If you’re a fan of indie music, you’ve probably heard him before. He’s played sold-out shows all over the globe, he’s sold over a million records, he’s headlined the biggest musical festivals in the industry, he’s been a guitarist, he’s been an engineer, he’s been a producer and he’s played in two of the most popular bands of the 2010s, Fleet Foxes and Beach House. He is Skyler Skjelset.
Yet, as colorful and impressive as his resume may be, Skjelset has usually remained in the shadows. After co-founding Fleet Foxes with Robin Pecknold in 2005, Skjelset took a backseat role, adding guitar parts and co-producing the band’s 2017 opus, Crack-Up, while never stepping into the spotlight himself. On the band’s newest record, Shore, Skjelset actually only attended a single recording session and doesn’t appear at all on the record. The case is similar with other projects, like Beach House, where he provided his talents as a supporting musician on several of their tours. Nevertheless, Skjelset’s musical abilities and sensibilities are world-class — something which rings true for everything he works on. The best illustration of this phenomenon, however, is likely his solo discography.
Since 2014, Skjelset has put out a steady stream of music as a solo artist, mostly in the ambient realm. He began with Noh, a beautiful collection of soundscapes that manage to be both deeply contemplative and highly communicative. He followed that up with 2015’s Sunup and 2016’s Ink Chord, which both build upon the atmosphere created in Noh while also upping the ante by adding additional textures, colors and emotions.
In total, these three records — along with a few odds and ends releases, like the masterful drone number, “Bombinae” — represent some of the finest ambient music ever made. That’s a bold statement, but I stand by it. Skjelset has perfected the art of creating an atmosphere for a listener to step into. Each sound, each little moment within a song, has a specific purpose and plays perfectly into the larger image of the piece. The emotional intensity and complexity of ideas conveyed through such simple song-forms honestly mirrors the experience of living itself. The washed-out tones are evocative of memories, the empty space is evocative of experience, of thought, of the physical existence of living. It’s a total picture and, frankly, an amazing accomplishment. But, Skjelset is no one-trick-pony — this past August, he released Back in Heaven, his first solo-record featuring songs in the traditional sense of the word (you know, like, lyrics, melodies, chorus, etc).
While your initial impression might be something along the lines of “an ambient artist is taking a crack at traditional songwriting? I don’t know how good that’ll be,” let me assure you: Skjelset is masterful in everything he does, including songwriting. Back in Heaven encapsulates his musical personality in a sublime way, combining all his various influences, experiences and sounds into a singular mosaic of utter beauty. Between the dreamy atmospheres, the soaring melodies and the eclectic arrangements, the record communicates a wide breadth of feeling and thought. While certain influences can be heard clearly throughout the nine tracks — ranging from Cocteau Twins to Prince to Beach House to Ryuichi Sakamoto and everything in between — the record is also inimitable, a unique synthesis of everything that is ‘Skyler Skjelset.’
Last month, American Songwriter caught up with Skjelset to go on a deep dive of his process. We discussed everything from his approach to songwriting to what gear he uses to what it’s like to be in a band like Fleet Foxes. Thoughtful and deliberate with his words, Skjelset demonstrated his genuine passion for music and his devotion to his craft throughout our conversation, further illuminating the beauty of his work.
In the past, most of your solo output has been on the ambient side, but this record features a more traditional sense of songwriting — what was behind that shift?
Well, I guess I started writing this record by accident. I had this solo guitar set that I was using to open a lot of shows for people, like Beach House. I would set up my stuff at this show and a lot of the time the house engineer would leave a microphone on the stage. Eventually, I just started using the microphone because it was there. So, if I think specifically about the first song that I wrote for this record: it came out as improvisation on stage at first. I remember catching certain things from improvising and thinking “oh, I like that. I should come back to that later.”
So, I guess that starts to answer the question regarding the “shift.” It’s just a different approach. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do at some point in my life. In the past when I was working on solo records, I imposed a lot of limitations on myself. Something like “this record has to be done — beginning to end — in two weeks.” With Noh and Ink Chord, I went in with nothing written and I gave myself these rules. On Ink Chord, I had a rule where I could only use five-note melodies. I also tried to only utilize certain types of gear, like “I only brought one keyboard with me so I’m only going to use one keyboard.” Basically placing restrictions on myself. I’ve found that they’re helpful — you’re more expressive when you have less to work with.
