If you live in New York and frequent the city's more experimental music venues, like Secret Project Robot or Trans Pecos, there's a good chance you'll be familiar with Michael Beharie. A musician's musician, he grew up in Washington DC, studied classical guitar at Ohio's Oberlin College, and in 2008 moved to New York, where he has spent the last few years developing a much sought-after electronic music practice. As well as being a regular on the local gig scene — performing both stripped-back acoustic sets and at amped-up dance parties — he's also produced for a host of artists on N.Y.C.'s underground art and music scene, including Alexis Penney and Bunny Michael.
Having been grinding at the fringes for the last seven or eight years, Beharie finally took a step into the sun this summer with the release of his debut album, Ray Like Morning. It's a joyful listen, and one that joins the dots between Beharie's wide-ranging musical interests. Drum patterns blink like eyes meeting dawn's first light; cascading guitar work leaves a lace-like imprint on the mind; and dancehall rhythms bolster vibrant synth-pop songs that make room for rich vocals that can't hide a smile.
I caught up with him over the phone from Big Sur, where he was vacationing with his Ray Like Morning collaborator Marisa to talk about musical heritage, the impact of appropriation, and how to survive as a working musician in New York City.
In what way did music shape you growing up?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I had the real privilege of attending an international school for high school. Until I moved to New York I was always studying [classical guitar] formally, very intensely, and then also playing in bands. The punk music band scene in D.C. when I was growing up was really strong, [but] I always gravitated super hard toward anything that was not from the States, or Western Europe, musically. I would go to Jamaica every other year because my dad's from there. His family over there, at weddings and funerals, they play the best Indian street music, with these very traditional folkloric instruments. That was probably the most formative musical experience I can remember from growing up — being in Jamaica and hearing all this South Asian folk music in these little towns, and then also the soundsystem culture being so prevalent. All these towns testing the most elaborate, unnecessarily large stacks, you know? It was completely crazy.
How did hearing those kind of sounds so early impact the way you make music?
It had a big impact in two separate ways. Soundsystem culture — reggae and dancehall and rocksteady — that music was really impactful and was sort of my introduction to loud, amped music, because when I was very young, I wasn't hearing that stuff as much where I was in D.C. And then hearing the South Asian folk tradition was also very impactful on a completely different level, because my family came to Jamaica via India, as indentured servants, and a lot of the South Asian folk traditions that were in India were still alive and well on the island.
What else did you hear growing up? What was your mom into?
My mom is from a very classic Italian-American family, so she would put on Puccini, old Italian opera, which I absolutely adore. I love that stuff. And then she would put on Joni Mitchell. All the good moms loved Joni.
You have strong links with a lot of New York's underground, not just in one genre but in multiple arenas. Were you aware of what was musically happening here when you arrived?
I was into the Shinkoyo collective scene at Paris London West Nile, which became 285 Kent. That was eight years ago, like 2008-2009. I was really excited about The Stone and Roulette and Issue Project Room, like that scene. Seeing these downtown musicians do their thing, these older downtown people. I would go see this guy William Parker — he's been in New York forever. I would always go to those free jazz shows, and then I would go see the weird pop stuff at Old Paris London West Nile, which was amazing.
Moving here made me realize that I could do the more experimental stuff — the freer stuff — and I could also do the more pop-structured stuff, and that that was okay. I think that was the main thing [I gained] by throwing myself into the shit-show of the New York music scene. All of these academic spheres that I had always existed in before were very limited. There were rules, they were limited in scope. The city showed me that pop music is no less of an art form than writing a chamber piece. That's the reason why, even with the [high] rents and how ridiculous the city is, it's impossibly hard for me to leave New York because it's so rich with rule-breakers.
You've produced for a wide variety of different artists, from Alexis Penney to Bunny Michael. What makes you say yes to helping an artist realize their vision?
I think the main thing is that I connect with their politics and their values, and I always appreciate that what they're doing. With what Bunny and Alexis are doing — and everybody to a certain extent — there's an extramusical message there. In both of those cases, it's about a radical acceptance of our feelings and the idea of destroying shame. There's a spell there that they're trying to cast in a way, you know? I'm very sensitive and appreciative of that kind of approach to music-making, maybe because I have a tendency to be more of a technical and music-for-music's-sake person.
“It’s impossibly hard for me to leave New York because it’s so rich with rule-breakers.”
Do you think it was working with so many different vocalists that encouraged you to sing after being such a hands-on producer and guitarist?
Yeah, in a way, absolutely. I used to sing and play in high school [but] when I moved to New York, I had to take this time to learn electronic music. I had no training in electronic music but it's become the air that I breathe. Because of how open and how rich it is, and how much you can do with so little, I think that I moved away from singing more than anything because I was trying to learn this new craft.
What kind of story did you want to tell with Ray Like Morning?
The album is definitely very personal. There's bangers on there, like "Long Time" or "One Day," but it's all very inward looking. I wanted to have these hills and valleys to it; I wanted to have the more radio-friendly pop songs, and I wanted to have the little instrumental bits with the fuzzy, granular, plunky bits, and also the warm, acoustic bits, like on the title track with the cellos and the piano. I wanted to have all of these different aspects and wanted to have the proportions of them feel like they were gelling together.
