Wonderland.

DARREN CRISS

The producer, singer and actor talks his approach to songwriting, discovering his sound and how he’s ready for the next chapter.

We don’t know about you, but we’re currently experiencing the Bank Holiday blues. With the realisation that our days of summer maybe coming to an end were in need of uplifting sounds and singer-songwriter Darren Criss is keeping the energy going with his fun-filled EP “Masquerade”. Between the slick alt-pop productions and high-octane energy, the artist puts his theatrical abilities and prowess at the forefront of the EP. Laced with serene dance floor-ready melodies, the actor and musician instantly gets the party going on the project, kicking it off with “f*kn around”.

“The dirty secret is that every song is character-driven,” the artist revealed when discussing the project. “I just chose wording that could perhaps aid people into understanding this exploration of genre, this self-aware exploration of genre a little more. For those people that only know me as an actor, I’m trying to guide them into this notion of music and songs being a form of acting.”

No newcomer to the scene, the artist has spent the past decade gracing our screens in the cult favourite Glee and the thrilling Assassination of Versace: American Crime Story. Wanting to continue his musical journey in the form of producing and writing, we caught up with the multi-faceted artist talking his growth over the years, staying creative in a pandemic and how he’s ready for the next chapter.

Check out the interview below now…

Hey Darren, how are you? How has this past year been for you?
It’s a strange question to answer because everybody’s answer is so much more complicated than what you can say in a quick easy tight polite answer. You know, I’m well, as well as one could be given the situation. I feel, you know, luckier than most. Even with the music that I just put out there’s still more that I’d like to do, but I got to do even more than I thought I’d be able to. So that tends to be kind of the theme of the past year and a half. I feel like I’ve been so consumed by working on so many things for so long, that not a lot of people outside of my inner circle know about that. You know, it’s been a lot of high output but seemingly low visibility. So now finally getting to put out some of these things and talk about them… tipped scale of visibility versus output is hopefully having a chance to even out for a bit, to where the amount of work I’ve put in can somehow match that people you know may or may not know about what I’m doing. You know, I’ve been really busy. I’m the kind of guy where if you give me a white canvas it’s a more…I wouldn’t say stressful, but I’m more likely to fill up a blank canvas immediately with as much shit as possible – I guess that is more stressful than having only a few places to fit things in, and I usually keep pretty busy. Ironically when I’m really busy, that’s when I can get stuff done. Like you know that phrase ‘if you want something done ask the busiest person in the room’, and I think there’s a degree of truth to that because you know, the chaos kind of begets chaos, and productivity begets productivity, and in a lack of anything else to do it was like ‘I wanna do all these things!’ and then it gets really crammed, so it’s nice to be kind of simmering down from this overwhelming call to arms to get as many things done as I could with this new unprecedented free time that I had. So, in short, I guess, am well if you wanna use that! I feel, I’m just relieved that a lot of this stuff can exist somewhere outside of my head but it’s a complicated answer, I’ve been able to do a lot more than I thought I’d be able to.

With everything that happened last year, was your creativity affected?
The time that it yielded is the kind of time that a lot of creative people fantasise about. Of course, we would have all preferred it in a very different way when you say ‘if only I had time to sit down and work on this’. I think we all have; I say creative people but we all say, ‘if only I had time to paint the kitchen, learn a language, get in shape’, you know do something different that requires a bit of time and focus. We were all given that golden ticket, of course take that with a massive grain of salt, I’m fully aware of the price with which that came, of course if we had the choice, I don’t think any of us would have wanted it to happen the way it did. But none the less, for those of us who did take the time to focus, to hopefully be productive and proactive with the situation we were thrown into, it was creatively beneficial to finally get to address things that had been sitting kind of on deck and dormant in my mind, and it was just a matter of having the time to give them any attention. One of the joys of jumping between acting and music is there is a battle of time commitment, because neither one is a thing you can do casually. If you’re acting in something, there’s a great degree of scheduling that really eats up a large chunk of your day. While I’m in an acting project, I’m writing stuff and playing music but the actual logistics of producing music is as time consuming as the acting. I am envious of people that can kind of just show up, sing a song and leave. I, unfortunately, am not that kind of person. Writing a song is only a small piece of putting music out. Production really does take a large part of my emotional and intellectual efforts, and I really dive in head on. And that’s not even mentioning the promotional side of it. So, it really does take a lot of time to dive into those things, and I was finally given that. If anything, it was hard to decide what part of my musical menu that I wanted to serve up. It just came to a matter of what felt right at the time, what seemed fun. I kind of wanted to put out something that was positive and fun, and unapologetically so. And something that really showed up for a side of me that I felt like hadn’t been represented in the past. The musician side, and unfortunately, we haven’t been able to perform these very much. We’ve done little videos here and there. Stuff that really showed my roots as a musician, a garage rock guy, a guy that really likes getting in the weeds of production. In the past I’ve put up things that are a little more analogue, singer-songwritey, and this is more me as a producer and a musician.

