Active Child Delves Into the Dreamy Soundscapes of ‘In Another Life’
Active Child, the singular musical vision of Pat Grossi, combines the lofty abstractions of insular art projects with the easy immediacy of contemporary pop. Grossi’s choral background informs compositions that utilize the voice in all its intimacy and grandeur. Bold soundscapes, full of quirk and color, transcend the physical, inhabiting a space somewhere between the corporeal and immaterial. With elemental instinct, consummate musicianship, and free-form sensibility, Grossi at once nods to the zeitgeist, and steers boldly into the future.
Grossi quickly created a stir on his 2011 debut album, “You Are What I See,” with alienly infectious sounds that demanded attention, and drew wide critical acclaim. Word spread, and within a year, Grossi was touring with the likes of James Blake and M83. Even Ellie Goulding took notice, covering Grossi’s song “Hanging On,” and elevating his name into the greater pop strata. A proper polymath, Grossi ventured beyond his usual role at the mic, piano, and harp, to remix such illustrious artists at the edgier ends of pop as Lana del Rey and Marina and the Diamonds. By the time of his second album, 2015’s “Mercy,” which saw a natural refinement and expansion of Active Child’s aesthetic, Grossi had considerably honed his craft and made a name for himself.
Now, having signed with Sony Music Masterworks, Grossi makes his major label debut with “In Another Life.” a cinematic, ethereal album that shuttles gracefully between straight swagger and haunting drama. Grossi met with Entertainment Voice to talk about his tastes and his tracks, his instincts and inspirations.
As an artist who has created works of ambitious scale by modest means, you’ve expressed a desire to move beyond preprogrammed bedroom productions and take on more freely orchestral projects. Has your major label debut album “In Another Life” allowed you to do this?
I think it has, in some ways. The only thing is that the album was finished before I joined up with Sony, so it was still within the confines of my own personal budget, but you can do a lot with a little now, and I developed a lot of networks within the music community, so I put those two together when making the album. The orchestral part of it was a bit more of a focus for me on this one, so I brought in a cellist and a violinist, and we, meaning me and Andrew Sarlo, my engineer and co-producer, we sort of manipulated the two of them, and planted them around the room, and tracked them, overdubbed them dozens of times to make it feel like we had this large ensemble within the room. You know, there’s ways to manipulate things that make it feel bigger than maybe it really is. In the future, I would love to be able to put together some notation and have an actual group play it from start to finish, because I think there’s a definite vibe to that, no doubt. But that was part of the reason that I decided to go and move to a major — that I wanted to take this project to that next level, hopefully, and I knew that with their support and enthusiasm, I could take it there.
The lush, ethereal arrangements of your title track encapsulate the otherworldly feel of your music, instantly making “In Another Life” seem an appropriate name. How broadly do you interpret this title, and why did you choose it to describe your latest set of songs?
It’s always changing for me. It’s definitely a broad concept. I think initially it was more literal, based around the birth of my daughter. That song is sort of inspired by her arrival, and for me, that felt like it became a sort of bedrock foundation of what the album would be about, so to speak — not the entirety of it, but it gave me a launching point. And just being around her and seeing her develop gave me a voice, in a lot of ways, because I was writing music for years and I had great music, but I wasn’t particularly inspired by what I had to say, and seeing her, she helped me get to that space where I needed to be, as far as feeling like I could stand behind my work, like it had a purpose.
The title was about her, but it was also about reflecting back on past lives of my family — my parents’ lives, my grandparents’ lives. For me, it was more of a cyclical reflection on each piece of the family structure, and me having my moment now, starting a family, and looking back at my parents. I think when I’m working on stuff, I tend to get stuck looking back, and on this one, I really wanted to be more focused on this step forward, so that’s kind of where I was going.
“All Eyes on You” and “Set Me Free” both find you declaring yourself available and asking to be let in, with an almost evangelical fervor. Tell us about the particular head space that gave rise to such sounds and lyrics.
