By Jonathan Crane
CALGARY – Five years ago Londoner Alexander Kotz, the singer, songwriter, and producer known as Elderbrook, was a university student self-releasing downtempo acoustic music online.
Now, thanks to artistic ingenuity, a decisive gamble, and the power of the internet, he’s become one of house music’s most recognizable new voices, a platinum selling artist, a Grammy nominee, and an opening act for Bonobo on select tour dates this summer.
“Honestly it’s so amazing just to be associated with someone like that, I actually love him and everything he’s done, just to be chosen to support him really it’s amazing,” says Kotz.
He’s currently on the phone from a train somewhere in London. Just a few hours prior he was atop the London Eye alongside production duo Camelphat being presented with a platinum plaque for “Cola,” the song that shot to the number-one spot on the Billboard dance chart last year and earned them the Grammy nomination for best dance recording.
The journey to this point began when Kotz, who played in indie bands as a teenager, purchased the audio software program Logic to record and release what he describes as “acoustic folky music.”
“I learned how to record the guitar and vocals, then after that I started pressing buttons and figuring out you can do so much more,” says Kotz. “And that kind of developed and developed until there was no more guitar, it was just me pressing buttons and making funny sounds I guess.”
Hoping to eventually make music a career, Kotz decided to major in music at University. He soon discovered, however, that the academic study of music wasn’t what he expected.
“To be honest I wasn’t doing too well at it, a lot of it is knowing music theory and knowing the real ins and outs of classical music,” he says.
Then, in the midst of his first year, he uploaded the song “Rewinding” to Soundcloud.
“I think I uploaded it to Soundcloud when I had 153 followers thinking basically nothing was going to come of it,” he says.
Instead, it became a life-changing catalyst seemingly overnight.
“All of a sudden it got 200,000 plays, and I think I was as surprised as anyone else because off the back of that Black Butter [Records] got in contact,” says Kotz. “I started working with them, released an EP, and I think that was the moment I decided to leave university.”
Although Kotz sees the decision to leave university as the best decision of his educational career, he also acknowledges that it was definitely a gamble as he now had to navigate the complex world major-label music with only the experience of an indie artist. Thankfully the success of the first EP Simmer Down and the major label recognition continued to snowball his notoriety.
A year after the release of his first single, German production duo Andhim remixed his song “How Many Times.” It soon became a hit in Ibiza and clubs worldwide, and currently has almost two million plays on Soundcloud alone.
More importantly it became a stylistic turning point for Kotz, inspiring him to take his downtempo, folk-inspired sound in a dancier, more house music driven direction.
“Those kinds of songs really made me want to make more music like that, it just made for a much more fun evening, a more energetic environment that I just love performing in,” he says.
House music was always an influence in his music, however being in close proximity to some of the genre’s mainstays gave him new insight into that realm of sound.
“I think [the first EP] was me as a folk musician trying to find my way around a computer, trying to make house music and not quite succeeding, and ending up with a 90 bpm hip-hop kind of thing really.”
Kotz also believes that it was this single’s success that caught the attention of CamelPhat, who unexpectedly booked him for a studio session in London early last year despite having no previous correspondence.
“Honestly I’ve never been in more of a spur of the moment writing scenario,” says Kotz.
“When they came to the studio I met them for the first time, and they said ‘okay this is the instrumental that we want you to write over’ — and I was like okay, give me a minute, so they were just sitting there looking at me, I sat down on the floor and wrote some words quite hastily.”
According to Kotz he then got up, sung the lines that would eventually become “Cola,” and left the studio not knowing what would come of the session. A month later he received a text saying that Defected Records, a giant in the house music world, wanted to sign it.
“We really weren’t expecting anything to come from it at all, we were surprised that they wanted to sign it in the first place,” says Kotz. “But they did, they released it, and it’s been surprising us ever since that initial surprise.”
A surprise that keeps surprising is an apt metaphor for Kotz’s career on the whole. From the runaway success of his first single, to being discovered by Black Butter, to becoming a Grammy nominee, Kotz’s story is that of an artist who was plucked from relative obscurity and swept along on a ride to unimaginable heights.
However, as his most recent single “Sleepwalking” indicates, behind the surprises is an artist who has honed in on the formula for creating house music that can cross over from the club to a wider audience by morphing it into something new. This is precisely why Kotz ultimately doesn’t see himself as a house artist
“I love the music, but I personally as an artist don’t see myself in that world [of house music], I’m more of an, I guess obviously because I came from a folky background, more of a signer songwriter background with an electronic house twist,” says Kotz.
See Elderbrook perform at the HiFi Club on July 5 and at Chvrch of John in Edmonton on July 6.Chvrch of John, Elderbrook, HIFI Club