Aerial East: “It’s sad how impossible it feels to connect with each other”

Ahead of the release of second album ‘Try Harder’, we caught up with Aerial East to talk kite flying, shying away from the drums and convincing her parents that there's more to success than American Idol.

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True to her name, the last time we saw Aerial East, she was suspended 20 feet in the air by an industrial crane; oil on the canvas of the New York City skyline. The music video for her latest single ‘Katharine’ literally speaks to the weightlessness that shines through in her transportative music – “I’m in the air, searching for the floor” – and she hangs in the balance between old and new. Aerial’s musical inspirations lie in iconic storytellers Dolly Parton, Joanna Newsom and Joni Mitchell, and she’s not afraid of reinterpreting hallowed ground either, having recently taken on a gorgeous cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)‘. Her original lyrics, meanwhile, tell empathetic day-in-the-life stories with the unique intimacy of a vagabond just passing through. An army brat upbringing meant that Aerial was no stranger to travelling: flitting from Europe to Texas before finally settling in Brooklyn, New York as a teenager to make music in earnest.

Ahead of the release of second album ‘Try Harder’, Emma Holbrook caught up with Aerial to talk kite flying, shying away from the drums in the search for a pared-down sound and convincing her parents that there’s more to musical success than American Idol.

How did the idea for the ‘Katharine’ video come about? Had you ever done anything like that before?

It was the director [Luca Venter]’s idea. He really wanted to work together so he visited me at the bar I work at and started throwing ideas at me. That one image really stuck with me – I was like “I need to make this crane video.” But it turns out that it’s really hard to find a crane that will let you put a person on it, but we got there eventually. It wasn’t especially scary but it was painful: I had marks on my body for weeks afterwards from the harness digging in. I’ve never done anything like it before but I would definitely do it again. Anything to get a good image!

The song itself is an ode to a friend who you’ve sadly lost contact with over the years and she was the one who persuaded you to move to New York. What was it about the city that made it the right place to be?

I moved to New York when I was 18. I was in Texas for one semester of community college but I kind of had no reason to stay there: I was living with my boyfriend but we had broken up and my parents were moving to Tennessee because they were a military family. Katharine had moved to New York to go to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] to become a model and she needed a roommate. So I came to visit her and we just had so much fun. I was really amazed by the anonymity of New York: how you could be anyone you wanted and how all the people who saw you would probably never see you again. I immediately called my parents and said “I’m not coming back” and they were like “No, you’re gonna come back and move properly. You can’t just stay there!” My parents were always very encouraging of me as a singer but not so much as a songwriter, because they think the best thing you can do as a singer is win American Idol. Like, my mother has only just stopped telling me every time The Voice is in town.

I was already writing songs at that point and I was in choir and everything, but I still wasn’t planning on being a singer. It didn’t feel like a possibility. Then, for her birthday, Katharine asked if I could sing a song I’d written – in front of these people I had only just met around a campfire. Shortly after that, we saw Sharon van Etten play at Zebulon and it completely blew my mind, like “Oh! American Idol’s not the only thing, pop music isn’t the only thing. I could do this!” Katharine is a really important person in my story.

When did it start becoming a reality for you?

It happened pretty quickly. Within the first couple of months of moving, I had met other artists sung in front of people who told me that I should record my songs. People were really encouraging in a way I’d never experienced before. It didn’t take long to discover this new world and the possibility of becoming an artist myself. I was recording and playing shows for five years before I started work on [debut album] ‘Rooms’ and I even had a manager at one point, but the recordings never felt… right. Until I started working with my producer, Gordon [Minette] on ‘Rooms’ – that was when I realised I was making something special and I wanted people to hear it.

You went on to release ‘Rooms’ in 2016. How do you think it differs from your upcoming album, ‘Try Harder’?