I love "One Day," which is a collaboration with your partner Marisa. How did that come about?
I've known her for like ten years, and I've always been really into her poetry. I was into her poetry way, way before we ever got together romantically in any way. I had been making a bunch of tracks that I thought would be perfect for spoken word — her spoken word specifically. I had the whole instrumental for "One Day" done, I had recorded acoustic drums for it and everything, and I was thinking initially that I would just get a couple of vocal samples from here. We only worked on that for two hours, but the whole sort of vocal arrangement was so fast. We got lucky.
Are there plans for something more collaborative, do you think?
I'm gonna do a little EP with five of Marisa's spoken word tracks, and then we'll also get started working on an EP of new songs that's way more collaborative in general, and way more live with the sounds and more open form. What "Drizzle" does, in getting lost in itself, I want to start doing with that with the song form. Have it be less didactic, and more cloudy, more open and iterative and amoebic in form, rather than boxy, if that makes any sense.
The more open-ended, electroacoustic band stuff, that's where I want to sort of throw my energies into this year, which I'm really stoked about. It's a terrible, terrible time to have a band in New York. I talked to Tim [DeWit] about this. That time of Gang Gang, when there were these bands that were also very heavily electronic, doing these very radical things, [for that to happen] having cheap rent is a big necessity. Today it's very difficult for people to do anything but make music on the computer, or with tabletop electronics. It's much cheaper. It makes a whole hell of a lot more sense as a kid in New York City to be banging on the boxes than banging on drums right now.
How do you negotiate living in New York as a working musician?
Honestly, for me, it's a lot about saying yes to scoring opportunities, saying yes to doing production work for very little money, saying yes to tracking guitar on someone's record for whatever amount of money that they can pay. I worked in a bakery — in the kitchen — for three years when I first got here and then I taught special ed music for four years until I had enough regular work that I could leave the teaching job. It's still hard, you know?
I'm still sort of getting my feet on the ground as a freelancer, and I definitely end up working all the time. I do commercial work when I get it, every once in a while, and I feel lucky that I can do that kind of work. I have a lot of friends that really only make one kind of thing and I really admire them for their dedication to a singular direction, but it does make it very, very difficult to survive in such an expensive city. My feeling is that there's always time to work on what you want to work on, and sometimes you just have to make money before you can work on what you want to work on. It's just the way it is.
How do you keep yourself motivated during that time?
I think the main thing, whenever I have to do some silly commercial job or a scoring project that I'm not as excited about, I just try to tell myself that at least I'm building skills that I can apply to something that I care about. That's always the silver lining. All of my formal education is in the classical guitar, which is something I really don't use it all. But anytime someone wants to give me some money to do underscoring for a scene in a commercial or help with production, those are always opportunities for me to learn more about electronic music, and get a little bit better as a producer. Otherwise, you hit an emotional wall that you do not want to hit.
Right now, there's so many rhythms and sounds in mainstream popular music that have their origins in Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. Your music draws on a lot of different sources, but I wondered what your thoughts on appropriation were?
I think about it all the time. I probably spend too much time thinking about it, but it's hard not to think about it when there's so much appropriation on the radio. Really, the issue is are local people from those genres getting shine from that music being played on the radio? That's the part that I'm curious about, and I have almost more questions than answers with respect to this conversation. You hear about people like Diplo spotlighting certain microgenres for a tour, and one artist gets benefited, and then everyone else just continues making their music in a one-room shack, as if nothing had ever happened. On one hand, it's great that some of these microgenres are getting global attention, but I think a lot of us are concerned about if the record labels are really going to seek out these artists? It really comes down to the labels having some grassroots infrastructure. People like Dutty Artz, for example, I feel like they do a really good job. People who are invested for the long term in creating a sustainable market for the music, that's when it seems like it's really good.
I watched on a documentary on Jersey club recently. That sound is everything in in New York right now, it's so popular. I watched some interviews with some OG Jersey club producers and a lot of them were really upset that kids who had more money in other parts of the United States and in Western Europe were jacking the sound and getting record deals and going on these tours, while they were in the same hard situation that they've always been in. Then there's people like DJ Rashad — I re-watched that hour-long Red Bull thing about Rashad and Spinn, and Rashad was like, "People make Teklife everywhere, make the Teklife music, make footwork, make juke." It seems like more and more I keep on feeling that everything is so situational, and so specific, and at least the fact that all of these genres are on the radio, at least this is raising awareness of that appropriation.
When you're making your own musical decisions, are you ever thinking about "is this something I'm allowed to use?"
Usually when I'm making something, I really am trying to go about it in the most naive and generous way possible, not thinking about anything. But, that being said, there's a lot of influences. "Long Time" has a dancehall rhythm in it. In the song "Before I Fall," there's a 6/8 drum pattern that's heard widely in the Caribbean, Latin America, and West Africa. In the song "Jasmine," it's very vaguely East African. But I'm never ripping something entirely ever, or doing something explicit; it's always a flavor among many others. I feel like things get really hairy when it's very clear that someone's just completely lifting a sound without being part of the community. I have influences, but I'm gonna do them in my way.