Experience-focused pop singer-songwriter Onsen (aka Drew Sraus) joins us at Silverlake, CA’s Aussie-themed Roo Coffee to discuss his long-awaited solo releases, doing your best to be free in your creative works, and what it means to be a queer artist in the modern music era.
So you’re gearing up to release your long-awaited album Keeper, would you like to give us a little sneak peek as to what we should expect lyric-wise, and instrumental wise?
Drew Straus: Yeah! So lyrically and thematically, it’s both a continuation and a departure from my first record, which was Earthquake Weather. A lot of that first record was about the end of my first relationship with another guy and that heartbreak, so it’s pretty much a downer in that way. And with this record, while it continues on interpersonal themes, it definitely is more about a number of relationships and there’s more of a range of emotions. Some of it is quite positive and exuberant, sometimes there’s still parts that are a bit moody and emo. In that sense, I think it’s more of this expansion of looking outward from one relationship to many, but then there are also songs that are dealing with the broader world. There are some that are taking on political themes, and on the inverse side, there are some that are much more meditative. The opener is called “Moving In,” and that track appeared to me fully formed in a dream, like music and lyrics, and there’s some days where even to me that meaning is slightly inscrutable, but to have that very internal, very meditative type song is a new thing for me for sure. Sonically, it’s much more electronic. There’s electronic drums and there’s some sampled sounds, I did a lot of the production myself and then also worked with some other producers, so in that sense, it was less of a live band in a studio and more of an electronically produced record. So sonically, it’s a bit of an evolution as well.
Yeah! And kind of like you were saying about going through the stages of a relationship, it’s almost like going through the stages of your music career.
And which song would you say was your favorite to write and then record?
Drew: So I would say to write, “The March” was really fun because it just came out so easily. A lot of the songs were sort of labored over, but “The March” happened so quickly, and it was fun and freeing and that was just a really great experience.
It’s so great when that happens! The universe aligns just for you!
Drew: Exactly! Just to write a song in a day is incredible. I remember hearing an interview with Grimes talking about how she writes a song in a day and then just moves on if it’s not done, and because that happened with “The March,” I understand how freeing that might be to like, ‘I’ve got a day to do it, and then I’ve got to move on.’
That is an interesting concept to think about, like, how much time we dwell on mundane things…
Drew: Rather than trusting that the next thing will also be interesting.
Yeah. It’s crazy!
Drew: *laughs* It really is. And then as far as recording, I loved doing “Mama Said” because there’s so many layers of vocal harmonies on top of each other, so recording that was so fun. I love tight vocal harmonies!
Yeah! They’re always impressive when you can land it because I feel like you could easily mess that up.
Drew: Yeah, it’s very tricky.
How would you say the songwriting and recording process was similar or different than that of your past work? We were kind of already going into it a little bit.
Drew: Yeah. So I mean, the inception point is a bit similar in the sense that it was often just me on my own with a guitar or keyboard because I often write lyrics and melody simultaneously. But then the rest of it’s really different because instead of doing a studio type recording, I did all the production myself, which I feel like I had the skills to do this time around. And then after I had created a version, I worked with a few different producers, depending on the song, to make a final version.
And a fun question for you, if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Drew: *laughs* Oh man, I’ve always loved the idea of being on tour with Tame Impala, that would be such a dream. And then I think right now, because I’ve been so obsessed with records, I’d love to be on tour with Jenny Hval. And I also love Davido, he’s a Nigerian artist that put out this record that’s just so fun. Gosh, the three of us together between Tame Impala’s psych-rock, Jenny Hval’s experimental music and Davido’s sound, I feel like I would call it the ‘Huh? World Tour.’ *laughs*
There have been weirder combos that’s for sure. *laughs* So in regards to the way that modern music listening tends to favor music streaming, and also shorter like singles and EP style releases, why do you think music consumers kind of go towards those types of trends?