How did you first get into music, what sparked the interest?
Well, I’ve been playing music my whole life, and not casually either. It’s such a massive part of my identity, and that’s one of the main driving forces of me wanting to put out as much music as I possibly can. These five songs on this EP are a small part of a much larger body of work that I’m dying to get out whenever I can. When you’re a songwriter, or just in general a creative person, you have more ideas back logged than your body can execute. This is only a small part of a much larger puzzle, and a lot of these songs, the ones that I’ve put out and the ones I’m still trying to put out, are ghosts that have been haunting me however many years., some more than a decade, some more than two decades. The reason I mention this is because I’m trying to illustrate how pivotal music and making music has been throughout my life. I started playing violin when I was 5, and that was a big part of my cultural education, learning how to play an instrument that is so dynamic and requires a pretty specific ear and technical ability. Now I’m not saying I was fantastic at the violin, but I think the training that I had on it from 5 until my late teens really shaped the way that I would create music and think about music, certainly as a writer and a producer, but with just how I would jump between other instruments as well, because the violin was such a great touchstone for me to end up taking up the piano or guitar, or drums, or other instruments that would really formulate how I create music. Between being the orchestra nerd kid that played a lot of music throughout my young life, and also being the guy that would play in bands, its just been such a huge part of my life. As I’ve gotten older and gotten to understand this other version of myself that exists in more of a public view, that has little to do with that I know, I have started to notice that person, that avatar of myself, isn’t necessarily associated with music. And that was troubling to me, so I wanted to rectify that.”

And now you’ve just dropped your EP, talk us through your mindset going into the project?
If I was just a recording artist, and that’s all I did, I’d like to think that I’d have a much larger body of work to show for. I feel like a lot of songwriters feel this way. There is just simply too much music…now I’m not gonna say it’s all fantastic, there’s a reason you have to triage the ones that you think are the best at the time, and there are many songs that I feel would be outdated, they feel very of the time 10 years ago. But you’re always trying to put your best foot forward with the pile you have lurking behind you. So, it is a hard thing to decide which thing you want to put out. Killing your darlings is always a hard thing, figuring out which ones to really focus on is difficult and it usually comes down to who you decide to collaborate with – right before the pandemic was one of the most tumultuous times of my career where I was producing and acting in a show for Netflix, and I was also kind of show running, acting, writing music for, editing, doing everything for this other show I created called ‘Royalties’ on another platform. I was doing both at the same time, and one of the things that made this possible was the people that I would collaborate with. A young man by the name of CJ Baron who I produced and wrote this EP with, he’s sort of the midwife that I chose out of working on Royalties because we had a lot of great songs together. I keep referring to myself as a producer, but I do it from a much more cerebral space, whereas he is a much better technical producer than I am. We really shared a lot in common, so by the time I realised that I wanted to make a piece of music you have to decide ‘who do I want to go down this yellow brick road with?’ And when I decide with CJ, that kind of already hinted at the kind of music that I would put out because he has his own fingerprint, and so I thought there’s something that I have that might mesh well with that fingerprint, so that kind of helps the decision process along of what songs am I gonna put out. But in another world CJ wasn’t interested, so then I think ‘Okay let me try and produce an album with this person’, and that person would reveal a different selection of songs. I’m very open to seeing what the universe is allowing and pushing towards, and I kind of follow that northern star to figure out what songs I’m gonna put out. But the mindset was always ‘put something out’, on a completely pragmatic level. What did I want to have to show for if whenever we got out of this crazy, new age of ‘what does this pandemic mean? We have time to do stuff, when it’s over what do I want to sit there and say that I accomplished?’ And at the very least I needed to put out a few songs, so that was really my mindset – no excuses, this is the time that you used to hope for, and so what are you gonna do if you’ve got the golden ticket, you’ve won the time lottery – so don’t fuck it up Darren! That was my mindset.

