Interview: Foreign Air (New Album: Good Morning Stranger)

Foreign Air
Foreign Air (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda)

A little over a week ago, Foreign Air released debut album Good Morning Stranger, a smooth collection of 15 songs that will keep you dancing along whether in the club or more likely today in your home.

Based in Los Angeles and DC respectively, Jesse Clasen and Jacob Michael formed the band more than five years ago, and they started working on the full-length debut album three years ago. The result was clearly worth the effort, as the new music swells with dynamic melodies and towering electronics.

Both gents formed Foreign Air fresh from other acts, and their natural chemistry kept them together while working across the country. Jesse and Jacob still collaborate from across the country, perhaps making them the perfect band for the pandemic times in which we live. Parklife DC’s Mickey McCarter caught up with the duo to explore their working arrangements, the achievement of the new album, and living up to expectations.

Mickey McCarter: You guys had a really steady path to the release of your debut full-length album! It’s been roughly five years since your debut single, “Free Animal.” How do you feel about it?

Jesse Clasen: Oh, it feels great. It’s amazing to finally have an album out. We’ve always wanted to do an album. I think our trajectory as a band has been an interesting one based on the way people are taking in music since Spotify and everything has gone streaming. We’re ’90s kids, born in the mid-’80s. So we actually grew up listening to cassette tapes!

Our band making “Free Animal” first was really interesting because it came out of nowhere for us and then suddenly you could stream it everywhere.

We just were two guys that had been in bands that decided to work together because we were friends and “Free Animal” took off. We ended up meeting with all these labels, and we had never played a live show before as Foreign Air. We were in the situation where we were cautiously looking at everything that was going on and slowly trying to figure out who we were musically because of the success of our first song. It happened so fast for us, even though we’d been in bands and doing DIY touring for so long in other bands. It just felt right to keep releasing singles for a long time, experimenting and totally building that way, which was easy due to Spotify and and Apple music, where people just have the attention for one song at the moment and you can get playlists build momentum off the song, because people give it more attention.

But being that we grew up in the ’90s, an album was everything. We loved buying records and hearing how people flow from song to song and the artwork and everything. We always wanted to do that. And so it’s amazing to finally have that. The feeling of releasing something out into the world and not messing with it anymore is also amazing. With a record, you go back to the drawing board in some ways maybe because you’ve grown tired of it and you want to hear it differently. So, we’d go back into like, “Well, let’s rewrite this verse completely, or let’s write a completely different chorus.” Now, it’s definitely a relief to release the baby into the world and move on to new things.

Stream Good Morning Stranger by Foreign Air on Spotify:

MM: I love how you described your journey from the perspective of releasing singles. But, there clearly wouldn’t be any music if you guys weren’t so good live. I’ve caught you here in DC, and there is certainly electricity in the air when you guys play. You feel connected to the audience.

Jacob Michael: We grew up playing in bands and touring, like Jesse said, in a DIY way for so long without labels. So, live shows is how you made fans — and driving across country playing shows in different cities is how you got your music out there and grew your fan base. When we started, live was maybe more natural to us. It was *how* we were making music. When we started Foreign Air, the whole goal was to do something creatively different than our last project. We got drum machines and all these things we had never used before. And I learned how to use those. We figured out how to inspire the songwriting, like “Free Animal” and the early stuff like “In the Shadows” and “Echo.”

JC: I’ve always identified with jazz singers and the way that they improvise in the moment, like figuring out ways to make the music new and exciting. Because if it’s not new and exciting for you, it’s not going to be new and exciting for the person in the audience. So, finding a way to feel passionate about the song that you’re playing over and over again often comes from feeding off the music and how you feel that night and redirecting that into the performance. That has helped connect us with the audience for sure.

Watch the official music video for “Free Animal” by Foreign Air on YouTube:

MM: You guys have worked out a bi-coastal arrangement — Jesse in Los Angeles, Jacob in DC. are you still in different cities or have you moved closer together in this time of COVID-19?

JC: No, we’re still bi-coastal. Before COVID, Jake would come out to LA a lot, and we’d work in my studio out here. He would go home, and we would reflect on what we worked on and spend our time apart, working on the songs and sending stuff back and forth. Then, we’d eventually be in the same room again to cash out all the ideas we had separately. But since COVID, it’s been even more separate and figuring out how to things virtually. We’ve been using a plug-in to share real-time audio from our recording program and then jumping on Discord to do our voice chat and text and screen sharing. It’s been great. We finished the record that way with the final tweaks and the mixing aspect by hopping on and making those final tweaks.

