It wasn't so long ago that Memphis native Ethan Healy, aka Healy, made a trip with his bandmate Ali Abu-Khraybeh to Joshua Tree National Park on a songwriting retreat. Having had notable success with his 2017 album, Subluxe, including almost 52 million streams of the single "Reckless," it's safe to say that the pressure to deliver was on.
"We did a summer tour in 2018 with about 20 shows. Then, in 2019, I played Memphis in May. But after that I just really wanted to hunker down and put some of these songs into a longer-form project," Healy says. Beyond that, he wanted to both build on his success and explore new textures and styles. "My friend Andrew Fleming from Memphis introduced me to Beach House as I was coming out of my last album cycle, and I fell back on dream pop, synth-driven stuff like them. And I accessed some more singer/songwriter, Laurel Canyon energies. Like Crosby, Stills and Nash. Trying to get in touch with those kinds of feelings."
- Henry Head
- Ethan Healy
So, although his new album, Tungsten, dropping via Braintrust/RCA Records this Wednesday, has plenty of carefully crafted synthetic sounds, beats, and samples, like his debut, one thing jumped out for Healy and Ali when they walked into their rental at Joshua Tree — that perfectly dovetailed with his new sonic direction. "We walked in the door and there was an upright piano there, and we looked at each other and said, 'Let's start writing a song.'"
What came out of that became the latest single from the new album, "Back on the Fence," which was released last month. In fact, the very piano they encountered is in the track, giving it a homey, you-are-there quality, captured right in the moment of the song's creation. "I had a melody that I had been singing on the way there. And Ali and I wrote the piano melody around it, and we worked into the night until we realized we hadn't eaten dinner," he laughs.
- Henry Head
- Healy and Ali Abu-Khraybeh
That he captured that sound so well is partly due to his fondness for field recordings, another common sonic element in his work. "I have a 3D binaural microphone that's shaped like human ears. So when you listen to music recorded with it in headphones, and close your eyes, you can almost imagine the room it was recorded in. I was hovering over Ali's shoulder with the microphone, so it sounds just like you're sitting in front of the piano Ali was playing."
The tones of a slightly clunky upright piano are a welcome flavor in his music, which largely takes its cue from the hip-hop and R&B world. Healy is often called a "rapper," and he pulls it off credibly, but the new album features more melodic singing and non-electronic instruments. "We used the same microphone for the classical guitar in the second verse, too," he adds. "You can hear the picking on the strings; it's almost like an ASMR recording, in that it almost tingles your brain."
But surely the most gripping nod to traditional melodic elements is brought by the track's featured vocalist, Thea Gustafsson, of the band Becky and the Birds. Her often stratospheric singing is downright otherworldly. "She created almost a waterfall of harmonies," Healy says. "I feel like a sliver of Minnie Ripperton's soul was reincarnated into Thea. Words can't describe how special she is. She's just an artist through to the marrow. She knocked out all of her parts and the writing in a week, and wrote a really beautiful verse, all from Stockholm, where she lives. She made that song what it is today."
All in all, it's in keeping with the new direction Healy mapped out for his latest work. "It's definitely more expansive, in terms of the soundscape. It's a lot prettier, for sure. I honestly treated the album like an escape, more than I ever have before with music. I was trying to depict these really lush and ethereal soundscapes. There's a theme of fear avoidance present throughout the entire thing, and I wanted to underscore that or punctuate it with these pretty scenes."