Artist Propulsion Lab S1 E2: Justin Austin
July 21, 2022
John Schaefer: I’m John Schaefer, and you’re listening to the Artist Propulsion Lab, WQXR’s incubator for emerging and mid-career classical musicians and composers. Every other Thursday for the next few months, one artist from the APL will explore a topic important to them.
This episode of the Artist Propulsion Lab comes to us from baritone Justin Austin.
The summer of 2021 was a busy time for Justin. He was spending his days upstate at Bard Summerscape, singing the role of Mordred in Le roi Arthus which was the King Arthur opera by Ernest Chausson. By night, he’d head into New York City to record vocals for Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, who was working on his album Donda at the time.
And it was through his work on that record that Justin met our guest today, music producer and audio engineer Josh Berg. Josh has worked with rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and the late Mac Miller and bands like Bon Iver. And although they come from very different musical backgrounds, Justin and Josh hit it off in the studio and have stayed close since.
In this episode of the Artist Propulsion Lab, Justin and Josh discuss their work with Ye, musical genres and cross-pollination, authenticity, and more. By the way - this conversation was recorded in May, during which time, Justin Austin was in the cast of Brett Dean’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera. He mentions it at one point. Enjoy.
Justin Austin: Hi, I'm Justin Austin for the artist's propulsion lab for WQXR. And I'm here with renowned music producer, engineer, collaborator and someone I am privileged to call my friend Mr. Josh Berg. How are you doing Josh?
Josh Berg: Very good. Thank you.
Justin Austin: Absolutely.
I learned so much from working with you, picking your brain and even the the kinds of questions you would ask me and hearing you work with the other collaborators in the studio. It was fascinating because it was slightly a different world for me. But we were able to really dig into some of what Ye would call "primitive music" and "Gothic chords" and it's what I would refer to as classical music.
So when we started working together, we recorded a bunch of different songs. But one of the ones that actually made it to the Donda album was “God Breathed,” and I want to talk a little bit about it because I feel like Ye really put the classical vocals on display. The last few minutes or so are just straight coral sounds, you know, classical voice of, of me in like 12 part harmony. (laugh)
CLIP: God Breathed
Justin Austin: How did that come to be?
Josh Berg: Oh, it's always, it's always coming from him. You know, he's the source and he would tell you that God is the source. And the reason that I think it was so special, and that it spoke to you so cleanly was that it was classical choir at the time. And one of, one of the gifts that I had and have in my position is getting to see the transformation in the stages of songs as they progress. And at the time that you were laying all this stuff down, it was only you there for a stretch. And, and we were meditating on these songs and these chords and that was it. There wasn't anything else on the song for a long time. And so it started somewhere else. It got there and that's where it was kind of reborn into what it was.
I mean, that song came out of thin air. It was absolutely thin air. Just hand on the table or his chair and just singing the song. And it went through so many transformations that it didn't really find a home until the choir. Once we, once we landed there, it was like, now we're home.
And that was a large part of the album finding its home. And that was, it was a place that he was pushing to that ear that he was drawn to, you know? That is what carries through so strongly. And that's why it comes through so authentically. And that's where the power comes.
CLIP: Justin singing Liszt in the Greene Space
Justin Austin: So what is your musical background? What did you start out musically?
Josh Berg: You know, rock and roll. I'm not formally trained. I had just kind of picked up a guitar and a bass guitar because somebody else called drums and guitar in a band that we were theoretically forming. And that kind of stuck, so just a couple of punk rock notes, I'm really not much further than that at any point in time.
Eventually that moved into drum machines and turntables and things like that. And I fell in love with rap music as well. And when I really started working in music professionally, it was jazz. So it's always a privilege to experience so many different types of recordings and musicianship.
Justin Austin: I wouldn't describe myself that much differently, to be honest with you, even though I am considered classically trained. But you know, my first exposure was listening and picking up instruments and just doing things because I heard them and fell in love with the way things sounded. Especially opera, because I didn't know what anyone was saying or anything like that. I just knew that I liked the sounds and I knew what it made me feel like. And I developed a relationship with it just organically via that. And, um, when I went to music school, honestly, I considered it a, a language course. I was just learning what the proper, you know, vocabulary was for the things that I already had experience so that I could like communicate with others.
