EDEN Lives in His Memories on Latest Album ‘ICYMI’
Singer, songwriter, and producer EDEN, aka Jonathan Ng, has released his new full-length album ICYMI and to say it's epic is an understatement. The project is a sonic odyssey through loss and life, dovetailed by EDEN's effortless welding of genres between electronic, R&B, and something else entirely his own.
ICYMI deftly weaves between euphoric dance beats, ambient field recordings, and an unshakeable sense of urgency as EDEN catapults towards catharsis. EDEN said on the album, “This project is an attempt to catalog ephemerality. Thinking about time and place, and how the definitive moments of an existence are wrapped in each and consigned to memory. How they manifest and echo again and again, the same threads weaving to the fore and back again.”
Ones To Watch had the opportunity to chat with the multifaceted artist about the bittersweet record, the deconstruction of pop music, and how memory plays a role in the album's creation.
Ones To Watch: When you first started making ICYMI, did you set out to make an album or did it all just fall into place?
EDEN: No, I definitely knew I wanted to make it. I don't know why, but I always have the titles of the projects before any of the music. So I knew this would be in case you missed it from before I was working on the music, maybe in 2019, and then I started working on the music in 2020. So I think I always knew I was making an album, but the question was, "what is the album?" And it is a process of, to some degree, trial and error, or like exploring certain parts or directions and realizing what connects and what doesn't.
What does the title ICYMI mean to you? How does it relate to the story or the overall concept of the record?
I think it came from a place of... I mean, for me, it has a lot of different faces or dimensions to it. I think originally, it came from a place of feeling I had-I guess because of how things took off for me musically, I really lost connection with a lot of the friends I grew up with, which is kind of a normal thing. I feel like most people go through that to some degree. Like the people you went to school with, you all split up and do your thing. And so I guess I think it started from a point of wanting to catalog my experience and my life and the things that kind of, you know, you have these kinds of moments or memories that just burn into your brain and stick with you and wanting to catalog that. From a place of like, love for it, but also knowing that it's not like...everything that's good has some shittiness in it, and everything that's bad has a silver lining, you know, and I like trying to be kind of realistic about it. I think when you talk to most people, they wouldn't take back anything they've done or said. I mean I'm not saying across the board it's that way, but in a lot of cases because, I think even the things you mess up or the things that kind of suck build you and sort of build you to where you are in a way, and I don't think people want to try to give that up. So kind of started from a place of wanting to like catalog everything and just look at it for what it was and appreciate it for what it was, whether that was something that was really positive or something really difficult. And it kind of transformed for me in a lot of ways. The album went through a lot of different phases. I think I thought it was finished twice or three times before the final version and kind of just scraped it and started again. There's a nice kind of future tense inflection, too, similar to the cataloging or archiving idea. But it's more like, "If at some point you miss this, this is how it really was," rather than straight up say "these things happened" interpretation of it that you would get from an in case you missed email or some shit.
Right, so it's the difference between telling you the story and being a recap to catch the listener up.
Yeah, 100%. It's much more interested in capturing the essence of what happened rather than the exact pragmatic details or sequence of events or whatever. Nothing's telling you a classic country or blues story: "My wife left, and my dog died. Now I've got the blues," or whatever. It's finding a lot of memories and things that are meaningful and kind of weaving common threads throughout. A big part of the album is kind of the interpolation of time and jumping from memory to memory, so it's definitely not a story album in a classical sense.
The way you described the jumping from memory to memory reminds me of the movie Mr. Nobody for some reason.
I definitely take a lot of influence from cinema and movies. I definitely felt Christopher Nolan-esque in bending time the way I did.
What about movies inspires you, and how does that translate into your work?
I'm just very interested in people and what motivates people. Movies are like a window into that. You're watching, maybe fictitious or based on real life, a person put in a certain situation, and you learn about them and how they deal with whatever challenges they're facing. They learn about themselves, and if it's a good film, I guess, they grow. I don't know. I'm just super interested in it. There's also an incredible degree of suspension of disbelief you can achieve with cinema. I guess it's because it's visual and aural as well because with music, you can listen to something, but your eyes are wandering around, and your brain is on two things at once. So I guess cinema captures your whole attention and you can be moved by movies in a really powerful way. I'm not saying that music can't do the same, but I think there's definitely a feeling of possibility in films and almost grandeur. Even in films that would be obsessively small, like a two-character drama or something, it still feels like a wealth of possibilities and, I don't know, that just really resonates with me and always has.
