A conversation with multi-talented producer, Linden Jay
In an age where anyone can become a viral success as an artist, we risk devaluing the worth of those who have gone through the necessary rites of passage to become true musicians. Those who care about the craft can be left behind for those who are better at creating something that’s hot for the moment. At the same time, those who invest and build an arsenal of tools for themselves, can not only create art, but also provide themselves with options for the financial stability that is so difficult to come by as a musician. A perfect example of an individual that has such an array of tools, is Linden Jay.
A sound engineer, producer and prior to a debilitating back injury, an accomplished drummer, Linden has mastered various disciplines allowing him the freedom to not starve as an artist. A scholarship at Berklee College allowed him to meet people who were as hungry as he was to succeed in music. Many of these relationships exist to this day, and despite his time there being cut short due to the aforementioned injury, he has since embarked on a diverse career. He has worked as a sound engineer, notably for one his best friends, beatboxer Reeps One, produced for the likes of Lion Babe, J Grrey and Rejjie Snow, and also started his own band, FARR, consisting of himself and LA vocalist, Roméo.
Having released his debut project last year, ‘So I Don’t Forget, Vol.1’, Linden Jay isn’t slowing down. He will be putting out his first album with FARR at the end of this year, a body of work that will focus on the crazy happenings of the world from both Linden and Roméo’s perspective. I had the chance to sit down with Linden and speak about his journey in music, his process behind ‘So I Don’t Forget, Vol.1’, his role as a counsellor to artists, mental health, and more:
Were drums your first instrument?
Yeah I started playing at ten years old. I got a scholarship to Berklee College in the United States, and that was my main instrument. Throughout school, I played a bit of guitar, I had piano lessons, had a few singing lessons… I even played saxophone in the school jazz band. My friend played drums, so I had to figure out how to get in the band (laughs), so I played the sax. I got into making beats at around sixteen years old, just very early basic level stuff… but yeah a wide variety of instruments.
What drew you to music initially?
My brother who is eleven years older than me played guitar and sang. He gave me my first opportunity. He used to play in a band with some friends, and once his drummer couldn’t make it to rehearsal, so him and his friends asked me to cover. They ended up bringing me in, so I was playing at loads of venues and festivals at the age of fourteen/ fifteen.
That must have been a great learning experience…
Yeah I learnt so much… but it was funny, because I knew I wasn’t quite good enough. They knew also but them giving me the opportunity, they knew was a great thing, so I appreciated that at the time.
Your surname is Berelowitz, what’s your background?
So I’m Jewish, both my parents are Jewish, they’re from South Africa, but they moved here in the seventies during Apartheid. I’m Lithuanian Jewish, going back quite a few generations. The earlier generation fled to South Africa, from the holocaust, and my parents grew up in South Africa and then came to UK, so we’ve just been hopping around. I think I’m pretty set in the UK though…
Yeah I was going to ask because I was wondering where the Jay came from…
So Jay is my middle name. Linden Berelowitz as an artist name doesn’t have the same ring to it (laughs), but back in school I was known as Linden B.
Linden B is a hard name though…
(Laughs) yeah I’ve got a few tracks from back in the day under the name of Linden B.
After drumming, you became a producer and sound engineer – which one came first?
Drums was my first love, and that’s what I studied but when I was at Berklee, I got quite a bad back injury. At the time it was getting a lot worse, I was pretty much unable to sit down. I came back to London for summer holidays, and was offered some opportunities for sound engineering for my mate’s band. I ended up going on tour with them as an inexperienced sound engineer and came out the other side of it as a sound engineer. If you do thirty plus shows, by the end you probably just about know what you’re doing. So that was the best university I could have had. And after that tour, I kind of settled and said, “okay, I’ve got the engineering stuff, and the music stuff” and the natural progression was to become a producer. But I still do and have done a lot of touring as a sound engineer. I work with my friend Reeps One, whose one of the world’s most renown beatboxers. He’s also my best mate, we’ve done over three hundred shows together around the world, so I’ve learnt through experience and trained my ear. It’s made my production what it is.
If someone wanted to get in to production, would you tell them to start producing or start engineering?
No, I think it just works as one big thing these days, the more you’ve got in your skillset the better. Whether that’s live sound or playing instruments or harmony or lyrics, it’s just one big melting pot. So just learn and be a sponge. That’s what I do to be honest, I just say “yes” to things and learn from doing. And that accumulates into your skillset. In this day and age, having one thing in your skillset is not a great way to make a living.
It seems like most people have more than one thing…
Yeah you have to have your side hustle, but I think personally, when I produce I’m quite fast, with ideas moving quickly. And I think that came from live sound, because when you’re doing sound live, you don’t have time to experiment. You literally have to be a sniper and sort it out, and that process worked in my favour. But there is something to be said for taking your time, but I think being able to problem solve very quickly is very useful in the studio especially when you’re with artists. You don’t want to have them sitting behind you when you’re problem solving, you want to keep the vibe moving.
