Shifting sounds

Devin Abrams

Shifting sounds

Devin Abrams is an Ōtautahi boy, a founding member of Shapeshifter, successful music producer, and mastermind behind the solo project Pacific Heights. What's Hot New Zealand chats with him from his home studio in Hawkes Bay about new music and good old times.

Tell us about your new album, The Waters Between.

It’s definitely a departure from previous Pacific Heights records but I have quite a history of doing that. My back catalogue has been some pretty sharp turns. The last one I did, Borne Together, was very much a conceptual record based on a dream I had, and then I scripted the whole thing when I woke up. And every decision, lyrically, sonically, stylistically, the visuals, was all based on this dream. Whereas this record is a lot freer in that sense. The only anchor that I’ve had, loosely, is that The Waters Between is about the distance that ironically we’ve faced through the pandemic, but it was conceptualised before the pandemic when I was living in California. I was away from my family a lot. I’ve got two little kids and a wife and I was spending a lot of time away for work. And so it was the idea of emotional distance and how we deal with that. And so all of the songs on the record are kind of like emotional power ballads in a way. They’re all letters about distance and emotional vulnerability.

Do you sing on the record?

Only backing vocals. My manager hates that I don’t do any lead vocals, as I’ve done on previous records. But I just don’t like my voice as a lead vocalist sound. As a producer, I’ve worked with so many amazing vocalists, the more I do of that the more I hate my own voice.

That’s unfortunate.

I like it as backing vocals. I think I have a really unique sound for backing vocals, as you can hear on the biggest Drax Project songs, and then on Stan walker’s album that I’m doing, and the Dallas stuff. I don’t know if I’ll ever do lead vocals again. Never say never, but…

Was the album recorded a bit here and there and around the place?

Yeah it was. We started in Los Angeles. I wrote a lot of the initial ideas which spurred the album on, just beats and ideas. And then I collaborated with some songwriters over there. Then I came back to Aotearoa and I finished a big chunk of it in Wellington, and then over the last two years all the tweaks and zoom sessions and everything have been done in Hawkes Bay.

When did that process start?

About three and a half years ago. It’s been a journey, to say the least. Classic producer record, where I’ve constantly been tweaking, pulling songs off, replacing them with new ideas, and dozens of versions of songs. My wife is probably going to be the happiest to see the end of this album. I’m building a studio up here at the moment which I’m going to move out to in a couple of months, but she’s had to put up with all these tweaks and sounds coming out of the house for a long time.

What’s the process been like working with all these people across distances?

I think I’m actually built for it. I think I’m a bit of a home creature, weirdly. I’m very social in small situations with a few people. I think I’m like, an extroverted introvert. So I’ve actually felt quite comfortable within this weird world we’ve been living in via Zoom and video calls and emails. I haven’t had any issues with it myself, but obviously you need both sides to feel that way for it to be in synergy and be efficient. There’s been a few busts where the Zoom sessions haven’t gone great. Whereas if you were in a studio with someone you could go out for a coffee or a lunch together or a walk and usually rectify whatever’s bothering someone. But I personally really enjoyed it. For a variety of reasons, environmentally as well, I’d love to see a world where it’s more based virtually. But it is hard to replace those initial writing sessions where you’re in a physical proximity to someone else and there’s an energy in the room.

‘Cold Nights’ sounds like it’s going to be the big one on this album. Tell us about that track.

It’s got Stan Walker, and it’s got an amazing Australian artist called Larissa Lambert, she’s popping right now. She’s in LA at the moment, and is just such an incredible vocalist. It’s amazing what she can do. But that song was probably the biggest punish for me on the record. There’s always one on every record. I remember ‘In Colour ‘with Shapeshifter, that was a big punish for us back in the day. And sometimes the punish isn’t worth it, but I’ve always felt with this song that whatever I had to do to get it right it was going to be worth it. So it’s been the longest gestation period, and longest finessing period for any song I’ve done for myself. It was one of the first songs conceptualised on the record, I wrote it with some friends of mine in Las Angeles. I mean, there’s three versions of this song completely mixed and mastered. That’s how bad it’s been. But the version where it is now, I’m so happy that I fought for it because it’s just such an incredible song. It feels so great, it’s exactly the intent that needs to be there, the emotion’s all there, the vulnerability is there. That’s why I love how Stan sounds, because I feel like he’s almost found a part of his voice that’s restrained and he’s not belting it, it feels really vulnerable. And I love how they’re connected in this song, they feel like they’re intertwined in this story. It’s about that distance and how we front up to vulnerability, and who can be the first to go to the front line and hold hands or open up.