Since this record doesn't have a linear story and hops from memory to memory, how did you construct the album's tracklist into what it is now? Is that something you put a lot of thought into, or is it a more nonchalant decision?
I don't think there was a lot of foresight when it came to the construction. I didn't sit down and design and say, "I want to hit this emotion, these notes and like someone's gonna laugh here and someone's gonna cry here," it was definitely more of an organic approach. "A Call" was essentially a poem I'd written, and it slowly morphed into the idea of recording it and using it as a spoken word piece. That song is this "narrative thread," if you could call it that, weaving between a bunch of different memories and finding commonality between memories that could be quite unrelated on the surface. It's kind of like finding the same feeling or sentiment or emotion from these different memories that could have been caused from so many different things and how that kind of echoes.
Something I was also thinking about a lot is the way we like take in information or new experiences or just live life. You immediately put whatever happens to you in context and in relation to everything you've experienced before. That's how we learn and how you take in new information. So let's say later today someone jumps out of a bush and screams at you or something like that, that is immediately put into your brain, into this filing cabinet of all these similar jumpscare experiences. So while they might all be very different and from very different times, that's how you process it as like, "Oh shit," and subconsciously, your brain is like, the last time that happened, I reacted this way or this felt like this. That's a very shit and unrealistic and on-the-nose example, but like, someone makes you feel a way like, I don't know, maybe that's just me, but I feel like it echoes. That's my experience or cognition of things, or how I come to terms and understand everything is to try removing past experiences and inflections on what's happening now to a degree. Like, don't let your past essentially color what's happening right now?
Do you feel like your songwriting process has stayed relatively the same, or do you feel like as you've grown as an artist, now releasing your fourth record, your approach has also evolved?
Oh, 100%. I started writing songs on piano or guitar, starting with a much more classic approach where everything is very structured. I think I definitely went through a process of deconstructing that. My first kind of obsession with music was pop music when I was a kid. I think that will always be a big feature and how I arrived, but I guess 2018, 2017, I really started to deconstruct and explore different ways of arranging things. Like, what happens if the chorus only happens once or what if it only happens once and then the second time it's muffled and things like that. So I feel like I dipped very into experimentation in terms of songwriting, and now it's kind of the pendulum swinging back the other way. This album feels like the songwriting is becoming more structured in an easier to grasp way than it has been for a little while. So I don't know. I think I definitely went from being a very songwriting first kind of method of writing to becoming a very production-focused or experimental kind of way, and it's now coming back after having explored that so now I maybe feature both in a way that makes a lot more... I don't know. This definitely feels like the strongest stuff I've ever made, so I feel like I've learned from being deep in the weirdness and I've come back and everything makes more sense, I think. It links up in a stronger and synergetic way that just improves everything.
The music videos you've released for the singles, I feel, have this strong synergy as well, and it feels like you took great care in the world-building for them. What was your thought process behind taking your songs and transforming them into these deeply engaging accompanying visuals?
That's something I was working on for a long time. The people I worked with on the visuals and the whole creation of the album spoke about it very in-depth, especially the world-building. For me, there is a big sense of world-building in the music, and a lot of the sounds imply different spaces, and there are field recordings from different places to convey what the music kind of feels like or is trying to convey for me and to help expand on that. So we really went very deep on creating a world's framework to make these videos within so all the characters exist in the same universe. The videos are still unfolding, so I don't want to spoil too much, but we really went hard on creating this kind of universe and building out what's happening in a grand sense in this universe, to then completely ignore it and really just focus on people. As I said at the start, I'm just so interested in people, and so it was this idea of, in the face of some kind of catastrophe, I don't want to speak too much on what we're actually doing and what the actual idea was because the videos hopefully will bring people there by themselves when they're all finally out, but like how different people kind of react to this and what are the small, powerful moments that come as a result of something like that. So I guess the byline for the whole thing became, how do you play the game when you've not been dealt a hand at all?
