Musician Jacob Dee of Anchorage is developing an art pop style that draws on many influences including Motown. His approach relies on experimentation and collaboration. He embraces music as a communal exercise to connect otherwise disenfranchised people.
“I’ve always loved albums full of engrossing psychedelia,” Jacob Dee says over drinks at the Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café in Anchorage. His enthusiasm and delight for “art pop” — a term he prefers over the more isolating or alienating “experimental music” designation — is infectious and palpable.
He acknowledges, too, however, that the challenges built into the audio soundscapes that most excite him as both listener and songwriter also prove to be an acquired taste.
“It might take someone a couple listens before [this kind of music] draws you in,” he says. “But once it does, it’s really exciting. And always rewarding.”
One of the more profound influences on his musical development is the band Animal Collective. Dee draws a parallel between his long-running appreciation of their albums with his own burgeoning recorded efforts.
“No matter how much experimenting happens,” he explains, “the songs are always filtered through some common pop structures. Even if it’s not immediately obvious, I follow some pretty typical pop music rules in my songwriting.”
His longtime love for Motown music is one example. Good Motown songs rely on strong musical scaffolding to achieve their highest potential.
And yet, while he’ll obsess over a song’s structure during every step of the writing process, Dee also knows better than to assert control or his singular vision as a piece develops in collaboration with others.
“I can’t ever go into a song with an idea,” he admits. The process, rather, reliably dictates for him what the song needs and wants to become.
“When the band gets together,” he says, reflecting on his most recent work with his collaborators in the band Strawberry Friend, “we begin by looking for a hook — anything that’s going to contain the core character of the song. The hook could be a texture or sound we find while messing around with our keyboards; it could be a bass line, or a loop we stumble on with the drum machine.”
While trafficking in so much uncertainty and unknown territory could seem a recipe for anxiety or panic in some occupations, Dee revels in all that’s possible and latent in a song’s earliest drafts. In fact, he makes this part of the process sound like one of the few remaining free and wild spaces left for a person to explore or make discoveries.
“Some songs need to cook for a while before we find the shape it wants to take, or can know where its boundaries lie,” he says. Some songs, for example, might get whittled from 10 minutes down to three during editing and post-production. By banking trust in the craft and his ongoing effort to remain authentic to his songwriting process, he believes he’ll discover what needs to happen in the work.
“But a lot of the work is incidental, too,” he says, shrugging. “If something in the song breaks, it breaks. You can’t be too attached to outcomes.”
It’s not out of the ordinary that a song may require weeks of exploration and hard decisions. And, for Dee, a lot of a song or album’s most critical decisions and discoveries occur during the recording’s production and editing stages.
Having the right gear has become more and more crucial for authenticating his music. “In the past, I’ve always had to rely on paying outside producers and engineers to help me achieve my vision.”
With his Rasmuson Foundation Project Award, Dee was finally able to invest in high-end recording gear and music equipment. This removes the middleman and accompanying costs.
“Thanks to the grant, I can now offer my projects the crucial degree of focus, time and energy that I used to have to pay other people to perform.”
Where many musicians would prefer to show up to a gig or studio session and perform their work and leave it to engineers and producers to bother with the soundboard knobs and gear, Dee’s award has afforded him a degree of creative control that continues to reveal a thrilling variety of possibilities for his projects.
“I’m a kid in a candy store with all this gear,” he says. “And I can do this part of the work all on my time now, without paying someone else.” He chuckles, adding, “I can be as obsessive about the work as I want.”
Enjoy these two Jacob Dee compositions:
“I Feel It”
Jonathan Bower is a clinical therapist and songwriter working in Anchorage, Alaska. He is currently at work on a collaborative music project with musicians in New York City.
Image credits - Artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Gallery images 1 & 4 courtesy of the writer, Jonathon Bower. Gallery image 2 & 3 courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.