You can tell a lot about a person from the things you find in their room. It’s the place where people are at their most honest. In your own room, you have no facade.

That’s the idea behind ethansroom, at least. And the honesty of the music seems to bear that out.

That rawness doesn’t mean that it’s haphazard, though; Ethan Fortenberry’s project is honest, but it’s an intentional endeavor. Crafted from a combination of finger-picked guitar, well-placed percussion and tasteful hints of electric elements, ethansroom builds a soothing sonic vibe.

At the project’s soul, though, are vulnerable, introspective lyrics that feel like a conversation you might have in your own head – if you took the time to intentionally fit together the syllables and phonetic rhythm of your thoughts.

Nowhere is that rhythm more engaging than on “Before I Forget.” Listening through Ethan’s Songs for Sadie EP, that’s the song that hit me first and hardest. I was instantly intrigued by its story. The song feels haunting; it’s bittersweet, with the kind of melody that sinks into your consciousness like a soft sort of memory.

Take a listen for yourself, and then step into ethansroom and hear the story behind the music.

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How did you first get into music?

ethansroom: I started playing guitar when I was about 10. I found my grandfather’s acoustic in the attic, and asked my dad about it. He started telling me about how it was his dad’s. He died when I was two and so I never really got to know him. Learning to play was kinda like me getting to know him in a weird way. After that I just started playing guitar, and for the most part taught myself everything I know.

Is your family into music?

My dad has always been in the choir at church, and he plays piano a little bit too, but for the most part I’m the only one in my family who’s pursued it. My dad’s an incredible singer, though. He has this one solo he always does at church and he kills it.

How did you start writing songs, specifically?

I played guitar in a band back home called Hey, Chroma, but didn’t really start writing songs of my own until after I left Belmont in the middle of freshman year. I had some things to work out in a lot of different areas, and my first EP kind of shows that. I was learning to cope with a lot of things and writing was the only way that seemed to help me come to terms with a lot of it.

What was the first song you ever wrote?

I started off with Island EP. The first song I ever wrote was on there – it was called “Wasn’t Enough.” I had the guitar part for it for a couple of years but could just never find the right melody for it. One thing everyone does their freshman year at Belmont is they write something in one of those god-forsaken gazebos. That song was that something. I don’t play that song out loud hardly ever anymore, but I still think those are some of my favorite lyrics I’ve written.

What did you go to Belmont for?

I was a guitar major. I was studying commercial guitar, and they pretty much teach you how to make money by playing in studios and bands, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was miserable (laughs). So I switched to songwriting.

Do you set aside time to write intentionally, or do you write out of emotions as they come up?

It’s more reactive than sitting down and intentionally writing. It’s more reflective and pondering than it is in the moment. I’m usually just questioning things, questioning my own actions. I have a lot of anxiety as it is, so it’s kind of going through that in my own head and then putting words on pages.

You’ve got a pretty unique feel to your music. Where did the sound come from?

I didn’t listen to any music until my freshman year of high school. All of these kids at school talked about how they were raised on classic rock like Zeppelin or Def Leppard. I was raised on Toby Mac and the Newsboys. Not that that’s not actual music, but anything outside of the Christian genre I didn’t listen to growing up. I remember downloading Spotify to my old trash computer. That’s when I got super into Ben Howard, William Fitzsimmons, Matt Corby – super resonant, darker acoustic artists. Ben Howard was the number one for sure though – I was watching a skateboarding video and Old Pine was the track to it, and that was the start of it all for me.

I like the mix of acoustic and electro… Where do the electro vibes come from?

A lot of that also comes from sounds I’ve messed around with. There are a lot of reverbed sounds, a lot of pedals you can get. We chopped up some guitar/cello sounds we found in little pockets here and there and made these bloom-type sounds to complement the vibe throughout some of the tracks. Gives it kind of a glitch feel. I wanted to build this wall of sound that made an impression on the ears while still keeping those ambient, finger-picky parts at the forefront.

When you’re writing, do music or lyrics come first?

