"I wanted to find a familiar image or symbol and give it new meaning," says Jake Troth. "A double black diamond is usually a warning for skiers or skateboarders, it signals something dangerous, but what's beyond that is really fun and challenging. You just have to be prepared for the terrain. I thought about how that was like falling in lovethere's great stuff, but also danger and high risk."
It's a pretty sophisticated concept for an album, much less a debut release by a 25-year-old rookie. But Troth is no ordinary newcomer. He's been recording since his teens, in styles from death metal to hip-hop. Most recently, he has become one of the most in-demand young musicians in Los Angeles, where he's been writing and producing for anyone from Big Boi of Outkast to Kylie Minogue.
All of this range and experience comes through on Double Black Diamond, a thrilling collection (Executive Produced by Shama "Sak Pase" Joseph, who worked on Watch The Throne and Yeezus) that tracks the rise and fall of an intense, ultimately doomed romance through songs of joy and pain, exultation and introspection. In conversation, Troth cites some remarkably disparate influencesPantera, Joy Division, Coldplay; the performances recall such musical polymaths as Beck and Paul Simon, while pointing toward something genuinely fresh and unexpected.
"My idols are Da Vinci, Ben Franklin, and Shel Silversteinrenaissance men," says Troth. "I've put a lot of energy into being well-versed in a lot of random things: I know how to make a pair of shoes from scratch, I can write and produce and perform a song in a single sitting, I can hit from both sides of the plate, do a cab 540 on a snowboard, do impressions of Rip Torn and Jay-Z. . . and there's no way you're beating me in charades."
Troth grew up in Davidson, North Carolina where the focus was on playing sports, not music. He first guitar was a present from his godfather, which he taught himself to play in middle school. His tastes grew more aggressive as his brother introduced him to hip-hop, and quickly progressed "from indie rock to punk to metal to death metal."
He joined a local band called Glass Casket, and recorded an album with them when he was still in high school. But he started to get interested in writing his own material. ("I saw what girls were listening to," says Troth, "and it wasn't metal.") After graduating, he delayed plans to enter the University of Colorado, focusing on music and studying recording software.
Soon, he drove to San Francisco with his best friend, winding up in an artists' warehouse in West Oakland with a dozen housemates. For six months, he explored the local scene, playing open mics and honing his writing and singing skills. Returning home to North Carolina, Troth started recording with local hip-hop artists and, having grown more interested in visual art, applied to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Looking for ways to blend fashion and music, he started making his own music videos and running a t-shirt business out of his dorm room. Inspired by hip-hop mix tapes, he set out to record 25 songs during one academic quarter; "there were acoustic songs and songs with beats like Pharrell's like taking all the people that were being played on college radio and fusing them into one cohesive project."
A rising producer in Atlanta named Goose heard Troth's music and freaked ("He said it reminded him of Revolver-era Beatles"), and they worked on songs remotely. After Troth's junior year, he moved back to the west coast, this time to Los Angeles, where things got off to a slow start; his first local gig was a stranger's open-casket funeral for a grieving audience of 15 people.
Focusing more on production, and leaning more to the hip-hop side because he was "craving more aggression," Troth began to connect with such notable hitmakers as Jazze Pha, while still doing small acoustic tours and writing on his own. Producer Mr. DJ, part of the OutKast team, heard Troth's song "Apple of My Eye" and brought it to Big Boi, who included it on his acclaimed album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. "I think Big Boi has a similar mentality to mine," says Troth. "He's not stuck in a single sound, he loves exploring."
As he continued to develop his own material towards his first album, Troth's vision was "to blend a more urban sound with singer-songwriter Brit-Pop." He was clear, too, about the mood he wanted to strike. "A lot of music lately feels very dark," he says. "In fashion, too, it's all black and gray and ghostly. It was all bringing me down, so I'm trying to keep things more uplifting."
Mostly, though, he was certain about the album's structure and narrativea concept that was conceived the night he saw the movie Harold & Maude in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. "I needed to put down a musical representation of a failed, potent, life-changing relationship," says Troth. "It tells the story of someone on their own, struggling but staying afloat, who meets someone and falls in love. They have a great time, but it doesn't go as planned and ends. Then it's dealing with the break-up, rebound, regret, and inevitably realizing that it wasn't in the cards and you have to move on."
Troth points to two songs as the anchors around which he constructed Double Black Diamond. The first single is "On My Way," which he describes as "me using my musical superpowers to help a girl who is feeling down. I say that I'm going to 'play those tears away' with my songsI've never actually done that, but I like to believe it's possible." He adds that the track's sound is "everything I was striving fora Top 40 sound but coming from an alternative angle, rap drums with stadium guitars, big celebratory sounds but still intimate."
The propulsive "Give It All" starts out with an acoustic guitar before Mr. DJ's drum sounds kick in. "There's strings, upright bass on that one," Troth says. "At one point, we take it underwater and it sounds like we're in a submarine." With those tracks, he was "trying to cover as much ground as I could but still stay cohesivefrom there, I could go heavier and lighter and fill in the gaps." The song "Real Life Thing" is about "dating someone who only texts," while "Used" recounts that fateful "rebound booty call after you break up." "Vacay" was co-written by Troth's friend and fellow North Carolinian, children's book author Dallas Clayton. "It's about being cool with yourself, no matter where you are in life," he says. Troth also emphasizes the importance of the album's opening track, "Reality"; though it's less than a minute long, it establishes the scene the listener is entering. "You're closing your eyes and creating your own world," he says, "cleaning your palette like what ginger does for sushi."
It may seem like Jake Troth has come out of nowhere, suddenly performing with superstars and releasing such an ambitious and fully realized album, but it was a hard-fought road that led to Double Black Diamond. "My mom and dad have always been super supportive, but all of this is completely new to them," he says. "They sat me down and asked me what my goals were, and I told them, very specifically, that I wanted to play music in front of a million people. My brother just said, 'Well, that's not realistic!'
"And then a year and a half later, I'm on David Letterman with Big Boiand my brother was the one who introduced me to OutKast in the first place. So now they can all see that it's real." Jake's remix of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" can currently be heard in the Samsung GALAXY Note 3 digital short film. He will release Double Black Diamond this fall.