I’ve done dozens of interviews with musicians since the Coronavirus pandemic began. And the one thing everyone agrees upon is there is no right way for an artist to handle this.
For some it is quiet time with the family; for others it is time to release new music; some just do the occasional benefit. And if you’re Bay Area rapper G-Eazy, you decide to throw a huge curve ball and start covering songs from Bob Dylan and Radiohead for fun.
Those initial covers have turned into a full album from G-Eazy (real name Gerald Gillum). The superb and totally unexpected Everything’s Strange Here only features two covers, David Bowie’s “Lazarus” and Beck’s “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” but the spirit of those initial covers, finding G-Eazy singing and going back to his love of artists like the Beatles, Dylan and Johnny Cash. is present in every song.
I spoke with G-Eazy the day before the June 26 release of Everything’s Strange Here about opening himself up musically during quarantine, why Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is the best breakup song of all time, his favorite movie of all time and the weight of covering Bowie’s “Lazarus” from the monumental Blackstar album.
Steve Baltin: When did you decide to stretch out musically during the quarantine?
G-Eazy: It was about a week into quarantine and it hit me that this was an opportunity I may never get again. I consider myself very fortunate and lucky and blessed to be in the position to maximize this freedom and free time and try to find the positive in it. I know for a lot of people this has been an extremely difficult time. [But] I tried to make the most of it. When you work in our industry you rarely ever get a chance to just stop. This is by far the longest stretch of time I’ve ever spent in my own actual home. Usually I’m not here for longer than four or five days at a time. You fall into this perpetual cycle of go, go, go. And you do a lot of the same stuff over and over. Where this was a unique chance to reflect and try something entirely new and try to view it as a time to be free as opposed to a time to feel locked up or imprisoned in my own home. I decided to look for the freedom in it creatively and to use this time as an explore.
Baltin: It’s interesting you talk about being free because it also allowed you to be free of who G-Eazy is to people and go back to songs that come from all parts of your life.
G-Eazy: Yeah, and I think there’s a thing that happens in a lot of cases where you find any level of commercial success there’s instantly a ton of pressure and expectation that comes along with that to repeat that success. And a lot of times that can lead to playing it safe or staying within the boundaries or confines of the routine and the formula that you know works. And for some that’s fine. But for some others who have bigger artistic and creative ambitions it can become a bit unfulfilling and stagnant. I was excited by the idea of expanding and evolving and extending my creative output into something that felt entirely different and not fake. I didn’t want to feel like I had to keep doing the same thing over and over. I wanted to grow and evolve and try something entirely fresh.
Baltin: Will you continue to do this kind of music and showcase your singing after this ends?
G-Eazy: Absolutely and my perspective on the whole thing is art should be boundless, it shouldn’t have walls around it, at least in theory. Art should be a free form of expression and you shouldn’t be contained by any expectation or rules or walls, whatever can be put around you. So, to me, I don’t even see the music as being that different than anything I’ve done before. To me it’s just another way of using my voice and expressing myself and making art. So I see it as artistic growth and self expansion. And I see it as something I want to continue to incorporate in my music from here on out. Does that mean everything from this point forward is gonna sound like this? No because the whole point is I don’t want to be repeating myself. I want to continue to grow. And what this project and this opportunity has given me is to see that growth firsthand and believe it and have the confidence to pursue it and follow it.
Baltin: What do you think is the role of the artist during this time?
G-Eazy: The role of music or any art form, especially in challenging times, is to speak to those times and be a powerful voice. At the same time music can be a healing agent and temporary escape and it’s equally as important to give people a medicine that they need in those times. It’s hard for me not being able to perform because it’s been such a part of my identity and my life and my everything over the past decade. But the experience I get to give people, when they come to the show, they’re transported somewhere else. And they get to escape. And I do too. Music can do that for people. And while it’s hard not being able to perform and provide that experience I hope that taking this time to write as much music as I have and release much music as I have can reach people and help them with what they’re going through right now.
Baltin: Have there been comfort songs for you during this time?
G-Eazy: Absolutely. Throughout most of quarantine I’ve listened to music that gives me a sense of nostalgia, that brings me to a place of comfort, that transports me to another time and place.
Baltin: What have been those songs for you?
G-Eazy: A lot of early Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, that whole album front to back. A lot of Nina Simone, the Beatles.
Baltin: And yet for Everything’s Strange Here you chose to cover more recent material. How did you pick the Bowie and Beck songs?