You describe them as character-driven singles, why is this?
The dirty secret is that every song is character-driven, I just chose wording that could perhaps aid people into understanding this exploration of genre, this self-aware exploration of genre a little more. For those people that only know me as an actor, I’m trying to guide them into this notion of music and songs being a form of acting. The number one question I always get it ‘which one do you prefer?’ and I always say they are the same to me. When I’m an actor I treat characters, characterisation of my voice and body, characterisation of how I deliver words like a piece of music. You’re scoring it the same way, there’s cadence, dynamics, volume, nuance, all kind of things that can make ‘a piece of music’ unique to a person. And that’s how I treat dialogue and characterisation. The other side of that coin is I treat music like I’m acting, like each song has its own character when you’re playing live or recording in a booth. You are donning the proverbial mask of that character and what it requires. I really wanted to keep people into this idea that at the end of the day, it’s all performative and all part of a narrative that don’t necessarily have to do with each other and the way that if you ask Alexa to play a ‘Jack Nicholson playlist’ it would be very disjointed. It would be like okay The Shining, that’s a vibe, and then it would go to As Good As It Gets, and that’s a completely different vibe. They wouldn’t necessarily be on the same playlist, but they are distinctly and undeniably Jack Nicholson. So I always thought that it was a bit of a double standard that actors can do this but in music, you know, I’m proud of this but it’s also very annoying – a lot of my songs would probably not playlist together on the same genres because you have more jazz songs, like a trip hop chill tune that might end up in the back of a Starbucks, but that wouldn’t necessarily go on the same playlist as a tune like ‘I Can’t Dance’, which is a crazy song because it doesn’t even sound like me, I’m literally putting on a different voice, I’m singing like two different people putting on an affectation. There’s a lot of things that are very different but uniquely and distinctly me. The word masquerade is a celebration of a lot of different masks, and in theatre we talk about ‘The Masque’, and how each Masque has it’s own style, history and culture, and I really love the genre, and I love Masques, and I love things that make them interesting, and celebrating things that make them unique, and really trying to maximise their effectiveness as a genre with whatever tools I have as an artist, so that’s really what I’m trying to go for, this whole character driven idea is – it’s all a masquerade.

It very much has a fun-filled vibe to it, was this your intention and why?
I’m not gonna sit here and pretend I sat in a studio saying ‘Hey lets not have fun!’, especially during a time that was as fraught with a lot of troubled times. This EP was recorded during very troubling times, so I think I’d be delusional to think that whatever joy is in this EP was not some kind of reaction to that, trying to offer something positive is definitely my MO in life in general, so that’s always gonna bleed its way onto my records. Like it or not. The intention is to record things that can be effective. If the vibe you feel is fun, great. If you feel any vibe at all, whatever the fuck that means, that’s a win for me. If that happens to be the word ‘fun’ then awesome, there’s a lot shittier adjectives that can be derived from this body of work so I will absolutely take it. My intentions are again to try and honour the songs. When you write something it has its own magnetic pull, it has it’s own gravitational pull that you have to kind of follow. If a song sounds a certain way, you want the lyrics to feel the same way that it sounds, and you want the production to feel the way that it vibes for lack of a better word. All songs have different body types and dressing it up and knowing how to tailor it to accentuate the things that make it fun or sexy is really sort of a strange alchemy. It’s not up to me how people experience it, but that’s what makes it fun. Once you put something out into the world it’s up to other people to use their own adjectives of the suit you tailor. I’m always excited when it leaves my head and becomes somebody else’s experience. So hey, if it’s fun – great!

