“I was going to make music or die trying” – Jagwar Twin on eclectic sounds, letting AI run his Twitter, and what blockchain is good for

Clovis McEvoy
October 21, 2022
“I knew I was going to make music forever.”

Known for his eclectic music and innovative multi-media projects, Jagwar Twin is using the power of blockchain to take his immersive storytelling to a new level. The artist sat down with Clovis McEvoy to talk about the new album, his unusual approach to social media, and letting fans explore a prism of his own mind.

Roy English moves with a sense of conviction. Best known to the world through his alter-ego Jagwar Twin, the artist’s work pulses with a cerebral intensity and a complete commitment to concept. Over the past two years the 33-year-old singer-songwriter has released a series of boundary pushing multimedia projects and sharply observed alt-pop tracks, turning himself into one of the most intriguing artists building in web3.

Born and raised in Orange County, California, Roy describes himself as an “intense” child, driven to create but always struggling with a sense of dislocation. “I had so many thoughts and feelings as a young kid,” he says. “I often didn’t know how to express myself in language.”

Drawn intuitively to the folk and Celtic music his mother would play around the house, Roy says it wasn’t until he happened across a live music venue named Chain Reaction, at the age of 13, that he found the kindred spirits he’d been looking for. Populated by a small community who would gather to hear local punk bands play, Roy recalls the power of that music and the feeling of clarity it gave him about his own creative path.

“I knew I was going to make music forever,” Roy says. “There was never a backup plan. I felt like I was going to make music or die trying.”

Roy lost no time cutting his teeth in the music industry. Touring his way through his late teens and early twenties, Roy developed his skills as a performer, vocalist, and songwriter – racking up producer and song-writing credits for artists like Lana Del Rey and Alesso.

“I was going to make music or die trying.”

— Roy English

By the time Roy was ready to take on the mantle of his stage name Jagwar Twin and release an album of his own, Subject To Flooding, he was a seasoned musician with something to say. However, that was 2018: in what is now becoming a familiar tale, the sudden arrival of Covid-19 a couple of years later brought the music industry to a standstill, and left Roy to take stock of his career and his goals.

Performing since his teenage years, Roy English has racked up credits with the likes of Lana Del Rey and Alesso.

“I really used that time to re-evaluate why I was making music in the first place,” he says. “Some of that childhood intensity was manifesting in the kind of music I was making. There was a part of me that was making music out of a need to survive and a deep desire for external validation.”

Roy began dedicating hours each day to meditation and to reading, analysing himself and the wider world he inhabited. Acutely aware of the isolation, anxiety, and depression that so many people experienced during the months of pandemic lockdown, Roy created a free weekly space where he could give guided meditation sessions to fans who needed support. “We had over 1,000 weekly registered users and so many transformational experiences,” he recalls.

Roy credits those meditation sessions with fans as a key influence that ultimately led to his breakout track, Happy Face. Released in December 2020, the single has since racked up over 100 million plays across streaming platforms. But it was the accompanying interactive experience that really encapsulated the new direction Roy was taking with Jagwar Twin. Using facial recognition software, the Happy Face app required fans to hold a smile – for the entire length of the song – in order to keep listening.

All the while, the video displays a collection of images, some odd, some dystopic. “I wanted to experiment with how a fan could really immerse themselves psychologically and physiologically in a song,” Roy explains. The dichotomy of smiling amidst Roy’s satirically peremptory calls to consume, whilst ‘Hollywood [is] telling you what to wear and what to like and how to be’, “creates a very interesting effect on the mind,” he says. “It really gets to the heart of the question the song asks.”

Fans who held their smile were treated to hearing the song before it was available elsewhere, but if they lost their smile the song would come to a screeching halt.

Roy says his experience working on the experience with his frequent collaborators, the design studio CTHDRL, opened his mind to the potential that new technology has to craft powerful, immersive narratives. “I desire to tell stories,” he explains. “The mediums change through the ages, but the stories are the same. It all felt naturally aligned.”

By 2022, Roy was busy working on his sophomore album, and growing increasingly frustrated with the pressure he felt to engage with social media. “I joked with the CTHDRL team saying, ‘what if I uploaded my consciousness to the internet so that there could be a 24/7 social influencer version of me.’” That offhand comment would ultimately provide the inspiration for Roy’s next project: SARAVI, the digital doppelganger of Jagwar Twin, and Roy’s answer to the demands of influencer culture.

Trained over a series of months on Roy’s responses, SARAVI – a creative take on an AI ‘chatbot’ – was given control of the official Jagwar Twin twitter account in August, forming part of the digital campaign that lead up to the release of his new album. While Roy has commented that SARAVI had the practical benefit of giving him mental space to focus on writing music, he also says the project intended to raise larger questions about social media and digital spaces: “Hopefully, as SARAVI grows, she can make more fans think about what a ‘self’ looks like in this digital age.”

