From proud bangers like Cinematic and More Than Gold, to hooky wonders like Tightrope and One For The City and the more personal moments of Am Yours, the ultimate cinematic musical experience of this year is undoubtedly Illy‘s Cinematic.
Al spoke to us for a good 45 minutes, so we’ve got the album embedded here for you to listen to whilst you read about the inspiration for and stories behind the tracks that make this album so fucking brilliant.
As your executive producer, ten of the tracks are produced by M-Phazes – who made the remainder?
Styalz Fuego did Save Me with Daniel Merriweather, Cam Bluff did Coming Down, the Hilltop Hoods track, one of the better beats that Cam’s made, so I got lucky with that and Way Of The Eagle did On and On.
That’s right – that’s Jan Skubabwbawbabski or whatever his name is.
Yeah, Jan Skubiszewski.
I haven’t heard one person in the last five years get it right first time round, so don’t worry man.
At least you can get it right.
I just always remember it’s scuba, chef, ski.
That’s alright then. Skubiszewski.
Just like that, you got it!
HOORAY! Let’s talk One For The City, with Rudimental’s mate Thomas Jules, how did you get involved with Thomas, through Warner?
Yeah it was, I was initially singing it and then we tried three other singers, and they were good but they just weren’t clicking and I was pulling my hair out because I love the song and I knew it needed something more than my vocals to get it to where it really needed to be and Thomas was suggested to us by the label and he was down. It was good, because I was in Europe at the time he was recording it so we were able to speak to each other in the studio and really get the parts that we needed.
Talk with Kira Puru has an enormous chorus bolstered by her voice – how did you get in touch with her? She seems quite popular in the jazz world.
A friend showed me her YouTube stuff and I wasn’t actually looking for a singer at the time, but I got shown her stuff in maybe March or April and I was blown away. In the video I saw, it’s in a smoky, dimly lit bar, she’s on stage in a fur coat holding a red wine glass swirling it the entire time, just looking like a total boss. Then she starts singing and it’s fucking amazing. So I was really taken by that and when it came time to start putting songs together I really wanted to get her involved. I think she should be much more well-known than she is man, there’s not many people in Australia who can sing like her.
She’s got a very unique style. In addition to those credited features, you know, it will say ‘Youngbloods featuring Ahren Stringer’ or ‘Coming Down featuring Hilltop Hoods,’ there’s also songs on the album that have a prominently featured singer on them but they’re not credited. Why’s that?
All the ones where people aren’t credited, I wrote the hooks myself, and the ones where people are credited generally are the ones who contain the people with a big profile and who made a contribution to the songwriting.
So tell me, who’s the chick on Tightrope?
Kristina Miltiadou, she’s a Melbourne girl. She’s put out a couple of things here and there.
Tightrope’s now my favourite song. I’ve gone between Cinematic, One For The City and now Tightrope, it’s so radio-ready.
Is that right? I’m glad you’re vibing it. I love that song and it’s something I’m really proud of with the hook writing and songwriting, and it’s definitely pushing my sound into a territory I haven’t been in before, so I’m keen to see what people think of it.
It’s definitely a highlight for me. I ran to it on a treadmill yesterday.
A good workout song!
Change of pace, Am Yours. What a beautiful piece of music. A very close friend of mine’s Mum had an extensive battle with cancer when she was younger and she witnessed that. This is a song that’s going to make people like her bawl their eyes out. Of course the disease has touched almost all of us in some way, too. Was this something you’ve had inside you for a while, because it’s so personal – and is it something you toyed with not releasing?
Of course. I still struggle to listen to it. I struggled to record it and I had it for about six months or more before we did – it was the last song we recorded. I was kind of putting it off. It was difficult to do and to listen to it, but obviously I’ve had to listen to it many times and with other people in the room, to make sure it got to the point of being ready to go on the album. I have had it for a while, it’s talking about stuff that happened in the end of 2010 and the first half of 2011. At this point, my Mum hasn’t heard it yet, so there’s still one more bridge to cross as far as getting to the point where there’s no more huge ‘moments’ with this song. Obviously, when Mum hears it for the first time, that’s going to be the biggest moment of the whole thing. I won’t be able to be with her, I’ll be like ‘here’s a song, I’ll be back, I love you.’
