Midsummer nights’ dreams with Jai Piccone
A BRIDGE BETWEEN THE SLEEPING AND WAKING REALMS WITH MUSICIAN JAI PICCONE AHEAD OF HIS SOLO RELEASE, MAKE ME UNDERSTAND.
Jai Piccone is a true creative, intensely minded in pursuit of a new something to keep his mind occupied and in love with the process of familiarising himself with the unknown. One part of the Australian band Tora, Jai’s excellence in musical composition is part of the gelatinous, swimmable and sense-awakening sounds that the band is so loved for. The bi-valve between Jai’s personal pursuits and his musical development is always open, and purposefully so.
Now residing in a Barcelona loft with his girlfriend Katya and her twin sister, Piccone locks himself into yet another back-to-back summer. From the other side of the Aegean, I reach him on video chat before the drop of his first solo project in years Make Me Understand.
Ahead of the release we unpack the themes of his ongoing midsummer night’s dreams and talk about his hiking hobby- a “prescription” for his highly strategic mind that finds itself in likeness with the rest of us in needing some help with balance when the curve keeps moving. An ode to it all, Make Me Understand is out now on Spotify and Apple Music as the title song on a 6-track EP releasing gradually over the tail end of summer ‘23.
You just told me you got back from a hike in Andorra and you’re living in Barcelona at the moment?
Yeah, been here for a year. But with a big break in Australia over the Australian summer so it’ll probably be six months. But yeah, I just got back last night from a hike. It’s been an every- couple-of-months thing for me, ever since I did the first one last year. You buy all the gear and then you’re hooked and you get out there. It’s beautiful and it’s just such a good reset. I find I come back feeling more relaxed about the outcome of anything. You’re not stressed how things will turn out, it’s like you feel more at ease with how things go. That’s why it’s been for lack of a better word a prescription for myself to just get out there as much as possible.
For people who might not now, you grew up in the northern rivers in New South Wales, Australia. How has growing up in a space like that – rural, naturally engorged – and then moving to some of the big cities been for you? Has nature become more important for you as time has moved?
I guess it was always there from growing up in a beautiful place like that. But it’s really come up over the last two years. Spending more time living in Europe through the pandemic, being locked down there for a while and then really feeling the need to get away as much as possible. And I think it was a reaction to that in a way, just trying to get out of it all I suppose. When I got to Spain, I was researching things I could go and see in the mountains because I had always wanted to go to the Pyrenees and it just happened that my brother was coming over to Europe and I felt like he could use time out there as well. He was feeling similar to me, really frustrated and just needing to have an adventure. The classic thing. I thought that for both of us, it would be a fantastic thing to just get out there together. I bought a bunch of equipment and we picked this route that we found through this guy that I follow on YouTube. He’s an incredible hiker and he makes these short film documentaries of different places he goes and we just kind of full-heartedly took his GPS trail and plugged it into an app called All Trails and just followed it. There was some stuff on that route that was just so far beyond us, experience-wise. It was very hairy at times. To the point where Chay had to throw his bag off the cliff so that he didn’t fall.
Yeah, we should have had ropes at a certain point and it was zero visibility and mid summer there’s still snow everywhere because you’re up super high. I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought it’d be fine and it was in the end. It was an amazing experience. But in the moment, I think during those tests of physical hardship, you sort of question, what am I really doing here? And why have I done this to myself? And from then on, I was just hooked.
I mean, it says something about your personality that you had that experience and decided, yeah actually, I’m going to do that again (laughs).
Yeah, I think for me, I like those things that really put you out of your comfort zone. Not like an adrenaline junkie kind of thing. It’s the same with creative pursuits. I think that’s why I’ve had quite a few of them because that beginning stage of any creative pursuit or physical pursuit is sort of addictive, where you get past the frustrating bit and you’re in this honeymoon of just pure excitement. And I think every time you start something new it lasts a while but it doesn’t last forever. And I think if you want it to last forever, there needs to be some kind of way to refresh that craft and it can be hard to find ways to do that. There’s definitely a skill in finding ways to renew your love for whatever it is- music, painting, whatever it is that you like. And that’s something that I think everyone struggles with including myself.
On the theme of stepping outside of your comfort zone, we’re here to talk about your upcoming solo project with your first track Make Me Understand. Most people probably associate you and your name with Tora which is a band you’ve had a lot of success with. You guys have made a lot of music that ends up in my Spotify wrap-up ‘most played’ every year, so consider me a proper fan.
