Eli Evnen Interview

Written by

Mike Evnen

Eli Evnen, also known as Kashaka is an NYC based songwriter and producer. I recently spoke to him about his new project Van Pelt Farm which he wrote at his family farm in Lincoln, Nebraska. Under Kashaka he has worked with artists like Topaz Jones, Ski Mask The Slump God, and Big Klit to name a few. Read what Eli Evnen had to say below.

Why the name change?

I wanted to release the solo project under my name because it was a very personal project for me. Being a producer you’re usually playing a support role to realize the artist’s vision and create the musical bed and song for that. Stepping into the artist role for my solo project, it was suddenly my perspective and voice instead of someone else. So it felt more natural to release the music under my real name, but I’m still going to continue to produce for other artists under the name Kashaka.

You’ve been spending a lot of time in Nebraska, what’s out there for you?

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and lived there until I moved to New York when I was 18. A lot of my family still lives there. So going back for an extended period of time to write and record this project, be around family, visit old haunts and revisiting memories was basically me getting back to my roots. 

Nebraska is very slept on. We’re like dead last in tourism and I’d guess most people couldn’t place it on the map. Nebraska is a lot more than how it’s stereotypically represented which is as a very backward, racist republican state. While that’s unfortunately a part of its identity it’s also a beautiful state with incredible nature, and it’s full of brilliant minds and amazing artists. My hometown Lincoln is the capital and more liberal than the rest of the state. It’s solidly middle class with a low cost of living and low crime, because of that it’s a designated refugee resettlement city for new immigrants. It also has a big public university, University of Nebraska — all of that translates into a deep sense of community, emphasis on education, friendliness and pride tempered with humility.  People describe it as “Nebraska Nice.” You kind of have to be there to really understand it. The best part about Lincoln is that nothing is more than a 15 minute drive away and if you drive 20 minutes in any direction you’re out of the city and surrounded by farmland and nature.

Did you play every instrument on your album?

I played everything except the guitar which was played by my homie Graham Lyons — he’s a super talented guy that I grew up with in Lincoln. My cousin also played a little drums and we jammed on the keys together for the Uncle Stan interlude. 

One of my intentions for the production was to give myself limitations. I wanted to use live drums on everything, and for the melodic elements I stuck to a few synths, guitar and vocals. I wanted every song to sound like a band was playing it, even though it was me recording over myself with different instrument layers.

Tell me about van pelt farm, what does that place mean to you?

So Van Pelt Farm was a farm my uncle Sam Van Pelt bought in the 70s. He wasn’t a farmer, he just wanted to be surrounded by nature. He planted hundreds of trees, dammed a stream to create a small reservoir, built a couple barns and a simple but cool farmhouse to live in. He basically turned it into a nature preserve, which is rare cause in that area people usually buy land and farm it so they turn it into corn fields or soybeans or grass for cattle and try to eke out a living. When I was a kid we’d go out there and run through the tall grass and explore the woods and prairie, go swimming in the pond, stuff like that. We had Thanksgiving out there sometimes. My mom and uncles have these legendary stories from their childhood and early adulthood that take place out there too. Last time I saw my uncle was the lunar eclipse in 2018, he was pretty sick but he still had family and friends out to watch it. He passed away a couple months later. So to go back there several months after his death and turn the living room into a studio and make an album surrounded by all of his cool stuff meant a lot to me.

Do you think being from nyc has shaped your sound?

I’m not from NYC originally, but I definitely consider it my second home. I moved when I was 18 and lived there for 10 years (I just relocated to Los Angeles a few weeks ago) so it absolutely shaped my sound. It also put the pressure on me to be a better producer and musician, cause when I was in Nebraska I was a big fish in a small pond, but when I got to New York I saw the level of talent and it pushed me to go hard and work a lot and be the best I could. New York has so many different sounds because it’s the most diverse city in the world, and the different neighborhoods where I lived in Brooklyn and different artists I met all exposed me to so many types of music that I love and probably never would have been exposed to back in Nebraska.

