From the very first line of Eighty Ninety’s debut single “Three Thirty,” released in 2016, it’s clear that there is something special about the NYC-based brother duo of Abner and Harper James; “If I’m downtown it’s probably half past three/Thinkin’ bout if you thinkin’ bout me.” Abner’s soft, lilting tone on the track, and many others, is warm, familiar, and inviting, while Harper provides the kind of musical backdrop to fit his brothers style in a way that only the most connected of minds could match.
In the years following, the brothers have continued to build their reputation and network among the indie pop community, fine-tune their sound, and grow their repertoire. A nod of approval by none other than Taylor Swift, who included their song “Your Favorite Song” on one of her Spotify playlists in 2018 only helped their cause, with the effect of Swift’s gesture still lingering today. Their new single “Stay Alive,” and an accompanying music video for the track, are out now.
Beyond the abilities showcased in their music, both Abner and Harper possess the kind of educated, analytical minds you can pick apart for hours in casual, honest, and intriguing ways. While one speaks, the other looks on intensely focused, and, likely, with the same thought. “I think that one of the things that’s cool about it is that we grew up with a lot of different but overlapping tastes,” said Abner. “Also, we kind of have that shorthand you develop with a sibling that, I think, we found translates well to the studio. In other situations, like when I’ve had to work with other collaborators, you kind of have that period when you’re really getting to know the other person and develop the language you speak to each other. Harper and I had that already.”
While their musical palettes and overall approach are different, the duo understands how to find the balance. “Growing up, Harper gravitated towards, kind of, more experimental…,” said Abner, looking at Harper, who was ready, to jump in. “Indie rock like Pavement, Sparklehorse, or just kind of like that more DIY bedroom pop thing. Abner has more of a grand vision for stuff, and then I filter it through my more eclectic, alternative taste and just sort of see what happens.”
“The 1975 is a great example because they’re so eclectic,” said Harper, acknowledging what would be, to an outside listener, their most prevalent influence. “I think, for us, it’s partly focusing on the songs and then being able to do a style of music that has a sound, but that leaves a lot of creative possibilities open. If we’re going to be doing this for a long time, you want to be able to have a larger playground creatively, so you don’t get bored, or confined.”
The Night Sky/“Stay Alive”
Last year, the duo took many of their previously released singles, such as “Forever,” “Better as Friends,” and “Heart on the Line” and placed them into a project called The Night Sky. As a body of work, the project glistens with the aura of a summer night in NYC, whether you’re enjoying a river cruise with friends, walking through the East Village with your headphones on, or running through Central Park with a special someone.
While the pair may now live and work in NYC, they grew up in rural Maine away from the craziness. However, they expertly captured NYC’s essence on the project. “I feel like growing up not in that crazy, static environment of urban life contributed to the floaty, free-flowing gentleness in the music,” said Harper. “Creatively, I like New York a lot. I think there is a lot of energy here. A lot of cool styles and approaches, musically, that are sort of unique here. New York has its own thing and it’s hard to put your finger on it, but I feel like if you know it, you know it.” “I think there’s something about growing up in a slower pace on the coast that maybe has worked its way into our sensibilities,” said Abner. “Melodic, vibey sensibilities and bringing the kind of energy, excitement, and experimentation to the songs is kind of how we find the way that Eighty Ninety fits into it.”
The brothers tapped into their vast network of fellow musicians to help with the earnest and reflective new song “Stay Alive.” The track, musically, is bigger and bolder than past material, more so under the pop-rock umbrella than bedroom pop. “The energy of ‘Stay Alive’ comes from the performances of the instruments,” said Harper. “We had a friend come in and play drums, there are big guitars, there’s a bass line that never stops. This one is more of a rock song than a lot of the stuff on the new record, but I think the throughline of it is that the energy is coming from people playing a little more than just cool ideas. It’s a little less hyper-produced, but the energy is a little more raw.”
A simple yet poignant music video for the track is out now as well, showing the boys strumming along to the song in their home. The song focuses on learning to be understanding and accepting of our own needs… the things that get us through tough times, mentally and spiritually; “I guess I took this all for granted, I was sure of you/Never thought I couldn’t understand what you were going through/The things you do just to be alright… just to stay alive.” It seems as if, while reflecting on those things and how they affect personal relationships, Abner and Harper turn to music in search of the answers.
Abner In His Element
Abner’s vocal performances, almost across the board, are tender, light, and void of any sense of over-embellishment. He could almost be seen as a male Billie Eilish, effectively depicting his emotions in smaller, insular ways rather than belting for his life (though both are capable of doing so). “I found that it’s about, ‘Oh, how do I be myself in tune rather than be just a singer who is singing a song?’,” said Abner, emphasizing “singer” and “singing.” “Sometimes I will put Harper in the position of being like, ‘This needs to be a huge, epic, big song… but I WILL be whispering it, so you have to make that work.”
“That is definitely a challenge in the production,” Harper said, laughing at the prospect he clearly knows all too well. “How do you make someone who is, essentially, talking and whispering, feel big and epic? A lot of the time, it’s realizing that ‘loud’ isn’t actually what makes things feel big. It’s depth. If you can create depth… emotional depth and sonic depth, you can convey ‘big’.”
Overall, one could argue that it is one thing for an artist to attempt to predict what others will feel from their music, and another for the listener to correctly decipher the artist’s intentions. Eighty Ninety’s music feels cinematic and synesthetic, but, while that aspect of heightened sensory exposure is something they consider, Abner and Harper don’t view it as a concrete part of the creative process. “We don’t have synesthesia, but your senses are all related anyway,” said Harper. “Trying to divorce the subjective musical piece of it as this abstract thing is a mistake, and I feel like I get trapped in that when I get sucked down the rabbit hole of the sonic stuff. I think a really good technique is grounding yourself in the visual story of what you’re trying to tell, and try to guess what sounds are going to look a certain way in people’s minds. Then, if you can, do a music video.”
You can stream “Stay Alive,” The Night Sky, and more by Eighty Ninety on Spotify: