Exploring Sonic Satellite ‘Sputnik’ With Jeremiah Moon

Seattle-based artist Jeremiah Moon recently released his debut EP, Sputnik, via Enci Records. It represented several years of work for the cellist, who hails from classical music, moving more firmly into popular music and finding his own voice as a songwriter as well as a recording artist. Working on the EP also opened the door for more “firsts” for Moon, who ventured into making videos collaboratively for the first time for this new music, tapping into a visual world that he also engages as an illustrator.

Each song on the EP has a fresh sense of new territory being explored, new combinations of vocals and instrumentals being sussed out, and musical questions being posed for the audience, encouraging their participation in the atmospheric world of the EP. I spoke with Jeremiah Moon about his wider artistic interests, how they might relate to his songwriting, and the shared world that the new songs inhabit on Sputnik.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know this EP was a long process and took quite a period of time, so it must be kind of surreal to have it out now. Though I imagine the process of videos has been ongoing.

Jeremiah Moon: It is! I still haven’t fully wrapped my brain around it. But yes, we are still making videos. I’m working on one today.

HMS: Do videos feel like a different form of life for the music? I saw that you are a very visual person and are also an illustrator.

JM: It does. It’s been really fun. I’m really glad to be collaborating with other people on most of the videos because they have skills that I don’t really have, personally. But I’ve loved music videos, and all kinds of visual things, for as long as I can remember and it’s really fun to dip my toe in that world and experiment. These are pretty much my first experience making videos on this level.

HMS: As a sidenote, I actually noticed on social media that you had quite a list of films that you watched in 2020. Are you someone who is really influenced by films?

JM: Big time. I love it and have been interested in watching movies for as long as I can remember. I always make a list each year and try to get through as many as I can by the end of the year. I’m still catching up on 2021 before I dig into 2022. Surprisingly, 2021 had films coming out right and left.

HMS: Is there a film you’ve seen recently that you recommend?

JM: So far, my favorite film of 2021 has been The Humans, an A24 movies, and they usually make good quality films. It was based on a play and all takes place over the course of one day at a family reunion, essentially. There are simmering family tensions. It’s kind of a weird, existential horror movie. It’s troubling to watch in parts, but on a personal level. It’s sort of scary to see the everyday traumas that people inflict on eachother. It’s tough but it’s awesome.

HMS: Oh, man, that sounds real. I do generally try to watch A24 films. I like their aesthetics, too.

JM: It’s strange to be a fan of a production company, but they seem to be putting out more good ones than bad ones. There aren’t a lot of studios doing mid-budget adult dramas right now. It’s great that there’s someone out there actually chasing those stories.

HMS: Do you consciously notice the music when watching films?

JM: Oh yes, whether it’s bad or good. It’s either, “I don’t know why they did that. I would have done that differently.”, or “That was an awesome little musical cue.”

HMS: Do you have an interest in writing film music?

JM: Big time. That’s a lifelong dream of mine. I did the music for a short film, and it was a really fun process. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but getting to hear your music while there’s story happening on screen is really cool. There’s so much power in that combination of a well-told story and good music at the same time. You can’t really beat it.

HMS: I know a little bit about your background in classical music, but I don’t know where the illustration path started for you.

JM: It’s been a kind of similar path as to music. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid but that is something that I didn’t really consider doing in a serious way until I was in college. I didn’t have much formal training. I tried to do a couple of classes at school but I found it very frustrating and dropped out. So most of what I do is self-taught. I think I started taking it more seriously after college because, luckily, I had some good encouragement from friends who pushed me to put some more work into it.

HMS: I noticed that you had some risograph prints of famous composers on your website that are really interesting.

JM: Yes, that was my early quarantine project since it was something I had been meaning to get into. I’d been experimenting for a while. I did a series of composers’ portraits and then a made a poster of them. I have a big stack of them. I was thinking of making prints or zines to sell as merch at shows.

Gustav Mahler by Jeremiah Moon

HMS: What was it like starting work on your first EP? Did you find it daunting?

JM: I think once I got the ball rolling with the EP, once I actually took the time to record with my friends in the early sessions, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I wanted to see it through regardless of the form it took. This has been my first big step to have a career in music, and to regularly make music and put it out. This is like the launchpad for me. Before 2017, I don’t know that I took myself very seriously as someone writing their own music.

HMS: Were you a performer before that time?

JM: I was studying classical music at college, and once I finished college, I thought that I wasn’t really cut out for that life, which meant sitting for hours every day in practice rooms, showing up for auditions, and busting your ass all the time to sit in the back row of an orchestra. I have so much respect for the people who do that and I kind of wish that I was capable of doing that. But mentally, and emotionally, for whatever reason, I don’t think I have that urge in me. I’ll leave it to the people who feel that fire. But for me, if I’m going to spend that much time doing something, I’d rather it be something I deeply love and care about.

I decided not to go to grad school, and went to the West Coast to figure out what was next. I coasted a little and had fun, then I got connected with some really cool musicians who live out here and they started inviting me to play with them at shows. They wanted a cellist to back them up, so I did, and I got into that world for the first time. I played shows around Seattle and realized how fun it was. I felt like this was something I could do and an option for me. As far as songwriting goes, I eventually decided to take that plunge. I was encouraged by a friend.

An interesting, kind of mystical person said to me, “You seem like you’re an artist. What’s really holding you back from pursuing that life?” It was a huge moment for me, being confronted like that. It was really uncomfortable at first because it was true. That was kind of my first therapy session! So I started working on it and writing some songs. I started working with some friends, and here we are, five years later.

