ONE AL­BUM’S ORI­GIN STORY

For DJ-pro­ducer Will East­man, a cre­ative dam was breached af­ter learn­ing life-chang­ing news

The Washington Post - - MUSIC - BY CHRIS KELLY

‘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?”

COUR­TESY OF WILL EAST­MAN

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.

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