037 - Shy Layers
JD Walsh is an immensely talented multi-disciplinary artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. His excellent visual artwork, mostly sculpture and design, gives some added context to his musical compositions as Shy Layers, whose excellent self titled debut LP was without doubt one of last years finest releases. The product of decades of experimentation, exploring sound and quietly releasing tracks online, from the first note to the last ‘Shy Layers’ is a record of beautifully engaging and visually evocative compositions that could be broadly described as Balearic pop. There's a delicate balancing act taking place within his work that perhaps owes much to his career in visual arts. If you’ve not yet had a chance to experience this little sonic gem then I urge you to give it a spin.
Whilst the vocoded vocals on his debut LP are as much an ode to Daft-Punk and Kraftwerk, and their are many other notable influences throughout his solo work including elements of Ethio-Jazz, chill wave and 80s synth pop, one of the most obvious reference points for his excellent self titled debut is African music and specifically the guitar playing style of Highlife (see ''Too Far Out’’ and ‘’Bees and Bamboo’’ for fine examples). Highlife emerged as a direct descendent of West African Palm-Wine music whose earliest exponents, no doubt inspired by the native alcoholic beverages stimulating properties, gathered to play guitars thought to have arrived courtesy of Portuguese traders. Combining their local melodies with Caribbean Calypso the upbeat approach was very popular in the 50s and 60s before it’s more Jazz orientated sister genre known as Highlife took its place.
And it is this influence which Walsh has chosen to focus on with his delightful addition to the Métron Musik Mixtape series - a barnstorming adventure through some of his favourite African music, packed full of beautiful vocals, African guitars and some serious groove. Yet Walsh's melodic pop sensibilities are written all over this mixtape and it’s no surprise that his selections revolve around some of the most infectious pan-African melodies. Its a joyous experience, full of sunshine and positivity sure to put a broad smile on your face.
We were very excited to learn that there is a new record on it's way but if you’ve not yet heard his excellent debut head over to the consistently superb Hamburg based label Growing Bin Records to pick up a vinyl copy and support both artist and label. For the time being let Walsh guide you through some of Africa's most effervescent music.
I got a chance to speak to JD about being a self-taught musician and where his African influences stem from - you can read more below.
You’re a multidisciplinary creative, do you see a synergy between your visual work and your music making?
Absolutely, I feel that the decisions one makes when working on a visual piece vs a sonic piece are very similar. In both cases, I'm considering texture, scale, juxtaposition, etc. In both cases any creative decisions are followed by a period of self-critique and reflection (i.e., crippling self-doubt, haha). It's also similar to the process of painting in the sense that it's hard to know when the piece is finished - there's not usually a defined endpoint. I'd say a big difference between the two is that the market for each is so different.
Do you think being a self-taught musician has helped you forge a more unique approach?
I do. I was taught the basic guitar chords by my father, who was also a self-taught musician, which gave me just enough of a foundation to build from. I often wonder if a more formal musical education would have been helpful or stifling. On one hand, it might have given me a broader skill set or musical vocabulary. On the other hand, I came at it from a place of passion rather than a curriculum, so I was free to explore outside the confines of a school or lessons. I can really see the merit in both approaches.
I read that you hired the vocalist for your debut LP from craigslist, would you do this again or are there collaborations with specific vocalists you would love to explore instead?
Yeah, I would definitely do that again. Sometimes a song calls for many different voices, different characters. This is important to me because I try to have my songs exist outside the traditional singer/songwriter paradigm. So I don't want to have a single, authoritative voice that somehow represents "me" (although I'm certainly there). This is part of my love of vocal processing, because it complicates the authorship somewhat. I don't think there are specific vocalists I'd love to work with, although I'm certainly open to collaborations if it seems like the right thing.
Where did the heavy Pan-African influence in your music come from and how conscious are you of those references in your own work?
Well, I think I was first attracted to African music from a guitar standpoint. I was raised primarily on rock music, which of course is a conglomerate of blues, country, and pop among others. A lot of African music lacks the primary touchstones of rock guitar, like strummed chord progressions and bent notes. Instead, it often seems more like a percussion instrument, receptive, in a staccato style. This idea is exciting to me, and probably why I've always been more attracted to rhythm guitarists vs lead guitarists. Sometimes I am aware of those references in my work and other times not. I think the new record will sound less referential, although the philosophy remains the same.
Can you tel us a bit about the thought behind this mixtape?
Just some of my favorite tunes! This spans the 70's - 90's with music from all over Africa.
What’s next for Shy Layers, can you tell us a bit about any new material you are working on?
I'm very close to completing a new LP, right now it's looking to be 9 songs, split pretty much down the middle between songs with vocals and instrumental songs. It's in the same vein as the previous albums, with perhaps a broader range of styles - 80's R&B, dancehall reggae, synth pop. There are instrumental songs that are a bit looser than the previous album, some with more live instrumentation. I'm really excited about it.
Finally we always ask for a few recommendations of some records we might not have got the chance to spin yet, any suggestions?
Dança do Tempo by Fabiano Do Nascimento. This is a contemporary Brazilian record that is just thrilling to me. Excellent guitar playing recorded in single takes with some amazing percussion (the recording has a vintage feel to it). Every song fantastic. Do not miss this.
Joachim Witt - Moonlight Nights. A great German pop album from 1985. His only album with English vocals. Just really engaging pop music.
Wim Mertens - Maximizing the Audience. A masterpiece of "new music" minimalism. Lovely compositions with additive complexity, a highly rewarding listen.
Soul Brothers - Bayeza
De Frank Professionals - Afe Ato Yen Bio
Seckou Keita - N'doké
Devera Ngwena Jazz Band - Devera Ngwena Zhimozhi
Ernesto Djédjé- Zadie-Bobo
Dur-Dur Band - Halelo
The Mgababa Queens - Maphuthi
Ata Kak - Daa Nyinaa
The Funkees - Onye Mmanya
Puseletso Seemo - Lefelleng
Hailu Mergia - Swenetuwa