Meet Ethan Bortnick, the Artist TikTok Is Calling "Beethoven Meets Billie Eilish" [Q&A]
In his debut breakout single, "cut my fingers off," Ethan Bortnick wastes no time launching into a dizzying series of piano presses. It serves as a spellbinding introduction not just to the song but to the artist behind the viral single. And yet, in many circles, Bortnick needs little introduction. The classically-trained piano prodigy spent the better part of his formative years touring across the United States, playing the likes of Michael Bublé and "the classic hits" to amazed audiences. However, the elated Bortnick, the one who sits across from me on his first trip in two years, is one completely reborn.
While the last two years put much of the world on pause, for Bortnick that allowed for a moment of respite, a chance for the teen artist to ask himself what he wanted to really do, what he wanted to create. What was his music? What was his sound? The answer he arrived is one he is still in the midst of telling, from the controlled chaos of "cut my fingers" to the restrained, striking reflection of his latest single "prom."
I had the chance to sit down with Bortnick ahead of the release of "prom" to talk about discovering his sound, growing up without feeling like growing up, and a passing similarity to Conan Gray.
Ones To Watch: Your new single "prom" follows your viral breakout hit "cut my fingers off." How would you say the two songs differ?
Ethan Bortnick: In terms of the songwriting, it’s a lot more resonant and more about the actual song itself as opposed to where "cut my fingers off" is more about here’s the sound; here’s the piano. "prom" is more reserved as well as what I’ve gone through. It’s a good representation of myself.
Speaking of "prom," like many people your age, you were never actually able to experience prom.
Yeah, that's the point of the song. I did not have a prom. I don’t have a driver’s license. I had barely held anyone’s hand before quarantine. All this shit that I missed out on, whether it be through me traveling as a teen, missing out on school, and then, of course, quarantine. Those two years I was quarantined strictly because my little brother is immunocompromised, so we didn’t leave the house. This is my first trip ever in two years. That’s what "prom" is about. It’s about all the shit that I missed out on and feeling a sense of I'm growing up but it doesn’t feel like I'm growing up.
So what did quarantine look like for you how did it shape your relationship with music?
It was very different from my previous everyday life.When I was small, I picked up the piano and singing, eventually ended up on The Tonight Show and Oprah, had three to four national public television specials on PBS, the whole Michael Bublé, old hits, classic stuff, and some originals. I was non-stop up until about 18, 19 and quarantine gave me a little bit of a break from it all. That’s when I decided all right, "I’m going to start making music that I really want to make. I graduated high school, because I was two years behind. I picked up um Ableton and production. Quarantine was really the first moment where I got a chance to dig in and ask myself "What is my sound? What do I want? I gave myself six months before applying to college to see if anything would go anywhere and then "cut my fingers off" was teased. That's the story.
Would you say you've landed on your sound?
I think it took me a couple years to figure out what I, wanted but i always knew that this is the thing that makes me special (Bortnick places his hands on the piano) and will help me stand out from a lot of what’s out there. It was just a matter of figuring out how do we make this cool. Piano is not a very prevalent instrument. You’ll hear it occasionally in ballads and you’ll hear it used in some Coldplay songs, but other than that I hadn’t seen anybody really utilizing the instrument like a guitar per se. Dylan really helped with honing me in, because I was kind of Jacob Colliering. Eventually we found it and now it’s just a matter of developing it. There’s so many ways to go about it, so um that’s really what the next few songs are going to be, really getting the full scope of who I am.
Give us your elevator pitch to a stranger of your sound.
It is hard to explain, but the comment that I get the most on TikTok is "Billie Eilish meets Beethoven. And then a lot of people tell me I look like Conan Gray, which I don't see it. I think it’s just the hair.
It's definitely a compliment. He's very beautiful.
Yeah, 100%, but I don’t see it at all. At all.
What originally drew you to the piano?
I was about two. I went to a a Montessori daycare type, and I remember they had after school piano lessons for the older kids, the five-year-olds. So, I went up to my parents in diapers and I was like, "Yo, I want piano lessons." And they’re like, "We’re not paying for that. You’re gonna quit after two lessons." I took a little toy keyboard I got for like my first birthday and I just started listening to a lot of the music that my parents would, a lot of classical, and I would start copying it on my little toy keyboard. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when I figured out that I have perfect pitch. My parents saw that and they’re like "Well, we're convinced."
As a piano prodigy turned breakout artist, do you have any passions outside music?
I’m a huge cook. I’m a big foodie. I pretty much cooked dinner every night in quarantine; I didn’t allow my parents to cook. Huge anime fan, manga, the whole deal. I’m a huge Pokémon nerd. I'm trying to turn my home studio into a Gengar-themed studio.
One of my favorite animes is Soul Eater. I love Soul Eater. It’s funny I'll get a lot of comments that you're like the main character from Your Lie In April in real life which is really fun.
Hopefully without the tragedy aspect of Your Lie In April.
(laughter) Without the really intense part, yeah, thank god.
What are you currently most excited for?
I think the coolest thing, at least with this trip, is that I'm a very visual person and so music and visuals go hand in hand for me, so the fact that I actually had an opportunity to create something out of a vision that I had for this "prom," I think it's really exciting for me. I’ve never had the opportunity to do that. It’s another nugget of my artistry and personality, I'm really excited about putting that out there. Mainly, I’m so fucking stoked to play a live concert. I miss it. Performance is my thing. It's pretty evident on TikTok, because I injure myself filming. I am afraid of what’s going to happen when I play my first live show (laughter). I grew up on the stage, so I'm just waiting to fucking shred for like five, ten minutes.