[Cover photo credit to Joelle Hannah]
Jon De Rosa recently released a new album from his project Aarktica via Darla Records, We Will Find the Light. Aarktica has traditionally been a project that was known for its ambient leanings while De Rosa has released music under his own name over the years that leans more towards singer/songwriter and Folk traditions. When approaching this new Aarktica record, De Rosa realized that these categories were limiting his ability to simply write songs in a way that felt natural to him. Overcoming that division led to much more organic song creation for him and also makes for a wide-ranging album that beautifully addresses different musical traditions in emotive and thought-provoking ways.
On We Will Find The Light, De Rosa worked for the first time with Grammy-nominated Producer Lewis Pesacov who’s open approach helped De Rosa get out of his comfort zone in sharing personal elements from his life that he’d previously kept more to himself, like his long relationship with plant medicine and shamanic healing. Another notable thing about the album is that it is available in physical formats like CD and double-vinyl, the first time an Aarktica project has appeared in physical media in a number of years. I spoke with Jon De Rosa about the experience that he had of bringing his sound worlds together for the new album and the significance of that experience held him, artistically, and as a person.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that you’re going to have CDs and vinyl for the first time in a number of years for an Aarktica project on We Will Find The Light.
Jon De Rosa: Yes, we have physical product for this release and it’s the first physical album that Aarktica has put out since 2010 or so. We’ve had one digital album in between. Back in the early days of Aarktica, I had been putting out records on the label Darla. I had left the label and hadn’t really been in touch with them for a long time, but over the past couple years, I made a call and thought it was time. It was really nice to be back in touch and it was around the time I started thinking about this record. Darla offered to do the release and the ones they’ve been putting out have been largely vinyl. That was great with me. So that’s what they did. It’s actually a double LP because it’s a long album!
HMS: I was wondering about that, because I was also looking at some of the song lengths, and some of them go longer than mainstream music. I was hoping you didn’t have to make that chop or selection to fit it onto vinyl.
JDR: It didn’t make sense to do that, since it would have been about making songs shorter.
HMS: For me, the physical experience of listening to records and having to change sides and things like that, fits in well with the idea of a therapeutic experience, too. There is an involvement that’s important.
JDR: I have to say that I listen to music in a streaming way 99% of the time and it works for me, especially because I’m someone who listens to a broad range of music. But I do think there’s something to that ritual where you’re saying that for these 40 minutes or for this hour, you’re actually going to sit there and enjoy this. It’s something people should be doing, taking that slice of time, whether it’s for music or not.
HMS: Allowing quieter time in our lives has been a discovery for a lot of people during the pandemic.
JDR: Oh, yes. I was taking long walks during that time and also going into artists’ catalogs where maybe I knew an album or two but that I had always wanted to explore, like The Beach Boys and Dylan, the giants. I had a great time making the best of a shitty time. It was special.
HMS: Classic music has been really huge in the past two years and making these connections can be really inspiring. You figure out chains of influence that have impacted you.
JDR: I remember listening to the Love album a few years ago and realizing that Belle and Sebastian had lifted sections of it. When those light bulbs go off, it’s really interesting.
HMS: This album has been unusual for you in other ways, too, in that you brought together different elements of musical style that you usually keep separate between your singer/songwriter project and your Aarktica project, right?
JDR: I had writer’s block for years trying to do another Aarktica record. It’s always been a weird thing because the first albums were kind of guitar ambient, and the project fell into that niche. It did well in that niche but I was never quite satisfied to just stay there. I was interested in bigger orchestrations and in expanding the sound. In some ways, as the sound changed, we fell in between the cracks. It wasn’t ambient enough for ambient music. It was too out there for the Indie Rock crowd. It wasn’t upbeat enough for Post-Rock. The fact that I’ve been restless hasn’t been helpful.
But on the side, I was making all these records under my own name. I could call them singer/songwriter, but they were a little more straightforward, Folk, or chamber Pop. I always felt that those styles were compartmentalized between Aarktica records and Jon De Rosa records. I found that my writer’s block was largely because I was trying to formulate in my head how something should sound and maybe not doing the thing that was more natural to me.
It was when I started picking up the acoustic guitar again and writing without a preconceived notion of what it was going to be that it kind of all came together. There happened to be some songs that we made more atmospheric and there happened to be some pieces that were more instrumental. This album taught me that I don’t need to separate those things anymore.
I need to bring everything to the table and not be overly controlling about what I believe the outcome is supposed to be.
HMS: That’s a really powerful story. I’m sure you feel it is and I do, too. It’s rare for me to hear an American talk that way about crossing such different genre divides, but the people who I do talk in this way tend to come from other countries. I do think some people are making the same decisions, though, standing between ambient music, singer/songwriter, classical traditions, and more.
JDR: For years and years, I was studying in the field of Somatic healing work, which is trauma therapy. I was having a lot of doubts when I started seeing clients and since it was heavy stuff, I went to my teachers and said, “I don’t know if I have it.” They said, “For one, you have it. People also find you because of what you offer them and what you are to them.” So it may be that there’s something about someone’s personality that makes them feel comfortable in that exchange and it helps their healing.
