Jon Hopkins on “Singularity” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Jon Hopkins on “Singularity”

Ineffable Recognition

Apr 02, 2019 Issue #65 - Mitski and boygenius Photography by Steve Gullick Bookmark and Share

The trajectory of Jon Hopkins, like his sound, has been ascendant. It has also been a course rich with the creative relationships and experiences that make one envious (Brian Eno, Coldplay) and admiring of the dedicated talent that attracted them. A prodigious piano player from the startand I don’t know why it’s always so cool to learn of a classically trained pianist using that acuity to locate alternative stylethe Surrey-born English producer has adapted the synthesized composition of his favorite records growing up to pattern his own beaming transmission.

One could argue quite convincingly that Hopkins’ fifth album, Singularity, was the finest overall record of 2018, just on the basis of the technical execution of an emotional vision. You step back, or rather out into its acreage, and marvel at the delivery on all counts of what draws people into what they’re hearing. A manifesto on the interdependence of growth and destruction, and crucially inspired by medicinal experimentation with psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms), it’s a pulsing, breathing life form of bursts and quells, rapturous expanses where gravity and hard surface disappear, and patiently built ramps that lure you to a precipice over which sublime, studied sections reside. Look to the video for the galvanizing track “Emerald Rush”placing yourself in the role of the protagonist bounding and somersaulting through animated forests and night skies is a proper analogy to the experience of the full album. Hopkins builds grand set pieces of life and fantasy, where the subtlety of assembly reveals engineering on a whole other level.

Singularity is constructed in such a way as to portray an arc, with tracks as chapters written to lead from one to another. As such, it’s an auditory experience that is most richly absorbed completely in one go and Hopkins has candidly hoped for that with its listeners. There was a time when that was commonplace, but it’s not like that anymore.

“A lot of our focus has been hijacked,” he concedes. “We’ve gotten used to scrolling away and checking between multiple windows and not staying with one idea. But I think that underneath that there’s kind of an instinctive demand for that attention to be reclaimed,” Hopkins reasons, citing the resurgence of vinyl as promoting the absorption of full albums again. “On occasion, you come across an album that has really been thought through as a whole. It’s been really amazing [that] I’ve had a lot of responses from people who had tried to listen to [Singularity in its entirety], which I get the impression they hadn’t done for any other records in recent times. It’s nice to give your brain the chance to fully focus on one train of thought, one piece of music for a period of time.”

This isn’t a difficult task with Singularity. Its balance of power and beauty elevates it beyond a common listening experience to more of a mode of transportation, illustrating that Hopkins’ greatest gift may be his invaluable handle of escapism. Like his close friend and contemporary, Nils Frahm, and a couple of othersFour Tet being a notable oneHopkins holds an uncommon power to usher the listener to habitats formed through swathing spans of the cosmos. Places to heal, where you’re suspended in admittance as the weight of guards fall.

On an especially illuminating 2018 episode of the Song Exploder podcastwhich invites artists to reveal how a particular song came togetherHopkins expounded on this way of looking at songs as environments in reference to the practically perfect extension of the idea, the nearly 12-minute long “Luminous Beings.” “This song became such a kind of mini-universe for me, and I love longer tracks,” Hopkins explained on the podcast. “They are more like places than songs…. They’re for a certain state of mind where you just don’t want them to end. There’s this sort of world of warmth in there.”

“Luminous Beings,” and its trance counterpart in plunge “Everything Connected,” are extended tracks that envelop you in this way. They are also the centerpieces of a work inspired by a psilocybin guided dive into the psyche during a trip to Joshua Tree, California that became the conceptual point of departure for the album. Incidentally, Singularity is an invitation to leap and give yourself over in the way you do when trying a drug. Such embrace of experimentalism, along with some deep meditation, is what opened the floodgates for Hopkins as it were, finding its way into the composing that took its own organic course.

