"I feel like all the time I see such incredible tiny moments."
Back in 2014, Grey Gersten set out to capture strangers most intimate secrets with the immersive exhibition "Custom Melodies." The songwriter set up camp in downtown Manhattan's Mmuseumm in an abandoned elevator shaft and wrote songs based on the conversations and experiences of those who paid him a visit. The answers to these deeply personal questions - "have you ever thought you were going to die?", "do you often have an awareness of your heartbeat?" - became the catalyst for which the song was based on.
Gersten has long been a part of NYC's experimental music scene. He previously recorded under the name Eternal Lips, which featured vocal contributions from Sharon Van Etten and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone. Gersten also created a film score for internationally acclaimed artist Tom Sachs' 2016 film A Space Program. Widely involved in a variety of collaborations and projects, all of these experiences fed into the making of his latest record.
Now on the cusp of releasing his debut LP under his own name, Naked Light is a record that centers around being emotionally present in any given moment. It has a raw and visceral feel to it, as Gersten invites you in the same way he invited strangers to divulge some of their innermost truths.
Popdust sat down with the songwriter to discuss Naked Light, identity, and the beauty of vulnerability.
You describe the recording process for this album as "freewheeling, unselfconscious, and intimate." Can you elaborate?
My main goal for this record was just to be as emotionally present as possible. I just tried to completely forget that we were recording or that we were going to release this, so I thought of it more as an experience. I worked with a very close friend of mine, Shahzad Ismaily, who co-produced it. He had just opened up a recording studio - it's around the corner from my apartment so we had a very informal schedule. I would just call him up if I had an idea for a song or he would call me in the middle of the night sometimes and say, "why don't you come over? We'll see what happens." The whole thing had this kind of treehouse feel to it - you know, usually when you make a record you write all the songs before and book a certain amount of time in the studio. This was completely different than that. The song "Remain" was something I wrote in the studio and then we recorded right when I wrote it. I think the reason I did that is, you know, when you're feeling something and you really allow yourself to feel that, it can resonate with people. I was just interested in pursuing that because so many artists I really love do that. Sometimes you listen to a Neil Young song or a Nina Simone song and you're like, "is it even okay that I'm listening to this?" It feels like you're reading someone's diary. There's something so beautiful about the power of vulnerability.
Is there a story behind the track "Remain"?
It's nice to allow people to find their own meaning in it, but I could say really broadly that it's about relationships that you have with people - how people can enable you to do things, inspire you to do things, even open up a new connection with yourself because you're resonating with this other person - friend, lover.. It's a song about how love has this ability to open doors for you and your experience in the world.
What would you say primarily inspired "Naked Light"?
I was really inspired by Neil Young and seeing him in Carnegie Hall around 2014. He just played solo and there was no record he was promoting, no tour, just this random set of four shows. I had seen him before and I had grown up listening to him but something about seeing him, in that moment in my life, made me realize that music for me is more about feelings than sound. My priorities shifted completely. I stopped thinking about productions and instrumentation and arrangements and just thought about, "If I'm not really emotionally present, it does not matter what instruments I use." And that's why I think the record is almost sparse in some ways. Once we got that, it was like "do we even really need to add anything to this?" So there's some very difficult tracks on it. I would say Neil Young, just in general, and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a record that I keep coming back to - there's such an amazing concessional intimate connection to Lennon on it... Any Nina Simone, anytime she sings. Even just like, Modern Lovers. I listen to that record all the time. I think those were demos that they were making in order to get a record released and the record never happened but they sound really good. There's such a quality in his vocals - it's like, "do you have any idea how amazingly real he's being right now?" I think people are fascinating how they can reveal something universal when they kind of forget that people are watching or listening to them. I feel like all the time I see such incredible tiny moments. People on the street, wherever, they just have no awareness of it and then that moment is lost forever. There's a space of unselfconscious lack of awareness in music and art that can be really beautiful too.
I always see people I would cast in my movie even though I'm not even making one.
Exactly. I don't want to say anything definitive but I kept being like, "You're only worth listening to if if you don't think anyone's listening to you. You're only worth looking at if you don't think anyone's looking at you." I don't know what happens to us when we realize we're being recorded, but we're definitely losing something human.
That's a good point. I feel like whenever Ryan Seacrest gets in front of a camera he just turns something on. It's a fascinating thing about people.
I know. I think it's something about people realizing what they can do and exploring all of these different possibilities… I don't know if i could ever be like an entertainer in that way Ryan Seacrest is, in that he kind of has a thing and he can just do it. I don't know. Sometimes people have a really solid act and sometimes their act is about it not being so solid. [laugh] I think i'm still figuring out who I am and what I'm making and all these things, so this record was just really "what happens if I just let myself fall apart? Let's see what happens here."
You used to perform under the moniker Eternal Lips. Do you feel a difference in identity between that project and this one under your own name?
When I put out the Eternal Lips record I was kind of thinking about it as an imaginary unit. It was a really pop-centric project. I had never made any pop music and I knew it wouldn't be seen as "real" pop music but I wanted to engage in it as sincerely as I could. It felt like I was kind of creating this whole fantasy world for an imaginary band and that whole idea of it being a pop thing.. And then, you know, people started talking about it a little bit. So I was thinking, why am I asking people to call me two different things? On top of it, the project had a really strong conceptual identity in terms of the look of it and the media that was being made of it but in terms of me personally I was just walking around as myself, so I felt like if you're going to ask people to call you by another name you have to really go 360 with it and live it. I started thinking about David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, and how he would dress as Ziggy every day for years and he would hire fake photographers to follow him around. So it's a complete commitment to that character. I was nowhere near that, so I was like "I should drop this" - especially when I started thinking about making this record and having it be personal and vulnerable and intimate, it made no sense. I think going forward I will just do everything under my own name. It gets confusing. Not to mention, when you first put out something in the world you're afraid to put your name on there, and I think once you put it out publicly you're like "okay some people are gonna love this, some people are gonna hate this, a bunch of people won't care.. and life goes on."