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It does feel like a pendulum swing. I love ‘Rooms’ but it’s this rich, epic and super dense break-up record with orchestral arrangements which were really difficult to learn how to play live. Gordon is a classically trained musician and I’m not at all – I don’t know how to read music or anything – so when I was trying to figure out how to play those songs live, there was a lot of tension around my ability to translate those arrangements into something that made sense for me, that I could connect to, but also that Gordon felt honoured the work that he had done. With ‘Try Harder’, we really wanted to pare it down. We wanted everything that ended up on the record to be completely necessary and intentional, with no extraneous pieces. I also felt like I had gone through a personal transformation. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and was only listening to solo piano music, so I wanted to make something really direct and calming and not overwhelming. I love ‘Rooms’ but I wanted to make something really different – essentially the opposite. 

What’s your process once you’re inside the studio?

I don’t really play an instrument. Sometimes I’ll play just one string of a guitar to write a bass note progression but I write songs mostly with lyrics and melody. Then I’ll work with other people to develop the chord progression and once I’m in the studio, producing the record, it’s extremely collaborative. I was way more involved this time around than I was with ‘Rooms’. Back then, I was basically giving a vibe and letting Gordon go with it, saying like “Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Pet Sounds, Burt Bacharch – GO!” But I was very hands on with ‘Try Harder’ – directing a lot of the sounds and production and the overall world. 

You’d mentioned specifically how you didn’t want to hear any drums on your record, but I noticed in ‘Angry Man’ that there’s that one driving drumbeat. Why was that the exception?

Yeah, I really went into the record with the intention of not having any drums and not having any tracks be drum-based. A lot of the time, you’ll go into the studio and record the drums first. I knew that if there were going to be any drums, I really wanted them to be secondary. ‘Angry Man’ was one of the last songs that I wrote and recorded, and I initially envisioned it as the last song on the record, so it made sense for the drums to be on that track because it was a wrap-up to the whole thing. Also, they’re such an angry instrument. The reason I was shying away from drums is because of the aggressiveness of them but also, because I have a damaged ear drum, I learned that drums were actually causing me physical pain! But it did just feel right for that song. 

When it comes to writing, your songs tell exceptionally intimate stories. Do you get the immediate sense of “I should write a song about this” once you experience something?

I don’t ever really sit down and intend to write a song. Usually, they just come to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve written one: I’m kind of in a dead period so I’m trying to remember what writing a song even feels like! They’re all autobiographical except for ‘I Love Dick’, which is about the book. I tend to write songs all in one go – when I’m taking a walk or a shower or something and I’ll record it into my phone. They come fully-formed and they come quickly.

You’ve spoken about how making ‘Try Harder’ helped you process your evolving relationship with America. Where do you think your relationship sits now?

I don’t know. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country and I feel really sad about how impossible it feels to connect with each other. I don’t understand how people can do things that seem to me to just be so hurtful and I just wish we could learn how to communicate with each other and connect, but it seems really far away. It feels like a lot of the time, the way we respond to things is even more isolating and it’s horrible to watch. But we’re all just watching.

Growing up in a military family without a fixed home must have contributed to a sense of groundlessness, too. Is that why you connected so much to wind as one concept for the record?

One of my main activities in Abilene, Texas was flying a kite because it’s the most beautiful kite-flying weather all the time. When I moved from Abilene to San Angelo with my boyfriend, I didn’t know anyone there so I would just go and fly the kite by myself almost every day. New York City is also a very windy place but in a very different way: you’re in wind tunnels just filled with garbage! So it does depend on when you are: when I tried to fly one on a New York beach, a wildlife ranger came and yelled at me that I was scaring the birds. She was very, very angry and I don’t want to scare the birds! But I go to Cape Cod sometimes to fly there and it feels really, really good. Long before I ever seriously considered meditation, a friend of mine had said something to me about how it was like a wind inside of you that you’re trying to calm. I’d respond like “why would I meditate? There’s so much I wanna do!” and he’d say “that’s the point! The point is that doing nothing is hard and it’s about wrangling that wind.” His description really stuck with me.  

‘Try Harder’ is out February 12.


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