Gus Dapperton Is Having Fun Getting Serious

The phenomenon of “bedroom pop” has become a force to be reckoned with. Especially since Billie Eilish won her 2020 Grammys, the “genre” — if you want to call it that — has been on the tongues of almost everyone in the music industry, from Spotify to NBC. But even beyond Eilish, other heavy-hitters in the genre like Clairo and Boy Pablo rake in hundreds of millions of streams on the whole array of DSPs.

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As exciting as all of this is, perhaps the most significant thing about bedroom pop is not what’s happening at the very top, but what’s happening at the bottom — bedroom pop is growing to resemble something akin to folk music from the early 20th century. That is to say, for every Eilish, Clario or Boy Pablo who’s going viral on TikTok, there are hundreds of musicians at home, in their bedrooms, making music. Just as Americans flocked to instruments like the fiddle and the banjo when early “hillbilly” records made their rounds during the Carter Family era, Americans today are flocking to Focusrite interfaces, USB microphones and their laptops.

As a result, there has been an amazing influx of excitement, creativity and ingenuity from all corners of the world contributing to this eclectic ethos. Along with this influx comes a lot of opportunity to change and shape the genre, which is exactly what Gus Dapperton (one of the biggest names in the bedroom pop world) is doing with his sophomore album, Orca, which dropped on September 18 via AWAL.

See, Dapperton is a huge advocate for the creative openness and opportunity that comes along with the bedroom ethos. Knowing full-well that this is a popular movement coming from the people, Dapperton has taken a step away from the blatant consumerism that naturally comes along with something that goes viral on TikTok (like “Supalonely,” the Benee song that he’s featured on). Instead, Dapperton is using Orca as a vehicle for something deeper, something more meaningful: opening up about his hardships and forming a genuine connection with his fans. 

Since blowing up with his 2017 releases — including “Prune, You Talk Funny,” which you could describe as his “hit” — Dapperton has been one of the more iconic players in the bedroom pop community. Perhaps this has to do with his instantly-recognizable fashion style, or perhaps it has to do with his instantly-recognizable production style. Either way, he has become a go-to choice for a lot of Generation Z music fans… which actually made Dapperton a little worried at first.

Last month, American Songwriter caught up with Dapperton to discuss all of this. Despite a rise in numbers from things like TikTok, Dapperton was hesitant to accept that these streams equated to actual fans. Concerned whether they would be interested in his more emotional, vulnerable music, he found himself wondering “will people actually listen to the meaning of the song? Or do they just want to put on a bop in the background?” Yet, Dapperton quickly found that fans were not only listening, but were overwhelmingly enthused about his new direction. Thus, Orca entered the world as a success, showing off a self-produced artist who’s proved that he can balance being an entertainer and being a serious artist without sacrificing either. 

Orca is an artistic step forward for you in a couple of different ways — when did you start working on it? How did you formulate the themes it explores? 

I started working on Orca around a year and a half ago. Sometimes I’ll work on a song for years and years and it’ll eventually come back to me at a certain moment. So, this consists of some old songs and some very new songs that were made for the purpose of defining the concept of the album.

I suppose you could describe the record as a deep reflection of my thoughts and feelings — a look at my life, the lifestyle I live and the loved ones I have around me. A lot of the songs are still “love” songs at their core, but it’s not exactly “romantic love.” It’s more like platonic, unconditional love, like family love, friendships and whatnot.

I’m usually very inspired to write songs about love — specifically romantic love, crushes, jealousy and stuff like that. Those are things that have been inspiring to me at various times and I felt like listeners liked listening to songs like that… I like listening to songs like that! But, at the same time, some of my favorite songs are songs about pain and suffering — those songs really get the message across. So, this album is a reflection of that. It goes somewhere that I haven’t really gone before: diving deeper into my feelings. 

Being a self-produced, “bedroom” artist is a big part of your ethos, but on this record you expanded out and featured other musicians — what was behind this shift? Did it change your process? 

I do produce everything myself and in the past I’ve played just about all of the parts. But, for this album I decided to bring in other musicians, which I think really added to the record’s personality and sense of vulnerability. These musicians are folks who are close to me, like friends and family.

My sister, for example, sings the harmonies on pretty much all of the songs. That was cool because it helped my lead vocal stand out more and it added a deeper character to the songs, which made them more relatable. My sister’s been with me on all of these tours and she’s experienced a lot of the experiences that I’m reflecting on throughout this album. So, it’s nice to have those voices — even if they’re just doing what I wrote, it’s nice to hear and know that they were there for all of those experiences. 

Before, I was really hellbent on doing everything myself because I wanted to take the time to make sure it was perfect. But there’s definitely a lot of growth and positivity that comes out of collaborating with people. It’s nice to hear things played much better than I’d be able to play them. Honestly, just the character alone of someone else playing something can make a big difference. It instills a special personality onto each individual part of the song, rather than having everything come from a single character — that character being me. 

