When most musicians first arrive on the scene they are desperate to prove they are special, as if space should be made for them simply because of a uniqueness found in their artistry. Skylar Astin is not one of those artists — he is utterly unique in his own right — and his music is stronger for it.
This is far from Skylar Astin’s first foray into the music industry with a his huge career in film, TV, and theatre, which has always kept music close at hand. Best known for his roles in Pitch Perfect, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, as Georg in the Tony Award-winning original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening, Astin is used to being asked to carry a tune. Yet, this is the first time he’s been able to be in the driver’s seat.
‘When You’re Not There’ marks the second single in Skylar’s music career. The second time he is singing not as a character or a cover, but something fully his own. The track is a high-energy ode to those you can’t be with even when it’s what you want most and when speaking with Astin, it is clear that for him music is both work and play. An avid fan himself, he does not shy away from sharing which of his fellow artists and songs inspire his sound. In making these comparisons, it is clear that Skylar has not only the talent but also the wherewithal to make a lasting impression in his own right.
While discussing his new single, 1883 Magazine and Skylar talked about creating during a pandemic, the universality of pop music, and the genre-bending inspirational force that is Taylor Swift.
Congratulations on the new single! I was listening to it prepping for this interview and I had to get up and dance. It’s so fun! How are you feeling about the release?
I love it. I love this song. It’s a family favourite. It makes me feel a bit of a 70s groove. I think it’s a “get up and dance” song a la Bruno Mars or certain Justin Timberlake albums. It’s very ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling.’ It comes in really hot and then doesn’t really stop.
‘When You’re Not There’ totally reminded me of ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling!’ I thought about that when I listened to it.
Good! That wasn’t a reference, but when we started producing it and building production, I remember thinking, “this kind of has the vibe of ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling.’” It’s a great song and it’s part of the Troll’s franchise in which I actually voice Justin Timberlake’s character in the TV series.
I saw that! [laughs] Full circle!
[laughs] Totally full circle!
Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for the track – both the lyrics and the music.
The song is about being in your own space. It’s about living your life and being very comfortable with yourself, but missing the one person that you want to be with. I think that a lot of people had that feeling during a pandemic. I was separated from my family while I was filming for a seven-month stint. I know people that were separated from family and loved ones for over a year. It’s really painful, but there’s also a level of discovery in the feeling of “oh my gosh! I value you so much.” I’ve valued my friendships even more throughout this time and it made it even sweeter once we were all finally vaccinated and able to see each other.
I agree. I could not have gotten through this past year without my friends. In regards to the music, you said you didn’t intend for the song to have a ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ vibe, so what were you looking for while you were producing it?
I just started with the baseline. The baseline is steady throughout the whole song – through the chorus and the bridge and the breakdown. It’s the heartbeat of the song. It made me feel like I wanted to wake up in the morning and do what I want to do. It’s a song I want to listen to and I wanted to write and I want to feel as I brush my teeth, get in my car and go about my daily routine. It puts a pep in my step. I wrote it during a time where I couldn’t go anywhere, so it has that stimulation feeling, the fantasy of waking up and greeting the day and shaking a neighbour’s hand for no reason when things were allowed and normal. That’s the visual aid that surrounded the music. The lyrics flowed in from there.
Music has been such a big part of your career in one way or another. Why did now feel like the right time to release your own music?
The world stopped and specifically, my world stopped. I have been travelling consistently for a couple of years, living in other states and even other countries when filming. I would only really come back to my house, and therefore my piano, for days at a time. When I was finally forced to stay at home, I started reacquainting myself with my piano and my music and my old notebooks from when I used to write music – not many people have ever heard those songs. Once I started putting myself out there on Instagram I found an itch of musicality within myself and at random started writing this specific genre of pop music. My first single had a lot of synths. It was more of a ‘The Weeknd’ vibe. This song was a fun project as well. For me, these two singles were emulation. I was writing a genre or a feeling. Moving forward, I’ve actually started to write with a little bit of a different intention and use my piano skills more instead of being really inspired by music and lyrics in general. Lately, I’ve been starting with a simple piano melody, rather than through production, and it’s been great. I’m looking forward to releasing the things that I’ve been working on most recently.
Out of those two ways of creating, have you found you like one better, or that one is easier?
As I collaborate with new people, I really am open to anything. Last week, I worked with a couple of different writers, with a bunch of different writing styles. I worked well with each. One was track first. One was piano first. One was lyrics first. I think it depends on the song. Sometimes there can be a reference for a song that we want to emulate. Sometimes, depending on where I’m at emotionally, it can be me writing on my own. If I’m in the right headspace, I like to sit down and literally write a full song. I don’t know if I would release it, but I end with something complete that I can easily track in my house and potentially release one day. it’s fun to write and be creative with no end goal.
I think there’s just something to be said for starting and finishing something, regardless of if it’s consumed.
Exactly. I have 6-8 songs now that are at that stage.
Yeah. I don’t know which one would be next. I feel like a recent one might jump the line actually because it feels very current to me from an emotional standpoint. It’s fun! I’m not beholden to any powers that be. I get to decide on and have full ownership of it.
I think that’s always a good place for artists to be. So far, both singles and the ‘Without You’ music video have been very retro-influenced. Did something, in particular, draw you to that aesthetic or did it just happen?