Do you feel the best way to learn, is just by doing?
Yeah, I mean college is cool, but nothing compares to real life experience. Real life is the best college you can get.
Berklee is a very renown college, what was your experience like there?
The classes were cool, I learnt a lot, but I only spent two semesters there. It helped expand my knowledge, but most of my learning came from the friends that I met there. People I met like eight to ten years ago, I still keep in touch with them now, I got friends in the United States, friends all over the world, and that’s invaluable. In my year at Berklee guys I knew back then, I consider as some of the best jazz musicians alive. Touring with the likes of Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, let alone people who went on to become artists and win ‘Grammys’. So yeah, it was a good training ground, and you grow with people.
I guess steel sharpens steel if you’re around those people…
Yeah totally… I mean a really good friend of mine, Nick Hakim, hadn’t even put a song out, he was just hanging out in his bedroom, sketching ideas for his first EP. Now he’s a couple of albums deep, and he’s touring the world. He’s one of my favourite artists, but I still get to just chat to him as a mate. It’s amazing to watch people grow. Berklee was just a densely populated area of hungry musicians. Many fall off, but a small percentage just keep powering through, and do their thing. It’s amazing to watch.
Why do you think some people fall off?
Because… they can’t pay rent… and they get other jobs that they hope that they can get back to their music, but they get settled, because that job is easier and being a musician is an incredibly difficult job. If you’re in a situation where you have absolutely no financial support, and you come out of university you need to survive. So it’s really difficult. To figure out a way to make money from your art and music is incredibly difficult, but it’s also completely normal for people to have a job whilst pursuing their dream as a musician, because we’re all human beings. But it’s definitely frowned upon sometimes when you hear someone else is doing a job alongside being a musician.
When you say it’s frowned upon, do you mean from other musicians?
I feel a lot of artists are afraid to admit having another job if they’re in a serious situation like a label meeting, or with new management, because everyone wants to create the image that they’re hustling and grinding on their music all day. But it’s totally ok not to do that. I’m in the situation where, because I’ve got a wide skillset, when it does come to those moments in your life where you need to make a penny, I can do engineering, live shows, play drums for artists. I’m at the point now where I can just about do my thing, and it’s working, so I just need to keep building.
Do you feel you have a safety net?
I mean, I come from a background where my parents have always been there for me, and support everything I do, and if shit went down I wouldn’t be homeless… but I pay my own way.
You released ‘Break The Hold’ in 2013, how did that song come together?
Yeah so that was around the time I came back from Berklee. I made it with one of my friends from school, Shift K3y. We worked on that record together – it was going to come out as a Shift K3y/ Linden Jay record, but then the label situation with his label meant that it came out as just a Linden Jay record. And that was an opportunity where I just couldn’t say no. It was like “Sony want to do the record, let’s do the damn thing”, and I learnt so much from it as well.
What does that song mean for you?
That was the beginning of “oh, I can do this thing!” (Laughs) yeah it was a cool time…
You released ‘Be Like You’ a year later… I found the contrast of the message of the separate vocals on there really interesting… how did that song come together?
So the story of that tune. I did it with some guy called Sam Frank, and both the voices are actually his…
Yeah he’s amazing, so that was the first session we had. We were working on a tune for about four hours, which was cool, but he then told me, “look, I’ve got about half an hour left, open up a new project. I’m going to the bathroom, when I’m back tell me two artists you want me to imitate”. So I started building the track. I had the intro thing, then the chords. I had basic drums on it, added the bass on the chorus and it was stupid how simple it was.
And he came back and I said, “ I don’t know man, Andre 3000 and Yukimi from Little Dragon?” Straight away he came up with the rap, “drop it on the one, tell me what’s it like when you’re out there son”. And then, he started singing the “raindrops” hook. We put them down, rearranged it, and left the studio. I opened it the day after, and played it to my friend Reeps, and he was like “dude this track is crazy!” When you make a track that quickly you don’t really feel it’s like a finished product, it just sort of happened. And I still feel with that track, even though it’s old, it doesn’t have a time stamp on it.
You’ve produced some great tracks with female vocalists, like ‘Paradise’ with Alyusha, ‘God’s House’ with JGrrey… how do you build that chemistry with artists in the studio?
Ah, you just never know. Sometimes the first session could be flames. Sometimes you’re just not on the same page, it could have just been that day. I feel there’s always a way you can collaborate with someone, it’s something I pride myself on. I can always just go into a room and get a song out of anyone. You should always be able to find one parallel where you connect with someone.
