Ethan Matthews is an innovative solo ambient/electronic musician working from his studio in Portland, Oregon. He has completed a magical and thought-provoking soundscape of music built over three albums under the name Echo Us. The history of Echo Us reaches back to the year 2000, when Ethan formed the group in Boston, MA. The live shows and two EP's of this early incarnation hardly hinted at what would follow. Ethan was hospitalized for two weeks in November 2001, beset with an intense personal and emotional crisis. While locked away in Boston's Mass General Blake 11 ward he started to experiment thematically with what Echo Us would become. After finishing school and moving to Portland, Oregon in 2004, the debut self-titled album Echo Us was released in 2005. It was followed by The Tide Decides, in 2009, which marked the start of a trilogy of albums, with the current release- 2012's Tomorrow Will Tell The Story the second in this overall work.
Ethan's music creates an ambient and electronic wave of sound. His music is challenging and is the perfect sound surrounding for both thinking and relaxing. In 2010 Ethan began collaborating with singer-songwriter Henta, who received a Grammy-nomination that same year for her album, Laserium For The Soul. I recently had a chance to submit some questions for both Ethan and Henta, who sings vocals on the album, to get an update on their albums and what's ahead for these two creative artists in the future.
SoT Ethan Matthews and Henta, welcome to the Sea of Tranquility. We appreciate both of you taking time out of your busy schedules, to answer some questions for your fans, regarding the release of Tomorrow Will Tell the Story, this month, and the Echo Us projects in general.
SoT Ethan, I've been following and reviewing your work since the release of The Tide Decides in 2009. For those new to the story, please describe the trilogy and story behind the albums, and where we are now, with the release of Tomorrow Will Tell the Story.
EM: With The Tide Decides, the whole stream of ideas started in a new way for Echo Us.
The debut in 2005 was really just me dealing with what I was going through at the time. Now, thinking back- that album almost should have been a true solo record- not an Echo Us album. In any case, as early as late 2004 I could feel a change to a new style of music for me, but it took a number of years to develop. The concept of The Tide Decides has something to do with imagining the whole life of the earth becoming a person, or personality- in this case, a character. In the end [of the tide decides], the character says "Bon Voyage" to that world and enters a new kind of space- and this space is, Tomorrow Will Tell The Story. Is it purgatory? Awakening? I am still not sure. Tomorrow Will Tell The Story has something to do with time stopping. That title, is more clever than it sounds. I love things that seem childish on the surface but have a different meaning on a deeper level. All that said, I really think people should always be given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. The concept and lyrics are where my music comes from- I only write music to accompany the messages and ideas I receive.
SoT One of the innovative aspects of your work, along with the keyboards and synths is the electronic/synthesized vocals. Please describe how you create that sound.
EM: I love vocals of all kinds. The human voice is the most expressive instrument other than the uilleann pipes. The strange, alien-like vocals are mostly all samples from The Tide Decides- I wanted to take that "Earth-reality" of the Tide Decides along with us to the next level of the character's existence. The creation of the voices was done 'manually' with a sampler. The only tricky part is choosing the key and tempo. Everything has to match- but in many cases this time it just slid into place so I didn't have to choose. It was so easy compositionally that I am convinced the music was already written- I just had to snatch it up from the ether. It was a wild experience, and the kind of thing that makes me get up and dance around the studio. Happening upon and using mantra YHVH was a prime example, and the set of circumstances that led to this was completely done on a psychic level, rather than contrived to fit the concept. So the album works on that level, and on many levels depending on what you want to pay attention to. What I found was that the religious elements, once I figured out what they were, drastically improved the overall effect of the music and the trance-like energy behind it. So, it's music that is made for trance-like states, but it was also made in a trance-like state, but without illicit substances, of course!
I am very much into what others call the 'occult' I suppose, but I am into it from a very detached standpoint. I am curious, not religious, and I don't make a habit of practicing ritual magic or anything. I just follow energy, which led me to the voices, the mantra, and everything else contained in the album.
SoT The addition of Henta to the Tomorrow Will Tell the Story, provides not only a new voice, but also another perspective to your creation. How did you meet Henta and how was her voice and perspective so essential to the storyline? Great choice by the way! ;^).
