We get to know Sweden’s producing pro iSHi, following the release of his explosive track “Push It”, featuring Pusha T and Tinie Tempah.
Leather jacket by COS, t-shirt by RICK OWENS, jeans by DRK SHDW FOR RICK OWENS and watch, iSHi’s own.
You have to have heard “Push It” already. iSHi’s track with Pusha T and Tinie Tempah been streamed six million times on Spotify already, so chances are, one of those clicks was yours. After being the brains behind blowout tracks such as Emeli Sande’s “Read All About It” and Tinie Tempah’s “Written In The Stars”, he’s going it alone on a venture as a solo artist. Well sort of solo. It’s his name on the front of the mixtape but he’s got a back up gang of 15 different featured artists coming along for the ride.
The full package, iSHi’s not only arrived with a mixtape, he’s got a short film alongside it too. After six months of work on visuals, there was too much for just a video. We sat down with iSHi hours before he flew home to Stockholm to talk about the importance of a consistent aesthetic, battles with his brother and the consequent influences he gave him, writing songs for girls and the beginnings of his solo success.
Hat by HORISAKI, chains by 424 INC, t-shirt by RICK OWENS and blazer by TIGER.
How did it all start?
I was actually forced by my old teacher to start playing the drums. In Sweden, you have to study a language, German or Spanish or whatever. I didn’t study and the teacher after three or fourth months, when I was 12, was like “you’re not studying, I’m going to take you downstairs”, and I was like “what’s downstairs?” It’s called ‘music studio’ in Sweden, some schools have it. It’s for the students who are not capable of studying. They have to pick an instrument and play it. At this point I thought it was great, why don’t they have that everywhere? Anyway, I picked drums, I was 11/12, and from there when I was 14/15 I started playing the piano. It was more because I wanted to produce; I wanted to learn how to play the keys and program drums on the keyboard. Then I really got into piano, I started music school. I fell in love with a girl when I was 15 and I wanted to show-off by playing all the Boyz II Men, Babyface, all the ballads.
Did it work?
No because I never got a chance to play them for her! She was with some other guy in the end. Damn! But it really helped, because at the time I was really getting into Google and looking up all the producers like Babyface and I’m like what are they really doing? Both from the ballads perspective, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, you know, that whole era that came. But at the same time my brother would force me to listen to hip-hop, because we didn’t really have hip-hop around us like that. You went to your raps on MTV every Saturday from 10-2pm, and we had one small television at home and he would get up at 9:45, make his tea and grab the remote. We got into fights because of that a couple of times. Slowly but surely that love for hip-hop grew, because he would work part-time and buy every single CD that came out, East Coast hip-hop, Tupac, West Coast, Biggie, and I would hear it. But at the time, growing up in Sweden we had the euro-techno around us everywhere, which is now like EDM. So having that and playing Nirvana and Offspring, having the hip-hop from my brother, I was really influenced by different sounds. I think if you bring it to my sound today, the prototype to the sound of my album Push It and Spring Pieces, you can hear elements of everything. It’s a mixture of drums and hard hip-hop beats mixed with electronic synths or whatever you want to call it. I’m not going to categorise it, even when people ask me “what is your sound?” hopefully one day I can say “that’s the Ishi sound”.
You take things from so many different places, is that quite a natural thing for you or is it a conscious effort?
I think in the beginning, I was trying not to do anything that’s normal but now it just comes from nowhere. I think I always try to experiment, so if I’ve made a really hard hip-hop track, the next track is automatically like a stripped down ballad. I just try to go so far away from the first track I did, so I constantly reinvent myself all the time. I’ve proven it to myself, if I make three hip-hop tracks in a row, the second and third one is never as good as the first one, so I have to go away and make something completely different and come back to the hip-hop later.
Now that you’ve got your method down, is there anyone that has a career that you think is incredible?
There’s so many that inspire me. As an artist and performer, I always think Kanye West. You know what it is? Sometimes he’ll release tracks that I might not really like, but just as an artist, he always comes back. He reinvents and he just goes in his own lane and that’s what I really like about him. You can really tell and feel that it’s all real. Then there are vocalists. It really depends on what time of the year it is. I usually think I listen to hip-hop all the time but I don’t, I’ll stay updated and listen to the latest stuff. If you came to my house, you’d be surprised. I listen to Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, jazz. It’s mostly that the jazz music, that’s what I used to play in school and I just like those music pieces that are five to seven minutes long where you don’t have a hook or a pop chorus that you have to sing along to. So when you’re cleaning or washing up, you’re really not thinking about anything you’re just appreciating really good music and that’s what I love about that kind of music. I can say that that brings me away from everything and when I’m in the studio, my mind is just so fresh. When when it’s time for me to create, I’m not thinking about Pharrell’s latest single or Beyonce’s latest single, I just create from scratch. It works for me.