Who are some of the other big collaborations on the album?

If you look through my catalogue you’ll see I have a history of my collaborations being a mixture of new and older established artists. There’s Luis Baker who I’ve worked with before and I love working with,. Lepani who’s had a bit of a profile, he’s an Auckland based artist, amazing voice. I did a track with Holly Smith and Hamo Dell but that’s probably going to come out later, it didn’t quite sit on the album for me. There’s Solomon Crook who I love, he’s a young artist who’s got a really beautiful, deep, old soul kind of a raspy voice to him, sounds like he belongs in the ‘70s next to that Leonard Cohen era. Then there’s Paul McLaney who’s a bit of an established artist, Gramsci, I loved writing with him. There’s an artist who I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting with over Zoom from Perth, she’s a new artist called Bri Clark, and amazing artist and songwriter. There’s Foley who are an act out of Auckland who have been around for a bit. They’ve had some really great success touring and streaming. And then Jack Page who’s an Ōtautahi artist. He’s about to move to London, he’s a new artist out of Jazz School, a great player, great singer. And then there’s Lance, last but not least, a young artist out of Wellington I’ve been working with who sounds incredible. One thing I love about this record is that there seems to be a theme with a lot of the artists, you listen to the voice, and how you think they would look or be as a personality is completely different from how they sound, and I love that.

Are you going to tour the album?

The last gig I did live which was off the back of my The Stillness album was in Ōtautahi at Blue Smoke, which was an awesome show. But I haven’t done any live performances since then. I have a lot of curiosity about collaborating with different disciplines in art, so if there was a moment with this album I’d maybe look at doing some kind of cross-discipline collaboration. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a perfectionist with live stuff, and for me to be happy about going out and playing live shows, I need a lot of time to rehearse with the band, do new arrangements, special one-off things, and it’s a bit hard to find the time at the moment with two little kids and producing full-time. And obviously I’m quite anxious still about a lot of travelling.

Where does the name Pacific Heights come from?

That is tied back to my Christchurch roots. One of my favourite views growing up in Ōtautahi was the Southern Alps. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a feeling that when I looked at those Southern Alps, they represented visually the kind of depth I wanted to create in my music. These long, completely impactful ridgelines down to this most beautiful serene bottom end. I just loved the sound of ‘Pacific Heights’ when I looked at the Alps. I kind of felt like it represented what my music was, where it came from, but also a little bit of lineage to my parents as well. They’re from California, in the Bay Area, and that’s the name of a place in the Bay Area. Not where we’re from, because it’s a bit of a fancy neighbourhood, but it nicely tied in.

Is it a different kind of satisfaction releasing your own album as opposed to someone else’s?

I need them together. If I didn’t have my own artistic project, that I had autonomy over, I’d probably go insane. But the flipside is, if I didn’t have the other work I’d probably feel too precious about Pacific Heights. What I really love about collaborating on other people’s projects is leaving that ego and autonomy at the door and trying to fill someone else’ vision, imagining what that could be, and then creating that. Because you’re effectively trying to lock something in that doesn’t exist, that somebody only feels. So you’re having to imagine and then create from the ground up something that doesn’t exist. I’m talking about everything, stylistically, the sonics you use, the types of instruments, how they would play it, how they would sing it, what it looks like, and I find that stuff fascinating. I’m really ADHD and I need constant stimulation, so that challenge is something that’s beyond what Pacific Heights is, because I just go with whatever emotion or whatever space I’m in with Pacific Heights. I don’t really have to think about stuff too much. Whereas with other people’s stuff, I’m constantly having to think, being like what could this be, what references can I put in that make sense? And then most of the time, if I’ve done my job right, people are so happy that you’ve got to this place that didn’t exist, and that’s so rewarding, when you hit that. That’s the mecca of creativity, I reckon.

