Musicians are no stranger to the concept of recording at home nowadays. With the development of more affordable, better-sounding tech in the reach of most musicians it’s easy for virtually any artist to get started producing almost studio-quality music with a sock on the microphone and a laptop (If you’re willing to put in that extra work in post!) But this year was different. No matter who you were before it, the lockdown forced a work-from-home mindset to be the only way to survive. Live music? Not a chance. Studios? A virtual impossibility to find one open. This meant that all artists, albeit the up-and-comers or the top of the industry, could only do one thing: adapt, and create.
With the COVID-19 Vaccine finally becoming available en masse around the world, and a light at the end of a long tunnel finally in sight, the world is sure to fundamentally change from the horrors, the isolation, and the loss we collectively experienced this past year and a half. However, with that end in sight, we wanted to look back at some of the music projects in lockdown that continued to innovate, adapt to the situation at hand, and overcome their circumstances to provide the people with what they needed: Hope. Note that while many incredible albums were released in 2020, we are looking at 3 notable case examples of how the COVID-19 Pandemic and Quarantine influenced their Inception, creation, and/or release.
1. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
Charli XCX is not someone who quits. From the moment the Pandemic Locked all of us inside in March of 2020, the Mainstream-Pop Diva turned Queen of the ever-developing internet sound known as Hyperpop went to work. From joining fellow genre staples 100Gecs in their Minecraft Music Festival , to workshopping new lyrics via Instagram Live, XCX took the community she’s developed and brought them closer to her than ever before, in a time of isolation.
How I’m Feeling Now’s Inception, Creation, and release were uniquely spur of the moment in this way. With our world dominated by scheduled Zoom Calls and Livestreams being one of the only viable ways to remind people you exist, feedback from fans in real time supporting the album’s curation and themes came quickly, as did the product. As instantaneously as fans, known as Charli’s “Angels” were able to like an instagram post (Which is, might I add, where XCX got her inspiration for the Cover Art), Charli was able to show the stitching underneath what would be a glossy, explosive, and glitchy record backed by her Angels’, raw emotions during what would only be the beginning of a long, troubled road ahead. All written, produced and recorded at home in roughly six weeks according to Pitchfork. This is a pinnacle record in terms of fan interactivity, feedback, and it’s revealing of the human behind the music and admiration of the tech and social media that is often critiqued as invasive and isolating. It was through this tech, and the pandemic, that we realized it might also have the power to keep us working together while stuck at home. All the way down to the Stay-At-Home Music video!
2. Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation II
The trio composed of London Producers Gus Lobban, Jamie Bulled and singer/songwriter Sarah Midori Perry captured the anxiety of the pandemic perfectly over some of the most upbeat chillwave/house you can imagine: “And we will be well rested, when the ascension comes.” Their new 3-track EP, Civilisation II, Is the sequel to another sunny, kooky J-Pop tinged genre fusion with fears of the world coming to an end hidden under the sugary surface. The only thing Kero Kero Bonito didn’t expect, is that they would be getting a taste of the gloom and doom to come in their predictions from the former record this past year. According to their Bandcamp Page: “Civilisation II sees KKB continue to explore instinctive human tendencies across three tracks, all completely devised using vintage hardware.” With an emphasis on Past, Present, and Future The track most influenced by our time is the one titled with the release date of the record: 21/04/20. Going through a day in Sarah’s life, we get a glimpse of a dystopian event we’re experiencing through the normalized lens we all view it now. Only subtle hints in the lyrics would tip off someone pre-2020 something is amiss.
“As I head up the road/A private ambulance zooms off into the distance/In silence/All the shops are closed/With rainbows painted on the glass/Covering notes/That they hope to see us soon/But right now/There’s not much they can do”
Once using the bright, neon colors of sound to talk about Being Yourself in an almost Kintergarden-like Way, Kero Kero Bonito has kept the childlike wonder of their sound, but grown lyrically through the pain of the real world. KKB has warped their sugary pop to mask the flavors of the end times in a palatable form on this project. While it’s true that “We have survived a hundred apocalypses” as Well Rested continues, it doesn’t take away from the existential dread that has now become the “Usual kind of weird” Kero Kero Bonito prods at with this stellar EP.
3. Gorillaz – Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez
It’s always strange to think that despite being made up of cartoons animated by the Minds of graphic artist Jamie Hewlett and Composed/Performed by Blur’s Damon Albarn, The Gorillaz bring out the humanity in their cavalcade of artistic influences and collaborative guests that have become a staple in the band’s 2 decade run. This time, singles were released as music-video driven “Episodes” Featuring the Animated band alongside guests from across musical traditions as they journey around the globe. From the haunting “Désolé” (Which simply means “Sorry” in French) featuring the powerful cries of Grammy Nominated Malian Singer-Songwriter Fatoumata Diawara crooning while sailing a ghostly Lake Cuomo, or a lockdown-forced home session with the fictional band-members 2-D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle jamming with UK Punk duo Slaves and the ever-political rapper Slowthai on the frustrations of everyday life in “Momentary Bliss.” These singles were released in succession through the first half of 2020, and gave snapshots into the lives of the artists and the fictional story of the Gorillaz navigating the year. With “Song Machine Bitez” dropped alongside each video. These short audio snippets of the characters giving a little insight to the individual tracks, their narrative, and having conversations with the artists made the story behind the record feel alive. Hearing a Conversation over the Phone of 2-D and SchoolBoy Q talking about travel restrictions and jerk chicken, is comfortingly relatable. It makes the album feel less like a series of one off tracks, “composed, produced, and recorded in strange times indeed — almost exclusively during the coronavirus lockdown.” as The Daily Cardinal reported, and more like the entertaining parody of real life we needed for comfort. Perhaps the hardest hitting moment on the record was when Gorillaz announced an additional single being released early in honor of the passing of the great Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who was on the track, “How Far?” With Skepta a few weeks before passing. Sacrificing a good commercial rollout to support and honor the life and legacy of a great musician we lost in 2020, was a powerful statement. The band may be animated, but at the heart of a great project comes the people behind it. To see such a daring, continuous outpouring of music that honored creativity, the uniqueness of the individual, and the spirit of community we lost around the globe for a time was what made this project so important and so unique to the events of the past year.
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