JSWISS — “No Music” EP: More Than Liner Notes

Artwork by Mathias Lundh-Isén

With us being fully immersed in the digital music age, one of the things that’s gotten lost is the liner notes. That physical booklet with all of the credits and thank yous has long been a part of the experience of properly living with and taking in a new project, which one can argue is a lost art altogether. But what going digital does do is provide virtually unlimited space to speak, unlike the finite room in an album booklet. So while the No Music Bandcamp page does include full credits and lyrics, I’m using this medium (you know I had to do it right?) to give props and insight on the EP. I’ll get to what No Music means, don’t worry, just wait ‘til we get to the title track.

Sunshine To Rain: Produced by Brady Watt. Matt Giella on Trumpet. Atsushi Ouchi on Saxophone. Featuring Maya Azucena.

Favorite Lyric: “There it is my mind’s stimulated, my rep’s decorated/ My skills venerated, my doubts never made it/ My claims demonstrated, your mood elevated/ Beats got celebrated, marinated, decimated”

This one is a fun, feel-good song to get you in a good mood as you start to take the EP in. In the past I’ve gotten some soulful elements into my music, but I never felt like I really got the funk in there, and I feel like I finally achieved that with this one.

Besides being straight up one of my favorite songs on the project, “Sunshine To Rain” stands out to me because of the different ways I’ve come together with everyone who collaborated to make this one. I was a fan of Brady Watt’s before ever meeting him. As a music nerd I pay attention to not only the main artist and producers of a project, but also the musicians playing individual parts on records or in artists’ bands. I especially follow if that musician starts to pop up many different places. That was the case with Brady, who has become a go-to bassist for live bass within hip hop, and is now growing his prominence as a producer and band front man. I remember about a year before first working with Brady I once listened to Curren$y’s Pilot Talk album all the way through while mentally tuning out all parts but Brady’s basslines, which I feel really make that album what it is.

Maya Azucena is another talented artist with a long list of accomplishments, including a Grammy certificate for her work on Stephen Marley’s Grammy Award-winning album Mind Control. Unlike Brady, I’ve known Maya since before I would have ever thought of collaborating; way before I ever would’ve thought music to be my career. So it’s special to have her on such a strong overall song at this point in my life.

Atsushi and Matt were the last addition to this track and they brought just the right flavor it needed. They’re both in a jazz fusion/funk band called Phantom Pop. Connecting with that band is one of the best things to happen to me during the past year. Guys from that band are all over the EP and we’re all over each other’s live shows as well.

Figure It Out: Music written by Nick Rolfe and Julian Caldwell. Additional vocals by Chandanie. Nick Rolfe on Keyboards. Josh Schusterman on drums. Dave Lowenthal on bass. Matt Giella on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Favorite Lyric: “Every other solution’s a contradiction/ Your life is for you don’t make it a competition/ But still I’m tryna win, come out on top/ Live life or work til I drop”

Sometimes it really is hard to strike that balance between not stressing yourself out and sacrificing whatever’s necessary to achieve greatness. Personally, I feel like real progress is going to naturally come with a good dose of stress, especially when you demand a lot of yourself. Being healthy about it is the key and the challenge.

When we hit our mid-twenties we’re old enough to have had life experience that puts us on the path towards reaching our full potential, but we’re also young enough to be far from reaching our potential, and to still make mistakes. A lot times we don’t realize we still have time to make mistakes, while making mistakes anyway in spite of the fact or because we don’t realize it and put pressure on ourselves to have life mastered. This song is me acknowledging that I don’t know it all, recognizing that my high standards for myself present a tall task, accepting it all and saying, hey, I’ll “figure it out.” Or with more conviction, “I’ll promise I’ll figure it out.”

This project is unique from my others and those by many hip hop artists because I not only wrote the lyrics, but I was also either influential in developing or there for the making of the music as well. Usually I’m picking instrumentals that have been already worked out and sent to me by producers, and then writing songs to that music. There’s a good chance in that case I may ask for or make small revisions to better match up with what I wrote, but for the most part the music is already all there. This time around I was there for the entire process to help execute my vision. I was part of the development of every song from the first note, to the song concepts, to every line.