“I think the psychedelic experience is not something you can really edit and the music that’s born from it isn’t either,” says Hopkins matter of factly. “It just has to be allowed to express itself. It’s part of the trust in the flow of things. There was no way [‘Luminous Beings’] was ever going to be shorter. There are ideas in there that could expand and there could be a half hour version of that track. And ‘Everything Connected’ is like the energetic peak of the record, so again, I just needed to follow my instincts on those and not be fussed by the fact that [their duration] would preclude them from being on playlists or something like that, which is really not the point. Also, I do think it’s quite funny that if you look at different eras of music, like classical concertos with three movements coming in at 25 minutes or a half an hour, the idea of there being a normal length for a track is quite arbitrary and these are just numbers really. A piece should be allowed to express itself in a natural way.”

There’s a sort of reverence heard in Hopkins’ voice when he speaks about his most ambitious songs to date, and rightly so. Stirring in their continuity are universal themes of light and dark, hope and fear, life and death, all deriving from a profoundly individual perspective. One would think that the ideas for music originating from such an inward place are ineffable, yet Hopkins is able to convey his aim and process with eloquence and intrigue. How does one verbally communicate the feelings and thoughts behind wordless music with such scope?

“It’s an interesting question…I mean, there’s always this part of you that wants to be idealistic and have this luxury that David Lynch has and just say the music is the thing…that’s everything I have to say about it,” muses Hopkins. “But then I sometimes discover things myself by talking about it. It’s quite an abstract thing, instrumental music. I think it actually adds to the depth of people’s listening experience if I’m able to give them some idea. Even giving something a title, which sometimes doesn’t feel necessary for me…. There is some value, I think, in peeking behind the curtain as it were.”

One song title in particular, “Feel First Life,” strikes as especially profound, considered along with the overwhelming piano and choral sequence of its design. Sometimes meaning comes from an observation that belongs to the private world of the artist until you ask about it. Then a song that already penetrates deeply into the core of what makes you human is imbued with a notion that makes it transcendent.

“There’s a good friend of mine called Rick Holland who’s a poet. He’s worked with Brian Eno on a few records as well. We got into a collaborative relationship on the titles of tracks on [Hopkins’ last album] Immunity and we worked on track titles for this album as well but in a slightly different way,” recalls Hopkins fondly. “A lot of the ideas for track titles come from conversations and the sharing of thoughts between me and Rick. I was coming up with ideas and bouncing them off him and taking bits of his poetry. On that particular one, he said he played ‘Feel First Life’ for his girlfriend and she said that the second she heard it, it reminded her of the moment she first felt her baby kick inside of her. When I was writing I wasn’t thinking about birth in particular. But I often don’t know what things are about until they’re finished. I’m following an instinct and the title will slot it eventually. It can be very hard to find the title sometimes. That was one where as soon as [he told me that] it was a no-brainer really.”

Reflecting on this anecdote is what brings the significance of Jon Hopkins’ 2018 masterpiece to clarity. When listening to it, as I have done numerous times since its release, and during moments of personal distress and confusion where I desperately needed to exist outside my own sphere for a while, the ordinary evaluations of a record don’t apply. “Good” or “great” are insufficient and the notion of “essential” feels more appropriate. Ultimately though, the feeling you get is really beyond words. The meaning will come in its own way to those with open channels. Those who close their eyes, let go of their bodies and minds, and accept the movements of the heart and soul.

“I think I search for communicating some form of transcendence,” poses Hopkins when I mention a sublime quality of his resonant compositions. “That’s what music can do and for me, it’s not even really about lyrics, obviously not for my music. It’s about searching for melodies and chords that will grab the heart of the listener and raise it up. Raise up consciousness in some way and create a feeling of love, or whatever you want to call it. You can use music to get there and various other modalities. It’s a language we all speak on some level. Maybe I’m looking to communicate that.”

[Note: This article originally appeared as a bonus article in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar’s Issue 65, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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April 3rd 2019

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