Name: Noel Westbrook aka Noel Sanger
Occupation: Producer, DJ, composer
Current Release: Noel Sanger's "Falling Upward" is out via Dissident.
Recommendations: Well … since I named my newest track for a book I read, I’ll recommend it. Falling Upward is a book by Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan Monk and prolific author. I read it a few years ago and I am planning to re-read it this month to coincide with my track releasing. So I hope I like it as much as I did in 2019!
An album that continues to resonate with me (and there are so many I could name but I’m going with “first-thought, best-thought”) is “Carrie and Lowell” by Sufjan Stevens. Cheerful? No. Beautiful? Absolutely.
If you enjoyed this interview with Noel Sanger and would like to know more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
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 think doing music was probably a foregone conclusion for me as long as I can remember.
I can remember my dad playing in bands when I was a young child, and music was always part of my life, my whole family. I started writing lyrics when I was 8 (because at that age I had so many life experiences to draw from?). I was 13 or so when I got serious about playing guitar, and then tried my hand at being in rock bands for years (like you do).
Somewhere around age 21 I sort of got converted to electronic music. Aside from what felt like an unlimited sound palette, the whole ethos of house music and rave really drew me in. The idea of all kinds of people - gay, straight, rich, poor, black, white - no barriers, together in the music in a communal, unified consciousness on a dance floor. It felt like so much more than a party.
Maybe it sounds corny now, but at the time, it was really electrifying. Still is, really. And the music was life-changing.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I can partially relate to that, not in terms of full-on synaesthesia, but I definitely envision elements of the music as shapes.
What else happens in my body? I guess it depends on the music. There’s so much magic out there and the best music is greater than the sum of its parts. I think the best is when I feel it in my chest, when my heart opens and I fall in love with the whole world again.
It’s easy to get jaded and miss out on the joy we’re made for. Music has helped bring me back to life, so many times.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
It always feels to me like my artistic development and subsequent career have moved forward in fits and starts over the years. I had some … let’s say, difficult and chaotic life circumstances for a while, and then the challenge of being a single parent while navigating a music career. So the consistency sort of wasn’t there, it made it difficult to develop as an artist the way I always hoped to.
That said, I’ve made a ton of music I am proud of, that feels authentic, and right now I feel like I am entering a new phase, with everything I’ve learned and all my years of experiences converging. The stuff I’m making now is definitely the most satisfying so far, and I believe that even better is coming.
I worked with some big labels, and then I started a label called Dissident Music in 2008. In 2018 I teamed up with a much bigger independent label which has allowed us to grow a lot. 2022 has been full of breakthroughs, and we are planning ahead for an amazing year in 2023.
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.
Identity. Big topic. I will say that like a lot of artists I have always dealt with imposter syndrome, or let’s even call it “outsider” syndrome. So that’s going to have some effect, where the music I respond deeply to feels inclusive or speaks to some universal experience or characteristic of this little blip of time we call a life.
And creatively, I’ve always gravitated toward deeper yet accessible sounds and lyrics that would hopefully inspire people to know they are worthy and loved and safe in the universe.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Authenticity to me is always top of mind. Which doesn’t mean one genre, per se. I’ve done a lot of music in different genres that feels authentic. I just want it to speak to the soul, or emotions in some way. I hope I come close from time to time!
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”?
Great question because when I wrote my current single I was definitely dragging my 90s rave influences into 2022. So I think “Falling Upward” (Which is out now on Dissident) has huge nods to the past, and also sounds futuristic. I hope so anyway.
Thing is, I don’t see a conflict between future and tradition. I guess any “music of the future” will either be built on traditions or formed as a rejection of them. So the tradition plays a role, either way.
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?
There was a time when being in the studio meant being in a room with tons of hardware synths. These days I work almost totally in the box.
I taught students how to use Logic Pro and Reason at a big audio university in Florida back in the early-mid 2000s and that sort of got me into paring down my setup. It’s great now because I can work almost anywhere, and with some great technology like Slate VSX studio modeling, that even includes mixdowns.
