Q&A: Chad Valley Fosters Community Through Music
By Gianna Hughes on November 19, 2012
Last summer, I visited the Echo in Los Angeles to catch a set by local artist Active Child. But before they could take the stage as the headlining act, the crowd was caught off guard when the then-unknown artist Hugo Manuel, aka Chad Valley, began his performance. Although he was the only person on stage, he commanded the room and quickly got everyone moving their feet.
Since then, Hugo has toured with the likes of Twin Shadow and Passion Pit and has been able to hone in on just what he wants to convey as an artist. The outcome: the stunning Young Hunger, which was released via Cascine earlier this month.
The album features guests like his touring mates George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow and Pat Grossi of Active Child, as well as El Perro Del Mar and Glasser. And much like his artist collective in Oxford, Blessing Force, it's clear that Chad Valley thrives in a community. From here on out, his career will certainly only grow because of this.
I had the chance to speak with Manuel about community, Young Hunger, and hanging out with Paula Abdul. We also have "My Life Is Complete" (feat. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs) available to stream. Check it all out below.
Why decide to join an artist collective in Oxford? Why was this so important to you?
We wanted to show the world what was going on in Oxford. It's a small place, and its proximity to London means that it routinely gets left off the map, so to speak. There was a moment a few years back when about four or five bands or projects took shape and started getting attention from certain corners of the Internet, and so we decided to capitalise on this and put a name on something that had existed for a long time already—a diverse but strong and supportive musical community in Oxford. There was also a want to give something back to Oxford itself and so we started curating gigs and events in unusual places, from art galleries to houses and warehouse spaces, just because we were all quite dissatisfied with the standard gig experience and the kind of interesting gigs you see in London never make it to Oxford. It's generally thought of as being too small to sustain a niche thing like that, but we saw the potential and acted on it.
Were you drawn to this collective partially due to the idea of community? Or fostering your own community?
It was a community already—we were all friends before Blessing Force existed—so we were just putting a name to something very organic. In that way, it wasn't contrived at all. It's just like the kind of artistic communities that exist all over the world, it's just that people don't notice unless you put a name to it.
Have you had any surreal moments as an artist yet?
A few, certainly. I've been fortunate enough to play some pretty big rooms opening for Friendly Fires and Passion Pit on tour and it's always surreal to see—usually only towards the end of my set—two or three thousand people getting down to my my music. Always a pleasure. There was a particularly surreal week I spent in L.A. last year at the end of a tour where I stayed with Paula Abdul (she's a friend of a friend) and she came to my show, we saw Drive at the cinema, went out for lunches, and watched X Factor together (when she was on it). So all in all, a very surreal but amazing week of my life.
Can you describe your experiences working with such artists as Active Child, Twin Shadow and El Perro Del Mar on your debut album, Young Hunger? Why decide to work with so many vocalists?
I was inspired partly by the kind of hip hop albums that have multiple guests on nearly every song. I think it's a really cool format that isn't used enough outside that kind of music. As a solo performer I feel the need to do something that isn't intrinsically self-centered, so the natural thing for me to do would be to take the spotlight away from myself and include all sorts of other people. Also, I just love duets and from my last few years of touring I had made some friends, and so I knew I could get some great singers involved so it seemed like an obvious thing to do. Most of the guest vocals were recorded by the artists themselves and e-mailed over, which was convenient but doesn't make for a thrilling story! I did record Glasser's part with her in Brooklyn when I was out there on tour and we grabbed a couple of hours at a studio just before my flight back home. It was a brief but memorable experience.
Why title the album "Young Hunger"? Do you think you have some of this?
That is exactly why I called it that. I have an intense fear of turning 30 (I'm 26) as I want to be at a certain place in my life by the time I am that age, and so I feel there is a need to create and work as much as possible. I work incredibly hard at my music and it's all down to young hunger in the end.
You've been inspired by '80s music. What artists were you specifically inspired by? What about the '80s grabs your attentions?
There was a kind of fascination with the future that was rife in the '80s and I think is a little bit lacking these days. Technologically speaking, it was a time of huge, huge developments in music. Synthesis was completely overhauled with the advent of digital synths and that created this entirely new palette of sounds to make music from. This is something that hasn't really happened since I don't think, and it led to some incredible sounding records from that era. For me the late '80s New Jack Swing thing had a profound influence on me as it used this beautiful palette of digital sounds with such soul and style and matched that with amazing harmonies and singing. So specifically, New Edition's Heart Break and Babyface's Lovers had a great influence on this record, and then also Prefab Sprout and Thomas Dolby (including his work on Joni Mitchell's '80s albums) showed me how to create the perfect match of slinky production and intelligent songwriting. There is a complexity to Prefab's music that gets me every time and keeps me coming back for more. Every day I strive to make music that touches that pedestal.
You seem to be drawn to the late '60s and '70s as well. What about that time is so appealing to you? Why are you drawn to artists like Neil Young or Patti Smith?
I don't know if that kind of stuff had much influence on Chad Valley specifically—it’s more just the music I grew up with. Neil Young is still my favourite artist ever I think. It's endlessly fascinating to see his career arc and see how he has experimented with different genres and still maintained a degree of credibility at all times. I've often thought about learning the guitar properly and making music in the vein of Young's Prairie Wind—some mum-pleasing country-lite—but that is on the back burner for now.
What other musicians, whether current or past, are you drawn to? Why?
I am into a lot of current pop music. I think there is so much amazing stuff in the charts right now. It's a really good time for pop music and also for the R&B acts who maintain a fine balance between pop sensibilities and commercial success—people like Miguel and Frank Ocean. But seriously, I am so into Katy Perry Ke$ha and that kind of stuff. I am waiting for someone to make a pop record without the filler that you get on those kind of albums normally. I think if these records were made in a slightly different way—less writers and more time—they would be considered masterpieces, but I guess the execs are only interested in the four or five singles and the rest could be whatever the fuck they wanted; the record will still sell shitloads. Maybe this can be my calling.
How do you think working with a producer for the first time helped shape your sound and your album?
It just allowed me to do things that I didn't know how to do. I am self-taught as a producer and I think unless I really sat down and learnt some stuff I will never be able to make something as polished and slick as Young Hunger by myself, and that's exactly what I wanted from this record—slick and polished. Jonathan Shakhovskoy has mixed records by Shakira and Leona Lewis so he is well versed in pop and I wanted to bring that element to the album in a big way. I had to reign him in though. It could have gone way more pop, but I think pop is only interesting if there are subversive elements to it. It was a big experiment though. I had no idea how it would turn out and it took a long time to get into the process of watching my songs get torn apart and then put back together. Initially it's a bit demoralising. It's like "That bit's rubbish, let's scrap that" and "What is the point in this sound?" But it's all about tough love. I have a natural tendency to overcrowd my music and it's good to have someone else's ears to hear when something is really needed or not.
When you write and record these songs, do you keep the live element in mind as well? How do you go about translating your work to the live environment?
I don't think about live at all when I write and record. For me the live set should be seen as a dance party, a fun night out and not a virtuosic display of musicianship. Like any good pop music, it's all about the vocals and I enjoy singing my heart out on stage every night. And apart from that it's a simple show. Some cool lights, backing singers and dancing (from you, not from me).
How are you feeling about the release of your first proper full-length album? Do you feel like the timing is right?
I feel more than anything that the timing is right, for me personally, that is. I am so glad I didn't rush this album. It's very hard not to when you put your first three songs on the Internet and you get hyped because you feel like you need to capitalise on the press you've got going for you. But hopefully I managed to maintain that interest for the past two years and at the end of it I've come up with an album that I couldn't have possibly made two years ago.