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Meet Isaac Dunbar: The Young, Avant-Pop Prodigy With Gaga-Level Ambition

Written By Sam Murphy on 05/28/2020
Isaac Dunbar

Isaac Dunbar is bursting with ambition. The 17-year-old, Cape Cod-raised artist is both a student and a visionary of music. Over two EPs, balloons don’t float here and isaac’s insects, he’s shown a disregard for genre but an appreciation for what’s come before him.

He found his passion for music at this millennium’s conceptual peak for pop. Every project was a densely considered world fulls of outlandish visuals and characters. Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Katy Perry ran the game, each attempting to one-up each other with a more outlandish era. Dunbar brings that to his music, giving each cohesive visuals tied to personal, adventurous music.

His latest record Isaac’s Insects is his most liberating yet. He’s revealed himself to fans through brooding moments like scorton’s creek and bounding pop tracks like makeup drawer. Throughout, you get the sense that he’s already dreaming of arenas and switching up sounds with each era.

We spoke to Dunbar about his appreciation for Gaga, his discovery of ’90s music and the next steps for him.

How are you dealing?

It was kind of tough at first but I’m at an acceptance state right now. I’m surrendering and being patient.

Does the situation make you feel creative?

Actually, my team has been trying to make me write a song for the past month. It’s hard. Yesterday was the first time I wrote something and I’m just trying to get the whole concept for the next body of work finished and work, work, work. I’m so motivated right now but the creativity hasn’t caught up to the motivation.

Both of your projects so far have been very conceptual which is impressive for a young artist starting out. Do you come up with the visual concept before you’ve even started?

I definitely have a plan before. I think, for me at least, that’s how I work best by having the whole vision board and the deck. Even just like a makeshift tracklist with cool titles, it gets my creativity flowing. It’s what satisfies me as a human. That’s the one thing that can bring me satisfaction.

It sounds to me like you’re inspired by highly conceptual pop projects like Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP.

Thank you. I’m honored to be compared to that.

What is it about those projects. Does it come from when you were younger and dreaming of being a popstar?

I was obsessed with the mystique and the feeling of a whole body of work being cohesive. It’s like a gift basket. It was so exciting and exhilarating for me to see the build-up and release of an album. Seeing all the photoshoots and diving deep into the unreleased songs that didn’t make the cut of ARTPOP. The whole world of it. It was an ARTPOP era. All of her albums are eras. It’s such a cool thing. I’ve always thought that. Even with Lorde. I love the whole era thing. I’m obsessed with it.

It was at its strongest around ARTPOP. It had to be more than just dropping songs, you had to build a world.

She even had a whole curated gallery for ARTPOP. When she first released the album she had a museum with a gigantic sculpture done by Jeff Koons. It was so inspiring when I was 9 years-old to see that. Me being a dreamer when I was 9 knowing I was going to do that.

You’re well on your way. It’s difficult to go to your record label and tell them you want a statue in a museum but do you catch yourself dreaming of how big the concepts could go?

So many ideas I’ve had have had to have the budget cut down by millions. My ideas can cost a little too much because I can be thinking out of the box. It’s just baby steps and building leverage.

It sounds to me like you really study the genres you delve into. We’ve gone deeper on pop than casual fans do but it extends further than that. You’ve dug into Radiohead and modern electronica with Porter Robinson and Madeon. What is it you like about going so deep?

I’m so obsessed with learning the secrets and the process behind everything. If it sounds so, so, so good I want to know how that entire session went. I’m a sucker for when artists record themselves in the studio. I’m obsessed with the secrecy. Diving deep, I love listening to song stems. For example, a Gaga song like Bad Romance, the stems leaked so I used to study those a tonne. I tried to put myself in the shoes of RedOne when he produced that songs imagining what synths he was going through when he made that song.

Do you think like that with your own projects? Do you want fans to be able to dig deeper and discover Isaac’s underworld?

Yeah. I would love to even do like a remix competition for any of my fans who like producing music and want to study my stems. If my favourite artist did that when I was younger I would’ve pooped my pants. Some artists, like Charli XCX, is doing that and Dylan Brady from 100 Gecs.

I love that we’re living in this world where you’re not confined to any singular sound. That comes across so strong on your genre-skipping EP. Is that liberating for you to place polar opposite sounds on one project?

I am so grateful actually. It’s been one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had to deal with, balancing out my weirdness with my middle-pop-normal. With my team, I’ll send them a song I’ve written and sometimes the lyrics will be so far-out, metaphorical and niche that I need to make it more applicable to other people. Finding that balance…If it sounds too Radiohead, for example, I may just want to dilute it a little and make it more digestible. At least for now. I want people to understand who I am first and then as I grow my sound is going to grow. I’m so grateful that people can make my music cohesive just because it’s by me.

I like that you understand that people need to meet you first. You can see from the first to the second project, there’s been an obvious growth. Isaac’s Insects sounds like it was liberating for you?

You’re absolute, 100 per cent correct.

What changed for you?

I think I broadened my horizons when it came to my music taste. I’ve been studying a lot of music from the past. My parents music taste…like, I wasn’t someone who grew up listening to The Beatles. I had to do a lot of digging on my own. I’m back in that stage of when I was 9 years-old discovering all this new music. Now, I’m going to the past. I’ve been listening to the ’80s and the ’90s, studying what made people excited. What was the ARTPOP of the ’90s. What would have given me that same excited butterfly feeling?

It’s strange to be able to go back and listen out of context. When you go back to the ’80s and ’90s when you weren’t even alive, you have no idea what was going on. It gives you a chance to listen to just the sound.

It was a completely different world. The streets were different, mindsets were different. I’m just obsessed with that right now.

Is there a certain era?

It’s the mid to late ’90s. I’ve been listening to a lot of Slowdive and Kate Bush and Björk. Stuff like that. Like what a college arts student that lived in Chicago in the ’90s was listening to and had a Nicotine addiction and a mullet.

What’s the next step for Isaac?

I have a concept for the next record and it’s just a matter of me writing it now. I have something I’m gonna drop in between but I’m going to make this body of work perfect.