You seemed to have worked with everyone, and quite a broad mixture of people. What do you think it is about you that makes you capable to work with so many different types of musicians?
Honestly, I would say growing up in Sweden you have so many talented producers around. What’s funny is Stockholm is not a big place and most of us are friends, so I was growing up with Sebastian Ingrosso who is a good friend of mine, and Axwell. No one interferes with each other’s sound. I would say friends need competition. You inspire each other, but at the same time I feel like it’s every time I haven’t compromised, the greatest songs come out. For example, when we did “Written in the Stars” with Tinie Tempah, no one told us “make this sound”, so it’s organic like when I made Push It, no one is in the studio telling me what to do. Eric, I found him singing at a showcase in Stockholm, and the third song we made was, “Written in the Stars”, really organic. Then Tinie came to Sweden, and he’s sitting there like “guys you’ve got to see my new video for ‘Pass Out’”, everything was so fresh. At the time, we didn’t really think about that. Then when it was time for us to go back into the studio with Tinie, you could really feel with the labels involved, there were too many people involved. Too many chefs. We could kind of tell they were trying to copy the blueprint with “Written in the Stars” but we made a great song. But all of us kind of felt, and especially me, that we wanted to take it to the next level and make something even more different. Even working with all these artists, I know I work the best when I’m not being told “I want something like this and this”. They come in and they have to have that creative freedom like I have, to make whatever. For the album, the music spectrum is really broad. The last two songs on the album are completely stripped down ballads, so I’ve kept them completely as a piano, a voice and a live orchestra playing. You’ve heard “Push It” – that’s very programmed hip-hop but once it’s time for the album to drop you hear, “this is iSHi”.
Talking about Tinie Tempah, what is the reason between you two that you’ve been able to build up such a good relationship? I heard you were out last night?
Yeah, we’re so alike. We just connected straight away. When we met, he hadn’t released anything. When I first worked with him, it was even before “Pass Out” in about 2009. This is the time before, even some of the songs I did on the first album with Kelly Rowland, I made that before “Pass Out”, before he got signed. So it’s way back. When I met them they were a really small set up, Disturbing London, Tinie and Dumi his manager. Engaged, married, kids, we shared all these moments together, when they came to Sweden, so I think slowly but surely everyone knows each other. We are actually working for his new project and we still hang out as friends.
Did you expect such a huge response to “Push It”?
Actually no, I didn’t expect anything. Because when I started my project, I was just tired of hearing everything. I’m tired of hearing all these pop songs. I’m never going to take that away from all these big pop artists like Taylor Swift and all these big guys that are mostly produced by my friends in Sweden, and that’s great – they are amazing song writers and producers – but I see it as a factory almost. It’s perfect for the artist, it’s like “here you go”. But I can’t work like that, because then I feel like I’m being boxed in. I have to have my freedom. So “Push It” just came from nowhere, I just went back to what I really like, and I started saying to myself and everyone around me, that I’m only going to make music that I like and be really selfish. I don’t care what anyone says; I just wanted to make something that I could listen to on repeat. That’s how “Push It” came, and even when I made it I thought somehow, somewhere I’ve got to get it to Pusha T, he needs to hear it and I just need to take it from there.
How did you and Pusha T meet?
I actually met him through his management. I was working with one of his other artists, Pusha’s manager. When I signed with Ash I told him, this is the link, this is probably the way we should go in. A couple of weeks later he was like “here’s the demo”, Pusha recorded, he loves it, and I just heard it in my car. It was really amazing. You know what, I’m going to quote my old manager, Tim Blacksmith, he’s a great guy, he said to me – “It doesn’t matter how or where we get in life”, he was talking to me as a producer in a time when I was getting really frustrated, he said “the music will always do the talking. People will hear great music and will always find a way somehow.” I take that as a positive feedback that my music did the talking. Of course, it’s a mixture of politics.
You’re making a short film. Where did that idea come from?
