It’s fairly common in today’s day and age to hear about a musician foregoing college to pursue a career as a singer or DJ, or chase the dream with their band. It’s far less common, though, to hear about a student walking out on their Master’s Degree to do the same thing. Such is the story, though, of 25 year-old artist/producer Ryan Chadwick, better known these days by his moniker OTR.
Chadwick, a former Master’s student of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, ditched his degree after his department started to fall apart at the seams right before he was due to begin his Master’s thesis, meaning all of his coursework was otherwise complete. He could have transferred to another school, but while this was all happening, Chadwick had been making music in his bedroom with whatever scarce free time he had left. With a sound comparable to Petit Biscuit and ODESZA, who he’d discovered while abroad on an internship to Japan, his latest remix of Micky Valen’s “Meet Me” had started to catch industry attention on Spotify.
Looking at the entire confluence of events, it was as if there was writing on the wall to give music a chance at being his career, and he did just that. A few years later, OTR is one of the new signings bringing a fresh sound to Capitol Records-affiliated dance label, Astralwerks, home to artists like Illenium, Alison Wonderland, FISHER and Young Bombs.
I caught up with the up-and-coming producer to learn more about his story and the inspiration behind his music’s familiar-yet-fresh sound.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
EB: You’re from Ohio, which is pretty far away from the influence of EDM culture. Did growing up in a midwestern culture shape you as a person in a way that now affects your music?
OTR: That’s a good question. I think so – even just like recently, with some branding stuff, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to maybe disagree with my managers on some things. Being from the Midwest, we had a lot of indie rock culture – Twenty One Pilots came from Columbus, Ohio – that’s what I grew up with.
Going to Cincinnati for college around 2013, there was a big resurgence of Skrillex and all that. But I still had that early indie rock culture in the back of my mind, even though I was still experiencing all of the new styles that mainstream EDM culture was producing at the time.
In turn, I was really in tune with Empire of the Sun and things like that, and it’s really shaped my sound and brand. There are a lot of open spaces and corn fields where I’m from, and I want that reflected in my story. I think that’s a little bit different than most of EDM culture right now.
EB: In college you had an engineering internship in Japan, and that gave you the freedom to travel around and experience a lot of new cities and cultures. How transformative was that trip and experience for you?
OTR: Going into Japan, and leaving, as a person I did a 180. I was a last minute replacement, so going Japan, I didn’t really know anything about the culture. My university sent me as a way to maintain ties with the company over there, so I just learned everything as I went. Everything there was very new to me, I was trying to absorb as much as possible. Because of that, those experiences stick with you for a longer period of time because they are so new.
At the same time, a lot of artists that I was discovering over there shaped my musical tastes. I discovered ODESZA and Porter Robinson while I was over there. As I was trying to learn as much as possible over there, I was listening to music in a new way, because my brain was in overdrive. It really catapulted me into the things that I enjoy right now.
A lot of what I was perceiving over there in Japan couldn’t be described in words; it was non-verbal. I couldn’t really speak the language, so everything I was observing was visual, and what I liked about those artists was that there really weren’t any lyrics, especially in the earlier stuff. It was more like a soundtrack to the things that I was experiencing over there, so I was really taking note of the big, atmospheric, drone-type sounds. Things like vocal chops instead of words made a lot of sense to me, because it felt visual – I didn’t really make much sense of things from a lyrical standpoint, so it matched my surroundings.
In general, I also came from a background where I liked piano a lot, and Porter Robinson especially uses piano in his production, so that was something that I could really relate to. I actually bought a mini keyboard in Japan to pass the time on the trains and after work. In my spare time, I was able to teach myself the things he was creating. As I was learning what he was making, I was able to develop my own taste in piano playing as well.
EB: What was the first song that you put out that got you enough attention to believe it could be more than a hobby?
It was always smaller steps for me, but I think the first time I was excited about a song getting traction was “Port” because it made it on to HillyDilly. Overnight it got 10,000 plays on SoundCloud, and that was massive for me. I don’t think anything even had 200 plays on a song. I think that caused me to really think about it and how serious I was taking music.
From there, the one that really got me more involved on a day to day basic was my Micky Valen remix. That one definitely really got me working more toward this being a full-time thing. I didn’t really understand then how Spotify worked, but I was getting on a few Spotify playlists, I think one of them by Austin Kramer (Spotify’s dance playlist curator), and Micky Valen was really excited about it. I was trying to figure out what it meant, and then I realized that the playlist had hundreds of thousands of people subscribed to it, and that it could actually be something. That’s when I really started working at it.
EB: At that tipping point, when you had to decide between two careers, was it really a difficult decision, and how did your family react when you decided music was going to be your career?
OTR: That’s actually kind of a good story, because at the time I was in grad school for Aerospace Engineering. I had just completed all of my coursework, but I was supposed to go into my Master’s thesis. The department I was doing my Master’s under kind of collapsed – most of the teachers in my specific field of studies were leaving or had already left, so I had nobody to do my thesis underneath. Then, this remix came out and started doing really well, so I told my department that until they figured out their stuff out with my education, I was going to focus on music, since hiring people could take two years to fill the program.
Luckily, even though my parents were a little bit concerned, they understood that I was frustrated with my department. I told them that I could always go back and finish if this didn’t take off by the time they got the program in line. I had a few other opportunities to make sure that I would put food on the table, too. Everyone was really supportive, and I was lucky that they were so understanding. But it just happened at a really good time, when the department was failing me and music was not – that made it kind of an easy decision.
EB: As you look on the rest of the summer and the rest of the year, do you have any goals in mind or things that you want to accomplish this year?
OTR: I really want to build a world where everything fits together. I’ve been really focusing on that with the rest of my singles. That’s where I had trouble in my prior music, so moving forward with the rest of my music and branding, Astralwerks has been a great help in understanding my vision, and putting that on paper. I want people to react in a certain way and understand the picture that I’m painting. If people do that, from there I think everything else will fall into place.
EB: What is that vision of this world in your head that you’re trying to create?
OTR: It’s more cinematic. You saw in the first single artwork, there’s that kind of beam going up into the sky. I think that’s cool because it ties in my aerospace background. A lot of it is nostalgia based, and almost dreamy in a way. For example, I wanted to be an astronaut, but I’m color blind so I can’t be one – that’s my excuse, that I can’t be one because I’m color blind and not ANY other reason. I can put little easter eggs of my prior self into this world and it ties it back in a more artistic way.