Onsen, AKA Drew, is releasing his current album Keeper in segments as singles, with “The March” being released next week. His music is about the visuals, some he has provided with videos, others, you just have to listen to the songs and let the music and words draw the pictures for you. He has lived in Boston, France, South America, and traveled throughout Asia, all of which is told in his music. He is a multi instrumentalist, who can see things in concept, then push them through to the end product. He looks like John Foster from the ’80s Bronski Beat, and his music actually sounds a lot like it, only, with an esoteric tone (with no fun disco dance beats).
Our interview went off tangentially, over subjects of our Martial Arts training, Buddhists aspects taught in the book “The Art of War”, and somehow we bonded over our unusual love of pre 1990’s Samurai films. A lot of this conversation was in French, where we said things like “Be like water, that can carve a canyon through a mountain” and other philosophical ideas. Yeah, he is just that kind of guy. As we describe the visuals here, you just need to watch, or listen, … that’s all I can say.
Jeremy Hinks: Good afternoon Drew, thanks for taking the time to talk.
Drew: Hey, glad to be here.
JH: So, let’s start off with it, where did the name “Onsen” come from.
Drew: I was traveling in Japan several years ago, and I loved the calligraphy of the word. It means “Bath House” or “Hot Spring” in Japanese and I saw the word everywhere. My music is along that concept, of the “Steamy” or “Dreamy” or water related visuals. It fit, and so the name just stayed with me.
JH: Well, your bio makes it sound like you are a world traveler, I suppose a lot of those experiences play into your creative process.
Drew: Yes, the writing of my songs, and music, is usually inspired by going outside the standard or every day experiences. I enjoy seeing things from a very different experience than I normally would, and that is what usually ends up in my songs.
JH: Your publicist gave me the stuff on Keeper and I really enjoyed it, as that is the current work, but I’m that guy who will take the liberty of digging into anything I can get my greedy paws on in Soundcloud or whatever. The early stuff is fantastic, but much different than the new. Can we talk for a moment about “Own Advice”? It sounds like you are in two different places, but not a lot of anxiety from either point of view. A gem, but I would like to know a little more about that one.
Drew: Yeah, from my first record, it’s actually kind of interesting. I wrote that album in the process of coming out, and the ends of relationships ending with women, some of the process of the beginning of relationships with men. It was a transitional song actually, It was the first song I had ever released, it was about this girlfriend that I had been really in love with at the time, and when she broke up with me, I wrote that song as if she was giving me advice as she was dumping me. And it’s all sung in her voice, but it was her benevolently telling me to listen to myself. She “knew” as we had kind of talked about it in vague terms, but we had a real connection, so I don’t know how much she questioned it at at the time, I have since told her of course. I was really sad when the relationship ended, because there was a real sweetness to the relationship, and by the time I wrote that I was feeling that sweetness from her. It feels upbeat and positive, like her giving me a very nice “send off” into the world. It’s a little of both, sadness, and exhilaration.
JH: “I Can’t Be With You” on your earlier work, talk about that one, I mean, I know it’s a Cranberries song.
Drew: Yeah, it is the only cover I have ever done. I listened to the Cranberries a lot when I was about 10 years old, to about 14, and I still do actually. But it was when Delores died, I decided to do it as a sort of “homage” and it’s one that I felt like I could sonically shift a bit, and what a sweet tune. I felt like a teenager again “lying in my bed again, and I cry cause you’re not there.” It’s just a wonderful opening line, better than I could ever come up with. It was fun to take on someone else’s lyrics and have fun with it.
JH: Oh yeah, that one hit me hard when we lost her. What about the song “Follow the Numbers” the photo on that single, its very … old, bizarre actually, very intriguing, and the song is as well. It’s hard to see it very clearly on Soundcloud, but it’s a small one, tell me about that.
Drew: It’s a really really old photograph, vintage photograph of an “onsen” in Japan, it is two women. “Follow The Numbers” was the first single that I put out, and it was me actually connecting with the idea of the “onsen.” It was an image maybe from the Twenties, and it’s just these two women, naked staring at these luminous hearts. The windows are heart shaped, and was mystified just looking at them.
