2017Vancouver Sleep Clinic
MayDoors 8pm, Show 9pm - $12adv/ 14
Yet, it was all created by a guy who describes himself as "average."
Bettison grew up in suburban Brisbane, Australia, where he got good marks in school, attended church with his family, played football, and dug into his parents' vinyl collection. "I haven't really had anything eventful happen to me," he says. "I'm part of the standard middle class, just an average person with an average background."
His ordinariness ends, however, as soon as he steps into the studio he built in his house, a small space where he makes big music. As a teenager he started writing songs and assembling them by himself, layering his vocals until they sounded somehow both inhuman and intensely human. The studio became a place where he could escape from the world but also where he could make sense of the world, and his early material marries the immense intimacy of Bon Iver with the intricate arrangements of Sufjan Stevens and the otherworldly grandeur of Sigur Ros. Although at the time he had never been to Canada, he settled on the name Vancouver Sleep Clinic, partly because the city held such a fascination for him and partly because he wanted to create music that was ambient and dreamy. In 2014 he quietly released an EP, titled simply Winter, to Soundcloud with few expectations.
The music, however, demanded attention. It attracted a grassroots audience of listeners who identified closely with Bettison's meditative lyrics -- as though he were writing to express not merely his own fear and hopes and dreams, but those of an entire generation. Within months, it was a runaway smash, and to date Winter has garnered an incredible 30,000,000 streams and 100,000 digital sales. He booked and sold out a tour of Australia and Europe. He became one of the most promising young musicians in the country -- all before he had graduated from high school.
That kind of success at such an early age is anything but average, but Bettison's insistence on his own normalcy reveals a lot about his character and his music. That's the perspective from which he sees the world and from which he makes art: Feeling no different from anyone else allows him to make music for everyone else. Music has always been his salve and salvation, a bright beacon leading the way forward, and he hopes his songs will have the same effect on listeners. Revival, he says, "follows the journey of finding my place in the world and finding my feet in what I was doing."
That journey took him far from home. As a break from touring, Bettison volunteered in Cambodia and then in the Philippines, where he taught English in rural orphanages, cooked meals, helped develop a school, and did whatever he could to help. The experience got him out of his own life and put his own circumstances into sharp perspective. "A lot of the songs actually came around that time. That was the turning point in the journey where I got some perspective and the songs starting coming."
One of the first songs he wrote following those trips was "Someone to Stay," a standout on Revival with its rumbling rhythms, iridescent production, and what sounds like a choir of our better angels. "Hear the fallen and lonely cry out: Will you fix me up, will you show me hope?" Bettison sings as the music swells into a shimmering chorus, ragged yet regal. Rather than end with a thundering finale, "Someone to Stay" drifts into a beautifully understated coda, whose restraint conveys a heartening optimism.
After crafting meticulous demos in his home studio, Bettison knew he would have to find new ways to realize the big sounds in his head. He would ultimately traverse the Pacific, landing in Los Angeles to work with producer Al Shux, who has helmed hits for Jay Z, Lana Del Rey, Alicia Keys, and Lianne La Havas. "Al brought everything to life," says Bettison. "When I started envisioning the album, I knew I wanted it to be very progressive and draw from different genres. I come from folk and instrumental music, and what I wanted was something more like hip-hop and r&b. So when I brought my demos to Al, he really understood what I wanted to do. I wanted to make big statements, and he helped make that possible."
Perhaps because he is a fan of films and soundtracks -- in particular the works for Hans Zimmer -- Bettison always works with visuals in mind. Songs are colors and textures, grain and gradient. "It's almost like I'm trying to paint a different color palette. I'm trying to create a different mood and atmosphere with each song. When I write, I picture the colors I want to convey, what the visuals would look like." As a result, each song on Revival has its own distinctive sonic identity, becoming a world unto itself.
To heighten that sensation, Bettison recruited a crew of artists who crafted startling visuals for every aspect of Revival. The covers for the singles showcase digital sculptures by the Swedish artist known as Pandagunda. The first video from the album, for the song "Killing Me to Love You," was directed by David Helman (Glass Animals, Vince Staples, Shura) and features effects by the design firm Etc. (Beyonce's Lemonade). The song itself is a harrowing account of devotion in the face of death, punctuated by strident percussion and that heart-rending confession of the title. The video alternates between shots of a young woman wandering the desert -- Is she lost? Running from something horrible? Running toward something glorious? -- and overhead views of mountain ranges. The terrain is rendered strange and dizzying, both beautiful and alien -- much like the music itself.
It's a remarkable accomplishment, a pop album as a multimedia project and mission statement, life-size and human-scale and anything but "average." "I feel like I'm in a very similar spot to other people my age," says Bettison. "We're all still trying to work out what we want to do with our lives. Because I come from such a normal place, I feel like people will be able to relate to these things that I think and write and sing about. It's important for me to share my voice."