ONE ALBUM’S ORIGIN STORY
For DJ-producer Will Eastman, a creative dam was breached after learning life-changing news
‘Editing is the craft of mourning what you need to kill,” says Will Eastman, recalling a lesson he learned when he worked at the Smithsonian. “The more brutal and ruthless you are, the better it will be.” As he was crafting what would become his debut album, the DJ-producer (and owner of U Street Music Hall) recorded 24 songs over a two-year period, rearranging and reconfiguring them as 68 different playlists on his iPhone.
He eventually settled on the eight songs that became “Hilo” (which he self-released in March) because they told his story the best. But it wasn’t an easy process, because Eastman, 48, wasn’t just mourning the songs that wouldn’t see the light of day. He was also mourning the loss of part of his own identity that became unmoored when he found out he was adopted just a few years ago.
In November 2013, Eastman’s fiancee was working on a family genealogy project when she came across his parents’ marriage certificate. The date of their marriage and his birth didn’t jibe with the narrative he had been told, and he started to suspect that perhaps his father wasn’t his birth father. Embarrassed at his paranoia, he “concocted a bit of spycraft” and got his parents to take a paternity test, saying it was an Ancestry.com DNA test. When the results came back, he was shocked: Neither of his parents were a match. He called his older half sister about it, and he recalls her saying that he needed to talk to his parents about it.
Two days later, Eastman was back home in Wisconsin, knocking on his parents’ door. “They were crying and thought I’d be mad,” he says, but he wasn’t upset. “It made me love them even more.” Still, Eastman decided to track down his birth family, hiring a private detective.
While Eastman was in Puerto Rico on his honeymoon, his birth father called him; his birth mother called soon after. “It’s strange to describe the feeling of talking to and meeting them for first time,” he says. “It’s crazy to see photos of someone you’ve never met — a total stranger — whom you resemble.”
He learned their story: how they were “teenagers, stoners, hippies who liked to surf in Hawaii.” (“Hilo” is the Hawaiian city where he first met his birth father.) They were living together when his birth mother got pregnant, but the relationship didn’t work out. They put him up for adoption and went their separate ways.
When Eastman didn’t contact them when he turned 18, they figured he didn’t want anything to do with them. They were “extremely grateful” that he found them, their burden lifted. “It’s beautiful and mind-boggling,” he says. “By simply existing, you’re helping someone in that way.”
Meeting his birth family was also eye-opening: He had grown up feeling like a black sheep, unable to find bookish artists in his family, but soon found out that he is very much like his birth-family members, who are entrepreneurs, artists, musicians. His birth father is a songwriter.
But for all the beauty and clarity of reconnecting with his birth family — he has met all but one of his eight half-siblings by birth — this sudden revelation about his identity was a then-undiagnosed psychological trauma. Outwardly, Eastman was hopeful and happy, but internally, he was in “psychological free fall.” Soon, the trauma started to manifest — as paranoia and distrustfulness, as insomnia and alcohol abuse.
He saw a therapist a few times — “she gave me a pamphlet, I read it, cool story bro” — but didn’t get more help until he saw how people around him started to pull away. After a second consultation, Eastman started going to therapy more regularly and was prescribed medication, “typical stuff used to treat anxiety and PTSD.” He started working through his feelings, finding a new, healthier perspective about the experience.
Amid the highs and lows of the two-year period of self-discovery, there was music. Eastman was more productive than ever, recording a song a month, rather than dabbling on one song for half the year. “The songs were a mainline into the vein of what was going on. They just poured out like that,” he explains, with a snap of his fingers.
“Hilo” pays tribute to what he calls “the Holy Trinity of dance music” — house, techno and disco — but is not beholden to those genres. Like Eastman’s own journey, the songs of the album brim with moody introspection and cathartic release, with beats that ebb and flow but never give up.
The release of “Hilo” and the EP that preceded it, “Free Fall,” has allowed Eastman to open up not just about his adoption, but about his struggle with mental illness. “I wanted to be open about it,” he says. “If I wasn’t, I was replacing one secret with another.”
He compares sharing his story to a dam breaking: Friends, strangers, acquaintances have reached out and thanked him for his strength. “I didn’t even think I was being strong, I was just trying to be honest,” he admits. “I think the work of an artist is being honest. . . . Why am I even existing if I’m not bringing something to the table on this Earth?”
Will Eastman, a D.C. DJ and producer, says the songs that would form his new, introspective dance album “were a mainline into the vein of what was going on” in his personal life: learning his parents were, in fact, not. “Hilo’s” release party is Saturday at the venue he owns, U Street Music Hall.