One of the most compelling releases of the week came from Chicago’s own Conrad Merced. His debut Tender Beats is awash in emotional outpourings. We were lucky enough for him to answer a few of our questions ahead of his show tonight at The Elbo Room. It’s FREE! So, get yourself there tonight!
Chicago Crowd Surfer
CM: Conrad Merced
You started writing your debut record, Tender Beats, after your mother passed away unexpectedly. Did you find that crafting these songs aided in your grief process?
CM: Absolutely. Before my mother passed away, I went on a near ten-year drought where I didn’t play or write music. Sometime during my twenties, I decided to focus my efforts into a career and grad school. Also at that time, I felt I hit a pretty bad writer’s block and felt very uninspired.
It was a natural thing for me to pick up my guitar in the next few weeks after the funeral. It was mainly a distraction from dealing with her death. In my family and in a lot of Eastern cultures, we don’t go to therapy; we don’t talk about our feelings or grieve in the same way as Western cultures, so crafting melodies was my outlet and then, naturally, the words and lyrics just started spilling out of me.
What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the songs. I had no real intention of writing an album or performing music again; I just did it as a form of therapy. I thought these were some of the best songs I had written. I wrote close to 20 songs within that year, and I thought I should share some of these with the world.
Tender Beats has such a mellow vibe and consistent core. Where do you draw from musically that led to this very personal and exposed sound?
CM: I still think at the end of the day, Tender Beats is a folk album. My father is a folk musician, and it's been embedded in me. Growing up, of course, I wanted nothing to do with folk music. I played in bands throughout high school and college, and those bands were very loud, very much along the terms of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. When I came out of the writer’s block, I just wanted to make music that was completely different from what I did in the past. The one guideline I made for this record was to keep all the guitars acoustic and not to use any distortion, but I also wanted to make this record not sound like a typical folk album.
When composing the drums, I went overboard in reverb to fill the space for an ethereal or epic feeling. I really tried to mimic those Jesus & Mary Chain drums or early Morrissey records; I loved how the drums sounded on those. Otherwise, I used drum machines if I wanted more of a cold, mechanical sound depending on the mood of the song. I pulled a lot of influence from Aphex Twin and Autechre. I’ve always been a fan of the IDM/Glitch music from the ‘90s.
It’s also a very synthesizer-heavy album. I was treading on dangerous territory with having the acoustic guitars and drum machines sound too polarizing from one another, so I needed some textures to blend those sounds together. There is a lot of reverbed piano, Rhodes keyboard, and new-age-based synths. I even have my acoustic guitar making sounds that sound like synthesizers. I pulled a lot of inspiration from groups like Air, Roxy Music, Tangerine Dream, ‘80s new wave, and David Lynch movies.
Did you self-finance the record? Can you speak to the challenges you faced and the process leading up to the creation of the album?
CM: Yes; everything from this record is self-financed. I’ve gotten to the point where I know if I continue to make music, I will most likely operate at a loss or make very little return. Most artists do, especially if you are just starting out or don’t have a giant following. I’ve come to terms with that, and I am 100% ok with that. My priority is not to monetize my music but to get these songs in front of people who will want to listen. If a few bucks is holding someone back to listening to the record, I’d rather have them stream it for free.
I have the album coming out on vinyl, I do have the digital download option for purchase but that's really just so I have all of my options covered of everyone’s listening preference. I do understand that a lot of artists do need to make money off their music and they need that to survive. I’m just very lucky to be a bit more financially stable now then when I used to put out music in my early twenties.
As a second generation Filipino immigrant, has the current political/social climate affected the way you approach making music?
CM: The narrative of the current Presidential administration enables people to be openly racist, sexist, homophobic, and just terrible to[wards] others for being different because that’s what the President does. I believe musicians and artists have a lot of power to influence people and the social climate. It’s a power that politicians can’t take away from us.
My album isn’t all sad songs. I like to think that I sprinkle messages of hope in there. I have a song on the record called “A Dog In The Fight;” it’s about my childhood growing up in a conservative town in the ‘90s to Filipino immigrant parents. The song is really about the power of influence, finding a voice, finding your friends, and finding outlets to cope with if you don’t agree with what’s going on around you. If you get discouraged with what you are seeing on the news, you can always find that there are still good people and good things in the world. With the rise in race-based hate crimes, I also see a rise in creative and musical representation with people of color. I’m really happy to see this particularly in the Asian and Filipino community. Musicians, artists, actors, the food, and the culture [are] becoming more mainstream and embraced. I think this is what we really need right now to combat the current political climate. I really hope to be a part of that in some way.
Who are you listening to right now? Are there any acts from Chicago that you think are being overlooked?
CM: Personally, I think the best songwriters right now are female artists. I’m really into Jay Som, Ruby Ibarra, and Haley Heynderickx. Those artists also happen to be Filipino-Americans.
As far as Chicago acts, I’m obsessed with Grapetooth and Lala Lala; I think they have a very familiar, yet refreshing sound. I heard they are very good live. I have yet to check them out.
My friend Pete Cautious put out a really great record. He has this Mac DeMarco vibe going on; it’s really great. Also, my friend Emily Jane Powers has consistently been putting out fantastic records during the past decade. Really looking forward to hear[ing] Chance The Rapper’s new album.