Go get some milk.
Yeah, I’ll go ‘do you need me to get some shopping done… are your cats alright?’ Hahaha. I think it’ll be hard for Mum to listen to, and as you said, it’ll make a lot of people that I don’t know emotional, but I think it will also help a lot of people. I’ve had a friend who can’t listen to the song either. The first time he heard it he broke down. After that, he went away and told me he’d been going over and over it in his head and that it’s what he’d like to say but he hadn’t been able to say it with words. It’s going to help a lot of people, so I’ll make sure my Mum knows that. I was hesitant to put it out, so it’s going to help as well as being cathartic for myself. The good that it’s going to do definitely outweighs the downfall of putting it on the album.
I think, not that people didn’t respect you before, but I think this will bring a new kind of respect to the surface. This is the most vulnerable you’ve been on a song before, right?
Without any doubt man. I’m talking about one of the people I love most in the entire work facing death, I don’t think you can get more real than that.
How long was the write?
It was pretty quick, man, because it wasn’t something that I started writing immediately, it was something I wrote after Mum had gone through everything – and come out the other end alright, might I add. So it wasn’t something I was trying to pen at the time, I was just trying to get through it so when I went to write it, there were a lot of emotions that had built up for quite a while so I was able to write it quite quickly.
I think showing that true personality, 100% you, no holes barred side – I mean, the album’s very big and epic and has elements of grandeur and parts are exaggerated, then we come to this stripped back, totally you, no mask part. It definitely adds to that cinematic experience in which you’ve got all the action surrounding a crucially emotive point.
Yeah, totally! The album is heightened, it’s not all fuckin’ factual. There’s parts of it that are massively exaggerated…
And that’s you!
That’s hip-hop! That’s music! It doesn’t matter if it’s Jay Z or a local up and comer from Brunswick, people exaggerate in rap because it’s part of it and it’s that storytelling. When it came to this one, the flipside of that is, if you can’t be real, honest and brave with something like this, what’s the point of even making music? When I decided to write Am Yours, it was either not do it, or go all in.
You did go in and it shows. Thanks for being so open about that stuff mate. Let’s talk about sounds now – you’ve obviously on songs like Cinematic you’ve got the autotune going on in the chorus – to really sort of go in that electronic vocal direction, was that a hard decision or did you just think ‘let’s just fucking slap heaps of amazing stuff on it and make this sound crazy’?
Yeah, it wasn’t even a thing for me dude, I think it sounds great and it sounds better with the autotune than without it. It’s not like, crazy T-Pain autotune, it’s just a slight effect.
It just makes it bigger and more solid.
Exactly dude, so it wasn’t even a ‘oh shit, we’re doing autotune, is this going to ruffle feathers,’ it was more a ‘this sounds better than without it, so let’s just fucking do it!’
Everyone knows you can sing and rap, chuck whatever you want on it! And I suppose because Cinematic is such a massive, epic, ‘I’m on top of the world’ track, if you chuck that autotune on it removes any opportunity for vulnerability, which is important on a track like that when the lyrical content is what Cinematic‘s is.
Even then dude, it really was just a sound and style thing. It sounds better with that beat, that melody and the words themselves, it sounded better with that effect on. And you are right, it’s the content and it’s the title track and it’s a pretty epic sounding piece of music, so it all just tied in and made sense. I couldn’t give a flying fuck if somebody feels differently about it. It’s their call to make, but it’s my album so I make the call I want to make.
Speaking of feeling differently… when you teamed up with Ahren the response was – to me anyway – surprisingly positive. Hardcore fans are very… protective! of their genre. How did you respond to the negativity that did come with doing that song though?
People are entitled to say what they want but I’m entitled to not listen to it or care about it. We didn’t take his song without permission, we used it having hit Ahren up and coming in to re-sing it, then again a year and a half later, then doing the video with us and promoting it on his socials. It’s not like I’m stealing from hardcore, it was a collaboration from the very fucking start. It’s whatever, dude. I’ve had criticism and it’s fine, people can think what they want and I can think what I want and disregard what they want.
[We then got cut off by the Warner rep so I called Illy back after his interview block and this is where that bit starts.]
What the fuck were we talking about.
I think it was like sounds and shit.
Okay we’ll go with that. Is this whole electronic sounds stuff on the voice, that’s not something you did much on The Chase, is it? It’s sort of brand new to Cinematic isn’t it?
It is man, yeah. It is because this is the first album where I’ve felt completely comfortable to be able to push myself. I was a very different profile after The Chase as opposed to before it. Before it I had one album out and I had a couple of songs, one song that did quite well, but I still hadn’t really established myself. It was also a slightly different time. There was a lot less risktaking done so at the time, The Chase took a few risks but even then it was restrained because I didn’t have a profile or I wasn’t comfortable enough to just really go for what I wanted to do. It Can Wait, Diamonds, there’s a whole bunch of examples of really pushing the envelope, but it wasn’t going all out. There was still a bit of restraint because it was ‘oh I don’t wanna really fuck myself over before I give myself a chance to get into it, you know?’
So do you maybe have to establish yourself as a certain type of existing artist?
I think so, man. I think in this country dude, like, in any genre, not just hip hop, Australia isn’t an extremely forward thinking country as far as music is concerned. There’s artists that are really pushing boundaries but mainstream takes a long time to come around to things generally, and until recently it’s been like that with hip hop. This is the first time where I’ve been comfortable enough in my own skin and with what I was doing to just back myself. A lot of that had to do with The Chase‘s success and a lot of it had to do with Bring It Back and doing an album for me and not really giving a fuck about the mainstream. But then also, on Bring It Back, there was Heard It All, which was the first time I really sung by myself and it got a good response, so just having the confidence to really try and push some things. And the autotune, and then Am Yours, which is almost entirely singing, there’s that. You know, Tightrope or One for the City or No Tomorrow where I’m singing a big pop hook. These are songs that wouldn’t have existed until now, for me. I just wouldn’t have the confidence to do it.
When you start pushing the envelope a lot more, when do you know when it’s time to stop pushing? When do you know you’ve reached that ‘done’ point?
I don’t think there is a point. I think if it’s something that you want to do and you think it sounds good, well if it starts not sounding good, that’s when you stop. This is the first time I’ve been comfortable to not care if it’s not classified as strictly hip hop and if you don’t care about those sort of distinctions then there is no point where you have to stop, other than when you don’t think it sounds good. I don’t make music to sell records so it’s not done with that in mind. And if it’s not done with that in mind and you don’t care about distinctions of how you want your music to be classed, then there is no point to stop, except when you think ‘this sounds shit’.
You say that you’re not doing this album to sell records, so when you’ve got such a massive campaign like you do at the moment for this album, how do those two work with each other? Because obviously there’s no shame in wanting to sell records, so how do you work in the marketing side?
Yeah, of course! It’s a commercial thing. Records are going to be sold. People are going to buy them. I’m saying I’m not making music tailored specifically to hit the widest group possible. If I did, I’d be rapping over glitch beats or I’d be doing dance music.
You just happen to be making music that is commercially viable and is going to play on the radio and that sort of thing.
Yeah and I’ve always written that sort of music. Before anyone knew who I was I was writing hooks. Before I even had an album out, on mixtapes I was writing hooks and singing them terribly, like not even half singing them. The two can coexist. I’m not writing music to sell records but if it sells records I’m not going to be pissed off. I guess that’s the distinction. I think it is a clear distinction but it’s easy to get muddled up.
I think there’s a stigma attached to wanting to sell records and people don’t want to get caught up in that.
A lot of Australian hip hop artists will preach that righteous shit like it’s all for the love. But it matters to people if they can go on the road and do shows. And if they do a show and then they go there again and it’s not as big, that matters and affects people whether they say it does or it doesn’t, it does. How can it not? It’s like what you love doing and if it’s not happening, then that’s going to affect people. But there’s a difference between that and writing music purely to sell.
And I suppose if you do get good sales for tours and albums, you are reaching a number of people with the message that you want that music to say.
Exactly, that’s the point. If you’re writing music to sell, then you’re not getting that satisfaction. If your records are selling and it’s a message that you want, then that’s great, you should want more people to buy it. It’s not compromised. I don’t know, is that too deep?
