Scotland's golden boy opens up about how the bleakness of his homeland – and his synaesthesia – birthed the sparkling electronica on his new EP.
“To be honest, being in Scotland, what I do is not common at all. So I've always been this kind of... the only word I can think of is ‘ambassador’? I would never say I was famous, but that’s the kind of narrative from where I’m from anyways. So... as it gets more and more intense the main thing that’s going to keep me right is personal support. And I have to not change myself as well.”
One of the first things I discuss with Sam Gellaitry – sitting in his childhood room in Stirling – is what it’s like to be on the brink of fame. For years, the 23-year-old producer has had a nearly ideal trajectory. The electronic, genre-expansive producer blew up as a teen on Soundcloud, churned out the stellar trio of Escapism in 2015 through 2017, signed to XL Recordings, and has developed a solid base of fans, and nods from notorious peers such as Kaytranada and Flume. He has recently delved into photography, forming a multi-artist collective/label. And most importantly, he’s just released his 4th EP, appropriately titled IV, which is his most ambitious album yet and also his debut as a vocalist.
“I have been making club music since I was 12,” explains Gellaitry. “But my first visit to a club was when I was 17. That was when I played my first show at XOWILD in London, to 1,000 people. I was on at 12 untill 12:30, but I remember that set felt like three minutes, it was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life. From that moment, I'd seen the physicality of it and that people will respond a certain way. You can't even describe what it's like... to see that connection between what you like and other people appreciating it.”
Despite his awe, Gellaitry seems mostly unfazedl when he is hit by realisations of how far he’s come from that 12 year old making french house. Our chat feels like one of those you have at 3am with an old friend, where odd tangents abound and unlikely analogies flourish. At one point he plays the happy birthday song to me in different scales to illustrate the emotional impact of each scale, and we recommend music to one another (mine: Donna Summer’s Four Seasons of Love and his, the oeuvre of Todd Edwards, a UK Garage artist that happens to be from a town one over from me in New Jersey). Our quick rapport was perhaps aided by the fact that we’re in similar circumstances, both of us living in our childhood homes, albeit on two opposite sides of the Atlantic. “I’m looking for a house, but it’s quite nice being here during the pandemic because this is where I grew up, the same room and all that,” Sam says.
After our discussion on his arc so far, we turn our attention to IV, a collection of firsts for him as an artist, as well as his first project since 2018. Though clocking in at just four tracks, IV is a wonderfully deep project that rewards you with repeated listens. Each song references different genres ranging from french house, disco, indie and trap, and represents one phase of a progressing day. It starts with the soaring lights of “A New Dawn,” to the forward-marching noon-time “Duo,” then the wistful dusk “Games,” and finally the late-night coda of “Assumptions.”
Work on the EP started in 2018 with the last track “Assumptions,” and the rest of the tracks came around during the pandemic. Sam says that the delay of releasing it until now was because of waiting for just the right time and arranging ducks.
“Behind the scenes there have been so many transformations for me. I formed a team, and met the label and publicists and all that. It took a while to get that where it needed to be. We were just plotting. Last year I was on the runway; all of this stuff was getting done before we could take off. It's just waiting until everything was ready to go,” he says.
And what a plane ride it is. As I’ve come to listen to IV over and over in the days leading up to and following the interview, I’m struck by the endurance of the project’s lushness and sheen. Even as I get accustomed to the different melodies, textures and beats, there always seems to be something new I didn’t notice before.
And of course, there's the debut of Gellaitry’s vocals, which don’t take center stage so much as join a pivotal role in this celestial orchestra. For Gellaitry, deciding to include vocals came as a natural part of his growth process. He didn’t want to include them earlier because he wanted to establish his instrumentals as the core of who he was as an artist.“That's why I never wanted to sing or use vocals use pop vocals when I was younger,” he explains. “I wanted to preserve a sense of order. I didn't want to have unnatural spikes in my growth. I see it as a graph. The way I see it is if you go up too quick, you're gonna come down even quicker. It's hard to maintain hype.”
Despite the new novelty of vocals, Gellaitry’s instrumentals still take center stage and are also the best of his young career. His intention with these was to form a kind of introductory tapestry, the kind that greets guests as they enter a home and let’s them know exactly what kind of host they can expect. Gellaitry distinguishes this from the Escapism trilogy, which formed external soundscapes listener and creator could stare at together. In this project he lets people in to his creative depths and unpacks all the influences that made him into the artist he is today
“A little bit of it was just growing up,” he says about this shift in intent. “Even the pandemic helped me really realise who I was in a sense, and also just feeling mature enough to handle what's about to come. If you told me two years ago I'd be shooting music videos and all that, I would be anxious. I wouldn't want to do any of that. I wasn't ready for it personally.”
