Spindle Session: Tim Atlas ‘Sidestep’

Friday 02 November 2018
Photography Madison Phipps

Eclectic in an effort that exceeds pop, Tim Atlas is responsible for a colourful sound that bleeds funk, electro and RnB into one. Hailing from Oakland CA, this West Coast singer-songwriter landed a big break after joining Gwen Stefani’s team on The Voice in 2015.

We were lucky enough to catch Tim for an interview and session, covering his track ‘Side Step’, and discussing the path that led him to music and navigating social anxiety as an artist.

I know you grew up surrounded by music, can you tell me your earliest memory of it?

That’s tough! I haven’t actually thought about this and it’s quite personal, but I was 5 or so and my parents were together then. We had the karaoke machine going and I think my mum and dad were doing a duet. My sister was sitting on my mum’s lap and I was sitting on my dad’s. It’s a faint memory but it’s one that’s stuck with me.

How did you find the sound/genre of the music that you wanted to make?

It’s certainly been a journey to get to where I am! Early on I was into emo bands and screaming stuff. But I was also simultaneously playing the drums for a hip-hop jazz band so I think I’ve always been a musical schizo. After that phase I wanted to do a solo thing, so I started dabbling in folk singer-songwriter stuff but I grew out of that too.

After a while, I went to a friend of mine who I write and produce a lot of my songs with and decided that I wanted to make music that I will like in 10 years from now – and music that I liked 10 years ago!

I was in an emo band but also a hip-hop jazz band all at the same time and I think you can hear that in a lot of my music. I guess I landed in a weird genre that is kind of a pop crossover but I think there’s something there for everybody.

Do you try to listen to music that’s very different from the stuff you produce?

I don’t think I consciously do that. If you go through my Spotify it’s like Tupac – Thugz Mansion then John Mayer, then Phoenix. I just like a lot of music.

Tell me a bit about performing live – is there a noticeable difference between the crowd on home soil and elsewhere?

I guess it’s hard to say, it was really cool to be across the ocean in London and see people mouthing the words to some of the songs that I wrote in my bedroom. It’s amazing to see the reach of Spotify and the internet and how we’re connecting with people across the world. That was the most surreal thing for me. But we have three more shows in London, so I’ll be making a few more conclusions throughout the week!

And what is your favourite and least favourite thing about performing live?

Well, my least favourite thing is talking between songs. It’s nice to connect with the crowd, to show a little personality but I am so awkward! Maybe I should think about what I should say and have a few points of conversation that I need to cover, because at some points I just get really awkward! If you see us live, you’ll see that we go through the songs pretty quickly, not just because I don’t want to talk but it makes it feel more like an experience. When I see bands play, I like it when they transition from song to song and talk less. When they talk too much it’s like “c’mon man, just play the next song”.

My favourite thing is when I’m feeling the energy reciprocated, it feeds the whole vibe! It’s really infectious, so just the connection between the audience is big for me.

Do you have a stand out gig that you’ll remember forever?

Yes! We did our first headline in June, in support of my last EP, and it was my first time coming back to my hometown and performing there. It was interesting to play the show because they’ve seen my whole journey thus far. To play lots of the new songs was great but then I played a few songs that I wrote so long ago. Seeing people sing along to songs I wrote when I was heartbroken in 2012, was amazing. To share that moment with them was a special one for me.  

You’ve got a degree in photography and were a product photographer before you started producing music. Can you talk me through the decision to quit that life and become a producer/music creator?

In college I picked up a camera and I was working in a portrait studio. When I was working as a photographer I needed to make the choice between music or photography for my degree, and I was already thinking of photography in a business sense, so my mentality was “as long as I’m doing something creative, then I’ll be happy and feel fulfilled”.

Surprisingly I got pretty depressed doing my product photography job. It just wasn’t filling that creative hole, so after a while I quit that job and was prepared to fall flat on my face. I started taking production jobs and they surprisingly rolled in pretty quickly, just for local artists in the area.

I was very inspired by the book The Alchemist at that point. I think that the universe conspires to push you in the right direction, if you follow it and take those leaps of faith you’ll be all good.