JH: Well, on the recent video“These Charming Nights”, FIRST, listening to it, your voice really was that smooth enjoyable like voice, emulating The Bronski Beat, it felt so “familiar” with the vocals, thought the music was different. However, the video, I was impressed with it, especially the visuals, and the “one take” attempt. How you were just being rolled around, and everything going on around you. But what I found most fascinating was those guys dancing, it looks like they were filmed doing those moves, then it was played backwards, because it was just so… fluid.
Drew: Those dancers were Christopher and Shane and are phenomenal dancers, and it does look like it was played in reverse, BUT, actually it wasn’t, they just are so good. They did that all so well that it really did look that fluid, but it was all done filmed “forward.” They are able to latch on this “dreamy” like quality of the shots, so I’m sure that is how it gave it that feel that it could be played either direction, and still tell a story. The director did such a good job of choreographing from so many different angles, and there were no cuts, so everything would glide out of the screen, so that you can see usually the shot before, actually giving you a slightly different perspective with each angle. So it lined up so that it was continuous scene of me floating around, playing instruments moving through the giant warehouse on to the next memory, until we arrive at the pinkish space where me and the two dancers switch bodies and we become that living “Exquisite Corpse” drawing.
JH: See, that alone was impressive, I mean to do a moving “exquisite corpse” all obviously from different camera angles, but that you did them all, and they lined up perfectly, that was very well done. And the story it told.
Drew: The idea is that we are composed of our past loves. That was a visual way of showing that, the two dancers were representative of my past loves, and we sort of swap bodies, and we were all compositions of our past experiences and past loves, and we were dancing without seeing each other, and our moves were all the same, and they were echoing each other. And that was representing us all as composite memories.
JH: With wonderful imagery on that video, I can’t say enough about it. People just have to watch it.
What about the new single “March”? I have to tell you, there was this dark wave post punk act called “The Chameleons.” They are on tour right now, and your opening of that song was straight out of one of their early albums. It was fantastic how you emulated that wonderful sound, and keep going into your own with it. I loved the chorus, “Why can’t you be like the tops of trees.” That one is becoming my new faves of your music. So, tell me what that one was about.
Drew: It’s about summer love, but looking at it from the perspective of the fall. For me it was specifically talking about my first boyfriend. It’s about looking back on love, just a little removed, and still have the feelings of love, but still having the beginning of the sense of joyfulness about it. Some of the lyrics are descriptive of what happened, but some of them are about looking forward “All that I want to see is a life that looks like the tops of trees”. I liked the idea of being able to sway and move the way the tops of trees do in a gust of wind, to bend over, and sway back, and return to their original position, to not be broken by love, but to be able to move with it.
JH: Not to add to the meaning of the lyrics, but that point reminded me of a Buddhists teaching of why the trees lose their leaves in the fall, it is because they know that they need to, in order to survive the storms of the winter. If you are like that tree holding to those leaves, you will get torn down in the wind. Thus, let them go, be they ideas, or just things in your life that holding onto will destroy you. I flowed into that idea from your lyrics, and it was brilliant, I mean, we keep going back to these Eastern philosophical concepts.
Drew: I feel like that sort of idea is almost a sequel or an elaboration of that line. That is a prescription for how to get there. Not to be too attached to an idea, or even in the relationship that you have to be so attached to the idea of the relationship, that you hold on so hard to all of those things, and then it forces you to bend into so many crazy shapes, and come apart. But yes, that really does apply to the relationship I was thinking about, that I held onto it in a way that was much like your Buddhist (also Martial Arts ) instructor was saying. I actually wished I had that understanding at the time, so that I wouldn’t have gotten weighed down, and potentially break.
JH: Well your words inspired me to think of that, where I am in my own experience right now, making the exodus out of my religion. You made me remember that, and I am very grateful for that idea, and like you said it was the flip side of your lyrics.
Next song, “See Me Now”, is that one of those “look at what you missed out on” kind of songs? It could be taken that way, but could be taken other ways also.
Drew: It was a recognition that this crush that I had, just didn’t see what was in front of him. In the sense that “if you wanted it loud, if you hold me in doubt, I fear the way you see me now.” The idea was if you wanted something shiny, bright, and loud, then it is not going to be me, and the frustration of that, maybe not so much, “look what you are missing out on” but that I’m not really going to be seen in that moment.
