BY VIKASH DASS
Yeah, okay. We get it. 2014 was kind of a weak year for music. But, if there’s any silver lining to the lack of amazing mainstream releases this year, it’s that Massachusetts-based musician Planetarian, humanly known as Derek Simpson, dropped not one, but two fantastically great albums just to make up for it. WEIRDO and the latest project, about love, stretch across the universes of chillwave, funk, indie pop and jazz, and are two unique, gem-filled projects that dazzle and shine across the crisp production and raw vocals, and can both be downloaded for free on Soundcloud. Now, for many, there’s a certain level of cringe-induced facial pain that strikes when the words “Soundcloud” and “artist” are mentioned in the same sentence, but if there’s anything that you will learn from giving self-taught musical prodigy Derek Simpson a listen, it’s that there are quality, wholesome, fully-realized projects laying around for free on the internet, and not all them are just sh*tty 16’s recorded into a Macbook speaker over Metro Boomin beats.
As 2014 winds down to a close and most of us are eager to move on to what 2015 has in store, I personally wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t get to say goodbye to 2014 without highlighting it’s excellent points, and Planetarian definitely belongs in that conversation. WEIRDO saw piercing synths and fluttering piano chords with lush layers and serene melodies, while about love was a similar image painted with different brushes. It was more minimal and stripped in design, and featured a lot more of a raw, emotional tone with a sharp focus on Planetarian’s storytelling, confessional style songwriting. Planetarian has honed in on a balance where new-era sounds and a rehashed outlook on funk and jazz meet the simplistic, emotionally driven, tell-it-as-it-is style of songwriting that was ever so popular in the 70’s, and it never once sounds unnatural for him to do so.
So, without further ado, meet Planetarian, the young man from Taunton, Massachusetts who dropped two of the best two free projects of the year, all by himself.
You pulled a Rick Ross and decided to put out two albums in one year! Both WEIRDO and about love are wholesome, beautiful records. Talk to us about the decision to release two, and release them for free as well?
Thank you so much, that’s extremely kind. I had essentially worked on WEIRDO for a year and put it out expecting it to give me much more attention than it had so after dropping it I felt somewhat exhausted. It seemed like kind of a waste of time in retrospect to spend a whole year on something that people are going to look at and say “eh, I’m not going to listen to this for whatever reason” (although I’m not ashamed of WEIRDO because I still think it carries a strong message of self confidence which is extremely important), so when I decided to start a new album I thought “OK, I’m going to get as many great ideas down as I can, put this thing out before the year ends, and not have it take longer than it needs to.” From there it was easy to write the album because I felt a sense of urgency, like it needed to be made quickly and efficiently and I had a lot of inspiration because I had fallen in love for the first time so it was easy to write about that experience because it was so foreign and intense. I made both of the albums free simply because I probably wouldn’t make a bunch of money off of them if I were to sell them, and even if I did sell them people put albums online for illegally free downloading all the time so it would be much easier to put the albums online for free and sell merchandise instead, especially without a label to back you.
With releasing two albums in one year, it’s easy to have them sound similar and not differ too much between them. What, in your mind, is the biggest difference between about love, and your last project, WEIRDO?
First of all, about love is an effort in minimalism and WEIRDO is the exact opposite. Where I would pile on tracks of random sounds on WEIRDO, I would step back on about love and just say “maybe I should take that guitar part out and just have bass and vocals. That would get the point across well.” Also when I wrote WEIRDO, I was drawing on experiences from years before and making up a sort of story in my head as well. With about love, I was living it as I wrote it. Some of the songs I actually didn’t write any lyrics, for example when I recorded “I’ve Fallen In”, I went in and just said exactly what was on my mind and let the words flow through me. It was really therapeutic and I want to do more songs like that, I think it brings a really raw and honest soul to a song that may not otherwise have that.
How did the collaboration with Kevin Abstract come about? What was it like working with him?
Kevin Abstract is one of the first people I ever tried to connect with musically over the internet, I did a song with him for the bonus tracks on my first project about a year and a half ago, I had this song that I wanted someone to rap on and by some weird twist of fate I had found him on Twitter that same night. He had already been a fan of my first single “Young Minds”, and so I asked him to collaborate and Bob’s your uncle. This time around I had met him and a few other ASF members at one of Kevin’s shows in Boston to promote his new album mtv1987 (EDIT: which you can listen to, also for free, here) and I let him know I wasn’t really working on anything but I would let him know if I had anything that I wanted him on soon and sure enough I made “Break The Wall” a month later, thought he would sound great on it, and again Bob’s your uncle.
Although your projects have a common thread of feeling good and bright in nature, it definitely comes across that you take music seriously, as the polished-sounds of your records reflect a lot of work-ethic. Talk a little bit about your musical background, your influences, and if music being your main focus right now.
Music has always been intriguing to me. Ever since I spent my whole 6th-7th grade summer teaching myself how to play ‘Over The Hills’ and ‘Far Away’ by Led Zeppelin I’ve known that music is my true number one passion. There’s something so beautifully mysterious about it. The fact that we can still make something that sounds new and exhilarating out of all the same chords that we’ve always had is still so incredible to me. As for influences, I find influence almost anywhere. Anyone from Jack White to Tyler, The Creator to Marvin Gaye to Tame Impala to Kanye West to Jai Paul I mean I find influence anywhere that there is innovation and creativity really. Music is most definitely my main focus right now. I love designing clothes and I wrote a children’s book, but music is the main focus right now definitely.