You’ve never had a situation where you’ve gone into a room with someone and it didn’t work?
Yeah you have those, days, but I don’t know if it’s one of those things where you can’t work with that person, but it’s just that day it didn’t come together. I’ve had sessions where I didn’t have a song at the end of the day, but overall I’ll never have nothing to show. My job as a producer, is not just to make a new song. You’re meeting a new person, they’re coming into your studio, you’re spending eight plus hours with them. So it’s more than music, you’re connecting with someone, so even if you don’t get a song out of it, you learn something new.
That’s a good way to look at it…
Yeah, I’m a counsellor dude…
In what way?
If I’m going to spend eight hours with an artist, and we’re trying to write deep, honest lyrics, you’re probably going to go into some dark corners. So sometimes, you meet someone, and within an hour, you’re already talking about some deep stuff. I think breaking that barrier is what lets someone express honestly. There’s a quote, “as a producer you’re always trying to get someone to express their child’s picture”. So it’s like, you know when a kid draws a picture?
You’re never going to be like, “ah I don’t like it”, you’re going to be like, “ah it’s great!” Because it’s so honest, that you can’t not like it. If you can get someone to express themselves, where they’re not even trying, they just pour out their most honest feelings, that’s purely them without any barrier in between, it can’t be bad. So that’s what I’m trying to do, get an artist to paint their child’s picture, in the most honest expressive way, and that’s way more than music.
I feel by doing that, you’re going to get the best out of an artist, their raw and true self…
Yeah, I just don’t want to go in with an artist, and make a track they’ve done a million times, I want to go in and create something unique. Let’s just express purely and honestly…
So you dropped your first body of work last year, ‘So I Don’t Forget, Vol.1’, how did that come together?
The whole beat tape happened by mistake. In between working with artists, having dinner, or sending emails, I’d just open up Ableton and make random beats. Over time, I’ve just accumulated so many beats. I thought to myself if I compile them, then I could make a beat tape. Because they’d never come out! It’s all just ideas and sketches. I was talking to my friend about it, and he said “dude, put the beats out!” I was like “OK, I’m going to put it out on my own label, I’m going to do the artwork, I’m going to mix and master it myself”, I need to do it for myself, and I did it! There’s a couple of collaborations, but the fundamentals are done by myself. It’s like a little diary…
As a listener, what do you want someone to get from the beat tape?
I think before I put it out, people didn’t know that I made beats upon beats. And I just needed to let people know, that I’m prolific as a producer. I’ve got loads of beats, and volume two will be coming soon.
Will volume two be a similar concept?
Yeah it will be… I think the ‘So I Don’t Forget’ series, is just a day in the life, and a medium for me to put stuff out. Another objective of the beat tape, was to make beats available to publishers and labels. So instead of sending them now, they’re just on my Spotify (laughs). And I can also get streams if they listen. But there are also beats on there that people have written over. I’ve got a tune on there with Will Heard, and there’s a few other artists in America that have used them. But I hope over the next few years, the ideas I have which I put on to beat tapes can become songs.
Why did you decide to put voice notes on the beat tape?
The beat tape is just full of little sound bites and memories. For example, the voicenote on ‘Real Friends’ is my friend Tuin. He’s like my biggest fan, I love that guy. He just fully backs me, and he was just shouting on the recording. So my friend sent me the vn, and it put a smile on my face. I was going to put a little snippet, but then thought, “you know what? I’m just gonna put on the whole damn thing!” (Laughs). And then it mixes in nicely to ‘Hot Damn’.
How come that particular voicenote transitions into ‘Hot Damn’?
I just decided to put it there and it mixes in really nicely. It just had a nice tone. That whole thing just came from me experimenting. I’ve got loads of voice notes saved down into a folder, and when it came around to making the beat tape, I went through and found funny and relevant ones. Once the beat tape was lined up, I’d added the ‘vns’ in because it made the project feel more like a memory. And yeah, some just fit in, there are some funny moments. It’s literally like a diary. It feels very honest.
Moving on to your band, FARR, Roméo is based in LA. In your view, what makes him worth the extra effort it takes to work with someone overseas?
There are not many people I’d rather just hang out with, and make a song with. We’re both just on the same page as far as our process goes. We work a lot together over WhatsApp and Skype, that’s actually how we wrote ‘Blades’, and our early songs. I’ve been in LA for a month with him, but our album is pretty much done. He’s the man basically.
Is there a concept to the album?
Yeah it’s called ‘Accepting The Madness’, and it’s our perspective on all the crazy, dark stuff going on and how we flip that into positivity. It’s quite uplifting but lyrically it’s very relevant to our perspective on how we get through our day to day life with all this crazy stuff going on right now.
When you say crazy stuff, what do you mean?
