Art can be used to hold up a mirror to ourselves, our communities and our society. It can be the perfect way to make sense of any situation from world shattering to relatively inconsequential. Art can also be the perfect form of escapism. Pop music especially has been a source of comfort and disconnect for people who are struggling. In those moments when you need to turn your brain off to the world you find yourself in, it can be the most wonderful distraction. In the case of the latest album, Purple Noon, from Atlanta, Georgia’s Washed Out, that description is completely apt. Taking his cues from 80s pop, 1960s travel vistas and 1990s supermodel photography, Ernest Green, the producer and multi instrumentalist behind Washed Out, has crafted an endearing and soothing collection of songs that should enlighten, console and leave us all feeling refreshed through this disconcerting time. The project which took shape in Greene’s bedroom studio around 2009 and officially came out with his 2011 Washed Out debut full length Within and Without, has been a staple of the hazy, dance infused chill wave sound since its inception and with every release since Greene has just been getting better and better. Never one to be pigeonholed, Greene’s discography shows a musician who is interested in presenting a variety of different aspects of the music that intrigues him. While Within and Without showcased an artist interested in the haziness that skirts around the edges of our consciousness, its follow up Paracosm showed him experimenting in psychedelia and his next album Mister Mellow presented a world made up of cut and paste samples leaning heavily into a more hip hop style. Now on Purple Noon, Green has not only made his most accessible album to date but one that is infinitely intriguing, full of boundless delights and that will transport you from wherever you are to the world’s sunniest surroundings. When we reach Greene at his home in Atlanta, he takes us through his process and how Purple Noon wasn’t necessarily meant to be his big pop album but how creating something more accessible was just the next natural step in his artistic journey so far.
“Coming off of Mister Mellow, which was quite experimental in the way the songs were put together,” the soft spoken producer explains over a zoom call, “and having 90% of the sonic textures on that record being samples I almost never knew where it was going until close to the end when the songs were finally taking shape. For Purple Noon, it felt so much more immediate just writing a song. Sitting down at the piano and writing and I have never written like that before. Usually I’ll start with a beat or something on the computer and doing it this other way had something to do with it feeling a bit more accessible and immediate with a tighter song structure right from the beginning. Paracosm had all these like three minute intros and I was using that to tell a story across the entire record. This time was about just getting hit with hooks,” he says with a chuckle. It turned out that actually sitting and writing songs in a more traditional way than he previously had been used to, really sped up the process comparatively. “It really sped up the process tremendously. I wouldn’t find it a struggle finishing things and would really put in that extra work with the last 25% of the record for more fine details. I liked having the songs being super close to being finished before doing the actual ‘production’ stuff to them. I guess this is the difference between the worlds of being more of a producer than a traditional songwriter but it was a great experience and then when I would be layering the various different instrumentation around is when I would really find these small moments of joy.”
These moments of joy are positively littered throughout the running time of Purple Noon. The album’s smooth RnB inspired jams are truly transportive and will firmly entrench you in the influences Greene wanted to convey on the record. Not only being inspired by the smooth 80s sounds of artists like Sade, Greene was also visually inspired by certain types of photography. “I don’t always have a strong visual idea for all my work but for this album I very much did,” Greene explains. “My earliest visual reference was this 90s Herb Ritz photography. It’s kind of famous for capturing the supermodel era of the 90s. It has this wonderful style, minimal natural light and while recording I hung a number of his photographs in my studio. There was also a photographer named Slim Aaron that was inspiring. He’s more a travel style photographer from the 60s and 70s and his stuff really showcased the Mediterranean coast line of that era and through those it opened up this world of films to explore like the 1960’s and 90s version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. They just look so amazing.” So inspired by the look of these photographs and films, Greene and his wife ended up going on a trip to Greece and seeing these locales up close which made the music he was writing become even more crystal clear to him.
“Seeing those landscapes, positioning myself living that kind of lifestyle made me approach it in a cinematic way. It was like scoring these images I was seeing and really world building, just having those pieces slowly being put together. It turned out this artwork was the easiest entrance into what I wanted to create with the album.” On the musical side of the project, Greene knew the approach he wanted to take from the start. “The one thing that was super helpful on this record compared to the other stuff I’ve done is that I had a strong idea of what I wanted from the beginning. Instead of gradually figuring out the sonic palette and the references I wanted to convey, in my head were already some really 80s synth ballads. Like “Drive” by The Cars was something I was listening to and the challenge there I felt was to kind of like honour that style of music while still making it feel contemporary. Also an artist like Sade. I was super late listening to her music besides knowing the more notable pop singles. This guy I was working with on Mister Mellow said to me, when we were doing that record, that they were a fan of Sade and that my take on melody is a lot like hers so I was intrigued and dove into her catalog. There is so much romance there and instantly I could picture this glamorous beach resort that I was trying to tap into. I wanted it to be something very escapist. Just having that picture in my head made the process easier and let me compartmentalize the production and write the best melodies I could and hopefully this will be more the case moving forward but,” he chuckles, “sometimes it is fun to not know where you are going.”
With the lack of touring options available at this time, Greene has settled into trying what he can to help, not only promote the record but to give people this feeling of escapism while there aren’t a lot of escape options available. “We had plans of going to Italy and shooting some videos and stuff there for the record but because of Covid 19 we can’t so I’ve been keeping busy with the live streaming format. Especially with DJing. Normally when I DJ in a club or at a venue there’s a decent amount of people and I feel obligated to play Washed Out meets more “party” music. Doing these DJ things around sunset, that are fairly early, allows me to play slower, moodier stuff. It’s fun and a step outside of what I’ve thought I was supposed to do. There will also be some band sessions and doing bits of solo recordings of some Washed Out songs. I wish I had the voice of James Blake and just was able to sit at the piano to play these songs straight up,” he laughs, “but the song textures give them that Washed Out vibe I don’t have on my solo stripped down versions. It’s been fun figuring it all out and I’m a bit of a control freak and so to be able to be in control of the sonic mix and even filming ourselves the upside to that is it’ll look and feel exactly how we want it too.” With any sort of travel options off the table and many of us separately living our summers in lockdown, having Purple Noon and Greene’s specific vision as a form of escapism seems like the best solution to help us through this trying time.
interview by Adam Fink