No that’s good man, I like it, you know how much I like it deep.
It was just a very pensive ‘hmmm’!
I’ve just started my own web series as well, in conjunction with what I do here and on the radio, I’ve started my own web series and basically the idea is to get really really in depth with music people and I don’t give a shit if ten people watch it. I feel like it’s doing something for me.
Dude totally. You’re in an industry that’s even more competitive than my industry. You have to do that shit to get a break bro.
Yeah, I’m trying to push the envelope and do some new shit.
It seems for your age that you’re doing really well man. Is that accurate? I’m not going to think you’re up yourself if you say you’re doing well, it does seem that way.
Well I’m just about to finish the HSC and a lot of people I know are going to university next year, but with no idea of what they actually want to do with their lives. They just want to follow the linear sort of thing that happens with everyone, whereas I have no interest in going to university. I’ve got work lined up. In that sense, I’m happy with my progress very much, I’ve worked fucking hard and I love doing what I do. It’s sometimes hard to stay completely humble. I’m very proud of myself.
False modesty is the worst kind of arrogance.
I totally get that man. If you’ve done something impressive and someone congratulates you on it and you go ‘nahh, it was nothing’, yes it fucking was! It was something!
Yeah, you smug bastard. You know it was something motherfucker. Be honest with your feelings.
I hate that. You’re proud of this album aren’t you?
Fuckin oath, man. I busted my arse for this shit. I’m extremely proud of it. I killed myself for this album.
What was the first song you wrote on it?
The first one was Youngbloods and that was done about two and a half years ago. It was very different. It had Ahren on the hook but it was a completely different beat. It had a completely different feel to it. Shortly after that one I started on On & On but it was a completely different topic. The hook and melody was the same but completely different lyrics. So those two were the first ones and they were before I started writing Bring It Back. And then Bring It Back started coming together and it was actually all meant to be on the one album but there was a really clear division because Tightrope came along as well with the beat and the hook so we had these three which sounded big and pop and then five or six of these really raw pop tracks that were really collaboration heavy, a lot of MCs. It wasn’t going to make sense as one album and I was like ‘I’m really liking writing this rawer stuff, so let’s do this. Fuck it, we can make this album and then I can quickly get onto the next one’ which ended up being Cinematic which took a little bit longer. Cinematic was actually meant to come out six months after Bring It Back but we started to think that just wasn’t possible.
I’m actually glad that wasn’t the case. I’m glad you had time for Bring It Back to settle in and do what it did. I mean, ARIA nominated, congratulations.
Yeah, honestly that was a complete surprise. I’m very proud of Bring It Back but there were some great albums that didn’t make the cut and I’m very thankful that people chose to nominate it but yeah, it was a total surprise.
I think it’s just good to see Stan Walker not in the ‘urban’ category.
Well yeah, I mean that’s the thing dude. Did Stan Walker get nominated last year? That was like a few years ago.
I think it was two, maybe three years ago.
Yeah that’s the thing. It’s an Australian hip hop category now, it’s not urban anymore. Like, the dudes are tripping. It would be fine if there was one dude getting nominated from some urban music, like that would make sense. But when the people that are sending the nominations in are nominating Australian hip hop acts, just change the fuckin name man. Even the people inside the organisation know what’s up.
I don’t know anyone that has ever called Australian hip hop ‘urban music’ except music directors of radio stations. Anything that isn’t pop or rock is urban so you could have fuckin’ Chris Brown next to an Illy track and they would both be classified as urban music.
That’s crazy. Well mate, that’s on you to fix that from the inside
I’ll give it a whirl.
The clock’s ticking mate.
Tell me, are you going to tour this album? I know you did the On & On tour and that was quite big, but are you going to tour the album?
Yeah, it won’t be for a little while. Me and my girlfriend are going away with some mates over New Year’s and January. I think probably April/May? We’ll give Cinematic a little bit of time to sit and to embed itself and hopefully people will still care about it come April/May and then we’ll take it on the road.
Is that what you did last time? Did you do a single tour and then an album tour a few months after the album came out?
No, we actually only did an album tour for Bring It Back. The Bring It Back tour was pretty extensive.
