It's not easy to flutter through club music — shimmying between house, techno, R&B and pop, with ubiquitous saccharine vocals anchoring the whole thing together — but Philippe Aubin-Dionne, aka Jacques Greene, pulls it off with aplomb. His carefully crafted sound is a product of years of personal experience; sure, it's of a style, and not one that he created or even reinvented, but all of his releases have a certain touch that makes them wholly identifiable as Jacques Greene — the glimmering arpeggios and tender melodies of Greene's work are distinguishable from the very first notes.
With his first full-length, Feel Infinite, out now on Hudson Mohawke's LuckyMe imprint (and Arts & Crafts in Canada), that sound remains intact, but it's much more than that too: it's refined and honed-in without abandoning any of the traits that were his making.
Exclaim! caught up with the Montreal producer for a chat about club agoraphobia to bittersweet euphoria. Here are five keys that make Jacques Greene's sound his own.
1. Don't shy away from human emotion.
Electronic music is overtly digital for the most part, which can obviously lend it quite a mechanical feel, but it doesn't have to be that way — and in Jacques Greene's case, it's not really an option.
"I don't really see the club, and listening to music in the club, in a pure escapist fashion," says Greene. "I think most of the emotions and memories I have attached to being in a live music environment are sensory and complicated. It can even be related to the person you're with at the time, or the day you had before: there's just so many things going through your brain. Music plays an instrumental part in how we remember important parts of our life, and so I think there's an indivisible relationship between music and emotion. I tend to go all out with that, and almost purposefully inject my own music with as much of what I see to be that real-life emotional complexity."
2. Make music about the club, not for the club.
If you think that R&B-tinged house music can't be compared to 19th century impressionism, you are sadly mistaken.
"I make music in the format of house, sometimes techno, and everything else in between, but for the most part I don't make tracks with DJs in mind," Greene explains. "This comes from me not wanting the structure of the song to be absolutely dictated by it being easy to mix in and out of. I think that's really restricting on the idea sometimes. You just end up with something predictable and boring, but I DJ myself, so I understand why it'll happen.
"I've made songs in the past that were explicitly about feeling overwhelmed in the club. Maybe there was a moment of either agoraphobia or of some drugs that came on too strong or this feeling of needing to sit down and let it wash over you. So, instead of making the big club song that would create that for someone, I fool around with the expectations and the context of that environment. Almost the way — and this is the most pretentious thing I've ever said — but almost in the way impressionist paintings will be more about how the lilies felt in that light. Like, Monet would capture more of the emotional impact of a magic hour on a bale of hay, as opposed to technically, perfectly reproducing the sunlight on the bale of hay."
3. Own those vocal cuts.
As long as musicians have existed, they've wondered whether they should ditch the signifiers that garnered them attention in the first place, but sometimes you have to keep those facets on their well-earned pedestals.
"I definitely got known for doing those vocal things," says Greene. "I actually love that way of working because I treat them like just another instrument, but because they're a human voice, and because there's such complexity that can be brought out of even a point-three-second snippet of a voice — I find them to be a really useful tool. They both anchor the music with something that's slightly more human than just a bunch of machines making noise, and also add this weird emotional depth. It's like when you eat a really good pho, and there's something in the broth — it should be the most simple soup but there's more depth to the taste, and I think a human voice can always bring that.
"Even years ago, I got a couple of critics that were saying, 'Well, he's kind of good, but only at one thing,' and I definitely get it. If your whole jam is to only listen to new things, then I might not be your guy [laughs]. I'd like to think I keep getting better at refining this process, and I feel pretty good about it. I didn't reinvent the wheel, I just slowly work on things that I can make better."
4. Find the right balance of tension and release.
Big, dumb EDM has really taken one of dance music's most beloved aspects, the drop, and tarted it up to Vegas-like proportions, leaving a whole generation of electronic newcomers to be hand-held into the land of gaudy nonsense. Fortunately, this age-old technique can still be a subtle tool if left in the right hands.
"I think my music really plays off the idea of tension and release." Greene explains. "A lot of the time people will see that as only being about build-ups and drops, and in dance music — my music — there is definitely this element of tension and release built into its structure. But I think I gravitate towards either slicing vocals that are just slightly more mournful or finding one sample that has something about the voice — say, there'll be this millisecond of quiver in there that I just obsess over. I also love the idea of euphoria in dance music and that total release. By using that weird concoction of things that turn me on, I end up with music that is kind of bittersweet and melancholic, but euphoric at the same time."
5. Immerse yourself in the community.
Ultimately, if you want to make electronic music that really hits the mark, you can't do it from a vantage point. You have to marinate in the culture. Only then can you properly add to it.
"Sometimes it just takes that one night of seeing a couple of familiar faces or at least seeing people who know each other have fun, even if you're not at the centre of the action, to remind you how important the whole scene is," Green notes. "Seeing a community come together and have fun late into the night creates something important, I think. We see club life and culture as something very unreal, very escapism, very dream-world and la la land but in actual fact, I know a lot of friends who work shitty jobs where they can't be themselves. Then at two am on Geary Avenue [in Toronto], listening to an artist they really like, to them that is when they are the truest form of themselves, when they're at their happiest, and when they feel alive.
"So, the parts of this record that, to me, are 'about the club' rather than 'for the club' are me trying to hint at that and conjure that feeling of togetherness, belonging, emotion, and ultimately life — because at the end of the day, it's a celebration of life."