Justin Raisen’s name has felt inescapable as of late. Like many, I first became aware of his work as a writer and producer with Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, where he co-wrote every song. This fall, when Kim Gordon released her debut solo single, “Murdered Out,” it also bore Raisen’s credit. Perhaps most intriguingly, Raisen paired with Angel Olsen earlier this year to co-produce her filmic masterpiece, My Woman.
Over the course of our sprawling phone conversation, it became clear to me why artists—like Santigold, Kylie Minogue, and Charli XCX, with whom he co-wrote half of True Romance—might be attracted to Raisen. He is eccentric and electric, prone to spirited stream-of-consciousness monologues on topics such as the conspiracy of radio, ’70s krautrock, and the virtues of golfing. Discussing methods he’s used in recording, he mentions Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” deck, “power manifestation,” and the Self-Realization Fellowship center near his home in L.A. In fact, Raisen came to collaborate with Gordon only after he and the singer-songwriter Lawrence Rothman experimented with chanting her name. “As you can see,” Raisen says, “I’m super heavy on energy.” (That Raisen and I are both natives of Massapequa, N.Y. was but another cosmic force at work.)
It’s this alchemy—West coast free-spiritedness and a no-bullshit New York edge—that makes Raisen magnetic. His productions keep things raw; indeed, he has a project with Ariel Pink called Raw Deal. He speaks reverently of everyone from Bowie to Royal Trux to Sinatra to Sinead O’Connor. Growing up, he won karaoke contests singing “I Am the Walrus.” Several times, he wonders aloud, “What the fuck is pop?” The seed for this work was planted back in 2004, when a then-21-year-old Raisen met Ariel Rechtshaid, who fostered his songwriting and producing—but Raisen’s still asking this question, and stretching its answers.
His collaborations with Gordon are ongoing, and his solo project, True Happiness, is forthcoming—a single debuts here. “I thought the name was almost like Nirvana,” Raisen says. “The whole idea is, ‘true happiness comes from within,’ like, your thoughts. It’s going to sound like Jackson Pollock audio.”
True Happiness: “#” (via SoundCloud)
Below, we discuss Raisen’s background, making My Woman sound like “a milkshake,” and what it means to really “get it.”
Pitchfork: You’re from Long Island—were you involved with the emo or hardcore scenes there?
Justin Raisen: I grew up playing in a pop-punk/emo thing. I would play with bands like the Anniversary and the Get Up Kids. People refer to me as “Justin Raisen, pop producer guy,” but I like so many kinds of music. At one point this guy from Capitol Records wanted to manage my band—he said, “you're going to write five songs a week and send them to me, and I'm going to tell you what I think.” I did that for like 60 weeks. We agreed on 12 songs for the record, and the person producing it was Ariel [Rechtshaid]. From day one, we were weird brothers.
How did you start writing and producing for other people?
My band Tall Hands was this deadpan three-piece without a drummer—Ariel Pink has heard it and been like, “This shit’s crazy.” Once that band broke up, I started working more with Ariel [Rechtshaid]. He started to write with artists, and I started to write songs for him that could possibly be used in his projects. He actually—out of his own pocket, for a good year and a half—funded me to write because he believed in me. I feel like I had something. I just hear shit.
It started with Sky as far as production and continues to catapult. I'm from New York, so I just don't give a fuck. I don’t mind giving anyone a fucking holler. I want to get in touch right now with Kanye about some shit, and if I had his phone number, I’d call him.
He would appreciate your anarchic spirit.
The first thing I wrote down when I woke up this morning was, “we’re addicted to being told what we want.” People keep calling Sky and Santigold and Charli XCX “pop,” but I don't know, man. It’s short-sighted to say they are all making the same kind of music—they’re nothing alike. I don't have a lot of money, so if this is “pop,” then please, give me a house. With Santi, I was like, “I'm going to make a weird Slits punk song with her.” And Charli is such a great writer—I've known her since she was 16, this young kid who was so fucking talented. I remember driving with her to Cinespace to play to four people.
It's difficult to listen to yourself. That's why I'm not working on any more records where I can smell A&R being heavily involved—go fuck yourself. The artist’s vision—and their actual sounding board, whether it be their mom or their brother or lover—are plenty of confusions already. I'll make a record with an artist, but I'm not making a record with your handler babysitter. I can't help but only work on things that I feel I can fuck up. I like to bring a bent shape. I guess I'm a rebel, but it makes me cringe even watching the VMAs.
Do you resent it when people call you a pop producer?
No, I just get a kick out of it. But also, it's 2016. What the fuck is pop, man? I have no clue. Is pop trap? Trap is pop. The Rihanna record is pop. Pop is not even pop anymore. Pop is now experimental. Experimental is now pop. I wore Adidas jumpsuits every day while making the Angel record—I said, “I’ll be wearing fucking jumpsuits to intensify that I'm supposed to be this pop dude.” And the first day, I'm just going to act like myself.
I am kind of a method songwriter-producer. If someone comes over to a writing session with me, I'm not going to sit there and pull up a beat and go, “you like?” I'm going to have a two-hour psychology appointment. We're going to have therapy together first. I have to know what the fuck's going on if the shit’s going to mean anything. I'm really keen to find out what a person has gone through, their philosophy on life and how they feel about the modern world and what’s happening.
