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If you’ve tuned into one of Backpacker’s livestreamed campfire concerts over the past year, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Alt Bloom (real name Ethan Thompson) playing his brand of chill, soulful pop from a porch or a field with the forest in the background. The outdoors has been a constant presence in the life of this L.A.-based, Montana-born songwriter since his early days road-tripping the parks with his family. His latest project, an original song for National Geographic’s Planet Possible environmental campaign, blends his two passions. We caught up with him ahead of Earth Day, when he’ll be performing live on Backpacker’s Facebook page at 6 p.m. MT.
It’s safe to say that your Instagram is a little different than most musicians: Mixed in with the songs and the studio shots, there are pictures of you skiing in the Sierra and hiking in Yosemite. Can you tell me a little bit about your history in the outdoors?
I was born and raised in Montana with parents that were avid skiers and hikers. It’s always been normal since I was a little kid to be in the mountains. Weekends in the winter were spent skiing and boarding, and summers were spent in national parks and on lakes. My parents would often pull me out of class from about second grade on to go on adventures with them. Looking back, I consider that upbringing to be very lucky.
You’ve described your work as a blend of the outdoors, nature, and pop. What does that mean to you?
I’ve loved and been a part of both music and the outdoors since I can remember. My parents, both non-musicians, started me and my sisters in choir and piano around five years old. It was always a very important thing to them to keep us growing in that education. I remember my mom used to clean my piano teacher’s house to be able to afford to keep all three of us in lessons.
I really grew a passion for music around 14 when my pops taught me a few chords on the guitar. I used to sit outside my house for hours trying to learn new things over the phone with my buddy who played guitar. Flash forward to years later living in L.A. and touring, I realized a lot of a musician’s time is spent indoors when recording and in cities. It became very important to me to find a way to keep myself outside while also working on a project, because I’ve grown to need both in my life.
Last year, mid-pandemic, you released a series of videos called California Sessions that you filmed at iconic outdoor destinations around the state—Death Valley, the redwoods, Red Rock Canyon, and Bishop. What was the inspiration for that, and what was the process of filming it like, especially in a pandemic?
We actually dodged a bullet and shot that in January 2020, a few months before the pandemic shut down the US. There were four of us on the trip: Alex Pollini, who [was the director of photography] and location scouted, Brian Phillips, who ran sound, and Ryan Hoelscher, who did [behind-the-scenes work]. We all packed into a Winnebago (originally what the tour was dubbed) and set off to shoot 5 acoustics from the EP Astronaut Complex. The inspiration was to take songs that were made in studio and put them on an acoustic guitar in a beautiful backdrop with the hope it’ll grow into something similar [that we can do] with all the released material. The process of filming was getting in early to scout the location, mostly for where the sun would be, and shooting that evening or following morning.
We were often pretty cold, especially in Death Valley and Bishop, and often very tired from driving hours into these locations. Up in the dunes for “Sway” I remember by the last takes I could barely play the guitar anymore my fingers were so numb—the temperature was around 29 degrees when we hiked in at 4 a.m.. But once the sun was fully out, we were somersaulting down the dunes in t-shirts, relieved we got the shots we needed.
Your newest single is “I Believe,” which you wrote for National Geographic‘s Planet Possible campaign. Can you tell me about the song and why you decided to join their initiative?
One of the things I care about the most is our planet and wilderness, and getting people involved in [protecting] it. Their initiative was just that. Writing a song for a campaign like this is a very different mindset and process than how I normally create for my projects. Working with National Geographic on this was larger than just a song; It was about connecting with a company whose magazines I still buy at grocery stores to this day. Nat Geo has taught me so much about what I don’t know about the world, how rich it is in diverse nature, animals and people.
Catch Alt Bloom live on Backpacker’s Facebook page on April 22, 6 p.m. MT