EM: I really needed someone to counter my vocal sound- a subtle and more 'lush', deeper voice, but with a lot of range. So I was looking through The Stranger (an apt title considering the situation) which is a Seattle weekly and found a classified ad about Henta and her work with Marcell Marias. Henta has a sound that no one else I know of in the Pacific Northwest does- but that's probably because she's not from here! I knew instantly that her voice would fit well, and I usually know precognitively speaking who will work and who won't- so I trusted my gut. I also found it really cool when we met, that we had a lot of similar thoughts about things, whether it be metaphysical / spiritual things or otherwise- we are both extremely intuitive people. With music like this, it's really got to be an experience, and everyone involved needs to feel a close connection to each other's music. On top of all this, Henta's own music has all the qualities of a very seasoned artist- and it's hard to find people of her caliber working independently. As I mentioned Portland was just not providing me with the right options at all, so I was searching all over the place, up and down the west coast and as far away as England, now ironically it seems. Things have a way of working out though; I've always had faith in my overall musical path, and the people I meet along the way.
SoT Henta, when Ethan first approached you with the idea of performing on his album how did you greet the opportunity? What was it about the project that inspired you?
Henta: I was pleasantly surprised at such an eloquent request, as Ethan had obviously taken time to actually listen closely to my voice, so that was flattering too. I was very impressed by the quality and expansiveness of his music, plus I really liked his voice. I also felt some kind of affinity with him as I delved deeper into his music, which made me feel it would be a great project to collaborate on.
SoT Henta, please describe your background as a singer and musician.
Henta: I've been a singer/songwriter for well over 20 years now and have been in a variety of bands singing and playing keys, including rock, covers, electronic duos. The turn in my style of songwriting really happened when I bought my first Atari computer running Cubase, which is what launched me into the world of electronic music in the 90s. I started to work with different producers, experimenting with recording and songwriting. I then progressed to using a PC and Cubase and learned all about VSTs and wrote my first official self- release called La Mint Collection in 2005 (There was a previous 7 track compilation called The White Rabbit Collection written with my friend Geraint Hughes). In 2006 I moved to Seattle and never looked back really, releasing Daisy Dancing in 2008, followed by Laserium for the Soul (my concept album) in 2009 which was Nominated for a Grammy and now about to release my 5th album Butterfly Song. I also very much enjoy collaborating with other musicians if I vibe with their music.
SoT Ethan, the balance you achieve between female and male vocals works so well within both the storyline and the sound of the album. How did you plan out the process and flow of the lyrics to achieve a balanced perspective?
EM: I don't keep flow charts or really analyze things too much anymore, whether musical or lyrical. I've found it easier to let it flow and trust that it will come out as desired. The Tide Decides was an example of a more analytical approach, even though the lyrics were written in a similar intuitive manner to the new album. Writing music like this is like writing a novelette, but to music. On the surface, it sounds difficult, but if I listen closely enough for the ideas I can hear and see everything in my mind's eye- I usually see structures visually- a huge percentage of the piece of music beforehand over months- it's energy. Once I start an album, from after the first major idea I know a lot about how the rest will follow- I usually start to feel settled in my gut and good- that's how I know. I don't get terribly scared of forgetting where I am or am going, because I feel once I've connected to source with that first idea, I know everything is there, just waiting to be plucked from the tree. That approach, by following intuition to such a huge degree is how I keep organized- its musical channeling. That's how composition works for me overall.
Production wise, when it comes to many things there was a certain 'random' factor in choosing what songs would have both male and female vocals- I kind of just chose, but I did it early enough in the process that we could still change keys if need be, and that sort of thing. So, in the end there was some basic planning, but only to meet the physical requirements of the voices involved. I really didn't have to change anything but the arrangement of Mirror In The Window- on that one the verses got transposed to fit the sweet spot for both of us. Everything else was intuitive and random from what I can remember.
SoT Ethan, describe how you planned out the creative process and found the motivation or inspiration for the vocals/instrumentation you provided.
EM: My only motivation is being completely dissatisfied with a normal life, so it's all about inspiration, and that requires zero motivation for me. It does take motivation to finish a work- mix it, etc. Years ago, it was very difficult for me to learn all the audio skills I needed. In my youth I had no discipline what so ever- like with my first band Greyhaven. I did all kinds of things in my head, without a thought to technical skill really. I was the type of artist that really needed a producer / engineer, and I was lucky to be able to co-produce back then and get a foundation in audio engineering at a young age. At that point I knew the technology but I did not know how to make it work for my own music. That's just taken time and practice. Since then I refused to let anyone infringe on my creativity after the breakup of the original Echo Us in Boston back in 2001, and present Echo Us as it is now requires an extremely astute comprehension of what instruments do in a mix. I think the mix is as much a composition and creative venture as the music itself.
