Portable Takes Us Inside His New Album, 'Alan Abrahams,' Track By Track
There's always an air of introspection hanging above self-titled albums produced by musicians well into their careers. It's especially prominent when producers who've spent their entire creative lives hiding behind monikers, suddenly jump out. The moment can't help but scream "personal statement." In the case of Alan Abrahams, the Cape Town, South Africa-born electronic producer who for the better part of two decades has been successfully floating upward in the European dance music scene, under the names Portable and Bodycode, this moment may be especially salient.
More than half of the songs on the new Portable full-length, entitled Alan Abrahams, feature his vocals and lyrics, signaling a turn for what has heretofore been a career built predominantly of instrumental, house music-minded club tracks; and on nearly a third of them, Abrahams augments the stable of electronics and consciously Afrocentric rhythms, with his own piano playing, as well as contributions from a roster of live musicians. To top it off, the album documents a period of disruptions, transitions and exploration, both emotional and sonic, through a fascinating group of songs.
"A few years ago, I started taking piano lessons, once a week, and it's quite an emotional instrument," says Abrahams amid easy-going laughter, when reached at his Berlin studio by Skype. "I don't sit and write lyrics all the time, but when an idea comes I devote myself to it. I find that it's a good way to exorcise demons. So, definitely this is a diaristic album, split across borders, written around a break-up, around being alone, and then starting a new chapter in life with someone else. I think it all kind of ties together."
Alan Abrahams comes on the heels of Portable's most commercially successful release, "Surrender," an epic 2014 deep house number featuring the Brazilian flautist Lcio and prominently featured on DJ Koze's DJ-Kicks mix. According to Abrahams, all of these were "written in parallel, they all come together as a body of work. When I did 'Surrender,' this album was about halfway done, and I already had an idea of what I wanted to do with this music: make an album I'd listen to all the time, when I'm cycling or walking around town, not just in the club. That's why it touches upon a lot of different styles and themes."
Its musical diversity and words of self-motivation align Alan Abrahams to a time when dance music producers used the album to issue creative declarations and pursue intimate investigations, amid the beats. Says Abrahams: "A lot of the club stuff at the moment is quite cheap. I wanted to make an album that brings out emotions, and that people could listen to in 10 years, and still have it sound fresh and stand the test of time."
Listen to Portable's new album Alan Abrahams, and read Alan's thoughts on how these songs came together.
1. "Your Warrior" (feat. Kinoo, Aletchko and Johannes Schön)
"Kinoo is my neighbor in Berlin. We just clicked musically and spent a lot of winter nights just jamming — I would make something up and he would have his bass and guitar and we'd just record parts as they would come. Johannes, who has some guitar licks here, was actually on the last album. And Alexey, I met through Facebook, when I posted that that I wanted to work with somebody on violin.
"I started 'Warrior' in Berlin and finished it in Paris — it was actually the last song I finished for the album. I re-arranged it, and redid the whole song. I do this quite often: start something, leave it because it's not working, and then come back to it. And it turned out to be quite a different song. The reason it became the opening song is that I added the violin to it, and the plaintive sound of the violin encapsulated this body of work.
"At the time I wrote the lyric, I was still single, the relationship had finished, and I was imagining this warrior who was in my shadow all the time, guiding me. It's an inspiration to myself. I think it's important to have a positive aspect to music, especially in the kind of climate we live in at the moment, where there's a lot to be pessimistic about."
2. "Say It's Going To Change"
"It's another song I wrote very recently. I really wanted to write about what was going on in Europe at the moment. I moved to Paris the week of the first attacks [January 2015], and even now, there was a period a few weeks ago when every day something was happening, with the refugee situation and the rise of the right wing that's kind of taking over Europe. So there are huge changes taking shape and they're definitely not changes for the better. That's where the song was coming from.
"I made a Bodycode remix of the song featuring Ursula Rucker doing the vocals, whom I chose because she's a conscious artist who stands for something. I wanted to make a dance-oriented mix of it but I did not want to cheapen it, to reach out to other elements but keep it within the house music framework. When I started clubbing, at the dawn of house music, it was about connecting, and quite a spiritual, life-changing experience. I always try to come back to that feeling, because it's important."
3. "Closer" (feat. Knox Chandler)
"It's a lyric I wrote many years ago. I made a little bit of music for it but never finished it or anything, and then went back to it. Once I started practicing piano, I just woke up one morning, had these chord progressions and recorded them immediately. That became "Closer." Knox Chandler, who used to work with Siouxsie & the Banshees and R.E.M. and Depeche Mode, did the bass-line and the guitar pieces. It's really just a love song I came back to. I wrote it for another time — I was living in South Africa actually, it may have been that long ago, 15-16 years — and remade it for now."
