Star Gazing with George FitzGerald

I didn’t want to talk about the pandemic. For something that consumed two years of our lives and continues to take its toll, most of us –  and I’m sure George FitzGerald included – want to put it behind us. Its gravitational pull remains strong however and every conversation with artists and DJs I’ve had lately seems to skirt the event horizon of this cultural blackhole. Inevitably, our conversation too, falls headfirst into the subject and it’s the context of FitzGerald’s latest LP, Stellar Drifting. “It’s not a pandemic album, by any means,” insists FitzGerald, “but it’s impossible to separate that time from the music, because how could it not.” 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, A lot of people thought, ‘cool I’m gonna write my masterpiece now’ and then it went on for so long.” Stellar Drifting is not that type of album and the artist wouldn’t pander to these illusions. Like most, he “found sitting alone in a room on his own,” during the pandemic “isn’t that conducive to writing music. You kind of need the stimulus of going out and meeting people and having new life experiences.” He found “watching Tiger king and making sourdough bread, before hitting the studio” didn’t have quite the same inspirational effect  so while much of Stellar Drifting was finished during the pandemic, it doesn’t tap into the solemn and introspective concepts that mark those now-stereotypical “pandemic” albums.

Back in 2018, before the pandemic, George FitzGerald was cementing a new phase in his career as an album artist with his determined sophomore record, All that must be, blazing a trail ahead from his dance floor roots. He was touring the album with a live band, playing as far afield as Morocco and the USA on the back of the record and the remix album that followed. Clash magazine, for one, called All that Must be “a simply gorgeous listen, one that displays a striking producer operating in full confidence,” at the time, with that confidence establishing George FitzGerald as an album artist. 

Stellar Drifting however is no carbon copy of his last record. Instead, it marks another evolutionary notch in his sonic approach to the album. “It’s subtly different” from his last, he confirms, but it’s hard to pinpoint from the listener’s perspective. The expansive melodic and harmonic textures, gathering around stoic club-inspired rhythms remain central to his work, with the artist claiming that the whole album is “a little more major key, a bit more positive” than the last. “I wanted a broader palette harmonically than I have done in the past” and that also meant changing his approach to the creative process. “I went down a rabbit hole thinking how does my art matter in this world – what place does largely instrumental dance music have in a world where so much is going wrong?”

Relying on the tried and tested tactics from the “old friends” that constituted the familiar synthesisers and drum machines in the studio, wouldn’t suffice for this new creative pursuit. Instead FitzGerald turned his focus to “trying to build sound in different ways.” … And for that he looked to the stars for answers.  

“Building synthesiser oscillators from photos (from Nasa space probes)” George FitzGerald found new textures, but more importantly new ways to “give the sound some meaning.” He asked himself: “What would it sound like if you took this photo of a nebula from the Hubble telescope and loaded it into Ableton?” And while the listener might still only hear what sounds like a synthesised pad or a bassline, FitzGerald revels in the fact that “50% of that is made of something like a nebula or Jupiter.”

Listening to Cold, the second single from the LP, there’s a warmth there that usurps its title and the origins of the album’s theme. Deep bass-lines swell, alluding to George’s dance floor roots, while melodies enchant, pulling the listener through starry atmospheres. It’s music that sits in that elusive realm of electronic music between a set of headphones and a club dance floor, where George FitzGerald occupies a space amongst other boundary-defying luminaries, like Caribou and Bonobo. There’s a moment on Cold however when everything seems to slow down, and a chopped vocal sample emerges in the stark mix during one the song’s quieter moments. It’s instantly familiar as Geroge FitzGerald, and in the wave of the deep bass that surrounds it, I’m suddenly transported back to 2012, when I first encountered the artist’s music and his breakout record, Child.

Hea had already cut his chops with six singles and EPs to date for labels like Hotflush and AUS before Child seemed to propel him to a whole new level. It seemed impossible to escape the magnitude of the record at that time, especially in the UK. It was being played in bars and clubs all over London, long before it was released. “That track changed a lot of stuff for me,” reminisces FitzGerald. “I have good memories of it.” It’s a track that still holds its own today. The chopped vocal, the keys, and the warm bass simply seems to roll through you, energising an ephemeral spirit in the pit of your stomach. 