So, you’re singing about platonic love while also presenting it in the form of featuring loved ones — it’s cool how that kinda breaks the fourth wall a little bit. 

Totally, that was the goal. That clicked when I really started understanding what the theme of the album was. That also influenced the production as well, obviously. It tied the theme, the lyrics, the chord progressions and everything else together. 

As you mentioned, Orca takes a closer look at your inner-self than your past work, diving into your experiences, passions and struggles. How has mental health played a role in your artistry? How did it influence this record-making process?

First and foremost, music has always been a release for me. Art, in general, has always helped me. But, I’ve never really directly talked about the things I’m actually releasing. On this record, I’m finally doing that. It’s been a really fragile time in my life — I started touring when I was 19 and my bandmates were all 17 – 20 years old. I think we all missed out on the maturing and the valuable life lessons that most folks learn during those years. I built up a lot of emotional highs and emotional lows — eventually, the dynamic between the two and the struggle to find a balance got to be too much.

It manifested in a lot of things, including physical traits like eating habits and hardly sleeping. Then, you add on top of that the fact that we’re touring, so I’m going up on stage and trying to give a great performance every night. It took a toll on me, especially having been pushed right into it. I definitely had more emotions to release than I had ever had. It’s really nerve-racking to talk plainly about that stuff in the music. I, obviously, still use metaphors and stuff in the lyrics, but it’s still more plain and straight-foward than what I usually put on records.

Sometimes I make songs specifically to release and sometimes I make songs just for myself — this record has helped me more than anything else. I tried therapy and other methods, but nothing helped me as much as this music. The biggest question was whether I should share it or not… but, now that I’ve done that, I feel really happy. It’s very gratifying to share this and have it out there.

How has it been to put it out there? In a way, do you feel a sense of relief?

It really began with releasing the first song. After I did that, I got to see the reaction from people. I realized that people were actually listening to the song in a way that was more meaningful than it just being a bop they put on in the background. They were actually listening to it and they understood that I was trying to access something deeper. Once I realized that fans were grateful that I was releasing this music, I’ve had this great feeling ever since.

Yeah, you are a really fantastic “bop” writer, yet these songs do have themes that go a bit beyond what you might see in a typical pop tune — how did you approach writing about these topics while still retaining a sense of genuine fun and excitement in the music?

Well, I’ve never been a huge fan of talking about what music means — I’ve always been an advocate for allowing the music to speak for itself. It’s totally possible that I could not know a single lyric to a song while someone else knows every single word by heart and the song can still mean the same thing to both of us. 

In 2019, you were featured on “Supalonely” by Benee which has become quite popular on TikTok — how does that feel? We’re talking about what it’s like to share your music with an audience, what’s it like to be able to scroll through literally millions of videos featuring your song?

I think that TikTok, as a platform for those videos and the people who create them, is beneficial. When you see the funny things and dance videos and whatnot that creators put on there, you’ll find that it’s all really creative, like in the way it’s edited and put together. So, that’s beneficial. 

However, I think the music-listening side of it is not beneficial. For example, I think that there are a lot of young, impressionable kids who use the platform. For those kids, the entire discography of music that they listen to might come from TikTok. I don’t think that that’s beneficial because they’re not diving into an artist’s catalogue — they’re just hopping onto the next viral, fun song that they hear. It doesn’t create very well-rounded listeners, it creates someone who’s into pop culture. I suppose that it’s inevitable that some songs are going to be big and kids are going to follow those trends, but I think that kids actually discovering music and developing their tastes through something like TikTok… I don’t know, it’s interesting. We haven’t been able to play live or anything, so it’s hard to tell if those fans from TikTok transfer into real music fans who’ll go to live shows or will listen to artists’ discographies beyond just their TikTok hit.

In that regard, do you kinda see Orca and the deeper meaning behind the songs on it as juxtaposing the fleeting, TikTok narrative of modern music? 

It was definitely inspiring to me to contradict what you’d probably tend to make. I was also really inspired by trying to recreate music that existed back in the past — back when you’d go out, buy the whole album and then go to the show where the band would play the whole album. That was in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the physical music experience was at an all-time high. I want to go back to a time like that. It’s funny to me how kids will sometimes know all the words to one song and not know another one at all. I really like creating albums that are albums, something that’s designed to be listened to the whole way through. It’s interesting to me to try to bridge that gap, to try to bring that ethos back.

On a similar note, you have a very prominent sense of fashion and aesthetic — is that a conscious decision on your part? In a way, it reminds me of the “physical music experience” you mentioned. What’s your philosophy on this? 

When I started making music, I understood the need for cohesiveness. I think that people think that cohesiveness stems from aligning yourself with a genre, but the way that I see it is that you’re aligning yourself with hundreds of genres at once by taking all of the bits and pieces of influences around you and combining it into whatever your sound is. So, I’ve always understood the need for an original sound that is cohesive in that sense.

