“I think it took me a long time to realise that I am not just the music I make and that I’m a person who has other thoughts and feelings about different things, with other virtues and skills,” IJALE tells me over Zoom. Much of his last few years have been engrossed in the art. Studying in the realm of music at Collarts, releasing his debut EP WIldly Disparate Sounds last year, and maintaining the momentum with releases like ‘XXL’, and standout features such as his work on Dujong Jr’s ‘Ceramic’. But taking a step back, and simply living life, is what has brought us the fully-realised soliloquies of OTTN (On to the Next).
Created throughout Melbourne’s consistent and extensive lockdowns, OTTN is the reflection of a man and artist’s growth. It’s a journey through IJALE’s consciousness, as he spirals through struggles with mental health, relationships, and his own identity, while also taking moments to highlight his ambitions, and simply talk his shit. It’s a sequence a lot of us have gone through being confined to the architecture of our homes, where we really feel the lows, and the highs are wide-eyed, as we shoot for the stars through our ceilings.
Mirroring that introspective journey, IJALE presents a myriad of musical styles, from the synth soundscapes of ‘CONNECT’, to the somber feelings of ‘GHOULS (Swimming Pool Rework’, and all the way through to the boom-bap bounce of ‘SAD FACE EMOJI (Interlude). But this isn’t just a tale of quarantine, but someone obtaining personal freedom. It’s the elimination of the confines of public discourse that come with being an artist. It’s the process of facing the turmoil that bugs you, accepting it as something you can overcome, but not abolish. And it’s the realisation of making music because you love it, not because you feel it’s all you can do.
Breaking down this Opus, IJALE walked me through his locked-down year of creation, the emotions he faced throughout the process, and why the pressure was less poignant this time around.
Congratulations on OTTN, my friend. How are you feeling about the release?
I feel good! I’ve been waiting for it to drop for a minute now. I’m happy with how all the singles have been received. I didn’t know how people would respond to them. So yeah, can’t complain.
Often in the Australian scene, we see a lot of EPs that eventually lead up to a full length. But in only your second project, you’re coming through with 18 tracks. What was the motivation behind this?
I don’t think there was a specific motivation, to be honest. I was just going through a period where I was making a bunch of beats, and cherry-picking the ones I felt like saying something over. I had a lot of songs at the end of this, but there were parts of what I was dealing with through the pandemic and stuff that I hadn’t touched on yet. SoI added little bits and parts to fill that in, and this is where we landed.
Throughout the duration, everything is cohesive, and each track links to the next. How do you achieve that as both a songwriter and producer?
I honestly didn’t think there was much cohesion [Laughs]. I just made a bunch of stuff and tried to be as honest as possible. I think that’s the thread that kind of brings it all together, and my voice and perspective are pretty singular throughout all of it. I think just making a lot of the beats on the project helped bridge things together as well. Like, most of the beats I didn’t make are right at the start, and then it goes through this process where it begins to sound more like me.
I feel like when it comes to a full-length project, that’s where you see a beatmaker become a producer, where things like sequencing and arrangement are really considered. How do you think this project helped you evolve in that field?
After my first project, I just wanted to be freer with it. I guess now that I’m really coming into my own as a lyricist and stuff, I let that guide me more, opposed to the beats I’m making. So every time I go to attack a specific emotion or sentiment, I know what should be underneath these words. I feel like I’ve gotten better at getting to the point if that makes sense.
You’ve mentioned that this project was you ‘trying to make sense of your headspace’. How does music help you achieve that clarity?
I feel like it just allows you to create a world or foundation where you can talk about these things. In terms of the actual creation process, my OCD nature that has allowed me the full reign to do whatever I want, and is obsessive about the craft has helped. Once you hit a flow, things just start to happen, and when I listen back to the track, it makes sense to me. It helps me realise what I was actually feeling at the time and how I’ve learned from it after the fact.
You tackle these emotions throughout a myriad of styles on the project. But the last year of lockdowns has made it hard to find inspiration in anything. How do you find that starting point to turn your vulnerabilities into music?
I’m finding it a lot harder now that the project is done, opposed to when I was working on it. I feel like I just hit a period where I was making a lot of music and not thinking about a specific project at all. The beats I was making were just to be in my back pocket in case people got in touch with me and wanted to work. So just having a sense of freedom with it all helps, because you don’t feel as restricted. I also think there was less pressure, because everybody was going through the same stuff, and was under the same constraints. I put less pressure on myself to achieve a level of anything, and then things just happened to come about the way they did.
You created this project within the confines of lockdown, where you’re facing the process and the inner turmoil all on your lonesome, opposed to being next to a producer or an engineer in the studio. How do you navigate being your own therapist throughout these feelings you tackle?
