There’s a scene, early in the 1951 animated film version of Alice in Wonderland, where the protagonist, her skirts ballooned out around her like a parachute, takes a tumble down a rabbit hole and falls into a dark abyss. As Alice descends, she pauses to turn on a lamp, later picking up a book, reading in contemplation as she drops. Eventually, while musing about whether she’s falling to the other side of the earth, she flips and lands, upside down, in Wonderland.
For Rich Aucoin, working on his third full-length album Release (due May 17, 2019), the film provided the perfect inspiration for the existential angst he’d been grappling with. “I wanted to use Wonderland as a metaphor for how we form our beliefs and our world-view,” he says, musing about Alice’s descent into self-awareness, “and about how we deal with existing in the universe.”
The resulting album, which Aucoin admits he almost called Death, combines electronic beats and soundscapes in songs that feel contemplative, but far from dark. With titles like “The Mind,” “The Self,” and “The Fear,” each song is to be read as something to be released (as in “release the mind,” “release the fear,” etc.). Fittingly, the album kicks off with a short song, “The Base,” in which Aucoin samples American neuroscientist Sam Harris leading a guided meditation.
And as with many of Aucoin’s previous albums, The Release is designed to synchronize with film: in this case, to a version of Alice in Wonderland that he’s edited to give it a narrative flow better suited to explore his chosen themes. “Everything I’ve written so far has synced up to a film,” says Aucoin, who’d always planned to go to film school, but instead completed a degree in contemporary studies and philosophy.
Indeed, it was near the end of that formal education that Aucoin, a classically-trained musician who taught himself music recording and production as a 13-year-old, first decided to try his hand at creating a new soundtrack for an existing film. The result was Personal Publication (2007), his debut EP, which was written to synchronize with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unknowingly, he’d also charted a course for this career.
“The first shows were me sitting on the side of a stage playing keyboard while people watched the movie,” he laughs. Aucoin’s version of the animated film, with its original soundtrack, amassed more than a quarter million views on YouTube before he received a cease-and-desist letter from the copyright holders ordering him to take it down.
In the years that followed, Aucoin, began making music only after setting parameters within which to work – a practice he maintains today.
“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules, and of those rules, one of them needs to be doing the opposite of what I did the last time,” he explains. He wrote an album designed to sync with a film he made by combining three films starring Jimmy Stewart (Pubic Publication, 2010), and later made another to match up with an edited version of The Little Prince (2014’s Polaris Prize-nominated Ephemeral).
“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules.”
At one point, to honour a rule about not making his next album alone, he travelled across the country making recordings with more than 500 people, including three choirs, incorporating them all into an album that eventually became 2011’s We’re All Dying to Live. While each artist would play a song verse or a chorus, many contributions were reduced to eight-second samples.
When he began performing that album, however, Aucoin realized that he was unable to re-create its collaborative sound on his own. Unable to afford to hire a band to back his gigs, he began encouraging active participation from his audiences, who he would ask to sing song choruses and other song elements. That experience evolved into Aucoin’s trademark high-energy, interactive approach to performing, popular on the festival circuit, which he refers to as “dance floor-style, with confetti and parachutes.”
Aucoin did his first cross-Canada tour by bike in 2007 to support his debut EP, Personal Publication. It was a journey that took him 81 days, during which time he also raised money for Childhood Cancer Canada. At that point, he’d already crossed the country once, while performing in his brother’s band, the Hylozoists. “I felt like it was a whirlwind,” he says, deciding that he wanted to take in the country at a more leisurely place. Aucoin allowed himself a week to travel between cities, carrying his keyboard, projector and laptop, along with his camping stuff. More than a decade later he did it again, traversing the United States on two wheels to promote his 2018 EP Hold, and to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Though he’s quick to admit that he’s not a serious cyclist, Aucoin enjoyed his time on two wheels. “I really wanted to see the States in a slow way.”
While his approach to making music has enabled him to follow his own curiosity, and to continue learning, Aucoin – who’s been nominated for 10 East Coast Music Awards over the years – laughs at how time consuming his creative process can be. Particularly his fascination with syncing music and film. “It’s one of the reasons I’m almost 12 years into making music, and have only released two full-length records,” he says. “These things take time.”
But that, he says, is going to change. Aucoin admits he’s been feeling frustrated with the pace at which his career has been evolving. “I feel like I’ve been up to bat forever, and have been hitting impressive but foul balls, but there’s been no home run,” he explains. As a result, he is now intent on putting out music more quickly: at least an album a year, if not more, in the years to come, “so that I can never have a break in releasing music until my career is done.”
One almost hears an echo of Alice, thinking about her place in relation to others as she falls into Wonderland, or as Aucoin puts it, “contemplating whether she exists as an ego or just as a series of conscious experiences.” Whatever happens next, Aucoin says he’s happy with what he’s produced so far, is also ready to take his career to the next level.
“I think that if it does happen for me, I’ll have a lot of things to talk about and show someone,” he says with a smile. “I’ll be able to say, ‘Here are all the things I’ve spent 10 years doing, while you haven’t heard of me.’”