Adrian Underhill performed at Hillside Festival 2018 with fellow musicians Charlotte Cornfield and Anna Horvath (pictured above). Photo by: Karin Lee
Adrian Underhill, a Hillside veteran hailing originally from Vancouver, and now Toronto, returned to Guelph once again in 2018 – this time as a performer. Underhill was one of many artists and performers featured in this year’s Hillside Festival, which welcomes talents both from within Canada and the world. This year’s act came from other countries including the US, Venezuela, and Brazil. In his performance at Hillside this year, he was accompanied by his friends Charlotte Cornfield on drums and Anna Horvath (who writes music under the name Merival) on backing vocals. He has been all over Canada, moving to Montreal from Vancouver before finally settling in Toronto. The year 2018 certainly began well for Underhill, as he released his debut album, CU Again in February, and its popularity is only growing. CU Again features songs written by Underhill himself, which carry a vulnerable sense of honesty and are delivered by minimalistic sounds from his keyboard and drum machines. On the subject of countering hate with beauty, Hillside’s overarching theme this year, Underhill talks about using music as a means to recharge and fight back against hate.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
AU: I’m a musician from Toronto/Hamilton, and I put out my first record this year in February called CU Again. And yeah, it’s my first time playing at Hillside and I’m having a great time.
What do you like about Hillside? I’ve heard in some other interviews and also I saw your show last night, and you said it was your favorite music festival. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and why?
AU: Yeah. I think it’s a really great size, I think that’s one thing. It’s not so big that you’re gonna lose people and lose them forever. There’s three stages, you kind of just roam around. If you lose your friends you’re bound to run into them again, and I think that makes it a lot lower stress and a more fun environment. I also think it’s just really well organized. They’ve had almost 30-ish years to sort of figure out how to do this and compared to some of the newer festivals coming up just now, I think there’s a lot of things they’ve thought about 5, 10 years ago that they’ve now figured out how to do well, like how to run recycling, how to run compost, how to use reusable dishes, how not to have bottled water everywhere. All these things that take time and logistics to actually figure out, they’ve had the time to do that.
Who are you most excited to see perform at Hillside?
AU: I’m excited to see US Girls. I haven’t seen them play before. It’s gonna be great to see Chad van Gaalen, fun to see Rhye. I haven’t seen them before. Yeah, a number of things.
The theme of Hillside this year is countering hate with beauty. How do you see your position as an artist fitting into this?
AU: I think music is sort of a functional thing for a lot of people in this modern time. I think for many of us, it’s a place where you can kind of recharge and relax, and maybe ruminate on some of the bigger questions that are hard to see the big picture in the day-to-day. It’s just a place to relax for a lot of us. And I think a lot of people, like myself included, are finding that that’s really necessary right now. How do we recharge and find the energy to oppose hate and fight for change? Where do we have the time to step away and recharge enough to feel energized and able to go at some of those things? ‘Cause really what needs to be done is we need to all put in work, but how do you get to a place where you don’t feel exhausted and you instead have energy to go at those things?
Underhill's debut album CU Again was released on February 9, 2018. (Adrian Underhill)
What inspires you to write and make music?
AU: I think it’s a few things. I really love just putting sounds together and that feeling of piecing together these chords, choosing these sounds, choosing these drum sounds, choosing this and that and putting it together into this thing and then you listen back and like, this is cool. This is a color, this is a vibe that I haven’t made before, and there’s something about that on its most simple level that’s just fun.
What do I think I need to say and that deserves this space that it takes up in the world? If I’m gonna put out music under my own name, how am I gonna make that worth it?
But I think when I started working on this record, I was trying to find, thematically, what feels like it needs to be said. What do I think I need to say and that deserves this space that it takes up in the world? If I’m gonna put out music under my own name, how am I gonna make that worth it? What am I gonna say that is meaningful enough to me? And that’s hard, these songs didn’t just come out of thin air. I sat on that for a little bit, and hopefully I’ve found some things that I think are meaningful enough to sing about and to keep singing about and to keep trying to share with people like, “Hey, listen to this. I think it’s worth your time.” So those are some of the things.
In relation to that, how does your songwriting process work? What do you write about?
