’s almost harder to just be genuine. It was really nice to hear the song- I was listening to the track and thinking oh man I hope this is just instrumental because it’s brilliant, so when it was it felt so refreshing
There’s this gif that’s a breathing exercise that starts as a triangle that slowly swells out and comes back in, and you time your breathing with the gif to lower your heart rate. And it’s this kind of generic cheesy thing that pops up on my feed every now and then, but ‘Spectrum’ is kind of like that gif- that moment when the beat is slower than you expect, and it slows you down a bit. That’s a bit of the affect I wanted
When we move on into ‘Together’, how did you want people to feel when they listened to that song?
I think after people thought ‘She Calls To Me’ was a love song, I thought I should actually write a love song. There’s a lot in ‘She Calls To Me’ that’s very depressing- the images aren’t romantic. Being in a hospital bed and having someone fall asleep with you there- like that’s not actually fun! But I think because it’s against those synths it’s like wow so beautiful!
Hospitals aren’t that romantic!
So I wanted to make something that was brazen, and that you couldn’t mistake. I wanted a pop song that has nuance, but isn’t hard to understand. A lot of the writing process was about simplifying- the chorus was this big huge complicated thing, but I cut all of it and repeated one word the whole way through so you couldn’t mistake what it was. I think as well, it was about approaching a love song that wasn’t based on gender or what someone looks like or their preference, its’ just about connection with someone. Being non-binary myself, and releasing something for the first time that addressed that, and connecting with a lot of other non-binary people- it felt like the decisions going into a relationship aren’t based on gender. There’s no need for someone to be the ‘man’ and play that role in that connection, or trying to act a certain way because you’re the ‘girl’- everything is more simple and motivations are less hazy. You just do things because you want to do things. Sometimes it’s reciprocated and that’s lovely! There are no pronouns in the lyrics, and it’s hard to write like that- without specifying the gender and those roles involved. I think that as soon as you start talking about a guy and a girl then listeners think ‘oh this is a love song’, or that the two people must have chemistry of some kind. Not being able to use pronouns, but still make moments feel warm and intimate is hard!
It’s tough ground to navigate!
I just went back to moments where I felt that with people. Those minute details that you notice when you share the same space with someone, the subconscious things. A specific example for me was being in a co-writing session with someone, and there’s instruments going and then there’s silence and you just enjoy their presence being there
It definitely feels warm and intimate. You finish the EP with ‘Go Home’, are you a big Julien Baker fan?
Yeah, I had a huge Julien Baker phase a couple of years ago. I didn’t create this song with the intention of it being a Julien Baker cover. I went to the Charli XCX party in Sydney a year or so ago with a few friends, and we left and went to a pub and got a little high before I had to fly home to Adelaide. I got home at like midnight, and just wanted to make Charli XCX beats all night, and I ended up making this track with these wild drums- something that was so not Wolfjay, but I had a few synths and a bit of an arrangement and went to bed. ‘Go Home’ by Julien Baker is my alarm in the morning, so it was the first thing I heard when I woke up, and when I went to have a shower I just put the track on that I had made the night before and I started singing ‘Go Home’ over it, and it fit so perfectly!
It was sick! It was maybe a month before the EP came out, and I messaged the producer that it was going to be the last track on the EP. I flew to Melbourne and got to the studio, pulled up the lyrics, and started tracking over what I had made and it ended up pretty simple process. I don’t think I could ever record a cover again because for that specific circumstance I wasn’t overthinking it, but I think I had set out to make a cover of ‘Go Home’-
It would be so hard, especially if you care about the song so much
Yeah, it felt like a rare circumstance where those lyrics were on my mind and what I wanted to say, and it turned out to work with something I had made
Julien Baker is amazing, and I think that good covers are really special- when you can capture a feeling from a different angle. This synthy world that you created totally worked with the feelings of the song even though it’s so different from the original sound
I justified it to myself in thinking about how when I have in the past felt the way the song is describing- she’s talking about a bedroom at a friends place with locked cupboards, a suburban desolate feeling- for me that image is having a panic attack at a club, and trying to figure out how to survive the night. That instrumental is the bathroom at a club when you’re freaking out, and you don’t know where your friends are, and you’re dehydrated and trying to call an ambulance- and it’s a mess. The track is chaotic and messy and bumpy and unpredictable for that reason
I think that intention definitely comes through- it doesn’t just sound like a fun angle on a song you already liked! Let’s talk about your newest single ‘In Memory Of’, which sounds very different to a lot of the other music you’ve been doing, and I’m interested in how you got to that sound
I wrote ‘In Memory Of’ about two and half years ago, and it’s been sitting there for a long time. It was a song that I loved, but it just didn’t make sense with the rest of the music I was doing at the time. I had been waiting for the right time to release this song in a way that would make sense with the other released, and not throw people off at how different it sounds
So it existed how it does now even two years ago?
Yeah, it didn’t really change a lot. We re-tracked the guitars, mixed the drums, and re-did the vocals- I always like track vocals last before I put something out because my voice changes quite a lot, and when I put something out I want my voice to represent how I actually sound at that time! Apart from that, my early demos from like 2017 very much captured the sound I wanted. The lyrics stayed the same, the instrumental is pretty much the same, and I had been playing the song live for like three years. I didn’t really know when would be the right time to put the song out, but when I finished ‘Together’, I felt like ‘In Memory Of’ would be the right release to follow. It’s pretty different to the other Wolfjay music I have out
Why do you think that is?
Well, I wrote it in a very specific frame of mind where I had a lot changing in my life- the people in my life, the degree I was studying, and writing this song became a bit of a coping mechanism for me in the midst of those changes and that particular kind of loneliness. I think those feelings aren’t ones that I had felt before or since, and maybe that’s why this song sticks out a bit next to the other Wolfjay songs. I do worry about consistency, and if there is enough to string the releases together, but I’m also glad that I don’t feel that way very often
Let’s talk a bit about ‘She Calls To Me’, it feels very personal, do you hesitate before releasing songs that are quite open like that?