A producer once told me, “every session I do starts with a conversation about the first Ramones record.” Are there any records like that for you?
I’m a Bowie freak—it’s Low. Sky and I had conversations about it—and White Light/White Heat. I grew up on John Lennon and the Velvet Underground. That’s how I learned to write pop songs.
Lyrically, what inspires you?
I always liked the fact that Kurt Cobain was talking about several things at once, and some things didn't make any sense, but did to him. And lyrics like Kim Gordon’s—[sings “Swimsuit Issue”] “Don't touch my breast!” Shit that’s odd and off-putting but so straightforward. I've recently been reading David Byrne’s lyrics. He’s a pointer. As he says things, it’s like he is pointing at an object. When I'm writing lyrics, I’m like, “We've got to point right now.”
There needs to be at least three layers to a song emotionally. It’s like Bowie talking about “Ground Control to Major Tom”—he wasn't writing a little astronaut book kid’s story. He was talking about some serious shit. The reason that song floats through time is because there were layers. No layers, no length of time [a song stays relevant]. All these labels have a problem of thinking annually because they're holding onto the music industry and how fucked up it is.
Do you have any other songwriting rituals?
I believe in the power of believing. If you believe you're going to get sick, you're going to get sick. If you believe you can’t get better, you're not going to get better. Lawrence [Rothman] and I literally used to go together out loud [chanting], Kiiiiiimmmm, Kiiiiiim in a Kim Gordon voice. Because we wanted to do something with Kim. Then it happened!
So how did you come to work with Kim Gordon?
Well, we yelled Kiiiim a lot, chanting her name—we're doing the Kim Kim Kim Kim thing. One night, my younger brother Jeremiah was out to dinner with a girl and they realized Kim Gordon was sitting next to them. They got to talking about Sky Ferreira and Jeremiah said, “my brother produced that record.” She said, “oh I liked that album. I have heard of him,” something to that effect. Jeremiah called me. I was like, “there is some energy that I'm right about here,” so I tweeted at her. We met up in L.A. and talked on a porch. Kim Gordon is a real success because her whole life she has done what the fuck she wants. She said [“Murdered Out”] is one of the more accessible songs she’s done—which, again, call me a pop producer, baby. It’s like I’m the Dr. Dre of trash. I’m making these fucked up ideas that Kim comes and raps over in her own way, playing extra guitars.
Kim Gordon and Angel Olsen are not the types of artists you imagine working with a co-producer in a super collaborative way, maybe because they are such singular writers.
With the Angel record, it was the first time I ever produced something that I didn't co-write on. I said, “Angel, dude, I’m here to be your spiritual guide—I just want your record to sound like a milkshake, man.” One of my main goals was to keep everybody happy. I like to focus on positive reinforcement. When I'm inspired by someone, I want them to feel good about their work. People are going to perform at anything better if there's something bright about the situation. Even if the content is dark, you need a light to guide you through the abyss.
How do you keep people happy?
Talk to them about their lives. Ask them what's wrong. I’m trying to x-ray the whole situation. With Angel, we would constantly go buy candy, like gummy bears and Sour Patch Kids. They started to call me “Gummy Bear.” I also danced my ass off for two weeks in a jumpsuit in the control room. I was like, “dim those lights, feel sultry, capture the energy.” From the get-go, it was a spiritual experience: “We're going to capture this moment in time, and it’s going to spin on until time ends.”
Besides the initial Kim connection, how did the Sky record change things for you?
That whole year , I was in such a bad way. I have had a couple of real abyss moments in my life—people with anxiety and panic attacks will understand—it’s called derealization. It's where you can't believe, or don't understand, why you're here. It's that feeling you get when you're too stoned and you don't want to be—but for all hours, every day, without being stoned.
What saved my life that year was, I happened to win some cheesy commercial. It was enough money to not work for a couple months. I literally golfed. I golfed my ass off for nine months to the point that I was like, nasty. I feel like I found God out there. My wife would be like, “are you going to use that new studio?” I was like, “don't worry, this is going to make everything happen—trust me.” Then the Sky thing happened.
Sky is cool, man. Sky just acts like Sky all the time. She’s confusing and complex and she fucking gets it. Angel said that on the phone to me: “I told my band you get it.”
What do you feel like “it” is?
It is something to do with the abyss. It’s something to do with the journey of people who know what the industry is on the surface, and understand what it really is, how it’s controlled. A lot of things are conspiracies, like the radio. Every day, social media—I can't fucking do it. In 2020, I want to run a campaign called “Social Suicide,” in which I get Kanye to be like, “Signing off—last tweet, bro.”
It’s also about taste—knowing different genres, and making a connection on an emotional, lyrical level more than anything. It’s all based around trying to make a difference in some way—instead of just being another follower. That’s my biggest fear. Basically “getting it” is looking a little below the surface of Sunday’s BBQ and actually digging deeper into thinking.
A lot of what I call “pop” is so in your face, so easy to understand—it's not introspective. I just want people to think a little more for themselves. Use your own ideas and your own rationale to make opinions about yourselves and the world we’re living in. It can be done in pop music—in straight-up Top 40 music, songs can be written. It sounds so self-serious, but for me it’s boring otherwise.