Name: Ethan Woods
Occupation: Musician, composer, producer, arborist
Recent release: Ethan Woods's Burnout is out via Whatever's Clever on April 29th 2022.
Recommendations: As far as books go, I highly recommend Samuel R. Delaney’s Triton. I found a copy on the street in a free pile a while back, and was absolutely blown away by it. It's a science fiction novel that Delaney wrote partially in response to Ursula K. Leguin’s “The Dispossessed,” that explores genders and genderbending, gendered perspectives, political modes, and the concept of utopia atop a setting of mounting tensions between interplanetary governments. Shoutout to my friend Max for putting this book back on my mind!
As far as music goes, the last thing that truly blew me away was seeing my friends in the band Toebow play at Mercury Lounge a couple of nights ago. Those guys are the best musicians ever! I’m extremely excited for their new record, and their last record Themes is on regular rotation at my house.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ethan Woods, visit him on Instagram for more information.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music when I was 14, when I discovered Garageband on my family’s orange iMac.
That time really defined my relationship to music. After school I would hole up in the computer room with my guitar and other sound-making toys and add layer after layer with those instruments and my voice, messing with the built-in loops and effects to bolster my minimal abilities and to create a sense of space. Around that time I was also recording countless covers of the song “Gone Daddy Gone” by the Violent Femmes. To this day that’s one of my favorite songs!
I’m obsessed with live videos of them from the late 80s and early 90s, they’re really good improvisers!
I’m not exactly sure what drew me into music. It might have been Sesame Street, I remember there were a lot of musical moments in that show that fascinated me when I was very young. Philip Glass had an organ and voice piece that accompanied a video about shapes that I found really mesmerizing, and I really liked the organ sound on the pinball counting cartoon.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
I try to listen to a piece of music with my full attention. Listening to music activates a sense of being present with the real and the imaginal in a powerful way for me. It can feel like a step out of reality, into something that is bound by and yet outside of time.
I often think of music in terms of visual metaphors. I imagine colors, shapes, landscapes, and characters playing out elaborate scenes to whatever I’m listening to. I often think of my own writing in the same way. It really helps me emotionally connect with music to imagine it as a sort of world that I can step into.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
The human voice has always been one of my great passions in music, but it took me a long time to feel comfortable with my own! I can be extremely self-conscious, and in the past felt critical of how my voice sounded. When I would listen to recordings of myself, I zeroed in on the moments I sounded too nasally, too flat, or just not very interesting. I feel like the last 10 years have been a process of finding confidence in my own voice both literally and abstractly.
A major breakthrough happened after my friend Trevor Wilson (who also helped me engineer my record Burnout!) got me into Meredith Monk’s music by way of her song “Tablet”. Listening to that piece reminded me of how play is so important to singing, and showed me a path back into emotionally connecting to my voice.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I think of identify as a bit of a shapeshifter. I have moods where I really don’t want to be defined, when I’d rather be a little slithery and obtuse, but always in a way that’s playful! That comes out the most when I’m making music.
I really like the challenge of trying completely new instrumentation, new styles of recording, giving myself creative restrictions, etc. Anything that pushes me into new territory, that forces me to reconstruct my music from the ground up. I like to think of my identity as something soft and porous, not something completely indefinite but open to movement, to letting things in, to floating.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I view my music as a kind of conjuration, an attempt to magically transform a space into something different, something beyond what it was.
I always like to experiment with audio quality because I believe in the power of novelty, and I almost always use my voice to invite listeners in, an emotional character to follow through the landscape.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I think writing “music of the future” could be a fun writing prompt, as could “continuing a tradition”! I think there’s room for both within a musician if they want there to be!
That said, some of the ways tech intersects with music makes me uncomfortable, which you could say means that I’m critical of a kind of innovation in music. At the end of the day though, I think any music is valid and vital so long as it's concerned with the integrity of its own sound over anything else.
Let aesthetic and form fit to the identity of the sound, not the other way around.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Improvisation and the voice memo app on my phone are the most used tools in my writing process.
I’m a huge believer in improvisation as a path for writing, and I do it regularly. I think it's a head space that can shake me out of getting caught up in the details. When I’m writing new music, I’ll perform 10 minute improvisations and record them as voice memos on my phone. This helps me arrive at a full idea quickly, and allows me to put off the editorial process for another time. It also helps me connect with my instruments and my voice as a performer, and forces me to be very present with the sounds so that I can react effectively.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
For my day job I work as a professional arborist in New York City.
