Follow the Monuments
Jack Larsen loves to talk about data. In the half hour since we’ve met at Closed Sessions studios, we haven’t even discussed music yet, his or anyone else’s, and he’s already spent a solid chunk of time trying to explain what he deems to be a successful career as an artist in this day and age. “I’m such a numbers guy” he explains. “I’ll just calculate ratios…for example, with ‘followers’ to ‘likes’ on Instagram, 30% is the number I came up with that if you have a dedicated fanbase, 30% of them will be ‘liking’ your photos…I did it the other night and saw that I was on track, right around 30%. It’s the whole game.” I’m trying to keep up; not because I don’t understand math, the concept of ratios, or what a “like” is on Instagram (I’m only a few years older than he is), but because this is definitely not what I expected to be talking about when I asked his label for an in-person interview. If you’ve heard any of Jack’s music, you will likely feel as I do that there is a free-flowing quality to it that feels detached from the laws of gravity that keep most music in order. It feels like a balloon that is filled with just enough helium that it won’t quite fly away but will hover just high enough above the ground for it to be a kind of magical thing. It’s music that feels instinctual, raw, and highly indebted to natural feelings and loose thoughts. In essence, it feels like memory, or at least the tint that colors our memories, which tends to grow more saturating as time goes by. What it doesn’t sound like, at least to me, is numbers. So I find myself questioning if the guy I’m speaking with, this young blond kid with a couple carefully placed tattoos and a tired-and-wired energy, is actually the one who recorded the EP Push-Ups, an album that continues to floor me with its lush sense of wonder. In the end, it turns out it is. “That’s why I love recording.” he says, when I ask him what it is about making music that appeals to him on the most basic and human level. “It’s what uses up all of my brain power.”
Push-Ups, the debut EP Jack released earlier this summer, is the sound of someone afraid to grow up, meaning it’s a record anyone can likely find something about themselves in. It’s six unapologetically sentimental songs never venture far outside of the bittersweet feelings that come with the end of a life chapter, which in Jack’s case was graduating college. The entire record was made in his dorm room at Columbia, a university gaining notoriety for fostering some of the artists making up the current Chicago cultural renaissance of music, poetry, film, and activism. He had been making music quietly for years, uploading a song or two every year on Soundcloud, but it wasn’t until the end of his college experience grew closer that he felt the shove to go all-in with his art. “I knew I didn’t want to do anything else” he explains. “I worked for one of those architecture boat tour companies, and I would be downtown by the river by the Wrigley building and just see all of these people walk into these buildings at 9AM and walk out at 5pm and just look miserable. Every single day. And it freaked me out! I told myself I can’t be that person. So I turned to music, almost like I was running out of time.”
Faced with the real world getting closer every day, Jack begun laying down ideas that would make up the EP. He knew early on that the record would be about looking back as a way to move forward. “Flower” came first, a hazy pop song with woozy synths, bells, and a drum pattern more closely resembling a marching band than trap. It’s a song about someone leaving, his “flower”, and wishing more than anything that they would stay. Knowing the place Jack was in, it’s easy to assume this feeling could also be attributed to a fleeting sense of childhood and innocence. Lead single “Break” begins with a laundry list of firsts from his life: breaking his arm at five, his first push-up at nine, falling in love and taking LSD at seventeen. Songs like “Prom” and “Burr Rd.” also detail a past that is growing increasingly distant, even as the feelings their memories bring take stronger hold. Snapshots like scars from reckless weekends, hands briefly touching, and gazing up to toward the sky without care or worry bring us as listeners back into a childlike state of wonderment and possibility, where everything is remembered as timeless moments spent outdoors, even as this way of adolescence becomes less and less of a reality. In speaking with Jack, I found myself surprised that someone who told me “I met all my friends off the Internet” could not just feel the same kind of nostalgia that I do but express it through sound in such a crystalized way. When I had first heard Push-Ups, my main takeaway was that it sounded like growing up, but more specifically, it sounded like a mid, late-90’s kid growing up.