So, a record like Back in Heaven was something I always wanted to do but never really had the time to work on. After years and years of culminating all of this material, we scrapped everything together and I was able to say “okay, now’s the time to do it.” I started between Fleet Foxes tours when we had a big, two-month break — which was long for us — and it just seemed like the perfect time to do it.
It was a surprisingly long process. It was 2018 when we began, which was a long time ago, but we never spent more than a week or two at a time on it. Plus, going into it, I had nothing for us to work off of. We had to build each individual song from the ground up with new sessions and everything. All the demos I had were recorded in Logic and it just seemed like too much work to convert it all and make it usable. So, yeah, we worked on it from the ground-up a week or two at a time in between tour dates. Fleet Foxes was my priority at that time, so it was all about working around that.
Do you feel that taking that elongated approach opened you up to be more intentional about what you wanted to record? As in, did having more time to listen to it as it developed allow you to more easily steer it into the direction you wanted to go in?
Well, I think there are always going to be limitations in the studio, especially in regard to what you’ll actually be able to achieve. I think that Trevor — the engineer for this record — and I did a pretty good job at getting it to be as close as possible to that idealized version, but even by the last few dates I was still trying to put more guitars on it. I think I probably could’ve recorded forever, which I actually think was one of the problems.
Like I said, with my other records in the past I’d have certain limitations where I’d have to get them done by a certain point — if it wasn’t done, then that’s just what it was. The expression was whatever I was able to make within my limitations. You have to be okay with that. So, in a lot of ways, this record was stressful. I remember being in the studio on the phone lamenting “I have this one song that does this aggressive thing and another song does this mellow thing but I’m missing this final thing and I only have two days left in the studio and I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do.” I was really freaking out about it.
But, I think that for the most part, doing it over that long period of time allowed me to get it as close as possible to what I wanted it to be. There were other things that I would’ve liked to have done on it that I didn’t get the chance to, just because of money reasons or the amount of person-power these things take sometimes — it’s difficult to arrange for a string quartet to record, stuff like that. But, ultimately, I’m okay with that because I don’t think that you should get everything you want when you’re in the studio. It’s important to create ingenuity in the studio to fill these holes.
So many of your songs feature tasteful arrangements. The interweaving of melody, harmony and texture is masterful. How do you approach arranging your songs? Will ideas start with a piece of gear, or will you use a piece of gear to execute a pre-existing idea from inside your head?
When I was in the studio, I definitely bought certain pieces of gear for the very specific thing that they did. In terms of guitars and stuff — I’m a big shoegaze guy, so I always made sure to have a guitar with a vibrato on it, that way I could do certain wash-y stuff. So, there’s stuff like that.
There was also a lot of stuff where I was trying to be honorific to the stuff that was inspiring me. I was trying to use the same gear that was used in the stuff that I was listening to at the time. For things like drum machines and synthesizers, I really made a point of saying “well, the inspiration for this song used this thing, so I want to be sure to use it too.” If a song came from a certain place, I wanted to be respectful.
I know that I’m in a very lucky place to be, but my general philosophy regarding gear has been: as long as I can find a way to utilize the thing — like, as long as I can use it to write at least one cool thing for the record — then it’s served its purpose to me. So, there are a lot of things that I’ve bought and only used one time.
What are some of the most interesting or specific pieces of gear that you’ve gotten?
Well, on this record there’s a track called “V C.” If you listen to the final chorus, there’s this weird flute-y sound.
That’s actually a MIDI guitar that I bought. I had never really heard someone use a MIDI guitar in a way that was compelling beyond ‘80s trash pop music, like Muzak or whatever. I wanted to get something that I knew would be hard to make cool, and that’s what I went with — I think I did a pretty good job at it.
There’s some other stuff too — I got a programmable, electronic bagpipe. It’s just a box with a speaker and a stick that sticks out. The reason I bought it was because at the beginning of the pandemic, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s label, Commmons, was doing this thing where they were releasing rare performances on YouTube once a week. They had the Yellow Magic Orchestra live in London from 2011. I had never seen it in its entirety, but the drummer was using one of these electronic bagpipes and I was thinking “what the fuck is that thing?” I googled a bunch and asked some questions on the internet to figure out the answer and I ended up getting one. At first, when it arrived in the mail, I was like “what the fuck? Why did I get this?”
