Hello Arjuna! You've had a very busy few years since your Watcher EP in 2019. Multiple projects including airtime with highly respected radio stations, and of course now your collaboration with the incredible John Psathas. Creatively speaking, how are you currently feeling?
I'm just wrapping up the mixing process for my first debut full-length album, which has been a long time in the making, and I've just finished writing a project for Gallery Orchestra, which is with a friend of mine, Leah Thomas, who runs a small Wellington-based orchestra for young freelancers. I’m now onto notating the music for 15 musicians – it’s been a big push! But I'm at the tail end of that now, so I feel very creatively fulfilled.
John Psathas was incredibly – and deservedly – complimentary about you during our interview, in fact, actively rejecting the title of “young composer”, instead referring to you as a fully formed artist. How has it been working with John?
It's been incredible. John and I have become really good friends! I think that's the most incredible part of any collaborative relationship, is that through music, you're able to get to know someone so much more, and you develop a bond. I think what's amazing with John is that we are very similar, and like to express similar emotions through music, yet our approaches to getting there differ quite a lot. I think that’s why we work well together, we wouldn’t be able to make the same music on our own. I have learned so much from him because he's always so curious and has an infectious passion for life. He's as fresh as anything, and that's so energising, because sometimes I meet accomplished musicians and things bog them down. But not John, he's got his finger on the pulse. I've learned a lot from him as a person, and as a musician. He’s the best!
Talk to us about your upcoming piece, Safe Way To Fall, performed next month with Orchestra Wellington
“Safe Way To Fall” is a song John and I wrote at the end of October 2021, roughly a year and a half ago. John has a place in Waitārere on the coast, we had a few days there and wrote some songs together. The first time I’d met John was through being a recipient of the Arts Foundation Springboard award where he was my mentor, but this was the first time where we worked together in direct collaboration. I didn't really expect us to be writing everything together, I thought we would do some things together, and perhaps we'd go our separate ways. But we ended up doing everything together, Safe Way to Fall especially. I was at the piano playing chords and singing whatever came out of my mouth, while John was saying “I like that” or “What if you” and we crafted the lyrics and the music together in that room, which was an incredible rush. You can generate something by yourself, but how it develops can be totally different depending on who you're in the room with. As soon as John hears something, and he understands the emotional weight of it, he knows where it needs to go to fulfil its purest potential. That's another thing that I admire so much about John - it's always about what the music needs. It's never about “what concept I can put on this?” or “where can I push this?” in terms of trying to show off or make it sound pretty. It's always the idea of us questioning: what is this trying to say? How is this making us feel? Where could it go and how could we structure it and make it the best it can be? Which is incredible and takes a lot of humility to do. I think a lot of musicians get carried away with wanting to put so much in and I’m definitely one of them. It's a huge lesson to say no, just let the music talk to you and tell you what it needs.
John came up with a great analogy for when you two are working together. When you’re at the piano improvising, in any form, John sees himself as sitting there like a fisherman, waiting with his hook to catch the brilliant pieces of music you come up with.
It's exactly that. I might stumble across something because, as I have a background in jazz, the way I generate music is I improvise, and you don't always know when you’ve created something worthwhile. Then five seconds later, I’ve totally forgotten what I did. I have to record everything, otherwise, I will forget it. What's really great is that I might stumble across something that I think “whatever”, but John says, “no, wait”, and then he grabs it, and we develop it. Without him there, I would not have caught it. So yes, he is like a fisherman.
What do you think it is about Wellington that makes it such an attractive location for artists such as yourself?
I think it’s the size of the city more than anything. The geography really affects how creative the city is and how much there is here for creatives to dig into. Growing up in Auckland, I grew up in Titirangi, which is a little village out west, just before the Waitākeres & Piha, so it never really felt like I grew up in the city. Auckland is so huge that for young people to get out and go to a gig, it takes a lot of effort. You either have to drive a long way or take an expensive Uber to get to a gig, so people are less incentivized to go and do things, especially if they don't feel like it's worth it. Auckland has a great music scene though, which goes to show people’s dedication. When I moved to Wellington about four years ago, I just was amazed that people will go and see a band that has never released any music. A band that hadn't released anything will sell out San Fran, which is 500 people! And because it's such a small city, young people can afford to live in town for the most part. People can walk everywhere, relatively cheap Uber, they can get to places and they can do things. I find Wellington incredibly welcoming for artists, when I got here everyone welcomed me and I jammed with so many people.
A bit of a generic question, but who are your biggest musical influences?
It changes every time. It's very hard to distil it down because I am inspired by a lot of music, and it definitely changes as I go from one thing to the next. I think there are two types of influence. There's a very noticeable influence of how something sounds, but I think also more for me, there's music that really touched me and said something emotional that I wanted to express but maybe I don't necessarily sound like them. John and I have a huge shared love of Radiohead. When I was growing up my parents didn't listen to Radiohead, but they listened to music that was inspired by Radiohead, like Keane and Coldplay and so on. So I was inspired through second degrees of inspiration. The same with D’Angelo – I’m a big D'Angelo fan, but I never listened to D'Angelo growing up. But Kiwi legends like Fat Freddy's Drop were inspired by D'Angelo and you can hear the influence. So again, I was inspired through a few different artists and the lineage of the music. I think I always go back to the people that I listened to as a kid, but I also find new people. Another influence would be Moses Sumey, who's an incredible musician in America. Someone else who I've recently been obsessed with is a singer-songwriter called Lomelda who's more of a folk singer, she's got a really interesting voice and her music has this raw quality to it that I’m just obsessed with.
What sort of advice would you give to those who are just starting out in your line of work?
I think it's very easy to get obsessed with a plan. I don't have a plan. I just follow what I love to do and the music that I love to create. It's about being true to yourself. If you get pulled in different directions and that feels right to you, then just do it. It doesn't matter what other people think. If you want to do one thing here, one thing there, if you want to change the genre, if you want to work with different musicians, if you want to travel… just do it, and don't worry, because if it feels right, something beautiful is going to happen.
And finally, what's next for Arjuna Oakes?
I am moving to the UK in a couple of months, I have been finishing my debut full-length album, which is quite eclectic! I’m also in the middle of a project with Gallery Orchestra with Leah Thomas, we’ve finished writing it and we're about to record it in June. And then me and John are going to record an album together in Greece, with incredible Greek musicians and our own NZ legend Sam Notman on drums, who'll be living in London too. It's been really rewarding making a lot of music – but it'll be nice to have a break!
Myth & Ritual featuring Arjuna's Safe Way To Fall, takes place at Michael Fowler Centre Saturday 3rd June 7.30pm.
Tickets available here.