(Labyrinthine Heart’s Album Cover)
The music is distinctive, strangely familiar and overall beautiful. You could be riding on the seat of your car and this guy beside you plays a Sleepthief album and then you’d go “Hey… that music, who is that artist?” American composer Justin Elswick, the man behind Sleepthief uses his influences and collaboration with other artists to create a lush, pulsing electronic landscape that is out of this world and yet so personal that it speaks to your subconscious.
His latest offering Labyrinthine Heart features eight vocalists who contribute their own unique voices to create a wonderful album worth a listen again and again. If you are a fan of Enya, Delerium or Irish electronic duo Dagda, then you will snatch a copy of Sleepthief’s album. Apart from beautiful melodies, the production is also superb and artfully crafted . Let me add that the album cover is really excellent.
Justin took sometime off to answer this interview patiently.
Pictures courtesy of http://www.myspace.com/sleepthief
Complete preview of the new album available at : http://www.sleepthiefmusic.com
I was watching your 4-part You Tube interview. It’s amazing by the way. Who made that?
– Thank you! That was recorded by a friend of mine who is a cameraman.
The World Gone Crazy is an awesome video, directed by Eric Hueber. What’s the extent of your involvement in the video shoot?
– For the WORLD GONE CRAZY video, Eric came up with the general concept, and I loved it. I gave some feedback on the overall storyline, but the vision was Eric’s. I was the producer of the video and did most of the logistical set up with location, actors, etc. However, with some of my other videos like TENUOUS and THE CHAUFFEUR, I was more involved with creating the storyline and even directing along with Eric.
Why did you choose Sleepthief instead of Justin Elswick?
-I knew that music would involve other singers and so I did not feel it fair just to use my own name. Because it is a project, I wanted to come up with a name that resonated with people–something mysterious and memorable.
Tell us about the music gears that you use in the studio?
– I program on Logic. I also use many different plug ins from Spectrasonics, VSL, Rob Papen, Arturia, Native Instruments and others.
Do you have a work schedule when working on an album?
-Not usually when I start. I just begin writing and hoping that I can create a selection of songs that will work for an album. However, as I begin to get close to finishing, the label has deadlines that must be met in order to release the album on time.
You are surrounded by wonderful artist from The Dawnseeker up to the latest album Labyrinthine Heart. What’s your memorable experience working with them?
-I feel so fortunate to be working with some of the best singer/songwriters in the business. I think that finishing the songs with the vocals in place is always a great feeling. Each of the singers brings their own personality and energy to the recording, so it is always exhilarating and memorable. Also, there are always funny moments when recording where we just all joke around.
You started as a music critic. That’s when you started to know and made friends with musicians around. Some of them already worked in your albums right?
-I did start as a music reviewer for the website www.musicaldiscoveries.com
As I began to think about making my own album, I decided to contact some of the singers that I had reviewed (like Jody Quine, Harland and Caroline Lavelle).
Do you think that this experience also pushed you to be a bit critical with what you do?
-Definitely! I am very picky when it comes to overall sound and feeling. If the recording doesn’t sound exactly right to me, I will keep working on it.
Were there quirks about writing reviews and interviewing musicians?
-Not particularly. I only approached those singers whose music I liked–haha.
What gives you the push to compose tunes? When does the muse arrive?
-It really depends. There are times when it feels like a song just flows naturally and easily out of my mind and heart. Other times, it is like polishing a stone–tons of repetitive work. Of course, it is always easier when the song comes quickly from inside. But sometimes that extra labor of just sitting down and fighting with a song yields positive results. There is something to be said about forcing yourself to be disciplined and work. I will say that sometimes a book I read or a movie I see or a person in my life provides strong inspiration for the music. In those cases, the songs can come forth quite quickly.
Your sound tunes people this this ‘other plane’- the spiritual plane. Tell me about the role of spirituality in your life and music.
-Religion and God have played a very strong role throughout my life. I was born and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). I still go to church and I have had wonderful personal spiritual experiences in my life that have been great blessings to me. I find serenity in prayer and reading scripture. And life has been a proof to me that God exists and loves us. I love nature as well and being outside in the mountains or forests is very inspiring to me. Also, I have a great love of religious music including hymns and masses. Faith and belief in something greater than ourselves is at the root of most religions and I think that touching that deeper part of the soul is very important in making my music. I would say that my music comes from some of my deepest feeling, so because my faith in God is also deeply rooted, it must connect with the music I make.
Your music is also very personal. It is something that relates to emotions. Any thought about this?
-As I mentioned, I will not write a song unless there is something that is prompting me on an emotional level to write. For example, SKIMMING STONES was written when I was feeling very alone and full of sorrow. I realized that a different times in our lives, we question why we are even here and why we feel so disconnected to people and even God. I wanted to write a song about that feeling and about how, even when we feel utterly alone, we still long for a connection to other people and to the greater power in the universe.
(Skimming Stones feat. Kirsty Hawkshaw courtesy of Sleepthief’s Official You Tube site).
You also love classical composers like Schubert and Beethoven. Yet how do you make it catchy deceptively simple and accessible to pop ears?