This is kind of a tangent, but after I got it I was Facetiming with my New York band, Yeah Baby, and our drummer saw me using the electronic bagpipe. I showed it to them, like “guys, look at this stupid thing I bought.” But, then our drummer was like “oh yeah, I know those. I used to be in a bagpipe band.” And then it became this whole thing where he showed us all these photos and videos… he was genuinely in a bagpipe band! He had played bagpipe weddings and everything. We had no idea until just a few weeks ago. It was crazy. But, he was like “yeah, that electronic bagpipe is an actual thing that you get to practice with.” I guess it’s a thing that people in the ‘pipe scene know.
Earlier you mentioned that you were trying to use specific pieces of gear that your inspirations had used — who are some of the artists that were inspiring you at that time?
A lot of Sakamoto, that was a big thing for me. I made a really serious point of using Prophet synthesizers, a lot of DX7. For another example; Prince was a really big LinnDrum user and so was Haruomi Hosono from Yellow Magic Orchestra. Those two guys are two of my biggest heroes, so every time I had to use a drum machine, I used LinnDrum because it’s what they used. It was the sound I wanted. I try to keep my influences coming from as wide of a range as possible. Yet, I don’t think the record really sounds like any of that stuff actually — it’s interesting to see where music can come from.
For both good and bad, there’s sorta a dedicated listenership to whatever I make just because of Fleet Foxes. I’m super grateful for that — if I make a record, I know that at least some people will check it out because they like Fleet Foxes. I can’t guarantee they’ll enjoy it, but I do know that at least one person will listen to it. So, when I started making this record, I thought “well, I want to make something that’s not Fleet Foxes.” Not because I don’t like Fleet Foxes, but because I wanted to show people that even the people in that band like music beyond just that stuff. Music exploration is really, really important to me. It’s important to me to try however I can to get people to listen to stuff beyond what they might think they’re comfortable with. So, that’s where me wearing my influences directly on my sleeve in this way comes from. I want people who like Fleet Foxes to think “oh, well let’s check out some of these other cool things.”
Now I want to ask about some of the ambient music you made before Back in Heaven — people don’t usually think of ambient music as “songs” in the same way that something with a more traditional format might. Yet, these ambient songs are able to communicate really profound feelings. This is a rather open-ended question, but what’s your general approach to making ambient music?
If I’m listening to my older records, I can definitely point to exact moments in my life that were captured when I was making them. Those records feel very reactive to where I was in life. Even though the process of making them was almost identical, I think that all three of my previous records sound really different from each other. So, there is a direct line between what’s going on on them and what’s going on in my life.
Especially when it comes to working with other people, I have a tendency to overthink things. I tend to inhibit ideas just because it’s hard to feel like you have full feeling of expression when you’re working in a group. For one, it can be kinda competitive, albeit in a good way. But, it’s also just hard to be totally honest about things. It’s kinda embarrassing to be particularly feel-y. So, I tried not to put any restrictions on myself emotionally when it came to these other ambient records. I didn’t want to steer away from anything — I just allowed myself to think “this is what I want for this record” without worrying about it being too sensitive or too put together or too dismissive or too whatever. I just wanted it to be what I wanted it to be.
Do you feel like that sense of allowing it to “be what it wants to be” transferred over to the more traditional songs you feature on Back in Heaven?
For sure. Trevor, bless his heart, had to deal with a lot of me saying “no” to things that were really great. There was a lot of me saying “I can’t — I have to redo this whole thing.” Even if it was just some dumb, arbitrary thing, I felt that I had to do it correctly. If I didn’t, it would’ve just bugged the shit out of me. Even now, there are certain moments on the record that I listen to and think “ah, I wish I had done that differently,” but that’s totally unavoidable.
Do you feel that “I wish I had done that differently” feeling more so in your solo work than when you work with others, like Fleet Foxes?
No, honestly it’s probably the other way around. When you’re working with other people, I think it’s important that you contribute the very best that you have to offer. Nobody wants to waste their time — music can be recreational and enjoyable, but if you’re really trying to do this for a living, you can’t just show up to a group situation and strike out. You gotta always do the best you can. Especially if I watch a live performance or something, I’m usually cringing the whole time. Like, “why am I rushing that part?” or “why did I hit that pedal there?” So, yeah, it’s usually more difficult to watch when I’m doing stuff with others than on my own.
