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East Forest to Play at Music Farm with Trevor Hall: Interview

Photo: Matt Gonzalez

Trevor Oswalt, musically known as East Forest, combines the sounds of nature and electropop to create a unique, introspective listening experience. Oswalt has been known to hike far into deserts and mountains to record the sounds of wildlife such as crickets, birds, and various other creatures rustling in the brush. When he returns to the studio he takes those sounds and incorporates them into the songs, giving them a perspective that you don’t find often in electronic music. It’s the type of music to throw on when you’re in the mood to sit back, relax, and think about life.

East Forest has a new album out entitled Cairn, which is a collaboration with Portland-based producer Keith Sweaty. I was lucky enough to link up with Oswalt for a discussion about his creative process, the new album, and the spiritual journey of life in general. We dove into some fairly deep subjects, and Trevor seems like a really chill dude with a lot going on between his ears. You can read the transcript of our interview below, but I definitely recommend watching the embedded video about the making of Cairn first. It will give you some insight into both the mindset behind East Forest and Trevor’s personality before you dig deeper with our interview.

East Forest will be at the Music Farm on Thursday, October 5th with South Carolina native Trevor Hall. Get your tickets here.

In your making of the album video you talk a lot about cairns, and obviously that’s the name of your album. When did you first hear about a cairn?

Well I’ve been into, like, hiking and the outdoors for quite a while. It’s a big part of my life and keeping my head on straight, but honestly I would just see them out there on trails. They’re used a lot of times in wilderness trails, where there’s not really a trail. So when you’re at one, if you go a little further you might see another one, hopefully. It’s like a little signpost to help you know where the hell you are and where you’re going.

So, just by seeing them out there I eventually learned what they were called. It sounds like a French word, probably some kind of mountaineering term. But when we were writing this record, and when I was writing a lot of lyrical content, I was going through a lot of personal transition in my life, going through a breakup, which in term I had a lot of deep, deep change in my life.I was just thinking a lot about how sometimes you don’t really know where you’re going in life, or you feel like you have no idea what’s coming next, and you’re looking for those signs, metaphorically speaking. Whether it’s a message you get from someone, or an intuition, or an experience you have, or maybe song you hear.

It might just tell me the next step to take, and I still wouldn’t know the destination, but I liked the metaphor of that, the idea of a cairn. And then the whole process of the record itself was very much that way. Each time we were working on songs, and I was coming up with lyrics, and working on the music, it felt like each one was a little moment in time, like an individual cairn on that path.

So you were out there, you were seeing these cairns and you thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna incorporate this into an album’. Is that kind of how your thought process went?

It’s something that sort of just happened, looking back at the process as we were finishing up the record. When I listen to it, I’m listening to each one of those songs being a moment of time, about what I was going through that particular week. I look at each song as a cairn. I look at each experience, each moment as a signpost in this journey of transition.

Do you think you could come across a cairn in the middle of a busy city? Do you maybe have an example of a time when you saw something like that?

Well, I think if you’re in a city it’s not literally going to be a stack of stones, but I know what you’re saying. The reason why its a stack of stones is because, the idea is that it sticks out from the surroundings. It’s like “oh, a human made that because that wouldn’t happen naturally”. And you’re not gonna meet that person. So if you make one, it’s sort of like you’re saying “Wow, this is a tricky point, this is a turn that someone might miss, so I’m gonna make this little stack of stones here, and they’ll notice that.” It made me think, too, about paying it forward, or gifting things to others, and how you can do a lot of things in life that are going to benefit other people down the road that you might not meet, and that’s a good energy to have in your life. It tends to cultivate that in your own life, like better things coming your way.

So for me, I think when people experience those things in their normal lives, in cities, the way it happens is more through synchronicity, meaning coincidences. Those sorts of things stick out from the normal reality we live in. I think we all have them on small levels, and we all have them on really big levels. And when those things happen, its sort of like the universe winking at you. Like a message from yourself, perhaps, in the greater sense, telling you that you’re on your path. Yeah, I’ve had some big ones; I have little ones every day.

I get the feeling that you kind you see your life as a spiritual journey. Do you think music plays a lot in that spiritual journey, and in the spiritual journey of everybody else?

In general I do see it that way. Like anybody else, life’s got it’s ups and downs. I try to see purpose in it, because it just helps me out to see as much meaning as I can. Music helps me express things that I don’t even know how to express, because music for me is very emotional, and I think it is for everyone. We’re all kind of going through these little emotional journeys. And also, it’s something that’s been integral to the human experience forever. As long as we look back we see musical instruments, and rhythms and drumming. Whether that’s a way of us just being people, or we’ve use it as a tool. We’ve used drums and drum beats and rattles to change our consciousness, as a way to learn more about ourselves and figure difficult things out in life. We do that to this day, but we just do it in a more complex way.

I think things shifted a bit a hundred or so years ago when recording came into play, and people started saying, “Okay, there’s professionals who make music and we’re going to listen to them, and then there’s the people who don’t make music”. For a long time that separation was never there. Everyone made music, and participated in singing and playing because that was the only way to experience music. It’s only a modern affliction that we say, “There’s other people that we will pay to do it, and we’ll listen to it.” Nonetheless, it’s in movies, it’s in our life. You hear the heartbeat of your mother and your own when you’re in the womb, that’s the first drum beat. It’s one of our senses. It’s a major part of being alive.

So you’ve been making music as East Forest since around 2008, so almost 10 years. How would you say that your view on the spiritual journey has changed since you first started out. Do you think it’s more or less the same, or do you think it’s radically different?