In 2014, you launched an immersive exhibit titled "Custom Melodies" in which you would ask strangers certain questions and then create songs based on their experiences. What was that experience like?
I was set up in a very small museum in Chinatown and people made appointments - every night, about 12 people came. Each one would fill out a bunch of paperwork about their dreams and what they're afraid of and then they would talk to me for about five minutes. Often they'd say something really interesting so I would record their voice saying that and build this track around it in 10 minutes and then record it once, all live. Within 20 minutes, I'm meeting someone, recording a song, and then they're leaving. I did a records worth of material a night for about two weeks straight. The takeaway from that experience really feeds into this record because what was happening there was people were opening up and being incredibly candid and personal and telling me about a breakup that happened that day, standing there in tears. I was kind of absorbing those emotions and putting it out through sound but doing it in such a fast way while also recording it on my phone. I feel like that work had a lot of resonance to it and I realize, this is not about the sound necessarily, it's definitely not the recording quality, it's about the song being emotionally present. So that was a thing that really inspired my new record - just thinking, all you really have to do is be emotionally present and everything else can flow with that. That was an incredible experience. It meant a lot that all these people kind of trusted me enough. I also thought it was just such an amazing way for people to communicate. Part of what's beautiful about it is that no one used their real name - everyone created a fake name. There was no photograph. Everyone made their own record covers. So when you're listening to this online, you're not thinking about who these people are specifically, you're just experiencing these raw human feelings independent of an identity.
An application for a "custom melody", courtesy of Grey Gersten
You said you "hoped to expand the idea of on-the-spot song creation outside of New York." Is that still a goal for you?
Yeah, I want to do Custom Melodies again. I want to try to do it in other countries and I want to try to do it in prison in America. It's been a few years since I did that project but I wanted to do some other things before i came back to it. Like I did a film score, then I did this record, and a few other things. I didn't want to get just locked into that - I was wary of getting tagged as, "that's the guy and he does that thing." I also took time to think about what would make the experience better and more incredible. I think taking it to prison is top priority. I used to teach in a maximum security prison when I went to college at Bard. They have an amazing thing called the Bard Prison Initiative and I used to teach at this prison called Eastern for a couple years. I think a lot of people in this country are incredibly frustrated and outraged at the industrial prison complex. I don't really know how to change that reality, but I think if I could bring Custom Melodies to some of those places and amplify some of those voices, I feel like it could help people start to realize just how many people are in prison and those are real people and have some of the same feelings that you do. More than just numbers or statistics. Once you start hearing that person's voice say something that maybe you once thought, I think that could open up some compassion channels.
How did you come up with the concept behind your upcoming record release event, "Sunset to Sunrise"?
I was thinking about how fragile this record is and the idea of playing it in a club and it just seemed so.. It would not make any sense in that environment. So I thought about different ways to bring it to people, and I thought - what was the environment of the recording? It was in the middle of the night, and spontaneous, and I didn't know what was going to happen. What if I could create an experience or a show that is open in that way? In some way it'll feel like we're still making the record. The other thing is, I like records, I like concerts, but the way those things are structured is often just about what's the most convenient way for them to be commodified. If we decide everything on convenience and money, I don't know if a lot of interesting things will happen. I was just rethinking these structures and how to open them up so anything can happen. I honestly don't know what will happen at this event. The record is a half hour long. I've invited some people to sit in, and there's a comedian coming, and all kinds of things, but I really don't know what will happen and it's beautiful to leave that sort of openness.
The other thing I like about it is that no one will see the same thing. There's definitely something about everyone being at a show and everyone starts moving through this linear experience together but there's also something about this format where everyone will come at a different time, everyone will see something different, it will feel different for everyone. It really brings you into the moment in a different way. I like the responsibility it gives the audience - they're not just consumers, they're a part of it.
Courtesy of Grey Gersten
What's next for Grey Gersten?
I think what I want to do next is something with comedy. I don't know exactly how that's going to happen, or even what format that's going to take, but I feel like comedy is an incredible way to get people to think about things differently or share some unknown truth. I feel like in this moment in our culture, comedy has a power that I don't think music has. I think people are really looking to comedy for philosophy in a way. I think that's something that was happening with music more in the 60s and 70s, and sadly I don't know if there's too much music or it's become devalued somehow, so I'm just interested in trying to do something with comedy. It feels funny to me that there's not a lot of humor in my work up until this point. I think a lot of my friends would say I'm a funny person. And it's like - how do I get that into what i'm doing? Maybe it has nothing to do with music. I'm just realizing what a big part of myself it is and what a resonance with society it has right now. It also might just be making a really emotionally candid record can lead me to feeling like "I don't need to give that again right now." You look at the world - i look at the world and it makes no sense. It's just beautiful chaos.
Especially right now.
Yeah, I'd say we're in a peak moment of that right now. Nothing makes any sense at all - politically, economically, socially, religiously. It's all just a chaotic mess. I think once you recognize that, you decide if it's a tragedy or a comedy. I think it's the same perspective - just a question of what language you're putting it out in. To me, this record is not a tragedy record, but certainly not funny. I'm interested in going forward and taking that same perspective and seeing if I can put it in a comedic language.