I wanted to ask you about coming into a solo project like this. How is the approach and recording different? Obviously when you are in a band set-up, you’ve got multiple energies and motivations to feed off. When you’re on your own, are there any fears or doubts that come into the process that weren’t there before?
I think a lot of people get this backwards. When you work in a group, it can be really challenging because there are those doubts and fears of the people around you not accepting what you’re creating in the moment. And that’s the massive challenge with bands. And that’s why bands, the ones that last, there’s not many of them. The ones that do push through for 10, 20, 30 years, they basically are immortalized in time because it’s such a rarity. There are some things that are easier with a group. But I think for the most part for me, working alone is much faster. It can be a lot more therapeutic in a way because you’re not taking pauses and passing the baton to someone else, for example. Which could be a nice break…
But I found when I was working on this body of work, it was procrastination up until a certain point where I was like if I don’t really get a jump on this, it’s not going to happen at all. And I knew it would be a big moment for me because I had spent the last two or three years wanting to make new work from a solo perspective but just never really having the right feeling for it and the right moment to do it. And I think that was partially due to the commitments with Tora and my other work, but also I think just not having the creative juice to do it. What unlocked that for me was breaking out of a box that I was in musically by learning piano to a much higher level.
I spent mid 2021 through till early 2023 basically just playing classical piano for ages because we also had a break with Tora at that stage. I was just playing piano and doing some production stuff and I just started writing from basically mid Feb till the start of April. And then I came back over here to Spain.
It is really insightful being given a window into the complexities that people aren’t privy to when they consume a piece of music and how many hands it might touch before it becomes a whole thing. With the new project, how many other humans were involved?
Usually it would be a more collaborative process for me. I love working with people. and in my previous solo stuff, I had collaborators, but actually on this I had a studio set up in Byron Bay in the industrial state which is an amazing space to work and I just had time to myself after the Christmas-New Year’s craziness. And I really just did it basically all myself. It came out quickly and I was happy with the work that was happening and there’s one track The Only One on the EP that has a vocal sample on it but it’s not a direct feature.
I did all the mixing, and the mastering was Sean Johnston from Tora, so we thank him for that. People lend their ears and give advice but other than that, it was just 100% me.
How much external input do you seek out before you feel ready to release something?
I think as I get older, I trust myself more. It just comes with the territory of having more experience as a musician, as a songwriter, and also having music that you’ve created and doubted hundreds of times, shine through. In the early stages of any project, you doubt yourself more. And I definitely did a lot of that, during those two years I just talked about. But by the time I was ready to create, the doubt was sort of gone and it was just time to make stuff. There was plenty of stuff I made during that short period that didn’t make the cut but I feel like back when I was first starting out, I really relied on other people’s input and other people’s advice because I was still sort of learning the ropes. In a way, I still am. But I feel more confident in my own ability to make the call on okay this is ready and then share it. At that point I’ll get some advice and feedback and make adjustments, but for the most part, have it pretty much there and then start showing people. Rather than feeling like I need to show people to be able to finish it.
You actually have quite a collection of considered and successful music that you’ve been a part of creating. Do you ever listen to your own music for leisure?
Generally, no I wouldn’t listen to music after it’s out. I think that’s just because of the sheer amount of time you spend listening prior to it being released. And then it’s just this big relief that it’s out and you never have to touch it again. It’s like you release this thing into the wild and you free up this mental space and get rid of the idea of that track altogether. I think there are some people out there that would listen to their own music but the only time I do is to reference where I was at a certain time and how I can improve upon it. I want to make sure that listeners who liked my old work can still relate to the new stuff.
I did go back to my first EP that I released and listened a bit with this project to ask, where am I at now? Where was I? And how can I tell the story of my progression throughout these years? Because there’s been a big gap.
How was that for you?
To be honest, I was really surprised. I found it hard to top my first EP. I was listening through and I was like man I don’t know where I was at then, but I think this work is quite good. And I’m going to have a hard time beating it and I’m still not even sure if people will think I did or not, but we’ll see. That’ll be up to the listeners to decide.
This body of work is a lot less lyrically focused then some of your other music which makes the build-out of the sonic environment feel a lot more important. Where did the inspiration for some of these tracks come from?
