Having put out music since 2006, OJ Law has come a long way since his days of making earnestly written songs from his bedroom, churning out a debut and sophomore record that were the first couple of local albums available via online distribution pre-Bandcamp (Law and Timezones). When his third LP Yesterday Is A Distant Dream garnered acclaim and a first physical release for OJ, the self-deprecating man was in disbelief of his newfound success as he considered himself as someone who was “not famous.” However so, it’s not difficult to digest as to why people are so taken by his music, which OJ aptly consolidates as ‘banana indie soulrocktronica’. It showcases his seamless, verging on a perfectionist approach in melding his varied musical influences into infectious tracks such as ‘Start/Stop’, ‘Fantastic Adventure’ with Liyana Fizi, and the popular ‘Tongue-tied’. JUICE raked OJ’s mind about an assortment of subjects – his fourth album Let’s Be Adult, the art of crafting the perfect song, and more.
There’s an element of twee in an OJ Law song that we attribute to the musical style and lyrical content. Do you think that description is fair?
I can see why people would think that. The only ‘twee’ group I’ve really been in love with is The Cardigans. Their second album, Life, is one of my all-time favourites. I suppose you’ve noticed a familiar musical motif throughout my songs. This is slightly technical, but you know how punk rock songs all make heavy use of power chords, or many metal songs used Drop D tunings? So, my thing is that I like to use major seventh chords in my songs. Pretty much in all of them. That’s something I picked up from Burt Bacharach, he uses major seventh chords in all his songs.
Do you find the term ‘twee’ derogative?
Not really, but I find the endless sub-genre-ing of music a bit meaningless after a while.
You once said that you would love to have all your lyrics to be like ‘Rooftop’, which if it were not set to music, it would have just been a great short story; there’s no chorus or any of that framework. But, a lot of your songs are written in a literary way, is that something you strive for with your songwriting?
Mainly I’m just striving to write good lyrics and if you’re able to tell a story within a song, that’s a pretty good achievement. I thought ‘Rooftop’ was very vivid in its storytelling. I don’t think I quite managed it again on any song on Let’s Be Adult… maybe the closest I got this time was on ‘Introverts’. Lyrics are definitely the hardest part of the songwriting process. Foremost, the words need to sound good when they’re sung. On the new album, I took a different approach to writing the lyrics. I spent a lot of time paring down and simplifying the lyrics. You end up with this very raw, emotional feeling. Minimalist lyrics. My favourite lyric on the album is ‘All We Have Is Erased’. The repetition in that song is totally hysterical. You know that feeling where you’re so fixated on something and it goes around your head in a loop over and over? That’s the emotion.
Now that we realised the process that it takes for you to perfect the lyrics, is this the same when it comes to the composition and production of the songs? Or do you find that it’s easier due to your job as a sound engineer?
It’s equally as difficult. I find lyric-writing and composition part of the same process. One can affect the other. Production, I don’t even know where to begin with that. It’s pretty much a big experiment – shaping sounds. Obviously I’m influenced by the sound of songs and records that I like, but the goal is really to come up with a sound that suits the song. Being a sound engineer is a double-edged sword; technically I know what I’m doing, but I can get lost in the minutiae of the sound. Is there enough reverb on the vocal? Is the EQ on the hi-hat right?
In the end however, you write great pop tunes. But would you agree that great pop music just needs the simplest lyric and a catchy beat to tap your feet to? Or how would you define it?
Exactly what you said. But it doesn’t even have to be the lyrics or the melody. You just need something (anything!) catchy and you’ve done it. That Mark Ronson, song, ‘Uptown Funk’? That’s just the horn riff! Everything else in that song is secondary.
We’ve read that Let’s Be Adult is an autobiographical album, but the past songs have always sounded like it came from personal experience. How does this album differ from the rest?
It was always a mixture in the past. It would be partly drawn from experience, but I would also add in experiences from friends or things that I had read or seen. The songs on Let’s Be Adult were written specifically about the experiences that had happened in the year after my last album was finished. It sort of charts my life from the end of one relationship into another one. So that’s why the first half of the album is quite heavy and dark and by the end it reaches a happier place.
The piano is very prominent in Let’s Be Adult, what spurred that decision to include more of that instrument in the album?
