J Colleran: ‘There’s something good about destroying what you’ve built’
The producer – formerly Mmoths – on why he deleted an entire album on the road to ‘Gardenia’
J Colleran: “I wanted it to sound like the American artist James Turrell, with different colours and spaces that aren’t real.” Photograph: Philip White
Jack Colleran is a world builder. He likes to build them up and knock them down. That means abandoning the artist name that gave him a career in music. That also means putting an entire album’s worth of material in his computer’s recycle bin because it wasn’t up to scratch.
As Mmoths, the Newbridge-born artist made a splash with brightly toned electronic music that was charmingly naive, warm-hearted and drew on hazy nostalgia and pop vocal sensibilities. His bedroom-bound laptop project began at the age of 17 in 2010 to the detriment of his Leaving Cert results and propelled Colleran into a nascent career that took him to showcases at South by Southwest in Texas, brought him management and a label based in Los Angeles, a global fan base activated over the internet and a support slot on a UK tour with The XX.
As Colleran was building his career, his music was in rapid transition. By the time Luneworks, the first and only album from Mmoths, arrived five years on from debuting, his music had matured into something that was almost unrecognisable from where he began. The songs had transitioned into atmospheric and gauzy productions and no longer held an adolescent naivety.
Three years later J Colleran has replaced Mmoths as the artist name, removing obfuscation and identifying the 25-year-old artist more closely as the person making the art.
“I do think that there’s something good about destroying what you’ve built and then making it new again,” Colleran says of the change. “I think I was aware that I could continue doing Mmoths for the rest of my life. So I think having it named after my own name is giving a sense of finality. I filled that Mmoths box and I’d reached that point where it was, ‘Let’s just delete that now and start afresh.’”
The fresh start involved a desire to work with string arrangements. Colleran is a classically trained pianist, but this was his first time writing for instruments.
“All the piano parts on there are all computerised in terms of notation and in terms of sounds. I like that in a way where you let the computer decide. You tell it what to do and then it gives you back something totally different, and then you pull in pieces – like a collage way of working.”
The results can be heard on his new album, Gardenia, released on the UK label Because Music under his new moniker. It’s an album of striking neoclassical and contemporary ambient electronic tones.
Space is the place
The first forays into Gardenia’s creation were inspired by a sense of place, specifically the plains of the Curragh, near where Colleran grew up. Further inspiration was drawn from the American composer John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer-winning composition Become Ocean, which was inspired by the Gulf of Alaska. After four or five months of writing music inspired by the green, open plains of Kildare, Colleran discarded his work.
“When I first started writing for strings, I knew it was going to be this monumental task,” he says. “The idea of writing for a space made it easier because there was a solid kind of inspiration towards it, but then when that was finished it felt too straightforward.”
So he deleted the first draft and focused on writing for a space that didn’t exist.
“I wanted it to sound like the American artist James Turrell, with different colours and spaces that aren’t real.”
Turrell’s Light and Space work was most recently notable for being “borrowed” for Drake’s Hotline Bling video, in which neon-dripped spaces that closely resemble large living lightboxes were used as a backdrop for Drake’s meme-ready dancing.
Gardenia, as a listening experience, offers the quality of being suspended in a bright and light space, otherworldly yet pleasing.
“I guess I did want it to be bright,” Colleran says. “I think it’s delicate because it is that stripped-back, because there isn’t a lot of elements there so they’re just standing by themselves. There’s lots of arpeggiated pianos, which are just inherently delicate-sounding.”
Open to interpretation
The album is reminiscent of the work of another Irish artist, David O’Reilly, an animator and game developer who released a game called Everything last year. The “game” is less achievement-oriented entertainment and more a philosophically driven space to explore the existential meaning of humanity and the universe. Everything allows you to “be” anything: a cow, bacterium, a planet, a fish, a rock, a strand of DNA. It is a space that allows a person to get lost in its dimensions and points of view.
As well as being a fine possible alternative soundtrack for Everything, Gardenia also has those qualities, of floating through a fresh perspective, to be perceived as the listener intends.
“I like music that you can kind of fall into and make what you will of it,” says Colleran of his world-building. “I feel like when you paint a picture and explain it to someone, it kind of leads them to not figure it out for themselves. I want them to digest it whatever way they see fit.”
The otherworldly sensibility is further reflected in the video by Nic Hamilton that trailed the album for the song O + SOH.
“I knew working with strings for the first time would always have a sheen of romanticism about it, so if I had something that felt overtly lush I wanted to balance it with something colder and metallic,” Colleran says of his decision to work with Hamilton.
“I think that in itself is kind of Nick’s work – you lose yourself in these fields of luscious greenery and these beautiful scenes of space. But everything is digitised. That was what spoke to me the most: you’re losing yourself and then you’re like, ‘Wait, this is all pretend, none of this is real’. It’s all simulated in the computer.”
Colleran could be describing his own work. Gardenia is an album that feels expansive and exploratory, delicate and bright. It feels like a world unto itself, built by its maker for the listener to fall into and enjoy or interpret as they will.
- Gardenia is out now on Because Music