Not many artists manage to reach their full artistic potential throughout their career, yet for Crywolf this idea is a continuous process that he lives by, as he refines his art more and more.
Crywolf (real name Justin Taylor Phillips), who writes, sings and produces the entirety of his music. He is known for providing emotional, cinematic sonic journeys that can range from cataclysms of synths and instruments to minimal, tender moments that barely fill the frequency spectrum.
His latest album widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I], which came after an almost two-year long hiatus, encompasses everything the artist represents, yet it elevates the idea of Crywolf and expands on new sonic and conceptual directions.
“widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I] is my dive into my unconscious self," discloses Crywolf as a message to fans. "A narrow-beamed flashlight illuminating creatures on the sea floor... a strange mixture of dread and familiarity. I sincerely believe it is my most honest work yet. I’m not trying to be pretty anymore."
"I shed my fair share of blood, sweat, and tears over the two years it took to make this album... and I also shed parts of myself. To be honest, I barely recognize the fragmented figure Widow represents. The first half of the OBLIVIØN series is the only relic I have to remember him by. Mangled, but poignant. A sort of exuvium, left behind to remind me where I came from, and provide a blueprint for what lays ahead."
Fans already knew widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I] was going to be different in comparison to Phillips’ previous works, yet previously released singles like “QUIXOTE” and “FALLOUT [antagonïzer]” are reinforced in the context of the album, as in its entirety it feels like a cohesive, emotional journey.
The minimal “ATHETOSIS [here’s the lullaby you made me promise never to write]” blends into “MEMPHISTOTELES”, a five-minute, post-apocalyptic gem that marks one of Crywolf’s darkest releases yet. “DRIP” cuts the tracklist in two, acting as the brightest track on widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I], yet thematically it has Phillips feeling uncertain and confused as well. “CEPHALOTUS” and “ULTRAVIOLENT Pt. II” round off the tracklist in a haunting way, ambient and explosive respectively, while “FOREIGN TONGUES” marks one of Phillips’ most progressive and experimental cuts to date.
We caught up with Crywolf to discuss his story behind widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I], his process when it comes to music creation, and his future plans in terms of new releases.
EDM.com: You describe widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I] as the result of your quote-on-quote “quarter life crisis.” Tell us more about how the project came to be and your personal story behind it.
Crywolf: Well, actually I never set out to be a musician; I have just struggled a lot with depression, anxiety and just really strong emotions throughout of my life, that have kind of overcome me a lot and prevented me from living more of a normal life. I was always under the control of these massive emotions, so creating music was sort of the first thing that ever gave me any sort of relief from that. I feel like being able to set all these deeper things inside of yourself on paper and create something outside of yourself with them allows you to sort of understand them as something separate from yourself as opposed to identifying with them so intensely and allowing them to control you. So instead of my emotions being this overwhelming thing that I was drowning in, it became this creation, that I can look at and understand.
All that to say that whatever I’m making is a direct reflection of what I’ve been going through. And a lot of times it’s not even necessarily a conscious effort to do so, I just sort of make whatever comes out. Oftentimes it’s just this process of self-discovery, and that’s how this album was essentially made.
Crywolf was sort of a sleeper for a really long time, and then suddenly I was touring and selling out all these big rooms and playing all these huge festivals, and I just had a lot of unresolved things inside of me that I was suppressing and not dealing with. It all suddenly swept up into this huge, fast-paced lifestyle; and all these intense things I was experiencing slowly caused me to start breaking down. I was slowly getting more and more tired until I had this really big tour, This Is Negative Space, where I almost completely fell apart. The stress reached 10 times the levels, and I think this really exposed the weakness of the foundation that I was sitting on emotionally and in my psyche.
And I just shut off after that and I went into a super deep depression; I had such extreme social anxiety and spent probably like 8 or 9 months just trying to survive, and basically zoning out of the world. It got pretty bad for a while, and when you take a hiatus like that, you watch the momentum that you had slowly start to go down, and that was such a huge pain and anxiety for me too. At some point it was the deepest that I’ve come to any sort of psychosis, the things that I was thinking about, the dark places where I was going with my mind; really just lost touch with reality, I was just inside lost in the depths of my mind, and throughout a lot of that I was making this music.
