An Interview with Jitwam

Ben Grenrock speaks with Jitwam about 'Purple EP,' Madlib, and finding inspiration.
By    July 16, 2018

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Since 2013, Indian-born, Australian-raised, New York-based artist Jitwam has been releasing music as rich and varied as the locales he’s called home. From glitchy compositions rooted in the L.A. beat scene, to bedroom psych-pop à la Connan Mockasin, to all manners of house fusionism, Jitwam’s approach to music making is a stylistically nomadic joy. Yet different as the genres he dabbles in may be, when filtered through the singer, songwriter, producer, and DJ’s worldly perspective and novel approach to songwriting, his songs take on an engrossing and surprisingly cohesive aesthetic that has caught the attention of tastemakers such as Gilles Peterson and DJ Moodyman.

On the heels of his debut album, the self-titled and genre-defying masterpiece ज़ितम सिहँ, Jitwam has returned with Purple EP, a vibey, disco-inflected jaunt through New York’s rich underground dance scene. Though a tonal departure from his previous work, Purple EP displays the same expertly layered textures and thoughtful compositions that have come to define the musician’s burgeoning catalog. Each of Purple EP’s songs resonates with the anticipation of a night out in a city pregnant with endless possibilities, even as addictive two-step rhythms implore the listener to lose themselves in the dance-floor’s oblivion.

As different an aesthetic as Purple EP carries when contrasted with the strung-out, meditative grooves found in ज़ितम सिहँ’s “alone” or “trinkets,” Jitwam explains that the writing process he employed on both records was relatively the same. Using a semi-improvisational technique popularized by beat poets like Allen Ginsburg called “first thought, best thought,” Jitwam composes all of his songs—whether they’re rooted in house or hip-hop—largely based on intuition. As such, his entire body of work is like a series of mementos of the various emotional and mental states he’s experienced over time, a scrapbook of sensation and sentiment writ in sound. —Ben Grenrock

Purple EP has a very different sound than most of the music you’ve released. Were you drawing from a different pool of musical influences when you were writing it?

Jitwam: Nah, definitely not. I’m always writing different shit. I’ve got so much dance/disco stuff. It may seem bizarre when a listener first encounters it who has a little bit of history with my music chronologically or whatever, but these tunes are actually fucking old, man. It’s more a matter of the order the work is presented. It just takes me a while to get shit out, to have everything in the right time and the right place to release it.

You look at an artist like Madlib and one of the things I admire most about him, is how many different styles of music that guy has covered throughout the course of his career. And despite that, he hasn’t lost anyone—any of his fans—along the way. I think that’s just such a beautiful and encouraging thing to me. Because I do like to make all kinds of music, I feel like that’s a good benchmark for me to look up to. Because Madlib never forgot about his hip-hop fans. Even though he was mad into jazz, or mad into rock and roll or industrial, he never lost his hip-hop fans.

I’m really trying to take a page out of that book. Flex these different styles, but also have some continuation of an aesthetic. These tunes are really just more upbeat. I feel like the songs and the textures are really the same as all of my other records. It’s just more upbeat.

But New York was definitely an influence on this [EP]. Just the vibe of the city. I really tried to make the EP feel like a night out, you know? You encounter so many different kinds of music going out in the city. There’s so much music—Latin music, disco music—you go around the block in Bed-Stuy and they’re playing old soul and funk jams. It’s all part of the energy of the city.

When talking about your last album, you’ve said that you wrote the songs in a sort of improvisational style called “first thought, best thought.” Were you using a similar writing process for this EP?

Jitwam: In terms of making the music I don’t think that process really ever changes for me. It’s always been: put some shit down and think about all the other stuff later. The premeditation comes into play when I’m figuring out how I want the project to come together. That’s been the biggest step for me, recently.

I can put music out easy, but how do I put out nice projects? That’s been one of the things that I’m trying to get better at as an artist—just creating proper projects with a whole story. I’m trying to get on that vibe, especially on the new album that I’m working on.

When you say a “proper project,” what do you mean specifically?