What do you want people to take away from the project?
Obviously, I hope people enjoy themselves. Any musician or artist would hope that there’s some kind of memorable experience to be had from it. If I was talking about what I hope people take away from it, that doesn’t have to do with the music itself, I hope that every time I put out music it’s me broadcasting this notion that this is something that I do, and that this is a big part of my identity. I think the songs themselves and what they’re about and how they feel are less of an insight into my identity as the notion of me putting out music is, because I feel like for any artist your journey is a constant negotiation between how you see yourself and how you would like to be seen, and how audiences are willing to see you. And you know, sometimes that balance is not always even. Sometimes the way they see you isn’t the way you see yourself, and sometimes the way you see yourself isn’t the same as the way they see you, so you want to be somewhere in the middle. And ‘Masquerade’ is a huge step forward for me to try and represent who I am and what I’m about to folks who might not see that. So that’s the biggest goal I think with any release but particularly this one.

Who would you cite as your inspirations?
I’m one of those people that, when I say that everything inspires me, I’m not trying to be cute. It’s a problem. It’s an actual scourge on my life, where I find everything interesting. I find everything inspirational. It’s such a core belief that I have that there is inspiration to be derived from every walk of life. Stuff like from a lawn chair to a Bach cantata, there are so many things that can be interesting and incorporated into some creative output. It’s just all about how you look at it and how you can perceive and understand where it comes from. There are so many things that are inspiring to me. Of course, this is the massive macro answer that you weren’t looking for, you’re probably looking for ‘what artist are you inspired by?’ I think I’m just inspired by people who are really genuine to themselves, and this is an ironic answer considering that I actually try to be as many different people as possible. It’s a strange thing that actors are celebrated for not being anything like themselves professionally. And musical artists are separated for being as close to themselves and putting their souls as close to the chopping block as possible. I think I’ve really found my niche as a storyteller. I’m envious of some of the great troubadours of history, that can put their souls out on the record for us and put their own personal experience into things. Leonard Cohen and Joanie Mitchell, and Carole King, more modern people like Taylor Swift who really can just bare their souls for us. I really admire them because that’s not a muscle I have. And when you’re an artist I think ‘Okay so what muscle do I have?’, and I think ‘Okay I’m like a playwright, I can make each story for these songs and try and bring them to life with as much accessible ability and reality, and as much truth as I can convey, that’s not to say they’re disingenuine, they’re born from a genuine idea but they’re supported by my background as an actor. Baring myself isn’t something that comes as naturally for me, I really admire those people and I try and perhaps emulate a lot of their song writing in whatever limited way that I can. Genres are inspiring to me, lets talk about song writing, and then there’s producing which are two different things to me, because when I hear music I hear chords, I hear melody, I don’t listen to the snare sample, but I always hear the bare bones and then I think about production. So as far as producing is concerned I think it’s really important to know all genres and to listen to what makes each one interesting and respecting those genres, and then when you are producing something yourself, and then taking from each thing by knowing why and how they work within that genre, so again to use a song like ‘I Can’t Dance’ which is a nod to late 70s/early 80s, somewhere between disco and new wave, I’m employing the things that make those genres fun, to me at least, and trying to smoosh them together in a way that sounds cohesive. So…everything is inspiring to me, it’s hard. But each song has a different source of inspiration, but they don’t transfer between all songs.