I think that aspect of things may be to my detriment. I always think that it would be easier if I had an engineer in the room helping streamline the process, or a producer to bring me a sense of energy out the gate. However, I do think my mind is really active, and I’m always in conversation with myself in my head. I’m always thinking about something to the point where it’s damaging. When I hit that point, I realise that it’s time to sort it out and get it to a place where I don’t have to think about it anymore. Music expels those emotions and helps me get past them.
We’re both alumni of Collarts, and in music school, you learn about mixing, EQ, all that jazz. But I feel like you can’t be taught about the emotional weight of music, and the relationship that reality and art have. Do you feel like there was a specific moment where you realised these things went hand in hand?
Definitely. I was getting to a point where I was trying to get my first project done. I was at the tail end of finishing at Collarts, and I was in a really bad relationship at the time. My studies were suffering, and I was just getting mad and depressed. I don’t want to say this time was good for the music, but it turned out that it made my music telling of my situation, and I didn’t have to make it that way, it’s just how it happened. If you live your art like that, it forces it to be truthful.
Throughout the vulnerability on the project, there are also moments where you talk your shit. How do you find that sense of braggadocio and confidence in bleak times?
It’s super hard, but I also think that’s why hip-hop is so popular because it gives people that space to inhabit even when it’s not coming from within themselves. So, I would go back to the beats that felt a bit larger than life and talk my shit on those. I started to make the beats that were more confident and self-assured when I was feeling a little bit better about myself anyway, so I think that’s why I sequenced it that way because there was an arc where I started to get over things and move forward.
I feel like when I experience those times of depression and struggle, I begin to question the point of the things I usually love. I start to question the utility of everything that I actually do and the relevance of achieving them. Did you each reach a point like that through the music?
It’s definitely a process. I think it took me a long time to realise that I am not just the music I make and that I’m a person who has other thoughts and feelings about different things, with other virtues and skills. I would be banging my head against the wall thinking that I had to make this thing good, or I’m not myself. Those thoughts are ones I had to separate myself from. When you’re invested in a project, you kind of just forget about everything else. Like, you forget about your friends, family, health, and heaps of other stuff. So I think in those moments you do need to take a step back and identify that it’s only one part of you, not all of you.
There’s a moment on ‘SAGE (INTERLUDE)’ where you sing “Don’t think I’m prepared to go outside.” Is that something you feel right now?
For sure. Like now, I’ll just see random things like someone crossing the road towards me, and I’ll have a fright. It’s that feeling of a sitcom situation where you’re just bumping into other people and stuff, I’m mad awkward now [Laughs]. I can’t wait to go outside in the sense of hitting the stage and seeing people, but everything other than that is just suspended animation.
I feel like the generic thing to ask is ‘How have you grown in lockdown?’ But I feel like I’ve only declined [Laughs].
We have nothing else to do but look at ourselves, and sometimes that shit isn’t nice. I feel like I’m facing shit that I haven’t faced up to in a long time, and in some ways, I know I haven’t progressed. But I think as long as you look at it in the face and know that it’s there, we can get to a point where we can go outside and be happy with our situations.
There are songs on the project like ‘NO WEAPON’ which tackle the heavy themes of racial unrest but are presented through upbeat sounds of vibrance. It’s the same in Zimbabwe with Chimurenga music, where this music educated and brought hope in times of adversity. Why do you think it’s important to approach these topics in this type of way?
I think it’s important for people in my community, and the black and brown community in general, to have a strong sense of both the light and dark sides of what we go through. Someone like Fela Kuti has been doing it in that way for the longest time. He’s always tackling themes of political uprising and revolution with the funkiest backdrop of music, and that’s why it’s so popular and universal. I think it’s something I want to present because yeah, being black is hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I want to give people an adequate presentation of how I feel.
Australian music is getting to a point where all the different cultures and identities that make up the musical community are starting to be highlighted, but it’s still very much at the beginning. How can we improve?
I think it comes with letting different parts and people of these communities into the space, allowing them to speak for themselves, and tell their own stories without mitigation. Then there are people who have positions of power, who at fault or no fault of their own, are ‘gatekeepers’. If they have experience with us, and they know how to deal with our stories, they shouldn’t be afraid of telling our stories or stepping out of tone. It all comes down to communication. Like back when racism was a much larger problem, we had segregation, which was the way of perpetuating racism. So if we break segregation down, then everybody’s cool, we know how to deal with each other, and can move forward together.
Lastly, what’s next?
I’m hoping shows are next. This is a really big body of work, and I tried to make it as large as possible. I want to hear how it sounds in large venues, and I want to meet the people who have connected to the music in some way.