Drew: I think part of it is the trend towards playlisting. A lot of people are, and Spotify too, they want you to turn towards playlists, so I think that’s a big part of it. And then from a consumer’s perspective, I think listening to a bunch of singles are more easily accessible and are made to be more pop forward. I think there are also a lot of consumers that love this sort of depth and sense of evolution that comes from listening to a whole record, so I imagine it depends on the consumer. On the flip side, there’s both really freeing things and trickier things about that as an artist, just in the sense that getting to put out a series of singles is super freeing. You can try something new and put it out in the world to see how it is, and you’re not beholden to one particular style by doing that. But on the other hand, there’s something nice about thinking that someone might listen to ten of your songs in a row, and the pleasure of the record can sort of reveal itself to them over the course of those ten songs instead of it being a one and done thing, you know? I think there are good things and bad things about it, just like with anything.
Yeah, definitely. And kind of going into the wonders of social media, it’s a huge factor in our everyday life and in the marketing world. Do you feel like it makes it easier or harder for artists, independent artists, or even big named artists, to be able to make names for themselves?
Drew: I think it depends, you know. I think that some people have really come up through social media and that’s worked really well for them. Billie Eilish is like the prime example of that in some way. But the tricky thing is that because you’re a musician, you’re so beholden to social media and existing in that way. I myself struggle with it in the sense that, like, there are times when I feel like Instagram and social media is just really toxic for me and I really don’t want to participate, but I really can’t step away from it, so in that aspect it’s hard. But being able to reach a worldwide audience through it, even though my follower numbers are nowhere near someone like Billie Eilish, it means that I can occasionally have these awesome interactions with people from really far away who stumbled onto my music or who want to talk about all kinds of random things. So in that aspect, I love that sort of immediacy of communication with people who have found you through your music. It’s wonderful.
Oh totally! I feel like we never really had that immediacy back in like, say, the nineties. You pretty much had to be a part of the fan club. I want to say the earliest version was probably MySpace, even though it was probably the record label managing the page.
Drew: Totally. And I think that revelation sort of comes with age and knowing different musicians. Like, when I was younger and listening to all these different bands, I assumed that they lived in this sort of God-like realm where they were constantly doing cool things and living this unimaginably cool life. But I realized that a lot of musicians have a lot of alone time, or just live very regular lives in some ways, and are actually very accessible via social media so they have plenty of time to respond. *laughs*
It’s like, ‘I know you’re not doing anything important right now. You just released an album. You have nothing to do.’ *both laugh*
Drew: Right? But just realizing that there are so many people that you can just reach out to will respond is pretty cool, so that’s the nice thing about social media.
Do you also feel like sometimes social media kind of adds on a pressure to, kind of like what you were saying, constantly be doing something or even portraying yourself in a certain way in order to reach a specific audience?
Drew: I definitely think there’s a tendency to feel like you need to create a ‘brand.’ Branding yourself just feels so icky, like, this idea that you’re this commodity, or even in some cases, this billboard to be advertised upon. So yeah, creating a brand is really not something that I enjoy.
You’re a real person! You have feelings!
Drew: Right? Or even just a desire to constantly be changing. In that sense, feeling like you need to be bold or being forced into something really consistent is just not great. The reminder that one should constantly be producing is I think is good because it forces you not to be too precious about things. I feel like I enjoy it the more and get the most reward when I don’t overthink it. If I just put things out into the world it’s fun, it’s what I try to overthink it or think about what the ‘right’ choices are that it becomes a nightmare, you know?
Yeah. And it’s very obvious when you have someone posting for the sake of posting a specific thing. Sometimes they’re very calculated and kind of forced.
Drew: Totally agree.
And speaking of being a person with real feelings, you’re not afraid to be open about your sexuality and being a gay male musician. Unfortunately, there’s still some small minded people that tried to fit you in a bubble saying that you need to be ‘this’ way or ‘that’ way because of your sexuality kind of thing. Do you feel like there are some stereotypical traits that are placed upon people who are out?
Drew: I’m sure that in certain realms that that is very true, maybe even in a more mainstream pop world perhaps. I feel like in this sort of genre that I’ve been in, I haven’t felt particularly strong pressures to be one way or the other with regards to my sexuality. If anything, I’ve felt very supported to sort of explore different ways of presenting myself and different aesthetics visually. That may also be just a process for myself of having dropped this image of what it means to be a man and that toxic masculinity that I grew up around it, just all of these masculine ideals that were expected of me. I think maybe I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my thinking where I feel like I’m getting to explore all these different sides of myself in my own presentation that I haven’t been forced to choose any one of them, or limit myself to just one particular vision of what it means to be queer. For me, I’m very lucky that I haven’t been overly imposed upon.