Is photography still something you enjoy?

I do, I don’t pick up my camera nearly as often as I did, but it’s proven to be really helpful, especially where music is at the moment, with everything being super independent. A lot of the content that I have out is actually sourced from myself. I’ve shot a couple of my own music videos and I’ll do some graphic design, I also do all the artwork for my songs on Spotify! So, it’s been a very useful skill for me as a musician.

What’s the process for the music artwork?

It’s a lot of me listening back to the tracks and trying to draw an overall meaning. When I’m song writing I don’t think of an overall meaning of a record, so I write down keywords and go from there.

I’m not synesthetic, and jealous of people who are, but part of my process is trying to gauge some colours to have a nice palette for me to work with.

Some of the artwork I haven’t done, and it’s more collaborative, but for the ones I have designed it’s just a lot of the above.

We briefly touched on producing, how does producing for other artists differ from creating your own music?

I think as a producer it’s really important to be transparent and immerse yourself in the artist’s world. It’s kind of inevitable that my tendencies and sound will make it through to their records, because they’ve come to me for a reason: a sound. But, I try my best to immerse myself in their world and figure out who they want to be.

You’ve just released ‘Sidestep’ from your forthcoming EP, the track is about social anxiety and navigating that – is discussing and raising awareness of mental health something that’s important to you as an artist?

Yeah, I’ve never really been outspoken about many issues in the world, so a lot of it is very internal. I think mental health is really important, and it is often overlooked not taken very seriously.

I think it’s just a matter of balance and making sure that you’re alright in your head because your work can suffer from that.

In ‘Sidestep’ in particular it was more me having anxiety about being in conversations. Sometimes during shows we’ll have meet and greets, and I find myself catering to the other person, or feeling like I have to mirror their energy. There was this one instance during a meet and greet and I came away from it and felt exhausted, and like it wasn’t me. I recognised that and decided I just needed to be myself and get out of that headspace.

Was that meet and greet experience where you got inspiration for the track?

I think the main inspiration was being at a party and not knowing what to talk about, like going to a party on your own and having to have small talk even though you hate it! I would rather just be at home binge watching Game of Thrones!

Can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind making the track?

Well this was the first track that I’ve put out that I have written and produced alone, with no other minds on it. So, I was pretty insecure about the song because there was no push and pull in the process, no one over my shoulder telling me the bits that could be better, or that I should push harder. It was a very internal song, and I guess the message reflects that!

It was really fun to make – it was just me in my studio in LA, layering the track with different sounds. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about what I wanted the track to sound like or who I wanted to be, but I was just creating and trying to be as free as I could be. I think artists put a lot of pressure on branding themselves, and being a specific ‘cool’ thing, but I’m trying my best to let go of that. I think it’s important to make sense to your audience, but I also think it’s important to be free creatively.

With ‘Sidestep’, and other upcoming singles, I’ve taken all the elements that I loved about the last record and made them bigger and catchier and exaggerated them all.

Talking about your forthcoming EP, is there a particular song you’re most excited about sharing?

That’s tough! But, there is one song that I’m most excited about sharing and it’s got a disco vibe to it. The track is a little more upbeat than my usual stuff, so it’s a new territory that I haven’t tried out yet. I’m interested to see how people will react!

What’s been your biggest achievement so far?

That’s hard… I think a huge milestone for me was having the headline tour under my belt. It was a small six date tour within key markets, but it was really cool to be in places where I don’t know the people, but they were singing my songs.

I guess the more obvious answer would be seeing how the song ‘Compromised’ has garnered so many streams! Who’s to say what’s going to pop off on Spotify, you just really never know! But when we wrote ‘Compromised’ I was hoping people would really enjoy it, particularly because it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. People kept saving and listening to it, and I think it’s on over 14 million streams now, I just can’t even fathom that number!  

Finally, tell me one thing that not many people don’t know about you…

I had a very extensive rock collection growing up, I had a rock polisher and everything. I just went around collecting rocks like a loser, it was just my thing… but then I found music!