Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #20

Featuring Casey MQ, Halima, Scenic Route, Tochi Bedford and more...

Deputy Editor Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in this Astral Realm feature; a liminal space, and a guide to music emphasising experimentation and musical virtuosity. Each roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, and a curated selection of the month’s noteworthy releases.

Focus Artist: Casey MQ

LA-based, Canadian-born artist Casey MQ has crafted one of the most evocative symphonies you’ll hear this year. An instinctual recalibration of his roots in classical music, ‘Later That Day, the day before, or the day before that‘ considers dreamy new pathways out of formative experiences, unravelling like the most enchanting, enthralling storybook. Moving between minimalist ambient, electro-acoustic compositions and baroque piano-pop balladry, Casey tests the illusion and malleability of memories: revisiting past relationships, dreams and traumas, the composer conjures a phantasm that ponders the forces that keep us tethered to reality.

Atmosphere meets emotional resonance on ‘Later That Day, the day before, or the day before that’ – a tale of the finite time we have on this earthly plane and the memories we preserve to make them everlasting.

Where are you now? Where is home?

Right now, I’m sitting outside in Los Angeles with my laptop which is where I live. I hear a ton of birds in the trees chit-chatting with each other but I can also hear the sound of the garbage truck passing by on my street.

I remember experiencing ‘Nudes’ in 2018/19 and being impressed with how you finessed this airy, future-facing sound. ‘Angelorum’ is a personal favourite. Take me back to those formative steps.

I love that you’re mentioning such a deep cut. It has me fully sitting up and getting ready for a proper dive. I also really love that song and it really speaks to where I was at and what I was looking for. I was living in Brussels at the time with my ex and I guess I can admit that I was lonely during that period, and a little lost. I was making a ton of club music and really looking to move away from my initial musical upbringing (piano and voice) to something more rhythmically ‘on the grid’. It was the last song I’d made for that EP, and I started to contradict that rejection of piano and voice because that was what ultimately really tied the song together.

You released ‘babycasey’ in 2020. A pandemic-era collection, it played with and subverted turn-of-the-millennia pop tropes. You offset this sugary veneer with wry, sometimes painful observations of dissonant identity and heteronormativity. How do you view ‘babycasey’ in the context of your career now? What do you think its strengths are, and are there facets of the production you would alter if you could?

What I love personally in the process of making art is to chase an idea. It’s an elusive state that you try to uncover which is maybe never fully satisfied, but you take it to the edge of however far you can handle at the time. What has seemingly become a through line in my search is attempting to have a conversation with my past. What I learned from making that album and attempting to fully step into my childhood (which was wrought with desire and confusion) was that by engaging with the past, I was also renegotiating its history and trying to make assumptions of my thoughts, motivations, social constructions and relationships.

I wanted to create and cement this reality of how I understood my past with ‘babycasey’ and where my drive was coming from. Upon the release, I realised there was a risk in concreting yourself in a truth that is impossible to actually pin down. The album provided me with new questions to make what is now the album I’ve released. I think this line of thinking also seeped into how I viewed production at the time and the commitment of world-building. Don’t get me wrong, I love creating the tapestry of a universe and trying to piece together its idiosyncrasies, but it taught me that something abstract is always behind a firm statement and I think that can be represented in the sounds and melodies you make.

Congratulations on ‘Later that day, the day before, the day before that’, which I believe is your most sonorous, striking, and complete work to date.

Thank you so much! I feel the same way about this album. Somehow, in this body of work, I feel more translated in how I think and understand ideas more than ever. I ran as far away from the piano as I could to find my way back with all these new perspectives and influences.

Was there another title you considered? Can you elaborate a bit on how the title captures the wistfulness of time and the malleability of memories that you explore on the album?

I had a ton of album titles circling around for a while but nothing was really summing up the album in the way that I was hoping. I had the phrase ‘Later that day, the day before, or the day before that’ written down and realising how fleeting it actually feels to have that as a title helped identify the album that much more. There were also many different syntaxes of this title that I’d considered and spent time with. ‘Yesterday’ was in there at some point, but that ignited too much nostalgia for me. What I love is the idea that people could tell their friends about the album and potentially have their own syntax that they remember. it speaks to the general feeling of recollection and the album’s overall spirit. 