That’s always good to hear. Have you had any specific experiences, whether positive or negative, that were directly in relation to your sexuality in regards to your music?
Drew: Yes. On the positive side, I’ve had people reach out with questions about coming out, which is so lovely and so sweet to be in that kind of dialogue with someone. It’s just so affirming as a musician who’s sharing these types of experiences with people, you know? Even people commenting on how a song relates to their own experiences, like, that type of interaction is just the best. On the negatives, I feel like I live in such a little bubble here in L.A. that I’m lucky to not have had that many negative experiences, at least as a musician. Growing up is a whole different story. *laughs* I didn’t really start making music until I was in my mid twenties, and at that point, I was already living in San Francisco and then I moved to L.A. shortly after. I’ve really lived in this very fortunate bubble where I don’t feel like I have been negatively treated because of my sexuality, at least not in ways that are aware to me right now. Who knows what the future will hold. Who knows if in certain places, I would be less welcomed or my music is less well received as a result, but it’s not something that I’m aware of right now and I hope that that continues to be true.
And hopefully it never happens!
Drew: We can only hope!
So how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Drew: That’s a very good question because it’s also intertwined. My studio is the downstairs of my apartment, and I get to make music with some of my good friends so there is a lot of intertwining of things. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about though, like, one thing that’s a small piece of it, but being really aware of when I’m working and when I’m not super important because otherwise I could end up doing this thing where I’m halfway working. I’m very much like, ‘This is my work time. And now this is the time that I’m not working’ so there isn’t this constant in-between, which I think is really important.
And if you could give your younger self any advice in regards to what you’ve experienced in music or in life in general, what advice would you give him?
Drew: The thing that comes to mind is, ‘Don’t be too precious about things.’ I feel like with my first record, and even stuff before that, I was so careful about releasing things that I would just hold things way too close to my chest.
It’s like having a first child.
Drew: *laughs* Exactly! But yeah, I’d really like to tell him to just create and put things out in the world, and not hold on to things too tightly. I think it’s all part of an evolution to just constantly be generating and putting things out in the world in order to create space for new things. I think learning to ask for help is another one that’s super important, and not to be too shy to ask someone who is further along in their career for advice or help.
What do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Drew: Sonically, I hope that it appeals to people. These songs are living in this experimental side of pop that I hope the strangeness of can tickle your interest. I like to picture people having a cathartic experience while listening to my music, and it would be such a nice thing if it hit people in a way where they realized that their experiences are shared. Particularly when it comes to matters of the heart or sexuality or things like that, people can feel really alone in their particular struggles where sometimes they can make them somehow broken. I think being able to hear about shared experiences and giving us a sense of community is super important, and if my songs remind people of that, that would be really great.
And apart from the release of Keeper, which we’re all excited about, what other big, exciting things should we be expecting from you in the near future?
Drew: The upside of spending so much time at home right now is that I’ve started writing new music. Some of it for myself, and some of it for my currently long-distance collab project Elio. Once I can, I’ll also be going on tour.
Check out Onsen on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify!
About Roo Coffee:
With the wonders of visually focused sites like Instagram and Pinterest, it’s so easy to make a must-visit list of coffeeshops around the world. Los Angeles without a doubt has an impressive amount of adorable cafes, and Aussie-themed Roo Coffee certainly holds a spot on the list. Getting the chance to visit really is an all-around magical experience, and whether you’re a local or a visitor or a furry animal, you will be welcomed with open arms.
Warm neutrals and pastels greet you from the outside with their shared outdoor seating area and continue the happy-go-lucky theme indoors with comfy padded benches, sparkling barista personalities, and hints of shimmer in every corner. Their menu contains a combo of healthy options (like avocado toast) and fun recipes (like their signature Fairy Bread), with classic drink options, smoothies, and Aussie-themed specials. I’m a sucker for chocolate ganache, so of course, the delightfully creamy Aussie Cappuccino was my choice. Whether you’re there for a quick fix or looking to enjoy a longer stay, Roo Coffee has enough to offer for any type of customer.
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