On Tomorrow Will Tell the process became more natural, and much more refined than the past. I am a natural orchestrator and producer, but I never learned to 'produce' in the traditional way with rock or pop music at first, and after I learned much of it that kind of thing didn't appeal to me. I started to think of myself as an orchestrator rather than a producer, if I have to classify it really. They overlap greatly with what I do. My hearing is oddly off balance right to left; it's always been that way. As a kid I could not listen on headphones to music with hard panning to the left. I would instantly throw the headphones off! As far as instruments, I just love strings of all kinds...I love mallets too. I love micro-ambiences and themes within themes. Development on a micro-scale. I think a lot of musician's idea of development is just not what I do. These days it seems like repeating a groove for a number of minutes and adding layers is considered development. I wanted to hear all kinds of musical elements across the board have a real purpose within a larger compositional and storytelling framework, and no one was really making the kind of music I heard in my head by and large- so I had to make it myself. A melody can be anything and go anywhere, and I always felt I'd rather take the road less traveled.
SoT - Henta, describe how you planned out the creative process and found the motivation or inspiration for the vocals/instrumentation you provided.
Henta: I mainly listened to the tracks that Ethan sent me through headphones so that I could immerse myself in the songs and hear the different instrumentation behind his voice. He has a very distinctive style of singing so I wanted to ensure that I blended well with him, especially as I was singing a lot of double parts over his existing vox. I'm the kind of person who goes by feel and sound first, rather than immediately tuning into lyrical content and as I mentioned already, I felt I had a natural affinity with Ethan which added an interesting angle to this project and helped me to integrate into his music.
SoT Ethan, what is your favorite song, section, or part of the Echo Us trilogy?
EM: None really, but the key tracks are Mirror in the window & the Archaeous of Water
Suite I'd say. Recently, I had to transcribe the lyrics, so I skimmed through the entire album again and the title track still had tons of vibrancy with me.
SoT - Henta, which was your favorite song to sing on Tomorrow Will Tell the Story?
Henta: The mirror in the window this was the first song I worked on with Ethan and I particularly love the part of the song where our voices join together at the end, it's an emotional yet uplifting crescendo
SoT Henta, what have you been up to since completing your vocals on Tomorrow Will Tell the Story?
Henta: I've really spent the last 2 years writing Butterfly Song which is my new album due to be released in April this year. One of the songs on the album is called Magic Queen Remix and I was lucky enough to have Ethan record acoustic and electric guitar for me on the track which took it to a great new musical level. The original more simplified version was on my first album but I wanted to make it sound more acoustic and earthy in feel and now it has turned into quite an epic song thanks to the influence of Ethan, Jim Graham (upright bass) and Marcell Marias (dumbek). Also 6 months ago I moved from Seattle into the mountains in Roslyn, WA so that I could draw from new influences to help me finish writing this album. I have worked with some new musicians here and as a result, certainly never expected to write a bluegrass song being predominantly an electronic/pop artist!
SoT Ethan, now what is next with Echo Us?
EM: The final part of the 'trilogy' will most likely come out in early 2013. I finished pretty much the whole thing the first 6 months of 2011, so it's been in the bag for a long time now more or less. In the meantime, I'll probably write another something- maybe for Echo Us or maybe something else? I am not sure- there are places to explore still with Echo Us, even after the final part of this series, although I have to say that I was really not expecting to continue on much longer, because I felt I'd kind of said what I wanted to say with it [Echo Us].
SoT I know the two of you are great friends. Do you have plans to work together soon?
EM: We have again worked together on the 4th Echo Us as I was speaking about- as well as my playing on Henta's new album. I think we're both just really finalizing a lot of things and looking for new adventures- it's always possible, and I'd imagine and hope we both get the opportunity to do more together after not too long!
SoT Ethan and Henta is there a project or person you would like to create with someday?
Henta- er yes, Peter Gabriel! One day I would love to collaborate with PG where we sing together.
EM: I know I don't ever want to ever spoil an experience or some idea I had about how someone is. I really admire people from Debussy and Stravinsky to Mike Oldfield or Bjork. Peter Gabriel of course! At this point, I'd love to do a project where I generate an idea- whether it's as an author, a playwright or helping to form or write a musical. That's where I'd like to collaborate with great musicians I think.
SoT If there is anything I missed that you would like to discuss, please go ahead.
EM: Thanks again for talking with us! Responses to the CD so far have been pretty tremendous so far, and I really look forward to coming back with the final album in the trilogy just as fast as we can!
H Thanks for including me in this interview. I'm happy that this collaboration with Ethan has longevity and has continued with his influence on my new album Butterfly Song with his wonderful guitar work on Magic Queen remix.
EM: Likewise with Henta's album- I enjoyed taking the opportunity to go further into my guitar playing again, and now having heard her whole new album I am even more happy to have taken part-
SoT-Thank you both for taking time out of your busy schedules to answer some questions for your fans. We at the Sea of Tranquility wish you both much success with the launch of Tomorrow Will Tell the Story and all that you do in the future.
(Click here to read our review of Tomorrow Will Tell the Story)