I think this release feels particularly prescient as we grapple with time being so elusive and deceptive – it goes so fast and you can feel disembodied from yourself and your surroundings! For you, did that sense of dislocation from reality seep into this work?

I think what terrifies me the most is time moving slow. I am so attracted to the thrill of time moving fast – having so many tasks and things to do and being swept away by the speed of life. What I do know, is taking that space and slowing everything down and putting things off to encounter another possibility is wildly important. It’s something I ultimately return to.

This album reconciles the precocious energy of your earlier work with the seasoned composer and conceptualist you’ve become. Do you feel this full-length is a cumulative rendering of your work as both a composer for film and music?

I do feel realised in this body of work and I’m so happy about that. Making this album has already led me to understand where I need to move next, but there’s an important stone that has been turned from this process that has definitely impacted how I will continue to approach my solo work.

Talk me through the recording process: How long did it take? Was there period of revision? Did it mostly start with you on the piano, with embellishment coming later?

I worked on this album over the course of about three years. A lot of the songs did begin on the piano but not always. There were also so many demos, melodic phrases, synths and lyrical concepts that I tried out but I would wait for the ones that really hit me in a way that I couldn’t fully understand. When that started happening, I knew it meant the song had movement. The editing process was crucial as well: I wanted to work within as much resistance as I could. If a musical idea didn’t really feel like it needed to be in the song I would remove it, which is always a lot harder than I think!

In your own words, what personal upheavals in your life informed the making of this album? There’s the hallmarks of a breakup album but it’s not completely beholden to that seismic shift.

I feel this album was an attempt to reconcile and understand past relationships internally. Someone remains with you even when they’re away – their presence informs you. So then, we have all the people we come in touch with across the span of our life and all of their presences inform you. I wanted to try and uphold my memory of people I’ve loved and how I recollect my memory of them. Even with all its malleability of how I remember moments or choices made, there’s belief in what was shared. It’s something for you to carry with yourself first and foremost.

You describe the gorgeous ‘Grey Gardens’ as the album’s manifesto, the entry point to the album. Why is this track the emotional centrepiece?

I’ve been starting to write a monthly Substack and recently I wrote about ‘Grey Gardens’ upon the release of the single. The first line I write is ‘I descend into lucid ambiguity’. What can be clearer than ambiguity itself? There was a slow realisation that I found the heart of the album both sonically and lyrically with ‘Grey Gardens’. It lingers in all the right ways and ponders lyrically in an openness that I found highly impactful to understanding the tone of the album. From there, the writing and recording process was able to unfold with ‘Grey Gardens’ as this pillar. Even if many songs were written before that one, connecting the dots was a lot easier in both finishing songs and writing new ideas.

One of the other preludes to the album is the track ‘Me, I Think I Found it’, which feels like a torch song put through an atmospheric blender, particularly after the 3.05 mark. When you sat down at the piano to compose it, what musical references/touchstones where you drawing on? And thematically what are you conveying here?

‘Me, I think I Found It’ is the long-distance love song of the album. It’s a love song that recognises that the love is yours to hold even before sharing it with someone else. All the moments you can share with someone in the quiet of the night are ultimately yours alone. A big inspiration on this song and across the album is Joni Mitchell. The freeness of Joni’s piano songs has left a mark on me in such a way that I find myself continually leaning in that direction. Debussy as well. There’s a moment in ‘Arabesque No. 1‘ when he modulates to this C Major section that has had such a lasting effect. I swear it shows up in everything I make!

I found ‘Baby Voice’ particularly powerful and emotionally resonant; this sci-tinged escapade through the cosmos. Special mention goes to the closing moments. Talk me through the creation of this one?

I had the melody to this one on a voice memo for a while but it wasn’t until I found the song’s lyrical theme that I was able to put it all together. I had a particular experience alone in a hotel when I was in Sweden for a bit. It had been months since my breakup and I woke up one morning speaking in a voice that my boyfriend and I would share. Our own private language. I’m sure it’s something many people are familiar with in their own way, it’s kind of alarming, personal, and vulnerable. I woke up and it was in this moment that I truly needed him, to feel connected with him in the most intimate way. I hadn’t thought about the baby voice we shared since the breakup, and there it was on the tip of my mouth in order to be as close as possible. That was our symbol and I got to remember it alone.

