Sharpless: Coming of Age (on Tape)

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Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Current Release: The One I Wanted to Be
For Fans Of: Yeasayer, Weezer, Fun.

A conversation with Jack Greenleaf about Sharpless’s second album, The One I Wanted to Be, brings out a lot of different topics. J-Pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Weezer’s Pinkerton, Lou Reed and Kanye all swirl around. They’re right alongside Japan, musical theater, college and videogame sound design. It sounds sprawling, but somehow, he finds a way to compress all of these influences and more into nine songs, all connected by an abstract, personal narrative about growth.

“I think my intention on this album was to be less afraid of what people think of me when I release music,” Greenleaf says. “Instead of shying away from things I wouldn’t want to talk about, lean into it just a little bit too much.”

There’s little on the album that goes the way you’re expecting, whether it’s the vibrant sound collage of opening track “The Hardest Question,” the sudden hip hop break of “Nothing Can Change,” or the dual vocal rendition of the chorus of “Young Americans” placed inside “Summer 2012.” An upbeat pop atmosphere is contrasted with evident tension, peculiar effects and ventures into dark lyricism.

But that’s just the songs themselves. The album’s production is a curveball itself, a work of lush, catchy pop layered with a full band sound, distinct synthesizers and heavily produced vocals, all created in a home studio by one guy with a MIDI controller, a microphone, Logic and some friends.

“I feel like it’s actually really grating as an album,” Greenleaf says. “It’s very clear, but a lot of the sounds I use are really kind of distorted. Like, I’ll take distorted vocals and sample it to make a weird piano riff, very alien sounding. I can’t really tell if people are going to think of it as a warm album or a cold album.”

With this in mind, Greenleaf has dubbed Sharpless’s music “violent pop,” a term well fitting for this album and the band’s self-titled debut. Sharpless makes use of pop structure and hooky choruses, almost sounding like something you’d hear on Top 40 radio at the root. But then there’s the healthy dose of noise and aggressive synth work. Greenleaf also utilizes Autotune to make ethereal vocal effects more in tune with the tone of each song.

“I always like Autotune where it feels like they’re trying to break out of it almost,” Greenleaf says. “Like they’re trying to sing the wrong note, but Autotune is holding them back, making this sort of weird tension.”

Greenleaf typically handles the instrumentation and songwriting duties for the band, but shares singing duties with his friend Montana Levy. He writes lyrics with characters in mind, and Levy’s vocals on The One I Wanted to Be create a foil to his own character.

“She definitely collaborates with me on the way she sings and her intentions, kind of like how an actor would with a director,” Greenleaf says.

As a member of the NYC-based artistic collective The Epoch, it’s also not uncommon for Greenleaf to be joined by other musicians, such as when Ian Cory of Chicago band Lamniformes pops up to rap on Sharpless tracks periodically or when Felix Walworth of Told Slant sings a guest spot on closing track “Greater Then.”

“I felt like when I was writing that last song I was almost writing a Told Slant song, so I figured I might as well call in the expert,” Greenleaf says laughing.

The Epoch is a collective largely formed of childhood friends from Brooklyn who all wound up creating music and art, both separately and together, all with a strong DIY ethic. This year has proven busy for the group, with The One I Wanted to Be coinciding with the release of Bellows’ Blue Breath, Small Wonder’s Wendy and the re-release of Told Slant’s Still Water.

“Right now, we all put out albums about growing up, just one after another,” Greenleaf says. “We all kind of touch on the same theme and approach it from different directions.”

Greenleaf’s own realizations came swiftly upon his return from a trip to Japan. His personal world had altered significantly, and he had been absent during most of the changes, making for a surreal re-entry into his own life.

“It’s always interesting when a lot of pieces in your life just start shifting,” Greenleaf says. “And it happened when I was away in Japan, so I came back and felt like I was in a new universe.”

Confronted by sudden change, Greenleaf channeled his emotions into songs that would eventually become The One I Wanted to Be. The album has thrived on the poignant lyrics and earnestness that arose from this period, launching his work to the front page of Bandcamp. Now, on Aug. 26, the album will be re-released digitally and on a limited edition tape by Father/Daughter Records.

The album also did its first and foremost job well, giving Greenleaf a medium to feel some stability again.

“When a lot of events happen really fast, it can feel like you lose a bit of control in your life,” Greenleaf says. “So I think part of releasing the album was kind of me re-establishing my own agency in my life, because I felt like I lost it.”

Following the band’s first tour in support of the re-release, Greenleaf expects to put out more music as Sharpless sometime in the future. However, having just graduated from Columbia College Chicago this year with a degree in game design/sound design, there’s a lot open for the musician. Fitting with the nature of his coming of age narratives, Greenleaf now just has to figure out what he wants for himself.

“It’s kind of weird because it’s not something that’s officially on schedule,” Greenleaf says. “It’s more of just trying to figure out what to do with my life.”