The headspace was different for each one, really. “All Eyes” was more me trying to write more of a dedication, specifically for my wife, but the song is a more general love ballad-type thing. Those two feel, in my mind, distinctly separate, in a lot of ways. “Set Me Free” was more so… As a songwriter, I’m always sort of battling within the song to find an inner meaning of what I’m really trying to say, and in that one, it was pretty simple. It was me trying to wrestle with my own insecurities, and trying to find my voice as a singer again. That was a big part of that song specifically. It was me trying to convince myself that what I was doing was real, (laughs) essentially. That if I could really wrestle it out of my inner angst and insecurities, that it was there. I had this power. If I could just get it out and not think too negatively about everything, it would just unravel, and it would be what it needs to be.
There’s a definite theatrical quality to your music, which seems especially pronounced in tracks like “Color Me” with the operatic inclinations balanced by whispered, pitched-down histrionics. Expand on the overall aesthetic tying together the new music, cover art, and live performance.
I try to weave a lot of different energies into the album, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it feels forced, but on this record particularly, I think the balance of more easily digestible tracks like “Alive,” compared to this very heady, deep dive, theatrical-type “Color Me” track, to think that they would both go on the same album is a little bit kooky, but for me, I think it shows not just the wide variety of music that I’m inspired by, but like the depth of things that I can create and land, hopefully. That track specifically is kind of a highlight for me. It sort of goes back to this feeling where I’m always really checking myself in everything that I do — and that one, when I made it, I was like, “This just feels unassailable.” Anyone could review it and just tear it apart, but I would still love it. I felt so confident in it. It feels good to have something like that under your belt, because I look back at previous work that I’ve put out, and I’m like, “I wish I could delete this from the world,” you know? (Laughs) But I feel like that’s one where I’m always going to look back and be like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”
Your music always exists between the hymnal and the dancey. How do you maintain this fragile balance?
It’s a tightrope, for sure. On the record, it’s about flow of the tracklisting. I would never put, say “All Eyes” next to “Color Me” because I think that the shift is just too drastic for the listening experience, but again, I have these very polar sides to what I want to write and what I want to make, so I try to strike that balance and be cognizant of what I thin is interesting and what people will be interested in as well.
Songs like “Weightless,” “Brighter Day,” and “Painted Staircase,” all sound much like one might expect from their titles, emphasizing the vivid, vaguely architectural quality of your music. Do you typically begin with music, words, or concepts? Tell us about your general creative process.
It pretty much always starts with music for me. That’s the initial launching point. Either I’ll sit at the piano or the harp or I’ll hear a piece of a score or some chord progression somewhere, and I’ll start building off that. This record particularly, I started a lot on piano. I would sit down and play this strange chord progression that is looping, and then, from there, usually I start building melody, and the lyrics are usually one of the last things.
“Brighter Day” specifically was one that started with the lyrics and melody before any music, which was pretty rare, but it felt like doing that in the opposite direction, it almost felt like the intention of the song was more authentic. Because sometimes when you build around the music, sometimes you’ll make modifications on lyrics just to sort of be complacent to the music, because rhythmically it feels better, even though the meaning might not be as true. So when you start a song, and it’s all based on lyrics that are in place first, it just feels truer.
I think it’s a conscious thing, where I sit with it, and either it becomes… I think a lot of times, if I start with the music first, the mood and the general vibe of the music start to inform the lyrics. That’s how it usually happens. “Brighter Day” is sort of self-explanatory, but you start hearing it, and it just feels like the sun is coming out. Things unraveled that way. And “Painted Staircase,” for me, felt like this Esher-like staircase, just winding around in circles and never ending.
Your lyrics are usually remarkably straightforward, and this takes a certain courage, as many lyricists are so afraid of cliché that they often find themselves hiding behind cryptic abstractions. What is your approach when it comes to words?
