EP Walkthrough: Keelan Mak breaks down his debut EP, Test The Shallows
The Brisbane-based musician finds a slick sound on his debut collection of tracks.
Keelan Mak is a musician we've been behind since the very start, tracing his evolution as a musician since his debut single Weigh You Down back in 2018. While his first foray into music was a tall-standing and confident slice of slick electro-pop that wasn't too far off from the stadium-selling Troye Sivan, the time since has seen him continually grow and prove his versatility, exploring sounds that sway from groove-filled ballads to euphoric pop. Then, in the guest role, he's made himself known as an artist-in-demand, working closely with Tora and Fossa Beats while being enlisted by Thomston - and others - for touring support slots.
Today, a year of growth comes together on his debut EP Test The Shallows - that encapsulates the brilliance of Keelan Mak and his many facets as a musician while painting a picture of his incredibly bright future ahead. Shaded with a slice of romanticism that comes to almost-define the EP's connected theme and sound, Test The Shallows is a genuine offering from Keelan that puts himself - as a musician and a person - in the spotlight; the complexities of who he is in both of these roles brought to life through shimmering melodies and swaying grooves as he tracks his headspace over the last two years and looks forward.
Spanning six tracks, Test The Shallows moves between Keelan's many sounds. Old-favourites like Flicker bounce with their buoyant pop sound, which elsewhere, gets reduced to just its stripped-back bones; reworked into almost ballad-esque textures. Daffodils, which opens the EP, showcases his knack for incorporating the pace of UK garage-house in swirling pop hooks, something which makes an appearance - albeit often in softer, less obvious ways - across much of the EP, as songs like Warm Blooded twinkle with the disjointed percussion signature to the genre.
Elsewhere, Sleep Talker - a previously-released EP highlight - shudders with the disjointed bounce in what's perhaps Test The Shallows' most slick moment, while the EP's closing Undecided is the polar opposite; Keelan's sound reduced to its most subtle as he delivers an ethereal ballad reminiscent of Cub Sport's angelic moments, his focus centered on vocal delivery and the emotions intertwined with that as he shares a track that seems to summarise the EP's overarching theme.
"Test The Shallows represents my headspace over the last two years. Over the time of making Test The Shallows, my partner moved overseas and there was a lot of emotional back and forth. A lot of this turmoil formed the songwriting process," he says on the EP. "Some days it was love and some, hate. I want the tracks to play out like a storyline. They all tell a different angle of how I felt over that time."
If nothing else, it's an introduction to Keelan Mak as a musician, and with the Brisbane-based artist quickly crafting a name for himself as one of Australian pop's upcoming highlights, it's an introduction we believe is worth having. Dive into the EP below with a track-by-track walkthrough, which features Keelan detail the EP's inner-themes and creation one song at a time.
Daffodils came about in a writing session with my friend Ladia. She showed me a pre-chorus idea she had and we jammed on that for a bit and it eventually turned into the chorus. I had a verse and a pre that I had written for another demo and we ended up blending the two. The song started off as a super slow, chill type of song but after a few months of working on it, I realised that it had more potential as an energetic track.
The name Daffodils came from the line ‘keeping score, picking thoughts like petals’. More often than not, a song gets its title from a specific lyric but I loved the idea of daffodils. They’re such a gentle-looking flower and I felt like that really represented the song. It’s written about a manipulative person that really has their hold on you. The idea of picking thoughts like petals sums up the casual approach to how they can affect someone so much.
I wrote Warm Blooded when I was still in university about four years ago. The concept of the song never really changed from its original idea, it more matured into its own complete thing by the end of it. I had written the song up until the first chorus and had just been carrying around this minute-thirty demo on my SoundCloud for years. It wasn’t until I went into this EP that I decided to take it off the shelf and actually do something with it. It’s mainly centred around the main bass and drum groove which had been there from the get-go. I tried to keep the production for this track pretty limited. I have a tendency for throwing too many sounds into a song and it can quickly become super messy. So I really held back with this one.
The concept of Warm Blooded came from the term cold-hearted being used to describe someone that lacked empathy. I went to the opposite of that and it became the term ‘warm-blooded’ - being used to describe someone's kind, loving nature. The whole chorus is basically this big whinge of ‘well if you’re so nice, why would you do this? and this, and this, and this.
Sleep Talker is the disco bop of the EP. I like to describe it as melancholic disco. In mid-2018 I went for a writing trip to Melbourne and had a few sessions with my friend Maribelle. We started a few ideas then stumbled on Sleep Talker. She’s a phenomenal writer and we just click so well. The song started with these two chords and a percussive loop; from there we built the verse and pre-chorus. Maribelle had blurted out this (sings chorus) and was like, "Nah that’s kind of nothing, ignore that." But I was like, "Oh there’s something in there, the production could carry it for sure," and from that came the chorus.
The concept came from a past relationship of mine where all of the big issues were never really addressed. Communication was a big thing and I found that we were most honest with each other when the lights were off and we were in bed chatting. So Sleep Talker is an exaggerated version of that. It’s me figuring out why I can only get through to them when they’re unaware.
Flicker was another demo that sat on the shelf for a few years. I wrote it back in 2015 when I was living in this sharehouse on the Gold Coast. much like most of my demos, it started out as a super chill, ambient track. One of the earliest ideas for the track was that descending synth line (plays line). I layered it with about five different synths. It went through about four different versions where I had put that synth line in different parts of the song. I knew it belonged there, but it took me a while to figure out where.
At the time of writing it, I was just getting over this situation where someone I fell in love with basically bailed and went incognito. I wrote Flicker as this self-love anthem mixed with a bit of petty emotion. The whole ‘don’t cry for me, don't cry to just get carried away. so remember my name’ it was like I wanted them to know that they missed out on something special. I hope other people feel that petty energy when they listen to it hahaha.
TEST THE SHALLOWS
I made this beat one day and It felt like new territory for me. I wasn’t quite sure where the sounds were heading but I could tell it was something new. When I saved the project I called it Test The Shallows because it felt like I was literally testing the shallows with where I was going. The song started with this vocal line over some chords and then I made a four to the floor beat around it. I then had a session with my friend MDWS and we worked on the demo a little more. The verse was written as this improv thing that I did in the booth as we were tracking the chorus. The song eventually got flipped on its head when I brought my friend Mookhi on board to co-produce the EP with me. She really took charge on the production and turned it into a whole other thing. Pretty much anything silky smooth that swells on the EP is her doing.
Test The Shallows is about waiting for someone to realise that you’re there and that you care about them. ‘I know you’re running, you’re not a friend, cus’ I've waited here so long.’ In this past relationship, I kept falling back into the same place of loving them no matter what had happened. The verses explain how I felt through that time and the chorus lyrics are me realising that there's more to it than just love. If you’re not a friend then you’re not a lover either.
Undecided was a last-minute edition. It came from a phone call where an ex and I had decided to go our separate ways. I wrote about this fear I’d had so long where I was terrified they’d decided that they didn’t love me anymore. After the phone call, I grabbed my phone and typed out a bunch of things I was feeling, then a few days later, I sat at the piano and sung it through. I ended up recording the demo vocals then and there and that’s the take we used for the final track.
There’s something weird about being so openly vulnerable on a song that gets put out into the world for whoever to listen to but at the same time I felt Undecided really wrapped up this point in my life on where the EP was made. I really hope this song if not any of the others is the one that people can really connect to.
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