Given the spaciousness of the songs and the minimalism you achieve electro-acoustically, your voice is foregrounded. Talk me through the journey you went on vocally. You’ve always been a singer, but there’s less sheen and effects here.

I’ve gone on so many journeys with the voice. There was a period where I almost wanted to stop singing entirely but this album has been a wonderful reconciliation with my own singing voice. I wanted to use my voice in such a way that I was really caring for it, trying my best to resist temptation beyond its means. My voice is my voice and it’s taken time to understand its shape and where it’s best used as an instrument. I’ve also fallen more and more in love with words so I needed to sing them!

Photo Credit: Jason Al-Taan

In terms of crafting a coherent listening experience, this album flows seamlessly. Was the sequencing a painstaking part of the process? Or something that happened fairly organically?

Absolutely, I spent so much time wanting to craft an album experience. A train ride journey, where you could hit play and go through something along with the album. I also wanted it to feel cyclical, by the time you get to the end starting over feels like a natural path.

Your work spans the music continuum – you’ve explored downtempo worlds and also made club-skewed pop excursions. If you had to pick out a pocket of sound you feel you’ve made your own, what would it be?

I love exploration and being in a perpetual state of wonder when making art, so it’s been important for me to learn and understand as much as I’m able and I hope to continue doing that. I feel drawn to harmony in such a profound way personally that it’s what I rely on when I want to make music. The way tones rub up together and their resolution – it’s what I listen for when I’m enjoying music. I hope to be a conduit for someone who might be drawn to that as well.

With this album, what do you want the listener to discover or unearth about you at this point in your career?

I’ve been rigorous in trying to understand my musical language and lyrical language for this album, that’s been highly important for me in order to make this album. When you listen though, I just want people to go through their own process of reflection. The foundation is ambiguity and malleability, so it makes sense for someone to have their own personal affiliation with the songs and sentiments. I hope they are moved.

Have you thought about your next creative steps or do you want to give this album time to breathe and ferment?

I definitely have new ideas that came out of making this album that I want to explore. I’m not sure if it will be the next work or down the line but I’m glad there is something to continue chasing.

Which artists are you enjoying right now? Anyone you feel is breaking new ground?

I love the new Jessica Pratt album, and ML Buch’s music. There’s so much that I love I could make an endless list. I’ve been returning to Boards of Canada in a really studious way. I love their music so much.

Do you have plans to tour this album? Have you thought about how you’d realise this album as a live experience?

Definitely! I want to tour this album and bring it to a live audience. It will definitely have a different energy. The album was so deliberately crafted as a headphone experience, translating that into a room is super exciting and important to consider as its own story. Finding a way to bring intimacy into a space with a crowd of people is a challenge I relish.

Next Wave Recommendation: Halima

Photo Credit: Ana Koblish

This Brooklynite – raised between Jersey, London and Lagos, now comfortably based in New York – has long channelled her interiority in songs that are fuelled by an internal frisson. Her music burrows deep beneath the surface of the skin, and that sensorial dissonance characterises Halima’s new EP, ‘EXU’, named after the Yoruba deity of “crossroads”, chaos and transitions. Marrying a deep, reverent knowledge of mythic lore and scripture with a continuum of musical styles spanning jungle, scorched RnB, brooding trip-hop and the sway of Alté, Halima moves through passages of romantic dissolution and inner turmoil, tackling oppressive structures and antiquated ideals before finally reaching a place of deliverance.

In conversation, Halima breaks down her tri-continental origin story and and how it informs a borderless body of work. She shares the ways in which she found kinship with a confounding Yoruba deity, and how it unlocked a latent part of her creativity on a project that acutely charts a journey to an elevated self.

You’ve moved between Lagos and London, and you’re now based in Brooklyn. Where is home? Where do you locate your sense of belonging?

I was actually born in New Jersey, and that’s why I have dual citizenship. God bless my mother, this phenomenal woman from London. She prepared for me wanting to come back to America. Here I am, as she predicted. I was born in New Jersey and moved with my parents to Nigeria for the first six years of my life. Mum and I then moved to London, where I grew up until I was 18. Then I came to New York after that.

And New York is your base at the moment?

