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Pop Intuition

Photo by Steve Korn

After quietly collaborating with some of Seattle’s most iconic musicians, Andrew Joslyn steps into the spotlight with a complex, prodigious solo debut.

Oh man, violins and pop music are a risky combination. For every heart-swelling masterpiece with a string section—every “Eleanor Rigby” or “Bittersweet Symphony”—there’s a schmaltzy windbag, a “Kashmir” or “Daydream Believer.” Strings are all too often the default extravagance of the mid-career band struggling to outdo its own hits, burning through a major-label budget that can accommodate florid self-indulgence. Or worse, the stand-in for a lack of better ideas. Simply put, they are very hard to do right.

So what to do if you’re a young, free-spirited, virtuosic violinist with a yen to expand the scope of your instrument in every possible direction? A musical sponge saturated as much with Prokofiev as with Bryan Ferry? A spiritually minded empath taught from childhood that personal expression has the power to not only build bridges but, quite literally, evoke entire worlds?

Tough questions. Which, despite all of his accomplishments, all of his recognition and success, Andrew Joslyn is still trying to answer. This 34-year-old violinist, composer, arranger and producer who contributed to a platinum-selling album is a rare creature and a disarmingly self-aware one. This month Joslyn releases his first solo endeavor, Awake at the Bottom of the Ocean. It’s a statement of self-definition—to the Seattle community that’s nurtured him and to the wider world of pop music that he’s long obsessed over and, until now, observed only from the margins. With this genre-spanning album, for the first time Joslyn puts himself at the center of his own story.

You might not know it, but you’ve heard Andrew Joslyn’s music. For the last eight years, he’s been one of Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty’s chief collaborators, from back when Ryan Lewis was a videographer in the upstart MC’s entourage. Joslyn appears all over The Heist, Macklemore and Lewis’ 2012 supernova breakout album, playing violin on “Can’t Hold Us” and “Same Love,” co-writing “Neon Cathedral” and lead single “Wings.” He contributes to that album’s 2016 follow-up, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. He’s part of the duo’s touring band, playing to crowds in the tens of thousands across the U.S. and Europe, and performing with them at the Grammys and the American Music Awards.

If hip-hop’s not your thing, perhaps you saw Joslyn perform with Duff McKagan at the Moore in 2013, leading his Passenger String Quartet behind the Guns N’ Roses bassist as McKagan read from his autobiography. Maybe you’re more into EDM and have danced along to Northwest superstars Odesza. Or you’re a fan of grunge godfather Mark Lanegan, or of Seattle singer-songwriters David Bazan or Kris Orlowski, or of career experimentalists like Suzanne Vega and DJ Spooky. Joslyn has written string arrangements, recorded and/or performed with all of them.

In fact, since around 2005, when he graduated from Western Washington University with a double major in violin performance and English literature and relocated to Seattle, Joslyn has been the Northwest’s most sought-after pop arranger. In the region that birthed modern-classical wunderkinds like Jherek Bischoff, Sam Anderson and Bryan John Appleby, his ubiquity says a lot about his ability.

A self-described “serial collaborator,” Joslyn has worked with Christian rockers, metalheads, gospel singers, folk masters, jam bands, nerdcore bands. He’s arranged songs by Smashing Pumpkins and Muse for the Seattle Rock Orchestra. He’s obviously good at what he does and commits himself completely—hence his prolificacy—but as a hired gun, he’s never had full stake or control over his own destiny. He’s had to operate as a mercenary, compelled by curiosity and defiance, generating the artistic capitol and actual dollars required to eventually step out on his own. It’s a difficult, disorienting road to travel.

“I still feel like I’m in this weird flagship, and I’m trying to keep afloat,” Joslyn says, sitting in the loft of his bright, comfortable recording studio outside Pioneer Square. “I’ve been jerry-rigging my career for 10-plus years and always trying to pivot or figure out how to make it work. The only thing that’s kind of kept me going is just a love for what I do.”

Joslyn was born in unique circumstances—specifically, the Buddhist community of Mount Baldy outside Los Angeles. His father is a Zen Buddhist teacher and his mother a former Hungarian model and Buddhist practitioner. Leonard Cohen was a neighbor and Alan Watts, the British thinker who helped usher Zen Buddhism into the American counterculture, was a regular at the nearby Buddhist center. When Joslyn was 3, the family relocated to Bainbridge Island, where his parents still operate the meditation center they raised him in. When he was five, they began providing him with expensive Suzuki-method violin lessons and introduced him to “big-world, conceptual, existential shit,” nuggets of Buddhist philosophy Joslyn recalls as grounding but imposing.

“I remember as a kid I was drawing the ocean in crayon, with little orange pastel fish. It looked awful. I was like, ‘Hey Mom, here’s a picture of the ocean,’ and she was like, ‘No, that is the ocean.’”

