I think it’s Joel Ansett’s vulnerability that makes his music special.
True thing: it’s impossible to tell good stories without being vulnerable. Vulnerability is the lifeblood of a storyteller, because stories need weakness and brokenness to give them stakes. If you can’t admit those things in yourself, it’s hard to paint them accurately anywhere else.
If you can, though – if you can dig into your weakness and understand it and hold it up to the light – you can tell stories other people will want to hear. Because everyone’s broken. We want stories that make us feel less alone in our brokenness. We also want stories that make us feel like maybe things can be fixed.
a place i knew before (Ansett’s 2019 album) is packed with those kinds of stories. “Through” is one of them.
Lyrically, it’s simple (vulnerability usually is, I think). The chorus is an admission that captures the heart of the song:
I don’t know what you’ve been through
It’s repeated again and again, like Joel keeps forgetting it and then reminding himself of it. The lyric lays out his tendency to judge in black and white. I can relate. I condemn judgement and then judge with the next breath. I think hypocrisy is a human pattern.
My favorite line in the song, though, is a variation in the chorus:
Afraid to see myself in you
I don’t know what you’ve been through
We judge ourselves, too – and we judge other’s flaws most harshly when they reveal our own. That’s vulnerable to admit. It’s important, too.
Sonically, “Through” – and the rest of the album – represents a departure from Joel’s previous music. He built a comfortable home in the acoustic indie-folk genre over a previous EP and an album; this second LP is, if not a full-scale move out of that sonic space, at least a remodeling of it. Acoustic instrumentation takes a back seat to laid-back, indie-electro elements that are guided thoughtfully by producer Jon Joseph. Nothing’s overbearing and not much is amped up. Everything’s soft and muted, like overnight snow or the remnants of a memory.
What comes through is thoughtful brokenness and far off hope: things that ring a little truer when they’re framed by a gifted (vulnerable) storyteller.
Give “Through” a listen, and read the full story below.
Joel – my man. Good to catch up with you. So, talk me through some of the backstory of this second album.
Yeah, the story with this album… So, I put out The Nature Of Us in 2015, and then was pretty just burned out, honestly. The writing, the recording, the process of creating is like the best thing in the world to me. But I discovered through trying to release an album as an independent artist just how much additional work there is that’s just a grind and confusing. It forced me to educate myself to the business side of the whole thing, and actually trying to make it a business was very, very draining for me.
So when that album came out, I didn’t really push it. I didn’t really tour. I played some shows, and then we ended up having Oliver like four months after that album came out. And it kind of felt like I was very proud of the album, but never pushed it fully. I am thankful for the response it did get. I’m not trying to make light of it, but…
I mean, looking at these Spotify plays, everything from that first album has over a half a million. Like each track. So it seems like when people listen to it, they listen to the whole thing.
Yeah, it went out and found its people. It really did. And people clearly streamed the whole album. So that is exciting to see.
And yeah dude, sorry – I always give way too much context. You asked about the second album [laughs].
The short story is, I was super burned out. So I wasn’t going to throw in the towel, but I was just kind of content to have music on the back burner for a while. And that basically came to a head at the start of 2018, where a bunch of different life situations made Molly and I step back and be like, “Wait, what are we trying to do?”
Molly and I, our personalities are to put our heads down and to just keep going with whatever we’re doing. We don’t frequently take a step back and ask, “Okay, where are we trying to go? What goals do we have for this music thing? Is it just something I’m going to do on the side when I have the time, or is this really something that we want to take some risks for and sign on for the grind for even if there’s a lot of things about the business side that are soul sucking?”
So there wasn’t really a precise moment that I switched gears, but I do remember a night where Molly and I were trying to figure out what the next year should look like, and how to spend our time – what goals to make as a family and for our careers. And we just decided to read through old fan mail.
Oh, that’s awesome.
It’s just email. It’s not a lot. But every week or couple of weeks, someone will send in an email saying something like, “Hey, this song really meant a lot to me,” you know? Or tell stories about the songs. And those emails are such a gift.
