Helium: HOMESHAKE, A Young Genre, and Rising Above

HOMESHAKE’s fourth album, “Helium” provides the perfect opportunity to explore the origination and growth of Bedroom Pop. (Chase Manze)

HOMESHAKE’s fourth album, “Helium” provides the perfect opportunity to explore the origination and growth of Bedroom Pop. (Chase Manze)

There is nothing quite like finally learning how to play that one guitar solo, or figuring out the time signature a song should be in and rushing back to your computer to hastily record a take on it. For young artists, this near-instant actualization of original music is entirely new.

Generation Z has been given the first crack at a unique, previously inaccessible opportunity. There is no need to sign rights away with a record deal, nor prove oneself by rushing through grueling 13 hour recording sessions like predecessors such as The Beatles. Now more than ever before, artists are able to take their time, create whatever they’d like, and present it to the internet without the helicopter-parent entity of a record label.

A collection of these youthful streaming sensations—Gus Dapperton, Clairo, and Rex Orange County, among others—all work divergently under the same umbrella. The rise of this new genre is representative of a generational shift in music production.

Spotify labelled it ‘Bedroom Pop’: a style dominated by chorus effects on guitars, snappy, clean drums, and lush synthesizers, all recorded directly into the laptop.

Bedroom Pop, as currently constructed, defines itself by creating new sounds through unconventional recording techniques. Kevin Parker, frontman of the Bedroom Pop godfather band Tame Impala, often discusses how his mishaps shape his music. Parker’s ideas push the importance of remembering that Bedroom Pop is less a genre than a style of creation; the ability to capture spontaneous inspiration whenever it strikes.

However, the more you look at the modern music industry, the sillier it becomes to try and categorize Bedroom Pop. Recent Grammy Winner for Best Rap Performance, Donald Glover, funded his 2011 “IamDonald” tour entirely himself, after producing much of one of his albums in a makeup trailer for NBC’s Community. Whether it’s labeled Bedroom Pop or Trailer Rap, the location and genre are hardly important. What is important is the method.

Thematically, Bedroom Pop artists tend to be lyrically vulnerable—there is none of the boasting and stoicism of hip-hop or sexual proclivities of rock-n-roll. Many of these artists describe how their introverted lifestyles pushed them to create in order to sing what they couldn’t speak.

At 28, Peter Sagar may be slightly older than most categorized within Bedroom Pop, but his musical and lyrical themes fit right in. Better known by the name of his solo musical project, HOMESHAKE, Sagar spent two years as the guitarist for Bedroom Pop pioneer Mac Demarco’s live band before leaving in 2014 to pursue HOMESHAKE full-time. Through HOMESHAKE, he was able to craft and refine his own unique sound, entirely separate from Demarco’s.

His guitar-heavy first project In The Shower experimented with detuned guitars warbling through chorus pedals, choruses filled with lilted guitar licks and round, and muted bass lines which drive the piece forward through its steamy psychedelic landscape. Touching on themes from loneliness to dissatisfaction in your profession despite making money, Sagar set a precedent for himself as an artist who strives to address overlooked aspects of ordinary life.
Sagar’s second album, Midnight Snack, is a vintage collage of primary colors. Aged synths are sprinkled with flat, dry hip-hop drums and interspersed with pitched vocals whose echoes drift in and out at different rates. Sagar continues to discuss isolation, anxiety and loneliness through tracks like “Move This Body” and “I Don’t Wanna,” songs that touch on simple everyday struggles—dancing at a party, even mustering the energy to complete a task without motivation.

His third album, Fresh Air, took a distinctive turn. Sagar’s “hitting a dead end” with guitars pushed light, airy synths to the forefront of his work—guitars only enter songs for elegant solos or riffs drenched in distortion. Lyrically, Sagar builds upon previous themes. Tracks such as  “This way” and “Serious” balance odd rhythms and discuss the tribulations of depression; feeling “This Way” requires medication to keep one “Serious”.

