20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published November 19, 2021
In part 46 of our continuing 20:20 Q&A series,
Onsen—LA-based indie electro artist—
joins us to talk about his 2021 album Keeper, coming out, juggling swords, and more.
Keeper was co-produced by Grammy-nominated producer Brook D’Leau. Onsen has been featured in Nylon, American Songwriter, Buzzbands LA, LA FM station KROQ’s Locals Only, and was on Sia’s playlist of recommended new music.
Welcome, Onsen, and thank you for joining us.
~Bambi Grinder, NoteWorthy Music
Photos courtesy of Onsen
20:20 with Onsen
NWM 1: Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Onsen: Hello! I’m Drew aka Onsen. Who says I’m a human of Earth?
NWM 2: What was your first concert as a fan?
Onsen: Aretha Franklin! She was amazing. She came out wearing a giant sparkling cupcake of a dress and proceeded to belt it for the next couple hours. I lost it.
NWM 3: Name three things that make you smile.
Onsen: Persimmons, crowded dance floors (single tear), @puppycodes2
NWM 4: Please share a unique childhood experience that you feel helped contribute to who you and your music are today.
Onsen: My Dad would talk about how playing flute probably saved his life. He was drafted during the Vietnam War and was about to be sent to one of the bloodiest fronts in the war. The day before he was supposed to be sent out, his sergeant heard him playing flute and put him in the army band instead. Lent a sort of mythical quality to the thought of making music.
… so while these songs still have a lot of that beachy 60s sounds, there’s a lot of weird electronics in there too.
NWM 5: Your new album Keeper was released July 14 to critical acclaim from Flaunt, Nylon, American Songwriter, Atwood, Variance, Buzzbands, and others. It lays bare deeply personal experiences and emotions, and while it takes on queer themes, the feelings conveyed are universal to the human experience.
Please tell us about the conception and creation of Keeper and what makes it special.
Onsen: Keeper was a long time in the making. It came from a period where I had a real sense of urgency around the people I was dating. A good chunk of the songs are me releasing those feelings. I think anyone who lost a parent young, as I did, or for anyone queer, there’s an added intensity around loss or people leaving your life.
I got really into experimenting with electronic sounds and synths during that period, so while these songs still have a lot of that beachy 60s sounds, there’s a lot of weird electronics in there too. And some world music. That’s mostly what my parents listened to when I was growing up so there’s a lot of that lodged deep in my brain.
NWM 6: What has been a particularly memorable or rewarding experience of your career so far?
Onsen: Making the music video for ‘Charming Nights’. It’s so special, and I got to do it with my dear friend, Satya Bhabha. What a dream. Watch it here:
NWM 7: How do you express your creativity other than through music?
Onsen: I write for tv and film. Really nice to be in a collaborative environment like that and have a different creative outlet in case I get writers’ block.
NWM 8: What song/album could you play on repeat?
Robyn – Body Talk
War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Brian Eno – Another Green World
Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury
Once I started coming out, though, and discovered that not only was it okay but it was better for me, I started questioning what other assumptions I’d made about how my life had to be.
NWM 9: In an essay for Atwood Magazine titled “Did You Know that Being Gay is a Superpower?” you write:
… whatever about you feels unacceptable, if you embrace or at least explore that part, it’ll lead you to a rabbit hole that’ll change your life for the better. Even if you’re not queer, challenging the assumptions society puts on you will lead you to your own superpower.
These true and honest words resonate with us. Many of us regardless of gender or sexual orientation have experienced the discovery and difficulties of challenging societal norms.
Please tell us about your own experience with challenging these assumptions. When did you decide to embrace or explore that which felt unacceptable, and were your friends and family supportive?
Onsen: Oh, I think the most obvious is coming out. My family has always been super liberal and accepting, but I grew up in Boston in the early 2000s and ‘gay’ was basically synonymous for bad. Once I started coming out, though, and discovered that not only was it okay but it was better for me, I started questioning what other assumptions I’d made about how my life had to be. One of the big ones was career. It was around then that I also started making music.
That’s why I was saying it’s a superpower of sorts. There are many ways to get there, but once you get off the conveyor of how you’re told your life should go, you suddenly realize that the options are much, much broader than you realized. It was a sort of curtain-being-lifted moment for me.
NWM 10: In the same essay, you say that you likely would not have made music if you weren’t queer. Please expound on this.
