“I decided that there was a place for me and my music”: Ashish Seth on ‘Firstborn’

Album cover of Firstborn by Ashish Seth. Stylised art of people looking up at tall trees

I see Ashish Seth as a kindred artistic spirit. We both wrote for The NRI, an online magazine active in the early 2010s, and I spent a lot of my writing time listening to his Problem Child EP, which he released under the Mustardapple moniker.

As is now common for people linked across countries — Ashish in Canada, me in India (and then New Zealand) — we became Facebook friends, where he often posted heavily edited photographs with enigmatic captions that struck a chord with my love for art that’s off-kilter and opaque but still recognisably of this world. These photographs were often linked to a blog post, often a poem, sometimes a new piece of music. Transient vignettes of a life filtered through multiple artistic disciplines.

Like most other artists, Ashish does none of this professionally. How do you find an audience for your self-produced music in the Spotify era? (Or for your self-published travel memoir?) Through hustle and grind, mainly, sinking hours into promotion and research for a few more eyes or ears on your stuff. Those hours are hard to find when you work full time. It’s hard enough to find time just to make the art. So there are legions of us out there, toiling away at projects that will likely never generate widespread appeal, driven to write and chop and edit despite this fact. We know it’s for us more than it’s for anyone else. A necessary release of pressure. A therapy.

That said, I suspect I’m not the only person in Ashish’s orbit to connect with his music. I loved the Problem Child EP for its cinematic feel, especially ‘The Faceless Hero’, which to me evoked one person’s minor life-and-death struggle; a kid standing up to bullies in the projects, maybe. The tracks were raw and rough-edged, probably ripe for re-editing to smooth out the sharper sounds — but I liked its unpolished feel.

Ashish’s recent full-length album, Firstborn, released under his own name in the wilds of 2020, has a richer and more refined sound. This is the work of a musician whose production ability has evolved to match the sounds he wants to make. It is as sample-heavy as his earlier tunes but the samples now serve the song without drawing much attention to themselves. Again, I find myself listening to the whole thing on loop as I work — albeit at my day job, rather than at home working on my own projects. There’s a comfort to the way it flows from one track into the next, and a comfort in the cut-and-spliced melodies, which stand out enough to keep you engaged but never to the cost of the overall piece.

Firstborn was produced between approximately 2013 and 2015, then shelved for five long years. It’s a concept epic of syncopation and reverb, and the fantasist in me wants to say five years of fermentation gave rise to those rich echoes and overlaps, even though the reality is they were always there by Ashish’s design. He questioned that design, though, weighting his first full-length album with expectations he didn’t think he could meet. So he put it into the archives and had to coax it back out five years later. For all his doubts, it sounds to me like the work of a clear artistic voice.

There are other voices, though. A long list of collaborators could fill the liner notes. I’m not talking about Hemant Badya, whose guest vocals anchor the meditative ‘Aum’ at the centre of the album, but about the many other works sampled, all of which hint at a clearly universal struggle: I could be better, do better, but how? Among them: Death of a Salesman, Cutty from The Wire, ‘Passing Through’ by Rare Bird, F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about American lives not having second acts. Ashish is tallying up evidence across years and art forms to prove that anyone who tells you’ve they’ve got it all figured out is full of shit. He himself seems to be ‘looking for an answer’, as the refrain of ‘Somehow’ goes, and finding only the persistence of the question.

That ultimately seems to be a comfort, to my ears anyway. ‘Give Up’, the penultimate track, starts out gloomy and ends with hope; to me, it’s the hope of acceptance, not resolution. Of prizing the act of creation and claiming its inherent worth. But I’ll let Ashish tell you what he thinks. Then, listen and decide for yourself. It’s 100% free (or pay what you want) and freely available, so you might as well.

*

Your new album is called ‘Firstborn’. Why?

I called the album Firstborn because it is my first completed work. That’s the practical, uninspiring reason. It just seems like the simplest title. The artsy, literary, reason for the name is because the album, in a way, tells the story of a first-born child. I love concept albums so I tried to do that here. I am the first child in my family, with a younger brother. The expectations, experiences, and general anxieties of being the firstborn, or being the first one, or of being born and having arrived, all echo in the album’s story. So, in a way, the title suited the theme and underlying narrative of the album.

I also hope to release more music in the future so the title was is an apt signal for the start of something new.

What were you hearing (or not hearing) in Firstborn when you shelved it in 2015?

I don’t know what a lack of confidence sounds like but that’s what I was hearing when I shelved it. I don’t have a background in music or playing in a band. I don’t have any musical training. I play guitar but just for fun.

Unfortunately, it took a long time for me to get over the mental barrier of what’s considered legitimate music. The traditional notion of playing in a band, basic song structure, and the old teachers in my head prevented me from seeing it as a piece of music. Then there were the copyright issues.

Eventually, perhaps after seeing how liberal music has become, I decided that there was a place for me and my music.

What changed in order to convince you it was worth putting out into the world?

I wanted to move on. Start something new. But I knew I couldn’t until this project was complete. It’s been strange, surreal times. The pandemic. Something about that compelled me to look at it again. As I said previously, I think with platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud, artists like myself feel a lot more confident that there is a place for the type of music we make.

Sunrise through curved window with trees in distance
The World in a Globe by Ashish Seth: “Horizon lines confined to the slope of the hemispheres. Every good feeling is choked with a little fear.”

What software/hardware did you use to make Firstborn? It’s quite sample-heavy, right?