I don’t know if I’ve ever even done that, and I love a lot of music. You can love the music, but then the fact that some people felt like, “No, I love this and I’m going to actually get in touch with the artist.”
So we read through it, and we were both just very moved and humbled to see that the songs I had put out – songs that I didn’t feel like I had done justice on the business side of promoting – they still went out and kind of found their people and did their work.
And that kind of flipped the switch for me.
So what happened?
It was like… I struggle with knowing how to talk about it with you, because you know me and you know my faith. Other people might not frame this in the same way. But what happened in that moment really was that God confirmed what Molly and I both knew as kind of a calling for me. We had lost sight of it in the busyness of starting a family and in the church having a lot of needs.
So reading the fan mail felt like a very spiritual experience, like God saying, “No, Joel, this is a calling for you. I need you to keep writing these songs because I have plans, even if you are not maximizing yourself or doing what the world would call running a good business. I have plans for these songs to go minister to people. So you have to keep doing this.”
That was kind of a spiritual revival moment, just reading people’s stories.
And I didn’t even view it as my fan mail. I viewed it as testimonies of God’s faithfulness. God can do amazing things even when we are oblivious to them. Like, I had one moment of faithfulness in writing a song, and God can use that one moment years down the road for other people.
So, to summarize, I guess – in 2018 I had a re-commitment to owning the fact that I do want to be an artist for a living. There’s some reality to this idea that if you don’t give something your 100%, then you have an excuse if it doesn’t work out. That year was me owning, “No, this is a calling and this is something that I have not given my effort completely to yet. Let’s do that. And then if it totally fails we can look back and say, well, there’s no doubt we gave it a try.”
So that led to us launching the Kickstarter.
[Quick note: Joel’s album raised $30+ thousand on Kickstarter in 2018.]
Yeah, so that had to feel like affirmation too, right?
Oh, totally. Molly and I felt this sort of personal revival on our goals as a unit, but we were like, “We still don’t really know how to proceed from here, so let’s test this theory.”
And yeah, it didn’t look like it was actually going to make it. I think we needed like $10k to come in in the last week.
Were you nervous you wouldn’t hit it?
Oh yeah, I was nervous, and I could tell that people were nervous for me. They’re like, “Oh Joel. We love you, dude, but this is kind of awkward that this is all so public. It’s a public failure.”
But yeah, it came through.
It did. The second album crossed the finish line in the end.
God was kind, man. Yeah, that was way too much information [laughs].
So then basically I found this producer named Jon Joseph who’s in LA. I met him on Instagram, and I got in touch and said, “Hey, can I come out and do one song as a trial to see how we mesh?”
So we went out and we did a song called “Everyday,” and I just loved what he did. Jon’s vibe was really a commitment for me, because I wanted to grow as an artist. That was one of my biggest priorities, because if left to myself I really will just write 100 pretty, acoustic, folk songs.
Which there’s nothing wrong with.
No, you’re right. And I’m going to get back to that. I know I am. But I was trying to journey a little bit, so I can come back and write the best folk album I can knowing that I’ve explored. Almost like Sufjan’s Age of Adz.
I mean, this album that I just made is not that experimental. But Sufjan needed to go there to make Carrie & Lowell.
I really think that you have to follow a rabbit trail to get the confidence for making bigger decisions. Because any decision you make, you are choosing not to chase hundreds of other sounds. And so I just wanted to find the sounds I haven’t been choosing, and choose some of those for whole record. That way it could clearly be this brand new space for me as an artist, and a clearer pivot from The Nature Of Us.
The new album definitely has a different, distinctive vibe.
And Jon was actually instrumental in that, because there were times where we’d dive into a song and I’d feel like, “Oh man, I’m going to back out of what I initially said I wanted, and let’s do this acoustically.”
And Jon would be like, “No, we are not doing that.” And he has a very healthy aversion to acoustic guitar.