We started doing writing sessions and producing for other artists as well. When we began, people were hesitant to jump on the bandwagon for virtual sessions, because it could be awkward. A person FaceTimes you out of the blue, and you’re like, “I don’t know if I want to answer this because my face isn’t ready.” But over time, people have really embraced it, and a lot more people are open to it, and it’s been fun and it’s positive in certain ways, too.

In this case, if you’re going to produce for another artist, they’re not walking into your home or your studio. They’ve never met you. And maybe some aspect of being in a new place like that can make them uncomfortable. In my situation, they’d be coming to my backyard studio, and then they wonder, “Can I go into the house? If I have to use the bathroom, what are the boundaries here?” And with virtual collaboration, they’re in their comfort zone. They can press mute if they want to work on an idea and not have it blasted out to us for a second. It definitely has its positives. It’s been an interesting experience.

MM: You were already collaborating electronically, one in DC and one in LA. COVID strikes, nobody can go anywhere, but you guys already have a process. It sounds like you were way ahead of the game.

JM: Yes, I would think so for sure that we were more comfortable with it and familiar with it. We have only grown more through learning about new tools that maybe we hadn’t explored before as well.

Watch the official music video for “The Apartment” by Foreign Air on YouTube:

MM: Jacob, I specifically want to ask you about US Royalty. I caught US Royalty live on occasion as well. And it seemed like expectations in DC were very high for that band. Obviously, eventually you guys broke up. On the other hand, Foreign Air just seems like it’s more chill? Is that fair?

JM: When the whole US Royalty thing was happening, I was a little bit younger. I lived in a warehouse in Chinatown where we practiced and recorded. There were shows there on the weekends, and it felt like the center of music in DC at the time. There was always something happening at that warehouse and always some new band coming out of it. We were surrounded by a bunch of amazing artists and all different mediums. I feel like it was a little bit heavily more involved in the DC community in that way.

And then with Foreign Air, it was just a matter of doing something completely different creatively. I had been a huge fan of Jesse as a vocalist. We’ve been friends for a long time, probably over 10 years now. And so we sent ideas back and forth. At the time, he lived in North Carolina, and then he moved to New York, and now he lives in Los Angeles. I just haven’t been in DC as much as maybe as when I was younger. That’s a part of it. Foreign Air is a much bigger project nationally than US Royalty ever was.

MM: There was always a lot of excitement around US Royalty, and it seems expectations were high. Did you feel any pressure then?

JM: It’s kind of a good point, something I hadn’t really thought about yet. But I remember when that project ended, so much of my identity was in US Royalty and what it was. It was all in my head, and I felt like people viewed me in a certain light because I was in that band in DC. It was weird not being a part of that and doing something different at first. And was definitely challenging mentally, and it was just the result of my own insecurities and pressure that I put on myself. But, yeah. When you’re in your late 20s and you’re in a band for 10-plus years and that band breaks up. You ask yourself questions. “Whoa, I’m in my late 20s and I’ve got to figure something out. I want to stay in music; I want to make music. I’ve always wanted to do this so what’s the next step?” Jesse and I were really good friends in a really similar situation, and together we were able to do something really cool to make music together.

Stream “I Believe” by Foreign Air on YouTube:

MM: You’re recently played some socially distance shows in Los Angeles. Is there was anything else on your radar? Are you going to make plans for more performances, particularly now that you have the album out?

JC: For sure. We’re filming another show. We’re doing duo performances. They’re fun because we’re stripping the song down a little bit. It’s almost like not *rewriting* the song, but really producing the song in a really quick period of time in Ableton and then performing those versions. We’re filming another one that will livestream on Twitch, and it will eventually be on YouTube. I also made a purchase of one of the Elgato cam links that everyone uses for livestreams. So, we’re definitely looking into figuring out how to do more and have more of a presence in the Twitch world, maybe livestreaming for hours at a time while jamming and writing songs, just so people can be a fly on the wall and see us do what we do.

We will also figure out how to do more performances and connect with people since we can’t do normal live shows. There will definitely be more in the future to look out for.

JM: It’s definitely a weird thing to do at first. And our very first streaming performance was bi-coastal. I was in DC, and Jesse was in Los Angeles, and we recorded it for Jam in the Van. We had two separate vans, and we tried to perform the song cohesively. That was quite the challenge! It’s a lot easier to do those things when you’re in the same city.

***

Visit Foreign Air online for more music!

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