Enter Thy Sleepthief: An Exclusive Interview with Justin Elswick
The first time I heard Sleepthief, I had been inside a Barnes and Nobles for the past three hours studying for an Economics exam. With the bad A.D.D. that I had it was normal for me to start looking around at unrelated books and the birds outside the window, however, this particular time, I found myself completely enraptured in the music being played on the loudspeaker. Song after song, I listened. I did my best to ignore it, but it was increasingly difficult. Finally, I ceased to resist, got up; ran downstairs to the CD section, asked the associate what was playing, and picked up the last display copy of Dawnseeker.
That album would remain in my car stereo for the next two years.
Almost anyone that I played the album for instantly loved the songs. They couldn’t quite describe the type of music since it was different than anything being played on the radio or anything you would hear at clubs.
Shortly afterwords, I added Sleepthief on the most popular social networking site at the time, MySpace. I commented on his wall just how great his album was and how everyone that I played it for was instantly “seduced” by the sounds. What happened next was beyond belief.
He commented back.
Keep in mind that MySpace was fairly new at the time and you tend to think of anyone with CD’s and Books that you could pick up at a local book store to be right up there with Pavarotti and Madonna. This only added to my promotional advertising for the Dawnseeker and won me a few hot dates as well…
Enter the present day, communications have still remained active, the Dawnseeker is still in my car and remains one of the best albums I have ever purchased and Sleepthief has released his most recent album –Labyrinthine Heart. A few weeks ago I e-mailed him with the idea of doing an interview and signed copies of his latest CD. He agreed.
What you see below are his responses to several questions I thought would interest our readers. I sincerely hope you enjoy the interview and be sure to comment below for a chance to win an autographed copy of his latest CD.
Ethan Bishop: One of the things that I learned about you when I first discovered your music was that you were actually practicing law! How did you decide to go “full-steam” on your music and go from a few keyboard compositions to releasing your album to music stores around the world? What was the deciding factor where you thought to yourself – “It’s now or never”?
Sleepthief: My decision to really consider recording and releasing a “professional” album was made in college, before I even went to law school. It was at that point that I bought my first keyboard and started layering different sounds. It was nice, because at that point, I could record and store compositions and go back and keep working on them. I knew that it might take a few years for the material to reach level where it was polished and I felt comfortable approaching singers with it. At the time, I just felt excited that I had an outlet to begin composing. Law school was very busy and it really took nearly all of the free time out of my schedule. As it turned out, finishing law school and working as an attorney actually helped me to pay for the recording–so I suppose it was just matter of synchronicity in having all the stars “align.”
Ethan Bishop: Although, I know how your name came about, for those who may not have heard of you yet, how did you come up with your name?
Sleepthief: When I was about a year away from finishing my first album, THE DAWNSEEKER, I was up quite late recording a song. I had been trying to come up with a moniker for almost 2 years, but everytime I decided on a name I ended up not liking it after a few days. As I was sitting at the keyboard and wondering why I was still awake recording, I realized that I had been staying up quite late on the weekends and losing a lot of sleep because of the music. I thought “wow, this music is such a sleep thief.” As soon as the thought came into my mind, I knew that the name “Sleepthief” was what I would go with. It was a mysterious name and memorable and appropriate. Needless to say, I was just relieved I found something to name my project.
(Editorial Note: Hear Sleepthief’s Euridice, the song that started the entrancement )
Ethan Bishop: How would you describe your music as far as genre? I understand that it is considered electronica, however, your music is much different than thumping club music. What were some of your influences?
Sleepthief: Yes–I think generally, my music is classified as “electronica” because alot of the sound are generated by a keyboard. However, compositionally, I think the music draws from classical, pop, folk and celtic/world music elements. Technology has gotten quite good at replicating (sampling) actual instruments, and so you can now layer percussion, strings, piano and most other sampled sounds to create a really full piece of music. I really love live/organic instruments, though, so I do try to incorporate guitar and some strings over the sampled sounds. My ultimate goal would be to have a symphony to record with! That would be great.
Alot of people consider “electronica” music to be trance/dance/house music. I think that is because those genres of music are most closely associated with “electronic” sounds. However, from the 70s forward, many acts were synth-based. So, acts like Blondie, or Depeche Mode or even Duran Duran were “electro” bands. Many “new age” artists like Enya or Vangelis principally use keyboards and synths in their compositions.
For me, I love the endless variety of crazy sounds you can create with samples. There are endless permutations and moods that you can create. I love finding and layering sounds that work well together with a good melody and voice.
As for influences, I have so many–to name a few: FOLK/ACOUSTIC (Simon & Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, The Birds, Cowboy Junkies, Azure Ray, Kings of Convenience), 80S (Animotion, A-ha, Alphaville, Yaz, Trans -X-, Duran Duran, Dead or Alive, Book of Love, Spacemonkey, Blondie), FREESTYLE (Shannon, C-Bank, Expose, TKA, George LaMond, Tapps, Bardeux), ROCK (Scorpions, Def Leppard, Tesla, Boston, Honeymoon Suite, Garbage), SINGER/SONGWRITER (Sarah McLachlan, Vanessa Daou, Sia, Eskobar, October Project, Casey Stratton, Mae Moore, Emm Gryner, Neverending White Lights, Marissa Nadler, Carla Werner, Miranda Lee Richards), ELECTRONICA/TRIP HOP (Goldfrapp, Royksopp, Olive, Portishead, Massive Attack), WORLD/CELTIC (Enya, Clannad, Lisa Gerrard, Ofra Haza, Stellamara, Vas, Aine Minogue, Eimear Quinn, Loreena McKennitt, Adiemus), CLASSICAL (Schubert, Berlioz, Handel, Rachmaninov, Bach).
