Enter the captivating and clever world of NÆ, a Chicago-based synth pop and electronic artist. NÆ is the persona of Visual Artist JaNae Contag. Her music satirizes the absurdities of American aspirational lifestyles – think unicorn parties, sugary coffee drinks, and sexting. NÆ’s debut album, Push Button Future, has been applauded as “a dance-pop confection with a biting edge, commenting on modern-day issues of consumerism, commercialism, and influencer culture,” by Scapi Magazine. Her sharp wit and humor are balanced with levity, imagination, and a cosmic effervescence.
Producer, mixing engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Black performs on stage with NÆ as Blizz, and is her core collaborator in the writing and recording process. Black’s production leans heavily into both his sound design experience and jazz influence. Not only a musical duo, JaNae and Ryan are also a husband and wife team.
NÆ was featured in the very first Issue of Mythic Rhythmic, 2 years before the launch of Mythic Rhythmic Presents. I was curious to see just what this dynamic duo has been up to since that time so let’s take a trip through their latest project, Isolazen.
“Walk Between” – NÆ
Hot off the heels of their recent performances as a featured artists at the Sound & Vision Synth Series in Rochester, NY, The Performing Arts Series at University of Minnesota Morris, House of Vans Chicago, and The 150 Media Stream in Chicago, NÆ and Blizz are excited to release their full-length dark pop experimental album, Isolazen, on October 27th, 2023.
Isolazen is a carefully crafted cacophony of emotions, places somewhere between Post-Modern existential bliss and foreboding. There is a distinct melancholy to the beauty of this album. Wherein Nae’s debut album Push Button Future is a playful if somewhat sardonic look at modern day society, Isolazen makes no apologies in confronting heavy hitting feelings head on. The arrangements are cinematic and enveloping, wrapping the listener in its many layers like a cloud on the horizon, only permeated here and there with the stark angelic beauty of JaNae’s vocals…sharp and refined, like a laser cutting through the mists of time.
Indeed this album was begun in isolation during the pandemic and through sheer determination, dedication and craftsmanship of the highest quality, this sonic masterpiece finally makes its way to us at center stage in a more expansive moment in time.
But don’t just take my word for it! Enjoy top tracks from this album on Episode 3 of Mythic Rhythmic Presents.
NÆ: “Isolazen is the result of an experiment: I was dealing with debilitating anxiety, and it was Ryan’s idea to hand me a synth to cope with the strong emotions I was experiencing. He asked that I simply start creating music as a way to get my mind off of fear in that unique moment. In this collaboration, we experienced for ourselves how art and music can be therapeutic for us, not only through distraction, but also as immersive art in the process. As artists (and humans), moments of confronting ‘the unknown’ and general anxiety can make it challenging to get up and do much of anything useful…let alone create art. It is interesting for me, in retrospect, to look back on that first step in the process of making the album. I was able to create sounds and emote in a different way than what I was used to.”
“Ryan recorded the synth sounds I was creating in that moment, and crafted cinematic soundscapes from them. Later, when I was recording vocals on the more produced versions of the tracks, I was listening to his compositions and sound design elements that created a sense of place in each of the tracks. I needed to be alone, and isolated to let my imagination conjure a mind’s eye vision of what I was hearing—forests, oceans, creatures. My lyrical inspiration and vocal recording came from a combination of reflecting on these imagined worlds, the actual thoughts I was having in my anxious distress, and a combination of found texts, poems we wrote with our dear friend and collaborator H. Peter Steeves, and recounting my recurrent dreams.”
Blizz: “I feel that the initial act was one closer to desperation than inspiration. Isolazen grew from these small recorded ideas as a way to pull the mind away from hypochondriac thoughts and anxieties. Like dropping food coloring into a bowl of water, these sonic drops were allowed to flow naturally together, and then frozen in time, before moving on to the next idea. Each sketch was roughly 30 seconds to 5 minutes long and we ended up with around a dozen various mixtures of ideas in one evening. In this act of recording sketches we were able to transport ourselves into the mystical creative play space where time just slips away. Even as NÆ and I were recording these ideas it was apparent they had potential for an album. It was a way of coping with stress at hand, and turning that stress into creating something, anything. It could have been pottery, it could have been painting, it just happened to be music.”
