Even if you're not yet familiar with his name, Bay Area native and multi-instrumentalist Garren Sean has been a staple on your playlists for the past 16 months. After coming across a memorable remix of “Sunday Candy,” Chance The Rapper reached out to Sean, whose production work graced Coloring Book standout, “Smoke Break.”
The timeline of Garren Sean's musical history and career dates back to a childhood filled with unpleasant violin lessons and is marked by several breakthrough moments, most notably, a change in instrument. Swept away by the heavy bass driving the West Coast sounds of Mobb Music and G-Funk, and the diverse genres his parents played in the house, Sean dropped the violin in favor of the guitar.
“My mom told me I could quit only if I played another instrument, so at age eleven I picked up my dad's guitar," Sean recalls. "Right away, I realized [the guitar] was a way to play the type of music that I actually listened to."
The next great breakthrough of his career came after amassing a handful of production credits, including "Smoke Break" and standout tracks from Joey Purp and Towkio. While working with so many artists and ironing out his own sound, Sean discovered the “missing piece” of his style: “I started to realize that the simplest yet most memorable ideas were the recipe to making the best songs.”
Don’t let the simplicity fool you, however. Across his recently released debut project, GARREN, LP, Sean blends genres and innovates as if it’s second nature. In striking a balance between blaring rock guitars and blues vocals on “All U Need,” Sean went through four full versions of the track before finally reaching a moment of harmony.
Aside from harmony, Sean's biggest goal for his music is to achieve longevity, making albums that are as enjoyable 50 years from now as they are next Thursday. He also hopes his fans can use his music to soundtrack special moments in their lives. When you consider the layered storytelling of a track like “Orange Juice/Memory,” his dreams don’t appear unrealistic.
Garren Sean and I spoke about everything from his influences to his relationship with Chance, from his creative process to his editing process, and his ultimate desire of making music people will instantly recognize as his own.
Let’s start with some background. How did growing up in the Bay Area influence your musical style?
The Bay Area is a huge part of my whole identity. One of the biggest influences on my sound was Sly and the Family Stone, who are from San Francisco. Also, how I use synth bass is heavily influenced by Mobb Music and G-Funk. For example, the heavy bass riffing in "There She Go," "Desires," or Chance's "Smoke Break." In general, how the Bay Area has shaped genres like funk, rap, or rock created a vibe that is super raw and authentic, so I try to highlight that in my music.
What about your parents? Your dad was in music production. How did they influence your style?
Growing up in my house, there were always a ton of instruments and old equipment from the '80s lying around in the garage; it's still one of my dad's biggest hobbies. Combine that with the diverse selection of music I was put onto by my parents early on, it was obvious to me that I should use that old equipment and try to recreate what I heard. I owe a lot to them for listening to the best music.
Instrumentally, you began on violin but quit to pursue guitar. What happened?
I had some intense violin lessons every week as a young kid and that ended up being a huge turn-off for me after a few years. I used to get yelled at just for forgetting the name of a song, so I realized [violin] was just too limiting. My mom told me I could quit only if I played another instrument, so at age eleven I picked up my dad's guitar. Right away, I realized [the guitar] was a way to play the type of music that I actually listened to.
You produced on Chance The Rapper’s “Smoke Break.” How did you two connect?
That connection started when Chance reached out to me after he heard a remix I did of "Sunday Candy." We stayed in contact for the next year, so by the time he was working on Coloring Book, I sent him some beats when I was in Chicago and "Smoke Break" was one of them.
You've mentioned that, after accruing several productions credits, you found the “missing piece” to your own music. What is the “missing piece"?
The best songs are so simple, and it's really hard to convince yourself of that, especially when you are trying to stand out against everything else out there. While producing for other people, I started to realize that the simplest yet most memorable ideas were the recipe to making the best songs. Stripping away all the invaluable noise makes such a huge difference and resonates deeper with a listener. After that realization, applying the concept to my own sound was the easy part.
Break down your creative process for me. Do you begin with a tune in your head, or do you write and play towards an emotion?
Inspiration usually hits me as a really complex idea in my head, and then I'll quickly record whatever is in my mind on my voice memos. After that, I pick out the best elements of that original idea to build a beat around and create a cool song. It takes form pretty quickly. I rarely play towards an emotion in mind that I want to convey, because that feels too much like you're arguing with yourself about how an emotion should sound, rather than just being creative.
You've described your debut project, GARREN, LP, as less thematically cohesive and more about claiming your own lane musically. How would you describe your lane?
I'm not sure how to describe it sonically, but while making GARREN, LP I wanted to show the most authentic version of myself through the music based on who I am as a person, where I'm from, and what I've been influenced by over time. So ultimately it means just sounding like your true self. I thought really hard about making music I'll truly love in fifty years, instead of what is popular today or tomorrow. Over time and more experience, I want people to be able to hear something I do and immediately know I created it.
When blending all of your influences on a track like “All U Need,” which has rock-inspired guitars but is decorated with your bluesy vocals, how do you find a balance?
"All U Need" is the one song that went through three or four completely different versions before the final one. The first version actually sounded more hip-hop. I had zero intention of mixing genres going into it—it just came together through doing a new version of the song while keeping the best elements from the previous version. You're restarting with a new, cool thing each time. I reached the balance point once the song felt harmonious, despite all the conflicting styles packed into it.
“Orange Juice/Memory” is my favorite track on your album because of how dusky the sound becomes. What is the origin story of the record?
"Orange Juice" was the second song I made right as I started the project in 2016, and "Memory" was the very last song I did. For "Orange Juice," I really wanted a moment on the album that was vulnerable and delicate with almost no drums or rhythm. I played some guitar chords, added a lead guitar with a few effects, and it felt perfect with just that one instrument. I wanted the story to then feel like it was fast-forwarding, so "Memory" hits hard right off the top. It makes the vibe less forgiving, yet still pretty in tone. After that, it was super obvious the two tracks needed each other to exist. The guitars are so nostalgic and yearning for something more, so it made perfect sense that it's a double song that tells a story.
What do you hope fans be able to get out of this album?
I hope this album not only opens people up to me and my story but also serves as a soundtrack to memorable moments of their lives, like remembering where you were when you first heard it and how you grew with it over the years.
Garren Sean's excellent debut project GARREN, LP is out now. Stream it here.