Ethan Bishop: Say you have Kristy Thirsk in mind for an upcoming song. How do you go from contacting the musician, to composing the song? Who writes the lyrics or decides the tone that it takes? Do the singers like to drive the accompaniments or the other way around?
Sleepthief: Typically, when I write a song, I have a very strong impression or story in mind. So, the melody that comes out is definitely related to certain feelings and images. When I approach the singer with the music, I always have a lengthy discussion about what the song’s music is meant to convey. In most cases, I don’t write the lyrical content (except with the first album, where I wrote lyrics for TENUOUS and JUST SAY IT and some of the lyrics on the song LABYRINTHINE HEaRT). I find it is much easier to allow the singers to take part in the process by listening to the music and coming up with something that suits the music and mood. I think that the singers just feel more comfortable in performing something they actually take part in. All of the artists I have worked with have been very sensitive to the message I am trying to convey, and have done a great job writing words that enhance the music and stay true to my feelings.
As for melody, most of the singers will record a rough and get my feedback. 99% of the time, I have been blown away by what is presented. If there are a few tweaks, I suggest them. When we get in the studio, we just lay down the vocals and then work on various harmony parts.
Ethan Bishop: If you had to pick a time, place, and one (or two people) to listen to your album with you, describe the scene. A sunset beach? A night drive through a snowy mountain?
Sleepthief: It would have to be in a deeply forested, high mountain place, with streams flowing from several directions into a silver lake. I love being outside, and beautiful, epic scenery inspires me to no end.
Ethan Bishop: Your music tends to have incredible female vocals in them! What do you think it is about the female voice that brings alive this type of music?
Sleepthief: I have always felt that a female voice embodies something more spiritual but simultaneously “grounded” than a typical male voice. There is a mystery and sensuality that a female voice can convey in a song far beyond what any male vocalist could convey. Because I want my listeners to feel transported when they hear my music, I tend to want to work with female singers. Also, I think most of us as children hear our mother’s voice more often (whether speaking or singing). I think that makes most humans more responsive to the female voice than the male voice.
However, I am not totally biased! There are some great male vocalists out there that I would love to work with. And Coury Palermo (who recorded 3 songs with me) is incredible.
Ethan Bishop: You recently released an album Labyrinthe Heart in September. What was it like working on this album versus your first album “The Dawnseeker”. Did you strive to shatter new grounds in your development or did you want to stick with a certain “formula”?
Sleepthief: I defintely do not have a formula–haha. Seriously, for me, it is just about sitting down and writing something on the piano that moves me. That is how each song begins. I don’t pre-figure whether a song will end up more upbeat or more pop sounding or more classical or more ethereal. All of that happens as I start layering sound and percussion. There are times when a song (like TENUOUS) starts out more upbeat, but then I reverse directions because it doesn’t feel right. I honestly just think about the message of each song, search for the instruments that fit the mood and things develop from there.
While composing THE DAWNSEEKER, I did feel like I was striving to create a certain sound. In a way, it was more restrictive of my creativity. When I realized people enjoyed the music, it was liberating and I went in to writing LABYRINTHINE HEART with a bit more confidence to explore some other sounds and styles. It wasn’t so much intentional, but I let the music dictate where I need to go.
I would never be happy with a “formula.” Honestly, if I never sold another record, I would still write music and compose. While I love sharing my music with others and feel deeply flattered that it has inspired other people, it would be disingenuous of me to try and fabricate something that wasn’t directly from the heart. I suppose I could write a top 40 pop song–but I am just not interested. If it doesn’t come from the soul, then it’s not worth doing.
Ethan Bishop: What projects do you have going on in the horizon? Anything in particular that you are excited about?
Sleepthief: Very much so. I am trying to finish another exclusive Christmas song. Last year, Kirsty Hawkshaw, Coury Palermo, Zoe Johnston and I recorded O COME O COME EMMANUEL, and I allowed everyone to download it for free as a gift. I am working on an original Christmas song with a local opera singer (Janna Thompson). It is very much styled after traditional hymns. Epic and sweeping. Also, I will be finishing up the side project SPYTHRILLER with Caroline Lavelle and Israel Curtis. We should have that done by Spring next year. Very excited about it as the music is a bit more wild and fun. Also, I am working on ROBERTA CARTER HARRISON’s new solo album. Finally, I have decided that may do a separate side project that is more inspired by folk/Americana music. A bit of a rustic fairy-tale vibe with piano and accordion, banjo, fiddle and harmonica…
For more news and info about Sleepthief, check out his website Sleepthief Music (http://www.sleepthiefmusic.com) and follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sleepthiefmusic And that concludes the interview. Comment below to win a copy of his latest CD, Labyrinthine Heart.