Well, I want to answer your question succinctly but I’d say its both. It is the same, in the sense that you realize it’s a journey, and it’s a moving target and every day and moment is just another moment in a day, and you’re facing new things and you just work through it. You realize that there’s no destination, and I think that’s the biggest challenge to accept, and recognize. It’s different in the sense that I’m older, and I hope wiser, and I’ve gone through some things. If anything you end up simplifying more, and just taking it more easy and cutting yourself some more slack, trying not to take things too seriously.

But, you know there’s a lot going on in the world, as we know, and every year it seems to get more intense. We all suffer from information sickness, so to speak, from so much information coming our way, and this is unprecedented. I just think more than ever it’s about having a practice, whatever that is for you. That can practice, the purpose of it, is like exercising: you don’t just do it once, you do it a few times a week, or every day, or whatever you do. That’s because it’s like a muscle, and then the next day, or a couple days later you need to do it again, just to keep it in shape. I think a spiritual journey is the same, for everyone. I’m trying to give people tools and practices through my music that are not only effective, but fun. It can potentially help you dive into that inner space. And by doing that I would hope that people are gonna to find ways inside themselves that they feel they can stand on their own two feet, and hear what’s being said to them and make their own choices in life.

It feels like these practices you’re talking about can help take your mind off the things that are going on the world that maybe bother you or stress you out, and just bring you back down to earth and level your head out a bit, you know?

Everyone has it, even if they don’t realize it. Some people, it’s really conscious like yoga, or running, or meditation. For others it’s more unconscious like Monday night football and beer. Everyone’s trying to get to God, essentially. Some people that’s heroin, for others that’s prayer. We’re all trying to figure out how to deal with the pain of just living. I would hope that we can do it in ways that will be more effective, but that’s the choices we’ve gotta make as individuals.

When you first started viewing yourself as a musician, did you always see yourself making the kind of introspective music you make today, or did you start out in a band trying to play rock ‘n’ roll?

I had an indie pop band, and we went hard at it for five years or so, but it wasn’t very successful. I think a lot of it was because I wasn’t quite on point to what I really wanted to do. I didn’t really decide to do what I do as much as I discovered it. It took a while, I burned through some stuff to get where I am now, to feel like it’s a little more honest. Once I started focusing on making music that I wanted to hear, literally me personally, and had a real purpose for me about chilling me out and pulling me inside some introspective place, things started to unlock, and change in a better way musically.

Can you tell me a little about your creative process? I know we touched on this already, but when you come up with a song, does it just come to you, or do you have a specific thing, or feeling in mind?

Usually it’s more exploring the music at first, and I start with a piano or keyboard and work through chords. Then build a song off those chords, or a little melody. For new record ‘Cairn’, it was a little different. Keith Sweaty would send me a beat, or a loop with some chords. Then I would mess around with it, and make a structure out of it and record vocals and lyrics. He would edit it again, and then we met up and added stuff to it like strings, trumpet, and mixed it together. That’s why it has so many lyrics, because the bed of music was already there.

How did you link up with Keith Sweaty anyway?

I was in Portland, playing a gig at a little local venue down the street from my house, and he was doing the live sound for it. He was super nice, which is unusual for sound guys, and he offered to do a remix for a record that I had coming out at the time. It was really good, and I did some vocals on his remix. That’s released on an album called ‘Held / Kindred’. I thought it was really cool and wanted to make some more music together, and he was down, so we worked out a deal and did a record. We did it in three months.

Did you ever call him up to talk about ideas, or was it more of a separate collaboration where you sent things back and forth?

Well, we did start together, and I had a vision for the record that was: beats, analog, synth, and acoustic instruments like piano, strings, and stuff, and then vocals. We did fulfill that vision, but I expected it to be more like house or techno. I was really inspiration by a band called Kiasmos, and I imagined it as Kiasmos meets Sigur Ros, but as we started making the music it became a little more indie-pop, more song-songs. It’s hard to steer the ship sometimes when you come together as a collaboration, you’re not quite sure what its gonna come out as. It started together, to put out the vision. We wrote a couple quick songs together but I had to hit the road, and while I was in Utah doing vocals he would send me stuff, then we got back together and finished up.

Tell me about the album cover. Did you design that yourself?

No, that’s by an artist named Darius Twin. He paints it with light and uses a long exposure to record it. He was a friend of Keith’s and he was willing to let us use the image. It’s actually a nautilus, which also happens to be my logo.

Check out more of Darius Twin’s art on Instagram.

Cairn album art by Darius Twin.

Have you been to Charleston before? How did you like up with Trevor Hall?

I haven’t personally, but Trevor Hall has. It’s his tour, and he’s from South Carolina. I’m really excited to come to town. We were crossing paths, and I suggested that we collaborate. He ended up throwing my name in the mix for his choices to take on tour and ended up thinking I would be a great fit for this particular tour, called ‘The Fruitful Darkness Tour’. It’s a lot about digging into the darkness and shadows of your life, and a lot of my work explores that, too, especially this new record ‘Cairn’. It really makes for a good night of music.

This Thursday’s show at the Music Farm is looking to be an awesome night. It starts a little earlier than most shows, with East Forest playing around 7:30pm, and Trevor Hall following. Trevor Hall also has a new EP out called The Fruitful Darkness: Part 1, and the tour is centered around that release. Stream Cairn by East Forest below, and don’t forget to do your part in helping East Forest get on Spotify Playlists.