As the cliché goes, a talented artist can make their work look easy. Most successful works of art, then– anything from albums to paintings and photographs– belie the huge amount of effort and skill that went into their creation. This might stem from the idea that showing too much of the maker’s hand demystifies the process, and therefore risks ruining the magic of art. That distance is especially important when it comes to music– for most genres anyway, maintaining a separation between the audience and the performer, both physical and psychologically, is an essential part of the experience.
But the Grammy-nominated, Brooklyn-based musician, J. Views (aka Jonathan Dagan), wanted to see what would happen when he breached that fourth wall by way of a “multidimensional player” called The DNA Project, what he describes as “a real-time process that happened over 401 days, in which I shared every piece of each one of the songs as they came about.”
In anticipation of J. Views’s resulting new album, the aptly-named 401 Days, we’re premiering the music video for “Into the Light” right here on B+B (see above). Views also took some time off from preparing for the release show (Thursday May 19 at Rough Trade) to speak to us about the all-encompassing and super confessional process of his experiment in the fine art of fine-art over-sharing.
Listeners who chose to follow J. Views on the project’s web portal were given behind-the-scenes access to his songwriting process, a play-by-play of the experiences, people, and places that provided the inspiration for both the lyrics and instrumentals found on “401 Days”– collectively, what Views refers to as “the documentation.” But Dagan did more than “just uploading a bunch of photos on Instagram.” Instead, throughout the making of the album (out May 20), he painstakingly recorded videos, snapped photos, and collected visual interpretations of what he was thinking about when he wrote the songs, unfurling each creative thread that makes up the intricate tapestry of the 13-track album.
Music, especially, becomes whittled down during the recording process, and is full of allusions and poetic brevity. For listeners, figuring out what the songwriter is getting at can be a lot of guesswork. For the artist, meaning might get lost in the shuffle. Instead, “401 Days” bridges that gap in understanding. “A project like this gives new life to the creative process because there are so many parts to anything that you make,” Dagan explained. “And I think there’s true artistic value to those pieces, it’s not just the final product that has artistic value. And it’s just a shame not to be able to release those pieces in the final context of your work.”
Dagan also asked his fans to participate in the process– something that reminded us of Eternal Lips’s “Custom Melodies” project– by adding in their own creative interpretation of Dagan’s experiences. Listeners could comment on social media, sure, but “401 Days” went above and beyond the usual fan/artist back-and-forth. Occasionally, when Dagan would upload parts of songs (completed ones went up approximately once a month), followers could download clips and rework them, or upload their own remixes and additions to the site. “I started the project with not a single song written,” Dagan explained. “It was a beautiful, beautiful connection with the people who listen to my music. I got to show them and share with them something that was very, very intimate and private to me. That ended up affecting the music on the album. It was a very revealing process.”
“The DNA Project” also inspired J. Views’ fans to create completely separate art pieces of their own. One listener offered a bit of advice to Dagan during the recording process of “A Note,” an ethereal multilayered ambient-pop track that bursts into a full-on dance song by the end. “Trust what you don’t know and go for it,” the fan wrote. Months later, Dagan received a message from the guy. “He said that he was was so inspired by the song that he built a motorcycle and went on a 10,000-mile journey across America.” The result was an “amazing video,” that took advantage of J. Views’s open-source sharing approach, and used “A Note” as the soundtrack. “When I was working on my song, I didn’t even know the guy was starting to work on his video,” Dagan said. “But my DNA was his DNA at that point, he was affected by the same things.”
Of course, some fans were more involved than others. But Dagan was curious to see if developing a closer relationship with his audience overall could result in an extended life for each song. “I was about to release a single and I couldn’t believe I was going to put just a three-minute audio segment on Spotify or wherever without telling the story of the song,” he recalled. “An album is different now– you release it, it makes a little bit of noise, and then that’s it. Today, it matters, but tomorrow this piece of music will not matter that much, as opposed to the arena bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, who were making epic, for-eternity, forever songs.”
At the same time, we’re becoming increasingly more connected to the unfolding moment, the here-and-now by way of social media and live streaming. People are demanding play-by-plays of news events as they unfold, and live-tweeted reviews of TV shows are as commonplace as announcers yelling out the action at a football game. Even Dr. Klaw, the underground lobster delivery man, is making a comeback by way of a “choose-your-own-adventure” show broadcast live on Periscope in which his followers will essentially be in God-mode throughout the journey. And, if things couldn’t get any more meta– to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Navy Seal assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the CIA tweeted a step-by-step replay of the raid.
“I feel like the experience of music and art in general is much more connected to the right-now,” Dagan said. “It’s like, ‘This is where I am, this is who I am, and this is the art that comes out of that right now,’– and that’s basically it.”
Dagan’s found yet another way to combat the ephemerality of digitally-bound songs and the temporary nature of websites (which either disappear or become obsolete and unusable, or ironic web-1.0 jokes), by releasing a 40-page book of the visual elements of 401 Days.
But he agreed that fans demand a greater transparency these days, more so than ever before. “I think that’s a transition that I was feeling a little bit,” he admitted. “It’s a beautiful thing, it’s hard to swallow at first, but it’s eventually a beautiful form of connection.” Instead of making a fuss about the increasing ephemerality of his work and the greater pressure to make more and more music at a faster rate (it’s soooo “Dance monkey! Dance!”), he embarked on this “401 Days experiment,” and simply quit when he felt like it became too much– which it definitely did at a certain point. “It’s not that I wanted to have more content, it’s just that I had more content and I wanted to release content that’s not necessarily releasable in a way,” he said.