Onsen: I think I wouldn’t have questioned how I was living my life. Maybe in time I would have pivoted in my career (I worked in public policy), but if everything else in my life felt right, maybe I would have made do as far as career went. Instead I questioned everything, and in the process discovered I could make music.
I can also juggle swords.
NWM 11: What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Onsen: Oooo, tough question. Maybe ‘Charming Nights’. I feel so proud of the production and the way the lyrics capture the state I was in at the time. The song is about anxiety in the moment of passion. That what you have at that moment could go away. And about the self-fulfilling prophecy of being so concerned about the future that you can’t enjoy the present.
NWM 12: What is a unique trait or quality that sets you apart from the crowd?
Onsen: I know what I like. My music can’t be what everyone is into but it’s specific to me. Maybe I’m making music for myself. In that sense, I feel like it’s my aesthetic musically that is the most unique to me.
I can also juggle swords.
NWM 13: How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
Onsen: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. What stress?? HAHAHAHA
I try to meditate regularly. Turns out it really is helpful. Not having Trump around really helps. And I try to stay a bit light. It’s all a bit mental gymnastics, but I actively try to focus on what’s going right. Maybe that means having a smaller scope that I’m living in, but it helps keep me sane.
NWM 14: What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Onsen: I feel like I’m often surprised by what songs land musically. I’m about to go on tour with a band I play in called Harmless. My friend Nacho who writes the music has a song that’s blown up because people like to put vacation montages to it on tiktok. It’s a great song and it deserves all the attention, but no one would ever have suspected that was its future.
NWM 15: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that you actually follow?
Onsen: ‘Always leave a party while you’re still having fun.’
NWM 16: If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Onsen: Probably Bob Marley. I mean, the catalogue, the vibe, the whole thing. Wow.
‘Always leave a party while you’re still having fun.’
NWM 17: What is a core tenet by which you live your life or approach your music?
Onsen: ‘In vino veritas’ [“In wine, there is truth”]
NWM 18: With the surge of the Delta variant and mounting difficulties and challenges in the United States and throughout the world, cautious optimism wanes. To us, it seems prudent to pause a moment, take a breath, and take stock of our own well-being and those things for which we are thankful.
From the Beatles and the Troggs to Bryan Adams to Snow Patrol, music has long suggested love is the answer. Considering gratitude as an expression of love, do you share that draw to live in gratitude in the face of such challenges? And if so, how does gratitude manifest in your life and work?
Onsen: Well, yes! I try to bring gratitude to everything I do. It’s the only way to make things joyful, which I think is important to my music. Am I always successful…wellllll….
NWM 19: What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you that we might not know to ask?
Onsen: I can recite the entire movie Clueless. Who else?
NWM 20: What’s next for Onsen?
Onsen: Get ready for a bunch of piping hot remixes! Sizzzzle
“Momma Said” is a winding sonic adventure inspired by both Brian Eno and The Beach Boys, that was originally written after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Onsen says, he wrote the song:
as a kind of delayed reaction to the many acts of violence against queer people that have occurred throughout my life. Over time, these stories along with those of people I know crystallized into a narrative that feels almost like a Greek tragedy.
Originally born in Boston but raised in Paris, with two shrinks for parents, Onsen pulls his inspiration from a variety of different influences. He’s done everything from doing public policy for Google and working production in television, to exploring Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil in a 1982 VW Westfalia as a journalist writing on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous communities. As an artist, he does all his own stunts on the new project, playing guitar, keys, bass, singing, and producing. Onsen resides in Silverlake and is fluent in English, French, Spanish, and some Portuguese.
Throughout his music, Onsen uses his personal experiences to examine the unusual world around us. With each of his tracks on Keeper, he explores a new singular experience, many related to love and loss in the queer world of Los Angeles.
“As a whole, Keeper takes on a lot of queer themes,” shares Onsen. “The love songs are addressing male partners. In some songs like ‘The March’ and ‘Momma Said’ that’s explicit. In others, the lyrics don’t mention a gender (since they’re in the second person), but they take on experiences that are common to many queer people: self-doubt, longing, the intensity of a first love that is often delayed, the feeling after that of being forever changed, and eventually the tenderness you can have in love when you feel most yourself. That said, many of those feelings are universal. I hope that no matter who listens to the record, they see a bit of themselves in it.”
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Parker Millsap
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