CLIP: Justin singing Liszt in the Greene Space
Justin Austin: What are your thoughts about genre in general and, you does it have a place in your musical opinion? What are your thoughts about, you know, breaking down the conventions of it?
Josh Berg: Well we like to organize - or maybe I just like to organize - but it helps to have constructs, but it's really all coming from the same notes. The music is inside us and we learn different languages and we speak different languages and we explore different styles.
And we use our creativity to push and pull against these things. But ultimately, you know, it's music and it connects to your heart and helps you feel things that we don't have words for. And, you know, all the beautiful things about music, you know?
Justin Austin: Wow. Piggybacking off of that, I feel that, that's how styles and genres sort of happen is that - we have, we have certain rules, you know, for this style or the genre or whatever, and then someone will break those rules. And then all of a sudden we have a new style but it all comes from, from somewhere. Are we going to reach a point where these defining kind of characteristics even matter anymore? Like you were saying, you know, it's important to classify certain things and to organize certain things, but do you feel that there is a place for - to kind of blur those lines in the coming future of music?
Josh Berg: Oh, yeah. And I mean, I think it's already happened and just the abundance of tools and the abundance of, you know, not only are exponentially more people making music, but exponentially more people are listening to music and, you know, that's the good and bad of streaming, you know? But I think that it will just continue to be explored and, and “Scarborough Fair'' is like a melody That's just in my heart all the time.
CLIP - SCARBOROUGH FAIR
And you know, it's hundreds of years old and if not older, you know, and, and I think there's value in ideas that have stood the test of time. And there's also value in ideas that are of the moment. If there's one thing that the digital age is doing is it's opening up the path for everyone's art. Giving, everybody's got an eye because of their camera, you know, everybody has the ability to create music on their computer. It's a wonderful thing that's happening in the, the, you know, everything sounds amazing, you know, it's just, it's incredible. I don't know where it'll go.
Justin Austin: I hear you. We don't know. And I don't know if we want to know that the discovery is the reward, you know. And when we talk about all these different styles one thing that comes up a lot is this sense of authenticity? What is, what does authenticity mean to you? What does that mean to you?
Josh Berg: I think it just means less thinking and more feeling and the pure, uh, expression that's authenticity.
CLIP: Justin - Hugo Wolf
It can take any form, and that's certainly the evolution of music, is that authenticity and the voice that it creates and evolves and changes the language and changes the landscape and the way we think about things and the way we experience life.
Justin Austin: Yeah. And I also, I would add to that honesty and being true. You know, sometimes I'll hear someone sing, and they have so much to offer and they and as far as vocal quality sometimes, you know, agility and range and they have all of the aspects to their gift that are just like extraordinary, but there's something about their delivery that feels artificial. And then you have someone that has, you know, far less, you know, attributes, I guess, to their voice, if you will, something about their delivery that pierces your heart. It gives you an opportunity to be invested and to be a part of the music making, even in just, just listening, you know, because it's really a collaborative sport, if you will. We're not just performing for ourselves, you know. We do have an audience there and any, you know, any great performer will tell you that the energy from the audience is everything.
Josh Berg: Yeah, I would say that something to think about and that's what I meant by purity of expression. I don't think we know all the things about energy in what is being transferred. I mean, you look at music, it's the various harmonics in such attached to the different frequencies, the way they modulate the frequencies. And I think there's an energy that's being transferred there as well. And you feel it in, you know, it, when you feel it, You know, can we measure it? Can we look at it? I don't know, but I think that's what we recognize is authenticity.
Justin Austin: When was the last time you felt that?
Josh Berg: Oh, I mean well, a good example is, I just mixed an album for, um, a guy called Sid, out of India. And so here, I'm listening to music and sometimes in a language I don't speak. And the purity of tone of that voice is piercing me and it's going, it cuts straight through and it hits you in the heart.
I hope that everyone has that experience. It speaks to your heart in a language that you don't speak with your heart, perhaps. It's truly something to behold. I kind of take for granted that everybody feels like this about a lot of things. But, if you're not having that experience, you could be, to anyone out there listening.
Justin Austin: Well, that's beautifully put, you know. I completely agree with you. I'm in the middle of a production at the Metropolitan Opera right now and it's a new adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet by composer, Brett Dean.