When we started “Push It” and we made the video, it was really based around what I saw in my head. If you look at the video, you can tell there’s some crazy shit going on, but that’s just what I saw in my head. We just started with visuals and then after like six months we had so much material so we started putting it together. The movie is really about overcoming, staying focused in your life with the obstacles, relationships. It’s basically things that come in your way. I’m not saying that relationships come in your way but just things that happen in your life. When you see the kids at the beginning, that’s me, I’m stuck in the same dream and it’s always that I’ve always wanted to make music but it’s about not finding your way. So when they are running around, it’s about when you’re a bit lost and you don’t know what path to take. When I was 18 I was like “Mum, I don’t know exactly what to do with my life. I love music but what am I going to work with and actually make a living?” Slowly seeing that movie, when you see the snow, it was more about running away and leaving your ex. Not always about leaving your ex but choosing that path that you have to take alone. So the movie is about that, staying focused on your goal, sometimes you have to walk that path alone. It just ends with the music in the end. I don’t want any drama. But I didn’t want to say that to anyone, so when people see the movie I just want them to look at it like and put their own way of seeing it onto it. Maybe they’ll see it and come up with something else.
You should write a book, or a feature film! Talking about the visuals, how important is it to you to have consistent aesthetics, the way you look, the way your music looks like your album artwork. I’ve heard you talk before about the whole Swedish minimalist look. How does that tie in to the hip-hop side of things?
To me that’s really important. My youngest brother was my example for this, he’s 19 now but when he was like 14/15, I just noticed the attention span of these youngsters… I thought I was restless when I was young, but the way they listen to music, they just look at clips on YouTube. It’s so fast. When someone listens to something, I want to hold on to that for a bit longer. I felt like if they see something, they have to like what they see. But if I can make them like what they hear and see, maybe I can really attract them to something. I started thinking like that and then that just became a natural thing, my music has to have visuals. I’ll start playing the piano and I can immediately see something… like someone’s drowning.
Lovely! Is there anything you always have to have in the studio while you’re working? A piece of equipment?
No, I’m just easy, there’s nothing really.
You’re such a non-diva, the short film might have been slightly diva but you seem pretty chilled out.
Thanks, I think that when it comes to making music I never have to have a certain synth or keyboard. When you come to my studio it’s really messy. Sometimes it feels great, it’s like you’re trying to make something beautiful come out.
I’ve read about your merch, it’s going to be like street wear and then not like street wear?
Exactly, like more high-end.
Why have you decided to do that? How’s it going to look?
Well once again, as I explained with the visuals, it just grew naturally with the music and it’s the same with fashion. I love clothes and being so involved in the visuals, I’m so aware of what I wear all the time and even more so now. You get in to it more and more, and I’ve really noticed in the last year. A year ago just before bed if I had time I would look at music videos or artists and a mixture of looking at the latest fashion shows. It’s really just my interests have broadened a bit. Meeting so many talented Swedish designers and good friends of mine as well, in some way or another they’ve always been around me. I show them my street wear: what I like, the material, the brand, the fit, and slowly they just help me to make my merchandise so that anyone could wear it. Say the bomber jackets, I want them to be beautiful with a perfect fit, but in crazy colours so you could turn them inside out. If there was a show or like a street takeover, you could just turn them inside out. But that’s more for the street lover. My stage outfit, it’s not like Lady Gaga crazy but it’s still very custom. It looks amazing but it’s still really inspired by Scandinavian Viking/Game of Thrones. I want it to look good. It has to look and fit amazing. We have some blueprints but it’s not time for it yet, maybe in a couple of months.
How do you imagine your fans? Do you have an image in your head of who you’re making music for?
The way the things are slowly and organically growing now is the best way. When I say that I mean people of different ages, male and female, girls, guys, of whatever age, when they write to me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram comments, like “Hey I love this”, “I love ‘Push It’”, “I’m playing ‘Push It’ 24/7 in the gym”, I just feel like they like the whole project; the whole visual sound. They like that it’s something fresh and new. I want to get these hard-core fans that not only like just “Push It”, but the whole project, what iSHi stands for. So in a way, I’m really happy of the outcome and hopefully I’ll have true fans everywhere. But it takes time, so I’m not stressing anything. We have a plan with the in house team, that over a year we will slowly push it and see how people embrace it. I’m still surprised when I see the streams on “Push It” and the response, it’s great. So far so good.
Is there anything you just really want to do?
Yeah, I think honestly, the blueprint I have is these ten songs on the album. A really broad musical spectrum. I’m not stressing anything just to see what I am and how people embrace it when I release these songs. I’ve got a few big singles coming out over the next two years, and I think I will feel really accomplished when I do that. People will hear that and just appreciate the music.
Leather jacket by COS.
Photographer: Greg Funnell @ Stem Agency.
Grooming: Holly Sibilius @ One Represents.
Words: Lily Walker.