“The mediums change through the ages, but the stories are the same.”

— Roy English

In parallel to these experimental projects, Roy was also becoming increasingly intrigued with web3 thanks to his involvement in Friends With Benefits – the loose collective of creatives, builders, and dreamers. “At first I was a little sceptical, as it felt naively utopian,” Roy says of his first impressions. “But the idea of decentralisation and onchain records felt like it opened the door for rich storytelling in ways that could bring fans much deeper into the lore of the music – and allow fans to participate in a community where they could win financially by doing what they would do anyway.”

His curiosity rapidly snowballed, culminating in his most ambitious artistic project to date – the Hall of Mirrors. Conceived as an interactive, web3-powered, audio-visual experience, it is, in practice, a prism of Roy’s memories, creations, thoughts, and stories.

Fans first enter the space by connecting their wallet and receiving a unique ‘crown’ NFT as an identifier. From that point on, they are left to traverse an ever-deepening rabbit hole populated by vivid shades of red, limited edition NFTs, grainy VHS footage, unreleased demos, and wireframe, 3D scans of objects and bodies.

As fans explore, they solve puzzles to unlock ‘rooms’ containing mintable 1/1 NFT artefacts. Fans who unlock a room are listed permanently onchain as the first person to access the space – but simultaneously each room that is discovered is a gift to the community as a whole; once a door is opened it becomes accessible to all other fans, growing and expanding the experience. As they delve deeper and acquire artefacts, fans can keep what they find as a collectible NFT to gain future utility, such as first access to future drops, or they can sell what they find on secondary marketplaces.

This unique combination of immersive interactivity, NFTs, music, and visual arts, is the perfect companion and primer to Jagwar Twin’s new album, 33. A simultaneous critique and celebration of our current internet age, it blends an eclectic mix of pop, electronica, disco, alternative rock, and more. Building upon its predecessor, the new album features Roy’s most ambitious song writing to date; pushing the musical envelope and delving deep into the defining issues of a generation.

Roy's new album, 33, features his most ambitious song-writing to date, pushing the musical envelope and delving deep into the defining issues of a generation.

“We are more connected to each other than ever, but somehow many of us feel more disconnected from ourselves,” says Roy. “We are the stories we tell, and I wonder if we have forgotten who we are. On 33 I am asking: what will our human story be?”

The storyteller in Roy can be seen on full display in his recent genesis drop on Sound. Selling out in under a minute, the previously unreleased track, The Song of The Sun & The Moon, is lyrically tender, loaded with poignant imagery, and comes with an accompanying window into Roy’s writing process. Describing a period of solitude, in the woods of Ithaca, New York, the artist gives fans an unfiltered description of his emotional state as the song was made: “I had just been dropped from a major record label and had been largely unsuccessful in terms of making a living as an artist, but I felt a peace about it all in that moment. I was proud of myself.”

“Disconnecting allows you to get perspective on what is really going on.”

Looking at a song like this, and at projects like Hall of Mirrors and SARAVI, it’s hard not to see a warring desire within him to connect with fans and share intimacy, but also to stay one step removed. Where some might see paradox, Roy sees a natural duality which he embraced long ago.

“To be able to share deeply personal stories and memories and connect with others, you need to be able to connect with yourself,” he says. “The only way I know to do that is to disconnect and be with myself. Disconnecting allows you to zoom out and get perspective on what is really going on.

“The idea of decentralisation and onchain records felt like it opened the door for rich storytelling in ways that could bring fans much deeper into the lore of the music.”

— Roy English

That said, Roy makes clear how pivotal his fans and community are to him. “Always being available as an artist and a human can have negative impacts,” says Roy. “But conversely, we have the opportunity to connect with each other and form beautiful relationships. I am so grateful to know some of the Jagwar Twin fans and collectors in the web3 space. They are amazing geniuses and make it so much fun to build in this space.”

Talking with Roy, it’s clear that there is another goal that seems to sustain all others – yes, to “redefine what being an artist can look like,” but also more broadly: to tell a story, and, through the telling, reflect back to us our actions and consequences. “Every civilisation has its myths and tales,” says Roy. “Those stories shape the way humans of that age live their lives and orient themselves in the world. What are the stories we tell in the current digital age?”

The work of Jagwar Twin is an open question, posed to our modern conceptions of society and self, of mass media and consumption, and of the stories that shape culture. For some, the answer to these questions is unsettling, but Roy holds to an optimistic view. “Whatever technologies we create will be created in our own image. It is up to us how we will use it – but I do have faith in humanity to use it, unselfishly, to build a better world. I meet people almost every day who make me believe that it is possible.”

“To be able to share deeply personal stories and memories and connect with others, you need to be able to connect with yourself.”
“To be able to share deeply personal stories and memories and connect with others, you need to be able to connect with yourself.”
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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.