Thankfully, I guess around August-September 2018 I just decided that I couldn’t live like that anymore, and it led to the extreme opposite, a period of extreme self-discovery. That period was essentially the catalyst for what felt like five years of maturation in the course of four months or so. It was just so quick and I felt like I went from being a 21-year-old to being a 30-year-old in the course of a little tiny quarter of a year.
widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I] is really reflective and dark, almost post apocalyptic. Where does it stand creatively and conceptually in relation to your other projects like Skeletons or Cataclasm for example?
I would say that conceptually, a lot of my fans connected with the more romantic aspect of my older music, and for these specific fans widow might not scratch that itch. The reality is, though, that what the exploration of darkness that this album really embodies has been a consistent theme throughout my music, especially if you look at the Dysphoria EP; that was an extremely dark release. It was coupled with a lot of the same romanticism, but one of the main themes of it was kind of this lovecrafting dread of the void. In Cataclasm you see that in certain songs as well. That sort of dread is really embodied by the Okami figures; the masked figures I use a lot in my art and my music videos. Those have been a presence in my art for a really long time for a reason, and I feel like they have sort of been the foreshadowing of what this album is. They were in the background a lot, and I feel like this album is a deep dive into the essence of those figures and what they represent for me.
In the past, you’ve oftentimes talked about how the purest pieces of music come from the subconscious; how one has to be really non-judgemental and unbiased towards his creations in order to achieve his full artistic potential. Yet music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and oftentimes one can’t help but take notice of what’s happening around him and be influenced. How do you perceive this fine line of ultimate authenticity vs. external inspirations, and where does it exist for you?
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I think taking inspiration from things around you is a super important part of the creative process. In fact, in my own creative process, there are a number of steps, and one of the first is feeding yourself with art that really inspires you and moves you. You’re basically throwing in these ingredients to the pot, and those are going to influence the result you are going to get. Everybody’s unconscious minds are turning around all this inspiration that they’ve gotten, all these things that they’ve seen that have moved them, and they’re spitting them out in these brand new ways. Part of my creative process is controlling the things that I digest, and in a lot of ways making sure that I’m not digesting things that don’t have very much substance, I’m really intentional about only opening myself up to things that really move me.
So then when it comes to the actual creation it’s truly just a matter of opening yourself up to create, just letting everything out, and making sure that you don’t have any preconceived assumptions about what your creation is going to look like. I fall into that same trap all the time; I’ll sit down to make something and I have this pre-existing idea of sort of what Crywolf is and what Crywolf isn’t, and that affects what comes out. If a particular style of music comes out that I think that in my mental conception doesn’t fit with Crywolf, I’ll end up censoring it or try to change it, and that’s the killer of creativity. You’re essentially inviting this almost separate person to come out and express himself, your unconscious mind, the part that doesn’t perceive things through numbers and letters but instead perceives them in these huge, incomprehensible ways. When you do that but then you also say, “No no no, I want you to express yourself only in ways that I want myself to be expressed,” that’s what makes it go away in my experience.
That’s why a bunch of these exercises that I do for writing are geared towards trying to turn my judgmental left brain off. I’ll do a lot of free writing where literally anything goes, even if I’m just writing gibberish, I have to purposefully sit there and not try to change it, not judge it and allow it to completely flow out.
You always lose your mind on stage and give 100% of your energy. What is it that drives your performances and makes them so energetic and emotional?
Getting to have a full expression of all the things that I’m writing isn’t really common. There’s the experience of writing all this music, which is really intense in its own way, but there’s just something about being in front of a huge crowd of people. I remember one of the first times that I played a sold-out show, it was a little town in South Carolina and I didn’t even realize that I had so many fans. It was just mind blowing to me getting to experience this weird thing where all of this stuff that I’ve written just for myself in the privacy of my own room had gone out into the world, been digested by all these people, and become their own thing for them individually.