But, there’s also a need for cohesive artwork and cohesive visuals. Once I decided to really try to do this music thing, I realized that you have to be a well-rounded artist. I’m not saying that out of necessity, but out of a passion for making art. I think that everyone needs to put 100% into whatever they choose to do. If you choose to make a music video, you should put 100% into it. If you choose to have artwork for your album, you should put 100% into it. Whatever it is… even if it’s that you’re trying to make it look like you didn’t put 100% into it!

I love every aspect of art — whether it’s film, photography, graphic design, fashion, whatever. I wouldn’t even say that I have a very defined aesthetic, it’s really just me choosing to accept all aesthetics. You know how some people say “I listen to every kind of music except country”? Well, I say “I listen to every kind of music inducing country.” You can’t neglect any form of art, no matter what it is. You have to take everything for what it’s worth. 

I think that a lot of people might see me and think that certain parts of my artistry come first, second, third, etc. I think that if you choose to express yourself, only do it in a way that’s going to add to the songs. I love the music first and foremost and everything else is a tool. But, they’re tools that provide the necessary personality the listener might not have picked up on before. Everything has 100% put into it. 

Yeah, there’s also that trend where a lot of artists want to be perceived online as a peer to their followers. They post candid things, they share funny stuff, they really try to make it feel like they’re a friend to their fans. In a way, what you’re speaking to seems to be a different approach where it is much more about engaging with a full-picture art piece and a persona. Would you say that that’s accurate? How does that open you up as an artist?

I think the more you understand what you’re doing, the more opportunity you have to define yourself and say exactly what you want to say, expressing what you hear in your head. The more you understand it, the more you’re able to break it down and think about those things. 

I think about that too, though, what you mentioned about other artists presenting themselves by breaking down industry barriers and being relatable. At the end of the day, it’s about letting your fans know that you’re one of them. That’s something that I really encourage — anyone should make music if they’re into it and try anything they’re passionate about. At the end of the day, even I’m just another music fan trying to express myself. We’re all out here.

I mentioned it a little bit earlier, but you are an artist who is often sorted into the “bedroom pop” bin — how do you feel about that term? What does it — or perhaps the ethos it implies — mean to you? 

I’ve never loved the term “bedroom pop” because I feel like nowadays people sorta associate it with being more DIY or lo-fi. That’s not what it is. I mean, that is a characteristic sometimes, but just because you’re making music in your bedroom doesn’t mean that it can’t be hi-fi. I think Billie Eilish is the best example of that. 

But, at the same time, I like the term because it does entail that a lot of these artists don’t need the standard industry tools to make good music. That’s what helps create more diversity and eclecticness in a sound — coming up with weird sounds that you make in your bedroom because you have all the time in the world. You don’t have anyone standing over your shoulder telling you that things need to sound a certain way.

I like all the people who are grouped into this category. But, in general, I think that a “bedroom pop” artist is also a pop artist or an alternative artist or an rock artist or an indie artist. 

You mentioned that you’ll sometimes work on a single song for as long as a year or more — what does that process typically look like? What do you like about that kind of elongated workflow?

Definitely. Even musically — sometimes I’ll just play a certain chord in a certain way and sit with it for a while. I’ll start asking myself questions like “does this sound good?” or “is this too expectable?” I want things to sound new every time I listen to them. I’ll sit on songs until they’re perfect in my opinion. Sometimes it takes a while before the idea pops into my head.

I make all of my music myself — I write it, produce it, I record it — so, I can go right to my studio (my computer) and record things immediately if inspiration strikes. Like, a guitar part idea or a vocal run or a drum fill. I think it’s important to not rush myself. Even if I do something quickly just to get it down on paper, it’s important to me that I listen to it for a while before I lock-in anything permanently.

Do you use any gear that you feel is essential to your workflow? 

I’m a huge advocate for going forward and creating something with whatever tools you have. There are plenty of artists doing it in plenty of different ways. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a mentor or anybody above me to show me the ropes. I always wanted to know if I was doing things “right.” I was like, “is using this microphone going to be okay? Am I going to get a valid sound? Is using GarageBand okay? Will people be able to tell? Will I sound bad?” Ultimately, the answer to all of those questions is: there is literally no “right” way to do anything. 

When I got started, I was making beats on a school computer in my school’s Mac lab. I always loved music and I was really drawn to the idea of making a beat in GarageBand. Over time, obviously, I learned more about it all. I would watch videos on YouTube and stuff. It’s really all about putting a lot of time into whatever you’re doing — play with sounds until you come across something you like and then use it to make something you like. So, there’s nothing in particular that inspires me other than knowing that there are no rules. It’s really up to you, your gear and your imagination to make something awesome. 

But, if you want to know specifics for Orca — in general, I did want it to sound analog and sorta vintage-y. I like to record my vocals through dynamic mics — usually an SM7B — and then process it through vintage-sounding outboard gear. There are distressor compressors on my vocal change along with the Neve 511 preamp, which has this “silk” knob on it that adds a great tape-warmth to things. I always try to get really natural sounds.

Watch the music video for “Post Humorous” by Gus Dapperton below:

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