I think there’s three stages of the process; the first is being incredibly vulnerable and getting the song down, and articulating the experiences you want to talk about
And sometimes that’s not the monetised part- you’re doing it for yourself
Yeah, it’s cathartic, it’s free counselling. I think that- okay this is super lame but in this Doctor Who episode they go to this planet which is basically hell, and there’s this endless abyss that has a monster living inside of it. They work out that the monster isn’t really a monster, but it’s really about what you see in the abyss, and deciding to continue on after seeing that reflection of yourself. I think the process of songwriting is about looking into apart of yourself or your experiences, and deciding to accept that and not ignore what you see in yourself.
‘She Calls To Me’ is super personal, and it’s about this relationship with my sister, who I love a lot but aren’t exactly on the same page with, and trying to figure out how I reconcile that feeling of a breakdown in a relationship, while having all these memories of being close, even if we aren’t anymore. I don’t think I worked out an answer, but the song is this juxtaposition of talking about memories like watching the sunset and being in hospital, and then having this moment of not wanting to overthink and over analyse the past, and then trying to focus on yourself and move forward with your life. So I think that’s the first part of the writing process, and I think all songs go through this path of trying to articulate things
The second part is requires you to put that first part so far from your mind, and look at the logistics of “how am I affording this production session”, “what are the steps to get it done”. It’s logistic, and it feels like work, and it’s nice to sit down and work!
The last part is the press and the preparation for what the song is going to say
Like the public representation of the song and its meaning
Yeah, and sometimes it can be really vague, sometimes it’s really specific, sometimes it’s just about the production. When the song comes out I don’t stray from those topics and I keep it as consistent as I can. People tuning in to the radio might hear like a minute of a 10 minute interview, or read the first paragraph of a press release, and I can’t risk there not being context for the song. After the first few weeks I kind of go off the rails and say whatever I want!
Do you feel like it took you a while to find the sound you wanted? Are you still searching for it?
I think ‘She Calls To Me’ was the first time I really hit the sound that I wanted for a song, but I think the biggest thing is to make that sustainable. It’s easy to get a great sounding track when you spend a lot of money, or you can afford to have a lot of really talented people to work on stuff, but it isn’t sustainable unless you are insanely popular or you have rich parents- and I’m open to adoption though
I’ll call Bey and Z
Thanks! I think there are always these two sliders of budget and quality, and sometimes you do have to cut corners with the tools you have at your disposal. It’s important to plan, and to have budget goals for yourself over the next few years, and figure out how you can get the best quality sound. Learning how to do your own demos, or even producing your own guitar takes and cut a lot of costs
It’s like a puzzle that you’re constantly doing
It’s like a puzzle but all the pieces are constantly changing size as you’re putting it together!
What kind of people influence you with your music making?
I don’t know if I have specific people in mind- I think when I’m figuring out what kind of people I want to work with for mixing or in my live band, whatever it might be – I always try and work with people who are kind, people who do good work, and people who have a good work ethic. I think that when I find I can’t really work with someone, it’s usually because one of those three key elements aren’t there. And it’s actually kind of rare getting those people who can be all three things, and the people who inspire and inform what I’m doing with Wolfjay are people who have those things. It’s great when you can meet people who really excel in one place, and you can learn from them
It’s easy to be swayed by other people, and you can work with bad people and end up with a bad product and you’re unhappy with it, so to have a way to kind of vet who you’re working with can help you make better music in the long run
Is there something you wish you knew 5 years ago going into this industry?
I think there’s a lot of tiny lessons of very practical things. I think a big frustration for me was casual interactions with people who know I do music, but they have no idea of the time and effort I put into it, and you bump into them and they’re like ‘oh how was the thing you did two years ago?’ like come on I’ve done so much since then! I used to get so frustrated by that, but now I think I’m far more okay with those kinds of interactions. Most people just aren’t that interested or invested in what you’re doing, and when someone enjoys something you did two years ago then that’s great! You spend so long working on your craft and analysing the next step
It’s your whole life but it’s just a passing interaction for other people
Yeah, and it’s tricky when most people’s impression of what an artist looks like is someone with millions of followers and hundreds of comments on every post, and playing massive shows all over the world. You look at yourself, and the song you’ve had out for 10 days that has 1500 streams, and you forget that the last song took 6 months to get that many streams- so you’ve actually had enormous progress! I think the casual observer doesn’t always notice that either, and I would get frustrated when people didn’t notice the progress I was making
And remembering that you do this because you love it
And just because it’s vital for me in getting through my week, doesn’t mean it’s that for anyone else
What do you want to stand for in this industry?
A lot of the press outlets that I follow and I engage with in terms of queer music and non-binary music- I just don’t expect them to fuck with what I do because I present as a straight white guy to anyone walking on the street. I still want to be vocal within that community for people who don’t have that benefit- because even if I don’t identify as straight or as a guy, it’s still a privilege that I still have regardless of if I want to use that label or not. Since moving to Melbourne where there’s so many more rallies on, and a real community movement, I like being apart of the community mindset and not trying to swing my name around and my brand around- being that one more person in the crowd. I think people get caught up on celebrities and big names throwing their weight behind things, but Trump still got elected with almost no celebrity support because there were so many people worth one vote which sucks! I think individuals and community efforts and education can make real change. I don’t know if ‘Wolfjay’ as an entity stands for anything, but as an individual I have a huge responsibility, and I think there’s a lot of sustainable and scalable influence you can have on an individual level
Check out Wolfjay on the links below