Electronic music star Pretty Lights (real name: Derek Vincent Smith) will release his new album, A Color Map of the Sun, on July 2nd. After years of distributing his music as free or pay-what-you-want downloads, Smith is ready for a change: this will be his first album to be released both physically and digitally.
The release plans signal a bigger shift for Smith, who has a stylistic metamorphosis in store as well. Having become a top live draw with his electronic sounds tinged with soul and hip hop, he credits his work on the Re:Generation documentary, for which Smith traveled to Nashville to team with country musicians Ralph Stanley and LeAnn Rimes, among others, for part of that evolution.
"Working with them definitely helped me along the path of being able to be an on-the-fly composer-music director, making people understand my vision," he told Rolling Stone in his trailer at Coachella. "I think it's very similar to what directing film might be like, trying to get actors to give you the right performance."
Buoyed by that experience in Nashville, he traveled to New Orleans and Brooklyn to work with over 60 musicians, including Talib Kweli on the lead single, "Around the Block," to create the ambitious new album. "This experiment of creating a crate of records to sample from could easily just be a complete fail," he said, laughing. "If you don't do it right or you don't have the right engineer, if you can't manifest your vision sonically, it's a fail. But we were able to create that sound."
To be accepted in each musical community, he had to have references. In Brooklyn, he said, "I worked with the Royal Family, which is Eric Krasno from Soulive, and Adam Deitch. And when I went to New Orleans I worked with the bass player and the curator and the manager of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which is very famous in New Orleans and has been around for 50, 60 years. Ben Jaffe from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band connected me with some musicians that he plays with, because New Orleans is a scene and a culture and a vibe where you really have to be vouched for."
Smith is now hand-picking musicians to take out with him on a fall tour, which he looks forward to as a way to break up what he sees as the limitations of his previous stage format.
"The concept of producer as performer is the boring-est thing you can think of," he said. "That's why producers and DJs have developed this scene where everyone is trying to bring the biggest video wall or projection map and the most lights. This production war is essentially what it is, this battle of the video walls. I I've thought long and hard about that. And my conclusion is for this album, I cannot and will not tour as a producer-DJ."
With other acts having already merged the worlds of live musicians and DJ/production onstage, he wants to bring his own unique spin to life. "I don't want to do it like every other producer-gone-band has done it, where they produce all these records that sound incredible, then they form a band and go on tour, and they make their band try to recreate their production. It never works – it always sounds like it's lost a massive element of soul," he said. "What I'm planning on doing is to have a band but still perform as I normally do, and it's full-on production accented by live musicians. I use the live band to mix, so I go out of a track into a band playing a live break, and then transitioning into electronic production. It's rock and funk and soul segueing between hip-hop and dub and electronic music, so it's this multi-genre journey through live and electronic music."
Always a big hip-hop fan, Smith got to speak with one of his heroes recently. "I had the pleasure of speaking to Nas on the phone regarding one of my tracks," he said. "This album and this project and the turn that I've made, I'm hoping leads to bridging the gap between production in electronic music and the hip-hop world – breathing new life into it, but also collaborating and really creatively working with some of my favorite big-name hip-hop artists. That's the ultimate dream of mine, to produce a track for Jay-Z, for Nas and for Atmosphere."