Just in the media… and rather than turning a blind eye, we kind of accept it for what it is, and let it wash over us, and turn that into art and express that. It has a big effect… like all the things you see in the news right now, is affecting everyone. The world’s on fire right now… so a lot of the lyrics, speak on our perspective on the world right now.
Do you feel musicians have a responsibility to talk about that stuff?
Yeah whether it’s directly or just harness that energy. For me, I’m not the strongest lyricist. I get involved, and I’m part of it, but I have so much to say without words, and that’s why I do what I do. And that energy of the pain and struggle of everyone in the world, and that weight is heavy on me. And I feel I translate that into my music, whereas Roméo is better at expressing that in words.
You mentioned your parents left South Africa, was that because of Apartheid?
Yeah, my parents had an interesting time growing up as white people in Apartheid. They were fully aware of what was going on, but at the same time, they were sheltered to it. And when my dad went uni, he demonstrated against it, he got beat up by the police-
Yeah, still to this day, he has a bit of regret for not staying, because a lot of his friends, went really hard on the anti apartheid movement and set up societies, some ended up in jail. So my parents came here… I’d like to say they fled but, my dad doesn’t really like to feel that’s what he did. He wish he stayed to fight against apartheid for longer… but it’s hard man! There’s no, one answer…
Do you feel that’s where your need to speak on certain issues comes from?
No, not necessarily that, I just feel like the day to day, of all the stuff you hear about, and friends’ personal situations. It’s inevitable that life has its ups and downs, we’re just trying to write a real album for real people, that’s not a shiny, glossy version of the world. We want it to be real and tangible.
In music, I feel as a profession, there’s a massive financial strain to begin with, and you’re in the studio all day – do you think there’s enough awareness around mental health?
It can be incredibly lonely… people have this mindset that it’s all glitz and glam, but… you see the back of a van, a smelly green room in the back of a venue, you see a hotel room and then you have an hour of the most amazing experience when you do the shows, but it can be really hard for some people. I know some people I work with closely, who have a really hard time. And especially because you’re constantly expressing, it can be very draining. But you have to balance that, and again, I’m a human first, not a musician. So I take the time, to spend time with family, call the people I care about, go to the gym, and try and be a regular human being. Balance is really important.
Have you always been like that?
You learn over time, by no means have I got the balance perfect yet. It helps to avoid burning out. You have periods where you’re working more, and there’s loads going on, but there comes a point, where you have to respect yourself, and schedule in rest.
How has it been dealing with the stress of creating an album?
There’s been a lot going on. Video-shoots, photoshoots, podcast stuff, finishing the music, mixing, mastering. I’m on calls every day at the moment, it’s just hectic. But I wouldn’t ask for anything else… I just want the album to connect in the best way possible. We’ve put so much heart and soul into this project, and I really feel people will relate to it, but that will only happen if people hear it. So we need to do all of this, so they can hear it (laughs). You just gotta to be clever as well. A tune could blow up for two weeks, and then disappear. We could be chasing hits but we’re trying to build a long lasting career, where we can be varied in what we put out. We want to create all different types of art as fashion moves around us. As long as we do it in our way, that’s the important thing. So yeah we’ve always got our ears open to what’s going on, but you need to do your thing. You need to do it for yourself and not make music that you think other people will like.
How do you fight off the pressure to people please?
It’s just a balance. Every day you’re tipping your balance, and trusting in your taste. Even if your management or label are pushing something, if it’s not in your taste, it’s not going to be made. It has to be true to you. But you can take inspiration from different places and use that to do what they want, but it has to be true to you. Every day, I’m making sure what I’m doing is within my taste. The way I deal with sessions is, if I don’t want to do it tomorrow, I don’t do it. I want to wake up everyday excited by what I’m working on.
That’s a sick way to approach it, it’s very Steve Jobs-esque
Well I just don’t want to wake up and be like “arrggh” (laughs), so yeah, I just try to stay excited and inspired.
As a producer, or an artist, what is making it for you?
It’s all relative. For some people, making it, is making loads of money to afford a private jet. For others it’s looking after their parents when they get old. Whatever it is to you. For me, making it, is being respected by the people I want to respect me. And moving forward in a career where I’m not trapped in a box, and can freely express myself, and sustain myself financially. That’s the absolute dream. Being able to make any music I want, and being able to have money so I can live life as a normal human being without having to eat beans on toast every day. Which inevitably you go for, that’s the labour of love to succeed. I was talking to Barney Artist, he’s a rapper, we were talking about success, and what it means to everyone, and how different it is to everyone. Like if you get your publishing deal, are you going to buy gold glasses or are you going to be clever about it. And each to their own, journey of life is different for everyone. Do your thing.
Read more from Tashan Patel @tashan.patel26