“Figure It Out” is the best example of this. The first manifestation of “Figure It Out” is a demo of me, beatboxing and humming out other parts, including the main melody, which Chandanie is singing on the final version. I have the multitrack recording, maybe I’ll share that one day. The groove is slightly different, but the idea is there. I then took that demo to keyboardist Nick Rolfe. (Sidenote: For multiple reasons Nick is a HUGE reason why this project was able to come together and sounds as great as it does.) We worked out a demo on the keyboard including three different variations of the music based off of the main chords. After demoing with Nick, I wrote and recording a rough draft to that demo version, ultimately scrapping one of the three variations. That rough draft became the blueprint once I brought in Chandanie and all of the musicians, resulting in the two-part “Figure It Out” you hear today.

Dave’s Joint: Music written by Dave Lowenthal. Dave Lowenthal on bass. Nick Rolfe on keys. Josh Schusterman on drums.

Favorite Lyric: “I run on soul, I run on rhythm/ A 4/4, 6/8 and I still stay wit em”

If you wanna say there are any “samples” on No Music, this would be the one. The music to “Dave’s Joint,” which is sort of an interlude track, is an extended version of an intro to a song by Phantom Pop. After recording on Phantom Pop’s upcoming album I became obsessed with these fleeting 15 seconds of one song. I looped the part and tried out a rap I had written recently and it fit perfectly.

Fortunately, unlike with most hip hop samples, I was scheduled to get in the studio with Dave and Josh (of Phantom Pop) about a week later, so I asked if they’d mind replaying it with Nick on keys for a short track on my project. I got the green light, and since Dave wrote the music, as he does most of Phantom Pop’s songs, I christened the track “Dave’s Joint.”

I was also eager to use this because the music nerd (alert!) in me always wanted to rap in an odd meter on my project. Most of the song is in your typical 4/4 time signature, but at sections the bass and drums switch to 6/8. I felt comfortable enough with the music to continue through the transitions without missing a beat. The coincidence of me referencing that in the verse, which I wrote separately from the music, is why it’s my favorite lyric.

Dedicate.LoveSomethin’: Produced by Brady Watt. All instruments and drum programming by Brady Watt.

Favorite Lyric: “Sanity come and goes, reality poke its nose/ Break down the comfort zone just to live comfortable”

This was actually the first song that Brady and I did together. The hook and concept was something that I had in my back pocket already, but I didn’t think I’d be writing and recording that song that day when got together. I was thinking we’d make something more laid back and feel good like “Sunshine To Rain”, but once we vibed for a little bit and he started putting the music together, I knew it was supposed to be this song. I wrote and recorded the song right then and there and it all fit perfectly.

One of the most beautiful and ugly, joyous and stressful, rewarding and depressing things can be completely committing to your passion. The highs feel so much higher because of the lows that will inevitably come in between and you have to embrace both. It’s a roller coaster ride that not everyone really gets to go on in their lives, but I wish everyone finds that thing that makes them give it a try.

I feel like if you want to do something only because you can imagine the glory that comes from it, that’s not your real passion. But if you can envision all of the toiling and pitfalls that will come along the road and view that with the same fervor and excitement as the payoff, then you’ve found your thing. I was fortunate that before music I dedicated myself to my dream of being a professional basketball player, doing some things other people weren’t willing to do, and often doing them alone. It ultimately wasn’t enough, and it brought its ups and downs, but now I’ve found another passion in music.

No Music: Dave Lowenthal on bass. Josh Schusterman on drums. Noah MacNiel on keys. Atsushi Ouchi on saxophone. Eitan Akman on guitar. Matt Giella on trumpet. Theo Moore on congas.

Favorite Lyric: “Had my first crush to some Musiq Soulchild/ When I had that break up that Voodoo was crucial/ One Mo’Gin she done worked The Root/ Self Destruction told us we ain’t supposed to shoot”

Those above lines from the song perfectly capture the idea behind No Music. Everything capitalized refers to an artist, album or song. When you’re into music as much as I am as a listener and/or musician, every emotion and situation can forever be tied to a song you either listen to or write. I have dozens of examples and I know I’m not alone. When music becomes that close to you and is omnipresent, the music never shuts off, it’s never something separate. It’s “no music,” it’s just life.

