By Cristina Schreil
Many great ideas come out of nowhere. For violinist Josh Knowles, they formed while cooking breakfast.
“I had the idea for this video pop into my head,” says Knowles of his latest project. “I had this snapshot of two dancers silhouetted moving to the song.” It’s rarer, however, for daydreams to actually manifest. Yet recently, he dropped this video for a track titled “Same”—from Knowles first lyrical album he’s releasing as a solo artist this fall. Boston Ballet principal dancers Lia Cirio and Paul Craig dance to choreography by Yury Yanowsky to Knowles’ love song.
The Berklee-trained electric violinist, composer, and songwriter adds he’s always been “hungry” for fresh ways to approach violin—often prone to “learning Nirvana songs instead of practicing Suzuki” much to the chagrin of his teacher, he says.
We caught up with Knowles to discuss the unique collaboration behind the video, his alternative sound, his upcoming album “How Deep the Dark” (following his first instrumental album out last year), and his stream-of-consciousness-fueled writing process.
Knowles plays a violin named “Lucy,” which used to belong to his great uncle. Lucy is a German violin made in 1927 by Joseph Kreutzinger.
Tell me about this video. How did this collaboration first come together?
The two dancers in the video are Paul Craig and Lia Cirio, who are principal dancers from Boston Ballet. I first met them when I played onstage with Boston Ballet in a string quartet for a piece called “Cacti.” That was about five years ago. We’ve all become really good friends and collaborated heavily together since then. I also met the choreographer, Yury Yanowsky, as well as the videographer, Ernesto Galan, at Boston Ballet when we toured to Lincoln Center in New York. When I first sent them rough sketches of pieces from the new album, they were totally on board to collaborate in some way. This seemed like the perfect opportunity make that happen!
How does this choreography and how do the visuals of this video correspond best with your music, in your mind?
I’ve always visualized any music I hear or write with different shapes and colors.
When I was writing and recording this song, I had these black and white figures
popping up in the back of my mind coinciding with the different lyrics and textures
in the recording.
I think the overall essence of this song is simplicity. The idea that no matter how chaotic life gets you can still just simply love somebody is something that really resonates with me, and I wanted to reflect that both with the way the song was produced, as well as in the overall aesthetic of the music video. Having the video be primarily two black silhouettes interacting and transforming together across a white backdrop seemed to mirror this sentiment really effectively and beautifully.
What’s most exciting to you as an artist about collaborating with dancers,
or other artists? How does it expose the fans of either to other art forms?
I think the most exciting, invigorating, (and often terrifying) aspect of any collaboration is the vulnerability it takes to share something you care so much about with somebody and essentially say, “I trust you to take this and make it even more special and meaningful.” There was never any doubt in my mind that this collaboration would lead to anything but a beautiful result, though. All of us have worked together so much in the past and are at a level in our respective crafts that the trust it takes to create something good was not hard to come by.
Also, I think it’s definitely easy to get unknowingly pigeon-holed in any craft you
specialize in to create art. Collaborating across mediums is such an incredible way to shatter creative limitations and give you artistic revelations that can change your whole approach for the better.
“As far as my playing and how violin is infused on the album, it was really exciting to push the boundaries of manipulating a traditional violin sound while still keeping that intimacy and vulnerability that is so unique to violin.”
What inspired “Same”?
I wrote “Same” for my girlfriend, Cassie, who I’ve been with for many years. There have no doubt been ups and downs, and it can be really scary to acknowledge that every relationship can’t help but change over time. I guess the point of the song is that even after that change happens, and things aren’t able to go back to the way they were, there’s always a way to still love someone for who they are.
What was your composition process for that song?
This song was definitely unique in the way it grew into itself. Many times I’ll write a whole song, music and lyrics both at the same time before I record it. But for “Same,” I kind of stumbled across the refrain of the song as I was doing some stream-of-consciousness writing one morning. I had no idea what exactly to do with it, but I knew I wanted to build a song around it. I also knew I heard it in C major for some reason, but that was about it. So I opened up garage band and started throwing melodic paint at the wall and seeing what stuck. The opening lines of the final track that you hear in the music video are actually the vocal takes from the very first demo I did that morning.
Can you speak about the violin elements you incorporate in the work? Did you push yourself in different ways or bring in elements you have not
For this particular song, I knew the violin line had to reflect the simplicity of the lyrical sentiment. I feel like you have to access a very sensitive corner of your mind to write a simple yet powerful melody on the violin. For me to get to that place, all of the technique and practice needed to go out the window so that emotion was the only thing left. Writing this song was definitely a really special exercise in letting go, and allowing the music to bubble up from a naturally heartfelt state.
Let’s talk about your upcoming album: How do some of the compositions on the record showcase you as an artist?
I think more than anything on this album, I wanted to make the real priority to convey the overall emotion engrained in these songs. My new album is definitely geared toward a more electronic sound. I was really influenced by acts like Bon Iver, Radiohead, and even Kendrick Lamar for the way they create such a profound and introspective mood in their music by utilizing very manipulated digital textures. On the other end of the spectrum, the lyrical simplicity and raw emotion of Julien Baker is something I wanted to accomplish both with my vocal and violin performance. I think the songs on this album accomplish both that electronic and tonal exploration, while keeping a sense of intimacy in the composition and lyrics.
What are some of the tracks and the timelines of your composing them?
The timeline of these pieces definitely ranges. I wrote the title track “How Deep the Dark” most recently when I was performing in the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last year. I had built a violin loop that I wanted to freestyle lyrics over, and the words to that song kind of just fell out.
“Same” is actually the oldest one on the album. I wrote that around five years ago, so it feels great to finally share it with the world!
What was the recording process like?
This album definitely came together in a very unique way. It wasn’t just holing up
in a studio for a few weeks and doing conventional tracking. A lot of the instrumentation is electronic string-based grooves that both myself and [producer] Alex Glover produced essentially in our bedrooms. I think this kind of process really gives you a freedom to fall down the rabbit hole and explore ideas that wouldn’t be easy to chase in a studio setting. Once we had the framework for the songs, we recorded strings, vocals, and some auxiliary sounds with Mike Sapone in New York.
As far as my playing and how violin is infused on the album, it was really exciting
to push the boundaries of manipulating a traditional violin sound while still keeping that intimacy and vulnerability that is so unique to violin. On “Same” and several other tracks, one of the tactics I used was to record multiple takes of improv over the songs. Afterward I would go through the takes and chop up different sections, put them through samplers and pitch shifters, throw distortion on some, and even take the audio and reverse it to achieve some really, really unique textures that still maintain the essence of a violin sound, just in a totally different context.