Other than gazing at the Southern Alps, what can you tell us about your childhood in Ōtautahi?

My grandfather wasn’t a professional musician, but he was a great jazz trumpet player. He had real good chops and a really good feel for music. My parents, obviously from California, came out of that depression era, so both came from very poor, humble upbringings. So their philosophy in life was, you know, music’s a hobby, get yourself a job, study, whatever, support yourself financially. And so it wasn’t the easiest childhood in a sense because I grappled with this friction that my parents and I had. The irony is, out of the six kids in my family, that my brother and I are both professional musicians. He plays with the New Zealand Symphony. One thing I will give credit to my parents for is having such an amazing eclectic music collection. From such a young age, everything from African music, to Caribbean music, to pop, to classical jazz, soul, everything was on the shelf and it was always listened to. There was always music in the house and it was always loud. I was very lucky as a child to have that width of audio in the house and the stories that came with those records. Because back in the day you’d sit there and look at the record sleeve and read the credits.

I remember teaching myself the saxophone to some of mum and dad’s jazz R ‘n‘ B records, by ear. Like Grover Washington Jr. I remember learning ‘Ornithology’ by Charlie Parker at a young age. And I went to what’s a very fancy school now, it wasn’t’ so fancy when I was there, but a great music school was Cashmere High. I have really good memories of Bic Runga being there, the Zed guys, there’s obviously Sam from Shapeshifter went there as welland there was such a strong current of talent and creativity going on in that music block. I have good memories of that before they asked me to leave, but that’s another story.

I have great memories of Christchurch. I remember biking everywhere because it was nice and flat, and playing a lot of basketball with my little brother. I’ve still got a lot of great friends down there, two of my sisters are there, my mum and dad are still there, and I think my musical foundations were all laid there. I went to the Jazz School, started Shapeshifter there, went to all my early drum and bass raves at Ministry. I was basically a musical minion back in the day playing with so many bands. It set me up for who I am, really. All those early records, the first few Pacific Heights records made on a second hand PC just in a cold flat.

Do you have any particular music venues that stick in your memory?

I obviously loved the Jetset Lounge back in the day. Ministry of course. The Town Hall, which is still there, I loved going to gigs, I remember seeing Björk there back in the day. And obviously playing there with Shapeshifter with the orchestra. The Dux of course, the original Dux, I remember sneaking in there out the back when I was well underage, which pretty much everyone did in Christchurch back in those days. There’ll be new versions of those hopefully, but it is sad to not be able to go back to those venues and reminisce. I remember the first Shapeshifter gig we played at the Dux. A measure of success growing up in Christchurch was if you had a packed Dux, and not only did we have a packed dux but we had a queue down the street, and I was like “We’ve made it!”

Do you have a dream collab?

I have lots of those. It’s a revolving door. I would say right now if I could collaborate with anyone I’d love to collaborate with Bruce Hornsby. I just love his use of harmony, and how he plays the piano and his melody use. Steve Reich or Bruce Hornsby at the moment are kind of going through my mind a lot. I’ve been listening to a lot of their music and trying to reverse engineer their harmony. But that list is so huge, there’s at least 100 people I’d probably have to pinch myself if I was in a room with.  Quincy Jones, oh man. Crazy Kanye. I did play basketball with him once.

Anyone on the Kiwi music scene you’d like to shout out to?

I’d love to shout out to my bro Dallas Tamaira from Fat Freddy’s. I’ve been working on his solo project which I’m just absolutely loving at the moment. Stan [Walker], I’ve done a bunch of his album as a producer, so I’m really excited about that for him. But there’s so much talent at the moment. What I’m really hoping for out of this country is that we keep finding our own voice. Especially within Māori art and Pasifika as well, because that’s so unique to our country. I feel like sometimes we can be in a little bit of a space where we want to copy pop music or whatever it is, and we’ve got something more unique than that. And there’s a great abundance of artists with that voice, we’ve just got to make sure we get the best out of it.

What’s next for you?

I’ve already started the next Pacific Heights EP, so trying to finish that when I can. There’s always stuff on the go. And I’ve got a whole lot of secret aliases, alter egos I can’t tell you about. Trying to be a good dad and husband too, that’s always top of the list.


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