It’s my base now but I’m in London maybe twice a year. My mum lives there as does my family. It’s home too but New York definitely feels like an artistic home – a place where I could grow into myself without limitations or fear. I felt limited in London, personally.

Talk to me about those limitations. In what ways did those feelings of displacement manifest?

I think it was the circumstances in which I’d moved from Nigeria to London; it was drastic, even though I was a child. I felt very free and open in Nigeria and then I suddenly moved to this place where most people didn’t really look like me. We think of London today as this diverse city, but there are still pockets that are predominantly white. I had this very thick accent, and I remember kids asking me why I talked the way I did. I internalised this need to change, this need to become more acceptable. I internalised that even growing older – something about how I am from the jump not being right.

Making music was definitely necessary for me at that point because I stopped talking and stopped being expressive. I wasn’t talking to my Mom and she was really worried. I just became really quiet and withdrawn. When I started making music, I found my solace. I became obsessed with it. As I grew older, I wanted to find other people who were this obsessed. There were some friends who I’d make music with but no one was really as obsessed as I was. When I moved to New York, I was like ‘everybody here is as bonkers as I am.’ There’s some magic here that I’d been looking for and craving. Still, I’m so grateful for London and how it’s influenced me musically; a lot of my influences on this project are UK-derived. So, it’s still a part of me and everywhere I’ve been feels necessary to the process.

So, there’s a degree of stasis now that you’ve settled in New York?

I’ve been in New York for nine years, and have lived Brooklyn for six. It’s been transformative, completely. I was in the bathroom looking at myself and thought my God, I’ve been so many versions of myself in the span of six years. I’ve begun and I’ve ended so many times in this period of my twenties that I didn’t really foresee. I keep thinking, I feel like I know who I am and then shit is completely knocked. You can have that experience anywhere but I never quite have that experience the way I do in New York. I guess transformative is a surface level way of describing that. It’s been a very full and dense time.

I was delving into your previous pandemic releases, and there is a discernible shift that occurred from 2022 onwards with ‘Talk. In sound, style and substance you were levelling up.

It’s funny you say this because I was having a chat with someone about how I feel represented on this project compared to my previous work. I feel like on my previous work, I was trying things on. Does it fit? Does it suit me? I was doing that for maybe three or four years. Once the pandemic hit there was so much going on politically. None of us were able to experience things but you do have that time to really process things if you’re lucky. I’d just graduated from university, and I was really contending with my identity. The pause gave me this period to really distill who I was holistically. And then this was born. It’s an amalgamation of all of these different places and different sounds. I’m not trying anything on right now. I’m just here. I’ve just grown.

Photo Credit: Anna Koblish

You’ve signed to drink sum wtr. I’m continually impressed with the talent on this imprint. How’s your experience been working with a new creative team thus far?

They’re amazing. I’ve been independent for maybe six years and not necessarily out of pride. It’s just that I hadn’t met the right people. This was a project that was really precious and sacred to me. So, I was holding off until now. I feel like drink sum wtr completely surpassed what I had envisioned. My entire team is just so committed to sharing this project. It feels like now it’s bigger than me.

Talk me through the creation of this EP with your long-time collaborator Ben Shirken. I read in your bio that the noise from commute into the studio trickled into the production.

I love that you used his government name. That’s my brother, we’ve grown up together. We put out this grime-influenced track called ‘Dream Tracking’ in 2016, that was our first song together. We started working on ‘EXU’ in 2019. I would go to Ben’s studio in Queens, which is like a shipping container directly above this mechanic’s shop. In between takes you’d hear drilling, things being cut, a car being suspended in the middle of a lot. That was the background to my daily routine. It’s a really specific documentation of four years of mine and Ben’s life. He’d just started working with modular synths and he was going crazy with the patchwork and oscillators, just having a ball. I’d come into the studio and he’d play me his experiments. He was taking so many risks which gave me the licences to take risks.

Your EP is titled ‘EXU’, pronounced ‘Eshu’, which is this primordial divinity in the Yoruba faith. When did the concept of this deity factor into the EP’s narrative? Had you heard of Eshu when you were younger as a piece of folklore passed down?

