By Juliana Russell
With deeply intelligent and poetic lyrics accompanied by intricate yet delicately sparse instrumentation, Ross Henry brings us his finely crafted, somber and dark, but soft and warm EP “The Forester’s House”. Black on the Canvas had the great opportunity to speak with the wildly inventive and talented, yet humble artist about his new EP.
What’s your music about? How did you get started in the industry?
Ross: How did I get started… In the industry or the music?
Oh yeah, very different things (laughs). How about, music first! Creatively, I guess.
Ross: I’ve been making music for a while. I think the first instrument I picked up was an acoustic… My dad had an acoustic guitar and a few other guitars and other sorts of things just kicking around the house. And I just kind of naturally picked it up and started strumming, just kind of making up songs. I found that throughout most of my school… I used to stay up, really late (laughs), making these little demos and just kinda hide away. And I spent so much of my time just doing that, and then I guess when I finished school, when I was thinking about different directions, I think I was gonna do like Environmental Science or something. I don’t know, I just thought about it, I was like hang on… This is what I do. All the time. What I really enjoy, so I figured I might as well have a good crack at it. So I decided to pursue music a bit more. Yeah so I guess it started because my dad just left some guitars around the house! (laughs)
Awesome! So you went to school for music?
Ross: Yeah, so I did a bit of music… So I’m from England originally, and I moved to Australia I think six or seven years ago now. I studied composition and production when I got here.
So how did you get started in the industry then?
Ross: Well, I guess I still am. At the moment, like anything, just putting on shows, gigging around, just putting stuff out there. Learning every step of the way. I guess as a sort of independent artist that I am, every single time I do a single or release or something, it’s just about learning how to do a lot of the other stuff that you don’t really want to do… (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah, definitely, all the more technical, tedious, annoying things.
Ross: Just by one step at a time, I guess. (laughs)
What are some of your main influences or inspirations, like musical or otherwise?
Ross: Well I guess relevant to the stuff I’m putting out at the moment… I quite like some electronic artists, like Four Tet, Bonobo, Amon Tobin… Yeah, I mean, I’ve got a lot of different influences as well. But I guess when I explain the sound that I have at the moment… These electronic artists that use samples and create interesting sounds, especially Amon Tobin, he’s kind of like a musical sound designer. But like I said to you, the first instrument I picked up was an acoustic guitar, and I was very much a songwriter as well. I guess it’s about being influenced, and then going into electronic music from that kind of, I guess really warm, human perspective, I suppose. The result is pretty chill, and… Warm. (laughs) Human, really. It doesn’t have all these epic sharp edges.
All right, that transitions well into the next question. Talk about your new EP, The Forester’s House, like about each song, or a song that has a particularly compelling story, or the EP as a whole…
Ross: Yeah, sure. So at the time, I had a sweet life style, I was working a bit, and creating all the time. I was looking for inspiration in various, different ways, and I was coming up with funny little techniques to sort of spark that, I suppose. And one idea was just to grab like any book, and just throw dice or something. And I did sort of chose phrases, and words, and letters from different books and stuff like that. And it sounds really interesting.
Oh! So, sort of aleatoric! (Aleatoric music, or “chance” music, is an abstract contemporary compositional style that can come from various sources—any kind of source, really—where the composer assigns different parameters to things, like pitch, tempo, and rhythm, then leaves the next decisions up to chance, e.g. throwing dice, as Ross said. True aleatoric music does not allow edits, but in reality a lot of the results can be incoherent and unpleasant, therefore some smoothing out can be beneficial.)
Ross: Yeah, well that was the idea originally, but the thing is that I came back to what I got from that, and I didn’t have anything, it didn’t make any sense. (laughs) But in that process, I kind of stumbled across this autobiography of this war poet called Wilfred Owen. I rolled the dice, and had a look at the page that came up, and it was basically this excerpt from the last letter that he ever sent to his mom, I think. And he died about 10 days later. But the thing about it, I just really loved how he was in the cellar of the forester’s house, it’s super smoky, there’s a guy in the next room with this walrus mustache kinda joking, there’s a guy peeling potatoes over there. The whole picture was about creating this really warm, at-home… Trying to convey this safety as well, there’s a lot of friends and everything. It was a really nice sort of vibe. And especially in the context of war, I just really thought “Wow, this is really a gem of a letter.” I thought that was interesting, so that ended up being the inspiration for the title track, which is kind of just taking that letter, and rearranging it but being relatively true to the actual letter. But it sort of expands and goes other places a little bit… Yeah, it sort of sparks the theme for the EP. And then, I was interested at this point, so I had a look online, and found scans of the original letters from that period as well. So I started reading those and just kind of thinking about them. For example, the next track on the EP is called “Mary’s Canary”. I was just reading this letter, and I read the whole thing through, but there was one small bit that stuck out to me because it was really interesting. He was talking about how he was at the front of [the war], and all they could hear was the whizzing of these bullets, but he said that it sounded like Mary’s canary, like it sounded like a canary bird, like back at home! And I was like “Wow! That is the most intense, ridiculous comparison!!” (laughs) All he could think about was how it sounds like these birds are chirping over his head. So I guess that very small element sparked the interest for “Mary’s Canary”. And I guess as the release goes on, it starts off as this tangible letter, but it becomes more and more abstract. So, 12 Letters, I think that’s the last one, that one is again using a more abstract way to sort of translate what I was interested in. There was this sentence, “we were marooned on a frozen desert.” I ended up assigning a different rhythmic element to each letter. So there were 12 separate letters in that sentence. So I assigned a different rhythmic element to them, then I had like a kick as pauses in between the words as well. So the sort of chorus is this kind of strange rhythm. (laughs) So a bunch of different found sounds. That’s why it has this kind of odd rhythm in the middle of it. “We were marooned in a frozen desert”, via rhythm. (laughs)
Wow, that is so cool! (laughs)
Ross: Yeah, I guess “Footprints”, the idea for that was that it takes place microscopically, in a sort of little footprint, like a waterlogged footprint, so it’s all kind of rainy, very watery, kind of abstract as well. (laughs) But yeah, it was a really nice process, actually. I quite enjoyed it. I didn’t even think about it at the time, I made all these tracks, put them all together, and after I stepped back a few months later, I was like “Wow, this actually quite dark!” (laughs) Whoa! Oh my god! I didn’t really think about that at the time.
Yeah, it all came together really well! So did you face any technical or creative challenges while producing this EP? Along the same vein, how do you generally deal with and overcome challenges?
Ross: Well, I guess they just turn into the parameters that you have to work around. So I guess at the time, I had put quite a few different things in the session, and my computer at the time wasn’t the most amazing piece of equipment, sometimes it would get a bit slow. So I would have to end up bouncing down tracks, and then putting them back into the session, then it would be like well I can’t really change that much now. (laughs) So I guess it’s about making a decision and moving forward. I guess there’s always challenges and things, but it’s all just part of the process. I mean there are always days where you’re not feeling it, but you just gotta have a crack and see where you go. I think for most tracks, I think someone asked me the other day, it’s just sort of like what about the tracks that don’t quite come together and you really need to work on them? And I was like that’s just, that’s every track! (laughs) It seems like you need to put a certain amount of energy and time before it gets good, before you can ride and get into this state of being in it and vibing in it. So I guess maybe the biggest challenge is being like, “Right, yeah, just stick with it!” Until you’re in the zone, I guess. (laughs)
What programs and equipment do you use?
Ross: I’m a big fan of Ableton, DAW… I guess it’s pretty good for electronic music, it’s pretty good for my live shows as well. I’m not a massive gear head either; I don’t rely on any particular amazing plug-ins. I mean I probably do if I look at the session and maybe a few random things. But I don’t like to be like “Oh, I’ve downloaded this new synth patch!” or this thing. I usually just try to let the ideas, and whatever I’ve got floating around, guide the music.
Yeah, I feel like for this EP, it had more of a natural, sort of organic sound, not entirely synthesized.
Ross: Absolutely. I think you hit the nail on the head there. Like I was saying as well, I went at it from a very sort of, very warm, human perspective towards electronic music. So a lot of it is found sounds, there’s a lot of percussive elements from all over the place. It’s generally just real instruments that I’ve been manipulating and messing around with. Even in “The Forester’s House”, that sort of string, violin-sounding thing, that’s an erhu. Everyone’s like “Whoa, is that a violin, that sounds a bit wrong?” (laughs)
Yeah, I thought of a beginner violinist who couldn’t really play! (laughs)
Ross: (laughs) Well it basically is. It was inspired by, I guess guys like Four Tet and Bonobo, they typically use these Asian/World instruments, and sample them. The whole premise was that I’d use instruments that are literally around me. The erhu, it’s amazing. I can’t play it, but I love the almost weird, human voice texture you can get from it. And the fact that, even when you listen to it, it’s like “Oh, is that a violin? What is that?”
Wow, so where did you get an erhu?
Ross: I think it was from… Cambodia.
Wow, awesome. So what’s your creative process like? I guess we’ve kinda touched on that already, but how do you go about writing a new song or piece?
Ross: I guess I’ve got to be interested in it, really, just sort of feel it. But then at the same time, sometimes I just want to keep making stuff, so sometimes I just sit down, and put time into becoming interested as well. Generally, it’s only interesting to me if I’m learning something in the process. So I’ll often try something new for each song, or track, or anything, different ideas. So I guess I’m sort of exploring something, and then that’s what sparks interest. I’m like “Cool! This is going to be a new thing for me.” I suppose “12 Letters”, that was interesting to me because I’ve never tried to create a chorus, the rhythm of a chorus, out of a sentence before—let’s try that! So I guess the idea of my creative process of a new track is finding something new and interesting, that I’m gonna learn from, and then the track is sort of the accident of that. (laughs)
Yeah, that’s awesome! So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on right now?
Ross: Well I’m working on a couple of remixes at the moment. I’m quite enjoying messing around with other people’s stuff, as well as creating original stuff. I’ve started on another… I don’t know if it could be an EP, or an album, I’m not sure at this moment, I’m not sure where it goes. It could be anything at this point. (laughs) I was looking to continue playing live as well, I’m really enjoying that. I have a pretty nice little set-up—I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where it’s interesting and fun, and worth doing as just myself. It’d be cool to rope other people in as well.
Cool! Do you have any parting comments?
Ross: Thanks for the chat! (laughs) Awesomeness.