The first release Make Me Understand is the title track of this EP and it’s about the obscurity of dreams and characters you play in dreams. Trying to understand if they are a part of you in some way or if some character that had you go on a certain direction or path represents someone in real life. I just found it so interesting when I moved to Barcelona with all these really hot summer nights, I started having these really vivid dreams. It was just so strange between my dream life and then the summer kind of deliriousness, it almost felt for a little bit like I was merging those two worlds in a way.
And that was how I started that track. I was just reflecting on that a bit as an ode to jumping from summer to summer over the last three years. I won’t even get a winter this year actually as I’m headed back to Australia for November and December.
Do you feel like the dream and “real” world merging is more inherently positive or negative?
I mean there’s always a level of separation. But sometimes the dreams are extra special and they’re super vivid and they stick with you, and sometimes you forget them and all you’re left with is this kind of fleeting feeling of some obscure kind of storyline or character that was in the dream. I think the dream world is something that we need to explore more deeply as a collective, because I think it has a lot of hints and answers.
What do you do with your craziest dreams?
Sometimes I write it down if it’s really abstract and bizarre or if I think I could use it for something, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t know enough about this bizarre world that we spend half our life living in. And half the time I only just remember what happens. I mean, it sounds very inception but I would love to learn more and find ways to remember and decipher them a bit better. That’s why the track is called Make Me Understand because it’s sort of like, no one else is gonna be able to necessarily make you understand your dreams. But it feels like you need help to understand what the hell is going. Maybe not everyone has such bizarre ones, I don’t know.
I can relate because my whole life I’ve had quite a vivid dream life. I started to really try and remember my dreams. Now I do think the act of trying to remember your dreams means that you are flexing this muscle that means that you start waking more often with memories of your dreams.
I would write them all down in such a deep level of detail and I started sharing them with my friends and a lot of them thought it was so strange because it made them realise that they don’t remember having dreams at all.
I think you’re bang on about flexing the muscle of not only remembering the dreams but allowing yourself the moment when you wake up to try not to jump into real life immediately. It’s nice to just try and sit in the grey area for a second to let your waking brain sort of unpack anything if it’s still there.
I think what happens is within 20 seconds of waking up your brain just starts firing on what you have to do that day or about the thing that someone said something to you the other day which you didn’t like. Or like what should I eat for breakfast? If you flex that muscle like you said, I think it more often shows up because everyone dreams most of the time, they just can’t remember it. And that’s an interesting thing in itself, like all these thoughts or ideas, just lost forever. Amazing movie ideas, or amazing songs or solutions to big problems that were dreamed up and lost. And I think that it’s just fascinating.
Do you have any inklings or beliefs about the purpose or sources of dreams?
It’s definitely a way for your brain to explore things that you suppress. Stuff comes up that you push down, kind of like a rubber band snapping back. If I was to speculate about what they could help with, if we could better understand it we could use the dream world in therapy and psychedelic therapy to help with mental challenges. I think when you dream your brain releases DMT which explains how weird dreams can get. That’s what’s so cool about it, we never really know exactly what’s going on. For me I’m lucky that I don’t have any pressing issues I need to work on. But if technology or spirituality can help us better understand this place we go to every night, a lot of money and time could be spent on it and it would be well spent.
I wonder if you can map your dreamwaves musically. I’ve seen it done with mushrooms.
Well you can monitor your brain activity while you’re sleeping for sure. And music is just frequencies and generally if you stretch them out it looks like sine waves or different waveforms. Technically you can compress the brain activity and run that through a synthesiser and you would have music. I don’t know if it would sound like anything special. Maybe with the right dream.
You never know. It’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about because in traveling so much in the past year I’ve had to get really really good at napping. For me I’m so fascinated by this idea of where we actually go at the point when we leave this consciousness and enter another. I’ll try and watch myself when I’m napping to the very last moment of consciousness in this reality and then I feel myself leave to somewhere nice, and then suddenly I’m back.
Bizarre. I think the fact that you have started napping more and you’ve started remembering your dreams more is not a coincidence. You probably already know about this research but generally, when you’re on the edge of wakefulness is when you have your most vivid dreams because your brain is still absorbing what’s going on and sort of mushing it up and creating this thing in your head.