I want to clarify I used the Brazilian spelling. If you look at the deity and any text written about it from West Africa, you’ll probably find its spelt Eshu. When things came over through the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas, these traditions and customs were passed down and the spelling changed. It’s the same deity, however. We discovered it at the very end of the process. I asked my dad, who lives in Nigeria and is Yoruba, about it and he said be careful with that one because it’s been misconstrued as devilish. It became even more fascinating to me. I learned about the pre-colonial history related to the deity, and how in the English dictionary translation the word devil was used for Eshu.

As soon as it was published hundreds of years ago, people became fearful of this deity. The reality is, Eshu does signify unpredictability and chaos but that happens to bring you to a better version of yourself. It felt like the right time to be applying this to my life. That was my journey, that was the spirit showing up in my life when I really needed it, when I had that pause to process it. From there, I got really obsessed with the research aspect of it. I really wanted to represent Black mythology and Afro-Futurism in this warm way that I felt the music sounded like. I also felt like the stories were warm but it had just been misinterpreted.

‘Awaken’ ushered in this new era. It’s one of my absolute favourite tracks of the year. There’s something lucid, deceptive, sultry and actually quite downcast about this track. Talk me through the genesis of ‘Awaken’, and why you wanted to open on this note?

‘Awaken’ was the first track that we made but it’s had so many lives. It used to be super ambient and then it was also a jungle track at some point. I felt the earlier version in 2021 needed to be stripped back because it was too busy. Chronologically speaking, it represents the beginning. I’d just ended a relationship that I was in, and it felt like the world had opened from under me in a scary way. I was wide open and exposed. It’s not just the end of a relationship but also the end of a potential future you saw for yourself. I was stepping into my sexuality a little bit more, and being honest with myself. I didn’t want to hide certain aspects of my identity. That’s essentially what the song came to mean for me. It was less of a breakup song and more me stepping into myself, it’s just that now I’m alone. It’s scary but also empowering.

I read that this project is about facing Eshu, resisting it, succumbing to it and realising this divine power lies within you. The EP follows that arc of all these elemental forces you’re contending with before you reach some kind of resolution. In your own words, talk me through the hero’s journey you go on.

At the beginning there’s a lot of discovery, with a bit of playfulness but also reflection. I think by the end there’s a realisation that I’ve been conditioned in a lot of ways to believe certain things that maybe I don’t actually need to uphold anymore. It takes a lot of courage to admit that. I think that’s what the track ‘Don’t’ gets to. That was one of the songs that Ben and I made a little later. I really realised that I’m attached to things that aren’t even coming from me, they’re just other people’s projections and beliefs that can be so damaging. By the end of the project those voices have gone away and you’re left with the question: What do you want to do from here? Now that you’ve been able to let go of these biases, where do you want to go? You can be free. I guess I’m in that place now.

Talk me through your exploration of choreography and movement on this EP, which we’ve seen in the visual for ‘Awaken’ and more prominently in the video for ‘Ways’. Dance really became a core part of your artistic repertoire.

It’s funny you bring that up because the first time that I explored dance was with ‘Talk’, which you mentioned before. I connected with this choreographer Roy Garzon. In 2022 he posted a dance class of a piece that he’d choreographed to ‘Talk’. It was incredible, beautiful and contemporary but also incorporated some hip-hop. I found out he lived in New York. I needed to meet him. Dance is the first art form I fell in love with as a child. I just remember feeling so much joy when dancing to music as a 4-year-old. I felt so connected to it and wanted to keep doing this forever.

Finally, making music that had roots in Nigerian music again, made me want to move. Roy and I had our first conversation last year about this video. We started working on it from there and it took on so many visual iterations, but once we had Bellamy Brewster on board as a director, he really moulded the whole vision together.

You have a far-reaching, broad pool of musical references. Which artists are you enjoying right now?

There’s this artist called Susumu Yokota. I heard one of his songs when I was at this Chinese restaurant in New York called Ways, it’s a spot where all the DJs go. I was there with my girlfriend and remember being struck by this beautiful song. Every morning I listen to his album ‘Sound Of Sky’, this loungey, 2000s house music album which soothes the soul and sets the mood for the day. I’m loving Erika De Casier’s recent album, Beyoncé’s album didn’t disappoint. Tyla is great, she’s launched so well and I’m really enjoying her getting the support and love. Kokoroko are incredible! I saw them in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago and I cried. I needed this! They’re so humble as well. Just so inspiring.

