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Interview: MJ Cole

We dive deep with the legendary producer on his new album
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MJ Cole has long been one of the most prominent figures in UGK and has worked with some of the biggest artists in music. Recently, he released his first large body of work in nearly 17 years - a cinematic album titled 'MJ Cole presents Madrugada'. While it might have come as a big surprise to long time fans, the album is perhaps the most honest work he's ever done. 

On top of that, another legendary figure, Sasha, has remixed one of the tracks from the album 'Sonoran', in an equally surprising, yet extremely fitting way, which you can grab here. We had a chance to speak with MJ to learn more about the album, and its process, the minimovie, and what it's been like during this lockdown. 

MJ Cole

For many artists who've been in the game for a long time, at some point in their careers, they might venture off the familiar path and create a body of work that is much different than what fans are used to. This could either be as a result of a new alias or perhaps a one-off concept album. For UGK legend MJ Cole, after nearly 3 decades in the industry, his most recent album, Madrugada, is more of an ode to his upbringing and training in classical music than a departure from the sound he's best known for.

In this episode of In Conversation, we discuss the origins of this album, the difference in approach to writing music without beats, the short film that accompanied the album, and staying productive in the midst of the global lockdown. 

Hi MJ, thanks for sitting with us today. Before we get too deep on the new album, I'd first like to start with what the past six months have looked like for you both personally and as an artist, especially with the lockdown.

Yeah, it's funny when you ask that question. I kinda go back and at times it's a little bit of a blur because of this lockdown. I'm very unaware of what day it is and things like that. If we split the last six months into pre-lockdown and post-lockdown, pre-lockdown I moved studios and was doing a lot of lead up to the album, I was working on the visual side of things. I was also doing some productions and remixes for other people.

Since the lockdown, I've still been working away. I'm lucky I can still come to my studio as I don't have to cross paths with anyone, so that's been cool. I miss working with other artists, being inspired by others, but as artists, we are fairly used to being on our own. I've focused on three things: my family, music, and riding my bike. I try to keep it simple! I think generally, I'm pretty lucky and I think I've been alright.

I think for most of us, our lifestyles haven't changed too much other than no traveling. I'm hoping we experience a sort of renaissance you know what I mean? Of fresh music and ideas. Especially since artists now have time to flesh out all those ideas in their heads.

Yeah, I think that's definitely a positive. With the advent of streaming, you constantly feel pressure to put something out, put something out, and it has a very short shelf life. I think it's been nice in some kind of way to have some kind of pause, for people to not feel so pressured to make a track every week and blah blah blah. I think my output has gone down, but the quality has gone up. I've had more time to think about things and what I'm going to do next instead of feeling like I have to get in the studio and make bangers hahaha.

Do you think that going forward, with this time you've had to focus on things like that and not having to rush music, do you think that's going to stick with you?

I hope so. I was very lucky in that this album was all ready to go. If it had been right before my album I would have been snookered. I think, on reflection, I really feel drawn towards bigger productions, bigger bodies of work. I'm definitely looking forward to doing some other album-type projects and work that stand by themselves.

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I like making albums, I like having a big space to express myself, and not feeling it has to be this or a chart-topping record, and I can really express what I want to express through the music. As you know, I haven't done an album for 15 years or whatever it's been, and I'm very proud of this album and I want to do more.

That's actually what I wanted to touch on next. It's been however many years, but the question is why now? I don't think the timing of this album could have been better since it's not club music and people can't go to clubs.

Exactly. I know from first-hand experience with DJing for 20 years that you get a vibe from playing your sets, and you make mixdown decisions and vibe decisions playing in big spaces. I always found you can get very intricate in the studio, far too intricate for a club and I learned that having big strings don't necessarily work in the club. And to go back to what you said before, yeah the timing has been perfect. I've been really lucky that it was ready to go, and had a really good team around. It felt to me as an artist like I was actually able to give back and sort of soothe some people in this time.

Yeah, I was pretty surprised by the album, as most people know you for your UKG work, and if someone hadn't been following you, they might be very surprised it was the same artist. Reimagination is for sure my favorite. What was the inspiration for creating an album like this?

I come from a classical background, and up until I was about 15, I spent every day from the age of 5 playing piano for about 3-5 hours every day, so I've always wanted to make a piano album. And you know, this opportunity came up, and I got to realize this dream. It's not like I thought I was done with dance music and wanted to move over to classical, but it's been on my mind for 20 years and it just felt like the right time to do it. So yeah, it's been great.

The making of the album started up either as a piano improvisation that I added strings too, or it started with a selection of string samples that I got from Splice or somewhere that I had laid out across my keyboard, and the track would evolve from there. You picked out Reimagination, and that was one that was kinda struggling to make the grade, so I basically decided to rip it apart and start again. I sampled all the strings and treated it like a remix. That's actually why it's called Reimagination.

The name of the album is interesting - MJ Cole presents Madrugada. Why did you call it that instead of Madrugada?

Because I wanted people to know I'm presenting an album that has a particular theme, and I didn't want people to think this was my third album, as I still have to do my third album. this is kind of like a one-off exploration. We toyed with calling it different things, and I felt that having the 'presents' just made it seem like it was much more of a one-off thing, and it's inviting you to come in and experience a bit of theater, a performance in a particular area.

Now, I'm curious how your writing process differed for this album, but also how it stayed the same?

As I said before, most of them started at the piano, but I think it was different in that I didn't feel any pressure. I decided fairly early on that there weren't going to be any vocals, any songs, there weren't going to be any beats. It was actually a bit of a blank canvas, but I was actually comfortable in that because I let the piano lead and the piano has been my closest friend for most of my life because I started with it so young. I think this album is a pretty direct reflection of me, and I think it's very revealing musically of my psyche and the way I feel about music. 

In life, there are times where we are faced with a seemingly infinite amount of work, but you're frustrated, distracted, or otherwise unfocused, yet you have deadlines to meet. Do you have any specific tools or habits that you use to regain focus and get things done?

Yeah, yeah I do. I have an hourglass that runs for 60 minutes, so quite often when I'm procrastinating, I turn my phone off and say right, I'm going to have this thing done by the time this finished. Another thing I do is stick some headphones on and it makes me focus on my work. I think if I'm ever lacking any inspiration, I go on Splice or Loopmasters and spend the day auditioning sounds.

I've been making music for so long that I've realized I'm going to have lows, and it's not going to be full-powered the whole time, and I'm cool with that. I know that it will come up again, and I will be inspired, and when I am I just need to get everything down and ride the wave of creativity as much as I can. 

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