“Why do we have this moment of clarity that just disappears?”
It’s a sunny day and Alec Ness sits in a shady Uptown coffee shop
musing on a stubborn fact of the human condition. Our ability to adapt and endure, he says, can lead to driftless complacency. And yet, “there’s this crazy sinking feeling of mortal awareness that you can tap into every once a while,” he says. “But then that feeling is gone as fast as it came. Then you’re back to normal like, back to the TV or any of the petty shit going on in your life.”
One such moment inspired Ness to embark on a bold creative transition last year: He’s adopted a new moniker, taken a new sonic direction, and will drop a new album on February 21. On Temporary Awareness of Passing , the first release under his birth name and the second to feature his singing, Ness channels those rare slivers of existential clarity into a U.K. garage-inspired record that’s rough around the edges in all the right ways—a sharp turn from the more polished sound of his popular alias, Su Na.
Ness remembers hearing the enigmatic British producer Aphex Twin at an impressionable age; he’s passed through a dozen or so more musical phases since, but that experience kept an electronic current charging through all the music he made. While attempting to record the punk bands he was drumming in growing up in Grand Forks, South Dakota, he became obsessed with production software. Days after graduation, he split for the Twin Cities. “That was always the plan. I needed to get out of that small-town mindset,” says Ness.
After stints studying classical composition at McNally Smith and managing a guitar store back in South Dakota, Ness took an old friend up on an offer and moved to San Francisco on a whim. There he assumed the Su Na alias and dove headfirst into the then-blooming West Coast beat scene, what he calls “the most formative experience of my life.”
Ness’s interpretation of that sound—a producer-led convergence of R&B, hip-hop, and electronic—took off.
His song “Hudson” got placed on the influential YouTube channel Majestic Casual, out-of-town acts booked Su Na as an opener, and major-label artists like Goldlink and Gallant sought him out for official remixes. He became a certified instructor of the program Ableton Live, one of only 50 in the country at the time. The FADER premiered his breakout EP, Surface, which featured appearances by up-and-coming singers like Ravyn Lenae and Dizzy Fae.
To an outside observer, things seemed to be going exactly as Ness had planned.
But as Su Na gained steam, Ness ran into the familiar dilemma that arises when art collides with commerce: delivering what your fans expect while staying true to your creative inclinations. Ness had always had a near-scientific approach to music. If a sound or genre interested him—ambient, pop, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, vaporwave, whatever—he would deconstruct and reverse-engineer it into something he could call his own. But something was lacking. “I felt like what I was doing was only partially me and partially me following trends,” he says. He started to think of his versatility as the absence of a distinct perspective. “I couldn’t rein it in,” says Ness. “Everybody has a perspective and something to share with the world. Otherwise, why are you creating?”
Ness didn’t want to keep regurgitating ideas, so he holed himself up in his studio with a bunch of analog synthesizers and started experimenting. “I’d play a certain synth line and I’d notice how it affects me emotionally, whereas before I might obsess over whether it sounded cool enough,” he says. He returned to music that inspired him years before, early stuff by Mount Kimbie and James Blake that was dynamic and noisy and utilized negative space. Ness was also particularly inspired by the tempo and percussive structure of U.K. garage, club music that hit its stride in the late ’90s—a buoyant 130 beats-per-minute thump with funky bass rhythms and off-beat hi-hats. “These were the artists that originally made me want to make electronic music,” says Ness.
Then he looked at his hands. Ness was born with shortened fingers, which prevents him from playing guitar and certain chord structures on a piano. “I discovered I could break my limitation by simply recording a lot of melodies all together and using sequencers to play my synthesizers in a less conventional way,” explains Ness. “This formed chord structures that were unconventional, but a lot more complex and exciting.” Ness had arrived at the unique perspective he’d been looking for, so it felt only natural to use his voice and his name. “I was scared to let go of my audience, but the singing was the icing on it. I thought ‘I’m even further down the tunnel now, I have to go with Alec Ness.’”
On TAOP, Ness treats his voice as if it was another instrument in his toolkit, presenting it in different tones, forms, and contexts. Sometimes it’s up close and personal, and other times obfuscated, like on the opener, “Manifest Death,” where Ness’ vocals are pitched down, sped up, and bounced along a hard-charging kick drum. On “Violated Time,” a danceable track with a sticky chorus, Ness’ voice is at its most unvarnished, emerging from under the static and gliding urgently forward. “I want to evoke more than just casual listening,” he says. “I want [my music] to have enough personality and impact on the listener where they describe it with the characteristics of how you might analyze movie characters in relation to yourself.”
Ness spent his early career learning the rules in order to be able to break them. He spent hours poring over meticulous details and tailoring his music to fit a premade mold. On TAOP, he operated with an ethos that’s closer to his punk-rock roots. If there was an accidental distortion with his analog equipment that sounded good in the final mix, he kept it in. That also carried over to his live performances, which he’d often found unfulfilling as a producer and DJ. In London over the summer backing up Dizzy Fae (who he will continue to produce for as Su Na), he got to try out his Alec Ness material. “It was the best set I’ve ever played. People came up to me after saying, ‘This reminds me of garage music,’” says Ness. “It felt like it really resonated.”
By reintroducing himself as himself, Ness hopes to make a lasting impression. If not, at least he knows he tried to channel that brief morbid feeling into something meaningful. “This project was a reality check,” says Ness. “I need to be true to myself or I’m never going to
be happy doing this.”