I wake up at around 6AM to make coffee and eat breakfast with my partner Lauren (whose voice you can hear on my song “Mrs. Moo”!) and my dog Pickles.
After coffee is made I take it into our living room and drink it while reading. Then I put on my hi-vis work clothing and walk over to the yard in Brooklyn where the company I work for parks all their dump trucks, and start preparing for the day with my crew.
I’m a tree climber, so that means grabbing my climbing harness, rope, helmet, and whatever cutting and rigging implements we need for the day. After preparations we drive to the job site, which is often a backyard of an apartment building in Brooklyn. Most of the time, the job involves the pruning of a tree’s canopy (though recently I’ve been doing a lot more soil work which I love a lot!), so I’ll set up a line into the tree, climb into the canopy and make the prescribed cuts, and then come down to help the ground crew load debris through the apartment to the street where we chip it.
After work, I come home and usually get Pickles to pull my socks off of my feet (a game that she absolutely loves). After a shower to get all the wood debris off of me, I often will smoke a little weed and pick up whatever instrument I’m interested in and jam and write for a while until Lauren comes home. Then we either go out to see some friends, or we cook dinner. If we’re feeling really self-indulgent we’ll order in food and watch the original series Law & Order, the first six seasons of which we’ve watched through several times.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
One of my favorite pieces I’ve been a part of was the dance piece ‘no such thing’ that I made in collaboration with my dear friend Meghan Frederick.
For that one, we used Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card set to guide the choreography and the sound, with both of us performing the movements and vocalizing in unison. Much of that piece was developed in a week long residency at The Dragon’s Egg, which was an egg shaped dance studio in semi-rural Connecticut surrounded by many pine trees. Thanks to that residency, we were able to really take our time and let the piece develop itself slowly.
We found a lot of novel ways to use our voices, and I think I really began to understand collaborative decision making thanks to that time and Meghan’s generosity as a collaborator. As a result I felt like we achieved something that was at once very careful and very playful and funny!
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I tend to prefer to work with other people, though I can find great joy in both modes. My energy ebbs and flows much more when I’m playing by myself, but I can sustain the performance headspace consistently for much longer when I’m performing with other people.
I think its important to know both modes, at least for me. It’s important to carve out solitary time to find confidence in your own voice, but it’s important to play with others too, to place yourself into a context where you can interact with and react to other’s ideas.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I try to honestly share my perspective, and believe that doing that is a fundamentally compassionate act as it provides the potential for others who share a common perspective to feel solidarity. I think music can provide a necessary outlet for connection in a society where many people feel alienated by modern conditions.
Ultimately I think music gives people a taste of something beyond what they’re currently experiencing.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Just before my uncle passed away, he told me that one of his favorite songs of all time was the Incredible String Bands’ “A Very Cellular Song”.
After he passed, I listened to that song a lot, and began to learn how to perform it. I never had any intention of performing it for anyone else, but rather just enjoyed getting to know something that I knew my uncle loved, to begin to explore its qualities and imagine which elements captivated my uncle when he first heard it, when he heard it for the 100th time, etc.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I’m very skeptical of ‘rational’ and functional approaches to music.
I think it is important to draw a distinction between science and scientism. Science is a totally useful framework and perspective to view the world from, but I don’t think one should be overly dogmatic about the merits of objectivity and rational thought.
I’ve had plenty of experiences that I would characterize as irrational that I hold as plainly true as things that had perfectly rational explanations. I guess that’s all to say that I reject any sort of science or rationality that dismisses the unknown and speculating about it.
That all aside, I think there are many beautiful and poetic ways that technology, science, and systematized processes can interact with music, though for me it has to return to or evoke meaning making to feel successful.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think it’s easier to conjure up a sense of transportation through music than other tasks, though I don’t know if it’s impossible to conjure up the same feeling making a cup of coffee. Music seems like a safe space for a deeper sense of connection though, a welcome interruption.
I kind of think of cooking as being analogous to music making. In both, you are working with different flavor combinations and seasonings and going through an alchemical process to create a well balanced object of consumption that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, that nourishes.
I think music is similar to any other task that heals and nourishes.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
My extremely limited understanding of string theory is that all things are vibration, so creating something that is an intentionally composed immaterial vibration is a deep well of information for us vibrational and material beings.
I also believe music is the original language, that our music as a species developed from finding our own pre-language voices within the biophony of nature, and therefore there is a kind of universal language encoded within it. I should say this perspective is owed in large part to Bernie Krause’s writing and work.