Call it a case of either good timing or musical clairvoyance, but Autre Ne Veut’s Arthur Ashin beat many of his indie peers to the punch when it comes to re-framing R&B. The Connecticut-born musician premiered his falsetto’d, synth-laden take on the genre in 2010, and has fine-tuned it with each new release. Anxiety, his sophomore album, is his most wrenching to date, pushing his unhinged vocals and diary-like lyrics about a failed relationship to the forefront. He’s still finding ways to outstrip his contemporaries too, either with gospel-nodding harmonies — contributed by the Zambri sisters, Cristi Jo and Jessica — or with the unparalleled earnestness in his vocal delivery.
Marissa G. Muller spoke with Ashin about his love for soul and R&B, his willingness to write about the failure of a relationship while that relationship was still in progress, and how his study of psychology informed his music.
On the roots of his moniker, Autre Ne Veut:
Years ago, I was up at the Cloisters, a metropolitan museum on the Upper West Side with a lot of Medieval artifacts, and there was a gold and amethyst hat ornament and on the back was inscribed “Autre Ne Veut.” I can’t verify this at all — in fact, I’ve even called one of the historians there who says that there’s no evidence of this being true — but I have this memory of someone telling me that it was a gift from a French duke to his mistress. I can’t speak a lick of French but it translates to “I want no other.” I thought the tension of the space between what one has and what one wants was kind of poetic. I chose it then and I’m stuck with it now.
On his musical beginnings in college:
I had a rock band for a while and [then gradually] started making Brian Eno-rip off music for cinema. My band was ’90s-nodding alt rock and had a Pavement, Yo La Tengo vibe. I screamed on top a lot. I’ve always been into songwriting and, except for a stint trying to make ambient electronic music, it’s always been something that I’ve thought a ton about. To me, songwriting is the crux of everything I do.
On his move from away from rock:
I’m a big folk music fan still; I love Joni Mitchell, and a lot of classic female folk songwriters. I love, love, love Van Morrison: Astral Weeks is one of my favorite records, ever. But rock isn’t my thing now. I feel like rock is a technology that’s really reached its limit. I like music that sounds like it’s pushing some sort of boundary and, to me, that’s what’s exciting about hip-hop and R&B. It’s still an evolving form and people are constantly looking for new sounds, and even the highest level of popularity. There’s still new things happening and new approaches, and I don’t think that’s really happening in rock. I’m trying to work against what’s there while still maintaining a healthy level of respect for what’s come before me. My approach is a little bit different than other peoples’, in terms of production in particular.
On re-imagining R&B without nostalgia:
I have problems not being nostalgic enough in my life. Even my first record — which, incidentally had a lot of similarities to [other music that was nakedly nostalgic] — I was not going for that. Any similarities [to earlier music] came from being an amateur with synthesizers, which a lot of people were in the ’80s, because they were just getting their hands on them. I’m against nostalgia as a creative practice. I listen to a lot of old stuff, but it’s not because of nostalgia.
I listen to lots of R&B, and have all of my life, so I don’t mind being classified as R&B. [Anxiety] is definitely a pop record. I’m working against it as much as I’m working with it, but I’m definitely working within those modes on the record. The musical references on my previous recordings were more classic soul, and I think that the Stax Records paradigm for songwriting is at the heart of everything I’ve ever done. I was definitely looking to make something more contemporary on this record, so a lot of the melodic decisions were more related to R&B rather than soul or reggae — which my older stuff nodded more heavily to.
On his tribute to Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”:
I’m pretty unsentimental, but Whitney Houston was unbelievable in the way that she walked that line between making soul, gospel, R&B and pop. The restraint that she had — and everything about her — freaks me out. I was pretty bummed out when she died and wanted to make a little homage, so I titled my song after one of hers.
On keeping his identity under wraps for so long:
Music has been my fantasy — and the fact that anyone cares at all is amazing — but my big Plan B was to be a clinical psychologist. My music started happening and I wanted to preserve a clean Google search. Clinical psychology is super conservative as a field and it’s also really rigorous and competitive and it’s one of those things where it’s supposed be your priority 100 percent. With jobs and fellowships, I don’t want the first thing that comes up in a search to be a video of me jerking off on stage.
On bonding with How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell over their chosen genre and student status:
He did an interview for Village Voice a few years ago and the way that he wrote felt so private to me in an exciting way, so I hit him up while he was still doing his mixtapes and we’ve been in touch since then. I don’t know how he multi-tasks — all I’ve done is complain to him about it.
On his diary-like lyrics:
I do stream-of-consciousness singing — I mostly sing on the spot. Most of the ideas are really personal and are about relationships I’ve had with different people and complicated moments that I don’t really know how to deal with, so I put them into songs. “Play By Play” is a song about jealousy and paranoia. “World War” is a portrait of my relationship with an ex and some of the difficulties with that. Those two are the most powerful to me and were the hardest to deal with.
The record was written over the past three years. I was in grad school and intense psychoanalysis, and the record is about this period of my life where I felt particularly overwhelmed and anxious about a lot of things. It was interesting: I was in a relationship at the time and the songs are not all positive, and her response was complicated. But, at the end of the day, the difficulties are what make music feel important.
On championing his earnestness:
I’m a super sensitive dude, really fragile, but I also function in the world. So I have to take myself with a grain of salt. On one level, I’m being completely earnest and on another level I’m aware of the fact that it’s kind of corny to be as earnest as I am. I spent my whole life hiding from my earnestness so there is a wink in there, a little bit. But I get more out of people taking it seriously, even if I can’t.
On putting his vocals at the forefront of the record:
I think it’s something you have to do at some point: strip away the veils and try not to hide. I felt ready. The recording space is a safe space for me. I loved being in the studio and working with Dan [Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never]. He’s been my music consultant since I started demoing out this project in 2005 — he was the first person to hear it. I’ve been a singer for a long part of my life and I’ve been a vocalist in live projects before, and I think I was trying to make things more complex than I needed to in my earlier releases. I decided this time I’m going to really sing and see what happens.