I was introduced to Chris Emerson [What So Not], he was calm and welcoming, wearing a bright orange hoodie, electric blue tracks and a white beanie. He was vibrant and confident, a certain contrast to the gloomy London I had stepped in from.
What So Not gave a wonderfully clear and detailed insight into touring weird and wonderful places, wacky sampling, Coachella and finding your feet with a creative process that would lead to the upcoming release of his debut album.
We began with English formality, a ‘Welcome to London’ before heading into a discussion of his regular visits here. A love for London and trips to Reading to see close friend James Rushent. A pit stop from tour, an escape from the busy city to jam out on the farm.
It was a conversation filled with intellectual and passionate details. This album was the largest body of work he had ever challenged himself with. The start of his debut formation was off the back of the blogger generation; when an original was made and put out for free.
This project has given Chris the opportunity to formulate his vision. Previous releases have been focused on fitting with consumers, radio, fans and for ticket sales – “the idea that you need to make a song for other than artistic reasons”, and that is just not what music should always be about.
The excitement was evident, it is clear that Chris [What So Not] is a musical scientist, his music spans many different genres, after years of experimenting and building his repertoire “one day I will write a ballad, the next I will write a dubstep tune”.
You can expect his album to be reflective of the varied inspiration, and to span across a huge variety of styles. There is not one song on the LP in the same tempo, the crafting of rhythms and movements all sinking together as one, all the tinkering of years of trial and error now allows everything to fall into place a lot more naturally.
On goals for 2018, for Chris, it wasn’t about achieving specificities. He isn’t a goal setter, believing that if goals are in place, your potential becomes limited, “its important to focus on what is in front of you”. This couldn’t be closer to the truth, and this certainly impacted me and really had me thinking.
A laid back and thoughtful approach as he continued: “There are so many beautiful moments that you come across each day. Even if it is frustrating and traumatic. If you take something from each of those lessons, usually you get so far beyond what you ever imagined you could”.
With every artist comes the highs and lows of touring, and we spoke in detail about the rise and fall moments that Chris had encountered. Long days, overwhelming schedules and seeing sights from his car window. Flight days were indeed tough, as he is passed around from pillar to post on arrival to the hotel, with press and radio in full swing. This can be followed by a dinner and most importantly his evening gig, while still finding time for himself before heading to the next location.
In counteraction to the more challenging moments; travelling, seeing the world and playing to fans in the most unlikely destinations can make up for any days with minimal sleep. When a well deserved day off arrives, Chris can find himself in any city, from Berlin to Barcelona and be able to jump on a train and explore. The fun thing for him was “I have so many little friend groups all over the world where we can meet up and hang out”.
From a personal to an artistic perspective, touring allows Chris to share his vision; the music videos, the visuals, the lighting. For him touring is “going out with a purpose and not to make money and do shows I don’t like. Bringing it to life and letting people step into a whole different dimension”.
His integrity as an artist and a tastemaker really shone through here, every aspect thought through in detail to ensure that consumers as well as himself were experiencing something truly extraordinary.
The Gobi Tent at Coachella, understandably, was a highlighted venue for Chris. With a performance parallel to headliner Kendrick Lamar, it could have been a tough crowd. However, What So Not had the crowd spilling out of the tent, a seamless show in a pinnacle festival time slot is, with no surprise, nothing but a memorable moment.
But it’s not always the flashiest, largest and most famous venues that leave the biggest impact. As dance music grows in India for example, its a new experience for everyone, something they haven’t heard before. They were dancing in an untrained way and whatever feels natural to them. Sometimes it’s the unexpected that are the most interesting and exciting “I can’t say which one [country] I’m waiting for because it may surprise me”.
It’s not possible to conduct an interview without delving into fun facts and this was one for me. With any project, there are always challenges within the process and one of the most difficult hurdles was the clearing of a sample. The concern was having Thom Yorke and Mark Pritchard sign off the sample from “Beautiful People”, and for Chris “compromising the artistic integrity due to the mechanicals” was just not a route that he wanted to take.
“You could have someone replay it but it doesn’t have the right tones or textures. You could have a similar melody but its not quite the same”. Fortunately, Adrian at Ninja Tune stepped in and it was cleared, a relief that the track could be shared and not left forevermore in the depths of a laptop folder.
On the subject of sampling, we delved into the making of his own – “what is the weirdest thing you have sampled?” I was intrigued, putting that one in the mix for the experimental producers reading. Chris laughed, “I sampled a chair scraping across an entire floor, can I show you?”. He went to his laptop excitedly “I make things like this all the time”.
Before narrowing the album down to its final product, he had around 100 demos. But was it an easy process? “I just knew, they just felt right”. The album stretches across a 12-track narrative transitioning from one to the other from profound moments and an experience usually of his own.
“I would name it something that it made me feel when I conceptualised it”. He knew just how he wanted it to flow, from the moments around him, he could create a story line, it became easy for him to write like that.
But the album isn’t just full of Chris’ own moments. Its full of collaborations with Skrillex, Toto and Daniel Johns to name a few. On future collaboratives that he had in mind, he answered so simply “If someone seems fun and cool, let’s make music”.
He’s open minded and down to earth “So many important messages can be taken from even the worst sessions, it’s all experience at the end of the day”. There have been so many people he had worked with on this project that he hadn’t crossed paths with before, and there was nothing but a positive outcome. It is of course important to broaden any horizon and this is just what Chris has done.
Musicians are in a position of power, to inspire and to share a vision through their platforms. We must also be realistic and its important to realise that their art takes time, dedication and sacrifices, that their idealistic lifestyle online is just a highlight reel.
It isn’t short of long hours and perfectionism. An easy going and inspiring interview, Chris was passionate and positive and its with no doubt, he deserves every success with his upcoming release. You can listen to What So Not’s debut album ‘Not All The Beautiful Things’ on its release on March 9, to hear the final result of this exceptionally creative journey.
Words by Jodie Brunning