Interview: After Discovering His Adoption, Will Eastman Soundtracks His Rebirth on New Solo Album

Will Eastman

Prolific producer, DJ and U Street Music Hall co-owner Will Eastman has been a key fixture in the D.C. music scene for over two decades, but it wasn’t until this year that he released his first solo LP, Hilo. After discovering that he was adopted, Eastman took his journey through this psychological jumble and turned it into philosophically complex dance music that tells the story of finding his identity once again at 45, eliciting his deep emotions on the topic. Hilo reflects the name of a town in Hawaii where Eastman met his birth parents for the first time.

The album isn’t just an ode to his resilience, but also to D.C. Eastman collaborated with several local vocalists for Hilo, sending tracks back and forth over the course of the two-year writing and recording process. After putting countless hours into the project, Eastman will celebrate the album’s release at U Street Music Hall on April 22. D.C. Music Download talked to him more about the LP and how he views his music as a full concept.

D.C. Music Download: How did the idea for Hilo come about?

Will Eastman: It came about really organically. I didn’t really plan it. I started working on a bunch of tracks and I had the idea of working with some guest vocalists. Over time, it just sort of came together and I realized that I had made an album.

I had gone through this challenge where I learned I was adopted, and the album soundtracks my life for the past three years. I’ve really been working on it for over two years. But, I didn’t really realize that I had an album until last summer.

I have read a little about the challenges you faced after discovering your adoption. But beyond that, you seem to references other elements and diverge from the main challenge. What were you thinking with tracks like “Elizabeth, 6 a.m.” and “Waiting to Leave New York.”

Yeah, so it’s all part of my story of the past couple years. Some of it is directly related and some of it is tangentially related. “Elizabeth, 6 a.m.” is a track that I wrote in Barcelona, actually, and I wrote it at bars and on trains and in hotel rooms. I create temporary file names as placeholders for works in progress. I was in a hotel room–my wife was sleeping next to me and it was 6 o’clock in the morning. My wife’s middle name is Elizabeth, so I called it “Elizabeth, 6 a.m.” That kind of stuck. But, that track is a dream. It’s a soundtrack to a sunrise. It’s a soundtrack to living in a beautiful moment in the midst of a psychological tempest.

Do you mostly see your songs as soundtracks to bigger movements or as stand-alone pieces that show some sort of feeling or story, as a more heavily lyrical song would?

Each song needs to stand on its own and then the whole piece needs to hold together. That’s sort of how the album progression came about. It tells a story. It begins with this surreal realization where you’re sort of coming apart psychologically. Then, there are different epiphanies throughout the record and each of them is a touchpoint for a different experience I was having throughout the time. It all culminates with the end track, “Limitless,” which is sort of an acceptance and a beautiful coda to the whole thing. I think Eau Claire did a great job with the lyrics and the vocals of the whole thing. It ends on a positive note, but it’s also a cosmic and psychedelic statement. Doing the whole thing really made me realize how interconnected we all are, how you don’t exist alone, how time and space are really malleable and that everything is connected.

It seems you bring a lot of reflection and creative space for confession to this album, though house and dance music are not genres many associate with deep reflection. Even before I saw the swirling video for “Froggie,” it was clearly very reflective and introspective. What do you consider when you are writing these tracks?

I’ve always looked at dance music as something more than what you shake your ass to. It’s always been deeper than that to me, as a DJ, as a music producer and as a party thrower and promoter. I’ve tried to go deeper in a multi-tier approach to the song. Like I said earlier, each song needs to stand on its own and have a purpose. You can play it in a DJ set or listen to it while you’re chilling out. But, it also should elicit an emotional response.

No song should hit you in the same way that the last did, otherwise why do you need two? You’re duplicating purposes. Each track should serve a different role and accomplish a different goal.

You mentioned Eau Claire and there are other local collaborators on this album as well. How did you come across these vocalists?

That was very conscious. I worked only with locals. They’re all people that I knew before we worked together. I wanted to showcase what is going on in D.C., different types of talent and different types of artists. An uncommunicated goal with this record was to showcase D.C., because I rep this city hard. I don’t think that’s any secret. I own a music venue here. I’ve lived here for 21 years. When I thought about who I wanted to partner with in terms of vocal collaborators, I just started making notes on my phone of different people and started sending out instrumentals.

I was very gratified at the number of people who stepped up and just crushed it with the vocals. They really put their heart and soul into it and I’m appreciative of that.

Did you record it all yourself?

I have a small studio in my house. I worked with Nick Garcia, who mixed and mastered the album, who is the label manager at Yoshitoshi [Recordings]. And then Kevin Chambers, who’s also known as Flash Frequency, did the visual elements of the album.

Where do you see your album fitting in? What types of listeners and communities did you hope to target?

I feel like in a lot of ways part of my life’s mission [is] to introduce people to new music. There are a lot of influences on my album. It’s informed by house, techno and disco because I kind of see them as the holy trinity of dance music. But it’s not beholden to any one of them. It’s all of them and none of them at the same time. My favorite records are genre-bending. They don’t really fit into any one silo, and I hope that’s what Hilo is like. I like feel like as an artist you are better served going towards something that is uniquely you.

How does U Street Music Hall influence your music and, frankly, how do you find time to work on your own music while running a venue?

I write music when I travel. I started almost all of the songs on Hilo on planes and trains…I’ve become very adept at using my laptop computer keyboard as a piano keyboard.

I consider myself fortunate that I can go down [to U Street Music Hall] and hang out with the DJs, hear them play their new tracks maybe before they’re released, hear what they’re into and what’s inspiring them. That, of course, is very inspirational to me.

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