I’d say, it just happened. It’s how I envisioned the feeling of the songs. For ‘Without You’, I always saw ‘red’ and there was always a Weeknd feel to it, but also an 80’s and a 70’s retro vibe. When I linked up with the music video director, Gordy De St. Jeor, it turned out we were on the same page and talked about really cool locations we could shoot at that captured the vibe of the song. There’s not like a full narrative, there’s definitely a story involved, but we just wanted to have a feeling shown in the video. The response has been great. People really enjoy it.
Did you find it at all difficult to settle on a certain sound or style for your music or did you always know these were the kind of songs you wanted to release?
I didn’t think this sound would be the music that I wanted to release first. I think that’s the keyword. I think this just happens to be what I released first. It was during a time where I was listening to a lot of this kind of music and it was putting me in a good place during a really tough time. I wanted to express that and share that. Had everything been more normal in the world, maybe I would have come out with a different style of singles but I don’t have any regrets. I love the songs that I’ve released, but I’m also excited to release very different stylings of songs. I did an acoustic version of ‘Without You,’ which feels like a completely different song. It’s nice that I can strip each of my songs, especially the production heavy ones, down to a piano and make it feel more singer-songwriter. I’ve written a couple of songs that are in that genre lately, so it’ll be fun to not have to strip down a song and take something away, but actually start with that intention of it being that genre.
I always like when artists don’t put themselves in a genre box. I think you learn more about an artist when they can be creative in that way.
Totally! Look at Taylor Swift.
Yeah, exactly! I wasn’t gonna bring it up. [laughs] But, she is the prime example.
I love Taylor Swift.
Yeah, who doesn’t?
She’s one of my favourites. I have such a new appreciation for her, as I’m sure a lot of people do, because of her last two albums. What’s so funny is that it kind of makes you value her other albums prior more.
I agree! I totally agree.
You realize this isn’t just what she does. She also can make an album that sounds like ‘Morning Space’ by Beck. I’m blown away by her style and how well she lends herself to that. She’s an inspiration. I don’t know that I would do exactly that, but I think I can bust out with a full-on pop song and then build something beautiful, orchestrally and vocally in an almost ethereal or folky sound. Who knows? There might even be several songs that like that and then, just when you’re not expecting it, another dance track. I don’t know if this will all collect into an album or if I’ll just release singles and we can categorize them as I release them. For right now, I’m just trying to release two singles. I did them last year. I stand by them and I’m excited to release the new one.
Were there any other artists that you found inspiring during your creative process?
Yeah. I don’t know if it reflects in the music, but I was listening to a lot of Miguel and Khalid. I really like them as artists. I liked a lot of the production on Bieber’s last album and I listen to a lot of PRETTYMUCH, kind of the boyband vibes.
As both a pop artist and a pop fan, how do you feel about the perception of the genre? In the past couple of years, the common perception about pop has changed, but I feel like it still isn’t taken as seriously as other genres.
I actually do feel like there’s been a big progression in the perception of pop. I don’t think there’s really a stigma at all anymore. It’s definitely not as present as it was and it’s definitely not in my mind nor has it ever been. I guess I don’t feel the need to defend myself anymore because enough people are hip to it. I think it’s a statement on people in general, and that doesn’t mean I hold judgment for people who don’t like pop music. I get it and it may not be for everyone, but it is fairly universal. There is something about a catchy melody. Not all pop is good. There are bad pop songs and really annoying pop songs, but there are also really, really good pop songs, just like any genre. I unapologetically have always been a fan of it and I’m glad that people are accepting it more. But, music can be very trendy. I plan on sticking with my feelings towards pop, but if people want to shift in the future, they’re more than welcome. It’s nowhere that us pop fans haven’t been before. [laughs]
That is very true! After years of exploring music through characters both on stage and screen – what do you hope your solo music tells people about who you are?
It’s a different side of me. I feel a sense of sexiness and lightness in the last two singles that I put out. These are the kinds of songs that I enjoy listening to, that I enjoy making. I sang them both with a permanent smile on my face. I hope that is reflected. Oftentimes when you’re playing a character you’re thinking that the character’s intention. A lot of the time when you’re covering a song, you have to honour that artist while still making it your own. This is a full license for me to enjoy my own supply. I appreciated putting it out there and having people dance around their living rooms. If I can touch a few people from this little pandemic project that I have then I’m very happy.
Speaking of your broadway background – how excited are you about live theatre ramping back up?
I’m so excited. I’m so happy that they are taking proper precautions to keep the performers safe and the audience safe. Theatre is always supposed to be a safe and sacred space. There is such a relationship from performer to audience that a lot of live performers understand. There’s something about being in an enclosed theatre and watching a story and watching storytellers tell that story. I am so thrilled that it’s back. I’m so thrilled for the community, for the theatre owners, and for the crew members, all the unions that depend on this as a livelihood. I can’t wait to go back and support and see the shows and do a show. I’m desperate to get back on stage. I’ll be back on Broadway soon whether it’s in the theatre or on the stage, for sure.
To end, it would be remiss of me not to mention ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ and the movie! How exciting! Are you so glad that story isn’t going to be left open-ended?
Yeah! That was a heck of a cliffhanger to leave everybody on. They are writing the movie right now. We’re going to shoot it next month and I believe it will be out during the holidays. I already know a lot of the story and it’s very exciting. Max has the power now, so we’ll see what happens.
Interview: Sydney Bolen
When You’re Not There is out now.