And one thing that I have gleaned from working on the piece is that it really challenges me to go beyond what I thought I knew about music. Because I honestly came into the experience not knowing what to think. After receiving the score and learning my part, I just thought, you know, okay, this is going to be, this is going to be a strange gig. We'll see, we'll see where it goes and it ended up going to really, really beautiful places, you know? There have been so many moments in rehearsals where I've listened to my colleagues sing and I can't help but cry because of what I'm feeling and it's not traditional, like beautiful tonality. I mean, it's literally atonal and it's literally, sometimes there aren't any words being sung. But I mean the heart and soul that they put into this music is just absolutely incredible.That was definitely the last time for me,
Has there ever been a time that you came into this situation feeling like, “I'm not a big fan of this artist or this style but, you know, it's a, job,” and you know, I'm going to find a way to get through it, and then you learn something along the way that really change things for you for the better.
Josh Berg: Every single day. That was the thing I had the most absolutely backwards was originally when I contemplated work as an engineer. I thought I should work in post because I don't want to be confined by music. I want to explore all sound and I definitely, definitely, definitely don't want to have to hear the song that I don't like a bunch of times. And, you know, we all like to feel artsy in like, you know this pop music that, and, or this person character makes me feel this way or whatever.
And I had this misconception that I should be afraid to meet the people behind the music that I might not like their music as much. And almost 10 out of 10 times, it's been the opposite experience seeing people and their energy has only added to my understanding and joy for the music. And that's by far been the biggest surprise in one of the biggest gifts of working as an engineer.
Justin Austin: Thank you so much for sharing that. And I just, I just want to thank you, you know, from the bottom of my heart for being true to yourself, being authentic and I hope we can find a way to do something like this again.
Josh Berg: Well, we certainly shall, I appreciate you very much as well. Not least of which for inviting me to operas, which I don't often get to experience. The King Arthur production up at Bard, that was just such a great experience in and of itself of like driving two hours up the Taconic to get to this little, like, Shakespearean village only to find a Frank Gehry at the end of the road and experience really my first proper opera. And, I brought my daughter and everything. She made it through all three acts and it was incredible.
Justin Austin: It’s so funny. You mentioned the King Arthur up at Bard. That was also a very special time musically for me. Because as we sort of touched on before. You know, Ye had invited me to come to Mexico to finish recording the album. And, you know, I wasn't able to do that because I was singing King Arthur, Le roi Arthus, Chausson, opera up at, you know, Bard Summerscape. And we had this great idea to find a way to record remotely and find a studio in New York, and do it that way. And so we had virtual sessions. And I was literally performing and rehearsing all day up at Bard and then spending my evenings, driving down to the city to record for the Donna album and all while also preparing Charles Blow, for the opera Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Terence Blanchard for the Metropolitan. And it was probably one of the most exciting musical times of my life between the worlds of you know, Chausson, Blanchard, Ye. And it was, it was kind of miraculous how we were able to pull that off especially towards the end of the sessions, uh, cause it would be around, you know, midnight to one in the morning and after a full day of rehearsing and then you the two hour drive down there and Yaz asking for more opera sound, more opera sounds so like I'm shredding my voice. trying to get the right sound.
Josh Berg: Yeah, that that time was, was truly incredible. I, and anyone involved in that project felt that way. So I'm glad that you got to experience it as well. Just the absolute, you know, Madness in of just how far, can you push yourself into making something excellent.
And it was truly incredible, you know. In a traditional fashion, think you did the whole album in the style. You know, it always gets edited and edited and edited. And re-edited, I don't think you really get the full scope of what you actually delivered, you know. By just listening to the album. But that's, again, one of my privileges of working at music.
Justin Austin: Well, I appreciate you, man. So again, thank you for being my guest today.
Josh Berg: Thank you.
Justin Austin: Mr. Josh Berg. I am Justin Austin for WQXR’s Artist Propulsion Lab. And thank you for joining us.
John Schaefer: That was baritone Justin Austin, in conversation with audio engineer and producer Josh Berg.
Next time on the Artist Propulsion Lab, a conversation between flutist and 2021 APL member Brandon Patrick George, and Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, from November of 2021.
This episode was produced by Max Fine, and edited by Matt Frassica. Our production team also includes Hanako Yamaguchi and Jade Jiang. I’m John Schaefer, thanks for listening.
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