Garren Sean lifts off: An interview with UC Berkeley alumnus and Bay Area musician

Illustration of Bay Area musician Garren Sean
Hannah Cooper/Senior Staff

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Garren Sean says things like “super dope” and “super tight” and “the director was giving me all this direction” — phrases that could easily have been delivered through a puff of smoke sometime in the ‘70s. But instead they slip out now in the same chipper breath as “modern sound design” and “Chance the Rapper sent me a tweet.”

Sean grew up in Petaluma, California, to parents he calls “super strong music listeners.” When he couldn’t find anyone in Petaluma to start a band with, he taught himself to make tracks and record — a practice he continued as a student at UC Berkeley.

“Electronic music had its era of SoundCloud, so I was inspired to make remixes,” Sean said. “That’s kind of how I started building my original following.”

A member of that original following, as it happens, was Chance the Rapper. Sean came home from a music project in Chicago to find a tweet from Chance saying he wanted them to work together, so they exchanged numbers.

“This was in 2015, so this was right before I started my senior year at Berkeley. We basically just stayed friends,” Sean said. “By the time he started working on Coloring Book — which was like in early 2016 — I had sent him beats and he picked one and he did a song over it, and the song we did was called ‘Smoke Break.’ ”

Sean finished working with Chance a few months before the album was released in mid-May, around the time of Sean’s graduation. Looking back on his time at UC Berkeley, he separates the music from everything else.

“I think that I was living two separate lives when I was at Berkeley,” Sean said. “I would be a student going to class like everyone else — chilling at Strada, whatever — but then in a couple weeks I would fly to Chicago and be working with Chance the Rapper.”

Sean recalled times when Chance would send him messages about how Jay-Z needed a beat for a new song. “I would rush home from class and make some beats — and hopefully get one on some big album.”

Contributing something to the work of big-time artists like Chance the Rapper held that electric excitement only something with the weight of 1.62 million SoundCloud followers can, and it put Sean on the map — “Smoke Break” has been listened to more than 62 million times on Spotify, some tracks on Coloring Book reaching almost 201 million plays. Having made a piece of that album is no small accomplishment.

“There were only 14 songs on it, and I had produced a whole song on that album by myself and I have co-writer credit on it too,” Sean said.

That was the moment he decided to make his own album.

“I was all of a sudden thrown into the music industry where people were paying attention, not just bands but labels,” Sean said.

“I didn’t have a manager or anything. I had just graduated college. I didn’t know anything about how to do it — I had just decided, ‘I don’t want to get used, and I feel like I don’t want to just work for other people my whole life,’ ” Sean explained. “So I kind of just took a leap of faith and started working wholeheartedly on my own solo project.” That was the summer after he graduated: July 2016.

Working on a project as big as Coloring Book left Sean with a better understanding of what it takes to be a successful artist in the industry. As he took the step from producer and writer to solo artist with GARREN, LP, Sean also took the dive into a step he felt was integral — becoming a vocalist.

“It was almost out of necessity,” Sean explained, “because people don’t really listen to instrumentals like that. I never really was that confident in my voice until I just decided to let go out of necessity.”

Even then, Sean’s music is about the sounds more than the words. Sometimes groovy, sometimes floaty, the soundscape of GARREN, LP is reminiscent of something by Grizzly Bear — layered, unpredictable and inseparably emotional.

“I work with other artists who have a (lyrical) concept in mind, and they want to build a beat around that concept, but for me, I make music based on how I feel,” Sean said. “It’s supposed to make you feel good and sound cool. It’s more left up to interpretation. I would say I’m not mad if you hear it and think it means this, and then your friend hears it and thinks it means something else.”

Sean’s music isn’t easily categorizable, but when he compares it to the music he heard while studying abroad in Brazil during his junior year it makes sense.

“There’s baile funk which is hard-hitting and raw, and then there’s Brazilian reggae is really cool and just … meant to make you feel nostalgic,” Sean said. “So those two styles are what I want to have in my own music — like it hits really hard and it appeals to modern audiences, but it’s also really pretty and makes you feel something nostalgic or makes your gut feel good.”

Sean’s music isn’t the kind of music that makes you feel good instantly — it takes a few listens to get used to it, to get comfortable with the way it sounds. It’s the kind of music you settle into, reflective of Sean’s transition into a noisy industry.

Olivia Jerram covers music. Contact her at [email protected].