Ethan Gold is a musician, producer and film composer known for his work on Adventures of Power, The Song of Sway Lake and Don’t Let Go. In 2017, he released his first solo album, Songs From a Toxic Apartment. Four years later, after recovering from a crippling head injury, Gold is getting ready to release his follow-up to his debut album, a trilogy of albums christened Earth City. The first of the trilogy, Earth City 1: The Longing, will be released on June 11, 2021.
Read on for our interview with Ethan Gold, where we take a deep dive into his songwriting process and latest project, the Earth City trilogy.
What was your earliest encounter with music and what about that art form drew you to it?
Ethan Gold: I wrote a few songs reflecting some of the issues going on in my family when I was two or three, which were more like taunts, I suppose. So that started early, but I didn’t have any formal music training until much later. But I was banging around on a piano when I was five, six, so forth, kind of imitating classical music that I heard my mother playing, and writing my own classical-ish sounding things at a pretty early age. For me music was definitely an escape hatch. Sort of a place to go to shut everything else out. It had a very important role for me, even though it was not something I was doing in any formal way. Which I regretted later. The possible upside of that was that I didn’t have any rules to teach me things, but I also didn’t have any rules to teach me boundaries. I really never had the experience of having to learn anybody else’s music.
Is there a moment in your life that you recall realizing you wanted to pursue a career as a musician?
Ethan Gold: There came a point when I felt that If I don’t do this, who will? I was in college and just felt like I had been following a path that I wasn’t really interested in for a long time. And had been writing songs the whole time, and kind of gave myself an ultimatum to find a way to do it. When I left there, I started recording other bands, I guess producing people in a small scale way. And that was sort of my excuse to myself about ‘ok, I’m going to make this work however I can.’ What ended up happening was I ended up focusing a lot more on that than on my own work for a while. I got the bug, but I found a way to turn it into work, which is a pathology I might have.
Can you talk about your film composition projects, specifically how you go about composing a score for a movie?
Ethan Gold: Each film is really a different thing entirely. I feel my job, whether I’m producing an artist or doing a film score, is to figure out what the artist or what the film, in the case of scoring, is wanting to express. So, I really try to get a deep understanding of what the core motivation of the film is. A lot of times, when a composer comes in, it’s at the very end of the process, somewhere along a torturous editing process. And I’ve found that filmmakers sometimes get to that point and they’ve lost their way and forgotten what their purpose was, and so I can come in with a fresh perspective. In the case of Don’t Let Go, for example, they had already worked with another composer when the director reached out to me. They had gone through a couple of composers; it had become a difficult process for them, finding the heart of the film. In the case of that one, what I felt the film wanted was a sense of both having strong thematic material that could be tying together a plot which was very complicated, so I wanted to have really strong, little melodies that could be placed throughout the film.
The Song of Sway Lake is a film about memory; it’s a film about people who are crippled by nostalgia, a grandmother and grandson who are looking for the past — he’s obsessed with old music, particularly jazz from the ‘30s and ‘40s. In that one, I wanted music that would feel the way summertime on a lake in the mountains feels. But then also, the plot had this key moment where the characters are looking for these old records. I presented the case to the director that there was a real opportunity to create something unique, because I’m a songwriter, to create something that would sound like the ‘30s and ‘40s, that would show up in the film as if the characters had found them on these old records. So I wrote songs to sound like the ‘30s and ‘40s and ultimately, they ended up in the film.
Can you elaborate on your songwriting process — the way you dream up your songs — and what that looked like before and after your head injury?
Ethan Gold: I started dreaming songs as a young adult. It always would show up in the form of a character. I think the first one I remember was actually my mother, who had died, singing something. Somehow it was almost a story about her. At that point, I felt that this was important for me to pay attention to. I would only typically remember a bit, wherever I woke up in the melody, but I think I started consciously nurturing that. I was honoring the dreams by writing them down and working on the songs when I woke up. Almost every time something would show up, I would say ‘this is coming for a reason, and I want to honor it and figure out what it’s trying to say, lyrically and musically.’ The dreams were all over the map. One of the funnier things that’s happened in dreams is where I’m actually seeing bands play. It’s only happened a few times but it was so bizarre. I’ve seen shows by Bruce Springsteen in my dreams, where I wrote a song that was in the style of Springsteen.
More often than not, it’s some kind of mystical figure. I’ve had goddesses singing, however you want to term that; I figure if these things are coming to me this way, then it’s my job to honor them. At this point it happens often enough, a couple times a week, that I almost don’t bother starting songs unless they start in dreams because I have so much dream material to start with. It does feel like a collaboration. My waking, rational mind gets to figure out structural considerations, but the inspiration is the core that I always want to keep my hand on.
Can you talk about the concept of the Earth City Trilogy, how it came to you and why you felt it was important to pursue?
