Published Oct 07, 2013Heading into their first full-length project after taking some time apart to expand their individual creative depth on a couple of well-received solo offerings, Tanya Morgan were presented with a timely opportunity to also broaden what many had come to expect of their collective style and sound. Trimmed to a duo after the amicable departure of Ilyas over a year ago, remaining members Donwill and Von Pea chose to fully embrace that shot at change and, as a first order of business, step away from the concept record mode fans had become so accustomed to, while turning outside the group for someone to handle their production. The producer search would lead them to close friend and beatsmith 6th Sense who, after an inspired one-off recording session with the group at the Converse Rubber Tracks studio in NYC, was given full reign to produce the group's brand new opus, Rubber Souls. The record shows both Don and Von Pea weaving verses from a position of notable maturity as they flow over the smooth sounds of their producer's characteristic live instrumentation and marks a very natural step forward for two MCs looking to push themselves beyond the comforts of past expectations.
Rubber Souls is your first full-length since reuniting as a duo after a couple of solo projects, and this time around seems to be all about growth, which is a new direction for you away from your past concept albums. Was the idea of growth and the newfound maturity you hear on the new album the mentality going in?
Von Pea: I think, really, it was just natural. Speaking for myself, I didn't go in trying to prove anything necessarily. This is just where I'm at right now as a writer.
Donwill: For me, it was more about just making complete songs. With the concept albums, there is a way to just make songs and make them fit the concept. Like, if you even listen to [Kendrick Lamar's] good kid, m.a.a.d. city, some songs just don't fit the concept — the concept kinda fits the songs in some way. But, for us, it was more about just trying new things. I mean with Ilyas leaving the group, and with us working in full with 6th Sense for an album, it made more sense to focus on the concept being us doing something different. If you look back at You And What Army and the intro, that was like the final concept, with me and Von going off to make music, and Ilyas just chillin'. That skit sets up the next few records.
The entire album is produced by 6th Sense this time around. How did that relationship come about?
Donwill: Me and 6th Sense have been cool for a while; I've known him since I moved to New York. I remember that he was one of the first people I met on the artist scene. He's super talented and he would always send me these crazy beats, and when I started finding out more about his process and how he more or less just uses live musicians to make his music, [I felt like] I trust 6th Sense with our sound, and to interpret us to our listeners and to new people in a way that's gonna sound true to us and refreshing to people who know us. With this album — usually I put my trust in Von and in Brick — but this time around we had to look at somebody who both Von and I could trust.
I read that it was originally supposed to be an EP. What happened with that idea?
Von Pea: We started out in fall of 2011, and it was gonna be a three-song EP. The three turned into a few more, and after that it became a full-on album.
6th Sense: We had set up a day to record at Converse's Rubber Tracks recording studio in Brooklyn, [because] they had invited us to come down and record. They had a beautiful live room, and we were like "Let's try to record three songs on that day." All of the songs that we recorded there are on the album.
You mentioned in the album's press release that the whole recording process changed your regular studio dynamic and brought out a new type of chemistry. Could you describe some of the things you found (or made) different about these recording sessions?
Donwill: The cool thing about this process is that, for the whole album, it was never a situation where 6th Sense was emailing us beats and we were just writing to them. He might send us a skeleton and we would say "Oh, we like that," or "Oh, we don't like that," and then we'd get to the studio and sometimes we wouldn't even use the beat — we would just come up with something on the spot. This album was like a big trust fall, even to the extent of me and Von showing up without rhymes prepared. We went with our instinct, and he trusted us to come and bring our A-game. For us, working in a digital space where me and Von are accustomed to emailing each other references and demos of songs, it was a totally different environment to create music in, and it really adds colour to our discography musically. Everything we've done up until this point has been fantastic, and this is just another colour where it could sit alongside the rest of our records and shine.
6th Sense: The three of us were picky in the best way possible as far as what direction we wanted to go. I make a few different styles of production, but we just really wanted to make sure that the album was cohesive, so we recorded everything together.
Did that end up feeling like a more natural process?
Von Pea: Honestly, in a weird way, although we usually don't record in the same room, for whatever reason even back when we were with Ilyas, it didn't feel like we were necessarily doing something different. Just as far as the creative process, it wasn't harder to write with Don standing there or what have you. But I would say more than anything, it's the energy behind it. Like, not even so much what was said, but that intangible that you can't necessarily record on your own. That's the biggest difference!
I know that there's the connection between the album's title and the Rubber Tracks studio, but did you also draw something from the Beatles album Rubber Soul?
6th Sense: It was definitely a play-off of us recording at Rubber Tracks, but it was also an homage to the Beatles as well. Rubber Soul was actually the Beatles' sixth album, so there's 6th Sense, and it was also really the first album for the Beatles where they started to become more experimental. So, it was just a number of reasons. There's a lot of other meanings that are a little more esoteric, but those reasons that I said are pretty much the essence of the album title.
What were some of the more esoteric reasons?
6th Sense: Well, I like to say that the way that the album flows is kinda like when you pull back a rubber band and then you let it go, and it fluctuates a little bit? That's one esoteric kinda vibe.