He has an aversion to it? But you can hear acoustic on “Through,” right?
Oh totally, so I guess what I’m saying is that he’s just a highly experimental person. Like, every guitar I played had a super weird thing in some way. He loves weird instruments. You basically have a two-pronged reaction to Jon’s sounds. It’s, “I like that.” And also, “What the heck is that?”
So we made an album that doesn’t sound like other albums because he’s very committed to like sonic discovery. And I was very, very stressed at a lot of moments, but he was very gracious. He actually gave me the freedom and said, “We’re going to make this record like we set out to, and if at any point you listen back and think, ‘Man this isn’t it, I need to do something else,’ we can redo things if we need to.”
That’s a huge creative burden off of your shoulders. Because so often when you’re paying to create things, you feel like you have one shot to get it right.
Yeah, so that was huge for me to know. So we could do the exploration, and I could know that if we got to the end of the path and I felt like the song didn’t land, then we could go back and do it in a simpler way.
That was huge. Because I’ve had the feeling of being like 75% done with a song and thinking, ‘This isn’t what I want it to be, but we’ve already given so much.”Just him taking that burden off, that had a lot of power.
So with that creative freedom, what was the recording process like?
So I recorded the whole album last summer. I got to work with a lot of like people that I’d never even thought I’d be able to work with, just because once you go to LA to make a record, the networks that you’re in are way cooler. Jon brought one of his good friends in who’s an amazing musician – his name’s Tom Crouch. Tom played piano and guitars all over the album.
And then we hired Aaron Sterling for a day, who’s drummed for John Mayer, Taylor Swift, Ben Rector – he’s basically the best studio drummer in the world and maybe the best live drummer, as well. So we hired him for a day and he played on four or five of the songs on the record.
Yeah, we just got to do things like that. It was very fun to see an album come to life in a place where so much of the music industry lives.
So, the story behind one song… Walk me through the backstory behind “Through.” How did you write it?
Yeah. I wrote the chorus a long time ago. Maybe like five years ago.
I watched the movie Boyhood, and I just had mad respect for the people involved in it. They made that movie over the course of 12 years or so, filming a couple things every year. Because of that, you basically get to watch these actors grow up, but mostly this kid. You get to watch him actually grow up physically, and so you just develop a very strong attachment to this character, this boy.
I remember at the end of the movie feeling such a compassion and empathy for him. The way he socially interacts with everyone in the movie at the end, he’s like very distant, removed, you know? A little socially awkward. He just seems a little out of place. And where my brain went was like, “I’ve encountered that exact character and been surface-level dismissive or just judged or wondered, ‘Man, what’s the deal with that person?'”
And my heart just broke for a second. I’ve interacted with people without ever letting my brain think, “What is their story that got them to be who they are in this moment?” And I want those moments to be filled with more empathy than snap judgment.
In the movie, because you are so in that head space, the last thing you’re going to do is judge this kid for his rough edges. Because you have seen him go through hell from when he was like eight. I mean, he’s just been through the ringer. And then you see him go to college and start making friends. And you’re even thinking, “These college friends that he’s making, they have no idea the mess that he has survived.”
So the chorus kind of just came out of me. I was watching the movie with my guitar, and I was kind of strumming, and I picked it up at one point where I was just like, ‘Man, this is really speaking to me.’ By the time the movie ended I had the melody, I had the chords I had been strumming, and I had that lyric:
I don’t know what you’ve been through
I don’t know what you’ve been through.
And that was like man, five or six years ago that I had that chorus. When I started working on this album, I went back and looked at everything I had ever written. I just loved the song so much.
I tweaked some lyrics, changed things here or there to try and keep it from being too repetitive. Kind of filled in the story in the verses as best as I could.
What were you trying to convey in the verses?
I wanted to talk about the fact that everybody’s in the fight of their lives, and that’s just part of being human. There’s a lot of brokenness that we’ve all encountered at some point in our lives, and it’s probably better to try to learn people’s stories before getting mad at their sharp edges. Even if you’re being hurt by them.