Sagar is no stranger to these feelings or thoughts; in this sense, he is the Millennial representative amongst his majority-Gen Z Bedroom Pop contemporaries. An entirely modern possibility informs the genre; now, you can stay indoors and entertain yourself all day on your phone and laptop, staying connected to the world through texts and social media. The resultant struggle between freedom and isolation permeates everything within Bedroom Pop, including much of the first three HOMESHAKE albums. It’s a struggle Sagar cannot escape.

Sagar’s fourth album, Helium, is steeped in the independent mentality of today’s youth while also grappling with the same contemporary struggles. Unlike his past three albums, all recorded on one-inch tape, Sagar did not restrict himself to studio time in recording this project.

Embracing 2019, the DIY era, and the generation who beta-tested social media, Sagar made this album alone in his apartment in Montreal.

Along the way, his Instagram stories overflowed: videos downloading woodblock; snare mp3s playing intricate chord inversions on a Juno 60 synthesizer beneath a faded blanket adorned with blue spruce twigs and berries; most commonly, his all white monitor speakers, constantly playing snippets of songs that would become Helium.

In a style as classic as Prince and as fresh as Clairo, Sagar played all of the instruments, including programming the clicks, drums, and hissing electronic snares, in the comfort of his own home. Comfort is the key—not only is Sagar’s fourth album made with new freedom, but new happiness as well.

Fresh into his new engagement, Helium is HOMESHAKE’s happiest album to date. Recorded and mixed between April and June 2018, the surreal orange album dropped the day after Valentines Day. Sagar’s Instagram story the night his album dropped? A candlelit dinner with his fiancee, Salina Ladha, along with a stuffed Elmo, sitting politely next to them in a high chair.

HOMESHAKE isn’t attempting to be a glamourous rockstar. He’s been there before, touring in another man’s band, but he’s found more joy in living modestly inside the safety of his apartment with the love of his life and all the synthetic textures he can download.

Ladha, likely the inspiration for much of the love songs on the album, blessed Helium with the art for each single as well as the album cover itself. Her title piece depicts an expansive orange landscape, with the sun casting long, thin shadows off of a couch, coffee table, and lamp. The citrus-hued art is playfully psychedelic and surreal. This is an ordinary living room on Mars, the perfect companion to the music itself.

Helium is a rainy, fizzy soundscape, sparkling with glossy synths and airy crooning from a vocally refined Sagar. In the first track, “Early”, soft, gentle synth lines glide up and down jazzy progressions accompanied by the occasional snare or chime, keeping your head slowly bobbing along. “Early” slowly blinks its dreary Eeyore eyes and looks around dazed, ready to begin the album.

The track “Anything at All” introduces the major shift in Helium’s sound, especially in drums and rhythms. Helium presents drum tracks which are uniquely compressed both as a whole and in small groups to manipulate their overall sound.

Listen to each hiss of an electronic snare or snap of a tuned tom, all hitting in different rhythms to create a fantastic groove. There is little reverb or natural sounds, these sharp drums begin most songs in empty space and seem jagged until they are supported with arpeggiated guitar chords.

The first words on this album firmly place it within 2019.  

“Everyone I know / lives in my cell phone.”

20 years ago, this sentence would be absurd. 40 years ago it wouldn’t make any sense. Our generation is subject to entirely new forms of detached communication, something Sagar juxtaposes with the tangible irreplaceability of love. The subsequent lyrics inform much about Sagar’s relationship with Ladha, the easy-going nature of their relationship, and the reoccuring desire to do “anything at all” with this person.

This easy feeling percolates down the rest of the project. “Heartburn” and “Trudi and Lou”, the fourth and sixth tracks, respectively, are contrafacts of their surrounding songs. They outline the same chords, often slower, feeling like the previous song has melted its way into an interlude.
“Heartburn” echoes the 90’s R&B-influenced chord structure of “Like Mariah”, while “Trudi and Lou” preludes the energetic “Just Like My”. Similar to Frank Ocean’s Blond or Sagar’s own In The Shower, there is consistent rain across these instrumentals, providing a calm cohesion across the album’s breaks.

