Avicii Opens Bluegrass Floodgates On EDM
In the wake of March’s Ultra Music Festival, one clear point of controversy emerged: Avicii’s new album. In the course of his 75-minute set at the festival, Avicii decided, in advance, to unveil his not-yet-released album using a mix of DJing and live performances that included the guests who will appear on the album.
“It’s just been, for me, very interesting as a learning experience,” Avicii tells Radio.com. “I’ve been working with — instead of D.J.s, I’ve been working with musicians that come from completely different upbringings. Like, they’ve learned music differently and different ways of looking at music. Like [Chic leader/legendary producer] Nile Rodgers or Aloe Blacc or — I’ve been working a lot with [Incubus guitarist] Mike Einziger.”
In February he spoke to Rolling Stone and revealed most of the collaborators, which include vocalists Dan Tyminski and Audra Mae and legendary songwriter Mac Davis, but hearing his Ultra set open with banjos and Aloe Blacc’s vocals sparked mixed reactions in the media.
Since his single “Levels” took off internationally this year, Avicii is focused on bringing a mass audience to dance music. His use of Etta James’ vocal in the track was the first demonstration of his soulful side. It manifests in vocals from Aloe Blacc, best known for his single “I Need A Dollar.” Soul, rhythmic, hip-hop, and R & B samples have long found their way into house music, but the question is, will hardcore EDM audiences be willing to broaden their horizons enough to accept a bluegrass-influenced club banger?
Radio.com caught up with Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, on the set of a photoshoot in Brooklyn for Ralph Lauren (he is the face of campaigns for the company’s Denim & Supply arm). It was only four days after his Ultra Music set and one day after a bruising New York Times review.
“These last days have been so up and down,” Avicii says. “This last month I’ve been — these last two months, actually — I’ve been in the studio. I’ve been in L.A., ensconced every day with different types of people. Basically, every track on the album is a…fusion [of] house and electronic music with different genres. I have some folk-slash-house [tracks]. You can always hear the house, underneath everything. But there are some folk influences. There’s a lot of soul and R&B influences. And a lot of rock influences.”
He’ll call it folk. He’ll even call it bluegrass. But Avicii is cautious about calling the influences and sound on his forthcoming record country because that might be a line too far to cross for mainstream pop audiences — especially for audiences outside of America. Mumford & Sons might fly in the U.K., but that’s already a difficult sell to EDM heads, and more so in the European market. He very plainly states that his album is not country music. He worked with Mac Davis, a ’60s and ’70s-era country songwriter who composed the pop hits “In The Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation” for Elvis. Davis has also written with Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers, and got his start at Nancy Sinatra’s music company in the ’60s. Finally, there are vocals courtesy of country singer/songwriter Audra Mae.
Pairing up with collaborators who have roots in country doesn’t necessarily make Avicii’s album itself country. The argument, and perhaps sense of confusion during his Ultra set, comes from starting with Aloe Blacc singing along to a banjo and violin. But just because the audience heard it as country doesn’t mean it’s where Avicii’s head is.
“[The Tyminski appearance is] why there are so many people talking about if we were dropping country music at Ultra,” Avicii says. “We didn’t even, I don’t — my album isn’t a country album. Some would say there might be some country influence on certain tracks even, but we got the idea because Mike and his wife Audra Mae do some bluegrass stuff and it’s really cool.”
At first listen, Audra Mae’s tracks use a woman belter to give a hook to songs that are hardcore dance tracks. Tracks like “Black And Blue” are more clearly rock influenced with a harder beat mashed with a soulful vocal from Aloe Blacc.
“He wanted to make a record that was true to what he’d done in the past, but he also had this intense desire to do something drastically different and pave some new ground in that electronic world,” Mike Einziger tells Radio.com. “Being completely honest, I’m not all that familiar with the landscape of EDM music. The idea of a repetitive house beat…I just didn’t get it.”
Einziger is not the only one who “doesn’t get it” at first blush. While some rock bands have incorporated dance music into their sound, like Incubus and Linkin Park, who have D.J.s as full-time band members, the love doesn’t flow freely from rock to EDM. If anything, the lack of instrumentation is seen as a threat by most rock bands to the musical values they hold dearest. If reactions to Avicii’s Ultra set are indicative, it seems to fly even less freely the opposite way, from EDM to rock. That is what makes Avicii’s new album such a bold experiment.
“Just in general, everyone [who collaborated on the album] has had an open mind to whatever we’ve been doing,” Avicii says. “They haven’t had a closed mind towards electronic music. A lot of people do. Many people are still very close-minded when it comes to house music or dance music in general.”
The general reaction on the Internet from EDM and Avicii fans was love for some tracks, namely his Lana Del Rey remix, and distaste for incorporating a live band into a D.J.’s performance.
Though a GQ article portrays him as a laptop D.J. devoid of character or discernible skill outside of being a charismatic presence on stage, Einziger paints a different picture of Avicii.
“He wanted to make this record that really had a lot of soul, but infused elements of folk music, country — all kinds of different sounds you wouldn’t normally find in his EDM universe,” Einziger explains. “He was adamant about it, which is why it was such a good idea for us to work together. He’s so committed to the idea of not doing what everybody else is doing. That was exciting to me.”
This experimentation and commitment to operating outside of the confining box of EDM could pay off with a larger, more mainstream audience. After all, Avicii is attempting to marry the very profitable EDM world with the burgeoning popularity of bluegrass music. Mumford & Sons, who freely admit to taking all their early inspiration from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack did have the fourth biggest-selling album of 2012, according to Billboard.
Whether he’ll be able to pull off the mash-up of instruments and laptops remains to be seen. And as professional agitator John Lydon once said, “If you are pissing people off, you know you’re doing something right.”
This story was originally published in April of 2013.