Album Walkthrough: Dro Carey dissects his brilliant debut, Nothing Is A Solo Project

Album Walkthrough: Dro Carey dissects his brilliant debut, Nothing Is A Solo Project

Arriving on last Friday, the Sydney producer's debut album is a dizzying masterclass in collaboration.

Dro Carey is someone who has always thrived in collaboration. At the turn of the last decade, the Sydney-based musician made his entrance with a string of largely solo, non-collaborative EPs scattering his few first years releasing music, often dropping multiple longer format dance releases - EPs, mixtapes, double-sides - in what was soon established to be a testament to the producer, and how he thrives in songwriting and production (regardless of whether it's completely solo, or enlisting the slew of guest collaborators he's gradually tap into over the years).

In 2016, however, a thick-footed bass-line and the near-angelic vocal trance of KUČKA would almost completely redirect Dro Carey's trajectory. Queensberry Rules - the lead single from his 2016-released EP Dark Zoo - was a deep-dive into a facet of dance-pop that Dro Carey had (for the most part) not yet grappled with; a slurry of the producer's roots in warping club culture and the heavenly embrace of then-Perth-based KUČKA, who took the driving production and moved into pop territory. It was an embrace of vocal-house; a step that would come to help define Dro Carey's future sounds, to the point where its presence feels imprinted some four years later, as Dro Carey eyes the release of a debut album.

Nothing Is A Solo Project, the producer's last-week-arriving debut album, builds off the foundations that Dro Carey built for himself back then, showing how he's consistently evolved his production techniques and how masterful strokes of collaboration doesn't have to overshadow who sits in the production chair. It builds off his genre-fleeting lists of influences - one that has seen him move between crunchy Australian grime(-ish) and swelling dance-pop in the space of just a few months - that together, melts into a musical pool held together by Dro Carey's brilliance, regardless of who joins him in the ring.

Nothing Is A Solo Project is a testament to that. Morning Lyre enlists Melbourne-via-South African musician Rara Zulu for shimmering R&B that moves with a pace brought to life by Dro Carey's moving instrumental; Act Like You're Home brings Beni Moun and Julietta together for one of the album's most infectious moments in dance-pop, while the Alexx A-Game-featuring Hold A Vibe shortly after moves into Caribbean dancehall, bolstered up by the inclusion of the Jamaican musician. They're moments where Dro Carey strives; moments where he's able to bring the best out his guest collaborators, regardless of how varying they may be in sound or style.

This shows across much of the album's highlights. British musician RUE, rising favourite Francesca Gonzales and keen collaborator Zellow (who you also might recognise from work with Feels and Peach Body) all show this in other ways; the latter in particular, who features on an album peak in Boundary, being an example of how Dro Carey can take in who he's working with and elevate them, staying with their limits but pushing those boundaries to its absolute outer edges. "I'm definitely quite proud of this track as it balances some very odd things in the arrangement, like the jittery and over-complex drum interactions, while working within a pop framework," he says on that track in particular.

However, that isn't to say that Dro Carey is nothing without a guest feature. As mentioned, his earliest rise was underpinned by these moments of club-ready mania, all featuring Dro Carey in the driver's seat as he takes you on journeys that move between his many sounds. A song like the album-opening Hush Biome feels like a nod to the sampling masterminds of Jamie xx and Four Tet; Healer moves with a dark-lit trip-hop pace laden with UK garage percussion; Weird Century is subtle with a rich lo-fi backing; album-ending Predictions feels almost-ambient-like, moving between hazy subtleness.

Nothing Is A Solo Project feels like the best of Dro Carey's both worlds - excuse the Hannah Montana reference - that delicately brings together his notoriety as a wide-ranging and versatile producer alongside his knack for being a crafty and trustworthy collaborator; someone who can make their friends and peers shine regardless of what sound they focus on. It takes someone incredibly talented to that, and Dro Carey does it so brilliantly well, that it's almost hard to believe that this is actually his debut album.

Take a dive into the record below, alongside a track-by-track walkthrough in which Dro Carey dissects the album's themes and creation, one song at a time.

1. Hush Biome

The name comes from picturing an undisturbed area of natural environment. There’s a thread of science fiction concepts in the instrumental tracks of this album and these speculate about the far future of the earth. So, the calm, natural biome is not about picturing a pre-human scenario – but instead imagining some point in a timeline after the disappearance of the population when nature’s re-emergence begun.

I spent a lot of time on the bass synth of this track. At first, I was going for short and minimal stabs, although these didn’t seem to click or give the atmosphere it needed. Ultimately, I found a kind of compromise where I worked on the synth patch so that it behaved a little more like a bass guitar. So, then the bass synth became more of a melodic driver of the track rather than just an accompanying element.

2. Hemisphere

In high school music we covered the European classical and spent a fair bit of time looking at opera. Though it’s not a genre that many people sit at home and listen to, I was definitely excited by some of the select opera pieces I heard.

Something in particular, that had a great impact on me was the idea of the Overture section, particularly the Overture of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. In that case, having close to seven minutes of worldbuilding musical score before there is any vocal presence. I wanted to replicate that in some way and really ease in to that first artist appearance and spend some time introducing the ‘orchestra’ and setting up the environment.