I acquired some new instruments, the main one being a Korg electric piano, the SV-1, that I ended up writing almost all the songs on. I’ve been playing guitar for so long, since I was 13, so it’s been getting harder to play the chords for so many years and find inspiration. It’s funny though, even though I’m much better at playing guitar than I am on piano, I enjoy playing the piano more. I think it’s the unfamiliarity of the instrument that makes it more fun. I now have a room full of synthesisers that I can barely play, but it’s fun trying to work out how to play them. It feels like I’m playing instruments from another planet.
You mentioned about the fun in playing an instrument that you’re unfamiliar with, taking cue from that, have you tried or would you like to take a stab at writing songs on subjects that you have no experience in, maybe as a way to challenge yourself?
Probably not. I don’t think it’s a good idea to write about things you don’t know about. Someone’s going to call you out on it. If I did research into the subject, then that would okay. But, then I wouldn’t be unfamiliar with it anymore! Write what you know. That’s important. Be real.
‘It’s Not Enough To Be In Love With You’ is quite an old song, about a year old, why did you include it in Let’s Be Adult?
Actually, when I put that song out, I assumed the release of my album would follow shortly after. It was probably 90% finished at that point. I didn’t realise I was going to spend another year working on the remaining 10%.
Could you tell us why did the last 10% of the album take a whole year to complete?
Indecision, mostly. I was unable to let go of the music, just tweaking little things here and there. I was still adding stuff to the music as recently as December! I was also struggling with the art direction of the album. So that held up the process for a number of months as well. I was looking at many different artists’ work before I decided on Bryzoid to do the artwork for me.
On the subject of the song ‘Yoñlu’, do you still wrestle with the same issues now after four years and a new album coming out?
I feel quite at ease and resolved with life right now, but who knows what tomorrow brings?
We understand that it’s a matter of quality over quantity, but we love the music videos for ‘Tongue-tied’ and ‘Introverts’, how do you come up with the individual concepts of the videos?
I’m a huge fan of weird, quirky music videos, in particular the videos of Michel Gondry. So I feel that you absolutely have to do something interesting with the format if you have a chance to do so. With both ‘Tongue-Tied’ and ‘Introverts’, I had a very basic idea of what I wanted the video to be like and then let the directors run with it. I was very lucky to work with two very talented directors, Ling Low and Joshua Chay, who were willing to take a chance with my silly ideas and do something a little crazy.
Deviating from your work, we would love to hear your opinions on some things, such as: Being a fan of the Beach Boys, are you excited for the Brian Wilson biopic?
Oh yeah, for sure. You know, I’ve consumed so much Beach Boys-related media (music, books, documentaries, films), but it’s an itch that I never get tired of scratching.
We saw that you were on the defence after Kanye’s recent Grammys faux pas. Do you feel like people overreact to Kanye as much as Kanye overreact to the Grammys? Do the mass fear pop stars who are opinionated, opinions that vastly differ from general pop wavelength in fact?
Kanye is going to be Kanye. I’ve been a fan since day one, but I like how as the years have gone on, his public persona has become more and more ridiculous. To me, he’s somewhere between a rock star and a cartoon character. You can’t take anything he says too seriously. The flip side of the coin is that you can’t take the Grammys seriously either. I look at my favourite albums, and how many of them have won Grammys? Maybe 5% of them? It’s cool when something you like gets recognition, but it’s always the exception rather than the norm.
Today, most would opt for online releases, ‘mixtape’ they would call it. But with such quality releases (we consider Section.80 to be Kendrick Lamar’s debut album), they might as well be albums such as what you have done before it was trendy; you also consider Let’s Be Adult your fourth album. So, the question is: What makes an album an album today when a physical release isn’t the number one option anymore?
Well, I don’t think mixtapes and albums are the same thing. Mixtapes seem to me more of these freebie giveaways that rappers do. I suspect most of them do it because they can’t clear the samples they use on the songs. I realise the lines are getting blurred now, because Drake just released a mixtape on iTunes that you need to pay for. So why is he calling it a mixtape? Is it because if it sucks, then it doesn’t sully his collection of albums? Not sure about that one. Albums, for me, were never about if they were released on a particular format or not. The art of an album is putting together a group of songs to create a musical journey.
Does it irk you that people call Yesterday is a Distant Dream your debut just because it’s a physical release?
Only journalists (laughs). But seriously, it’s not a big deal. It’s already surprising that people know I have an album to begin with!
OJ Law held a launch party for his latest album Let’s Be Adult, out now, at The Bee, Publika on Sunday 22 March ’15.