-I love classical music. In particular, I enjoy symphonies and also choral pieces. I suppose that those influences combine with my love of pop music, so there is a but of an amalgamation of those different styles in my music.
Do you really think that Sleepthief is the future sound of the past? And why?
-I actually came up with that catchphrase because I think my music draws from music styles and ideas from other times and places, but is set in a “electronic” more modern style. So it is both past and future coming together.
I know you’ve mentioned it on your You Tube interview but for the benefit of others, can you give us a background of the concept behind Labyrinthine Heart?
-As a concept, I wrote the music for the track as I was thinking about how many of us are guarded with our hearts. So, we create complexities in order to protect ourselves from being hurt. Deep down, we all hope that someone can basically unravel all of our personal idiosyncracies and flaws and love us at the most basic level. LABYRINTHINE HEART basically refers to a heart that is maze-like with many twist and turns and how each of us hopes that one person will be able to make it through the maze and find the true center of who we are.
You spoil your listeners with wonderful haunting female vocals. What made you realize that you want this kind of voice in your recordings and not the pop sounding ordinary kind?
-For me, a voice must evoke emotion and interest. So many pop singers are very predictable and “studied.” I like original and distinctive voices that pull you in to the story. A beautiful female voice cannot be beat!
Thanks to you, It makes me want to check out their (the guest vocalists) individual recordings. Though I am already familiar with Caroline Lavelle’s wonderful solo works and she’s here right? It must be wonderful working with her.
-Each of the guest singers has worked on other songs and music. Caroline is a lovely person, and I have been a fan of her music since 1995. It has been a real dream come true to be able to work with her. She is so talented and kind.
You are also a practicing lawyer. Some musicians who get into the business sometimes find themselves going into a different path-you know the attraction of fame and fortune. Do you think being able to juggle between two worlds has given you the sanity you needed?
-Yes. Practicing law helps the rational side of the brain, while music focuses on the creative side. Plus, having a steady job is important because the music industry makes it so hard to make money these days!
It’s also amazing you can do these things (being a lawyer / musician/producer and so much more). A lot of people would want to be in your shoes-or head!
-Thank you. I appreciate that. However, I think I am just a regular guy who got lucky. I’ve worked hard, but I also know that I have been blessed too.
You mentioned that Watermark by Enya (on tape) was the album you bought that totally changed your musical perspective. What is it about that album that spoke to you?
-It was a combination of the voice, the music, the harmonies. I remember putting the tape in and listening for the first time. I literally was glued to my seat. I felt overwhelmed emotionally by the music like I had never been before. It was like finding a really beautiful dream that suddenly comes to life when you never dared to hope it could be real. That album was like “coming home” to me.
Tell us how was the experience studying in Ireland like? Have you met cool folks over there?
-It was one of the best experiences of my life. I LOVE the Irish people. Their music, personalities, culture…the landscape and architecture is beyond inspiring. It feels like a second home to me, and I try to get back every few years. I have several good friends there.
You will be working with Enya’s younger sister Bridin Brennan ( I know this will alert a lot of ears!). How did this come to be?
– Yes, I have been speaking with Bridin’s manager, Shane for some time. Originally, I contacted him when we were working on the SIRENES compilation album and I wanted to include one of her songs. I actually met up with him in 2007 in Ireland. He is a wonderful guy. I just need to work out the details with him and Bridin, but I really hope it comes about as I think she is an amazing singer. I wrote a song a few years ago that is about the area in Ireland around Mount Errigal. It is called “Errigal Passage.” Interestingly enough, the Brennan family are from that area and the place I wrote the song about is only 10 minutes from where they all grew up.
What’s your opinion about touring?
– Would love to do it! It all comes down to expense, though as a live show would be quite expensive for me to put on the way I’d want it. I still plan on doing it though.
How do you view success?
-I think success is relative. If you are grateful for the people who have found the music and appreciate their support, I think you are successful. It is not about numbers of fans, or money necessarily. For me, I feel amazingly successful because the music has touched people throughout the world and they have shared their feelings with me about how the music has affected them. I am so proud of that and very humbled that some people have felt a connection with my music.
How do you deal with criticisms?
-I think that legitimate criticism is fine. With music, it is such a subjective thing that it is hard to say one person’s view is more important than another’s. I am not bothered by criticism in general if it is a fair opinion. I think criticism can be frustrating when someone has not really listened to the music. For example, one critic said that the songs on The Dawnseeker were “all the same.” To me that is demonstrably false, because each song has a different tempo, different singer, different instruments and different mood. When I read that review, I just thought “well he hasn’t really listened.” But criticism is inevitable for any artist who puts their work out in the public domain, so you just have to realize that and focus on the positive.
If you were on a street and you see somebody looking at you, what would be the first thing to cross your mind?
-Is my zipper on my pants down? haha
Any particular brand of piano you’d like to play?
-I love playing different pianos because they all have their own special sound.
Any message to you new converts?
-Just that I am so thankful to anyone who has been listening or is just new to the music. I make the music in hopes that it will become part of peoples’ lives in a good way and I never take the fans for granted. They make it all possible.
Labyrinthine Heart is now available at: