Wesley Stromberg, Alek Fin Connect Over Disaster, Ready New EP: Interview
When Emblem3 fell apart (not once, but twice), fans were devastated. Frontman Wesley Stromberg has spoken out candidly about what transpired, stating fellow musician and long-time friend Drew Chadwick "lost sight of what was important." Egos clashed. Friendships untangled. And it seemed the band and its members were done for good.
After some time away from the spotlight, Stromberg resurfaced earlier this year with “If Only,” a ghostly downtempo grappling with the past. Joined with producer Alek Fin, the pair wrote the song the first time they ever met. “It was maybe five hours from start to finish,” Fin shares.
Stromberg’s vocal is eerie, more subdued and nuanced than anything he had ever done before. The floodgates tore open, and the freshly-minted producer-artist duo unpacked a whole EP’s worth of songs last fall. “Almost every song on the record, we had very little resistance, creatively. We were both very open to each other,” Fin continues. “There was never a moment where I felt any choices I made or he made were judged or frowned upon. We tried everything.”
The willingness to keep an engaged, loose frame of mind led to some of Stromberg’s most complex and captivating work. “We did all this out of my cabin in Echo Park. I’ve pretty much lived the [most] hipster life you can get out here. It’s definitely such a beautiful place. I’m so grateful. The energy here is so mellowing,” Fin says. “It’s a good place to be honest and not feel like you’re in the zone, the city, producing and recording life. I like being able to run shop in something that’s a little more mellow and like home. You can just come here and kick your shoes off, and no one cares.”
Then, serendipity struck. Both seemed to be having a tough go of it, scavenging through the ruins of failed relationships and family troubles, and that connection fueled their desire to work through those feelings... together. “It was crazy symmetry alignment going on between my thoughts and what he was going through,” Stromberg says. “It was so amazing. That’s how music should be done.”
Below, Stromberg and Fin walk PopCrush through their creative process, upcoming Syna EP, how disaster inspired them and what they’re most thankful for right now.
On “If Only,” what choices did you make to assist Wesley’s heavy lyrics?
Alek Fin: I am a very visual person. I like when an artist paints me a picture of exactly where they are, what’s happening, what they’re feeling in every aspect of the song. Once we establish a narrative and go through the chords and melodies, it becomes my job of filling it out. I like everything to be inspired through the artist. It keeps us equally connected. I am more effective as a producer when I’m feeling what they’re feeling and seeing what they’re seeing. We went through each section of the song. I’m very specific ⎯⎯ like, are we in a car? Are we in an amphitheater? Are you alone? What color is it? I make sounds that reflect that in the scenic landscape. The choices I made were based around wanting to amplify the visualizations that Wes had in the words. The moodiness was important because there was an aspect of a hopeful melancholy that I feel is fundamental in life.
After that first session, did you know you wanted to have a long collaborative relationship with him?
AF: That night, I remember we sent it to Edge. He called me at one in the morning going “Oh my God, what did you do? What is this?” He was so excited. When Wes and I went back in and we did the next song, it happened just as easily. We felt something. At this point, Wes said “I want you to be in this with me. I want you to not have to hold back. I want you to write with me and be on the battlefield with me. Let’s make this record together.” Somebody that has a platform like he has and has had the success he’s had, the fact that he’s so interested and excited to be starting fresh and writing from the heart — that’s my one rule, we have to write from a real place — he came in and did that. He was so relieved to be in a situation where he could just speak his mind and tell his real stories. He kicks in the door everyday. The response to the music has been incredible. That’s a bonus.
We decided to go with a lot of organic instrumentation. The song “What’s Forever For” is one that we’re definitely excited about. It’s all about love and those things when you’re going through rough situations in life. You look around and go, “If this thing’s going to last forever and then it didn’t, what’s forever for?” You just have to be in the now. Being present, being grateful, being aware, being hopeful moving forward are themes on the EP. Other songs on the record are so heavy in that sense. They are straight stories from his life. He’s been through a lot. It’s very personal for both of us. Both of us were strangely going through heavy things at the same time. It’s no coincidence that we came together when we did. The night before he came in and wanted to write “What’s Forever For,” I had a girl rip my heart out of my chest. The next day, he said, “I want to write a song about getting your heart ripped out of your chest.” I thought, “Okay, that’s perfect because I’m dead inside right now.” It was therapy.
On “If Only,” Wesley, you sing about being grateful for the things in your life. How did you get to that point?
Wesley Stromberg: It all started from a conversation with my dad. We were talking about the past. He was saying he could have probably stayed with my mom. They got divorced when I was six. They could have been happy if [it] hadn’t been so wrapped up in his head that he needed money. My mom kind of grew up in a wealthier family. He was a broke musician trying to make it in the world. They had three kids all under the age of five. My mom had these high expectations of needing these things and [it was a] “why aren’t you famous yet?” type thing. He was like, “I’m out.” He feels like that if he had just stayed and fought through that, things could have been eventually way better. We were talking about not letting material things blind you from the fact you already have it all right here. We are all lucky to be alive and enjoying this beautiful earth. If you have kids and a family, just enjoy that. Be there. The song is told back and forth from my dad and my mom talking.