The first verse is also important to me because I’m speaking to where and how I grew up and who I am at the core. I’m a proud representer of Dobbs Ferry, NY and hip hop, while in some ways I’m sort of an anomaly in both. Both have influenced me, and both will stay with me forever.

The ensemble of musicians playing on this one is basically Phantom Pop. You’ll notice this is the one song that doesn’t say the music was written or produced by anyone because it was a team effort. I recorded a reference track to some pre-existing music that gave me a rough feel of what I wanted and then hit a rehearsal studio with the band. I also already knew what kind of transitions and builds up I wanted already. I felt more like a conductor of an orchestra putting this one together.

Don’t Forget About Me: Music written by Nick Rolfe. Nick Rolfe on keys and synthesizer. Dave Lowenthal on bass. Josh Schusterman on drums. Scratches by DeeJay Element.

Favorite Lyric: “Better hit me ‘fore I’m really on the ball or I’m ignoring your call, that’s pass interference”

I wrote this prior to working out the finalized music to it, but I knew it was something I wanted on the EP. The song revealed itself at a time when I was just writing to stay in practice and “keep sword sharp,” so to speak. Usually those sessions don’t turn out to be anything overly thematic or narrative. I just find an old beat online, and let the metaphors flow. For whatever reason this time I started thinking about my relationships and conversations with friends and acquaintances, and the impact that those have on me. When it was all said and done I had a song that was less metaphor heavy and more straightforward reality.

This is another one where I worked out a demo with just Nick on keys at his place before getting in the studio with the whole band. We got the song down pretty easily but were struggling with the ending. That’s when I suggested the musicians just vamp to take it out, which is the funky, sort of psychedelic outro. Once they laid it down I could hear scratches fitting perfectly, and my man DeeJay Element of the Brown Bag AllStars came through in the clutch and put the final touches on the project just before the final mixing was done. It was the perfect bookend to the EP.

Photo By Robert Adam Mayer
Photo by Robert Adam Mayer

Thank Yous

For everything I achieve in life, music-related or not, my parents deserve credit. Mom and dad, just as much as the skills I was blessed with and have developed, you two being the parents you always have been is a huge reason for my successes. My extended family is the illest support system as well. Nana, Poppy, Grandma Sassy (all nicknames that will stick no matter how grown I get) I love and look forward to you seeing all I’m about to do. Uncle Chuck, Aunt Brenda, Uncle Greg, Aunt Toni, my crazy cousin Charnea (super proud of you!), Daylin (hope to see you soon!), Godmother Terrie, Godfather Arnold, Uncle Mych, Uncle Reggie, Sue, Uncle Wendall, Aunt Yvette. I love you all! My brothers from Dobbs Ferry: Evan, Henry, Victor, Devin (The West Side!), Jamie, Adam, Luis, Bhavik. There’s a reason the word brother isn’t in quotations. Same for my GQ brothers: Vic (the reason I got dragged in with all these dudes), AJ, Kaylon, Daniel, IJ, Darius, Darrius, Chris, Gavin, Jay, Ricky, Stedman; and affiliates: Briana, Esha, Shauni, Jackie. Glad I was able to take some of the best part of college with me after I graduated. My No9to5 fam! (I ain’t mentioning AJ again, punk) Kyree, Josh, Chandanie, Pat. From the MRC and 3207 to the world! My man Carson, Awthenticity is probably still the most fun I’ve had making a project. Mel and Mira it’s always fun being the third wheel in your conversations haha. Mathias, the artwork you put together is INCREDIBLE. It’s the first thing people see when they see the project, and it definitely doesn’t discourage them from hitting play, you can believe that. This section was supposed to be for people not on the project, but since I didn’t mention them yet, James Dellatacoma and Brian Kidd, your mixing and mastering made sure the vision was presented the right way! Would’ve made a big difference if you hadn’t. I KNOW I’m forgetting people, but I’d rather just acknowledge that than try to name everyone, pretend like I remembered everyone and then have people really feeling left out. If I’ve ever hit you up and asked how you’re doing, consider yourself in my thank yous!