“We were lucky enough to have captured some lightning in a bottle, and then the inspiration for me really occurred when heading back to the studio and opening that bottle back up. Hearing the different ideas that spun out of that distressed state and those specific synthesizers, and then allowing my mind to start creating larger sonic landscapes from those ideas. What was amazing with this album was there was no formal structure or ideal sound I was trying to aim for as a producer and composer. It was dark and fun and exploratory, very different from other albums I’ve written and collaborated on in the past, and pushed our collaboration into new more emotional, raw areas, in a really good way!”
NÆ: “First off, it feels really great to finally release Isolazen into the world! It is difficult to release art that feels close and vulnerable, but sometimes that is exactly the process of growing artistically and continuing to navigate one’s own voice and style. To me, this is a lifelong journey, and I know this album will influence our future releases in exciting ways.”
“On the immediate horizon, we are releasing a double album of our mixed/mastered live performances at The 150 Media Stream in Chicago this past summer. The work is called Temporal Biomes and we’re excited to kick off 2024 with even more experimental, evolving art! We recorded 2 two-hour improvisational performances with both digital and analog synthesizers, live instruments, and live percussion. We’re also releasing the live videos and polished songs from this project.”
“In 2024, we’re also thrilled to release a number of singles leading to the full cosmic synth funk album based off of our live stream TV show, Saturnae: Orbital Ice Cream. It’s been in production for a little over a year, and we can’t wait to start dropping these super fun, dance-worthy, groov-a-licious tracks based on the adventures of NÆ and Blizz in outer space.”
“More live shows are already in the works for next year, in Chicago and beyond!”
What do you think is the most important aspect in collaboration?
NÆ: “Listening to each other. I’ve learned a lot from Blizz performing together over the last several years, but the biggest thing he has shared with me is the importance of listening and considering thoughtfully to what each other has to say. This applies both musically in improvisation contexts AND in spoken conversations that happen within and outside of the studio about moving projects forward and starting new ones. Listening is how you learn from each other, and also offer empathy towards each other.”
Blizz: “I agree with NÆ here that the most important thing to making it work is to listen and be open to ideas, a very ‘yes, and…’ type of improvisation allows ideas to develop quickly and organically. I would add that the beauty of collaborations is the motivation and momentum that can continue to roll forward with projects and ideas. When one of you needs a break, or just has too many other things going on, the train can keep moving forward. Creating in isolation is difficult. Creating and marketing, and doing all the things that are expected of independent artists is verging on the impossible. So for me the support of working with a collaborator is knowing that someone has your back, and also keeps you honest in moving towards finishing projects. Then you just have to figure out how you work best together. In our case there is some wonderful overlap and also some very important individualized skills.”
“Another important idea I like to keep in mind is keeping the creative side and the business side of work somewhat separate. For example we will schedule debrief meetings after large projects or shows, we set up planning meetings every couple months and really try to focus and make sure we both feel that the business, organizational and promotional side of things makes sense and is an effective way to move forward.”
Who are your favorite duos of all time and why?
NÆ: “I have (at least!) three favorite musical duos: First, Pet Shop Boys! They make bouncy synth music, but also deliver clever (often satirical) social commentary in their lyrics. Second, Run the Jewels. The synth-based tracks by El-P are creamy and complementary to Killer Mike’s hard hitting rap. I saw them in St. Louis, MO during the social unrest in the aftermath of racially-motivated violence in 2014, and Killer Mike addressed it with a powerful message on stage, moving me (and many folks in the audience) to tears. Third, The Eurythmics. I love their classics, but also recently bought their soundtrack for the film 1984 on vinyl, and that’s an epic journey!”
“Not-necessarily-musical duos: Kiki and JiJi the cat (from Kiki’s Delivery Service) for the cuteness factor AND that they each take care of each other even when things go wrong. And then, a personal favorite duo is Strawberry and Jalepeño in ice cream…OMG so spicy and delicious! I tried this duo for the first time on tour last year through Cleveland, OH at a local ice cream shop called Mitchell’s. It’s a seasonal flavor, but I highly recommend it in the summertime.”
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