HMS: That is such an interesting story. I have a huge respect for the choices that you made. I imagine that it was pretty difficult to make that choice not to follow the classical route because everyone expected you to follow it at that point and saw you in that way.

JM: It was hard because those were all my friends in college, too, and we were all on this path together. Then, I had to be the one to say, “I don’t think this is for me. I’m going to have to go watch all of you succeed and follow the path I almost followed. Am I going to regret this the rest of my life or am I going to regret it if I don’t do this?” It’s obvious looking back, but in the moment, it’s not always as obvious.

HMS: How do you usually work on music in terms of what you start with?

JM: I try to start with different things as much as I can. I’ve gotten some really good ideas starting from an electronic place, I’ve gotten really good ideas starting with the cello, and I have a really soft spot for writing in front of a piano, too. You write a different song depending on which way you do it, which is interesting. I’d write a hook for a cello that I’d never write on the keyboard. Sometimes a song you write on a synthesizer does work on a piano and vice-versa. I try to go with my gut and whatever I’m feeling that morning. I’ll sit in front of an instrument and play around with something, or I’ll dig through my pile of voice memos on my phone.

I’m super-interested in this, but I feel like it will be a lifelong process, learning to have some discipline with myself. But you have to go with your gut and what you feel. I think some of the best songs that I’ve written have been the ones that came the quickest but you’re not always there. What do you do when you don’t feel that? I think it’s a real give and take. You have to be soft with yourself, but you also need to know when to push, and say, “We’re working right now.”

HMS: It seems like putting yourself in the chair, so to speak, is important, creating the opportunity for something to happen. To ask you about the song “Melusine”, I didn’t immediately know what the name meant, but from the song, I got the sense that it referenced folklore and water beings and that turned out to be true. Did you have this concept as the starting point for the song?

JM: I started with the image of somebody out in a boat on a rocky lake, completely isolated. There was nobody else out there, and they were drifting. Then I started to build a story around it. The folk-tale about Melusine wasn’t where it started. I later did some research about mythology surrounding lakes and went down a rabbit trail that led me to that word. It’s an awesome sounding word. It flows like water. This one for me reminded me of writing a soundtrack in my head. I could almost see visuals playing out.

HMS: Do all of the songs you’ve written so far have visual elements for you?

JM: All of them have images. Some are more vivid, or more fully fleshed out, than others.

HMS: Obviously there’s not a traditional storytelling structure with these songs, but some of them have elements of settings, locations, or specific things that seem drawn from daily experiences. Do you think about a narrative, or it more collage-like?

JM: I like the word “collage”. I’ve toyed with the idea of having a single narrative looping through several songs, but it’s so hard to do that without being really corny. There are people who have done it well. I thought of this EP as more like a book of short stories. There are some unifying themes and reasons why all these are together, but it’s not the same characters or the same story. Maybe they exist in the same world.

HMS: What are the themes that you feel unify the songs on the EP?

JM: To me, the unifying theme is isolation and the push and pull between people. Ultimately, you belong to yourself and are your own person, no matter how much of yourself you share with the people around you. But there’s an inevitable pull and some connections that can’t be broken. That’s why I used the word Sputnik for the title because there’s an orbit. There’s a distance and an autonomy, but there’s also a mathematical gravity linking them.

HMS: The song “Housesitting” is the most romantic song on the album, and I didn’t really expect it to be because of all these themes of isolation that we were just discussing. At the same time, it’s very dream-like and non-specific.

JM: Right now, that’s my favorite song on the EP. I really wanted to have a song that had that warmth, like the feeling of being in love with someone. I wanted it to have some bittersweetness, too. Next to the warm feeling, there’s this other feeling, like gravity pulling things apart. I didn’t want it to be present in a doom and gloom kind of way, but in a quiet acceptance kind of way.

HMS: It reminds me more of natural processes. The cello and vocals have an interesting parallel relationship, like a dual set up in guiding the song.

JM: Yes, that was fun. I like the idea of it almost being a duet.

HMS: I was also really surprised by the doubling vocal effect on “Kinds of Light”.

JM: It was something I was hearing a lot when we were starting to record. I wanted to experiment with multi-track vocals and try different effects. I still wanted it to sound like a person singing, but we messed around a lot and landed on that effect, then rolled with it. I like how it turned out.

HMS: There’s a lot of warmth in the strings there, too. There’s also a little bit of a narrative feeling, possibly because of the repetition and looping. There’s also a bigger use of drum and percussion.

JM: Yes, Trevor Church did a great job on that. To me, the song doesn’t feel like it has more or less narrative than the other songs on the EP, but I do like that there’s a sense of a past, and maybe a future, in that song. It feels like being in the middle of a story that’s been happening, and I leave it to the listener to piece together what led to this point.

HMS: The video for that song is really interesting, bringing in the natural world and contrasting it with a cement bunker. There’s also lot of greenery.

JM: I made sure of that. The video was mostly me, believe it or not, though my friend who is a really talented videographer, was filming it. The concept was mine, and the shots were mostly mine. I actually edited it myself and did I the color. It was really fun to get to do that. There are a ton of those bunkers out here in Washington, along the western coast. I think they were built to be a defense against sea invasion. It’s such a cool image to see them decaying. You can’t not use it.

Photo courtesy of the artist
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