JH: Can you talk about “Golden Heart” for a minute?
Drew: That was the last song that I wrote, and the most current that I wrote about, in the moment where my “recent-EX” had started seeing someone else, and I had a lot of feelings about that. The verses are a reaction to that, but the chorus is to sort of acknowledge how wonderful they were, and a sort of wish that I had been able to love them more in the moment. But also to acknowledge that it wasn’t possible. That one, I feel sonically, was an homage to the world music that I grew up with. My parents both loved world music, so there is a lot of percussion in there, and those elements.
JH: Well, you do most of your music anyway right, writing, instruments, and production?
Drew: The production on this one, was a lot of the original ideas yes, but I also worked with a guy named Brooke Deleau, who is an incredible producer, to sort of push it and make a final version. It was helpful to push these songs where they needed to be, to get another perspective.
JH: You said you can play and do all your own instruments, now jumping back a couple pieces and then to now. There is quite a musical journey. Your publicist did you a disservice just giving me the new album (not mentioning any names). Because it’s all very good, I love the whole experience, from start to finish, and the “growth” I felt in the music and process as I went through it.
JH: I feel like there was a musical journey, and the maturation, development in your skill, and production. But also a more emotional development from the pieces “Own Advice” to “Charming Nights” now, I saw your emotional and sexuality journey and musical journey are one and the same throughout, that is very clear, and very well done. I know it’s your exit, your coping mechanism, I mean, Lou Reed did a song about his electroshock therapy trying to cure him of being bisexual, and he called it “Kill your sons.”
Drew: Oh my God, horrible.
JH: He said about that later “you are entertained by my suffering.” How did all of this start, when did you decide you were going to give the world your pain, in the form of music?
Drew: Interesting that you clued into that, for me, the decision to start writing and making music was, and the decision to start dating men at the same time. I had been living in South America, and was working as a journalist at the time. And I was coming to the end of the time on that project, getting ready to head home. We were doing a story about illegal drilling in the Amazon. And at the end of this we spent a few days in this indigenous community in Brazil, and the shaman there that did a ceremony with us. As I was sitting and reflecting on that and what was coming when I returned to the US, there were these two decisions I had, in the course of that time. I was going to go back and focus on my writing and my music, and not the day in day out tech job. And also to start dating men as well. So it was really both at the same time.
JH: Well, you did mention that when you realized you were gay, it was the same time I was in Boston, and I found it to be a very gay friendly and open culture there among my peers and friends in college. But you said it was very different being a queer kid in high school in the late ’90s. Again, it seems the paradigm for how both of us was very different. So, for you it had to wait till you left, traveled the world, and then decided to make it happen all at once.
Drew: Yes, but in retrospect, I look at it, and at the time thought, “how can I make music, that sounds and IS authentic” and that sort of was speaking to and cared about at the time. So, it had to happen if any of it was going to be real. I had been out to my sister before then. By the time I was living abroad, it put things on hold for a little bit. But when I came back, it was sort of a process of both, I was taking music classes, and exploring my sexuality in a different way. There isn’t a point that an .. pinpoint to where I came out to everyone, but it was when I came back from South America, I did that as a process sort of things.
JH: So, here is the part where I ask the question I ask everyone. What would you tell the young LGBT person, who is afraid, in the closet, unable to come out or be who they are. What would you say to them?
Drew: I would first of all say, to own it, and owning it is often to just say it, to someone anyone, even if it is a stranger on the bus, someone you will never see again. There is a power in owning that, but there are also places in the world where that just is not safe. It may be important to find someone that is safe, maybe a school counselor, or someone in your family. Just make sure you’re safe, but it’s important to be gentle with yourself. I wish I had started talking about it sooner, I feel like years of my life would have deeply enriched. Everyone has a different process, and there is nothing wrong with waiting, but putting voice to your truth is very powerful.
JH: Well thank you Drew, I think we could go on for hours, I’ll have to just grab a coffee with you next time I’m in Los Angeles, we could cover a lot.
Drew: Thank you.