AU: Often it starts from that fun place, like writing chords, like finding maybe a melody or maybe it’s just some drum loop that can spark an initial idea. And usually it’s putting lyrics to that later, and most of the songs that I work on take a long time to finish. It might be that I have one chord progression and it sits on a folder in my computer for a few months, then I come back to it and I’m like, “I think this is promising, I need to hash out some other sections.” And then I’ve got some sections and it sits for a little while, and then I come back to it and I’m like, “Okay, I really need a melody, I really need something to write about.” So in that way that’s slowly how I’ve written is by slowly working away on multiple ideas at once.
I know some people do it in reverse. Like they write first and then they see what fits.
AU: Totally. And it can be hard. You can get stuck in a box because sometimes you sing gibberish words ‘cause you know what the words should sound like before you know what they should be. Different words have different sounds and sometimes instinctively you know what it should sound like in a certain section, but you can’t find quite the right words to match that, but that’s part of the fun is like that jigsaw puzzle.
You incorporate a lot of 70s music in your own songs. What interests you about music in this area?
AU: I think part of it is just this record began with me being, “Okay, what if I started writing on a piano?” I’ve mostly played guitar in songwriting projects in the past, and I was like, “Okay, I don’t really know how to play piano but I’m sure I can figure it out.” And it’ll maybe inspire some different ideas than I’ve had in the past and help me get out of a little bit of a rut. I think it’s just the chords that I gravitated to before knowing what I was doing fit a little bit in that tradition of classic 70s songwriting, and for this set of songs that was something that appealed to me. I wanted this thing to more or less kind of work as a vocal and piano part, and maybe a little drum machine thing, and then from there to build them up. At the core, there’s a song that you can listen to front to back. Yeah, that was kind of part of the original idea.
Tell us about your album cover and how it came to be.
AU: Yeah. The photo is from a music video that I did for one of the songs Not Good Enough for this album, and that was a video that I worked on with two friends from university: a filmmaker, Pablo Alvarez Mesa, and a dancer, Davy Bisaro. We created these costumes for the video from scratch and I kind of liked that look that we created so I used one of the still frames, and I knew there were certain colors I wanted to use, so I started doing some paint swatches, just testing colors, and I was scanning those into my computer, like painting with acetate on a clear piece of plastic and then scanning that in. I just started playing with those in the computer and that’s what came out.
So you designed it pretty much?
Underhill in the music video for his song Not Good Enough with dancer Davy Bisaro. (Pablo Alvarez Mesa)
What is your personal favorite track off your album CU Again?
AU: I think maybe How to Make a Life Count is one of the songs that turned out really cool, and the demo for it was in some ways a little sleepy. It’s a song that’s a really slow burn. It’s very simple at its core, and I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out great because of that. And it’s one of the songs that had the biggest transformation in the recording, and having the live musicians that played on it, like a drummer, bass player, keyboard player, really brought that song to life. And thematically I always felt it was strong and a story I wanted to tell and felt meaningful, but I wasn’t sure how it would come together so I was kind of pleasantly surprised by how that song in particular turned out.
‘Cause really what needs to be done is we need to all put in work, but how do you get to a place where you don’t feel exhausted and you instead have energy to go at those things?
What do you wish was different about the music industry?
AU: Oh man. So much. I mean I wish that, like every industry, it wasn’t predominantly controlled by powerful white men. I think that is something that doesn’t serve any of us. Myself being a white man, I think there’s a lot of us who are trying to make change in the music industry now and I think a lot of that is just redistributing power. There’s a lot that I think can be done through that but there’s also really long ways to go, and I think a lot of the problems in the music industry are not unique to music. Sexism, misogyny, racism, they’re not unique to music, but definitely we experience them in a particular way, and it plays out in a particular way. But I think that’s one thing that’s a big issue, and that needs to be talked about and worked on.
Underhill's new music video for the song Weather will be released in 2018. (Adrian Underhill)
What can we expect from you in 2018?
AU: I have a couple new music videos that are getting finished, which I’m really excited to share. One of them is a video for the song Weather and it’s gonna be a 360 video. So it’s kind of a virtual reality space that we created. It’s not a realistic space, it’s sort of a collaged space that we’re working on, so I’m really excited to share that video as well as a few others.
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