“Brighter Day” is maybe the most literal song I’ve ever written. For me, it can be a little scary sometimes to say things that are so on-the-nose — just really simple concepts about love unity and things like this. I think if you have the courage to stand up and say stuff like that, and do it in a way that doesn’t feel corny — and it doesn’t feel cliche to me — it can have a more resounding impact, as opposed to trying to trying to just dial it in and obfuscate it in some crazy metaphor. But I think those things have their place too. That’s just never been my particular forte in songwriting.
You’ve toured with James Blake, and seem to echo some of his idiosyncrasies in little bits here and there — the glitch-hop soundscapes and eerie vocal harmonies of “Gaze Will Cast a Shadow” and the way you radically shift vocal registers mid-line in “Weightless.” Was Blake a conscious influence in shaping your sound?
Oh, I think for sure. He’s someone that, even before we toured together, I was watching what he was doing. I was aware of our similarities because people started pointing them out to me. He’s someone that I definitely look to as an inspiration and a real beacon of artistry in our generation, and someone that’s really done what he wanted to do and he’s been hugely successful. I try to stay in my lane though. There’s a good group of people that are, I think for better or worse, trying to sort of emulate his sound. As much as I love his music and am inspired by it, I never find myself trying to emulate it. I think he’s incredible. I love his work, and I’d love to work with him. That was a fun tour. That was literally his first US tour, I think, the one I supported him on.
You’ve spoken of your fondness for hip-hop, and of how your workflow, often beginning with loops and laying down hooks, is similar to that of many rappers. What are some specific moments on the album where we can hear you use hip-hop as a reference point?
“All Eyes” for sure. There’s a lot of the songs on the record, rhythmically the foundation was a breakbeat or a sample that I had. The beat on “Gaze” is pretty heavily sampled. Even moments in “In Another Life,” once the drums come in. Maybe it’s not as obvious, but for me, that was a pretty essential coloring of the record — almost like a sampled breakbeat — ‘90s, kind of like lo fi. And then also, I think melodically, there’s some moments that are a little bit more like R&B hooks, something you’d gear in maybe a hip-hop track.
On the final track, “Cruel World,” you offer consolation from harsh realities, reminding us to “count (our) blessings,” but seem to change your tune as you continue, “you won’t need them when you’re gone.” Is your message here one of optimism, pessimism, or neither?
(Laughs) I think it’s a little bit of both, and that’s kind of the overarching theme of the record, this sort of dance between the lighter side of life — the wonder and the beauty — and then, the sort of opposite of that — the mystery and the sort of unexpected trauma that can happen. I think “Cruel World,” for me, is generally a more optimistic song, but I think it’s rooted in my perspective on life, which is more of a realism look — that you know, “shit happens,” (laughs) for lack of a better phrase. That specific lyric is more about, you know, try to take what you have now, and soak up every moment because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. And I think this moment that we’re having right now is a striking example of how, really the whole world population has just completely been turned upside down, (laughs) Within a couple weeks, we’re like “What is happening? What happened to our lives?” You just don’t know. It can be scary.
How has this “new normal” we are living in affected your creative process? Have you found any inspiration in the surreal nature of it all, and do you have plans to modify your live performance to connect with fans through live streams or anything similar?
Oh man, it’s been a major shift in my workflow, especially being coupled with this really busy moment of rolling this record out, and not being able to tour it at all now until maybe the fall. It’s definitely thrown everyone’s life into a bit of a tizzy, and mine as well.
Later today, I’m live streaming a performance, doing some of the new work, some of the old new songs, sort of cutting for the album launch tomorrow. We’re definitely trying to pivot like everyone else is, and figure out what this new horizon looks like. How do we be artists, how do we create, and how do we play shows? Because it doesn’t seem clear when this is really going to be done. My focus has just been really on family and the album, and doing some little performance stuff here and there. I haven’t even thought about musically what’s next. I have a ton of stuff sitting around, but it’s just sitting for the time being.
“In Another Life” is available April 10 on Apple Music.