If you read issue no.1 of XCENTS, you know Kina Grannis and you know we consider her the gold standard among modern independent singer-songwriters. Having her as one of our inaugural covers was a special honour. And we’re happy to bring back Kina – in a way – in issue no.2, making things a bit of a family affair by giving you this interview with Imaginary Future, aka singer-songwriter Jesse Epstein, aka Mr Kina Grannis. And with the new Imaginary Future album, Sunlight, being a love letter from Jesse to Kina, there hardly couldn’t have been a better time for this conversation.
► For XCENTS I’m trying to ask the relevant questions in the world of independent artists and digital creators. In your case, I think we only have one question to answer: Jesse, how does one get a woman like Kina Grannis?
Hah, I’m not sure I can help you there. There might not be another woman like Kina.
► Fair enough. I still have a feeling her name might come up a few times in this interview. After all, you describe the new album as a love letter to her.
Absolutely. I guess it would be weird if her name didn’t come up. She has been a big part in my musical journey.
► Was she the reason why you got into music professionally after your band in college or do you think you would have taken that path anyway?
I definitely think she was the reason. She was my inspiration from the beginning. But that goes beyond the music. She is a very inspiring person in general.
► But you started out quite differently than the sound Kina inspired on Sunlight…
That’s true. Some of the music that really inspired me to begin playing was pretty melancholic, slow, sombre music. In high school I got really into Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine. That’s when I started focusing on playing guitar and singing. The style of these influences is so sparse, with a very melancholic approach to songwriting. It’s certainly not a jump-out-of-your-seat and dance-around kind of music. I fell in love with that sound as a listener, but it also seemed very attainable to me – just a guy on stage with a guitar. I figured I can stand on a stage, hold a guitar and sing to it. No band to worry about. Just learn a nice little finger picking pattern and then sing about the things that are troubling you. It seemed like an easy and natural way in.
► When do you realise that the melancholy is gone from the songs and you’re suddenly writing happy tunes?
Well, it wasn’t like I woke up one day, tried to write a sad song and instead a happy song came out. After my album Fire Escape I wanted to try something new. Kina and I were getting married at the time, and it was just a happy couple of years. Before that I was writing about things I was struggling with and things I worried about. But then, because of the time and the circumstances, I wanted to inject more fun into my music and write something lighter.
► There are several songs on the album on which we can hear Kina. The ones she isn’t on, did you keep them secret from her, to surprise her with this musical love letter, or did you share them as you wrote them?
I would play them for her as I wrote them. In part that’s because I wrote them piece by piece, over a period of a year and a half, rather than in one big chunk. There was no way I could hide those songs from her for months or a year, also because her input on the creative process is so valuable to me.
► Probably not just on the songwriting part of your life and work as an independent artist…
Oh no. Her input is always valuable to me.
When you talk about having Kina as an example, that’s a difficult one to follow, because she is a Superwoman.
► Which leads me to this: Every independent artist needs to find a way to put themselves out there. Most look at what others are doing and distil their own recipe from it. XCENTS tries to provide some insights in the interviews. But you have the blueprint of how it is done sitting right at home. And yet you don’t do everything the way Kina does it. Is that on purpose?
You mean the way her and I handle YouTube, Twitter and so on? No, the differences aren’t on purpose. We never sit down and say, ‘You do it this way and I do it that way’. The thing is, Kina is pretty incredible with the amount of output she is able to have. For me? I don’t know. I just haven’t been able to be as prolific with things like videos for cover songs or collaborations. Kina works so incredibly hard that she simply makes time for it all. Also, she is so incredibly fast. It takes me a lot longer than her to learn a new song. So when you talk about having Kina as an example, that’s a difficult one to follow, because she is a Superwoman.
► I’ve said it before: She is the gold standard among independent artists. Certainly difficult to emulate…
Yes. And maybe that is an important point to make: What she has built is incredible, and if someone looks to her as an example of how it can be done, they probably shouldn’t try to do everything all at once. It has taken her years to get where she is. I’ve witnessed the process and at the same time I’ve dealt with my own music, so I know how difficult it is. If you can’t do it the exact same way, that’s not a reason to despair. Everyone has to find their own way.
► Very true. But does it ever get intimidating to have someone in your own house who does these things so perfectly?
(laughs) It’s inspiring, rather than intimidating. She approaches it with such positivity. Seeing that is encouraging. I see it as ‘these are the things that I can do or improve’, not as a ‘oh no, this is all the stuff I have to do?’.
► Something you have both done is debut music exclusively on a website that isn’t YouTube or your own – Kina with your wedding video, set to her song My Dear, on The Wall Street Journal blog; you have done it with the song premiere of Forever On Your Side, on the website of CBS News. Is there a notable difference between this and putting a new song out in a regular way?
I’m afraid I can’t answer that because I don’t follow the numbers that closely and can’t make a direct comparison. The advantage is, of course, that anytime someone embeds your music on their site, you might reach new listeners. And an exclusive premiere might make someone write about you who otherwise might not have done it. On YouTube and SoundCloud you have your own fans, and that grows slowly over time. A special collaboration, however, can get you a surge of new listeners. So anytime you get a chance like that, it’s worth taking. As long as the exclusivity is limited and you eventually make the video available on your normal channels. You don’t want to exclude your regular listeners.