Interview: Crystal Ghost

Will Shenton

Replete with funk, ambience, and plenty of pop, Crystal Ghost (better known to his friends as Elliott Baker) emerged onto the Denver electronic scene in late 2014 with his short, but resoundingly sweet self-titled EP on Stereocure. Ranging from mellow synth jams like “Summer Song” to low-key dance numbers “What Your Body Needs” and “Worth the Trouble,” Baker’s debut demonstrates a versatility and willingness to experiment that demands weeks of compulsive replays. Not bad for a five-track album, and I think it bodes well for any Crystal Ghost releases the future may hold.

I recently sat down with Elliott to pick his brain about his songwriting process, some unintentional name confusion in his home state, and why he keeps accidentally writing songs about girls.

ThrdCoast: What’s your musical background, and how did you first get into electronic music?

Elliott Baker: I actually have a pretty sparse musical background. I started music when I was in fourth or fifth grade playing cello and trumpet in band, but after that I took a really long break and didn’t really start making music again until I was in college, I guess it was my junior year. I started out making kind of stereotypical guitar stuff, because that was the first instrument I picked up when I started playing again. I was doing garage band stuff, and then I bought a Roland SP-404 sampler which got me into electronic music and looping. From there I got Ableton and an APC and I started making remixes that weren’t so great [laughs].

I met up with RUMTUM while I was living in Ohio, and he was instrumental in getting me to branch out into the electronic scene. After that I moved back to Colorado and started a little duo with my sister called CCERULEANN, which was a dream-pop kind of thing. I started doing my own stuff under the name CC/NN, which was a terrible name [laughs], but I wanted to stay affiliated with CCERULEANN to some extent.

I was making stuff that I enjoyed, but I never felt really immersed in what I was creating, so I started Crystal Ghost to step away from that. It had its own ideas and I didn’t want to be stuck adhering to the older ones. That was when I moved back to Denver from Boise. I bought this big, 600-pound Yamaha organ at a thrift store for a hundred bucks, this amazing organ, and that’s what I wrote most of the EP with.

TC: Where’d you get the name from?

EB: That’s a good question.

TC: Every time I Google “Crystal Ghost” to get to your Bandcamp page, it comes up with the Crystal Ghost Town in Colorado. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with that.

EB: Yeah! I didn’t even know there was a Crystal Ghost Town in Colorado until I started Googling myself. I originally picked the name Cherokee Ghost, but I only had it for like a week because… well, I’m like 1/32 Cherokee, a really miniscule amount, and I really idealized that, but I figured since I’m a Caucasian dude it probably wasn’t the best name to go with. Since we, you know, murdered pretty much all of them. I had a bunch of terrible dreams about it, actually, so I decided to go with something different.

As dumb and hip as it is I’m very much into crystals and all that stuff, and since I already had the “Ghost” part, I thought it sounded pretty cool when I put them together.  It seemed like an appealing name that would draw people in, and I just stuck with that.

TC: What can you tell me about your songwriting process?

EB: I think it’s kind of a juvenile process. I know there are people who have very systematic ways of going about things, but… I’ve only really been serious about making music for the last four years or so, I’m still pretty new to it. I just sort of sit around, turn on the synthesizer, and once I find a sound I like I zone out a bit and make the first few loops with it. Then I build off of that, it’s fairly randomized. If I think, instinctively, that the drums will inspire me to do more with it, I’ll work on those next. It’s kind of silly, like I said, there’s no real system to it.

The only thing I ever feel like I really have to do is if I get vocals in my head, I stop everything else, because I’m really self-conscious of them. This EP is the first thing I’ve done where I’ve done much singing, because my sister has an amazing voice and I’ve always had her sing on the stuff that I make. But she moved to London, so I’m kind of on my own for that now [laughs]. So if I have lyrics in my head I have to get them down immediately, because otherwise I’m going to forget. And if I don’t have any vocal ideas, I’ll just have to start mumbling consonant sounds and fill in the rest later. Everything else is very sporadic and random.

TC: Do you find yourself coming back to a lot of similar lyrical themes?

EB: Yeah, but I didn’t really realize it at first. There are a bunch of songs that I’m only performing live at the moment, that I either haven’t recorded yet or don’t intend to record, but I realized one day that every single one is about women. My friend, Frugal Father, came up to me and said, “What’s that song you were singing about that girl?” And my other friend said, “You mean every single one?” [Laughs] I thought about it and I realized, oh crap! I do sing all of my songs about girls.

So with the stuff I’m writing next I’d like to branch away from that, but not abandon the theme completely, because there’s a lot of inspiration to be drawn from heartbreak and from the beauty of other humans. I think mostly I want to sing about hope, as in I hope things get better with this girl, I hope the world gets better in some way… I want to sing about things that will inspire people. Not in an egotistical, “people should listen to what I’m singing about because it’s important” kind of way, just to give a sense of optimism. I think that’s something that’s missing a lot from contemporary society, everyone’s just marching in place, doing their thing, with no real hope of getting outside of themselves.

TC: Who would you say are some of your biggest influences?

EB: Metronomy for sure. I have literally every single Metronomy vinyl that’s ever been put out, all the 45s, everything. I’m very much into their older stuff, that whole electro-pop punk kind of thing. There are a lot of sounds that are awkward but still fit together, and I’ve always found it intriguing how sounds that by themselves might be unpleasant can come together into something cohesive. It’s the awkward beauty of that wallflower you see at a party.

Caribou, for sure, has been a big influence at least lately. Maybe not so much on the EP, but I’ve been listening to their newest album pretty much non-stop. I guess in terms of genres, I really enjoy jazz and R&B stuff as well. I like the way that The Weeknd and Frank Ocean can bring elements of all that together and make a contemporary version, with hip-hop and pop influences.

TC: You said you were working on some new stuff, what’s the plan?

EB: Well, it’s not so much a new project. I’m working with… it’s weird I met this guy randomly on the internet who goes by Crystal Coast, and the only reason I did was because someone accidentally tagged me in one of his posts. He does this really cool sort of ambient hip-hop with some elements of trap – it’s pretty minimal, you wouldn’t call it a trap song – and I did some vocals for one of his tracks. It was the first time I’d done that without having anything to do with the production, which was pretty cool. It was a little bit of a confidence booster to be solicited for vocals like that.

Sister Crayon also hit me up, so I’ll hopefully be working on a song with them soon as well. In terms of other stuff I’ve got a Novelty Daughter remix that I’m working on, another one for Frugal Father… oh! I’m working on a side project with Steffaloo, we’re going to call it Ruby Jack. We’re basically going to send each other our respective parts, I’m going to be making the music and she’ll be singing, which will be very cool. I’m trying to branch out a lot, because I feel like the more seeds you plant, the better the chances of making a money tree grow [laughs].

I’m also going to be working on stuff just as Crystal Ghost. I want to make a full LP, but before that I'm planning on putting out another solo EP, as well as a split one with Frugal Father. I’ve got maybe ten or twelve beginnings of songs, but I don’t know how many of those will come to fruition.