I started to see that in music. The hope is that people listen because of what you’re bringing, on a much bigger level than because it’s ambient, or because it’s Dark Folk. When I think about artists like Nick Cave, there’s something about everything he touches that’s so distinctly him. There’s something very beautiful and comforting, to me, about what he brings. I would aspire and hope that in become more authentic in a sound identity that no matter where it falls on the genre spectrum, there might be something bigger than that which people can take away from it.
HMS: I feel like art terminology is less restrictive. The school they come from fades out in the context of the work an artist creates that is distinctly theirs.
JDR: It’s a lot about how we feel in the presence of someone else. Do we feel at ease? Is there something we can share? Some subtle things make us feel a little guarded. We pick up on the subtleties.
HMS: You can definitely apply that to live performance, too. Do some of these songs go back further for you, are all they all from a certain period of time?
JDR: These songs were all, with the exception of one song, written in January of last year. I was desperately trying to figure out this writing blockage. Even with the last Aarktica record, I kind of had to force it out, and a lot of it happened in the studio. With this album, something just shifted into place, and once I stopped putting parameters on myself, I did the thing that was natural, and everything started coming. It was uncharacteristically easy.
Then, some of them were ambient pieces that we really developed in the studio with Lewis Pesacov, the Producer. I had ideas from decades of making ambient music and guitar music, but he had a different approach to certain things and made suggestions. I said, “Absolutely!” I wasn’t married to anything. For some of the pieces, I came in feeling like I knew what they were going to sound like, but that changed, and that was great.
HMS: Had you and Lewis worked together before?
JDR: I had never worked with him before, but he came recommended through friends. He was nominated for a Grammy this year for an opera he did. He was surprised by it. He’s a super-funny, down-to-earth, and humble guy. He’s an interesting and cool guy.
HMS: Was it useful that he didn’t have a preconceived notion of what Aarktica music was or what De Rosa music was?
JDR: I think that when we started working together, I actually hoped that he would come in with more opinions, but he was more like, “Let me get a feel first for who you are. Then I’m going to help you where you’re not sure. We’re going to work to turn this into something more cohesive.” Over the course of time, I became very comfortable with him, and we worked even better together. We worked together well from the start, though.
HMS: Were there particular songs that surprised you when working on them or helped show you where the album was going?
JDR: There’s one song, “Delicate Waltz of Shadows”, which was pretty significant in a few ways. One was that I wrote it all in one sitting, which was rare for me, personally. There was also the fact that I wanted to be very non-judgmental in that song. I just wanted to state what the feeling was without injecting my own pathos into it. Historically, I like to get very literal and descriptive with lyrics, telling stories, but I wanted this to just be about a moment, and not about a resolution. It was just about what is. That felt very good for me to see that I was able to write like that.
There’s another song called “Goodnight”, which was the one song that I wrote four or five years ago. It was an all-acoustic guitar song originally. But I felt sort of uncomfortable when I was recording it. It felt very heart on the sleeve. I had imagined that it would have more reverb and be less straightforward. I remember saying to Lewis, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this. Is this okay?” He said, “I think it’s bold.” That was a great compliment. For me, it was part of that writer’s block where I put parameters on style, but also on how much I would allow myself to say in a song. This was my sharing something very personal.
That song, in particular, sounds like it’s about a significant other, but it’s actually about my relationship with plant medicine. That’s been super-important to me over the years and I’ve always kept it very private because it is so special. I think I learned that the price I pay for being able to produce creatively is that I can no longer put parameters on how I share, and what I share. You need to share yourself. If you’re going to start saying you’re keeping things secret or private, I think that’s where blockages start. For me, I may have to go out of that zone of what feels safe to share.
HMS: It’s definitely a big energy drain to worry about those boundaries all the time. This feels timely because a lot of people can relate to this kind of feeling as their lives collapsed inwards during the pandemic. With the song “Delicate Waltz”, I can see an emotional world and a storytelling world coming together, which makes me think that the Aarktica approach and the singer/songwriter approach came together there.
JDR: “Delicate Waltz” was a bit less literal, traditionally. There was much more space, Production-wise. You couldn’t always understand every word and the vocals were less up-front. With music that I released under my own name, it was much more of a beginning, middle, and an end to things. I think that can be emotional, too, but it’s a bit more in the head. With this album, hopefully, it meets all of that in the middle.
HMS: With this album, you sometimes focus in on phrases in lyrics and show how repeating them can bring out different possibilities. That becomes more possible outside of linear storytelling, like on the song, “Can’t Say I’ve Missed You”. I noticed you also had non-verbal vocals, like we might find in Folk music.
JDR: In a lot of the music that you find in plant medicine ceremonies and shamanic work, the traditional singing starts songs with syllables and introduce the melody that way. It’s a syllabic introduction. I’m used to singing in that style in that world, and have been doing that for years. I’ve always kept that separate, but in this body of work, that little snippet made its way into the song. Then there are two songs on the album that are more like shamanic songs, “Olha o Sol Que Vai Nascendo” and “Sirenita Bobinsana”.