So the experience of standing up on a stage and not just having my own emotional investment in material, but also experiencing the emotional investment of this huge crowd of people at the same time - it pretty much never fails to just bring up this completely different, elevated state in myself. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this ultimate euphoria elsewhere besides being on stage; normally I feel that my emotions are so buried beneath this kind of thick exterior, and while performing, the movement from emotion to emotion becomes so heavy and so present for me. All that just brings out this crazy energy and makes me kind of freak out onstage essentially, and after every show, there’s this recovery period that lasts for almost a day.
And how do you manage to cope with that while being on tour and having to travel and perform so often?
The ability to do it regularly and sustainably pretty much exclusively comes from understanding the fans and putting myself in their position. When you’re playing a bunch of shows in new places every night, it’s so easy to minimize the fans’ experience and sort of be like “Well, I don’t really feel like giving it my all this show because I’m exhausted or stressed, I’ll just kind of do it half-heartedly.” Then I think about each individual fan that is coming to see me, and for a lot of them it’s this really rare, beautiful experience that’s so emotional, and I want to give it the gravity that it deserves. I spend a lot of time thinking about that before the show, and really connecting with that fact that everything that I’m doing on stage is of great importance, it’s not just a random show that I’m playing.
From what I understand, visuals play a big role in your art and how it is portrayed, as well as the way fans experience it. Is this a conscious decision? How do you think visuals influence the way a listener experiences a piece of music?
The way I personally see it, with visuals you’re creating a room for your audience to sit in and digest your art. Context and environment are so important when it comes to people being able to understand a piece of music. Crafting this entire experience around the music is essentially me telling people, “Here’s the world this music exists in,” it’s like a way of directing them and creating this environment for them to sit in so that they’re going to be able to really grasp what you want trying to communicate. The visual part is also a really important part of my music creation because I was more of a visual artist first, and a lot of the music that I make comes from certain images or dreams/daydreams that I had.
Do you want people to interpret your art in a specific way or is it something everyone should interpret in their own ways? If listeners were to take one thing from widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I], what would you want them to take?
I want people to interpret it in the way that they naturally interpret it; I’m a really big fan of the idea of a certain amount of ambiguity being present in art. I never really connected with lyrics that were directly telling you a story, because when you create narrative art, you’re essentially allowing the audience to sit back and experience what you’re offering passively. And it’s a lot easier for people to digest that art, so it’s a lot more palatable and has a bigger fanbase, but leaving certain holes in the narrative forces people to come and sit at the table with you, and really participate in the art. It forces them to project all of these personal experiences into what you’re expressing. The opposite side of narrative art would be art that’s way too ambiguous; then you’re essentially giving them nothing, and I don’t believe in art like that either.
I just love is this fine line in between, where you’re actually giving them so much information, but it’s actually not this direct, narrative information; you’re communicating in feelings basically. A lot of times I feel like the emotions that I’m writing about are things that I don’t have words for, or they’re really specific emotions that are universal and people experience them on a large scale, but they don't necessarily have direct ways to communicate them. I’m leaving room for people to project their own experiences, and I feel that the people that get it all feel the same thing, it just might have a different application in their life.
widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I] is probably your most introspective and impactful project yet. Where do you think you can go from here? How do you see the Crywolf project evolving from here?
So this is essentially part one of the album, the second part is coming later this year, and that sort of deals with the aftermath of everything that this album talks about. It’s everything that happened after that period of depression, the healing and recovery. widow is essentially all questions; the second half of it more has to do with answers to those questions. I also have a companion album to Cataclasm coming, which is a bunch of the stuff I wrote for Cataclasm that didn’t make it on the actual album.
I think because everything I make is coming from the same person and the same set of experiences, it naturally has a progression to it that you can follow; it’s not like from the beginning I had planned on making widow and then decided to put those masked figures in as a foreshadowing for that album, they naturally were incorporated as forershadowing, as they represent my development as a person both consciously and unconsciously.
Crywolf will be touring with a new live show for widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I]. Fans can get their tickets here.