Not surprisingly, he was a misfit in high school—a “theatre kid” who wore a cravat and tweed sport coat and played the titular role in his school rendition of Fiddler on the Roof. But perhaps no more of a misfit than his half-brother, Chris Kattan, who left Bainbridge to move back to LA and join the Groundlings improv group, and later relocated to New York for a seven-season stint on Saturday Night Live.

He credits his unconventional upbringing and his early encounters with celebrity with setting him on his artistic path. Guided by his mom, he initially gravitated toward Hungarian fiddle tunes and Celtic music, and though he was a natural with music, the social aspects of making art never came easy. At Western, he was daunted by the students in his music program who’d been to high school programs at Juilliard and other conservatories.

“They were so far ahead and in such a different mindset about the music and their careers, I felt outgunned,” he says. “It didn’t feel like my clan.” He almost quit music but instead joined a rock band and added an English major to provide career options. Despite his misgivings, he doubled down on music, earning an online master’s certificate in music business and specialist certificate in composition for film and TV from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Years later, he would work as an A&R rep for Votiv, a new media company and record label in Seattle.

All the while Joslyn was producing commissioned work for a who’s-who of the city’s best musicians—and mentally preparing material for what would become Awake at the Bottom of the Ocean. Although he undertook recording the album in earnest in 2014, he had been pondering its direction since at least 2012.

“I didn’t have a real focus when I started this record,” he says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what my voice is. I’ve played everything from folk to hip-hop. What the fuck am I going to write?’ I’d been writing songs and lyrics for years, but I’d never put it to music or really solidified it.”

For better or worse, life intervened. Joslyn went through a slew of personal trials: navigating his relationship with his brother, breaking up with a longtime girlfriend and, toward the end of 2014, losing nearly everything he owned when his apartment building burned to the ground. The Seattle music community responded to that tragedy by crowdfunding some $15,000—money Joslyn used to put his life back together. The songs on Awake essentially transcribe a year of intense experiences against a backdrop of elegant chamber pop.

The titles alone convey the album’s gravitas, each a phrase of regret or resignation: “Plastic Heaven,” “Spinning Wheels,” “She’s Gone to California,” “Holden’s Birds Have Flown South,” “Mantra for a Struggling Artist.” Even the cuddly imagery of “The Enchanted Life of a One-Year Old Kitten” is tempered by the song’s backstory: The titular kitten, the first pet Joslyn ever owned, died in the fire.

Some of the lyrics are so raw, some of the creative decisions so personal, that producer Martin Feveyear emphatically warned Joslyn away: His brother would be offended by “Icarus,” and having an ex, Susy Sun, sing “I Should’ve Said Goodbye Before I Met You,” about a different ex, was “opening a can of worms.” Joslyn resisted. “It’s like the faucet got turned on, and I just let it go,” he says. “And I’m like, ‘Well, there’s some dirt in that water, but hopefully there’s something good, too.’”

Throughout the album, Joslyn paints with stately piano, impeccable orchestral percussion, diaphanous woodwinds. The orchestral arrangements elevate Joslyn’s personal tales into thumbnail epics. He provided the lyrics for guest vocalists like Adra Boo, Shelby Earl, Will Jordan and Eric Anderson; they play key parts, but Joslyn is writer, director and producer, if not central actor. The music is beautiful, bittersweet but never saccharine, sober and occasionally somber. Over the course of its 34 minutes, Awake reveals great emotional force, a hard-fought uplift wrought from Joslyn’s catharsis.

The album culminates in Mark Lanegan’s paternal reading of Max Ehrmann’s“Desiderata,” the decades-old prose poem that opens with “Go placidly among the noise and the haste” and ends with “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” A printed version of the poem hung in the bathroom of Joslyn’s childhood home and the words stuck with him. Here they are the sun rising after a long, poignant night.

With Awake, Joslyn steps into that morning-like moment of profound possibility, success or failure based purely on his own efforts. He articulates not only the doubt he grapples with, but also his faith and gratitude in the power of music to sustain, to transcend.

After the apartment fire, which destroyed years of collected sheet music and digital recordings and musical gear, along with countless personal items, one of the few items Joslyn salvaged was a violin. It somehow survived completely unharmed, in tune, under Joslyn’s bed, which was burnt to ash.

“I’m not a superstitious person but when shit like that happens, you’re like, okay, what is the architecture of life? What’s going on here?”

“I still believe that art isn’t a career, it’s a calling,” he says. “I don’t feel like I have many other options. David Bazan told me that with art and with music, you have to have your heart broken over and over and over again. I’m watching that happen with Ben and Ryan right now. I watched it happen with my brother. So success and fame, it’s not what it’s all about. It can’t be. There has to be something more.”

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