Jack grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and like many suburban kids, he felt out of place with his childhood surroundings. “I didn’t socialize in the suburbs. I just went in my own world. Which is funny because it’s probably a whole different thing in the city where there are so many scenes and stuff and you don’t need to escape into the internet, but that’s what I had. It was like, ‘okay, what’s cooler? The state football team or these little artists online when the whole town doesn’t really care about art?’” Even before he tells me about his childhood, and discusses Twitter analytics at length (which is a conversation only someone raised on the Internet can speak about as passionately and sincerely as he does), it’s easy to tell where he built his community, and where he cut his teeth as a songwriter. A few years ago, Bruce Springsteen told a crowd in his South By Southwest keynote that the E Street Band became great by playing shows any night of the week they could find a venue willing to offer them a stage and a microphone. Back in the day, that was how artists were molded, gained audiences, got attention from record companies, and set a foundation for a life on the road performing the fruits of their labor to people who expressed a desire to witness. Jack, on the other hand, fits the mold of the modern-day musician- recording in a bedroom, uploading songs to Soundcloud, gaining followers through various online marketing tactics, and sometimes having a hit song and a record deal before ever even stepping foot on a stage. He grew up in the modern version of the DIY scene, where all you need is a laptop with Garageband, about $300 worth of recording equipment, and an internet connection to write, record, and release music that the entire world is capable of hearing in an instant. It’s no surprise to hear that Jack met Kevin Abstract online a few years before the founding of Brockhampton, and that they remain close friends to this day. But as Jack learned from watching Brockhampton’s meteoric rise, there are factors that are needed for an artist to reach cultural consciousness. Talent is one, drive is certainly another. And more than ever, a fully-conceived marketing plan. In Jack’s mind, that’s exactly what got him signed in the first place.
As a Senior at Columbia, Jack signed up for an Applied Marketing class within the school’s Music Business program, which was taught by Alex Fruchter, the co-founder of the Chicago indie hip hop label Closed Sessions. In Jack’s words, the main chunk of the course was formulating a specific marketing goal for an artist, which could be anything from promoting an upcoming show to creating a strategy for releasing a record. While the assignment was a largely hypothetical learning exercise, Jack, who had begun recoding demos for what would eventually turn into Push-Ups, decided to use his own aspiring career as his focus in the class. He began making a detailed marketing plan for his own unfinished record, creating a target audience, SWOT analysis, a full-blown mission statement, a bio, and more. Every week, Alex would read something new, and would become more interested in Jack as an artist. Then, for his midterm, Jack played him the song “Row”, the opening song on Push-Ups.
“Row” is a song written for Jack’s mother; his best friend in the world, and the person he had to leave when he came to Chicago from Nashville for college. It’s a purely A Capella track, beginning with a beautiful melody of multi-tracked hums, and grows forcefully with each new line sung. Although the lyrics are mysterious on the surface, Jack tells me that it is a song about leaving home, and the complex emotions of needing to leave things behind to start anew. The lines “I can’t stay, you must wait, send my love, send your faith” blend beautifully into the roundabout lines of “I won’t fall down again, I won’t give up again, cracks in the cold cement, follow the monuments.” As an introduction to the record, it’s an utterly mystifying and remarkably romantic first glimpse into who Jack is as a singer and lyricist. Needless to say, Alex was intrigued, and signed Jack to the label shortly thereafter.
As the first non-hip hop or R&B artist to ever sign to Closed Sessions, Jack believes it was his attention to detail on all aspects of his art that left the biggest impression. Aside from the music, he envisioned his art as a whole, desiring to use film photography, analogue video, and Super 8 cameras to service the theme of nostalgia. “At the end of the day, the music was only like 30% of it. The rest was me trying to figure out all the art, filming and editing the videos, the idea for the cover … I think he just saw a well-rounded artist and took a chance.” True to his vision, all of the supplemental artwork and press photos bear the mark of true analog film and are highly intentional with meaning.
The cover of the record shows Jack sitting with his back against a white wall mostly covered in shadow, yet his face and body are illuminated by natural light coming through a window. His eyes don’t give off a discernable emotion, but they are anything but empty. What ultimately grabs one’s attention, however, is the fact that the guy doesn’t have a shirt on. Part of that is likely indebted to the title of the record- if you are going to make an album called Push-Ups, I guess a shirtless cover photo makes more sense than anything else. But while his body is clearly built in a masculine image, there is a real vulnerability that comes through as well. It’s surprising how soft of an image it is, and that duality certainly comes through in his personality. Like many suburban white kids, particularly boys, Jack tells me of putting on a “street” persona for most of his time growing up; something so many of us do out of unconscious retaliation of the staleness the picket fence environment threatens us with becoming. But moving out to Chicago, he feels he was able to be himself for the very first time. “I like shaking my ass and going to Boy’s Town and dancing to pop music” he tells me with a laugh made of total happiness and contentment- not a trace of embarrassment in sight. “Since coming to Chicago, I’ve done nothing but be myself”. But even a newfound confidence has a way of cowering to the expectations of those we grew up with. “To tell you the truth, I was scared to promote this EP, mostly because I was scared at how people from my hometown would react” he confides. “And I’m four years out of my hometown dude! It was eating at me.”
