Barely a couple hours before we were scheduled to speak, electronic musician Big Wild — government name Jackson Stell — posted to Instagram that he’d collaborated on a Spotify playlist called Awaken that just so happens to lead off with a Crooked Colours of his song “City of Sound.” And, as it turns out, both Big Wild and the Australian indie rockers are scheduled to play Northern Nights next weekend. (Interestingly, they’ve not yet met.)
A three-day festival in the redwoods along the Eel River’s Cook Valley, Northern Nights is a small-scale — or “boutique,” if you well — gathering that Big Wild is essentially co-headlining with the masterful Zhu. An expansive songwriter whose most recent album, Superdream, brought his vocal talents out of the shadows and into the spotlight, he’s exactly who you want to be listening to as you breathe the cleansing air around a grove of 200-foot-tall Sequoia sempervirens. Ahead of the fest, he spoke with SF Weekly about his love of production, being in the thrall of one Sir Paul McCartney, and the vulnerability that singing in a falsetto register conveys.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Are you bringing the full Big Wild experience to Northern Nights?
Yeah, we’re bringing a guitarist, backup vocals, a bassist. We’ve got all the visuals, the full thing. Whenever we get the opportunity to bring as much of the full show as we can, we leap at it.
I’m sure cost is the main reason why you don’t do it all the time, but for what percentage of your shows do you bring the full complement?
Most of the shows I have this summer I’m pretty fortunate to bring pretty much everybody out to every show. I don’t want to short-change it.
Even by the standards of electronic acts, you play kind of a broad variety of festivals and venues. Would you say that’s accurate?
Yeah, I would totally agree with that
It’s a conscious decision on your part, I assume?
While I love dance music and I love electronic music, I’ve always aspired and been into making music that brings people together, and I think allows you to play other festivals and other diverse shows and venues.
Just to go back to the collaboration you dropped today, do you have a relationship with Crooked Colours? They’re also on the bill.
You know what? I haven’t met them yet. I was a fan of their music when the album came out, so it was an obvious choice to reach out and see what they think, and they were totally up for it. Northern Nights … will hopefully be my first time meeting them.
You have been a producer and engineer since high school. Do you consider yourself a producer first and a musician second, or are categories not as important?
I think the older I get, the less the categories affect my way of thinking, but I will say I think I would still call myself a producer first. That’s how I got into music. At this point, I consider myself more of a producer and a songwriter, but I think there are a lot of lines blurred in today’s music landscape between who’s a vocalist and who’s a producer. We’re all wearing a lot of different hats.
But Superdream — vocally, especially — this is a huge leap forward for you. Again, that’s no accident, you’re making a very conscious choice to expand in that direction.
I felt like with just instrumental music, I was hitting a creative wall in terms of finding something I wanted to sing about and express. The only natural way for me to get to that point of expression was to start incorporating lyricism and songwriting and vocals, and that’s why I decided to take that plunge. A very conscious decision and one I’m ultimately really happy I decided to make.
As Big Wild gets bigger, you need more of a personal identity behind it, and probably the easiest way to do that is by putting your own vocals out in front.
I one-hundred-percent agree. Another reason I wanted to do it is that I wanted to give more of my personality to the project and share more of who I am, and like you said, the most straightforward way to do that is to use your voice.
And falsetto couldn’t be more in. There’s a sort of through-line between electronic music in 2019 and the sort of late-’70s stuff that our parents really liked that was hideously maligned and unfairly looked-down-upon for 20 or 30 years — and now people are reappraising it. The result is that the falsetto is going from being a signifier of lite-rock schmaltz to being a genuine way to convey emotion. Does that register with you?
I think falsetto comes off as being a little more vulnerable, in my opinion and I think there’s a lot of power in vulnerability so naturally it can convey emotion in different ways than your chest voice.
At this point in your career, is Lightning in a Bottle still your favorite festival? I know every musician on earth loves Red Rocks more than anything.
I love Red Rocks, for sure. And I love Lightning in a Bottle. I would love to go back at some point. I always look back on Lightning in a Bottle and I smile. The two times I’ve played it were some of my favorite shows, because they’d come at points in my career where I felt like making a really strong connection with the crowd and I felt that I kind of needed that reciprocation. There’s a lot of ups and downs in music and I felt that the shows I did came at the right time to affirm that “OK, I’m moving in the right direction. I’m kind of achieving what I want to achieve, which is to make people feel happy, make them feel positive.” That one holds a special place in my heart.
At this point, what is your working relationship with Odesza?
We were friends first and foremost, and we talked all the time about music and whatnot. At this point, the big thing we’re doing together right now is these two shows in L.A. at the end of July, at the L.A. State Historic Park. Those are some pretty big shows.
Are you looking towards future collaborations or just keeping it open?
Keeping it open. I’m always somebody who likes to have a song thought out or partly produced or written before I approach other people to collab, but both of us work great together. They’re doing their own thing at this point, but I’m definitely not going to rule out a collab at some future time.
Last night in San Jose, there was a performance by a certain ex-Beatle. You’ve said in the past that Paul McCartney would be the No. 1 person you would like to share a stage with. Is that still true?
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say.
Why? Aside from the obvious, that he’s Paul McCartney.
I just gravitate toward his songwriting. If you listen to the Beatles long enough, you can start to discern what John Lennon wrote and what Paul McCartney wrote and what Ringo wrote and what George Harrison wrote. Paul McCartney’s upbeat, relentless positivity is something I find unique and I think it’s something that propels the Beatles to do a lot of great things. I just like his songwriting, too. He’s got a really unique sense of melody and chords. I’ve always kind of resonated with what he brought to the Bealtes.
If I can throw this out there, I feel like “Maker” might be the zenith of Paul’s influence on the record.
Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of how I view my melodies, they’re influenced by Paul McCartney and the Bealtes, maybe in a subconscious way.
I’m curious about the way you perceive the relationship between quote-unquote art and quote-unquote commerce. I know you have a background in advertising and your work has been used in ads — and we’re way beyond a 1990s idea of “selling out,” but I want your perspective on maintaining a creative output under capitalism and all its many seductions.
I think it’s such a big topic that it’s hard to sum it up, but I definitely think the crossroads of art and commerce can produce a lot of amazing things. I never produce or make music for the sake of trying to get on a commercial or trying to be part of a campaign. When I make music, I’m trying to make what I want and what feels right in that moment. I would argue that there’s a general trend in marketing toward something that feels genuine and authentic, and I think that’s a pretty interesting place where art and commerce meet. It could be more beneficial in terms of financials and money to focus on being yourself. I think some people make art or make music to make money, and I can’t even say that that’s necessarily a bad thing — if that’s what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve. But personally, that’s not what I make it for, and I feel like if that’s what you’re chasing, it’s not the best way to do it. The best way to do it is to focus on your art. It might take time, but groups of people or companies will eventually see the authenticity of it and that can really land you into some great stuff.
Northern Nights, Friday-Sunday, July 19-21, Piercy, Calif. $299, tickets here.