I think you’ve just connected for me that my vivid dreaming is causing my need to nap more often, which in turn is causing the vivid dreaming (laughs). In terms of the new unreleased tracks, you’ve got sounds like Luck which really felt like a pulsing dancefloor moment when everything starts to close in on you and you have to just dance to make it out. But with Actor everything feels quite bubbly and expansive. How does the energetic centre of the song come about? Is it something you are deliberate with?
Yeah, it’s a good question. Actor was one of the tracks that I made way back. It was the only one that made it onto the EP that I started before this year. I feel like that track is charming in a way and it’s kind of cool but someone told me that it’s a bit of a Frankenstein, and I kind of agree with them but I also think it works in a funny way. It’s got a lot of different things happening at once and it evolves a lot throughout the track with many sections. But to answer your question, once the track is started, I very rarely think I want to go for this sort of thing. I’ll just start something, and when I identify what the strength of the track is, I usually try and narrow in on a mood or a melodic motif and expand it. I try to let whatever that is shine through the track and I think with Luck, it was sort of like this half-time and big pulsing bass line with a kind of foley drum feel.
You almost don’t really think about what you’re doing and then you listen back like I made that. What was I even thinking yesterday?
I love that as an answer. In terms of the track list, is it structured in the way you want people to listen?
That I can probably answer a bit more clearly. Track listing is really important for me because this project comes out of my DJ background as well. With this EP Make Me Understand it’s kind of bouncing between my vocals and then some sample stuff to break that up. And that was important to not dominate it with my own vocals. At the same time I also really wanted to express myself through my vocals to an extent. So there’s that considered in the tracklist. It starts without firing off in any one direction- not too clubby but not too heavy on the songwriting either, because I’m in this middle ground. And so, the first track Make Me Understand is sort of bridging those two worlds. There are so many ways you could arrange these six tracks. It’s never going to be perfect, but I think it works.
Do you have an idea of who represents your “ideal listener”? Or less intensely is there someone who’s listening ears you really cared to get the attention of with your work?
I think over time you let go of that idea. More because you realise how hard it is to control. I think in the early days it’s really based on who you’re influenced by and you really hope you can tap into that cross-section of fans. It’s because you want to be associated with those artists and you want to land in that same sphere. Maybe that’s how you get on the same festivals as those artists, or maybe that’s how you end up supporting them at a gig or end up in the same Spotify playlist. It’s a big thing that musicians think about. But it is really hard to control, especially because today it’s an algorithmic thing. And there’s Spotify curators and promoters and agents in the middle so really you have only as much control as you like in the beginning when you’re making the music, choosing the elements that you want to give to the listener. And then the rest is sort of a funny mix of chance, the environment and the music industry at the time. You can’t control much after that unless you have some genius team that really knows how to manipulate the market.
Yeah, it’s really interesting as a consumer of music you’re not privy to a lot of the politics and the complexities that go on in the process of even getting a song to market. You never really contemplate why that song is on a Spotify playlist or in your recommended listening. Was there a moment in your journey with music where those hidden elements impacted your relationship with making it?
One thing that actually made me take a break from making music and touring for a while was my frustration at how reliant we are on streaming platforms that we just have no control over really. Even with social media, it’s like you have to conform to how the platform wants to display content. Otherwise you have no voice essentially.
If you don’t give them the type of content that they want, then you basically don’t get seen. And so my frustration for a while, was what’s the point in doing any of this if I can’t express myself in the way I want to? But I came around in a full circle and I was like, it’s amazing that we have these tools to show people how we want to express ourselves, and that’s actually a gift and we should be grateful (with caution) and not give too much power to the platforms.
So it’s just that balancing act for me of doing things the way I want to but also having a little bit of understanding of where the collective consciousness heads are at in terms of what they want to see and what they want to consume. That comes into not only content but also the music itself and I’ve been walking that tightrope a little bit and it’s a difficult one to do.
Absolutely. I think that the social media landscape continues to evolve and change exponentially and even as a writer and visual creator, it’s difficult to stay balanced with constantly moving goal posts.
It’s super frustrating when you feel that the work that you may spend six months on might not even reach anyone. You have to make sure that you’re completely clued in on what’s going on before putting something out. It’s the least you can do for your own work. But if it just so happens that you’ve done something a certain way and it cannot be changed and it just all of a sudden doesn’t fit the landscape, it really feels like you’re up shit creek, basically.