But, I also think that regret is part of the process. For one, it’s music. Every time you perform something it’s going to be different. For somebody who’s been playing music for as long as me, it’s easy to tell the difference between one performance and another, especially with my specific bands. So, I don’t think they’re ever going to be quite the same. You have to be okay with a certain level of imperfection in music, especially when you’re writing and recording it. Ultimately, it can’t be perfect. It shouldn’t be perfect. If it’s perfect, then when you return to it to perform it, you’ll never be able to recreate it. The cringey-ness isn’t necessarily bad, it’s part of the process. If you want to be a better musician, if you want to continue to progress, you need to work on finding a balance between those things. You should be able to look at stuff and say “this is why that sucked” or “that was so dumb or whatever, but you also know that you’ll get ‘em next time.
So, in that regard, would you say that your solo work and your work with others comes from the same place internally, or a different place?
As cool as it is to work on records by myself, I definitely become a better musician when I work with other people. Like I said, it can be kinda competitive and it’s important to show up and do the best you can, so it’s always important for me, even in solo endeavors, to have people contribute. I want people who I admire and who I want to contribute to my record to want to be doing it. It was incredibly flattering to me that all of the features on Back in Heaven agreed to do it. I mean, they’re all my friends so it would’ve been weird if they had said no, but they were really genuinely excited to be a part of it.
But, that said, I definitely had to make sure that I was making stuff that these folks would want to contribute to. Even my bandmates who I’ve been playing music with now for over 15 years, like Casey Wescott, from Fleet Foxes. He’s one of my favorite musicians and he plays on every track on the record — I can’t imagine this record without him. But, the stuff was already all written. He’d show up and I’d be like “can you play it this way?” and maybe I’d conduct or something. So, in those ways, it was collaborative while still being under the umbrella of “ultimately, I’m going to make the final decision on this.” The nice thing about being able to record with your friends — especially when there’s no ego involved — is that you’re able to talk through those things and get it done.
You’ve been playing music at a professional caliber in a variety of ways since 2005 — how does it feel to look back on the past 15 years?
When I was younger, everything was so new to me. Like, for example, the first time I ever went to Europe was actually on tour with Fleet Foxes. For a long time, those kinds of things were benchmarks, like “now I have a record under my belt” and then “now I have a tour under my belt” and stuff like that. After a while, you get to a point where those kinds of things have less to say to you as a musician.
Wow, I can’t imagine how surreal that must’ve been to show up to Europe for the first time ever and there are already hundreds of fans waiting to see your band.
Oh yeah, it was insane. It didn’t make sense. We’d go somewhere like Brussels or something and think “well, who are all these people?” It’s an incredible thing. Fleet Foxes’ first tour in Europe was with Beach House. We had played with them in Seattle before, so we kinda knew them already. But, it was a long tour — four or five weeks — and every step of it was exciting. It was like “okay, this is what it feels like to be in the throws of this thing, in a foreign place with these people I know.” You develop deep, long-lasting relationships with people. I love Alex and Victoria like they’re my own family. We’re the best of friends and I’m so grateful for that. It’s just because of things like tours and stuff.
It seems that having a meaningful connection with your audience is a big part of the total picture for you. Would you say that’s true?
It’s hard to say that in a way that makes it sound like you’re not curtailing to the whims of an audience. Obviously, I want my music to be something that people enjoy, but if they don’t, I don’t care.
I find that people connect first and foremost to honesty. If you’re doing something that’s dishonest, people can subconsciously weed that out. You’ll see that a lot where a band will release a great record and then their second record is some slick-ass Rick Rubin-produced thing. I love Rick Rubin, don’t get me wrong, but what I’m getting at is that you can tell that the intention has totally changed. Those bands start thinking like “well, how do we reach the largest number of people?” They forget that the reason that people start listening to you to begin with is that you’re expressing who you are as a person. That’s the most direct you can be. People can tell if it’s bullshit. So, it’s important to be as honest with yourself as you can.
Listen to “Cobalt” by Skyler Skjelset below: