Despite their intended premise, online dating apps aren’t always conduits for meaningful personal connection. But when East of June co-founder Kyle Mortensen came across Emily Rath’s musical portfolio via her profile on the dating app Bumble, he decided to bypass the idea of asking for a date and instead inquired about a musical collaboration.
“We had a conversation, and I asked her, ‘What kind of stuff are you into?'” Mortensen said. “And I was amazed by how many similar influences we shared like Hall & Oates and Massive Attack.’ Then she also said, ‘I’m really less interested in being a pop star and more focused on being a songwriter.’ That sealed the deal.”
The timing was fortuitous: Mortensen was separately asking his long-time friend Dirk Lance (a founding member of Incubus who co-wrote and performed on the band’s biggest albums, including S.C.I.E.N.C.E., Make Yourself and Morning View) for feedback on music he had been working on.
“What was supposed to have been me sharing my two cents started developing into a collaboration without a face to it,” Lance says, adding that the pair intended on forming a behind-the-scenes songwriting collective. “Then Kyle made the connection with Emily and she started contributing lyrics and melodies to some existing ideas he and I had put together.” The trio then realized that they might instead be forming a band.
The L.A.-based East of June‘s music reflects a truly cooperative process, where all three members contribute production and instrumentation for their genre-bending music. Rath’s powerful voice is malleable and evocative—tinged with rock-oriented grit on the longing “Weight of My Sin,” and soulful on the disco-inspired “I Can’t Feel It”—and ideal for lyrics that alternate between romantic vulnerability and tough-as-nails empowerment. Wisely, however, East of June‘s songs intuitively understand that these emotional states aren’t an either-or proposition.
Overall, the trio’s songs reflect a shared love for ’70s and ’80s production, but also a desire to keep their songs firmly grounded in the present. “I was pleasantly surprised that our songs ended up sounding like Stevie Nicks singing for Daft Punk” Lance says. “Most modern music is so minimal. There’s elements of that we incorporated here and there, but we made a deliberate choice to not try and strip everything away and do what’s best to serve each song,” adds Mortensen.
That larger-than-life feel is evident in East of June’s propulsive single “Rebel,” which starts with brawny bass and percolating keyboards, and crescendos into a chorus full of stomping electric guitars. The song also illustrates the band’s collaborative tendencies, as the music evolved and changed once more ideas were brought in for consideration.
“The initial idea around that song was more of a straight-up, four-on-the-floor electronic tune,” Mortensen says. “And when Emily brought her vocal in, she had this Pat Benatar-esque, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ female-empowerment aura. It screamed for bigger guitars in the chorus.” Adds Rath: “‘Rebel’ to me was about hearing all the voices in your mind and deciding, ‘Okay, who are you going to listen to—and how are you going to battle the ones that are trying so hard to bring you down?'”
East of June‘s shared songwriting process was a welcome change for all three members. Rath, who started singing at age three and playing piano in second grade, enjoyed developing songs in tandem with other collaborators, since her creative process to date had been mainly focused on establishing herself as a solo artist. “Sometimes, Dirk and Kyle will come up with ideas for the foundation of a song on their own, and then I’ll add lyrics and melodies. Other times, the three of us will sit down on a couch together with acoustic guitars and a keyboard and develop an idea together in the moment.”
For Lance, the emphasis on songwriting—and not individual instruments or prescribed roles within the band—was also hugely appealing, and informed how East of June coalesced. “In working with Emily, whose background was very much singer-songwriter, all the focus was up front on lyric and melody,” he says. “Our idea was, ‘Let’s just write the best songs possible and not get bogged down into a specific genre or sound. It was liberating to approach things that way. No one’s so tied up in the identification of their role: ‘I do this instrument’ or ‘I am this type of songwriter. The music always came first. The idea of being a band didn’t dawn on us until we realized we had a record’s worth of material.”
It helps that each member also brings different strengths and backgrounds to the band. During his work with Incubus, Lance co-wrote and performed on the band’s biggest hits, including “Drive,” “Pardon Me” and “Wish You Were Here,” and spent the last decade on a passion project called Willie’s Nerve Clinic. Mortensen currently runs a creative agency called New Science and has held an eclectic array of music-related jobs, including running marketing at URB Magazine and managing bands signed to major and indie labels. (He initially met and became friends with Lance while promoting Incubus when they were both still in high school.) Rath, meanwhile, draws on a diverse musical résumé that includes recording multiple solo EPs; singing with a cappella groups; being featured on Bay Area’s renowned radio station KFOG and TV station KRCB; and opening for national acts.
In a nod to their eclectic and ambitious tendencies, East of June plan to unveil their music one single at a time, and pair each individual tune with tailored visual aesthetics. “Each song will be its own art project,” Mortensen explains. “All the creative and visual expression is going to be as unique as the song itself.” The band also plans to release acoustic or remixed versions of these songs, which show off the sturdy foundational arrangements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trio’s songwriting has also evolved, and the musicians are now in a creative groove of sitting in a room and writing songs together.
“There’s no ego with anybody,” Rath says. “It just feels like, ‘Okay, let’s figure out what’s best for the song.’ And if someone says, ‘I don’t like that,’ then we’ll shift gears and figure out what we do like, so we’re all happy about it.’ There’s a real passion to make sure everyone is happy with everything we’re doing and everybody keeps each other in the loop. I feel like it’s a very equal playing field. We’re all in it for the right reasons.”