You’ve also wrote for animated series and for Glee, is the process different for producing?
“This is actually a very good question. I think this ties into what I was saying before about writing for narrative is something of a calling that I think I’ve realised more recently is kind of where I can plant my feet more easily than any other type of song writing. I was mentioning the people that can bare their souls, some people have a really good ability of putting themselves out there but also writing as a satirist of character that he creates. The person that is a master of this is Randy Newman, he’s one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century. He has an amazing ability to create these scenarios or create first person accounts of people that aren’t actually him, but he can contextualise with his literal voice, his song writing voice, and make those their own sort of satirical version of himself. There’s a lot of layers going on there, but I’ve always thought of him as really excellent. He’s like a playwright with music, he’s writing musicals, I mean he’s won Oscars for writing music for narrative! That’s something that I’d really like to do – from a technical standpoint it’s actually very liberating because when you’re writing music with your name on it, you’re the artist, then there’s this sort of weird expectation that you’re trying to service which is why I like this idea of putting the mask on and separating the songs from my own personal experience, because I need to separate myself from my own experience of the music you’re hearing, at least on the surface. My big break was A Very Potter Musical, that I feel to this day are my biggest hits because I don’t really have hits, but as far as the songs that people know that strangers know of songs that I’ve written, they were songs that were written for characters. It’s a bit like painting by numbers. If you just write a song from scratch about anything, it’s like the canvas I’m talking about again. You can do anything, or go anywhere, and that’s overwhelming. Having parameters, knowing where the gates are, is extremely helpful, knowing when the deadline is, knowing how long your party can go for. It means you can maximise the space you know you have. When you write for narrative you go ‘this is the character’, ‘this is how they speak’ – so you already have your lyrical information there – ‘this is how they talk’, ‘this is the singer, the singer has a great range that goes from this note to this note’, ‘in this scene we need the character to go from point A to point B, and we want it to be a song that sounds like X’, so you create all these amazing little ingredients, and I look at artists like a service industry, I really enjoy servicing what the person or the experience requires. When I have a menu of ‘we want this, this, this’, it’s like okay great I’ve got you! A three-and-a-half-minute song that sounds like this song, but has to be in this key and has to be a duet, I really thrive on that. And it’s probably one of my more favourite versions of song writing. And usually there’s a deadline, so I can get it done! Because I need to get it done for production. I really enjoy coming back to writing for narrative, because I did that for Royalties with CJ, and when I realised how much I enjoyed doing that and how productive I was when I was writing for a narrative, that’s when I got into the idea of ‘I need to stop trying to bare my own soul in music’. I think if I treat it like I’m writing for a character, not only can I get it done faster but I feel like I can make things stronger. So that’s when I decided that’s what I’m gonna do for this next EP. Writing for other shows and characters is what helped me realise my strengths as a songwriter.”

What is next for you? What are you most excited for?
“As I mentioned I think productivity begets productivity, and that’s exactly what happened with this EP. Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened and I didn’t have the time, I think I would have been just as emboldened from working on Royalties with CJ and it got me very excited about working on music and how much joy that gives me. Any artist will say the same answer, but I think by the time stuff comes out artists are already over it because they’ve been living with it for a year and a half, and in my case over a decade with these songs, so I’m always ready to move on and go to the next thing. Everything is a stepping stone, so I’m very happy that this EP is out, I think it’s a great representation of a lot of stuff that’s been unaddressed for far too long. I just wanna get going, it gets me excited about keeping the ball rolling as a songwriter or as a producer, I just don’t want this to be like ‘This is the thing I did during the pandemic’, I want to keep it going and be more proactive about keeping time aside for it, because that’s the name of the game. When you’re acting or doing music, you have to balance it with time, and this pandemic has shown me how much I enjoy spending time on music, so I’m gonna carry that on. But of course, as soon as I say that, that’s when something unexpected and something too juicy that I can’t keep my hands off it happens on the acting side. One learns to be pretty flexible, because as soon as I say one thing something else will happen, and that’s been the narrative for the past decade of my life. I hope to just keep going. I’ve been this lucky for this long so I’m not gonna pretend like I’m going to keep being this lucky. If I get to act great, if I get to do music great. I can’t believe I’m in a position where its like ‘oh if the acting thing doesn’t work out, I’ll just do music!’ or the other way around, it’s a highly privileged list of options, and I’m fully aware of that. So as long as I can have one or the other to fall back on, I will always be excited about option. It’s not always up to me, so we’ll see. Everything that I’ve put out is just a way for me to renew my lease with my ability to show up for myself as well as people that I don’t knows ability to be interested in what I have to do next. But I won’t flatter myself, I’m not gonna say that lease is forever, so I’m just trying to put in the time and work to keep it at the very least somewhat interesting.”

Photography
Amanda Demme
DARREN CRISS

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