Jake Downs is about to release his debut album Fracture, a deeply personal project which he wrote, produced, and performed over three years. His unique style blurs musical boundaries, with elements of orchestral pop, folk, post-rock, ambient, noise, EDM, and experimental. I caught up with him to find out more.
What is your new album about, and what inspired it?
I suppose in the broadest sense it’s a record about human relationships: with each other, with nature, with technology—and, perhaps most importantly, with ourselves. To put it another way, it’s a journey through emotional maturation and self-awareness. I called it Fracture because of the plural meaning of the word: on the one hand, it implies that something ‘is broken’ and has connotations of pain and disjointedness; but on the other, it signifies a ‘break’ in the sense of a release, and something that can be healed—with time, with love, with care. The record as a whole works in a sort of arch-form narrative, beginning with a documentation of a particularly difficult relationship that I was in a few years ago. I was trying to reframe the confinement I felt at that time by showing myself that things had moved forward, and that life had become more ‘expansive’ since then. I wanted to tell myself—and others—that romantic relationships are not the only kind of connection worth singing about. It’s a trajectory of hope in the end—but I suppose you don’t get anywhere without hardship.
What was your favourite track on the album?
It changes quite a lot—but I think my favourite is ‘Afterglow’. It’s a short transitional track, which is purely instrumental and very ‘open’ in its form. It uses a stylized riff based upon the descending major scale played by Magdalen Tower’s bells. I’ve always had a fascination with the way that the bells start so confidently and uniformly, yet after a while begin to disintegrate into a complex and confused cloud of sound. I had great fun with ‘Afterglow’: the synth pad that runs throughout it was made from the sound of geese honking. It’s a kind of electro-pastoral track.
And which was the most difficult to write?
‘Cypress Tree’, without question. It takes its inspiration from the chilling plaintiveness of British folk songs. It’s about a member of the Music Faculty Library in Oxford who took his own life in 2015. It was almost impossible to finish writing the lyrics, as well as being hugely problematic to record. Everything seemed to go wrong: we had to re-record the strings several times, my vocals were nightmarish to get right, and we spent an enormous amount of time sorting out the electronic soundscape. It was also the trickiest to master… But it’s done now, and I’ve made peace with it. It’s still hard for me to listen to though.
How would you describe your musical style, and what has influenced it?
I’m not one for pigeonholes; I’m a bit of a hybrid being. I was classically trained in a few instruments, but my house was full of pop throughout my childhood. I’ve regularly obsessed over styles and sounds, harmonic languages, and vocal techniques—and I think there are bits of everything in what I do. (I am currently transfixed by Bulgarian vocal music and Lebanese pop.) I suppose, if you threw Kate Bush’s discography together with those of Björk, Anohni, Shirley Collins, Joanna Newsom, a bit of Brian Eno, a healthy dose of Owen Pallett and Woodkid, a splash of Meredith Monk, and some big splodges of ‘orchestral pop’, ‘alt-folk’, ‘post-rock’, and EDM, you might be about there. Kind of.
How did studying music academically at Oxford affect your approach to composing and performing?
The course certainly opened my ears to a lot of Western art music by men. Well, perhaps that’s a bit damning… I was particularly taken with medieval vernacular song and 16th-century counterpoint: I think you can hear traces of both throughout my own music. Otherwise, there were some other aspects of the course that I loved: a compulsory social history course on global trends in hip-hop (Professor Jason Stanyek) was hugely influential on my approach to the study of music, and Professor Eric Clarke’s various courses on the psychology of music were superb. I didn’t learn anything about performing on the course, though: it’s not the arena for artists like me.
In that case, do you think it’s problematic that your style of performance wasn’t catered for at Oxford? And do you think that the divide between ‘art music’ and ‘popular music’ is an issue in the wider industry?
It’s a tough one. With regard to the wider industry, art music is a romanticized object of aesthetic nostalgia for most people (“Oh, the Blue Danube: I love this one…”). Obviously, on a commercial level, it’s nowhere near as ‘successful’ as ‘popular’ styles. But I think the traditional divide is useless for certain artists—like Björk, Joanna Newsom, and even FKA twigs to some extent. In the case of pop performance at Oxford, I suppose that if I’d wanted to be trained in a ‘popular’ style of performance I’d have chosen a different course. While many GCSE Music courses nowadays don’t discriminate by style in performance marking, I think the aesthetic/‘intellectual’ divide becomes trickier at degree level. There are just different priorities between so-called ‘art’ and ‘pop’ musical performances: the former tends to favour accuracy and uniformity more than the latter, for example. This sometimes leads to pop musicians being branded as ‘untalented’ and other such things—often the product of a nasty elitism and smugness founded upon traditional models of taste and listening style. On reflection, as a way of trying to shun the need for discrete boundaries between the two, I suppose I’d like to say that I fall midway between the two aesthetic systems: my shows tend to be to silent, nineteenth-century-style listening audiences, and my arrangements are often intricate and challenging—but I would still have got a 3rd if I’d played a Dolly Parton cover for my Finals at Oxford.
Your new album is crowdfunded. Do you think the increasing use of crowdfunding is a positive development in the music industry?
This is a really interesting question, and I think an important one for me to have to answer. Like any pop musician, to be able to continue making music, I rely on (a) money from gigs and (b) money from record sales. But this is naturally more problematic when you’re a small artist on an independent label: you very rarely get a solid fee (if any) for gigs, and no one really buys music anymore. The amount of money I get from Spotify for a stream is something like £0.0001. So, for me, crowdfunding works on two levels: first, to show fans that I really do need their help to carry on doing this stuff; and second, hopefully it encourages people to buy the album so that we can at least break even on manufacturing costs. It’s not a criticism (I’m completely guilty of Spotify listening and not buying the record in the end), but it’s an economic observation. Also, I wanted to be able to sell beautiful, good-quality merchandise, but that’s an expensive thing to do upfront. All in all, I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported me so far: it makes me feel like I have a great little virtual community looking after my music. I think that’s the real pro of crowdfunding.
Do you have any upcoming performances? And how does performing live compare to working on a recording in a studio?
I’m headlining a fab folk-pop night at the Harrison near King’s Cross in London on 23rd November. I’d love to do some more gigs soon in Oxford and Cambridge too. I think being in the studio turns you into a different beast. There are similar feelings of elation: the joy of performing something well or with ‘flow’ (in Csíkszentmihályi’s sense), especially with other musicians, is akin to that gorgeous moment when suddenly you hear your track getting to the stage that you imagined it would in your head (“Yes, that is the right snare sound”). I’d say the studio is a better place for a perfectionist like me (though the mixing engineers I worked with on this record would probably disagree!), because you can keep revisiting something until you’re happy with it. But you do lose that in-the-moment exhilaration.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I’ve just started a PhD, actually. It’s an exploration of the phenomenology (individual experience) of headphone listening—something that so many people do every day, but something that no one talks about much. I think there’s much interesting stuff to be said about sticking a couple of pieces of vibrating technology onto the sides of your head and enveloping yourself in a portable sonic environment. Stay tuned…
I suppose for now I’m keeping the ‘theory’ and the ‘practice’—that is (crudely speaking), the academia and the record-making—running along in parallel, at least until one starts to speed ahead of the other. They definitely interweave, though: for example, the ‘digital’ and ‘virtual’ focus of my doctorate directly feeds into the aesthetic of the first video from Fracture (which is out at the end of the month, directed by Benjamin Leggett). I think ‘doing’ music is the dream, though. But maybe I’ll become a marine biologist. Or a human rights lawyer. Or a Donald Trump impersonator. Who knows?