Nothing Is Everything In 2015: The Resurgence Of Minimalism

Written By Sam Murphy on 03/18/2015


Early last year we dreamt up the concept of the interns as an all-encompassing music website which focussed on the alternative-side but embraced pop from an arms length. Immediately we were thrown into the direction of electronic music inspired by a number of producers, namely Ryan Hemsworth, Cashmere Cat, Kaytranada, who were all doing interesting, genre-pushing things. RnB flavoured electronica was in vogue and trap was being worked in every direction, popping up in pop songs, replacing choruses.

This year has been a great year for releases so far. Drake dropped a surprise mixtape which was brilliant, Cashmere Cat has been on game and Kaytranada, Samo Sound Boy and Arca have been repping it for the electronica genre. But there's one thing that's rising above all and that's minimalism. 2015's truly great, defining releases so far have all been strikingly minimal. We're going to lay aside the other big trend of 2015, grime, for the sake of this article and come back to it in a later article so we can pull apart minimalism for the moment.

"2015's truly great, defining releases so far have all been strikingly minimal."

Minimalism is an incredibly broad trend, we're aware. It's one that's possible in any genre and certainly not something that's new. But we're talking about two or three instruments and a forthright vocal. Songs where silence is used just as effectively as noise. Where a crappy vocal or lyric can't hide behind a bed of abrasive beats or flushing synths.

Kanye West's New Year Rebirth

When we woke on New Years Day we woke to Kanye West's new single Only One. West's Yeezus was minimal at times with producer Rick Rubin pulling layers off each track to reveal their bare bones, however, the production was still dense with West's voice coated in reverb. Only One was the most organic thing West has ever put out. It was simply Paul McCartney on keys with West murmuring over in his auto-tuned voice best related to 808s and Heartbreaks.

It would've been easy to write it off but then came Rihanna's FourFiveSeconds. Once again McCartney was on board with Yeezy as well. It wasn't the huge first Rihanna single we've become accustomed to. Rather it sounded like a campfire ditty with the only instruments an organ and an acoustic guitar. It wasn't initially rewarded with the same kind of chart love Rihanna is used to (5 of her first singles from 7 albums have gone to number one in the US) but eventually it scaled the charts, peaking at number four. It may not be the peak of her career but it's certainly impressive for a song that's basically skeletal. Their performance of the song at The Grammys is one that will go down in the history books. When we look back at 2015 being the year that pop stars stripped it back we'll look straight to FourFiveSeconds for answers.

To further understand how Yeezy has contributed to minimalism you've also got to look at his set design and Adidas Yeezy Season 1 collection. While Wolves is less organic than Only One and FourFiveSeconds, it's still minimal, backed pretty much only by a singular synth. When he performed it on SNL with Vic Mensa and Sia they were backed visually by nothing but a white white screen. Dressed in black the trio basically looked like a blank canvas. It was a look that was paired back but also powerful with the only things to focus on being the movement and the words. Yeezy has always dealt in poignancy. Even if you look at his Twitter, it's always short sharp words with full stops at the end. When simplicity is executed well it's more powerful than any tricks and it's clear Kanye has learnt this. It's even more clearer in his Adidas collection which focusses on dark, blank colours with no patterns. Once the king of grandiose, West has pulled everything back in order to amplify what he has to say. That alone could be the main notion for music in 2015.

Rise Of The Singer-Songwriter

Electronica and RnB was the last big bandwagon that everyone was keen to jump on. Last year's greatest records came from the likes of FKA Twigs, Caribou and How To Dress Well. It seemed the singer-songwriter was now the producer-songwriter-singer with dabbling in the electronic world essential to cross-through. That's shifting this year.

It's only been three months but already there's a trend emerging as to what kind of music is nabbing the critics' thumbs up. Tobias Jesso Jr's latest record Goon is one of the early contenders for album of the year and it's completely stripped-back. If Kanye West has introduced Paul McCartney back into pop music then Jesso Jr has re-introduced Lennon. His songwriting is sincere and forthright, rarely backed by anything more than a piano. It sounds timeless and maybe that's the appeal of minimalism, that it survives trends because it's open to interpretation. It's easy to see Hollywood being remixed into a big-room dance track like Lana Del Rey's Summertime Sadness. 