Sometimes you make something and then all of a sudden it’s destined to flop because everything’s changed within the three months that you created it. And that’s something that musicians are grappling with, because we take so long to make good work. We might have been inspired by this certain thing in the beginning of the creative process, but with the rapid onslaught of content and music and just availability of everything, our taste changes really quickly now as makers and listeners. We’re on this sort of treadmill to keep ahead of the curve and it’s just fast.
If you can find ways to just stay true to what you like, there’s always stuff that’s gonna be timeless. And if you have the right amount of luck and creative assuredness, then maybe you don’t have to chase the curve.
I mean I’m of the hope and belief that the instant culture that we’ve seen accelerate so much is going to swing the other way. As eternal laws of reciprocity have it, the pendulum has to swing back. There’s a lot of forecasting around it too with the nature of how Instagram is taking reels back off its priority list because it was a move made when it was trying to keep up with the curve of Tiktok. As a result it diluted its core product to the point where people don’t even use it for its original intention and are abandoning it all together. All this is to say you’re definitely speaking into a much deeper crevice of society right now.
Right. It’s one that we don’t need to fully unpack right now. I guess it’s impossible to do. I think the pendulum always swings to use your words, it’s just a part of the ebb and flow of things. And we’ve seen that time and time again throughout not only our lifetime but just in history and I think it’s only a matter of time before people realize that it’s time to slow down. Maybe go for a walk in the mountains.
Coming back to the fact that you identify as a serial hobbyist, outside of the new project right now, what else is going on? What’s on your plate?
The serial hobbyist thing is really what I said before. For me I have this massive amount of excitement to start new things and I think that’s what we kind of live for. People get it in different ways. And I think right now I’ve got skateboarding and hiking and I love to go snowboarding, and then this running that I got really into. I’m still running a lot. I had to stop skating, running and hiking for a while last year when I was trying to do a half marathon one afternoon last year in the middle of summer.
That was because I was pushing too hard. I wanted to do it before the end of September for some reason. I thought I would just go for a run and see how I went. I did the whole thing and I felt great afterwards, and then all of a sudden as I was walking home my whole right leg just started to completely cramp up. I got the worst shin splints and I couldn’t really walk properly for three months.
Beyond that, I’m working on a record label with my dad and brother which is in the melodic house field and then Tora and a few other little bits and pieces. I feel like it all feeds into each other. One thing I didn’t mention is 3D art which I’m very passionate about. The fact that I do it means that I don’t have to necessarily pay someone to do all that for me. And, the fact that I’ve run a record label means that I know how to do a lot of the stuff that a record label would do. And so I can come in and assist and save money that way.
How do you see Jai in 10 years?
I mean I have no idea. I hope that I’m still making music. I think that that’s definitely going to be a key thing. And I hope that I’m still active and having a good time getting out in the world. I’m pretty happy with where things are at. I don’t necessarily want to do massive amounts of touring or anything. Obviously if it happens, it happens. I think if you keep taking the baby steps and keep chipping away you find yourself in a position where you’re like holy shit, I dreamed of this 10 years ago. But it’s really hard to know what’s gonna happen. We could all be AI cyborgs by then.
The last thing I wanted to ask you was, with Make Me Understand, where should people listen to it for the first time?
I think if you’ve got a good pair of headphones, either go for a walk or run. I think it could be played in the club and that would be an interesting spot for it to land for someone. For me it’s definitely headphone music and it’s uptempo, so you could definitely exercise or get excited about a night-out to it. I would hope that however it finds someone, it’s the right way. Just as long as it’s not on a broken iPhone speaker.
That would be blasphemous…
You’d be surprised how many people listen to music on some seriously questionable speakers.
I probably shouldn’t tell you this then but I listen to everything through a set of classic wired headphones because I just don’t do well with anything cordless or that requires delicate care. And yesterday I dropped one of the earbuds into a glass of soda water, so I listened to the entire EP through one ear.
(laughs) This is what I mean. I think 90% of the population is secretly listening to things through a busted pair of something. We as creators are so careful about the way we make things sound and spend hours on the tiniest details and then half the time you can;t hear those things anyway because it’s distorted. But in a way it’s nice because it makes you feel like you have to be humble about this stuff as well. Like you can spend a year fine tuning the sounds on a new release and in the end it might just not matter to some people. And it comes back down to the song. I think a good song sticks with people even if they don’t listen to it on anything special.