It’s about trying to get into the head space of empathy versus judgment. I’m not trying to excuse bad things people do. But I think we go to judgment so fast.
So the first verse pretty much just says it like it is, and I love the turn of phrase:
I heard some things
To make me think
I shouldn’t care for you
But talk is cheap
Especially when we
Only care for half the truth
When we say, “I don’t want to care about that person,” you’re making a commitment to not caring about their whole story. The hard thing is, we do only have so much emotional capacity to give to things, so it’s not like you can dive in and learn everyone’s story.
And then I was kind of thinking of the political landscape in the second verse. Just the degree of how much immediate hatred there’s been. Like, we have the two party system and we immediately categorize people as one thing or another and then assume we know everything about each other. I haven’t really talked about that, actually, but it’s funny, every time I sing the song I think in my head, like, “This is the tamest version of a protest song of all time.”
I know it’s a popular message that people are putting out these days. But we do need to talk with people who are different than us and understand that a lot of people who have strong opinions – those things are very much a product of where you were born, the family you were born into, the city you were born into, and your story.
Like, there are very valid arguments for all of these different policies because of the experiences that people have had that have allowed them to form these arguments that have weight. I’m just kind of realizing politically that everything is way more nuanced than we’d like to think. Anyway, so there’s a slight social commentary going on in that second verse. I was like, “Why are we so afraid of people who are different from us? What’s up with that?”
Walk me through line, “Afraid to see myself in you.” What’s the concept there?
Yeah, that’s based on some experiences where I have judged someone in my heart, but it’s because they did something. It’s like you’re harder on people who are … you’re harder on people who are kind of like yourself.
I’m trying to think of an example where someone overreacts. It’s kind of like… someone who has a history with alcoholism or something like that, they would be more prone to judge someone who got drunk.
Right? It’s like whatever metric I’m using to like measure how I’m trying to keep my life together, if I see someone not using that, then I’m that much harder on that person. Like, whatever I use to define myself, whatever we use to really define ourselves necessitates looking down on other people who haven’t gotten there. And that’s not how I want it to be.
So yeah, I’m not saying it as clear as I want, but …
I like that last thing you said – I think that was a good interpretation of it.
How did you first hear that line? Or did you just kind of wonder about it?
I guess I was wondering if it was coming from a specific experience that you had. But the way that I hear it is like… you’re scared of your own flaws. When you recognize your own flaws in other people, there’s a huge insecurity in that.
That’s beautiful. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say.
You pretty much said that.
Just in way more words, dude. Wow, verbal processor alert.
Ah, it’s all context.
Right – last question. I know we’ve talked about how you came to the sound of the album as a whole. But how does this song – because you wrote it acoustically watching Boyhood – how does it go from an acoustic guitar to the current vibe?
We were trying to blend genres, for sure. On the one hand, we were going for folk, but we decided, “Let’s not have that guitar necessarily be the lead instrument.” And so we did it on a Nashville strung guitar so it didn’t sound just straight up like a six-string, standard-tuning acoustic guitar; it had something a little mysterious about it.
The idea was, “Okay, that’s going to be our folk arm. But if that’s not going to be the lead instrument, let’s have a drum sample loop that kind of feels like the lead, and then we can just build texture around this drum loop for the entire song.”
I’m always overthinking sonic decisions. I want them to have symbolism. I wanted this to be two people who are super different but actually do have the potential to build this very strong friendship if they can commit to hearing each other’s stories. The idea was, “Can we get two different sounds you wouldn’t necessarily combine – like an acoustic guitar folk rhythm with a drum loop – can we get them to develop friendship over the course of the song?” So that by the end you’re like, “Yeah this is … I don’t really know what this is, but it’s kind of working.”
By the end you’ve had this slow swell. It’s not all at once, but the song just has a very, very gentle crescendo to the whole thing that, for me, is symbolizing the slow building of a friendship with someone who’s very different from you.