Right now, what are you two most grateful for?
WS: I’m extremely grateful for Alek and the music we’ve gotten to make together. I’m grateful for my manager Edge who’s been sticking by me through all of the ups and downs. My team. My family. My mom is the most amazing, supportive person on the planet. My dad is awesome, too. My fans. I’m so stoked they’re still around, even though Emblem3 has gone all sorts of ways. I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m happy, healthy, still young.
AF: I’m grateful for a lot of things. This past week was a very challenging one. I realized I’m so grateful for the opportunity Wes gave me back when I was still working my day job. Now, I’m so grateful to be doing this full-time and to have amazing friends and family around me. Being able to tell someone’s story through music is one of the most beautiful things. When somebody has these things in their head and you can be that mechanism to get it out, it feels so right. The best things in life are the simple things.
Wesley, you spoke in an interview about needing the songs to be tied to a specific time and place. Can you talk about some of those other songs and moments?
WS: There’s a song called “Anticipation,” which is about a time I met a girl. And it was this cat and mouse game. We locked eyes. The night went on. I was actually set up to be with her best friend. She came to a party, but then I ended up not liking her friend but liking her. I can’t wait everyone to hear that one.
“What’s Forever For” is about getting my heart ripped out. My girlfriend went off to college. I was on the road touring. I was gone ten months that year. We barely saw each other. Every two or three months, we’d get to have a few nights together. It just didn’t work.
“Can’t Pull Me Down” is written about my sister and her struggle with drug addiction.
All these songs are a part of my past. They are all pieces of my heart. The EP title, Syna, means "the reveal." So, it’s this big reveal of a different part of me.
Has sharing all these personal stories freed you up, emotionally?
WS: Oh, yes. It definitely has helped me vent and get these things out that have been bottled up. It’s so good to share. Everyone needs to find that. Write it. Sing it. Paint it. Get it out. It feels way better. I feel free. I’m ready for new experiences, hopefully not as traumatic as some of the previous ones.
What was the journey to this new sound?
WS: It was really cool. Alek brought the soul out of me. I naturally write reggae/rock/hip-hop. This downtempo, moody R&B was so cool to find. I had no idea what it was going to sound like. It all started happening. We created this certain sound, and it was so beautiful.
Alek, what was your role in helping Wesley?
AF: Part of it was starting with, “What are we going to write about?” Then, we let that inspire the production. One of the reasons I’m so grateful to be part of this project is because of the openness and constant communication between the two of us, as well as the realness of, “Hey, are we feeling this or nah?” Sometimes, we’d go back in and realize it isn’t hitting hard enough. As a whole, we definitely went through a phase of “let’s just let it flow out.” Every idea starts with Wes and flows through him. Production-wise, I’d start throwing things out in conversations. “Anticipation” was the first time where we looked across the table and were like, “You know, let’s just let the instrumentation inspire the lyrics.” That’s what happened. It was so much fun to get in and get involved and bring in horns and live pianos. There were no boundaries and no concerns but telling the ideas and concepts as truthfully and emotionally as possible. That’s what dictated the sound.
How do you anticipate this new sound will influence your live performance style?
WS: It’ll definitely be different from Emblem3, which was big and in-your-face. It’s still going to be high energy, but it’ll be more reserved and tasteful. You’ll be able to really hear the sounds, and it won’t be blaring party music. We’ll probably get to go to some bougie nightclubs and people can sip wine and enjoy the show.
In a radio interview, you teased that you actually have another full-length album done. How does that music feel, stylistically?
WS: I have been writing like crazy. I have a whole other batch of songs going for next year. It’s a blend of old Emblem3 and this new writing style. It’s really cool. I’m open to featuring anybody who is down to work. Right now, I’m getting in the room with everybody I can. I’ve had a few features so far that I’m really excited about. It’s gonna be sick.
After the Emblem3 blow-out, did you question whether you wanted to do music anymore at all?
WS: That’s actually a huge part of why it was so amazing to work with Alek. I had those questions: Why even do music? Why do all these things? Through working with Alek, I really found that purpose again. I was like, “I do have a voice. I do have a reason for all of this. I am a messenger boy with messages to share.” I’m really good at it. I know I’m made to do this. I don’t have those questions anymore. I feel like I’m ready to rock. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Rumor has it another single is coming soon.
AF: Potentially. We are in the phase of knowing we are ready to release this project. We don’t even want to announce what is going down or how it’s going to go down yet. We just know it’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen when you least expect it. It’s going to happen very soon.
How long has the EP been done?
AF: Since it’s been finished and wrapped? Probably like six months.
WS: We had all of the songs done (without fine tuning) about a year ago this month.
AF: Yeah, we wrote “If Only” on the 17th of October last year.
WS: We wrote a new song every session until we had all five. We always started a new one. We had all five...ready within a month.
AF: We also played with production styles and made sure the songs still hit us and resonated as best they could. Like with anything else, time is an interesting thing in the music industry. We both were given a lot of extra time and knew we wanted to release this right. We took advantage of that. We challenged choices we made and pushed them in ways that took them to a whole new level. I’m so proud of what we did and how much we put into these songs.
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