The track concludes with a spoken vocal sample – ‘this is for you’ – that I found on freesound.org. This ultimately had a dedication aspect, like a dedicating epigraph at the start of a book (which hopefully isn’t too on the nose or anything) and I felt that was a cool way to sign off the prologue of the album.

3. Morning Lyre (feat. Rara Zulu)

Morning Lyre was a long time in the making and this song additionally has a special status on the album, with it being the only collaboration that resulted from an in-person writing session with the featured artist. There were two sessions – one together and one remote – and I think they were almost a year apart. The first time that we met up Rara and I spent a long time talking about the other demos and the instrumentals on the album along with other random things (anime being the main thing I remember). I did kind of miss this aspect with the other – remote – collaborations, where, even when you got on a call there was the sense it was a ‘work’ call and there was less of a chance to delve into unrelated stuff (which ultimately has its role in getting to know your collaborator, even in just little ways, which can in turn affect creative decisions).

This first session was also good because Rara had been able to sit with the original beat for a couple of months at that point and had really good feedback on what needed tweaking and adding in terms of the arrangement. She had recorded some vocals prior to the session, and I came back and said I love it, but also that, after a point, there’s kind of an adlibbed characteristic to it where I felt the lyrical and flowing vocals could definitely continue. Then, in-person it kind of became clear that this was what could be done because there weren’t changes to propel the vocal to travel anywhere else! We ended up jamming where I looped a section and was just trying various chords, arpeggios and ostinatos on the keyboard part until we found the right thing. It was definitely a case where, on my own, I had been too satisfied with the groove and ended up with something too repetitive in the original and it was such a fruitful session as far as fleshing out the track with a passage that actually pushed somewhere else.

4. Healer

Healer is the most pump-up track of the instrumentals. I was thinking about taking the melodic vocal chop of pop house and doing something with that that went a bit weirder. Like a lot of the instrumental tracks, there’s a tension that plays out between the programmed and the organic – some parts feel rigid while others are more connected to the broad influence of ‘pulse’ genres like disco and jazz.

This track had an important role in being a meeting point of both ethereal and bombastic moments, a kind of ‘key’ to the album’s cohesion as a sequence that includes tracks as contrasting as the two that follow it (the pop of Act Like You’re Home and the cold introspection of Weird Century).

5. Act Like You’re Home (feat. Beni Moun & Julietta)

Two thirds of the way into the creation of the album there was a major upgrade to my main music production program. Last year I upgraded from version 7 of Propellerhead Reason to version 10 and the exploratory sessions after this developed into a disco-influenced demo that I felt had some potential.

Chris at Soothsayer recommended Beni Moun and I checked out a track of his called Noah, What’s Love on SoundCloud and was blown away. After getting in touch, Beni actually had some ideas about the production and changes to the arrangement (which to me is a really nice response to get).

The track then went through a few different iterations and morphed into something with more of a pop structure. This seemed like an opportunity to get another artist involved and that’s when I got in touch with Julietta, whose work I had found just by jumping through a ‘similar artists’ chain on Spotify. We got on a WhatsApp call to talk about ideas and she turned around this amazing new section really quickly (and also doubled Beni’s chorus part).

6. Weird Century

The title of this track comes from the more archaic associations of the word ‘weird’ as in being connected with fate. It’s like saying ‘fated’ or ‘fateful’ century and is a reflection on the 21st century being a significant epoch where the fate of the earth hangs in the balance depending on the actions that humanity takes. That is the heavier thinking around it, but I also just liked the sound of the phrase.

This is maybe the most restrained and subtle track on the album although maybe that’s just my own feeling towards it – I can see the drums potentially feeling quite charged and frenetic. The processing of the synth and vocal samples however is definitely geared towards being cloudy and dreamy.

7. Hold A Vibe (feat. Alexx A-Game)

This was the final song that was finished and was added into the album fairly late in the process. The beat demo was originally called Bloom and had a darker tinge to it. Before sending it out to anyone, I made some drastic re-arrangements and began to move away from the eerier elements of the beat and lean into the sunny feeling implied by the percussion loops.

I used an instrument VST called SynthMaster by a company called KV331 Audio a lot on this beat — actually it was the free version of the plugin, the SynthMaster Player, which has 1700 locked-in presets that you can only modify in broad ways with a few macro controls.

This was the only collaborative track where the beat demo name was not the final song title. While I worked on the song the phrase ‘hold a vibe’ stuck out to me and this felt like a more unique turn of phrase and, in a way, a concept that captured the whole feel of the track quite well (even if it was not the central phrase of the chorus hook). So, in the end we made that the title.

