Interview by: Orchee Sorker | August 20, 2022
With 3M followers and over 38.3M views on TikTok, artist Ethan Bortnick sits down to talk to HAZZE MEDIA about his story, transitioning out of the classical world, ways of audience interaction through TikTok, and vision behind new "engravings" music video.
You started piano when you were really young. What is one thing you used to or still do before a live performance to get ready?
Absolutely nothing. I love to perform so much! Literally, I can be in the middle of a video game two minutes before I'm supposed to be on stage because as soon as I get up there I'm ready. I'm so pumped, excited, and ready to talk to the audience, you know? Performing is my bread and butter. That's why I've found such a beautiful home on TikTok as a platform because it's very visual and allows me to be in my comfort zone…which is performing.
I'm probably the most excited to actually do it in person again. Well, TikTok is amazing…but there's truly nothing that excites me more than really being in person and performing. I have no routine. Like…I don't do yoga. I probably should and would be more flexible, but yeah that's really it. I love it too much to overthink.
There’s a lot of stuff on the internet about your early career. Being labeled as a child prodigy, were there certain expectations growing up? Or just like what were your experiences growing up like the upsides and downsides of your gift?
I'm very lucky because I've had very supportive parents. I am so grateful for that because I started in a very classical world. I grew up seeing very much the opposite of that. There was a certain point where I just did not want to be a part of that scene anymore. Not because I didn't like music. It was a very harsh environment, and something that wasn't truly in my experience about the art itself. Then, I eventually moved on to jazz which I enjoyed as well. I started to progress musically. I began to have a wide range of tastes and work with other musicians. But I didn't have pressure. As a “kid”, every decision in the past, my parents made sure I had the final say. If there was something that I didn't feel like doing or something that didn't feel right…they would put it off no matter how big of an opportunity it was. I just had fun making music. Eventually, I said to myself, the whole PBS touring thing with songs that aren't really songs that I've written is not really what I want to do anymore. Sure enough, I stopped it and decided to pick up production, songwriting and, and tap into what excited me about music as a teenager. Thankfully, there was no pressure.
What is the creative process behind “engravings”?
The creative process started with a horrible relationship, which honestly it didn't take much to get “engravings” out there. The lyrics came within a day. The music came within that same day. It was very quick writing with my collaborator, Dylan Edmonds. As harsh as the song is, producing that one was really fun because I tried to find creative ways to paint that picture…not only lyrically of what that relationship was like, but also musically, the composition of it. The production really captures those highs and lows of a very toxic relationship, which is why I think part of the song sounds so mean and cold. The choruses sound pretty mellow, soft, and almost very intimate. I wanted to make sure we captured that. That's essentially it.
The piano tempo matches with the intensity of your verses, is that something you have to think about or does it come naturally…do you visualize scenarios when composing music?
The main thing I never want to clash is my voice or the piano. A lot of my music is very call and answer because this is my original voice. I have a harmonious dance. I sing then the piano sings, then I sing then the piano sings. It comes very naturally. I wanted to make sure I save some of that crazy piano playing for the live show because for an actual record I don't want to overbear people with that. For the live show, I think that allows me to kind of really go ham on the piano.
We need more music videos for your songs because they seem so visual. Are you planning on having a music video for “engravings”? What is your vision?
Yes, very much. I'm a very visual person. Prior to signing with Columbia, I never really wanted to do any music videos because I never felt like I could fully execute them the right way. From the moment that I write, I know what the visual is gonna look like for it. For “engravings”, the idea is I'm pretty much going to be wrapped up, tied, and almost strangled with the piano in a bunch of yarn…which is a very common theme in a lot of my visual art. I'm basically going to be tied to the piano. As the piano is slowly pulling and dragging me, I’m gonna be hitting it to get away. That's just a small part of the concept.
How do you think TikTok has helped you promote your music?
I'm honestly shocked at how far I think I've evolved since pre-quarantine because I was one of those people that was like TikTok isn't for real artists. It's just a dancing app and all that…but something clicked. Around summer of 2020, where I had found a lot of really incredible musicians and artists promoting their stuff on TikTok. It wasn't even people that necessarily were blowing up or at the time at least. I just saw potential for myself on the app, especially since I felt like I had a path that was something new to the table. Having teased music is not only to promote my stuff but also to connect with the audience. I previously did not have it so incredible. I am so grateful to not only have that platform but also to gauge what the audience wants to hear and what the audience is excited about. I can tease a song and they can be like, nah, not this one. Or I can tease a song and they're like, yes, please, I need this tomorrow. I'm very grateful. It's allowed me to take the thing that quarantine took away from me and kind of adapt to it on TikTok.
Do you feel like it's tiring to make so much content in a short amount of time or do you have a balance?
I think I do have a balance. I strive to work as hard as I possibly can to push out content and stuff that I'm really excited about. But I know when to take a pause and not only rethink what I want to put out there or think about something else that may distract me. Because at the end of the day, the most important thing that I can really focus on is the actual art itself.
You like to share snippets, or tease your song a few weeks before it’s out. How efficient is that method? Do you think more of your audience is engaged that way?
I think so. I learned a lot from “cut my fingers off” because that was really the first one that did anything for me. I tried to put it out as quickly as humanly possible. I finished the song with Dylan in about 48 hours. With future songs, I really wanted to take my time and make the song itself. I know a lot of people on TikTok were begging, screaming, and crying. They were willing to give me thousands of their dollars for the song, but thankfully everybody was patient.I'm, I'm very happy with the end result.
I know some musicians have different opinions about this…but would you like for one of your songs to become a TikTok trend?
It's interesting. I welcome it. However, I'm not sitting here being like if I don't have a TikTok trend, that's it. What ends up happening is if an artist is underdeveloped or very new, a lot of times that song will swallow them whole. I admire artists like Doja Cat. She had a brilliant career prior to 2020. As a result of her album’s release, it blew up on TikTok, and that was really her first hit. I think that’s the reason why she became such a household name. She had an established vision, artistry, audience, and presence in the music industry. I welcome a TikTok trend with open arms because at the end of the day, my music is out there for people to listen to and to resonate with and whatever happens I'm all ears open to it. I definitely would never push it because I wanna see people using the music organic