Gig Economy is a new Talkhouse series where artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time jobs to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that lead to a career as a working musician. To introduce this feature, Ernest Greene of Washed Out describes a life nearly spent in libraries, what it’s like to make music with a one-and-a-half-year-old, and how he works best. His new visual album, Mister Mellow, is available now from Stones Throw Records.
—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music
I grew up in the small town of Perry, Georgia, and I worked all kinds of laid-back, not very social jobs, which I enjoyed a lot. My favorite was when I went to University of Georgia and worked as a gas station clerk. The bars closed at 2 a.m., and after that, I was left to do my own thing. When I wasn’t there or in class, I was working on music. The ball got rolling there when one of my best friends signed a record contract and got some press. He was always talking about my music, and through that, a handful of journalists stumbled upon my Myspace.
I studied library science, and the music thing happened right as I started seriously applying to full-time university library jobs. I had an interview at this really small school in Chattanooga the same weekend as one of the first Washed Out shows. I was signed to Mexican Summer, and I had no experience in the music business, so I had a conversation with the label, like, “I have this interview. I’m thinking about skipping out on the show because I don’t see any real possibility of doing music as a career.” They were like, “What are you talking about? This is an incredible opportunity!” So I skipped the interview instead, and everything snowballed from there. It’s been a pretty different life than the library thing would have been.
At first, I performed by myself. The billing was like, “Washed Out, Local DJ.” I was super nervous—I’m still not comfortable performing. But that first year, I was almost blacking out each time I played a show. It was a lot of attention. Eventually, I put a band together, which felt more entertaining, but there were a lot of growing pains. I look at bands now where it’s obvious that they have a team behind them to help put on big shows, so part of me wonders what would have happened had a strong manager been in place in the beginning, but I’m not regretful. I was forced to learn every side of the whole process. I had a lawyer who was sort of my de facto manager. He helped me with record-contract negotiations. I had a booking agent to help with tours. Otherwise, it was two and a half years of amateurishly doing everything on my own, until after my first record came out.
With this new record, Mister Mellow, understanding how everything connects has paid off. It’s been a lot. I spent a year and a half putting the music together, then eight months doing artwork and managing all of the visuals for the video. The live show is also a step forward. We’re using complex motion-sensor technology to project our real-time movements and silhouettes on massive screens. People have always seen my persona as this laid-back stoner guy. That’s really funny, and there might’ve been a period when I was younger when that fit, but I’m crazy busy.
My favorite records take risks, which is easier when you’re younger or have something to fall back on. Mister Mellow is trying many things, when there are, from my perspective, a lot of risks in play. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old. You’re providing for someone else, which is an added layer of stress. I don’t have a formula for making pop songs—there’s an undercurrent of, “I like this, but is it going to sell?” I try to balance; I never want to fall into just making a product. Talking to other musicians, I learned that that’s a shared experience. It might happen for people at different ages, but every musician has a moment of, “Fuck, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? How am I going to make money?”
Once I realized that, I could step back and see the beautiful things about my life. Even just living in this country, we’re fortunate. A lot of anxiety is petty; it’s worrying for the sake of worrying. In putting that together, I was able to make light of it—and deal with it—on this album. Music’s always been therapeutic for me, and that was filtered into the theme: There’s obvious stonerism, but there’s something underneath driving that escapism. I love it, but it’s prototypical, so I had some anxiety—like, What if no one’s along for the ride? That fear was a feedback loop, and finishing the album is like getting to the other side. I feel like I’ve made progress and am much more okay with what I’m doing in my life.
I didn’t show the album to friends and family [before it came out]. My parents were like, “What’s he been doing for the past two years? Can’t he just do that in a month?” But I love and—maybe compulsively—want to connect the dots between every piece, whether that’s the cover, PR, show posters, or the merch. Telling a unified story is important to me, and that took time. The creative side is like waiting for the magic to happen, but everything since has been like a normal nine-to-five desk job, where it’s emailing with whatever animator about a moodboard. I felt guilty about feeling like a stereotypical commuter putting on his shirt and tie and clocking into a cubicle. I was getting burned out, but when I check myself, I’m like, “Wait a second—I’m doing my ultimate passion project.”
I find it hard to take breaks. Once tour is over, I’m not going to know what to do with myself. I’m definitely going to be weirded out. Touring is probably the closest thing to a real break for me because it’s very regimented. Having a show every night takes up a lot of energy, so I’m on cruise control throughout the day. If I’m at my house, I feel like I need to be productive, and being able to unplug is so rate. Even making time for my family, I’m compelled to be on Instagram, or scrolling through the news. That’s an unhealthy pattern. [The internet] impacts my emotional state, and that works its way into my music. Someone 10 years younger might have sharing whatever they’re doing more ingrained, but I struggle with that. The reality of my last few years, day to day, is not very interesting. My management and label understand, but they’re also like, “Yeah—you should let people know that the show is happening, or the record’s coming out,” so we worked out a balance.
That’s one of the most beautiful parts of having my son: There are times when I’m scrolling through my phone, but it’s easier to put it aside, in part for my own sanity, when I’m giving him a bath or playing with him in a park. I don’t think I’d make that time if he wasn’t around. It can be hard when you’re already stressed out and he has to be fed or changed, and you’re sharing so much responsibility with your significant other. Five years ago, I was able to handle everything better because there was more time. But it’s beautiful to be grounded in sharing simple tasks with my son and seeing him grow. I feel lucky that [my family] was at a place where having him made sense for us.
All of this would be different if I created this character and told his story, but Mister Mellow is my story, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek. There’s a segment in the video of my childhood photos, which feels weird and exposing—like having a diary opened up and read in front of people. The interviews often feel like therapy. But this is the first record that I’ve done that’s 100 percent what I like.
I never imagined having a shot at doing music for a living back in my college days. I got lucky. Kids come up to me and give me demos, which is endearing. How do you get people to pay attention? I don’t have a strong answer, but what I did have was years of fanatically, irrationally making songs, at first by emulating other artists. The songs weren’t very good, but it took time and energy to reach a place where, when I got a shot, I had my sound figured out. Repetition is everything. Work your ass off, especially in the very beginning, before you start hustling to get in front of people. Don’t worry about perfecting one record, or even one song. Just make as many songs as possible.
—As told to Amy Rose Spiegel