What kind of approaches do you take to songwriting in general? Your lyrics and melodies reflect very raw, unfiltered emotions. How long have you been writing music and what is your process like?
I have been writing music for three years, my process varies with each project. The first two albums I made were very much a conscious effort to sit down and make the instrumentals beforehand, then write the lyrics to match the way the music made me feel. With about love, I had some songs that I wrote after finishing the instrumentals, I had some songs that just came through me like I was a vessel (for instance I was in the shower when the chords and chorus lyrics came to me for “Worth Your Time”), some songs I wrote the lyrics to before I wrote the music, and some songs I just didn’t write lyrics to and sang what was on my mind as I said before.
A year ago, you’d categorize your music under the “chillwave” genre. I personally see your newest release as a lot less synthetic and a lot more jazz influenced, maybe somewhat psychedelic. With you constantly evolving, what do you see your music as now?
I don’t really know what I see my music as truthfully. When you make music, it fills a completely different space in your head then what someone hears when they hear it for the first time so it’s tough for me to articulate exactly what I see my music as. I guess I would say about love is much more accessible than anything I made prior, but as for genres I don’t really like to put my music in boxes like that. I would just say pop music but that means many different things to many different people and the music I make has a lot of different influences so narrowing it down to one genre or sound is tough for me because I hear it all I guess.
Talk a little bit about your production process. Are you composing all of these beats/instrumentals yourself? What kind of setup/programs do you use?
Yeah I compose everything myself. Usually I’ll come up with something on guitar or piano and just move from there and see where the song takes me. I use Logic Pro, my guitar, a bass guitar, a Rode NTK for vocals and acoustic guitar, and a Korg SV1.
Your music was recently used in one of my favorite shows, Workaholics. Walk us through how that happened and how awesome that feeling was!
I love that show so much. I woke up one day, checked Twitter and saw that Blake had tweeted the link to one of my songs, I was really surprised and taken aback by that it was sick. Then a week or two later, my friend Hamie gave me a call and said that someone from Workaholics was trying to contact me through the Planetarian Facebook page (he operates it) and I told him to give her my email address and from there they just asked if I could license “Swim” for an episode. It was wild watching it I just remember sitting there and not knowing how to take it all in because I was remembering watching the first episode and starting to really love the show years beforehand and how I had no idea something like that would even happen it was insane.
Talk a little bit about your relationship with Tyler, the Creator. How did that actualize and what is that like with him today?
Well I originally sent my first song to him on FormSpring, to which he expressed a lot of love and excitement. That itself was unreal to me because he’s a huge influence on me, I mean he’s the reason I started to say fuck it and do what I love to do with no remorse. Eventually he started following me on twitter and we met and hung out once about a year ago when he was on tour. He’s been super busy lately so we haven’t spoken in a while but he’s fucking awesome.
Are you in school/working a job? Are you looking to make a career out of music?
I’m not in school and I’m working on music at the moment. Two good friends of mine and I are putting together live sets at the moment so we can tour soon and put on some awesome shows for the people that like to dance to Planetarian stuff. I’m definitely looking to make a career out of music, at this point I love it way too much to not do all of the hard work and take all of the necessary steps to make music my career.
As a new artist on the “SoundCloud side” of the industry, what are your thoughts on labels and ultimately making your music a business? Have labels or people involved in the industry reached out? It is worth noting you haven’t sold any of your music up to this point, why is that, and do you think you will ever start doing so?
I think it’s important to my music a business since I want to live off of it, but that shouldn’t mean sacrificing artistry. People involved in the industry have reached out, but I won’t sign to a label unless I’m given 100% creative control and since that’s tough to find nowadays I may just have to start my own label. I haven’t sold any of my music because I make enough money off of merchandise currently and selling music these days is not a huge source of income for artists anymore. There are too many illegal downloads and youtube converters to make much money off of a record anymore. It’s kind of sad because personally I love CDs and the process of having a physical copy of music and looking at the artwork but people generally don’t really have a love for that anymore. Paying for a record seems so absurd to so many people in my generation now unfortunately because of entitlement issues but whatever, the industry needs to learn how to adapt and I’d like to be on the right side of that evolution as it happens.
Speaking in the realms of labels and the industry side of things, where do you see Planetarian as a musical entity headed in the future?
I’m not necessarily sure where the whole Planetarian project will be go as a musical entity in the future. Wherever it ends up I know that if I keep working hard, up is the only place it can all go.
Your projects are very moving and organic in nature, and I personally can’t help but feel your sound would translate particularly well in a live setting. How far away are we from seeing a Planetarian tour?
I’m not exactly sure. I want to tour next year, whether or not that will happen I don’t know but I agree I think a live show would be awesome haha we’re working on it.
Outside of music, what other kinds of goals and aspirations do you have?
I’d like to get this children’s book I wrote published, I want to keep selling clothes, maybe I’ll eventually own a Skyzone for just me and my friends. That would be awesome. I want to get great at meditating. I want to keep falling in love too, that’s a good time.