Donwill: I like to say that the album is more expansive in its sound, but it still holds everything you've come to love us for and know us for intact. Like the same way that you could have a stack of playing cards, they might all be different, but then you have a rubber band holding it together. The album cover itself was just about how the sound is still being held together. No matter how we expand and try to reach for a broader sound, or a broader audience, or whatever, we still are intact. It's not like we're doing a song with Flo Rida. We're doing shit that sounds like us, but on a bigger scale.
When you guys came back together for the EP You & What Army, after the solo projects, and with the change in management, and Ilyas stepping aside to pursue other endeavours, were you at all apprehensive about how things might play out going forward?
Von Pea: We realize that people saw it differently, but for us, we were always like a supergroup in our minds. It's just that people found out about us when we were a group instead of hearing about us separately. Like with the solo projects even being called solo projects. It wasn't that for us — it was like, I'm doing my album now. But because of people knowing us from the group, it became a spinoff of the group instead of the other way around. We felt like we were coming in almost like a Slaughterhouse or Madvillain, or Gnarls Barkley. [But] I think that, on behalf of the people that were here for Ilyas specifically, we were worried for them, of course. But everybody's still friends, so that shit was cool. But other than that, we didn't really worry about it too much creatively.
I'm guessing it may have also felt like an opportunity to approach things a little differently as a group, from a fresh perspective.
Von Pea: I would say that. When we realized that it probably would be best to not simply come back as Tanya Morgan minus one person, we definitely thought, ok, You And What Army is going to be many different producers. With Ilyas, it was always me and Brick Beats on the production. And with this album, having someone come in and produce the whole record [was] just really doing different things. Maybe one day when we're old men, we'll do a moonlighting kind of album with the original structure, but for now it's just Donwill and Von Pea doing all kinds of fly shit!
Donwill: Honestly, even the science behind the album cover for You and What Army not having the name on it. We feel like we wanted to be bigger than the name, and we feel like, you don't need to see the name "McDonald's" below the logo to know it's McDonald's, so we just threw the logo on there so our fans would know what to expect. It just because this thing for me where there's stigmas positive and negative attached to being a three-person group and switching to a two-person group, and I just wanted to make sure I was looking at the positive and not the negative.
Looking back, after a decade now together as Tanya Morgan, how would you reflect on the steps you've taken and the decisions you've made in that time? Is there anything you'd like to take back or do over?
Von Pea: There's only one thing I would have done differently so far. Just one, and that is that, even though Don's solo album was coming out, [I wish] that we would have put out an EP or something after Brooklynati, like a victory lap or something. That's the one thing I wish we would have done, because we were in the zone as a trio at that point that we didn't record.
Donwill: For me, everything I know, everything that I've discovered, and everything that I've found out about myself and about this business is integral. It's something that if I can't use it, I can pass it on. So I wouldn't necessarily change anything. The only thing I would change is how much money we spent initially. We were just so wet behind the ears, and we were with a label that didn't necessarily have the track record in understanding how to properly spend and budget a record. Nobody was watching our money, so we made a couple of spending errors, and that's about the only thing. I won't go any deeper into the spending errors, but... we didn't have chains and all that shit, but I could have easily had a fat rope based on how the label was spending the money. But that's what I mean about it being a lesson. Without that spend, I might not be on the phone with you right now.
Thinking in broader terms as artists, with so much flux in the music industry, and so many different ways to navigating things now with ever-increasing avenues for artists to reach and get their music to listeners, what do you think the goal is today for artists professionally, realistically given the current state of things? For example, is the record deal still the dream?
Donwill: The goal in 2013 is to be MC Hammer back when people hated him. You want the endorsement deal, the TV shows, the tours — you want everything. MC Hammer was the nail on the cross for doing everything that every artist today tries to do. Just look at that man. Hammer had a doll! If you see Wiz Khalifa drop a doll with Hasbro, it's gonna be like "Oh shit, Wiz is crazy" for this, but Hammer — 3rd Bass dissed him! Everybody dissed him!
Bringing things back to you guys creatively, as far as Tanya Morgan is concerned, is the concept album officially dead to you guys now?
Von Pea: I would say that the reason we stopped it was because, and I don't know if this sounds pretentious but, it's because we're artists. So, if that becomes our thing, we don't want that to be our thing. If you say Donwill wears orange every day, then he's gonna come outside with black on. For example, there was a review when my record came out, and the reviewer pointed out that we always do concepts. After the period of that sentence, I was like, "Uh, that's over for now!" If that's my thing, I don't wanna do it until maybe it's not my thing anymore. But anything could happen.
Donwill: I feel like every album has a concept, even if it's not in your face, even if it's just subtle. The concept may just be that this is the past two years of my life, and I'm not even saying that the concept is that I'm making an album about Don Cusack. I'm just making an album about relationships; that's the concept — it's a love album. But when you paint a really specific picture, it gives you such a constraining framework to work out of that a lot of times people feel boxed out by the concept. Somebody might just not want to hear the album and be, like, "This is stupid!" versus going about it with an open mind and thinking, "Oh, so there's a concept here too?" and enjoying it. For me, changing the concept thing was more so about giving people an opportunity to not have a box to put the shit in. The thing about concepts is that you're so married to them that you gotta enjoy them. If you don't enjoy them, they become a chore.