Luckily for Jack, that self-doubt came and went relatively quickly. As we move into another room at the studio, Jack gives me a sneak peak of his newest song “Ugly”, which at the time hadn’t been released. He tells me about driving all the way out to Wisconsin just to take the cover photo, which surprises me as the photo in question features literally zero indications of the state of Wisconsin. It’s a close-up of Jack’s face, smeared and stretched when pushed against a piece of plexiglass in front of the camera. Fittingly, his shirt is off, and it's once again a soft, compelling, and strangely beautiful photo. The song itself is gorgeous; like the songs on Push-Ups, the delays and reverbs paint the whole thing in a past summer’s glow. It’s a beautiful and captivating mix of moments that feel like happy accidents, yet is also sound of someone with a total and complete idea in their head and miraculously transcribing it moment for moment. It’s also a total banger: easily the most pop-leaning song I have heard him write. Part of that is the repetition of lyrics and its overall hook-y feel (not to mention an incredible “Illinois Boy” refrain that must be trademarked immediately), but it mostly comes through in a newfound sense of confidence in his delivery. According to Jack, it is the closest he has come to finding is own style, and funny enough, it’s because it reminds him of the artists he admires most. “I’m starting to see the people I’m influenced by rub off in my music… with ‘Ugly’, I’m just so happy because everyone is coming out of me. So many of my inspirations- Frank Ocean, MIA, Lil Peep, Brockhampton- they are all there, but it’s coming through me. That’s the final product. And I can’t wait to what else is in there”.
After playing me another demo he’s working on, which includes a lush guitar pattern influenced by Bon Iver, Bon Iver, we realize we live about two blocks away from each other in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, and decide to split an Uber. While we wait outside, a massive SUV pulls up in front of us, and Chance the Rapper’s brother Taylor get out from the backseat, walking right past us into the studio. I send a slight nod his way, but also notice, for a brief moment, I’m a little star struck. Things like this are common in Chicago, and I find myself wondering if one day Jack Larsen will be recognizable enough to cause people to stop in their tracks, maybe even take out their phones for an undercover photo. That’s certainly the goal; Jack wants to be a pop star, pure and simple, and is willing to go wherever he needs to go to make it a reality. For someone with admitted anxiety about growing up and coming into the real world, there is no mistaking how resolute he is about having a career and making it count. He knows it’s all on him, and in this aspect of his life, he’s unwavering.
In the Uber, Jack is pure energy. “Ugly” is going to be dropping in a few weeks, and he is nearly shaking in anticipation for the world to hear it. He tells me about his older brother’s response to “Ugly” (“All he said was, ‘Dude, what the hell??’ and that told me everything I needed to know. I got a reaction from my brother! Do you know how huge that is!?). We talk about the post-Blonde era of pop music we are currently living in, and dancing to “Our House” by Crosby Stills and Nash as a kid. But the majority of our ride home is spent talking about a band we both love without abandon: The 1975. “I want people to feel about me like I feel about the 1975” he tells me. “I’m low key creating music hoping Matty Healy will hear it” I understand completely. The 1975, a band first scoffed at for their perceived pretension, hyper-millennial viewpoints, and disarmingly good looks which were driving legions of young female fans, have since used all of these things their critics initially loathed against them, becoming one of the most beloved and ambitious bands of a generation. Jack feels like an enigma in many ways, and like his musical heroes, it’s clear that what makes him different is ultimately what will be used as his power to break through and connect. There is enough “other” in him that I have no doubt that it will connect to the “other” in a lot of people; probably more than he even realizes. In 2018, that’s what people are looking for in their pop stars; the idols who could have been anybody or nobody, but weren’t.
The next year is poised to be a big one for Jack; he’s excited to continue writing and recording and is itching to get out on the road for the first time. But what he’s most looking forward to is meeting some of the fans he has interacted with online in the past year; the ones who told him about falling in love and getting over heartbreak to his music. “The internet has opened so many doors” he tells me with a smile, but quickly retracts a bit. “But you can’t stay on the internet forever. Which is obvious, I guess. You need to branch out into the real world at some point. That’s what’s next”. As we say goodbye, I think of all those people who have reached out to Jack online, whose summers were enormously impacted by his music, and what it will mean to come face-to-face with those people and their stories. Before long, Jack will surely be out in the world, doing everything he possibly can to become the pop star he dreams of being, and his fans will have the opportunity to get up close to the person whose music means so much to them. It’s that person-to-person connection that, at the end of the day, this is all about. Turns out there are still a few things the Internet can’t replace.