Child came at a time of great experimentation in the UK’s club music scene. In the post-Dubstep landscape, artists and DJs like Ben UFO, Joy O, Blawan, Midland and George FitzGerald were advancing to new territories  in electronic club music, with Dubstep’s deep and tumultuous bass, and experimental attitudes informing new styles of House, UK Garage, Techno and Electro coming out of the region. Later these artists and DJs would all go “off into slightly different directions,” with more focussed pursuits towards traditional genres and styles, but for a moment the UK was buzzing with a creative air in the context of club music, and George FitzGerald was a part of it. He produced Child as a “deep house track made off the cuff,” while holding court over the Deep House section of a record store he worked, but it impressed on the scene and the DJ circuit a different approach to Deep House, one a fair few attempted to mimic. 

“That was fun for a bit,” reminisces FitzGerald, “but honestly that’s not what I wanted starting off.” As the other artists from the post-dubstep scene grew and moved into different directions, so did he. “I stopped writing music for club sets a long time ago.” Never really one to write “four tunes in a day,” he was always looking for something more substantial in his music, and for him the album format had always seemed like this intangible purpose of his pursuits, perhaps even planting that initial seed to the questions,” how does my art matter in this world.”

“I always wanted to see if I could do it”, he says about the idea that spurned on his first album, Fading Love. “When I started, the thought of writing a ten track album on my own, it just seemed insane,” but it turned out to be something he instinctively mastered. Fading Love was an immediate success. The Guardian called it  “an intimate and beautifully textured record” and it went some way in establishing a nascent crossover success. The benchmark he’d set himself it seemed had been achieved. “I really enjoyed the process,” and the confidence set him on a path, leading up to today and his latest album, Stellar Drifting.

In his continuous evolution through these records as an artist, George FitzGerald has emerged as a more-than-capable song-writer, on par with his technical skill as a producer. Over the last couple of records, the cut up vocals have matured into fully rounded pop songs with guest vocal appearances, from the likes of Tracey Thorne on All that Must Be and Panda Bear on Stellar Drifting validating FitzGerald’s song-writing skills. “I wanted to scratch the itch of writing songs,” he says. It’s an itch that has been with him since adolescence, listening to the likes of Gary Numan and Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins.

“A lot of people have asked me about the Billy Corgan influence,” he says with a laugh when I pry. “The funny thing is that when you’re fifteen for six months you’re a Garage kid, and then suddenly you’re like ‘I’m just gonna start dressing differently and go watch the Smashing Pumpkins” when youthful “tribal” instincts kick in. “The thing with Billy Corgan is he’s obviously an amazing song-writer, but there’s also this other gothic side to him. There’s this kind of grandeur to the best Smashing Pumpkins stuff and I’ve always loved that.“ FitzGerald suggests you can hear those “maximalists” elements in his first single from the new album, Ultraviolet with its cascading arrangements and bold orchestration. 

It’s certainly the furthest, I’ve heard George FitzGerald travel from his dance -floor roots, and I’m curious how he would channel a track like that into a DJ set, and the answer is unsurprisingly, he wouldn’t. “I find it quite difficult,” he says about making his album pieces work in his sets. On the rare occasion he might try to accommodate a request, he’s all too aware of the “rules in clubs” and the “ways of directing energy” through a set. He started out as a DJ after all, and while he might not consider it a central node to his artistic identity today, it’s still very much there and it makes for a welcomed change to his live sets. “Djing is just a really nice counterpoint. It’s very spontaneous and a lot less heavy than a live show.” 

Most significantly it’s a way of maintaining that connection to club music and the dance floor. “Writing albums doesn’t reconnect you with audiences and clubbing, and what got you into the music in the first place, like DJing.” It’s something that he was particularly aware of during the pandemic. “What I missed; travelling around and meeting new people and going to new places, was a really important part of how I write my music, I didn’t know that before.” He hadn’t been gigging much during the pandemic and after, as he was finishing off the album, and before that he’d mainly been focussed on his live sets. Through DJing, in part, he’s looking to “get that connection back with a scene.”

“Weirdly” he says, he’s “quite desperate to release an EP” too, going full circle back to his roots after a trio of albums. Stellar Drifting will arrive four years after his last, “and that in modern music is an age,” FitzGerald muses. Not that long ago it would’ve been considered a come-back record, but for an artist like George FitzGerald who is “always evolving as an artist,” it’s another evolutionary step. “So much has happened since the last record and the world is completely different,” and it’s only natural for these elements to feed into the growth of the artist. Whether he’ll eventually receive an answer to his question: “does my art matter in this world?” after the release of the album, remains to be seen, but one thing is certain; it would certainly matter in the context of George FitzGerald’s artistic legacy.