Washed Out’s Ernest Greene admits that as a child, he was a bit of an involuntary recluse. He recounts how growing up in Perry, Ga., he was forced to entertain himself due to geographical isolation.
“I lived in a neighborhood where there weren’t many kids,” Greene recalls, his words marked with a Southern lilt. “I had a couple sisters, but I was very much a loner. Whatever film I had seen that day or that week, I would completely find myself in that world.”
That ability to lose himself in an idea has served the Athens, Ga.-based musician well. After touring for over two years behind the release of his debut full-length Within and Without, he found himself disenchanted with the album’s icy, after-hours synths and detached bedroom pop. Decamping to his bedroom workspace to write (and eventually joining up with producer Ben Allen in his professionally outfitted studio), Greene started the process of expanding his palette, adding a series of more organic elements to the mix. The ingredients are ordinary—among them, live drums, acoustic guitars and field recordings of birds and friends laughing at a New Years’ Eve party. But the gestalt is unexpected: for the first time, dappled sunlit patches of reggae and orchestral pop peek through his downbeat cinematic soundscapes.
Greene doesn’t balk when the adjectives “fantastical” or “otherworldly” are used to describe his new direction. Naming his sophomore full-length Paracosm (a term coined by BBC researcher Robert Silvey meaning “a detailed imaginary world”), Greene says his goal was to create a piece of art that took listeners outside of the realm of everyday life.
“I felt like I was building this world brick by brick with each layer of instrumentation I was doing,” he says. “I could see it growing in some ways. I feel like most writers feel the same way. You’re almost living inside of this magic world that you’re building… I always had the Alice in Wonderland story in my head. Alice falls down the rabbit hole. All of a sudden she opens her eyes and she’s in this fantastical new place. That’s what I was hoping to cure the listener of.”
Despite referencing the Lewis Carroll classic, he dismisses the idea that his imagined world is too far off from reality. (Some have suggested Lord of the Rings as a touch point, which he politely demurs.) For Greene, what he’s most interested in is a universe not completely unlike his own…only better. Some might call it escapism—but Greene isn’t interested in that idea in the traditional sense of the term.
“I feel like a lot of people’s definition of escapism implies that it’s a bad thing, that it means you’re running away from reality,” he says. “I don’t feel like that’s the case at all. At least not for me. I’m living out what I love to do. It’s not like my everyday life is super depressing or anything. I just think the imagination is a very beautiful thing. Endless possibilities. I’m really inspired by that. That’s what escapism is for me, it’s like daydream. Following your own fantasy.”
It’s a narrative, Greene contends, that has always been in the forefront of his work. Even when inviting Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek for some heavy breathing on Within and Without track “You and I,” or selecting cover art featuring the faded, dream-like image of a woman swimming in the ocean on his Life of Leisure EP, there’s a sense of childlike idealism.
“Washed Out has always had some of these themes in place,” says Greene, confirming the observation. “It’s just been a little bit more naïve. In some ways, I just naturally tend to write those types of melodies. They’re bittersweet and nostalgic.”
Greene says that despite following his muse, he felt anxious about releasing the album’s first single (the percussion-heavy “Don’t Give Up”). Paracosm, he reasons, may come as a surprise to many listeners—particularly after Within and Without, where his use of electronics and buried vocals marked him as one of the forerunners of the now flagging chillwave subgenre.
“I don’t know if this record is for everyone,” he says, sheepishly. “It takes an open mind. Maybe it takes a more childish innocence to soak some of these ideas in. I feel like sonically there are a lot of sounds on the record that I don’t think I was being super hip or urban or anything like that. In some ways, building this record, it was almost like I was dealing with the logic, and making a decision purely based on what should happen in the world of this record. It was less about what makes sense for a Washed Out record.”
Despite a string of modest first-record successes, including signing to Sub Pop, being featured on both the Adult Swim Singles Program and the television show Portlandia, the shift was a gamble Greene made with his audience in mind—although not necessarily in the name of serving their expectations.
“I was really bored with the way I made the last record,” he says empathically. “With a five-piece band, there’s naturally going to be imperfections in sound. This record, there’s a lot more performances happening. There is stuff being slightly in and out of tune or in and out of time. More like a real performance.”
Now though, on the eve of Paracosm’s release, Greene is feeling positive about the fruits of his labor. Regardless of the baggage that often comes with a sophomore album, he has made exactly what he set out to create: a transportive and all-together joyful song cycle.
“I try to be as optimistic as I can,” he says. “I feel like that’s the beautiful thing about art and music. It can take you places, and they can be a positive influence. A very soothing influence. Honestly, I feel like there’s enough pain and terrible things that happen in life. That’s beautiful thing in art, you can really idealize things. It’s very hard to find perfection in your life. But in the art world you can do that.”