The best strategy I can recommend is just to simply show up every day. Even when you don’t feel like it, even for 20 minutes. That’s me preaching to myself!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
Routines are not my strongest quality, although I’m getting better at it. I’m currently learning that a lot of my adult life has probably been spent fighting against ADHD symptoms, trying to squeeze myself into a neurotypical box. So now for the first time, I am trying to figure out how I best make my day work for me instead of me struggling to live up to some hustle-culture grindset-mentality bullshit.
I wake up, drink coffee, walk my dogs - these are of course the necessities. I like to start the day with exercise outdoors, so ideally most days I’ll get out the door and onto a nearby trail to run a few miles in the woods before I start work. Gets blood flowing, dopamine and serotonin pumping, and sets me up for a good day.
Once I am working, sometimes I get into hyperfocus and can work for hours and hours without stopping, and other times breaks are really important, even breaking it down into 25 minute “pomodoros.” Fairly fluid.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Since I mentioned my current release “Falling Upward” here’s how that one came about.
I literally wrote the whole track in an hour. Gave it a crap arrangement and then didn’t touch it for months. I went back into the session a few months later, arranged it properly, worked on the sound design and string arrangements, and then let it sit another few weeks before I finished it up, mixed it down and sent it to be mastered.
Usually it doesn’t go like that, and I’ll just work on something until it’s done. Sometimes though, lately I am finding that giving the process room to breathe can lead to some nice results.
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?
In person collaboration is super hard for me just because of how my brain works. I am a great virtual collaborator, sending parts back and forth though! I just don’t get into what some call “flow state” (which for me is probably really more like hyperfocus) in a studio with someone else. I can, but it's not easy.
I love collaborating though and plan to do more of it.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Big picture for me: I think music and all art has the role of reminding us of our shared humanity, that we are literally all in this together, inter-existing, or at least it has the capacity to do so. Or maybe its pure escapism, something that gives someone a respite from difficult conditions in life. It can be just pure fun, nothing serious.
Music can bring us together, enhance social cohesion, remind us we are not alone, and that whatever we’re going through, someone else has gone through it too. It’s a kind of magic that speaks to the deepest parts of us even without words.
That’s the ideal anyway, and while I’m sure I’ve only very rarely and very slightly been able to touch that ideal with my own work (if ever), it's what I hope for.
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?
One recent story. When my dad passed away in 2021, I spent his last few weeks with him, helping care for him, etc. I was at his side when he passed, which was a huge gift.
I stayed at his house (about 800 miles away from where I live) for a few more weeks after that. I set up my little mobile studio (laptop, MIDI controller, monitors) on an antique desk in his bedroom and I wrote / produced a remix. It was not the greatest track I ever made or anything but it gave me some solace and it felt significant in some way. It was actually a remix of my own track, “Under Wide Horizons,” which took its name from a quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that was incredibly significant to me in that experience, and remains so even now.
“The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”
(There are also new remixes of Under Wide Horizons due out on Dissident Music in November 2022, from label artists Micke and Focus FL)
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
Music can help us connect with something beyond the 5-sensory world that science seeks to understand. And the scientific method does that very well … but it seems to me that there’s something “more” to all of this, something a reliance on empirical data cannot yet ascertain … whether you call that “Spirit” or “God” or “Mystery” or anything else, and music is a great connector to that.
Both things, connection to the “infinite ineffable Good” (facilitated by music or not), and a scientific inquiry into the nature of our reality, should inspire the awe and wonder and reverence Heschel spoke of.
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 don’t see a firm dividing line between the sacred and the mundane, or between art and life. Just that art is something that reflects life. So that great cup of coffee is my reality, and the music I write an hour later maybe is a reflection of - influenced by - that great cup of coffee. I’ve always heard spiritual teachers say that great “peak” experiences are the same as the mundane, washing dishes etc. “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”
After years as a single parent I’ll say it this way - when I care for my family (cooking dinner, washing clothes, etc), if I am a little bit awake (and often I am not), then I am expressing love for the whole world by expressing love for my own house. The same way I hope that I can express a deep love for the whole world through music.
These things are not the same, but they can have the same heart.
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?
Everything is vibration isn't it? So I think that in any given time and space, a combination of the melodies and movements, our cultural conditioning, and even the artist’s intention behind the creation of the music … all of this can add to the essence of a piece of music.