The extremely online psychedelia of brakence
The artist's subversive 'realer-than-real' pop maps an identity in flux
Around three years ago, a teen pop artist from Ohio named brakence started to experience a relentless, nagging headache that lasted for months. This chronic pain, and brakence's broader understandings of his mind, body and environment, inspired his second album, the meticulous hypochondriac, released in December 2022 on Columbia Records.
Raised in the suburbs of Columbus, brakence enjoyed a comfortable middle class upbringing that allowed him to explore his creative tendencies from an early age. He developed his voice in choir and his knowledge of music theory in jazz piano lessons. He attended an alternative middle school that abolished grades and sent him on "discovery days" to a family friend's basement studio to record. Around that time, he sunk deeper into the internet and grew obsessed with maximal, early 2010s dubstep.
These influences coalesced into brakence's early style, an undulating, head-trip beat music. In early 2020, he released his debut album punk2, a brash coming-of-age record whose emo pop flirted with pandemic-era hyperpop. The latter scene navigated the alienation arising from our multiple selves — online personas and real-life ones; bodies and avatars; identities at school, at home, on Discord. Across hypochondriac, brakence, now 20 and already a quiet influence on the scene, blurs the lines between these. Fame, relationships, stimulants, screens and psychedelics infect, pester, enhance, modify, rupture and bombard brakence's body. At different points on the album, brakence is a lump of clay, a device that needs recharging, a doomscroller with a "radioactive touch."
The trick of this album is to channel these heady metaphysics through the familiar forms of pop music. Drawing from a prickly palette of IDM, emo and rap textures, brakence reaches for the "realer-than-real" feelings that stem from taking psychedelics. When songs abruptly shift tempos and veer off in surprising directions, like the mini Jersey club explosion at the end of "caffeine," they feel less like stray experimental gestures than intentional pieces of the album's grander architecture. Through a production technique called formant shifting, brakence makes his crisp, classically trained baritone vocals expand, shrink, sprout and wither as an outgrowth of the synth plucks and bass smacks.
Sometimes, brakence is but a machine "digging out dopamine," or a "handmade prop" on stage. But other times he's in control, basking in the limelight, striving for an obsessive level of perfection as an artist. It's almost as though brakence is trying on different worldviews like clothes, seeing how they fit as he develops his own theory of the world. On sonic and conceptual levels, hypochondriac is a testing ground, brakence attempting to generate a fully-rendered map of himself and his environment, perhaps to ground himself amid the storms of reality.
Ahead of his Denver show in November 2022, brakence spoke to NPR about his love of dubstep and IDM, his burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy, the arduous process of recording hypochondriac and becoming better in tune with his body's needs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mano Sundaresan: What do you think about people who call your music "hyperpop," and how would you describe your own music?
brakence: When people ask me what kind of music I make, I just say pop. I understand why a lot of people don't like being called hyperpop, but personally, I don't really have a problem with it. But that's just me, you know, 'cause I can see how other people would be like, people decided to put this label on me and I don't really want to have a label kind of thing.
What draws you to that label — pop?
I think that my music has a certain ethos to it that is a pop ethos. And that's why I would say that I like using the word "pop" for my music. There are a lot of values that pop has that I actually f*** with. And there are a lot that I don't that aren't part of my music.
Whenever I show your music to people who've never heard it, some of them get it [immediately], but then there are others who find it a bit more experimental and challenging. And I think it's interesting how you bring this really heady, producer-brain to pop. Is that a challenge for you, trying to convey these big musical ideas through the framework of pop? Or does it just come naturally?
I would say it definitely is a challenge. In my very early music, when I was just messing around, I didn't care about pop structure. Sometimes it would manifest itself without me thinking about it. But it definitely is a challenge now, because I want to be very intentional about it.
I will say, I think you stretch pop a little bit, like songs where you stretch the tempo, for instance. I've never heard that type of thing in a "pop song" in my life. Do you think that's all pop? Are you trying to change what pop can be?
I don't know. That stuff is very new stuff. With hypochondriac, I do this thing where I'll have a pop song, and then at the end, I basically add this thing in where I just do whatever I want at the end of the pop song. [Laughs]
Do you do that to mess with the listener? Or do you just do it because you're bored? Where does that come from?
I definitely f*** with themes, and so I think that I want to give you themes. But then I want to take those themes and not just make a song a theme, but have themes that go places, kind of very theatrically.
When did you first start recording songs?
I got GarageBand when I was like 12 or 13, so I guess then. But I was writing songs on piano when I was like, 8, 'cause I wanted to be OneRepublic.
What was the song that made you a fan?
What was that album, Dreaming Out Loud? I listened to that album all the time.
How did you first come up with the idea of "I'm gonna be brakence and put out music as brakence?"
For some reason, I was obsessed with brackets.
Like, the text. For some reason I called it "Bracket Music." And then I was like, that's stupid! Then I called it brakence, because the word bracket is in there or something? I don't know.
So your first music uploaded to SoundCloud sounds a little like you're a producer messing around. What were you trying to do with that stuff, what were you channeling? You were singing a little bit, but it felt more subdued compared to where you're at now.
I was definitely coming at it from this kind of carefree creativity. I started to get more like, I want to be more focused with it. I listened to a lot of IDM as well, like Autechre, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, all that. And there's this one artist from Montreal, gonima, who I did a remix for recently. He makes this really high definition IDM, and it sounds nothing like any other IDM. I had never listened to anything like it before and I was like, oh my god, I literally just want all my beats to sound like this.
What draws you to music that's so piercing, so sharp, so bright?
