After numerous collaborative efforts since 2012’s For My Mother, producer and composer Big Cats returns with another solo project, though the term is not entirely accurate. The eight-song album What If It Doesn’t Get Better? pulls from a core group of collaborators for additional vocals, instrumentation, and composition — including Lydia Liza, Claire de Lune, Eric Mayson, Gen Devine, and Nelson Devereaux.
“My background was always collaborative, whether it was playing in bands, or playing in orchestra. My musical upbringing was definitely [that] you had a group of people that you make music with. I think some of that transferred over to what I do now, even as a ‘solo act,’ so to speak. There are always other people involved,” says Wirth-Davis, who masterminded the writing and arrangements, but specifically played up the group mentality. “As a producer, I kind of look at it as being a project manager, in a way. My job is to make the best record possible, and facilitate whatever needs to happen to get there.”
The album’s slower-paced sound pushes further away from hip-hop than anything Wirth-Davis has made, though little of his work could be said to be strictly hip-hop-inspired. Helming the beats for rap albums early in his career showcased his unique approach to beat-oriented music, but he’s always tried to push beyond the form’s traditional boundaries.
“Obviously if I’m working with a rapper, we’re going to make more of a rap record,” he says, citing his past work crafting albums for MCs like Toki Wright and RP Hooks. “I like to push rappers outside of what they’ve done before or what they might be comfortable with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I pushed both those dudes kinda pretty far into like, ‘Let’s try and make some[thing] really weird…’ and then their following record went back to them making their own beats. [laughs] Alright, there’s where that line is.”
What If It Doesn’t Get Better? foregrounds a jazz, experimental, and ambient influence that Wirth-Davis says is “a better representation of who [he is] as a musician and as a writer.” While working on the record last summer, he listened to artists like Malcom Cecil, Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, Arve Henriksen, and John Hassle: “that moment in the 60’s, maybe 70’s, where free jazz […] still had that kind of psychedelic, experimental tinge to it,” he says.
The sound remains a signature Big Cats instrumental project, combining shimmering melodic moments with tight electronic rhythms and textured atmospherics, but it’s less beholden to any particular style. It meanders through sonic ideas, aiming for ambient music’s mood-building over a strict pop sound. The closer involvement from the additional players can be heard clearly throughout the work, with some songs approaching a traditional verse-and-chorus structure (as opposed to For Your Mother’s use of singing as a instrumental layer), but the core vibe veers into more amorphous territory.
Recorded over a two-week period, the album was originally slated for release through Okayplayer, which paid for the project’s mixing and mastering before ultimately deciding not to put it out. “I really did not initially even plan to make a solo record when this record happened. I had been working on a bunch of new things… [and] it really was like, we had all been working on all of each other’s music,” says Wirth-Davis.
Just last year, he released The Polar Bear Rug with Homeless, as well as a self-titled experimental jazz exploration as improvisational group Cat Sax with Nelson Devereaux and Miguel Hurtado, and he featured prominently as a performer and producer on Eric Mayson’s genre-defying Detail.
“With [Eric] Mayson’s stuff, some of the stuff on his record came out of sessions that were supposed to be for my record, and vice versa,” says Wirth-Davis. “We just all get up and play for a day and record everything, then all of us will take the sessions with us at the end of the day and do whatever we want to do with them.”
Having recently taken a job as a music production teacher for high schoolers, Wirth-Davis juggles writing and performing while maintaining a full-time position, but finds his work rewarding. “It’s been great. The kids love it just to have something creative during the day,” he says. “A lot of times, I don’t have anything in common with the kids except that we both like music. A lot of times there’s thing we can learn from each other too. You’re gonna put me on to every rapper that’s dope in Chicago right now, and I’m gonna introduce you to David Bowie, and that’s going to be our exchange today. We’ll both gain something from it.”
In the future, he’s looking forward to some upcoming high-profile shows with Cat Sax — including Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival — and opening for some Har Mar Superstar dates, but for the moment is putting his energies into promoting What If It Doesn’t Get Better? This Saturday, the album will be performed at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall, with Big Cats helming a band comprising Lydia Liza, Eric Mayson, and Nelson Devereaux, with opening sets from Lexii Alijai, Sloslylove, and a DJ set from Tiny Deaths’ Claire de Lune.
When asked how the positive vibe of the record’s sound sits with its potentially bleak title, Wirth-Davis says he doesn’t see it as representing a depressing outlook. “It’s sort of a mantra for me for trying to make sure things do get better, and pushing to keep improving myself, and avoiding becoming stagnant,” he says, arguing that things can always stand to be better, even when going arguably well.
“I want to keep pushing myself, both as a person and as an artist,” he says. “The moments where I feel like I’ve grown the most throughout my life have been when I’ve taken risks and done stuff that really was scary in a lot of ways.”
Jack Spencer is a music writer based in the Twin Cities.