It’s a mixture of both. For songs like “Before I Forget,” and even on the first EP, for “Wasn’t Enough.” For “Before I Forget,” I had this whole finger picking pattern I wanted to use and I could never find something I  wanted to use it with until I had that song.

I kind of wrote that one around that part, and building up to the big outro moment with that finger picking part.

There were other times, though, where lyrically I’d have something in mind to build off of. For the track “Sadie” on the EP, it started off with me thinking about this one phrase – “save me Sadie.”  I just liked the alliteration in it. It was kind of haunting while at the same time soothing, which thematically is huge for this EP. I ended up never actually using it, but that one line shaped how I wrote the whole song. Sometimes you need something to get to one place, and then once you get to the end you realize you didn’t need what you built everything around.

So, do you think that lyrics or sound are more important?

Definitely lyrics for me. Sound is super important. I think it’s super important to be able to identify what you’re saying. I don’t want to have to interpret lyrics so much that I’m overthinking it. So, I want people to identify the lyrics first and the music second, and then watch the arrangement and them coincide together piece by piece.

What are some of your favorite songs? And what makes a song good?

My favorite song of all time is “Who Knows Who Cares” by Local Natives. I think the melody in that song is genius for some reason – I don’t know why I think that, but it’s been stuck in my head since 2009. And the fact that I still sing it to this day just kind of proves that a melody can do that to somebody, can just hold them tight.

The piano part along with the rest of the arrangement are so simple and complement each other in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do before. but the melody just holds me there – I don’t know, there’s something about it.

“Michicant” by Bon Iver is another one– I don’t understand any of the lyrics in that song, but the way he says what he’s saying on top of the sonic energy that he’s built makes you feel something. And that’s really cool. That’s something I think he’s mastered as an artist is being able to bring you in with all the “bells and whistles” of his songs. All of the extra little sounds he incorporates makes me literally visualize the music. It’s beautiful.

Where did the EP come from – and, specifically, what did Before I Forget come out of?

The whole EP is centered around this one person, this one scenario. I gave her the name Sadie because I loved the way it sounded in that one sentence we talked about earlier. On top of that, I feel like that song perfectly incorporates the theme of the EP. As a collective, it’s about trying to find grace in ungraceful moments. Being anxious in wondering if choosing love in certain situations is the right decision. I wrote “Before I Forget” over the summer of 2016.  The song kind of goes through the back and forth thoughts you have wanting, wishing, and waiting to be with someone. It’s holding onto that fear of things not being the same as they once were, or even holding onto the fear of things never fully blossoming due to lack of contact.

How did the song come together at first? The sound and the lyrics – all of it?

I was jamming to the guitar part, and I noticed that the outro (the part I had) was the same exact chords and the same capo, and I felt like it worked out perfectly. Because at the end of the song, lyrically, I felt like it got to where things had to stop at a certain point for closure, and then I let the music bloom out from there. I wanted the listener to be able to get a little breather in there, to take in what I had to say, and then watch it all bloom.

The electric guitar gives those “bloom” here and there, with these swells going kind of mad on top of the finger picking, and then it stops and it’s back to the first stanza again. It’s a loop, the whole song, which is kind of how it was in my head, too – situationally. It was a loop of making sure and wondering if things were ever going to be.

Did it come all at once as you started writing?

It took a few days. Sometimes I’ll spend months – or even years – on a song, but this one came pretty quick, lyrically. I worked on it for a few days while I was back at home in an in-between spot. There’s a coffee shop that I would go to every single day to write and meditate called Swift and Finch. I had a melody for it and a voice memo on my phone of me playing the chords for 30 seconds, and I kind of set it up in Garageband as a 3-minute loop, and wrote lyrics over it until I felt like I had what I needed.

Do you use loops often as a writing tool?

Setting up a loop like that helps me a lot. I can’t just sit down at the guitar and write all the time for some reason. I’ll play the melody a little bit with the guitar, and then I’ll set it up as a loop for a couple of hours and write over it. It helps with arrangements, too, later on, because you find pockets of sound and space that can be added to or invested in.

