When Jake Sheppard answered the phone last month, he was sitting on the stoop of an Airbnb rental in Palm Springs, Calif., clearly in awe of the landscape.
"It's just really unreal to be surrounded by something like this," said the Colorado native, known as Ballroom Cancer to the music world. He said he was in the middle of a desert that was populated by tons of birds and lizards, it was 105 degrees and there was a crazy thunderstorm the previous night.
"There's some really epic rain clouds coming on," he said.
This is the environment where Ballroom Cancer is creating his music .
Sheppard and his girlfriend, Elleree Fletcher, a painter, were in California for a monthlong art-making expedition in the desert outside Joshua Tree National Park — his art produced for the ears, her art created for the eyes. Sheppard seemed to be at home creatively.
"My stuff has always had a desert-y bigness to it," he said.
His ambitions are big, too. Having grown up in Colorado and attended the University of Colorado, Sheppard is preparing to move to the biggest music city of all, Los Angeles, where he intends to break in to the music scene. He has traveled there before and said he's made some local connections, but his plan of attack is still short on details.
"I'm not entirely sure what I want to do," he said.
No worries. Sheppard has already shown he can do a lot with a little. His output so far, not including unreleased material, is only a couple of songs and their videos. That was enough to get him a mention on Entertainment Weekly's website, which anointed Sheppard a "sonic auteur" and described Ballroom Cancer's single, "Misinterest," as "fascinatingly strange."
"It was hilarious when that showed up. Kind of out of the blue," Sheppard said. "I saw my name right next to Taylor Swift ... It was a trip, that whole thing."
Ballroom Cancer also got mentions in Brooklyn-based Impose and other outlets with smaller readership but high street cred. Although Ballroom Cancer doesn't perform concerts, Sheppard is thinking of ways to make that eventually happen without degrading the layered tracks he crafts on his computer.
Ballroom Cancer's music, with samples, programmed drums and voice, is a sonic distillation of freestyle contemplation. It's electronic music meant for thinking — not so much dancing. Sheppard was making music during his time as a CU biology student, but it wasn't until he graduated in 2013 when he started sending tracks to music industry professionals. He said the positive feedback he received inspired him to pursue music professionally.
The video for "Misinterest" is the work of Aric Van Halen, a former national steeplechase champion at CU who earned a degree in film studies in 2013. (Yes, there is a relation to a drum hero named Alex, his dad, and guitar-hero uncle, Eddie.)
Van Halen created an impressionistic 3 1/2 minutes of film-school superimpositions and trippy sequences of swirling smoke as the camera wanders around with an indolent Sheppard. Van Halen makes the stimulated visuals match Sheppard's cruising sounds.
The video's main motif is a Porky Pig cartoon called "Porky in Wackyland," which at one point is projected over Sheppard's face. There's purpose to the pig's appearance — Sheppard said he's a fan of the old Looney Tunes cartoons, "Wackyland" in particular.
"It inspired the song, and the sounds in the song," he said.
Sheppard has released the singles "Misinterest" and "Sides," tracks that are expected to appear on the upcoming EP, Lightning, No?, which is slated for release by the end of the year, he said.
"Sides" contains the plaintive refrain "Alone in the desert ...," reinforcing Sheppard's professed affinity for the open spaces he sought for creative inspiration.
He's looking to come away from the desert with some new tracks, and it's possible he'll have more than just new music to show for his efforts. He said the guy who rented him the place in Palm Springs has a bunch of workout equipment sitting around, adding, "Maybe I'll just get ripped while I'm out here."
Quentin Young: twitter.com/qpyoungnews