8. Another Knot (feat. RUE)

The meaning of this title, as I originally considered it when putting together the instrumental demo and naming it, was to do with anxiety. The ‘knot’ represented a knot in the stomach and observing the arrival of another panic or bad feeling while also continuing on in spite of it. After first reaching out to RUE we had a great chat on Skype about thinking behind the demo title and explored it quite deeply. As with any of the titles I gave the original beat demos, I made the point that it certainly didn’t have to dictate how things proceeded or be the title of the final track but RUE dived into the concept and put together some of the most moving lyrics of the whole album. In addition to being an amazing artist and songwriter, RUE is also a poet, we talked about the possibility of a spoken word section. This would ultimately be the part included in the second verse. Admittedly, I had limited ideas on my own end regarding how spoken word can interact with a dance track – I think many DJs and electronic producers would be guilty of gravitating towards a desire for irony in spoken word – and so it was this beautiful thing to have something RUE provide something so sincere and delivered with such gravity and authenticity. It’s a short section but you can tell when you hear it that she has a strong oratory and literary grounding.

This track probably went through the greatest number of major iterations of the instrumental parts and this was primarily because it began as something more minimal but once the collaboration was underway there needed to be greater transformations between the different sections. Even then, it reaches this weird point where the beat in the chorus didn’t feel totally right and I ended up changing it so much then that I actually went back to RUE and let her know how much it had changed and then asked if she had time to do another session, basically writing an entire new chorus. I’m so grateful that she was able to continue to work on what must have felt like a completed song prior to me getting back in touch (as I think there was a quite a gap in time) and ultimately a really strong song emerged from the process.

9. Clear To You (feat. Francesca Gonzales)

Fran and I worked on this track over quite a long period of time and I returned later to the track to make some fairly drastic arrangement changes. This involved going all-out on the UK Garage influence and opting for much chunkier kicks and snare sounds.

Fran turned in such cool results with this one. Lyrically it’s very impressive, there’s no reliance on cliché and in fact there’s this malaise and irritation conveyed while also drawing you in and pushing along with the energy of the beat – that’s a really complicated thing to pull off. I guess the expressions of frustration and detachment were sitting there, implicit in the title.

Trivia: it is the only explicit song on the release.

10. Statue Garden

This song was originally titled Drunk when I was first working on it, which was meant to reflect a kind of contradictory set of feelings captured in the instrumental: energetic confidence offset by sudden wistfulness or loneliness.

Unlike the other instrumentals, there is no sci-fi imagery behind this track. Instead the name is in reference to the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway. Early in my career I got a very surprising offer to travel to Oslo to perform at the Ultima Festival there and this was definitely a bit of a turning point as far as feeling there was recognition of what I was doing. I felt this great sense of gratitude then (and now) to the programmers of that festival and wanted to pay tribute to this important moment in the history of the Dro Carey project.

11. Boundary (feat. Zellow)

Boundary was the collaborative track that was completed first. The original beat was something that travelled through from the first, rough sketches of the album, that Zellow then added her takes and writing to super quickly.

There were a range of influences on this beat, including Needed Me by Rihanna as well as producers like Joe, Blawan, and, going back a bit further in time, Hindzy D. I suppose the characteristic I’m referring to a is a deliberate lack of blending of programmed drum sources – where different drum sounds stick out in unpredictable ways and are united only by being ‘forced’ into being neighbours in the rhythmic programming.

George Nicholas, the engineer that mixed the album, did a great job of smoothing things out in a way that definitely aided its overall thrust as an RnB track, while retaining the intended weird character of the drum arrangement.

12. Steel Blue Rainbird

This was one of the earliest tracks that I first drafted. It was around the same time as the first version of the ‘Morning Lyre’ instrumental and I was definitely in a weird and occasionally low mood at the times.

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole of retro computer games and really got into the aesthetics of Beneath A Steel Sky, which is an adventure game with a dystopian future setting. The ‘steel sky’ phrase was rattling around my head and then this linked up with one of my own sci-fi ideas; a deserted future earth that an alien race happens upon, there’s no life to be found but alien explorer accidentally activates a rainbird hologram. So, the bird is ‘steel blue’ because it’s blue but with this shimmery hologram, spectral sort of quality.

This track and Weird Century are the two instrumentals with the strongest film score influence. I studied screen music composition and while certainly influential for the Dro Carey material there can be a risk of making music that sounds too “background”. So, I tend to have the opposite impulse, to jolt listeners out of that background state, so while this track follows some general tropes – it hopefully does it in a weirder or less typical way.

13. Predictions

Predictions was originally a faster beat that I had done as an RnB demo. Something I experimented with a lot around this time was taking a completed song, exporting all the tracks and then slowing them (both pitch and tempo, like playing back a tape or record slower) individually with high resolution processing, dropping these slowed stems into a session and then mixing them again and playing new parts over them.

Anyway, this had the result in this case of pulling down what was originally more of a vampy, riffy pattern to a mournful, slow-moving melody. So, I ended up stripping back the beat quite a bit at this point to let the instruments breathe.

The science fiction element that underpins this track is to do with a hypothetical piece of technology that can extract stems from an analogue recording medium – some big, complex piece of equipment that you feed a cassette or record to and then it mysteriously breaks apart the recording into a multi-track or digital session. When this machine generates an instrumental version of a song, I pictured the vocal part escaping from an exhaust style outlet of the machine… so that is what informs this sequence where there is just the beat, then the sequence with the vocals only.

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