"His songwriting is sincere and forthright, rarely backed by anything more than a piano."

Another album that will no doubt be a contender for album of the year is Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell. Stevens followed the general trend towards electronic production on his last set Age of Adz but this record has seen him return to his roots delivering his most sparse record yet. With only a few instruments at the helm, Stevens has reigned things back in, amplifying his message which is at times pretty touching. The record needs no time stamp attached to it because it's so timeless except for it sounds like a record that makes sense in 2015 in the context of the other albums that are coming out.

It's still to be seen as to whether we will see more of this in 2015 but these are the kind of seminal records that start a shift. Think about the alt-folk movements that Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver started or the future RnB trend defined by releases by Kelela and FKA Twigs.

The Producer Reigns It In

One man seems to be set to really carve-out the electronic sound for 2015 and that is Arca. Venezualan producer Arca, who released his own debut record Xen last year, has worked on LPs for Kanye West, FKA Twigs and most recently Björk. He's forging a new sound that incorporates elements of RnB and fuses them with industrial beats, silence and experimentalism. His soundscapes are beautiful but they never sound particularly dense. While his sound is at times aggressive and forthright it's only ever made with a few key noises.

"It may not be simple, but it appears so and that's its biggest appeal."

There are two reasons why we're including him in a piece of minimalism and that's because of his work on Björk's best album in more than a decade, Vulnicura and his production on Kelela's A Message. Björk has never been one to deal in skeletal arrangements but Vulnicura is perhaps her most pulled-back LP ever. Opener Lionsong could have expanded into strings delivered by a full-piece orchestra but instead it remains constrained by subtle electronic murmurings and her billowing voice. Even the video for the song takes the same kind of white-screened aesthetic than Yeezy has been using of late, allowing her digitally manipulated body to remain the only visually complex element. It may not be simple, but it appears so and that's its biggest appeal. Compared to her last record Biophilia, Vulnicura is immaculately sparse free of the electronic density that cluttered Biophilia. As such, it's the most emotionally affecting Björk has ever been. Footage from her live performance at Carnegie Hall in New York shows her backed by a strings section, a drummer and a producer. Everybody is dressed in white. Her outfit is characteristically intriguing but her surroundings offer the audience a blank canvas. It's beautifully affecting.

The RnB-electronica genre may be growing a little tired but it seems Kelela and Arca are the first ones to revive it in 2015. Backed by nothing but extended hums of sound and a gentle beat, Kelela delivers her most powerful vocal to date. When the instrumental departs for her to sing "If I was your ex-girlfriend," it sends shivers down the spine. The song needs no instrumental climaxes because Kelela's vocal melody is so strong. The accompanying video is just as minimal as the track itself with Kelela joined only by a white background and haunting projections. Minimalism is the type of genre that swallows anybody who has no personality. Luckily Kelela bleeds the kind of emotion necessary from her face and her body.

Minimalism Meet Pop

Madonna is often one who jumps on the trend-bandwagon and while the opening single, Living For Love, from her latest record Rebel Heart is a tip of the hat to the house music revolution, the rest of the album is actually quite bare. In comparison to her previous set MDNA which operated firmly in the realms of EDM, Rebel Heart see Madonna sing amongst acoustic guitars (Devil Pray), warm keys (Ghosttown) and subtle percussion (Wash All Over Me). We are, of course, ignoring bass-heavy moments like Bitch I'm Madonna and Iconic, but these gentler moments are what make the record sound slightly current rather than taking bits from dance trends that have been and gone.

If we look at the charts today it's a very different picture from the Guetta and Harris-run charts of 2011. Sam Smith's Lay Me Down is notably bare-boned as is Hozier's Take Me To Church. Even Major Lazer's Lean On is far less full-bodied approach for them. It's a trend that's clearly still developing but we're willing to bet our money on the fact that there will be plenty more FourFiveSeconds moments in 2015 as artists ditch the dense, bass-heavy sounds for an approach the centres more around the vocals.