Of the producers enlisted for the Re:Generation Music Project, Amir Bar-Lev’s document of an experiment in musical cross-pollination, Pretty Lights was admitted the one with whom I was least familiar. But the electronic music luminary, born Derek Vincent, proved to be one of the film’s most fascinating subjects, as he immerses himself in early country recordings in order to create something totally new – and teach himself a few things in the process: Working with legendary singer Dr. Ralph Stanley, as well as pop-country virtuoso Leann Rimes, Pretty Lights creates something that has the soul of those old recordings, but the energy of his new ones.
Crave Online caught up with Pretty Lights via telephone last week to talk about the process of putting together the soundtrack, and discuss how this oddball opportunity helped him evolve as an artist.
How eager were you to jump into The Re:Generation Project, and how much did you maybe regret it initially when they gave you a genre to work in that you weren’t familiar with?
Well, there wasn’t regret so much as there was skepticism – at the beginning I was skeptical of it. But they explained to me that the goal of the project was to have artists immerse themselves in genres that they weren’t used to, and that’s what I did: I tried to wrap my head around the scope of what I would have at my disposal, and who I essentially would have to work with. And when I really started looking into the roots of the music and the early phases of it, I got really excited, because when they first approached me, what came to my mind was the current [iteration] of country, which is what I knew. So that’s why I was so skeptical, but when I started digging into more early Johnny Cash and even before that, bluegrass, and I really started listening to the body of work of Dr. Ralph Stanley. That’s when I came to them and I was like, I’m really into this if I can potentially work with this guy; and they were like, we can try to make something happen. And whn I found out that was a real possibility, I was completely on board. So there was a moment when I heard a song I had never heard before, by Dr. Stanley, his version of “O Death,” where I was just floored by how hauntingly soulful it was, and it really clicked how soulful and beautiful this genre – and any genre – can be. And so, any wall that was up was broken down at that moment, and I was up for the challenge.
There’s an interesting moment when you ask Dr. Stanley to sing something a certain way, and he declines. How tough was that to deal with, and how do you engage collaborators since your music can in many cases be made by yourself?
I tried adapting, but it took me off guard at the beginning. But it also forced me to rethink how I was going to approach the song, and I went to the guitar player and I explained to him the chords that I wanted to play, and I think it was really just a miscommunication. He thought I was trying to get him to sing a different way or do something adverse to his style, but it was just chord progressions of the song. And after I could explain that to his guitar player, it was fine, and the melody that he sang was exactly what I was looking for. But I worked with a band and people in a studio in Nashville, and very quickly into the session they started to understand, and it worked out.
Was Leann Rimes’ participation something you always had in mind, or did that come out of maybe realizing that you needed something to complement Dr. Stanley’s voice?
We had discussed her being part of the track from the beginning, but after I worked with Ralph, I was like, I really feel like this is going to be a complete track, it really is. But they pushed for me to reconsider that, and I thought about it and I knew that from the beginning I was the one who brought up Leann’s name as one of the potential people to work with, and it happened to turn out that I said I would go into the studio, and it ended up working out and fitting together. I felt it was good for the song, and I would pursue it, and I really enjoyed working with her, not only because she was very good at taking my direction, but excited to be part of the overlapping team. So it evolved from there, and that was when I really decided that I wanted it to be part of the track. And I manipulated her voice because I wanted to approach it in a hip-hop manner; you know, like hip-hop producers will take a record and play it at 45 rpm and sample it and have the voice sound higher-pitched. And I wanted that hip-hop element to come through in the track, and I was a bit worried what Leann would think of the final track, but she heard it and she immediately loved it and thought it was very cool and creative. So the way it came together was definitely [me] trying to adapt as I went, and make the best track that I could as the project moved along.
How did this experience change your sense of composition or just musical appreciation in general?
The aim of the project was for the producers to immerse themselves in genre that they didn’t know about. And when I did that and really started learning about country music and the roots of it, I saw a connection, a really massive connection between early country and bluegrass and the way that hip-hop developed, and the way I produce hip-hop and electronic music today. And that is back then they weren’t writing a lot of new songs; it was more artists and singers were taking traditional songs and putting their new twist and taste and touch on it. And I really drew a connection between that and the way I would sample snippets of 20 different pieces of vinyl and work it into one song, and taking older pieces of music and manipulating them to put my own touch and create original pieces of work. And that was something that really clicked, and that was something that I learned that I really didn’t realize before and I connected through old country and bluegrass to modern hip-hop. I had no idea about that before that – so yes, to answer your question.