What do you want the listener to take away when they experience the EP in its entirety?

Honestly, I want a small part of them to be transformed as well. It doesn’t even have to be that dramatic, it could just be a window to what that could look like if they allowed themselves the freedom to exist – to be their own person. I would really love that

Looking to the future, are you in the throes of building the next project? Or are you living in the now?

Let me not get ahead of myself but an album is there. It’s funny because it sounds completely different. It was created at the tail end of this four-year period of my life. I’m working on this album with a lot of different people. In some ways it’s an antithesis to ‘EXU’ which is really deep, brooding and transformative. This future release is giving me release. I’m working on it now and it will hopefully come soon. That said I’m just really excited for people to listen to ‘EXU’ because it’s been a long time coming. I’m really proud of it. Thank you so much for connecting with it. You’ve been so supportive throughout and it means a lot to me.

Release Radar:

Scenic Route – ‘Road Less Travelled, Vol.2’

Following its inaugural volume in 2022, the South London imprint return with a roving 20-track collection spanning London, Los Angeles, Montreal, Budapest, Copenhagen, Barcelona and more. It’s a tastemaker’s dream. ‘Your House’ by Coined (Danish artists Astrid Sonne and Fine Glindvad) sets the tone and pace for an alchemical assemblage of voices revelling in the catharsis of sonic freedom. Zoee and Scenic Route alum Nourished By Time combine on the whimsical, stop-start showpiece ‘Moth To A Flame’; London artist Max Winter’s ‘Don’t Live Inside’ evolves from an ambient-acoustic lament to a hypnagogic RnB climax; Irish musician Olan Monk’s modifies and refracts the faint glimmer of DnB with the fuzzy static of garage rock on ‘Surf’. For me, this is one of the best transnational compilations of the year so far.

Tochi Bedford – ‘legend has it’

“Creating this EP has been a journey of self-discovery and artistic evolution. Each track has an interesting story behind it, ‘blue rain’ down to ‘lingua’. I’m hoping this connects with my people in ways only my music can.”

I’ve spoken at length about the piece of sonic sorcery that is ‘Princess Going Digital’ by Amaarae, a slick tribute to The Neptunes and their spacey synth-work. The producer at the helm was a young Nigerian artist, whose repertoire involves collaborations with fellow Alté luminaries Odunsi The Engine, Dndsection and Cruel Santino. The high-quality output continued with a celestial remix of London singer Lollie’s ‘Spirit’, and last year’s transitional project ‘half blue’. In no mood to slow down, Tochi returns with a new collection that threads together a repository of styles, and surveys his journey from producer-for-hire to a bankable artist in his own right. There are drowsy, hyperpop-adjacent experiments (‘pumpfake’), psychedelic ambience (‘legend’), muted digicentric soul (‘like me’), but the EP centrepiece is ‘sometimes’, an alluringly strange and surreal interface that doubles as an affirmation anthem.

Cecile Believe – ‘Blink Twice’

Divine Timing. With news of SOPHIE’s posthumous release, fellow avant-pop innovator Cecile Believe – Montreal-based experimentalist Caila Thompson-Hannan – emerges from the environs with her first release since 2020 mixtape ‘Plucking a Cherry From The Void’. New single ‘Blink Twice’ engineers a vacant sensuality through foliated, looped vocal work. It’s a motorized, neo-noir masterpiece.

Natanya – ‘Boombox’

If you transported Natanya into the archetypal 1999 “urban contemporary” era, she’d fit right in. New single ‘Boombox’, her first offering since coming-of-age debut, ‘Sorrow At Sunrise’, is built on a serrated surface of Afro-fusion propulsion – teasing a tale of transactional love and the aftermath of longing. With ‘Boombox’, Natanya finesses a potent blend of past signifiers and aesthetics with a forward-minded singularity.

TYSON – ‘Jumpstart’

LSDXOXO – ‘4LUVN’

Fana Hues – ‘Sweet Like’

Timi O – ‘Flight Of The Ibaden Malimbe’

BODUR – ‘Tapestry (Hijaz)’

Ben Hauke, Katy B – ‘Made To Measure’

Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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