Around three years ago, a teen pop artist from Ohio named brakence started to experience a relentless, nagging headache that lasted for months. This chronic pain, and brakence’s broader understandings of his mind, body and environment, inspired his second album, the meticulous hypochondriac, released in December 2022 on Columbia Records.
Raised in the suburbs of Columbus, brakence enjoyed a comfortable middle class upbringing that allowed him to explore his creative tendencies from an early age. He developed his voice in choir and his knowledge of music theory in jazz piano lessons. He attended an alternative middle school that abolished grades and sent him on “discovery days” to a family friend’s basement studio to record. Around that time, he sunk deeper into the internet and grew obsessed with maximal, early 2010s dubstep.
These influences coalesced into brakence’s early style, an undulating, head-trip beat music. In early 2020, he released his debut album punk2, a brash coming-of-age record whose emo pop flirted with pandemic-era hyperpop. The latter scene navigated the alienation arising from our multiple selves — online personas and real-life ones; bodies and avatars; identities at school, at home, on Discord. Across hypochondriac, brakence, now 20 and already a quiet influence on the scene, blurs the lines between these. Fame, relationships, stimulants, screens and psychedelics infect, pester, enhance, modify, rupture and bombard brakence’s body. At different points on the album, brakence is a lump of clay, a device that needs recharging, a doomscroller with a “radioactive touch.”
The trick of this album is to channel these heady metaphysics through the familiar forms of pop music. Drawing from a prickly palette of IDM, emo and rap textures, brakence reaches for the “realer-than-real” feelings that stem from taking psychedelics. When songs abruptly shift tempos and veer off in surprising directions, like the mini Jersey club explosion at the end of “caffeine,” they feel less like stray experimental gestures than intentional pieces of the album’s grander architecture. Through a production technique called formant shifting, brakence makes his crisp, classically trained baritone vocals expand, shrink, sprout and wither as an outgrowth of the synth plucks and bass smacks.
Sometimes, brakence is but a machine “digging out dopamine,” or a “handmade prop” on stage. But other times he’s in control, basking in the limelight, striving for an obsessive level of perfection as an artist. It’s almost as though brakence is trying on different worldviews like clothes, seeing how they fit as he develops his own theory of the world. On sonic and conceptual levels, hypochondriac is a testing ground, brakence attempting to generate a fully-rendered map of himself and his environment, perhaps to ground himself amid the storms of reality.
Ahead of his Denver show in November 2022, brakence spoke to NPR about his love of dubstep and IDM, his burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy, the arduous process of recording hypochondriac and becoming better in tune with his body’s needs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
music “hyperpop,” and how would you describe your own music?
brakence: When people ask me what kind of music I make, I just say pop. I understand why a lot of people don’t like being called hyperpop, but personally, I don’t really have a problem with it. But that’s just me, you know, ’cause I can see how other people would be like, people decided to put this label on me and I don’t really want to have a label kind of thing.
What draws you to that label — pop?
I think that my music has a certain ethos to it that is a pop ethos. And that’s why I would say that I like using the word “pop” for my music. There are a lot of values that pop has that I actually f*** with. And there are a lot that I don’t that aren’t part of my music.
Whenever I show your music to people who’ve never heard it, some of them get it [immediately], but then there are others who find it a bit more experimental and challenging. And I think it’s interesting how you bring this really heady, producer-brain to pop. Is that a challenge for you, trying to convey these big musical ideas through the framework of pop? Or does it just come naturally?
I would say it definitely is a challenge. In my very early music, when I was just messing around, I didn’t care about pop structure. Sometimes it would manifest itself without me thinking about it. But it definitely is a challenge now, because I want to be very intentional about it.
I will say, I think you stretch pop a little bit, like songs where you stretch the tempo, for instance. I’ve never heard that type of thing in a “pop song” in my life. Do you think that’s all pop? Are you trying to change what pop can be?
I don’t know. That stuff is very new stuff. With hypochondriac, I do this thing where I’ll have a pop song, and then at the end, I basically add this thing in where I just do whatever I want at the end of the pop song. [Laughs]