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“Everything’s kind of working out” – Illy’s ‘Two Degrees’ is 2016’s best pop crossover album

Featuring a photo shoot by Remy Webb featuring Simon McDermott

“Came a long way, man, from tours, first act on, doing encores, fit in or stand out, either or, quick to pick which I want more.”

From the opening lines of Two Degrees, a confidence emerges around a project that has been destined to be one of the best pop crossover records of the decade, from the day it began.

The repeatability and the simple fact it copped six ARIA nominations on its own – including a well deserved Song Of The Year – was a testament to the level Al’s songwriting finally reached when the worldbeating Papercuts dropped at the end of June. Although Cinematic remains one of this decade’s most hook-packed local releases, three years later and he’s all but mastered how to write a fucking brilliant pop hook on Two Degrees, unsurprisingly also helmed by Australian production icon M-Phazes.

Oh My is Illy’s disco-pop fuck you to anyone who told him hip-hop can’t come alongside pop sounds. Starring Tonight Alive lead legend Jenna McDougall, it’s the kind of song no other hip-hop artist would dare to go near. But Illy did, and he’s reaping the benefits. He’s become a radio staple – he’s a household name – and he’s still making music he loves & cares about.

“You can sort of aim for it, hope for it and keep pushing, but I don’t have it in me to be arrogant enough to be like “yeah, I was destined for that shit.” I have high expectations of myself, I have confidence in what I do, but I’m not foolish enough to think that its all predetermined, like I bust my ass to get to where I’m at and for every win on the board, there’s a lot of blood sweat and tears that go into it. I’m really proud of the music I’m making – and – that it can be played on anything from community to commercial radio and not feel like it’s totally out of place.”

With some of his more pop-structured moments, he calls in more singing-based vocalists to chuck some assistance down. A comment on Illy’s Facebook from a relatively new fan the other day raised the question of why he gets others to sing on his work – which has been something he’s dabbled in since day dot, and introduced people like me to people like Kira Piru, Thomas Jules, Hue Blanes, Olivier Daysoul and countless others. Illy not singing everything alone is far from a fear – it’s more from a built-up understanding of where his musical place is.

“My schooling is in hip-hop, the songwriting stuff is just something I’m getting my head around now, but I’ve never been primarily a singer. It’s not a lack of confidence, I just know where my talents are. I’m not precious about my tracks, if I think someone can come and really add to it, I’m happy to share that. I guess that’s kind of it.”

This album’s hitmakers – Papercuts and Catch 22 – are assisted by Vera Blue and label-mate Anne-Marie, who make sense as collaborators, whilst some relative unknowns like Melbourne-based Passenger impersonator Mike Waters (I JEST!), Chicago’s Sir The Baptist – who stars on the hook of what I consider the album’s central point, Hazard To Myself – and B.o.B collaborator Marko Penn, came together through a bunch of different means.

“There’s a whole lot of chefs in that kitchen, I guess. Generally I’ll write the track, have a hook and vocal in mind, demo it myself – shittily – and I’ll have a clear voice in my head of who I want to sing it. We’ll then go about all the channels we have to source that vocal and it’s a different process every time. Each track, things came back differently. With Marko, I was really lucky that he was part of a session I did that nothing came of for the album, and so I had his contact and knew he had a great voice because he demo’d something we wrote, so when it came time to find the right vocal that I had in my mind, I realised I could just holler at Marko. This is, of course, after a week or two of pulling my hair out and everyone kind of doing their heads in, and two minutes later he was into it and ready to go. I was like “fuck!”

One thing I feel about Illy’s vibe towards these records is despite his confidence, he maintains a very Australian and very understandable humbleness about his ability in the pop realm. The earworms he’s able to pen, sing and tighten are beyond any what any other writer in Australia right now is smashing out.

“I know I’ve got a talent for that, like I really do, and I’m not shy about saying that nor do I think it’s arrogant, because I know from the track record that it’s a skill I have,” he tells me.

“But the confidence to pursue that has taken a long time to build because again, I’m not from that world. You look through my whole musical history and there’s always been those melodic songs, but I think Heard It All was really the first time I got that confidence boost because that was a song I sang myself and wrote myself and it did really well. That confidence was something I could bring across to Cinematic and with the success of Cinematic – and particularly Tightrope – that really gave me the confidence to pursue this and explore writing this way and to really try and own and be proud of this skill that I have. I think that everything’s kind of working out, because yeah, it does take a while to get there but once I got there I haven’t really looked back.”

Two Degrees is out tomorrow.

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