“Just Like My” perpetuates the lazy, roll-over-and-go-back-to-bed aesthetic of this album. Sagar’s choruses boast “Could have sworn it was a Sunday / but I still don’t wanna” and exclaim how he feels more akin to his grandparents than anyone else. His dancy 2019 hit is about how he likes to sit alone, be with himself, and enjoy a cup of tea and a keyboard.

With the entire history of recorded music easily streamable, our generation has an album to put on for every occasion. Sagar’s soundtrack tells us it’s alright to relax and just enjoy yourself in 2019, whether you listen while folding warm laundry, nursing a joint, or coming down from a mild psychedelic.

“Other Than” solidifies this love in the jangle pop guitar style which HOMESHAKE originally became so popular for. Beginning with “Walk a little different these days”, his jazzy, guitar-filled song is cleaner than In The Shower, reminiscent of newer sounds in this area like Brad Stank. It also features a whirring siren, panning across left and right headphones as you listen.

“I don’t need anything / Anything other than / Touch of my angel’s hand”, he murmurs. Within the isolation of the internet age, Sagar provides comfort with his ability to find happiness in one person.

Another instrumental, “Salu says Hi,” is also a contrafact, this time outlining the chords of the song to follow it, “Another Thing.”

Its jagged, chopped up “hello” samples are likely spoken by the muse of the album, Ladha. These greetings slide up and down scales and are warped to incredibly high and low pitches at varying speeds. It’s easy to picture Sagar and Ladha sitting around a microphone and giggling as they record. Their honesty and genuine love feels palpable on this track.

“Couch Cushion” is an instrumental which ends the album, and as if Bach was resurrected to play with a Juno 60, it is arranged in an almost classical style. Descending notes halt and collide with chords as they slide up and down their scales.In classic HOMESHAKE fashion, the last chord is held for almost a full minute, allowing the synth to breath and pulse as if it is the heart of Helium.

Playing with the conventions of the modern album, Sagar adds a “(Secret Track)” to the end of his work. The quick and sharp verse melody is slick and reminiscent of the many great R&B hits of the 90’s.

Lyrically, Sagar laments his insomnia, talking about his simple nocturnal needs, whether it be keeping a light on or rolling up a light joint to help him sleep. Like many artists who have control over their recording schedule, Sagar finds himself up as early as 5 in the morning without being able to rest.

The album ends with a skit which is evocative of the beginning of Homeshake’s first project, Dynamic Meditation. On “(Secret Track)”, a deep voice tells the listener to breathe in and close their eyes, encouraging them as they do so. Helium ends echoing the mantra “fall asleep”, lulling the listener into an electronic nap.

On his website, Sagar writes that when beginning Helium, he had a clear idea of how he wanted songs to sound, in turn changing his songwriting to fit. He mentions that Helium began quickly due to a “much clearer mental state” after releasing Fresh Air, while in the midst of what he calls a “Murakami” binge.

Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s works seem to have connected with Sagar and permeated Helium’s dreary soundscape. Thematically, Sagar’s Helium seems to mirror Murakami’s works, which usually center around a single Japanese male. Due to the importance of family within Japanese culture, Murakami insists that if a man chooses to be single, he must value solitude and freedom over intimacy.

Sagar seemed to fit right into this box with his previous albums, yet he bucks this convention with Helium. Sagar values solitude, freedom, and intimacy, pushing the possibility that in 2019, with two homebodies in love, it’s entirely possible to value all three. With Sagar leaning into the freedom of DIY recording, Helium helps prove that it is completely possible to find intimacy within this modern maze of musical isolationism. Helium is a lighthouse within the fog of Generation Z’s chronic loneliness, a reminder that you may be alone now but won’t be forever.

In late November, Sagar tweeted that he “might have another album done before helium even comes out”. If Sagar’s productivity is truly this high, we could be on the verge of a new era of HOMESHAKE—an era packed with thick, glamorous, textured albums of modern music, created in the most contemporary way possible: within the comfort of home.

CultureLiam Skelly