Ethan Gold: The last major song album I put out is an extremely personal and somewhat pained story, which interestingly, I almost saw as sort of a trilogy. Ultimately, I didn’t have the artistic experience to be able to fully flesh it out. I had written 60 or 90 songs but I couldn’t make sense of it. I had this head injury a few years ago, which did change my perspective and slowed down the worrying brain to some degree, and I think, allowed me to re-access some more universal concerns. Earth City developed over a few years where I was trying to find a way to express something bigger. There’s a sense of alienation that we all feel. We have a highly interconnected world where that stuff hasn’t made us feel more like we’re alive on the planet. We have this strange, boxed lifestyle. Interesting in the pandemic, we’ve connected a lot but we’ve connected through screens. There is a larger notion of our whole civilization turning the whole world into an interconnected city, which is both exciting and also hasn’t really healed our fundamental loss that we all have, which is our disconnection from the natural world.
I guess I’m wanting to heal to the degree that my job as an artist is to bring as much healing as I can, especially as I’m dreaming songs — I feel they’re coming to me for a reason. And that reason is not my ego and not my personal story, there’s a larger story of the planet, and so without trying to be pretentious, I’m really wanting to take on the kind of core loss that is underlying our whole way of life. Through the metaphor of the city and through all the ways that we put ourselves down and then how that self-hatred turns into a way of hating other people or hating the living world; those are the themes that I’m addressing through songs in Earth City. My goal is to make this big topic a pleasure to listen to as well, through the different colors. As a songwriter, I like to create these different worlds so that it’s this beautiful experience. It’s a joyous, wondrous experience. I want this trilogy to feel that way. I want a rich experience for the listener, as well as hopefully bringing some healing to the stuff that I’m addressing.
I want to heal people’s relationships with themselves so that they treat everybody and the planet better.
What led you to make certain sonic choices in the way you construct your soundscapes in Earth City 1?
Ethan Gold: As a songwriter, I come from a classic songwriting tradition, where the song is like a diamond that can be done on acoustic guitar or piano, and everyone understands the melody. What I’m wanting to do is combine that classic songwriting, but then, if I’ve got three or four minutes to tell a song, why not make that a unique experience, sonically as well? For me, any song is an opportunity to create a new picture. In Firefly, the spanish guitar came in — partly — as a little bit of an ironic way to express the notion of a woman dancing for seduction. It’s a song about peoples’ self-hatred about their appearance and wanting to be loved by the world, for dancing and singing, and wanting admiration. And so that guitar was just something that felt like it would express, slightly ironically, a sense of a swaying dance. These decisions, it’s just a feeling. I’ll get a feeling that something will express what that song wants in different ways.
That’s part of the beauty of a form like music. The lyrics say one thing but the music can say another. People say ‘what’s the song about,’ and I say ‘the song isn’t about anything.’ The song says everything that it’s about when you listen to it, because it’s the lyrics but it’s also how these different elements play against each other subconsciously.
Is there a song on the album that was particularly difficult to finalize?
Ethan Gold: On the production side, things can be difficult. But I find since my head injury, I’m much faster than I used to be. I kind of got a memo when I was unable to think clearly, which is that my soul was still online when my brain was offline. Experiencing that for an extended period reminded me of some things that most of us forget. Now, I’m much better at having a strong sense of what a song is wanting. Then it’s a matter of executing the vision that’s in my head.
Has this process of creating an album that is external by its nature served as a therapeutic outlet for you?
Ethan Gold: A fair number of the songs that I write are written to soothe my own nerves. It does have a therapeutic quality. And I’ve heard this from some of my listeners that there is a healing quality, and so that does start with me. If a song doesn’t heal me, then it’s probably not going to heal anybody else. I’m experimenting on myself first to see if these songs take anger and transform that, or take depression and give a balm to that. So, absolutely. It starts there. But I am wanting to connect with the world now, and connect the world with itself, and bring more consciousness to the way people live. This album is definitely not so much of a personal type of record. I’m wanting this whole Earth City to be for everybody.
In creating a trilogy, has it been difficult to ensure that each album stays unique and separate when they all operate under this Earth City umbrella?
Ethan Gold: I’m very keen on albums that have inner continuity. Each of these three, Earth City 1: The Longing, I pay a lot of attention to song sequence, and I want it to unroll in a way that feels right. But the three of them, I’d like them to have continuity while being distinct from each other. And they are distinct from each other. I feel ‘longing’ is a word I’ve been drawn to for a while. It’s kind of you reaching out to something and you don’t know what it is. It’s an inner emptiness — not a horrifying emptiness — just a sense that there’s some feeling in oneself that you’re trying to access. And that period of allowing yourself time to slow down and take stock, trying to find our inner needs and figure out what direction we want to be pointed in. That’s the theme of part one. And part two goes more into the city life, and some of the excitement and terror. Part two is more of an up record. The whole thing is written, it’s not all recorded, but it’s written. I know where it’s going. The continuity is not the hardest thing for me. I like to find a balance between continuity and freshness. But the three records are not repeats at all. I’m taking everyone on a journey, but the longing is Luke in the desert — the sense of looking up to the sky and wondering.
You can check out Ethan Gold’s upcoming music here.