By Michael Hamad
8:50 AM EST, November 20, 2012
w/ Black Light Dinner Party, Nov. 28, 9 p.m., free, BAR, 254 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 495-1111, manicproductions.org.
There's an elemental problem facing anyone who tries to produce electronic pop music: How to create an innovative tapestry of beats and bleeps, but also manage to throw a good song in there.
Two years ago, Child Actor, a duo formed by cousins Max Heath and Sedgie Ogilvy, stumbled into one solution. Ogilvy, a pianist and singer from Boston, Mass., had been recording home demos, and she gave one to Heath in the summer of 2010, a Sade-style slow-burner called "Window." "We always did the same thing, so it was hard to collaborate," Heath told the Advocate by phone. "We both played piano and sang and wrote songs, so we never really felt like we could help each other out. I heard one of her songs, and I thought, 'Wow, this would be really cool with big drums in it.'"
Heath, a versatile musician and a former Wesleyan composition student, remixed Ogilvy's demo. The floodgates opened; after "Window," the cousins produced a new song every couple of weeks, beginning with the Timberlake-Timbaland-style "Fame" and "September," a Daft Punk-ish house track. "We used ['Window'] as a model going forward," Heath said. "Sedgie would send me a song, and often it would just be a fragment, just a couple of vocal ideas. It would be a jumping-off point for me to do some production on it."
The duo amassed remixes. The remixes became two EPs, and the EPs became Child Actor. Last month, they released Victory, a full-length album, on New Haven-based Fake Four Records, and recently they've started playing live shows.
"I felt the quality of the music kept improving," Heath said. "We kept finding our sound, more of what we are about." Victory, Heath said, represents more of a unified front. "[The EPs were] really unstable to me. We were really exploring what we were going to become at that point. I think the album is more focused, but I still think there are a lot of different styles on there."
On some of the Victory tracks, you can still hear the skeletal, acoustic chamber songs, full of simple chord progressions one might expect to hear strummed on a guitar. Ogilvy's breathy voice weaves in and out, as though it's competing for space with a piano or violin, underneath Heath's bed of beats and arpeggios. Other songs are pure hip-hop/alt-pop, with layers of synths, background vocals and expertly chopped-up samples.
From the outset, Heath's goal, he said, was to turn Ogilvy's ideas into dance music. "Most of these were really sad songs originally," he said, "and that accounts for a lot of the intimate emotional content." When he was imagining what Child Actor would sound like, Heath wanted to turn them into celebration songs while retaining their inherent sadness. "They tended to be in minor keys, so I tried to find a way to just use the relative major, but more than that, to make them more celebratory and communal."
Heath, a pianist who plays some guitar, grew up playing in Hamden-area rock bands. He was a member of Mighty Purple, his friend Jonny Rodgers' band. He's also currently a member of Anonymous Inc., along with Fake Four founders and childhood friends Ceschi and David Ramos. "It's become kind of a trio," Heath said. "That experience has been a huge influence on all of the music I've made since, because it just incorporated so many genres fluidly. We all play instruments, but they both rap. It's nothing [for them] to switch from being a psychedelic, indie rock trio to suddenly throwing on really mainstream-sounding rap beats... That was really exciting to me."
At Wesleyan, unlike many of his colleagues, Heath didn't focus on digital composition. "I really enjoyed acoustic instruments and the human voice," Heath said. He composed string quartets and other chamber works. As a pianist, he worked with avant-garde composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who asked him to play on a 2008 quartet recording. "He was a huge inspiration more than he was an influence," Heath said. "That was a pretty amazing experience."
Somewhere along the way, Heath started piecing hip-hop beats together. Child Actor, he said, like the sample-based beats he worked on, is "all about recontextualization, but it's also really dependent on songwriting."
On Nov. 28, Heath and Ogilvy will open for Black Light Dinner Party at BAR in New Haven. It's a step that seemed elusive not too long ago. "I couldn't imagine how to pull off the Child Actor tracks live," Heath said. "I was very reluctant to do anything resembling karaoke. But at the same time, I've been involved with so many hip-hop shows that it's become so normal to me to see a rapper go onstage and rap on top of a recording that already has his vocals on it, which is crazy to me: just put on your CD and rap on top of your CD."
Child Actor arrived at a happy medium: they play most of the synthesizer parts live, with a few necessary pre-recorded elements, and they both sing. "I'm really surprised at how much fun it was to play these [songs] live, how it really felt right, how I felt comfortable to improvise and be spontaneous," Heath said. "That was my main concern, that it would sound too linear."
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