4. "More Than"
"I wanted to make a dance song that was more than a dance song. That's why I did not make it 4/4, but this sort of broken rhythm. I really like those kinds of polyrhythms, they're very African. I come back to them quite a lot in my music. In club music, we are bombarded with square sound, so I find it refreshing to have something that is not coming out of that square notion of what dance music should be. The lyric at the end, "more than," also speaks to the fact that I wanted to come up with something more than just a cliché of dance music."
5. "As For Me" (feat. Kinoo and Aletchko)
"When I started singing, I was influenced by people like Depeche Mode, a new wave, deep baritone style of singing. But with this album, I was also listening to a lot of R&B, Frank Ocean specifically, and I was trying to incorporate that kind of style, still have that baritone effect while trying to move away from the new wave textures. I hope I got it. I wanted to develop my own sound, with the album overall, and on this song in particular.
"My partner at the moment is very much into R&B, so I have been listening to a lot of it. We were laughing earlier that his son listens to a lot of this French pop music that has a lot of auto-tune on the voice, and its horrific. I don't know what to say about that. Because it's not just about, 'oh, it's the music that the kids are listening to.' The sound is so digital, there's no roundness to it; and the voice is so digitized and watered-down. It's a false version of 'perfect,' all the time, and I think it says something about where we are at the moment."
"Another one I wrote for myself. [laughs] Of course, I wrote all these songs for myself... I say that because I do not want to sound like I am preaching. These songs are like reflections for myself, to keep myself in check. With 'Bondage,' the idea is that we often are our own worst critics — that's the theme of the song. If I can just release this bondage of myself, I can be free. I wrote the lyrics quite a few years ago, when I was living in Lisbon ... and actually this goes into the next song (it's the reason they are back to back). I wrote 'Bondage' when I decided to stop drinking and partying. I was at this level when I was going too crazy, basically. And it was a song in which I said I am my own worst enemy. I have to untie myself from myself, and I made really big decisions at the time — that was just before I moved to Berlin — to stop drinking, to stop drugging. It was a conscious decision. And if I had not made that decision, if I had not let go of this bondage of myself, I would probably not be talking to you now."
7. "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Drinker"
"The songs are inter-related, although they were made quite a few years apart. They came together for the album. I got the title from a friend of mine after we'd been talking about drinking and stuff like that, and he used that phrase, "the loneliness of a long distance drinker." It reminded me so much of Berlin and, generally, the club culture in a lot of cities around the world where you are partying for days on end. That may be OK when you are twenty-something and experiencing that with your age group; but there are people who are much older still doing that. So he said it out loud and I wrote it down, because I instantly thought it was a great title for a song."
"I had just come back from Lanzerote, a volcanic island and part of the Canary Islands, where we were making a video for "Say It's Gonna Change," with this incredible landscape, and I decided to make a track that brings up images of another planet, a deserted or some kind of a sci-fi world that you're driving through. I was playing around with the title of that song, and the word 'seraphin' felt a little like a sci-fi landscape. So, really, I had the name before the song."
9. "The Year My Dreams Came True"
"The title says the whole thing really. I was finally happy with my relationship, and my work in the studio was very nice, and everything just kind of came together really well. I gave the title to the song once I finished it. I started with a piano progression, and I knew I wanted to make it into this kind of emotional house song. And the title just fit."
10. "This Frozen Lake"
"This is a lyric I wrote two or so years ago. The song was about the idea of temptation, and how when you are in a relationship, you have to fight this temptation, fight this demon. [The spoken word part goes] "He took my hand and guided me across his barren, forlorn sea." At the end of the song, my back is towards this frozen lake; so, I decided to turn my back on the temptation and devote myself, oneself, to a relationship. I come back to this idea that Berlin is kind of like the San Francisco of Europe: no one is in a relationship, or if you are, you're in an open relationship. It's OK for some people. But for me, if you have a relationship and you make a commitment to it, it becomes stronger. I haven't always felt that way, though; I think it comes with age. Just as with "Bondage," I think it was a fork in my evolution of self."
"I wrote the chord progression for the song in a car in Italy. It's another song I wrote for myself, positive words of encouragement. Because creatively I am doing everything on my own, so I have to be my own best friend, my own coach. I am writing stuff in the night, in the morning, to stay positive. I prefer to stay positive, and that's why I closed the album that way."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.