Jitwam: It’ll all well and good to write tunes and to write music. But I think the magic comes when you find a way to make a special connection with the audience. Like Kendrick’s albums, To Pimp a Butterfly or DAMN.—they’re just such well executed projects. Flying Lotus’s records, Aphex Twin, they’re all just thinking a little more broadly than just: ‘Oh, I’ve got some tunes, let me drop a record.’ You can have a much more powerful impact if you’re thinking more broadly with how you want to connect with listeners.

You’ve mentioned that all the songs on Purple EP have a story behind them. Can you explain what some of those stories are?

Jitwam: All my tunes are like photographs to me. I look back at them and I get the general feeling of where I was at, what I was thinking of, the circumstances around me. So when I listen to the first tune off the EP, “Desires,” for instance, there were just a lot of specific things that were going on in my life [when I wrote it]. So using that first thought, best thought approach, a lot of the time the meanings of these tunes come to me well after I’ve made them. I listen back to [a song], and at the time I didn’t really know what I was doing but when I look back in six months it’s like, “Oh! That’s what I was talking about!”

That happens to me a lot. Having that time and space away from your art makes you able to see it in a much more objective light. A lot of meaning presents itself after the fact. When I’m in the act, I’m just in the act. There is no mind in it. But after the fact, when I’ve had some time to settle and breathe and eat some dinner and shit, then all the meaning starts to flow out and hopefully you don’t cry [laughs].

A lot of this music stuff, I do it anyway. Regardless of releases and stuff it’s just what I do to keep my sanity in life, do you know what I mean?

Earlier you asked why this project sounds a little different and it just comes back to that. I’m just making music constantly. And it’s not really up to me to decide what kind of music I’m going to make. It’s just really whatever comes out. It’s just my job to make some shit and then see what we’ll do with it.

Do any of your recent performances stand out as particularly special?

Jitwam: We did the roof at Output a couple of weeks ago. We opened for Roy Ayers. It was fucking mental! We had the whole band up there. It was a sunset show. It was fucking sick. [During Roy Ayers’ set] I had my whole squad in the back smoking blunts and singing “Everybody Loves The Sunshine.”

You know, when you hear a musician of that caliber—how long has he been doing it, for like 40-plus years?—the pocket that his band has is so solid that you could build a house on that groove. Any groove that that band comes up with, you could build a house, build a kitchen, get your friends in over for dinner. He has the structural foundations down so proper! It’s so solid you can bring your girl in to chill, watch some Netflix, you know what I mean?

It’s a real solid foundation that they build from and that made me think about things so differently. Just allowing space for other musicians. Letting things settle into a groove before you hit people head on. There are so many little nuances and things that I picked up on at that show and in his tunes and it’s influenced me so crazy on the batch of music that I’m making at the moment.

As a human being in this life you always have to be willing to learn. You’re not going to be able to survive the hustle if you’re not learning new shit all the time. I’m definitely just trying to learn from as many different places as possible.

What’s next for you?

Jitwam: I’m working on a new album and just trying to keep busy. I feel that especially as an artist, or just any independently employed, independently motivated person, you need to make sure that you’re on your grind. Because no one else is going to grind it out for you.

I think it applies to anyone who wants to make money without having a boss. There’s a level of self-ownership that a lot of people are too scared to deal with. That’s why so many people have [traditional] jobs out here, man. Real talk. But even though it takes a certain level of confidence, even though it’s kind of scary, if you can control your own grind you may as well do it.

Do you have any strategies to motivate yourself to keep grinding?

Jitwam: To be honest, I read a lot of interviews. I’m always looking for stuff on YouTube with guys that I respect, from Arty Berman to newer stuff like No I.D. [No I.D.] has a great interview on Hot 97. A lot of those guys that have come up from that hip-hop world, they’re on some different mental plane now. If you hear the way No I.D. talks about [Jay Z’s 4:44], or if you listen to other guys, like Rick Rubin, etc., they think about the game so differently.

That’s my main inspiration. Especially when I’m feeling down or whatever. I watch one of those interviews and it’s like a motivational talk right there. There’s this other guy who runs this podcast called Song Exploder. He gets like, Solange in and they break down the individual stems from one of her tunes. He’s done some with Daedelus. It’s amazing. Really helps to keep me motivated.

These days a lot of those guys are so willing to share knowledge through all these interviews and TED talks. It feels like we’re in the age of giving. It’s really cool.

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