Name: Justin Miller aka Kultures
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Current release: The Kultures LP is out now.
Recommendations: Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (album); Friedrich Nietzsche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra (novel)
If you enjoyed this interview with Kultures, visit his his personal website for more information, updates and music. Kultures is also on Instagram, Soundcloud and Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing 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 in high school and really dove deeper into production and sound creation after graduating college when I was able to build a creative workspace to explore new sounds.
At a young age I listened to a little bit of everything, a few standouts at the time were Incubus and Led Zeppelin. I started my music career strictly as a guitarist, so Mike Einziger and Jimmy Page were two of my role models growing up. I always found the limitless possibilities of creation intriguing.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Finding your own voice is definitely a very interesting and complicated journey. I think most genuine artists are constantly striving to express themselves in the most authentic way possible. I've explored many different sounds and have demos that range from esoteric synth driven alt-rock to radio friendly pop tracks. There is so much to appreciate in every genre.
For me finding my voice was a matter of discovering what felt true over time, and what I connected with the most consistently.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I believe everyone's identity is, at least subconsciously, central to how they express themselves. Identity is tied to so many things including life experience, social dynamics, and family history. All of these themes impact song-writing and creativity on the individual level.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Initially, my largest creative challenge was being able to compose for a full suite of instruments. For years, I only focused on learning and writing for the guitar. I realized I needed to expand my skill-set so I began working on my vocal performance, followed by learning to play the piano, bass, synthesizers, and drums to a level where I could flesh out entire arrangements. Being able to quickly translate ideas into sound has had a massive impact on my ability to grow as an artist.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Yea, this evolution plays a major role in the creative process. My trajectory has been extremely iterative.
I started with an electric guitar and a single track tape recorder. From there I upgraded to some free digital recording software and a two channel interface which allowed me to record both guitar and vocals. During that time I was working in a 10x10 bedroom doing my best to keep the volume down.
In college, I bought my first condenser mic and trekked across campus to rent out a room in the music building where I could record into the night. I started using some of the pianos on campus during that time. Finally, I was able to get a full size space and began investing in more equipment.
Today I'm able to record and produce most of my material from my home-studio while also utilizing some of the great studio spaces in town. The major difference is that today my music incorporates dozens of interweaving tones/textures which I could have never created years ago.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I've made an effort to utilize technology and instrumentation to create music without becoming too reliant on any given mechanism. When I first discovered some of the new synthetic digital sounds I quickly realized how much value/appeal a simple tone could provide. However, for me it was important not to go too deep down the rabbit hole and to continue focusing on traditional song-writing as the foundation of my music.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is one of the greatest things about music. When you develop a thriving musical relationship with someone it can be rewarding in so many ways.
I generally write songs independently, but I always collaborate throughout the recording process with talented musicians who often provide a new spark to the music. I like to invite instrumentalists over to my home studio to simply explore sounds in a free-form way and to see if there's potential to incorporate new tones/melodies. I usually create a road-map but it's also great to see what other musicians are most responsive to and let that guide the path for collaboration.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My schedule changes depending on where I'm at in the song creation process.
When I'm really locked in on songwriting and sonic exploration, my schedule becomes extremely flexible and usually involves waking up late and going to bed even later. The goal is to maintain as much mental and emotional freedom as possible in order to allow new ideas to express themselves.
If I'm working more on things like recording techniques and video work, I try to have a more "normal" balanced schedule and block out time during the day to get through the tasks at hand.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Prior to starting Kultures, I released an indie-art rock album that I co-wrote with a close friend of mine. We hosted a premiere show at the historic Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, OH and it was really an amazing night.
In addition to the core 5-piece band, we also had a 3 piece brass section perform live with us, as well as an amazing saxophonist. It took a lot of planning and coordination to bring this large sound to life, but that accomplishment has inspired me to continue being ambitious when it comes to music in all of its forms.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I would describe the ideal state of mind for being creative as a yearning subconscious wandering through a safe and inviting landscape. You need to have passion flowing from within to really reach a state of creative flow.
The number of potential distractions is limitless. It helps to take care of any imminent obligations in order to get to a place where there is nothing but you and the music stirring inside.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music is known for heightening the intensity of experiences, whether good or bad. I've worked through some challenging times in my life and have seen music provoke both tears, and a sense of calm, sometimes even simultaneously. I think music proves to be therapeutic in its ability to help people really live in the moment and face their emotions.
For creatives, music is healing in the sense that it provides an outlet for emotions that may not otherwise be expressed. This phenomenon is something that makes music so resonant with others.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I don't think there is any umbrella statement that can serve as a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Each instance needs to be evaluated based on specific context. It's important to always approach culture from a place of respect and to be empathic towards those you are learning and borrowing from. If your interaction with another culture is genuine and good-natured, there is a good chance your incorporation of the culture in your art will be welcomed with open arms.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
We use our senses as a way to capture information and generate meaning. Music often has both visceral sonic and visual elements that work in tandem to create the overall impression music creates. We use our sense of sight to enjoy and store a wealth of imagery in our brains, which often finds its way to the surface when we hear music. This combination of sight and sound is what allows for such powerful experiences.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
There is no correct way to create art and all artists approach their craft with different backgrounds and intentions. Personally, I aim to create a soundscape that is ambiguous, yet direct enough for listeners to extract their own meaning. A combination of explicit and abstract lyricism helps to this end.
There is some social commentary at play but I haven't used music as an explicit tool for social/political change. I've tried to inspire more personal reflection and introspection when it comes to knowing yourself, following your dreams, and trusting your path forward.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think music can be a sonic representation/expression of emotions that are otherwise just ideas locked in all of our minds. Music is a way to share profound experiences with others, without having to verbalize them or search for words that might not do an idea justice. Our ability to process emotion through music is usually much vaster than our linguistic vocabulary.