It started before the album came out, didn’t it?
It did because the album got pushed back very late in the piece which was pretty unfortunate but there was nothing I could do about it so I just had to suck it up and get out there.
I had a lot of fun at the Bring It Back tour, it was a fun gig.
Yeah, well it was great because Heard It All was doing its thing and Where Ya Been had just dropped but I was pretty out of cycle and people still came out and we did some of our biggest numbers. It was probably our biggest tour in terms of volume because we did a lot of shows, but it was good. And then with this On & On tour I was even more out of cycle because the Bring It Back tour was off the back of The Chase – Bring It Back hadn’t dropped. This one was off the back of Bring It Back, which didn’t do as well as The Chase, so I was quite worried, but it did well and we did our biggest show that I’ve ever done in Adelaide and Sydney was good and Melbourne was good and Perth was good so it was really nice, man. It’s nice to have that support and it’s nice to really feel that love even though you’re not crazy busy.
It was good. I went to the Hi-Fi gig. I went on my own, actually. It was the first gig I ever went to on my own.
You should have hollered at me. Oh, Hi-Fi gig last year?
Yeah, Hi-Fi gig last year. I went to the Metro gig with someone so that was alright. But yeah, I went to the Hi-Fi gig alone but it was a very love-filled room. It usually is at a hip hop gig. Everyone’s pretty good with each other.
Yeah, I’ve been to a lot of hip hop gigs and I think that I have the best fans. Maybe Horrorshow, some of the Spit Syndicate boys and a lot of the Sydney boys, but I have really really good fans. For the amount of people that come to the shows, in my career I think I’ve seen maybe a dozen fights at shows, in a career of about 250 shows, so those sort of numbers are unheard of really, for hip hop gigs. It’s really nice, you know.
I mean, it’s hard to get into a fight at a Horrorshow gig, you know.
Of course! Bro, how the fuck does that even happen?
Yeah, just punching on to Walk You Home whilst the banjo’s going.
That banjo just aggravates people bro.
So how about your first signing to OneTwo? Feel good to have that out there, and feel good to have Allday on the team?
Feels absolutely fantastic, man. I think that he’s a great artist. He’s exciting. I see a lot of me in him, a lot of me from maybe five, six years ago? A strong work ethic that is completely independent. He’s sort of made his own lane and basically he has a young crowd who identify with him as someone that they have helped create. They feel some part-ownership of Allday as an artist which an amazing thing and he’s the first of his generation to have that with the young kids and it’s powerful, man. He has such potential and there’s so much awesome shit going to happen for him in the next few years. I’m just excited to be a part of that and help make that happen for him. And Elemont as well, who we signed about three weeks ago.
Did you? Since when? Why did I not hear of this? Has that been announced?
Nah, it hasn’t yet but I’m happy to tell you anyway. We’ve signed Elemont. He’s a bit more of a work-in-progress. He’s a very different artist to Allday but then he’s incredibly talented and it’s nice to be able to pay it forward because I’ve had a lot of people help me out at different points in my career. Whether I’m as close to them now as I was doesn’t matter. Phazes has given me a leg-up, Pegz at Obese, the Hoods, more recently Drapht. You want to leave things in a better state than you found them so it’s sort of on me and people my age to start helping out the dudes underneath us. It’s really exciting, man. It feels like a natural thing and it’s something I hope I’ll be really proud of and be doing for a long time.
Definitely, that’s awesome, man. I’m really glad that you’ve signed Elemont. I’ve seen promise in him since I first saw him support you last year and Allday as well. I’ve known Allday for a good year and a bit now and he’s a great guy, great artist and he’s definitely introducing hip hop to a totally new audience than before.
It’s really exciting man. It’s a great time to be doing what I’m doing.
Yeah, my little sister is fifteen and she got into Allday and then through Allday she got into you and she got into Horrorshow and she got into all sorts of other stuff because she got into Allday. So he’s really helping introduce it to a bunch of new people which is exciting.
Totally, dude. It’s cool.
Thanks for this mate, it’s been awesome speaking to you and all the best with release day and beyond. This album is going to make waves.
All good, bro. It’s great speaking to you, mate.