Ever since I discovered that you can sound higher def than [in] real life, I've been very adamant about almost always doing that, and I'm very drawn to the way it sounds. It's psychedelic, but in this way that's completely different from something like psychedelic rock. Because when you think of psychedelic rock, the lo-fi-ness of it is almost why it's psychedelic, because everything is sort of overlapping and kind of muddy in this very intentional way. It's all about elements mixing together. But there's this other thing you can do with psychedelic production, where you can make it sound realer than real. It just sounds very alien and very beautiful.
I'm interested in how your music feels so intense, so in your face. And the thing that sticks out to me most in your lyrics more than anything is how you talk about your health and chronic pain. Can you talk more about your relationship to chronic pain, like why you decided to start writing about it in your music?
Probably three years ago, I started getting this pain and I didn't know what it was. I was like, this is just a headache, and I started really freaking out about it. I would go to the doctor, and they didn't know what was going on either so they prescribed me things that I didn't need. Eventually, I realized that it's TMJ pain, like, my jaw. I don't know if it's because my teeth got f***** up because I stopped wearing my retainer when I was in early high school, or maybe it's just because of anxiety, I'm clenching? Probably both.
It kind of took over my life, especially during the pandemic. It was this thing where I felt like I couldn't really operate as a regular human being for awhile because I had so much of this chronic pain. And through other people's help, I've developed a lot of tools to be able to make it not nearly as bad as it was, and it's definitely very much a psychological thing.
It's crazy to hear that, because nobody in pop really talks about chronic pain in their art. Is it challenging for you to write about it?
I've been very fortunate in my life, but this is one of the worst things that's ever happened to me, which is a really privileged thing to say, but it is. I want to talk about what I'm dealing with emotionally in my music of course. I think it might be just something that happens to everyone when they get older, but there's this thing that happens — or it's happened to me at least — where the line between physical pain and emotional pain is very blurry. I don't know where physical pain ends and where emotional pain [begins]. I think that a lot of moments where I've been able to be cathartic, emotionally, it's helped with the chronic pain, because they're entangled and kind of the same thing. I think that has to do with a lot of the themes on the album because there is something that I've kind of struggled with for the past few years — not just with pain, physically and emotionally ... and I think that a lot of it has to do with doing psychedelics and stuff.
Can you talk more about that?
It's still something that I'm dealing with right now where I don't know where the line is between my mind and the physical world. The hypochondriac whole thing is like, it's not just that I have this condition — there's a value system that is being challenged. And I don't know how easily this will be able to be communicated through the writing of an interview, but I and pretty much everyone have this idea that there is a physical world outside of our perception. I think through doing psychedelics and learning about how in Eastern philosophies they approached this kind of thing, that belief inside me is really being challenged in this way where I don't know if there's a difference between my mind and the physical world, which is a really scary thought. I think that is partially why a lot of the chronic pain stuff has come up maybe? And why I think something is a physical problem that actually might just be a mental problem, or, like, vice versa.
Do you feel like Eastern philosophy has inspired how you approach music? I feel like a lot of great artists, especially in the jazz world, have drawn influence from it.
I think that in some ways my music has that ethos, but in other ways there's still this very much Western thing. I think that the Western thing is probably stronger, because my whole sort of upbringing was that. And it's being challenged by these ideas and it's reacting to them badly. [Laughs] This album isn't a very happy album. I think a lot of it's about that style of thinking getting challenged by this other style of thinking and getting really not happy about it. This stuff that you subscribe to and you'd subscribed to for so long is a lie. It would make sense to me that jazz musicians really f*** with Eastern philosophy because jazz is all about this very spontaneous creativity that's coming from this place in the moment.
When did you start planning this album?
Pretty soon after [punk2] came out, I was like, ok, I'm on to the next one. Then I tried doing it and was like, I don't know where I'm going with this, got really burnt out, and then tried again and got really burnt out ... it was a lot of that. I would keep little bits from [the areas] of time where I was really trying.
What's an example of that? What was the first little thing you kept that made the cut?
I don't know if you remember the end of the song "teeth"?
So that. This happened so many times with this record, where I would come up with the end of the song first and then I'd be like, "Oh, this sounds like the end of a song. This does not sound like the beginning of a song." Then I would be like, "Okay, so now I have to come up with the beginning of the song." And that I put at the end of so many different things, and then I finally was like, "Okay, I need to put it at the end of this. And now it works." This album is kind of like this Frankenstein monster. It's very weird, and it's cohesive, but in this kind of gross way where everything is like, [makes squelchy noise].
What is the most important thing you've learned about growing up?
Man, you really have to take care of yourself. I learned that quick. But it's also okay to ask for help when you really need it, for sure. And taking care of yourself is more of a thing of being nice to yourself. I have a really hard time being nice to myself.
Why do you think it's so hard for you to be nice to yourself?
A lot of my sense of self has been very much challenged in the past three years. I see my own issues, and I judge myself for them quite a bit, because I definitely don't really like myself. I know that I can make really good art. I know that. And I can make art about what I'm experiencing. That's the thing where I'm like, "Okay, I know I'm good at this, and I know this is something that I can do well, so I'm gonna do it well, and I'm gonna try to focus on it."
I noticed that a lot of people in the scene and kids younger than you are really inspired by you. How does that make you feel?
I love seeing it. There's a lot of people who used doing music as this thing that got them out of a really bad life situation. So if you're looking at [it] from that perspective, I kind of get when people feel very protective of, this is what I do. But I have not experienced that so for me to be overprotective of my [sound] it just doesn't feel right for me. And so I always get really excited when I see it happening, because I know that inspirational energy is just going to translate into something completely new that they're gonna do with it.