“I’ve gone from a rookie to a vet, and I think there’s something to be said for artists that have that longevity,” Illy tells me over the phone—and he’s not exaggerating. Dropping his first album Long Story Short in 2009, the Melbourne rapper has spent the last 12 years expanding his sound and garnering perspective, alongside touring, touring, and a lot more touring. But this isn’t the story of an artist clinging to his prime; it’s the evolution of an Australian music staple who has grown up in front of us. To start 2021, Illy reveals more of his soul that fuels the songs and more of the man behind the moniker with his 6th album, The Space Between.
This 14 song opus is a collection of reflections that showcase the wisdom that Illy has garnered, and it’s aptly suited for our current society. It focuses on love, family, and enjoying the little things in life. Songs like ‘Cheap Seats’ with Waax encapsulate the bliss of enjoying live music, while heartfelt rap-ballads like ‘Lean On Me’ are relatable reminders to check up on the people around you. People attribute longevity to many things: a knack for hooks, excellent beat selection, a cult-like fanbase. Illy achieves all these things, all while continuing to reinvent himself on every musical adventure. The Space Between is about the journey, and Illy continues to pave a ceiling-less destination path.
In our chat, Illy and I talked through the new album, creating through adversity and finding success in the uphill battle against his inner-monologues.
Congratulations on the album, my man. How do you feel about the release?
Good, man. It’s kind of still a little surreal that it’s coming out tomorrow; it’s been such a long time making it. I basically finished it this time last year, and then all the Covid shit kind of just put it on the back burner for basically a whole year. The fact that it’s coming out is sick.
It feels like it’s a culmination of your decade-long career of hard work. How do you think you’ve changed since pursuing this musical journey?
It’s just been a decade of growing up; there’s so much life experience that happens in 10 years. I’ve gotten better at what I do; there’s no doubt about that. I’ve gone from being a rookie to a vet. I think there’s something to be said for artists that have that longevity, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve because I feel like I’ve got some longevity. The artists that I admire the most, I’m inspired by the most, and who have influenced me the most are those who can stick around. Part of that is adapting; I’ve changed as an artist, I’ve grown up as an artist and matured as an artist. You have to if you’re going to keep being relevant and people are going to care about your music.
Change and growth is a prominent theme on the album, as you walk us through a series of personal topics and stories. Did writing songs like these take an emotional toll, or were they more therapeutic?
Music has always been a catharsis for me. I think that would probably be the best way to put it. There’s a couple of moments on the album that, if I listen to at the right time, it will get me. The track ‘Lonely,’ for instance, is a song for my family. I’ve had it for about three years now, even longer, maybe since the end of 2017. I showed it to them for the first time a couple of nights ago, and that was a big emotional moment. But as far as writing the songs themselves, it doesn’t take too much out of you. I think it’s going through the events and then looking back on them is when you can get a bit misty-eyed.
I read that you created this album amidst travelling to places like Berlin, London, and Los Angeles, as well as recording in your hometown of Melbourne. How do you think that seeing the world and changing scenery affects your music and the sound you explore?
I think working with new people always exposes you to different influences and different vibes. It’s not like I went to Berlin to get some house producer and Sweden to get some pop sensation. You meet people, wherever it may be, and when you’re in the room, you catch whatever vibe is going. The travel allowed me to find my own feet as far as my writing. There was an element of proving to myself that I could do it, and I got real confidence from that. But as far as going to the locations to get a specific sound or anything, it was more about the people themselves and building those relationships.
Not only is the album kind of a personal journey for you, but it also feels celebratory. You appreciate everything that happens, and you’re talking about things that may seem so momentary but stick with you over the years. How did you learn to appreciate the small things? Because I think as humans, we can sometimes overlook them.
Man. I think it’s just from growing up. For the last four years, I’ve had serious relationships and friendships as well as losing family and friends. All of that, it’s just life experience. I view things differently than I did four years ago. I do things differently than I did ten years ago, and different again from when I started just because you get something taken away from you, whether it’s people or relationships. As you lose things, you gain in your appreciation for the shit you have.
On the track ‘Me, Myself, and I’, you rap, “I found my success came out of the same place that self-hate sprouts.” How do you change that negative inner monologue into the dedication and grind that has summarized your career thus far?
It’s a fucking hard one; it’s an uphill battle a lot of the time. That line is just like the drive of my creativity. The slightly left center of my brain has made me even pursue a career in rap as a dude with an Australian accent in the first place. Whatever crazy shit was going on in my head made me think that made sense is also the same place that all the insecurity or inferiority complex comes from. It’s all just part of it. I guess I’ve learned it helps when things work, and you get confidence from that. But beyond that, it’s just riding it out and knowing that if you’re in a shit headspace, it’s not permanent. You just gotta’ push through it and give yourself a little bit of a break when you need. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, I would like a little bit less head noise, but if that’s not going to happen, then we’ll keep going as it is.
This album touches on the importance of the journey rather than the destination. But throughout 2020, it’s been hard to pursue any journeys at all. How has this last year been for you?
I finished the album before everything happened. So like that, the whole The Space Between title has nothing to do with social distancing; it’s just worked in my favour. But as far as last year, it’s decimated the music industry. We’re going to be among the last to go back to anything like normal. The album would have come out last year if I had known that it would be a year delay. But I kept pushing it for two months and then two months because I wanted it to come out close to when we could tour. There was so much uncertainty that it just happened the way it happened. So it was frustrating, and last year sucked. I say that knowing some people were doing it much harder than me. Music took a backseat like I was working on songs here and there, but I was tweaking the album, I wasn’t adding songs. It just became about sort of a war of attrition and just self-preservation. When lockdown happened, it was just about what I could do to keep it good and to an even keel. I was just staying active, getting my one hour outside a day, eating well, just taking care of myself with the knowledge that eventually it was going to pass and we’d be back to playing shows. I would have never thought in February last year that it would be like this until maybe mid-2021. But everyone’s going through it as well, so I’m just happy to be here with the album finally out.
You’ve been prominent in the game for over a decade now, and now we see this massive surge in Australian hip-hop. What advice would you give these new artists to maintain that longevity?
I feel like every year; the scene goes from strength to strength. Every year there’s something different, something more exciting. I feel like now is a really exciting point, maybe the most exciting point ever for Australian hip hop and what that can mean on a global stage. My only advice is the same shit that I got told back in the day; just to work hard. If you’re an Australian artist, there are examples now where they’re getting international recognition, but live performance is such a crucial part of it. Playing live shows will be, for ninety-nine per cent of artists, the vast majority of your income, and you have to be good. If you want to have any longevity, being good live is crucial. I know it’s hard right now, particularly with lockdown and gigs going away, but you gotta’ seize every opportunity. Every opportunity you have to get on a stage, even if you have half a million followers on whatever platform, even if you think a gig is beneath you. And if you’re thinking gigs are beneath you when you’re starting because of your online presence, you’re already kind of shooting yourself in the foot so never have an ego with it; take every opportunity to play live, work hard, and always back yourself and stay true to the vision you have for your music. If you build it, they’ll come.
You’re starting 2021 with your sixth album, so what do you want to do with The Space Between now and the end of the year?
I’ve already got a few ideas for tracks for the next thing. It was four years between The Space Between and Two Degrees. It’s not going to be that long between The Space Between and whatever comes next. As soon as it makes sense and I can book a run with any confidence, we’ll be back out on the road touring, hopefully. I just want to get back into something ordinary. I’m not even asking for much. Just being able to get on a flight and play a show? Perfect.
The Space Between is out now on all platforms. Stream it here now.