Beginning after recording for Machinedrum’s Human Energy album wrapped in 2016, the project’s piano-led sound is a break-away from the hyper-glitchy, pop-fused beats the American record producer has long been known for – whether on his own albums, released over the last two decades, or on records produced for behemothic stars like Azealia Banks, A$AP Ferg and Jesse Boykins III.
“I started writing elysian in 2016, a month or two after turning in my album Human Energy which I had spent three months on from conception to delivery,” says Stewart. “After that intense period of working on Human Energy – it’s really bright and bombastic and not subtle – in response to that I didn’t want to make any more beats for a while and wanted to focus on my favorite instrument, the piano.”
Each day, Stewart sat down at the piano and played his way through songs. Around this time, he’d moved to LA from New York, with the idea of “having one foot in urban life, and another foot in nature.” Since then, the pendulum has swung between knocking out beats for Machinedrum projects, then cruising back to the piano in the downtime, “recording various ideas, whether or not they went to anything.”
“Over the years I’ve developed a habit of playing piano as much as I can,” explains Stewart, of the album’s several year long gestation period. “I make a point to record whatever I play, even if I don’t end up using it. This album is a collection of my favorite pieces of music created in this way from over the past 5 years.”
The result: an incredibly evocative, psychedelic record that cooly bridges the gap between centuries-old nature and modern electronics, smogged-up cityscapes and green footed respites, classical songwriting with contemporary sheen. “A lot of my melodic tendencies on this album come from composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass,” says Stewart. “That’s especially apparent on the opening track. But it’s also influenced by lots of Thrill Jockey artists like Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, even Stereolab.”
Think: lightly plucked guitar that resembles heaven-sounding harp strings. Slow building ascensions, as if bringing the listener closer to the clouds. Light layers, upon even lighter layers. For Stewart, relying on less instruments, removing the beat entirely, means elysian is the most vulnerable release from his decades-long catalogue of otherwise club-ready, saucer-eyed tunes.
“The tstewart project has been mostly reserved for stuff that’s a bit more personal, that’s not as reliant on beats to carry everything along,” he says. “Usually people are expecting big, bombastic sounds that are meant for the club or rocking out to. This has become an escape from that.”
Added into the mix, instead, are connections to tranquility. Named after the park in the Elysian Heights area of Los Angeles that Stewart relocated to after moving from New York, the record leans into nature – and the realization of the natural world as a needed balm for modern day life.
“I would hike in Elysian Park and listen to these songs,” says Stewart. “The park was walking distance from my house. There’s these giant stairs that seem like they go on forever, going from the valley I’m living in, to the top of the hill, then it opens up into the park.”
LA’s oldest and second largest public park presented a green, peace-led backdrop to the stress-fused concrete elsewhere in the city. As time went on and Stewart delved deeper down the rabbit hole, he discovered the origination of the ‘Elysian’ part of the park’s name. “In Greek mythology, Elysian or Elysium Fields is the place where fallen heroes go in the after-life,” he says. This lead him to find a deeper meaning within the album: Experiencing heaven on earth through music and nature.
Physicality played an important part too. There are 282 steps leading into Elysian Park – more than enough to warrant a sit-down breather once reaching the top. It’s the sort of staircase that never seems to finish, bringing a grandiose element into play. You can hear this across the record, as the first tracks continue to build upon one another before crescendo-ing in “Baxter Climb”.
“The ascension of going up those stairs that feel like they never end and finally pay off when you find yourself in the park was really powerful for me. It also represented how I approached writing melodies on this album,” says Stewart, who also named other tracks after areas in the park. “I do these ascending melodies that seem like they never end. Almost like a giant staircase, creating a melodic Shepard tone effect.”
Rather than bringing in session musicians and collaborators for this extremely personal record, Stewart takes the lead role. “As I put together the album, I was tempted to reach out to vocalists. That’s my normal thing with Machinedrum records. But I decided not to do that. There are other songs where I thought I could have easily had someone play an additional instrument or sing something. But since the past few Machinedrum records were highly collaborative, I wanted to challenge myself to do everything on the record. It’s my name on the moniker, so I thought it would make sense for me to do everything.”
Writing and recording across multiple genres has long been part of Stewart’s musical history, whether as Machinedrum, on tstewart releases, or under any number of other monikers (he has several). Growing up in North Carolina, he’s long been exposed to songwriting. Piano started super young (“As early as I can remember. I grew up with a baby grand in the house – I played it all the time”). Guitar arrived before he hit double figures. Then came marching snare in marching band, djembe in African percussion groups, bass guitar in jazz band, followed by various mallet percussion instruments in advanced percussion ensembles while at university – the whole gamut of sound.
Diverse excavations, euphoric leaps, pop leanings – these have all entered the Stewart mix throughout his career. With the scene-crafting, world-introducing tones of elysian, he moves toward yet more new, but no less euphoric territory. This time, it’s about recreating other-worldly ascension. “The whole album is an exploration of how we can discover heaven on earth through the inner-peace found when connecting with nature,” he says.
Continuing, he sums up the album in a nutshell: “Elysian literally translates to heaven for heroes. I’m not religious. To me, the idea of heaven is an inner-peace you seek while alive. I try to find moments in my life where I connect with that feeling and two of the easiest ways are by listening to music and exploring nature.” Welcome, then, to the ascending staircase toward sun-touched elysian.