I think one of my favorite songs on the album is "Waiting Room." I feel like it does a brilliant job of sonically capturing the essence of liminal spaces, but then suddenly, this sample advertising Smash Mouth snaps you out of it almost. When it comes to using samples as a creative motif in your body of work, do you have a process for finding the perfect sample, or is it again a more organic and nonchalant decision?
Yeah, so that also isn't really a process either. I just consume a lot of media, like film, TV, films, interviews, that kind of thing. But that sample I adore. But yeah, it's also organic. I'm not making a song and thinking I need to go find a sample that makes it feel like something specific. Something just really resonates with me. I think the ethos of it, there's something that sampling audio, whether it's a field recording that I've done, I don't know. I've recorded my friends talking, I've recorded an Uber driver going into a massive rant before, and sometimes it is just real life shit. There's something about someone speaking, even just the noise in the background of them speaking about whatever they're speaking about, that can inflict so much emotionality, world-building or space, or just pure sentiment. It doesn't even have to be a snippet that really makes sense. I think there are some French and some Hindi samples on this album that I don't expect anyone to understand. Like, I know what it means, and that means a lot to me, and that's why it's there, but I don't expect a listener to somehow transcribe it and translate it. Like, I guess, if you know, you know, but even in not knowing, how it's spoken, there's so much carried in how someone speaks and hearing the noise of what's around them, and it really just expands upon what I'm trying to get across in a song in a way that pure music can't. It's like moving from 2D to 3D for me.
Do you have a favorite sound that you love to use in sampling or feel like there's an underrated sound that people don't appreciate?
In film it's called foley, which is just the atmospheric sound of a room or a place. I've been doing that for a long time. To me, it feels like it lifts the lid off of a track or production. It comes in many forms. If it's like rain, or you can hear a breeze or some bird song, or you hear some traffic. But yeah, I like those kinds of recordings.
Cliche question, but what is your favorite song on the record?
I don't really have a favorite song. I mean "Call Me Back" is definitely the heart of the album. But, I think at the moment, the songs I feel the most are "Reaching 2" and "Closer 2," but I don't know if that constitutes. It's like having a favorite child. They're all just different and so you love them all, equally, but differently.
How do you, in your evolving songwriting process, work through songwriting challenges or situations where you feel stuck or lost?
That's kind of a never-ending thing. [laughs] It depends on the situation. There are a lot of different ways that you can try to kind of alleviate that. Sometimes, just getting away is super important, clearing your head and focusing totally on something else. Music is something that's on my mind, from when I wake up to when I go to sleep, and sometimes I dream about it, so getting headspace away from it can be really important sometimes. I mean, it's not even about getting away from music. It's about getting away, like maybe you've thought about whatever you're doing too singularly. So sometimes it's about saying, "Okay, let's pause this," and do something just wildly different, like the most different thing you can do.
What's the first "most different thing you can do" that comes to mind?
It depends on what I'm stuck on. Try and make the weirdest synth noise you have. You can remix a song or do a cover version of a song. Anything that you can just go and focus on for a bit. The funny thing about at least creating, in my experience, is all of these little things that you might start and not finish. Let's say I started this idea, and I'm not really liking where it's going. It doesn't feel that exciting or that good, so I kind of just leave it there and then a week, a month, a year, or even a number of years later, I'll be working on something else and be like, "Oh, shit, you know, this really needs that random thing from this thing I didn't finish from five years ago or five days ago. So there's literally nothing you can do within your practice that kind of goes unused or is without merit. You hear artists talking, kind of pompously at times, about everything you consume coming out in your art. So, whether it's what you're thinking about in the day or whatever, literally everything comes out. So in the same way, everything you make moves you towards something in some way, even if the thing you're making is the polar opposite end of where you think you're going. It's all beneficial. Sorry for the long-winded answer. I hope that makes sense.
One of my favorite music moments on the record is on the song "Elsewhere." You have this big opus kind of moment where there's a giant amalgamation of sounds and then all of a sudden it stripped down into more organic instrumentation, taking something really grand to very intimate. Is there a music moment on this album has that really stuck with you?