“The other element is that when I made "Assumptions", I felt like I needed to change in some way. I have a short attention span, and I kind of need things to proceed to some place. The main thing was the personal thing... I just felt ready to let people into my home. Maybe the Escapism series was like the garden and we're all sitting and it’s a safe space for everyone. If you want to be in that environment, you can be there. It's not forced. You can find your way there. I felt that it was time to go from the garden into the house. I wanted to finally open the doors of where I was at musically," he says.
Another important facet of this album is that it also represents a greater emphasis on one of the Gellaitry’s core traits as a person and as an artist, his synaesthesia. Gellaitry first realised he was synaesthetic as a young child when his parents would play cassette tapes of biblical stories.
“At the end of these tapes there would be a song. Whilst my eyes were shut, I could actually envision the colors as I was listening to it. And every time I tell this story, I can hear the songs and the colors I see are the exact same as the ones from back then,” There’s a pause, then Gellaitry gasps in realisation – “Oh shit! One of the songs says, ‘You've got to have faith if you can't see it with your eyes.’ That's trippy man, I didn't realise that."
Ever since then, it’s become essential to how he digests and creates music, and he recently discovered that the true link between music and colors lies not in individual notes, but rather keys. C-minor for him evokes a range of purples, D Minor a forest green, and F minor dark reds. On this project then, the day format is more of an innate progression of his synaestheisa, rather any sort of deliberate choice. After he had compiled the tracks, he realised that the colors that manifested for him resembled the day cycle of the sun coming up and then down.
“I don't know when that came about, but I compiled the tracks together and realised the colors were there, the green to blue to the orangey red. It had to [reflect] the way it would for me in my head, if I was to stretch out this 13 minutes into the 24 hour space. It was more like I discovered its actual theme rather than say, ‘I’m going to make an EP that sounds like a day.’”
I remember when I first read Gellaitry’s artist bio, I was both fascinated and a bit skeptical of the descriptions of how his synaesthesia worked. This wasn’t so much because of anything Gellaitry said, but rather that, particularly in the 2010s, it seemed as if every artist – from Kanye to Lorde – claimed to be gifted in the same way. The trend even inspired a querulous feature in The Cut, that questioned how wide-spread the trait really was . Though I definitely become convinced as Gellaitry explains to me in detail how his synaesthesia works, I ask him how he would deal with the skepticism that has emerged.
“I do agree people have a longing to have this difference,“ he responds. “The reason why I'm not going to shy away from it is that it is a big part of how my music is formed and how the narrative is formed. The way I'll stay away from that skepticism is that I'll have [the colours each song evokes] very apparent in each visual representation of a song, even in a live show. Every time the song is in a certain key, it'll be reflected in the lights, or every time I shoot a music video the palate is going to be in response to the color I see. If anything, it just creates more of a narrative for my fans. I want people to know why I'm making a music video in the color red or in the color blue. It's another open door in this house.”
As we wrap up, there’s one last topic I want to broach. In listening to Gellaitry’s music, I had become reminded of a transfixing quote from the recently departed SOPHIE from a Rolling Stone Interview back in 2015. She said, “I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing. That, to me, is an interesting challenge, musically and artistically. And I think it’s a very valid challenge – just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally. I don’t know why that is prioritized by a lot of people as something that’s more valuable. The challenge I’m interested in being part of is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing.”
This quote seems to resonate deeply with the ethos of Gellaitry’s music as well, especially in the common goal to create something vivid and bright. I am curious as to whether he feels the same way, and he responds in a way I do not expect: by framing that goal as a uniquely Scottish cultural phenomenon. Gesturing his camera to the cold and grey area outside, he explains that in Scotland, artists like SOPHIE, Rusty, Hudson Mohawke and even his brother – who at one point created happy hardcore music – were all trying to essentially create distilled happiness in counter to the bleakness that surrounded them.
“It's like a secret weapon. I've heard it in SOPHIE’s music, I've heard it in Rustie's music, I heard it in Hudson Mohawke's music. These three people, they all attack something in a way that makes you feel ultra euphoria without it being... I don't know, it's very unfiltered.”
“It's past the point of organic happiness, it's not someone strumming a guitar and the wind is blowing through. It's ‘I've drunk too much’ or ‘I’ve taken too many drugs happiness’.” It’s here I really begin to understand that it’s Gellaitry’s groundedness that makes his brand of glittering electronica so special. “I think [our kind of music] is so popular in Scotland because It's bleak, as grey as it can be, it's cold. There's a lust for wanting to feel happy, and wanting to be around people. How can you drive that musically to the point where it's almost too much for your heart to take because it's too fast, or too wild?”