G-Eazy: [“Lazarus”] has such a heavy weight to it. The back story of what he was going through when he wrote it. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer but he wasn’t open about it yet to the public. So that was a song coming from a place of great pain, but the outside world didn’t know it. It has a beauty to it, but when you realize the undertones and what’s underneath it it’s even that much more profound. And in that way choosing that song is almost like a metaphor for what we’re all going through and what is going on in the world right now. On the surface we have this music to help us and get us through it. But underneath it all we’re really going through it right now.
Baltin: How did that song change for you covering it?
G-Eazy: Anytime you cover something, at least in my opinion, the goal should be to try to bring some new life to it and interpret it in a different way, otherwise you’re just singing karaoke. I wanted to approach it from my lens and perspective and to try to give a unique take to it. The Beck song…Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is my favorite film of all time. I love when comedians do their dark serious roles because I think underneath most comics there’s a heaviness and sadness that most people don’t usually get to see. Everything about that move I’ve always loved. And that song has been one of my favorites of all time but I feel like in a way those lyrics speak to what’s going on in our world right now probably in a very different way than it was intended. But the message of having to look around you and learn is very relevant with what’s going on socially in the world today.
Baltin: If you could erase a relationship from your mind would you?
G-Eazy: (Laughs) No.
Baltin: Had to ask, it is a fascinating concept and love that movie cause I love anything Kate Winslet does.
G-Eazy: Absolutely agree.
Baltin: And that segues nicely into your cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” which, to me, is the perfect kiss off song.
G-Eazy: That’s an element I’ve always responded to in art in general and a theme I’ve always channeled in my own way is juxtaposition. A song that can sound so pretty and happy and be so sad and so aggressive. Finding the ways to juxtapose something really pretty with undertones that are completely the opposite. And I think that’s present in a lot of things in life, a lot of people.
Baltin: Doing the song did you hear anything different in it?
G-Eazy: I think that’s probably the greatest breakup song ever written. And it’s definitely also in my top two or three Dylan songs of all time. But that’s a song I would play at any point in my life if I was going through a breakup or anything like it. Certain times in music you find ways to capture something so poignantly, eloquently and perfectly as he did with that song, it expresses what the listener wishes they could say. And that’s the power of music, it almost gives you the words you wish you could find and expresses what you’re going through and you can relate to it. In order to be able perform that cover I had to transport myself emotionally and mentally into a space of feeling heartbreak, even if only for the temporary time of being in the studio doing it.
Baltin: Have you thought about how you will play all this stuff live?
G-Eazy: For the first time in my life I haven’t. I’ve put it far in the back of my mind. I put the whole idea of touring so far in the back of my mind because it’s not gonna be realistic anytime soon. And I already miss it badly enough, I don’t want to keep reminding myself of how frustrating and disappointing it is to know I may not be able to do that for a very long time. So in a way not thinking about performing these live liberated me creatively in the studio because you can’t help but sometimes think about that when you’re writing a song and let it kind of dictate what kind of song you’re writing. I love the idea of playing to a seated venue or seated theater and doing a different kind of experience some time. But I also think there’s a way to blend the two styles and comes up with live arrangements that makes it all work together. And just adding to the dynamic range and experience of the concert in itself. I think like a good movie or any good entertainment if it’s just linear and one energy the whole way through that’s not as interesting an experience for me as it is to be taken on a journey through ups and downs.
Baltin: Who takes you on a journey when you see them?
G-Eazy: Drake is one of the best of all time hands down, especially with regards to how he puts his show together and the dynamic range he captures in every one of his shows, from the most exciting moments and the most hype songs he has to the slow R&B songs he has. He rides that line and balances it all masterfully.
Baltin: What do you want people to know about this project, which, like we said, is such a different side of you?
G-Eazy: I want this to be about encouraging creative freedom no matter where you’re at or who you are. And, for me, it took this time and this opportunity of this completely different world we’ve been living in to be able to finally try this. But don’t let anyone tell you that there’s anything you can’t do. Most human beings in general don’t change often. At the end of the day we’re pretty stuck in our ways and sometimes we’ll pretend to change or make short attempts at changing. But by and large most of us don’t really change. When you think about it that’s pretty unfortunate because when you don’t allow yourself that room to grow and opportunity to evolve you can become stagnant. And especially as an artist the most fulfilling experiences are inspired by growth and by pushing yourself to try new things and evolve. I think for any art form and any great artist it’s important to push yourself and evolve.
Baltin: Who are the artists who best represent that for you?
G-Eazy: Bowie and Kanye. Bowie and Kanye are the two agents of change who pushed themselves to evolve over and over and over again, never stay in the same place for too long. And keep trying to reinvent the wheel and keep trying to push the boundaries of art and culture and finding inspiration in new places.