California-based artist Drew Straus has pinballed around in lots of different areas—from working for Google to doing TV production, to journalistic work in Central America, the multi-linguist and instrumentalist has travelled the world wearing a variety of different hats. On July 14, he released his second record under the moniker Onsen—Keeper—a record that explores themes of self-doubt and longing, among others. Read on for our interview with Onsen, where we talk songwriting and the latest record.
What’s your story with music? What initially drew you to music and songwriting?
My father is a major music lover—especially of jazz and world music—so I grew up playing the piano and listening to Celia Cruz and Ethiopiques records (along with the Beach Boys and Neil Young). I dabbled with guitar in college but I didn’t properly start playing music until my friend invited me to play in her Country band. I hadn’t listened to much Country at that point but I found myself totally engaged with the kind of tight county harmonies that we all sang.
Soon thereafter I started writing songs on my own. They were weirdly convoluted, experimental musical nuggets but I wrote a few little pop gems amongst them. One of those songs, “Own Advice,” ended up on my first record, Earthquake Weather.
At the time I was pretty much untrained musically but writing these songs felt like a catharsis for the turmoils of my 20s. I was hooked and ended up going back to school for music composition.
And here I am still at it.
What does Onsen mean/where does it come from? Why did you decide to release music under a moniker?
Onsen is the Japanese word for hot springs (or sometimes hot tub). I was traveling in Japan as I was writing my first records and I really loved the way the word looked and sounded. And my first record was very soupy sounding so it felt right. There was something freeing for me about using a moniker and having the music sound like a band. At the time, I was less comfortable putting myself in front of the music and had various other people playing in the project. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten less shy but I still don’t feel like releasing music under Drew Straus. There’s just less mystery to it and it’s maybe the most unpronounceable name in any language other than English.
What does your creative or songwriting process look like? How do you find an idea or a song and nurture that into a completed track?
I think my most successful tracks happen when there’s a convergence of a sound, maybe it’s a synth, or a sample, or a drum hit, and an emotional experience that I’m going through. Maybe I’m subconsciously looking for a sound that matches my state of mind. I’ll usually start with a loose lyrical structure, working out melody and structure, and then go back and refine the lyrics after that. On the best songs, though, there’s usually some lyrical hook or core that comes out very quickly and remains in the final version.
Production-wise I tend to over-layer, adding far too much and then I end up going back and paring down the songs ‘til they feel balanced.
Keeper marks your second album—when you decide to put together an album, what does that process look like? Do you start with a framework, an idea or a theme, and go from there? Do you just start writing songs and fit the collection together later?
I think Keeper is connected temporally. I was in a particular state of mind and interested in a specific set of sounds and so I think the album came together pretty naturally. I thought about breaking it up into smaller EPs—which is the trend right now with the way streaming services work—but I really feel that the songs reinforce each other and so I decided they belonged all together.
For Keeper specifically, what is the theme or emotional throughline that connects and permeates the record?
For me, the biggest through-line is questioning self-worth. It was my first extended period of being single since I’d come out, so on the surface, a lot of the songs are about the trials and tribulations of relationships but underpinning them are larger questions. I was working without a label for the first time as well and felt unsure about my validity as an artist and whether (contrary to my New England upbringing) being a musician was a valid career at all. Basically, I was asking should I keep on? Was I a keeper? And this album became a receptacle for those doubts.
You said this of the record: “This record was a space to keep all those doubts and expose them to the daylight. In a sense, each song is asking ‘am I a keeper?’”—Did the writing and recording of the record serve as a therapeutic process for you?
It was certainly cathartic. Just externalizing these thoughts was in itself therapeutic, but more than that, I got to listen to myself through them and have a greater sense of empathy.
Does songwriting/performing, in general, serve some therapeutic element for you?
I think it inherently does although that’s never the intention when making music. I think I mostly want to make the music I want to listen to.
The first track on the record, “Moving In,” you said essentially came to you in a dream. The production of the song; stripped down but loaded with reverb and subtle synths, really creates a dream state—what kind of thought went into the production to create that environment?
I wanted to recreate the dream world I had been in. In the dream, I was in an enormous room that had a glowing light in the center of it. I was slowly walking into that light but never quite reaching the center, which in my mind was reaching the infinite/all-knowing/death, and as I walked I was singing this refrain that became “Moving In.”
The song starts with echoes of the real world, sort of like the experience of falling asleep. Then it moves on to repetition and drones which to me evoke that dreamy state. But the elements in the track are constantly subtly shifting, much like the light in a dream.
The song came to you in a dream—did it go through a bunch of iterations or is the final song essentially close to what you threw down on your voice memos when you woke up from that dream?
It did. At first, I over-complicated it. There was a section where it went into 7/8 and had these crazy clashing cello parts with discordant vocal harmonies. Kind of like a dream turning into a nightmare. It was cool but it never really worked quite and it wasn’t part of the actual dream. Eventually, I just went back to something really close to what I’d dreamt and the original voice memo, and that finally worked.
The next track “Charming Nights” has this really interesting synth intro that sounds like it’s playing on a warped record—what was the thought behind that twist? How does that warped-sounding synth bit further the story you’re telling in this song?
I love that synth sound. It’s from a CS80. It was the first sound that the rest of the song was built upon. In this case, it sort of evoked the narrative of the song as opposed to the other way around. There’s something a little off and unstable about it that feels very in line with the insecure love that the song is talking about. It’s soaring but unsure.
To me “Golden Heart” feels and sounds different from the rest of the record. It’s a little slower, has this prominent drum element and a very interesting synth/sonic element interwoven around the lyrics. What inspired this song, how did it come together, and what does it mean to you?
It’s the last song I wrote for this record so you have a good sense telling that it’s a bit different! I had broken up with a great guy and though the relationship didn’t feel right I had a lot of love for him. I had just heard that he had started seeing someone new, and I had a real moment of sadness. It was essentially a goodbye song and some of the most direct lyrics on the record. I tend to obscure tough emotion with convoluted lyrics so something as simple as “though we are going away, the thing that I’ve known from the start is your golden heart” was a shift for me and a lesson in how powerful direct lyrics can be. I think it’s one of the most emotionally affecting songs on the record.
Anything to add about the new record?
It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever made. I would love it if you would give it a listen and let me know what you think. The best way to reach me is on Instagram at @_onsen_.
You can listen to Keeper here.