In conversation with Active Child: making music that heals people

Active Child is one of those artists that I fell in love with within about ten seconds of being introduced to his music. In early 2012 I sat down to listen to his 2011 album You Are All I See. I proceeded to listen to the entire album about eight times in a row, and it’s gone on to become one of my all time favourites. His stunning falsetto, angelic and complex harp layers, and captivating, powerful rhythms resonate, emotionally, in a way that’s largely unparalleled by most other artists around today. Blending classical and operatic techniques with synths and gushing, romantic soundscapes, Active Child’s music is as unique as it is engulfing.

Active Child, real name Pat Grossi, released his sophomore album Mercy last week (you can read our review here.) A stunning, dense and incredibly intimate album, it shows an interesting shift forward in his sound. The album also marked an intensely difficult time in Grossi’s life, as the songs were written after the breakdown of a long term relationship.

I was lucky enough to chat with Pat, who was spending a day off on his tour wandering through a park in Brooklyn. We discussed his new album, the importance of music, and the benefits and shortfalls of performing such intensely personal music.

You’ve been quoted saying that on this album you wanted to feel new again in your own music, and that you wanted your voice to be heard – not just felt. Can you elaborate on that?

I spent so much time on the road with the first record, I felt a bit bored singing the same songs and doing the same production. Just like any other artist, I wanted to explore a new sound, but without diverging too far from my original style. So I wanted to do something that presented a different vibe, something that had more of an acoustic classical feel, something that reflected my growth as a person and an artist over the last few years. We used a lot more harp and I wrote a lot of the record on piano. My producer bought all types of equipment that’s used to record orchestras, so we used a lot of classical production, which gave it a very sharp, polished feel.

As far as the vocals, I realised that all the music that I write, especially for the new record, is really vulnerable. It’s really honest and personal. In the past, I tended to sort of hide behind reverb and delay, and I’ll layer my voice multiple times to make it feel bigger. This time around, I wanted to reflect that same vulnerability in my voice. I’m really pushed out of the mix, I’m a little more naked. It was scary, I was honestly nervous – it sounds different. I think I put myself out there in a lot of ways, with the personal content and not really hiding behind any production. We recorded single vocal takes, so you can really feel the nuance in my voice, which is really cool.

Considering how intimate and personal your music is, do you see songwriting as a kind of personal therapy? 

Yeah, one hundred per cent. I think you nailed it, and it’s exactly where the inspiration for the album title came from. A lot of the music was written last summer when I went through a pretty traumatic breakup with a person I really loved and cared about, and I felt really lost during that period. It was during that time that I rediscovered how much music meant to me. It sounds shitty, but I sort of needed that – that intense emotional breakdown. It was a wake up call, a reminder of how much I personally rely on music as therapy, as a healing device. That’s why I ended up calling the record Mercy – I felt really grateful. When I felt awful and really depressed, I could sit down and put my hands on the piano and sing, and feel better after that. The majority of the songs came out of that period of introspection, and rediscovery of how much I need music.

Do you find that catharsis in creating your own music, or listening to other artists, or both? 

It’s both. I think listening to other people’s music can sometimes be more powerful, because then you find someone else who is experiencing the same thing. You relate to it, it helps you feel less alone, it allows you to to not feel as shitty about your situation because you know someone else has been there. I think that’s a big draw to the music that I write – people do find it in times of heartbreak – but hopefully in other times too! I meet a lot of people on the road that say my music has really helped them through some tough times. That means a lot to me because it’s helped me in tough times too. That type of music can be the most powerful.

I recently dove into Bjork’s new album. That was more proof that some of the most insanely powerful music comes from these really intense moments of heartbreak. It forces you to look inside yourself, in a way different to how you normally would. As painful as it can be, and as tiresome as it can be for some people to hear sad songs all the time, I think the majority of people connect to it in a really special way. So that’s become my focus for songwriting – not just healing myself, but making music that can help other people a little bit.

Considering a lot of the music directly refers to her, do you want that person to listen to the album? 

Well we’re back together now! It worked out. That was another lucky thing about the record – they weren’t all like, bummer, I’m never gonna be okay. It was more looking back and thinking that it could still work, and maybe there was still hope. There’s a layer of hope in a lot of the songs. It’s subtle but it’s present. So yeah, she’s heard it. I played my first show in San Diego and she was there for it. I finished with the last song on the album (Too Late) which is probably the rawest song, it’s pretty much directly reflective of that whole experience. I looked up at one point and she was fully crying, losing it, and then I sort of lost it, and tried to keep it together, there was like 400 people looking at me.

It’s weird, I didn’t really mentally prepare myself to perform all this stuff, and it’s been pretty taxing. I used to get asked a lot if it’s really exhausting to play these personal songs every night, and at the time, it was music that had had it’s moment and it had passed. But with these new songs, it still hurts a bit. I also think there’s synchronisation in all of us – it all happened almost exactly a year ago, and I fell back into that mode, and I feel the same memories coming back. And now I’m singing all the songs that I wrote in that period for the first time. It’s been pretty intense, but it’s been good for the performance, because I really put myself on stage in a moment where all of it is really real and honest. I think it comes across – people are having really strong reactions to the show, so that’s cool to see.

Is it possible to mentally prepare for something like that?

I don’t think you can really. The only thing I could’ve done was to acknowledge the fact that it might happen, haha. Rehearsals were fine, but all of a sudden I found myself on stage and it was really quiet. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me, and suddenly all the emotion started hitting me. I think you sort of have to go out and just experience it. There’s a lot of pressure and adrenaline and emotion. It’s not an album with a band where I go up on stage and thrash around and crowd surf, which would be really exhausting. I’m up there in a much more mentally exhausting state.

Has it ever been too much to hold in – have you ever cried on stage?

No! At the show in San Diego I was definitely very very close, I was in that choked up moment where you can’t really get the words out, but I wasn’t actually crying. It would have been a little bit embarrassing haha. It’s one thing to perform all these songs and to be so personal, but to actually start crying on stage – that’s a little bit too much for everyone.

Do you prefer to play the songs which resonate with you personally at that time, or are you thinking more about what the audience wants to hear?

Well, a lot of the songs on You Are All I Seeand the EP before that, and Rapor, weren’t direct personal reflections. But I obviously do have a focus on love and relationships – that’s the type of music I listen to, that’s what moves me, so I tend to write about stuff like that. For this record, I was in that zone, and I just went with it. It felt right, it felt like a strong expression of what I was feeling. I don’t want it to feel to heavy or too personal, it can be a turn off for some people. There is a compromise, I can’t be completely selfish and only perform things that currently resonate with me, because it’s not just about me when I go out on the road. There needs to be a compromise, so I’ll also play what I know people wanna hear. That way I’ll feel balanced, and I’ll feel like they’ve gotten what they were looking forward to.