I mostly used Ableton Live and some other VSTs and patches to create the album. I’m really into sample-based music, repurposing, recontextualizing, cutting and pasting. Unlike hip hop producers who dig crates for vinyl to sample, I dug the internet. I pulled sounds from my library of music, all the music I collected before streaming became the new way we listen to music. There are some guitar licks and bad keyboarding on it as well. I tend to throw everything at the wall.

Back in 2009, I began producing music with DAWs like Sony Acid Pro and Soundforge. I’ve always been very music-minded and these new tools, instruments in their own right, made the medium accessible for me. I began obsessively trying to create unique sounds and imitate artists like J Dilla, Burial, and DJ Shadow. I’ve always loved hip hop and sampling as a form so I just buried myself in trying to mimic those guys and do it myself. I knew a bunch of producers who were making beats for MCs and initially thought about doing that but it never appealed to me. I preferred finished songs that could stand on their own. I wanted to create a record with the dense samples of Endtroducing…… and the distant ethereal quality of Untrue by Burial. You can probably hear some of their influences in it.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

My favorite track is “Dreamcatcher.” It was the first track of the album and the one in which I really felt I’d gotten better as a songwriter.

I really love the strong beat of ‘Give Up’, the catchy string sample, the playful percussive stutters in the final stretch. It seems hopeful and decisive in a way that most of the other tracks don’t. So why is it called ‘Give Up’?

As I mentioned earlier, I envisioned the whole album as a story. This song is the climax. “My Own Church” is the denouement. “Somehow” is the end of the dark second act. I think a part of me wanted to be subversive and ironic. “Give Up” starts very doomy, as if the narrator of the song or character has come to the end of their rope and has lost all hope, until he sees a glimmer of inspiration which he carries to its logical conclusion. The ending is meant to be a hiccup in the road towards the end of the goal you’re trying to reach, and it ends on an ambiguous note. It is up to the listener to decide.

Impressionistic bubbles in light green and dark blue haze
Cover for ‘Space Opera’ by Ashish Seth

You write, take photos, and make music. There’s probably other art in you that I don’t know about. Which medium did you love first, and which do you love most?

The medium I loved first, and still do, is writing. That’s my first love. I’m an aspiring novelist. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing two years ago and have been working – chipping away is the better way to put it – on my first novel. Being able to express myself creatively is a critical aspect of my life because it fuels me. And I think a creative life, beyond whatever an artistic life is, requires the constant pursuit of creating.

I’m currently reading Moby-Dick. I try to read the classics. Certain truths ring true through the test of time. I found a quote in this book that kind of represents a mantra I want to follow. It’s a quote I read recently so it’s not something I’ve always had – I’m not trying to be pretentious – but it resonated with me and reminded me what it’s all about. It goes: “[t]hough I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.” I try all things, regardless of my aptitude or skill because I have to in order to get where I want to go. The book Moby-Dick is such a tome of knowledge on a whole bunch of things, most especially whales. It can be a slog but when you step back to consider the wonder with which he writes about whales, not the authority, it kind of boils down the truth that perhaps life is a struggle to comprehend and the only thing you can do is try if you want to participate in meaning making. By trying, who knows what can be achieved.

You’re also a teacher, which I imagine demands a lot of you. How do you make time — and room in your brain — to make music (or art more generally)?

This is the ongoing struggle – balancing these two parts of me has never been easy. Carving out spaces of time is really difficult, especially of late. Balancing the two areas of my life is something I’m constantly figuring out and getting better at. But every so often growth spurts of creativity will make it happen. You can only plan. I try to carve out time for my craft every day. I start small, five minutes a day, to ten, to fifteen, and eventually momentum builds. Finding a discipline and relentless passion to keep going in the face of it all is the real artistic battle.

Ice-covered trees in dark orange glow
‘Rickety Thicket’ by Ashish Seth: “A rickety thicket of trees looking humid against the red sky. Except it can’t be humid because they’re coated with a translucent layer of ice. Ice storm 2014 in Brampton.”

On your website, you mention the period during which you made Firstborn as a difficult time. How did that colour the music?

I was going through an existential crisis. I don’t wish to say much more on the particulars. I wrote the bulk of the tracks at the end of 2013 in a frenzy of productivity and just poured all the despair into it. Whatever was going on, all of that colored the music, in the sounds I sampled, the structure, the mood. I think if anything was captured, it was that. And out of all that, an album came out.

Also on your website, you once wrote that “if you sit with an idea for too long [it] loses creative vigor and nothing seems natural”. But Firstborn has undergone a rebirth of sorts after five years locked away. Do you have other finished or half-finished projects sitting in a drawer that could be worth another look?

I think that’s what happened with this album. Everything takes so long to finish that you wonder whether it’s even worth doing and then at the same time you’re wondering whether the creative ideas you’re trying to reach are just you getting in the way of yourself. I take so long to get things done. I can say that also about the novel I’ve been working on.

But then when you take a step back or put a significant amount of time between the work and yourself, and grow in the interim, and then come back to it, you see it with different eyes, hear it with different ears, and you realize that perhaps it was fully finished when you left it. I think all creative people who work on something for a long time are constantly wrestling with the work, trying to figure it out, negotiating with it, churning it, molding it, and by turns, it molds them, forces them to consider new avenues, grows with the happy accidents that occur in the process and that we leap to put our name on when we see worth to them. And in the end, the totality of it all, the successes, the misfires, the signature it ends up taking on, what it sounds like, feels like; all of that is in some ways an illustration of the struggle of who you were putting it together, and once you understand that, trying to get it perfect makes no sense. It is what it always was. Once I came to terms with that, I had to accept it and move on, lest it sink me and prevent me from growing past it.

I’m glad I went back to it with fresh eyes and ears. Seeing the joy it brought to my loved ones was even sweeter.

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