I love the phrasing in the song. How do you finesse lines to make them fit together sonically?

Phrasing is a big thing I do. Syllables are super important for me – making sure that certain parts lock in with each other, but also that there’s space to fluctuate. Alliteration is a device I like to use a lot, and internal rhymes. “Before I Forget” is one of my favorite songs that I’ve written, because of those structures – that melody on top of internal rhymes. Lyrics like:

Need no more but I want it all to take // I’ve held onto every word you spake. // Show me more of you dare I say // Come stay // Inside my home.

Separated rhymes, back to back, throwing a lot of information at you. That’s kind of how it was in my head, and so I wanted to make sure those concepts matched each other.

You had the loop, the lyrics – how did the arrangements come together? Were other musicians involved?

I’m playing guitar and singing, my brother Hunt is doing guitar, another brother doing drums, and then another one dong cello.  We got the scratch takes of my voice and guitar so that we didn’t waste too much time, and then we brought in drums.

The way I do it is that I don’t write super specific parts. I have basic guidelines, but I want to make sure that anyone who comes into work on a song doesn’t feel constricted – that they can’t share and put their own ideas into it. I want it to be collective, like a family almost.

So, I give them basic guidelines, and they’ll come in and do their parts. They’ll suggest things and add to things. But I’m super decisive at the same time, though, so if there’s something I don’t like I’ll just say no. Sometimes I feel like I’m being an ass, but at the same time I know what I want. When I hear it, I’ll know that that’s the thing.

What about the production? Who was involved in that process?

Freshman year I met this guy named Mark – a super tall guy from Wisconsin, one of my best friends at school. He took out a loan for a good chunk of money and got a house his sophomore year and built a super nice studio. He put in over forty hours on each song – mixing, mastering, recording. He’s incredible. He killed it. My first EP was recorded in a closet, so it was a step up.

Was the sound shaped more during recording or production?

Most of the sound came from the last day. We had all the parts in, and we were like, “Alright…we’re done recording, we’re super locked in. You can shape it around that.”

For some people, mixing it is where they can release certain ideas they had forgotten, but for me, personally, I think it’s important to get super firm foundations. That’s where the main sound comes from – and then mixing and mastering is just the bells and whistles.

You just put out acoustic versions of these songs. Where’d the idea for the acoustic EP come from?

I actually did that because of this song, specifically. At the ending, I noticed that the guitar part wasn’t as front and center as I thought it could be. I think the mix is how it needs to be, because I think that fits the lyrics best – but at the same time, I wanted people to hear the picking at the end of it a little bit better, so I was going to release “Before I Forget” as an acoustic single. But Mark was like, “No, I’ll just do the whole EP for you.”

So that was awesome. And he killed it.

What’s next? I know you’re in the studio – is a full album in the works?

I have seven songs and a bunch of little in between tracks that I’m working on.22015422_1915077768504145_216650669_o

What I do know is that this will be my proudest work that I’ve done. Writing-wise, it’s less finger picking and more strumming. It’ll be completely different, but I’m really excited for it. I’ve done all of the arranging myself this time and really figured out “a sound.” That’s all I can say for it right now – I haven’t even showed my parents or my six roommates everything I’ve cooked up yet.

After it’s done I’ll send it out to a few people and see if anything bites.

What are your goals for music?

I just want to make people happy, make people feel something, make people experience human emotion. On top of that, money is just a plus. If I can support myself doing something that I love, while making people happy, that’s the goal.

What do you want people to take away from your music?

I want people to feel something. I’ve noticed that my writing so far isn’t super relatable on a general level – it’s more situational instead of vague or an overall feeling. I’m working on relating situations to things. I want people to know that the things that we do, the actions we take and the words we say have repercussions. I don’t want us to take that power that we as humans have for granted.

And, as always, our last question: what advice would you give to other songwriters?

Make sure that whatever you’re doing or writing or building – just make sure that it’s something you’re proud of and it’s a feeling you’ve actually experienced, not something you feel obligated to write about.

Make it something you believe in, and do yourself justice. Don’t belittle yourself at all.