Do you prefer making music in the city or out there?

I don’t know If I prefer either, I think they give me different things. Being in New York you’re constantly inspired by the people, the pace, the music blasting out of car speakers or off the bluetooth of someone riding their bike. I’m constantly shazaming stuff and learning about new music. In Nebraska, I’m inspired by the peaceful tranquility, the sounds of the birds and frogs and crickets and shit like that –I can be more self reflective in that environment and dig a little deeper into my own thoughts.

When did you write Satellite? Tell me about that song and your process?

I wrote Satellite back in Winter of 2018 on my first trip to the Van Pelt Farm. I had just lost my grandfather and my uncle. I was staying at the farm in this old funky farmhouse I grew up running around in. So I had these waves of nostalgia washing over me. And this thought occured to me when I was writing to the beat of Satellite –this idea that I went to New York to pursue my dream which was a career in music and gold plaques and fame and all that stuff you imagine as a kid and I didn’t really give a second thought to what I was leaving behind. And while I was away people got older and died, and the city I’d grown up in had changed, and being away had changed me, and I’d lost a lot of precious time with my loved ones and family. So that’s basically what the song is about. After the verse there’s a sampled iphone voice note I candidly took of my grandpa talking to my other grandpa about how everything in the world had changed since they were kids but they’d just kept moving on and going through it and not really even realizing what was happening. I felt like it was important to include his voice and some of my other relatives that passed away on this project via voice recordings because they were a big part of my life and I wanted to pay homage to them.

When you were primarily a producer, were you also working on your own music? Or did this come after?

This trip to the farm in 2018 was the first time I’d really focused on writing my own music or songs. There was the occasional song I wrote and never released when I was going through break ups and heartbreak and shit like that, but there was never a concerted effort other than a one off song here or there. So yeah Van Pelt Farm is the first time I’ve really done it. Producing for others came first.

What’s something that’s been getting you through this pandemic?

I bought a guitar in December with the goal of learning how to play this year, so when the pandemic hit I started playing guitar for like 3 hours a day and got really into it. So that, making melody loops and writing songs at home, and when I was still confined to my apartment in Brooklyn, about 5-6 hours of Red Dead Redemption II every night .

You’re a very versatile producer. You’ve produced funky jams like Toothache by Topaz Jones, or tough rap tracks like Throwaway by Ski Mask to aggressive grungey music like Big Klit. Which artist has been your favorite to work with and why

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite. You know, all three of those artists you mentioned are so much fun to work with and for completely different reasons. 

Ski is one of the most genuine people I’ve met in the industry, truly a great dude that looks out for people. It’s always exciting when he comes through because I’m such a fan of his music and his rapping –those sessions are all about capturing magic when it happens, especially off the cuff ideas and random adlibs and stuff like that. There’s very little ego and it’s super collaborative; if someone has a good idea it’s getting used. After playing some of my music for him one time, he told me that he really respected me as an artist. That meant the world to me and gave me the confidence to try out my own solo project.

I consider Topaz to be like my musical brother. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more time in the studio with him than anybody. I’ve learned so much from working with him; finishing a song with him feels like reading the last page of a big novel or winning a championship or something. The work is more methodical and at times slower paced and sometimes even a little frustrating cause we’re really trying to dial shit in and get it perfect, but the end result are songs I’m really proud of and I think we level up every time we finish one. 

BigKlit is just like this insane ball of manic energy so when I’m making beats on the spot and recording her, I get influenced by her energy and get really hyped. One time I asked a fan at her show what made her a BigKlit fan, just out of curiosity for a perspective outside my own, and she said that listening to BigKlit felt like being on crystal meth and it made so much sense to me even though neither of us have done meth lol. Her ability to inject personality and feeling into every part of her vocal, whether it’s a lead vocal or an adlib or a weird sound effect –it’s unmatched.

All photo credit: Mike Evnen