Interview: Five Minutes with Michael Oakley
Image credit: Jon Simo
Many a musician embarked on an inner Odyssey this year, taking the time to learn more about themselves. Michael Oakley has chosen to share his latest LP, Odyssey earlier this year, which reached #8 in the Worldwide Album Charts on Bandcamp while peaking at #4 on the Electronic Album Chart. The musician has reinvented synthwave with the release, using wave elements while still incorporating influences from the likes of George Michael, Sting, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd. However, to us, it’s the true sense of adventure found within the album that makes it really stand out.
Naturally, we were eager to learn more about the Toronto-based producer making waves in the genre. Join us for the exclusive interview below
Set the tone for us. Why the arts?
Music is the language of the soul. I truly believe that. Many of my most personal introspective moments have been through listening to music or a song and feeling like the music and words were somehow mirroring back to me what I was feeling. Helping me to understand what I was feeling better and more clearly.
Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?
I’d say it’s a combination of both. Sometimes I’m experimenting with some sounds and something just immediately clicks. Other times I’m just randomly listening to music and something about it inspires me – maybe the drums, the overall mood and atmosphere or a particular synth sound that I want to try to re-create and use in a different way or it could be the chord changes that I connect with. At that point, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and get to my recording software to start laying down a new idea with that inspiration point in mind. Creativity is unpredictable and a lot of times you can feel like the idea is taking you somewhere rather than you being in control of the idea. You do have to be ready though when inspiration strikes because if you don’t… The moment goes and whatever that idea could have been will be lost forever.
Does your material feature any collaborations?
Almost all of the songs on Odyssey were co-written with my good friend Ollie Wride and one of the songs – ‘Glasgow Song’ features the incredible Dana Jean Phoneix. Odyssey also has contributions from Brothertiger, New Division and Mecha Maiko.
What’s on your current playlist?
Currently, I’ve been listening to Depeche Mode, Ulrich Schnauss, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, The Blue Nile, Alan Parsons Project, The Midnight & Jean Michel Jarre
Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.
I love performing live and it’s the most wonderful feeling ever making your audience feel good and engaging with them to ramp up the energy. I gotta say though that before every show I always get really nervous and have to come face to face with that and calm myself down before going on stage. It’s like I have all this excitement and nervous energy that I can’t do anything about until I can get on stage and channel it into my performance. It’s the best feeling in the world when people at my shows are singing my songs back to me.
What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?
The most important thing is to always be listening to new music. I like to find new music that inspires or challenges me because the best of that always finds its way into my own writing and production. I also like to set rules and limitations for each new album project I work on so that I don’t repeat something I’ve done before. I never use the same synth sound or drum sound twice. Before I start coming up with new ideas I go through all my synthesizer plugins and sample collection to remove any sounds I’ve used before and also shortlist my favourite sounds to make my creative process much faster. It means I know what sounds I like the best and where they are so I’m not wasting time shifting through patches or samples to find the sound I want. I’ve done the recon work to avoid that. I recommend all producers do that.
Take us through a day in the recording studio.
Every day is different! Some days I’m productive and some days I’m tinkering and getting lost in playing with plugins or flicking through patches. It’s all leading somewhere though. There’s never a wasted day in the studio.
Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?
One of my earliest memories that I can remember as a kid was hearing Depeche Mode – ‘Enjoy The Silence’ for the first time and falling in love with music. That song made me want to get a synthesizer and start making electronic music.
What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?
Definitely a pack of Vocalzones and herbal tea with honey! Keeps my voice at its best for as long as possible during the show.
Any emerging artists on your radar?
Missing Words, Coleurs, Yota, Syst3m Glitch, Laura Dre & many of the artists on my label NewRetroWave
What gets your creative juices flowing?
Listening to new music. That’s the most important one because it keeps rekindling your love for music. Especially when you discover a new song or artist that you fall in love with.
Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.
I use Ableton Live as my main DAW. Some of my synth plugins I like to use frequently are Omnisphere, Spire, Nexus 3, UVI Vintage Vault 3, Sylenth1 & Dexed. Processing tools I always use are Fab Filter Pro-Q3, Maag2 EQ, Valhalla Room and Shimmer reverb, Tal Chorus and Soundtoys. I own a few pieces of hardware because I’m obsessed with Ensoniq synthesizers so I own the VFX, TS10 and MR Rack and also a Yamaha SY85.
Any side projects you’re working on?
At the moment I’m taking some time out to reflect on Odyssey after spending two years writing and recording it. I find that helps me to also start to build up a new picture in my head of what I would like to work on next.
How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?
I’m always trying to learn and discover new production techniques that keep me surprised when I’m working. But I’d say keeping an open mind is probably the one thing that I’ve got better at since I first started. This might sound a little strange but I really don’t like knowing what I’m doing when working on a new idea. I feel that trying to keep the element of surprise is super important so you have that magic moment of OH! when something unexpected happens that sparks a really interesting idea.
Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?
There’s going to be a super awesome livestream event happening which I’ll be announcing soon. We filmed that last month at a studio with my band so I’m very excited about that. There’s also an unplugged live EP that I’m releasing later this year of just me on piano, singing with my acoustic guitarist in a more intimate performance.
Famous last words?
Don’t die with your music still in you. Don’t get to the end of your life having never chased your dream and say “What if my whole life has been wrong?”. Start following and chasing whatever it is that makes you feel alive.
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