That's up there for me, for sure. I think the weird thing for me is, I made all of it, so I love that moment and I love so many of them and it sometimes it can be weird and self-aggrandizing. At the end of "Reaching 2," I don't know something about the chorus and the way the song ends that's something really special. It's just, oh my god, I'm trying to say this without making it a giant cliche of a sentence. There's something about the chords, lyrics, and melody, and there are a lot of peripherals and things happening. It really gets to some kind of place that, I don't know, I find I kind of want to live in. Like when I listen to the album, I'll get to the end, and I'll just play the last song five times in a row. So yeah, there's something about that, at least at the moment. The thing that sticks out to me the most are the things that I gravitate to or it feels the most satisfying.
What song are you most excited for people to listen to that isn't a single?
"Call me back" probably although we did these anniversary shows at the end of last year and sort of this year, so there's live versions of that on the internet as well. So people kind of know what's coming. All of the tracks I feel, even in the smaller, more interlude pieces like "Waiting Room" or "Durhvida," I'm just really interested to see what people make of it. We're doing these listening parties at the moment and it wasn't until I sat down in Dublin listening party, which was the first one, we were having an interview and playing the music and talking about it. I was like, "Oh shit. This is kind of weird music." [laughs] Especially in certain moments. Like the moment in "Elsewhere," just before it goes to the acoustic guitar it's like very dissonant and there are some gnarly synthesizer things going on. So for me, it feels obvious and like a no-brainer and like everything makes sense. But yeah, it wasn't until the listening parties that I realized that other people will approach this from a wildly different standpoint. So I'm curious and excited to see what people make of everything.
Talking for a bit about the future, as an artist who has been very open to experimentation and dwelling in a space of creative freedom, is there anything you haven't tried that you would maybe want to experiment with?
I don't think there's anything that's like, "Oh, I haven't done like a metal song." I don't really think about experimentation like that. This feels like probably the most experimental the music has been and it just feels really fresh, but it also is definitely the most concise it's been for a while, and so that feels really exciting. That kind of blend of pushing buttons and pushing, hopefully, some boundaries or crossing or stepping on either side of boundaries, that kind of thing. I feel a lot happier with making more things that are more and more pop adjacent now, which I didn't really want to do for a minute, which is why I got very deconstructed for a couple years, or a few projects. So yeah, that feels like a very exciting prospect to me of taking this album as a basis point, or like a place to leapfrog or to step off from and having it be as weird or as broad and diverse, or even more, I guess intentionally structured.
Where did that hesitancy of being more pop adjacent come from?
When I first I changed my artist name to EDEN and released music, and people asked what I did, I just said pop music. And that's where it began, even though the first project End Credits is pop music, it's weird. It blends all of these genres and stuff and then the next project, I Think You Think Too Much of Me was like a workaround. When I made End Credits, it felt like this crazy moment of everything lining up with how I felt and what I loved about music and art and it all came together and I could really describe it. The problem was after that, I didn't know how to. I wasn't doing anything that felt quite as together or as strong and so the next project was kind of a workaround and it was kind of like an exploration of pop music, I think. The EP had four tracks and each were different takes on pop music. It was just really successful, so I became so uninterested in doing that again. I was like, "Okay, well, that worked," and I was going through a lot personally. I just got very depressed for a few years, and I'm kind of became somewhat reclusive and uninterested in being social. When I wasn't on tour, I just wanted to chill and hang with my close friends that I already knew and that kind of thing, so the music became a reflection of that and a very introspective process. I guess it became deconstructed pop music for a while, and now, after going completely over that way, for a little while, I feel like it's coming back.
What would you say if you could say anything to the 2014 or 2015 version of yourself? Or would you say nothing and just let them go?
I've never thought about that. I'd have to think about that because I don't know what I could say that would substantially impact how I treated myself in those subsequent years, even though it got rough or whatever. It's been a running theme, like every single birthday of mine, I feel kind of like "What the fuck?" Every year I feel more loved than I've ever felt before, and I feel better about it, better about myself, better about what I'm doing, and better about just existing in general, which I maybe wouldn't have believed at 18 or 19. And I don't know if going through the rough patch from 18 through my early 20s was required for this or if there's something that, you know, a different way I could have thought about things or did things that would have saved that and still would have turned out good. So I don't know, I would need to think about that. That's a very interesting question.