When Arthur Ashin performs as Autre Ne Veut, he becomes a self-professed “freak,” and not necessarily in the sexy way. Clutching a microphone for dear life with just a few people manning beats and background vocals behind him, he scrunches up his face and bawls like a newborn id into the personal space created by his torso, which by now has curled up in an upright fetal position (unless it’s flung backwards in throat-popping ecstasy). Sometimes he falls to the floor for good measure, crawling to the lip of the stage as if to the edges of his own sanity. When Ashin’s voice screeches into the curdling upper ranges of a desperate song called “Wake Up,” it sounds like Cameron Diaz is trying to sing her way out of Chip Douglas’ wildly gyrating body during the karaoke scene in The Cable Guy.
“The only way for me to get up there and stay up there is to kind of go into my weird little world. It’s me, but it’s the most unhinged part of myself. The part that cares less about consequences,” Ashin tells me over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. This kind of stage fright is related to the anxiety has always been a part of his work as Autre Ne Veut (French for “I think of none other”). It comes to a spectacular head on his fittingly titled sophomore LP and chandelier-shattering R&B opus, Anxiety. For the album cover, Ashin originally picked a photograph of The Scream by Edvard Munch at a Sotheby’s auction. He explained, “I was trying to get at the modernist trope of anxiety. The Scream is the standard image of anxiety and it’s being represented in this capitalist framework. Psychology is market-driven in a huge way.”
He should know a thing or two about the field. After growing up in Connecticut with parents who had always been in therapy (“It’s part of the Jewish tradition. You’ve got a little Woody Allen, you feel okay about going to psychoanalysis”), Ashin came back to psychology while studying philosophy and cultural theorists like Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek at Hampshire College. Fortuitously, his roommate was Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never, Ford & Lopatin, and independent record label Software. The ambient experimentalist, who later signed Autre Ne Veut, was instrumental in “slutting out” his friend’s early demos. Some caught the ear of Todd Ledford, who runs U.K. label Olde English Spelling Bee and liked what he heard. “So, if I were to take 10 songs out of these 40 demos to make a record,” Ashin says, using the same husky, vaguely accented voice for everyone he quotes to me, “What would it look like?”
If Autre Ne Veut’s Body EP from 2011 is any indication, it looked like a vagina–but that came later (for the record, it was just a boring ol’ oiled hand). For 2010’s Autre Ne Veut, Ledford paired him with producer Chris Cody, who has worked with avant-garde arena rockers like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On the Radio. Ashin has made no secret about the fact that making this record has been a cathartic process more effective than psychoanalysis, so I asked him if it was difficult to bring such personal material to a respected producer. “My primary emotion was ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe this is happening,’ so I wasn’t too paranoid,” Ashin says. “It tends to be more embarrassing when journalists refract ideas back at me. They do a pretty good job of obfuscating any clear cynicism, but you can hear it in some of the implicit undertones if you’re self-conscious enough.”
At least Cody, Anxiety producer Al Carlson (Ducktails, Yeasayer), Lopatin, and everyone else Ashin worked with on the record were understanding and open-minded during the process… for the most part. Ashin admits they occasionally ran into some creative differences. “Joel [Ford, of Ford & Lopatin and Software] was really attached to the idea of the record being like ‘Climax’, just super spare with one powerful underlying synth sound. I was conceptually interested but as the record went on, I had a harder and harder time giving up my penchant for frills. He was like, ‘I feel like this isn’t going in the direction I thought it was’ and I was like, ‘This is my record!'”
It is Autre Ne Veut’s record indeed. Anxiety is a case study in living the dream while still feeling unable to escape from a respectable career path. In Ashin’s case, he could finally pursue his high school rock star fantasy–in Mexican Summer’s swank studios, no less–even though he was still wedded to a master’s degree in clinical psychology. By turns emotional and decadent, the album reflects Ashin’s delight in possibilities and the angst of life choices. “Play By Play” opens with synthesizers that twinkle like a planetarium light show as Ashin veers between his voluptuous tenor and a conspiratorial whisper, building to a gospel-accented chorus that thunders with a Bushwick party-moving bass. All 10 songs are put together like mini-dissertations on Ashin’s “Meredith Monk meets trap beats thing,” from the non-Whitney Houston cover “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to “Counting”, a near-eulogy masquerading as a sex jam.
Despite Anxiety‘s fervid embrace of Top 40’s instantly gratifying and widely accessible production value, Ashin makes songs that only meet his audience, be it predominantly critics or consumers, halfway. “I’m not sitting around trying to craft a listener experience,” he says. “Whatever weird shit comes out is there for the listener to interpret as much as it’s there for me.” That goes for the album cover as well. At some point before its release yesterday, The Scream was taken out of the picture, so the album cover currently consists of a wooden frame held by two disembodied, white-gloved hands. It’s a blank canvas that some fans have already started to fill in. “Some kid sent me a picture of the [George W.] Bush paintings in the frame. They’re awesome. It’s a mixed bag, for sure,” he continues. “But I’d rather be doing it than not.”
Autre Ne Veut performs tonight at Santos Party House with Majical Cloudz. 7:30 p.m. $12. All ages.