On Open Treehouse Deluxe, Joey Aich positions himself as a work in progress. “Gotta work on myself,” he raps on “Paint,” following one song later with “Construction Is Wealth,” a track on which the 29-year-old admits that he’s still learning, still absorbing hard lessons, still hoping to “find [his] reason.”
For Aich, coming to terms with this reality has meant releasing himself from the sense of expectation that he felt upon graduating high school, when it seemed as though his entire life had already been laid out before him. “Coming out of Orange High School [in suburban Cleveland], it was like: You go to [college] and then you come out and get a good paying job. Then you get married to someone who went to Orange, and you go back, and you have kids who go to Orange,” Aich said in a late February interview at Upper Cup on Parsons. “And that was the whole layout. And so, at the time, I was like, ‘At 22, I want this all planned out.’ And that didn’t happen.”
Rather than positioning this as a failure, the tracks populating Deluxe – an expanded version of the Open Treehouse album, from 2020 – find Aich embracing the limitless potential of this open-ended future. “I’m so in love with the process,” he raps on “Somewhere Over Kansas,” a sentiment that holds true in spite of the uncertainty this relative instability can breed.
Indeed, the last few years have been defined by uncertainty for Aich, who quit his job to dedicate himself full time to music in the months before the coronavirus breached in March 2020, shutting down the live concert industry for the better part of a year. More recently, the harsh economic realities of the streaming era have hit home for Aich, whose song “Brown Liquor” surpassed 187,000 streams after landing on a Spotify playlist – a number he said should net him somewhere north of $400 once it pays out a few months down the road (an amount he’ll then split 50-50 with the song’s producer).
On top of this, inflation has made the prospect of generating money on the road even more of a challenge for musicians – to the point that even established acts like Animal Collective have canceled tours in recent months, unable to justify the potential of playing shows at a financial loss.
“It really broke my heart last year to see artists who I looked up to, who I thought, ‘Once I get to that level, I’m straight,’ come out and be like, ‘Hey, man. I’m here to tell you we don’t have the money to do everything we need to do,’” Aich said. “I’ve always been told that merchandise and touring is the way to go, especially as an independent artist. So, to hear them say, ‘This isn’t making us money,’ that was a hard thing.”
To counter this reality and to kickstart a larger conversation about the value listeners place on music, Aich announced Open Treehouse Deluxe, out Wednesday, March 1, , aiming to raise $3,500 before the album’s release – a figure the rapper recently surpassed.
“If anybody releases an album – not just me – I want people to say, ‘I believe in you. Here’s five bucks, 10 bucks, 30 bucks,” Aich said. “And we need to do that to keep the train moving. … Because I’ve seen it with other artists where they reach a point … when the road gets hard, and then it becomes, ‘I’ll do something else.’ I want to make it so it’s a standard here in Columbus, but also Ohio and the world: Let’s pay for music again.”
But in the last couple of years, these economic pressures have also opened up avenues for Aich that he might not have otherwise pursued. For instance, he said the idea of working with kids wasn’t even on his radar three years ago. Now he gets untold satisfaction mentoring students at Wedgewood Middle School as a facilitator for the nonprofit .
“I’m so emotionally attached to them,” Aich said. “There’s one girl, and she reminds me so much of myself. She’s a smart-ass, and she’s one of those kids where it’s like, ‘If only you applied yourself. … You don’t even know the potential you have.’”
While much of Open Treehouse Deluxe finds Aich detailing his internal struggles, reconciling teenage expectations with grownup realities, there are moments when the outside world intrudes. On “Castle,” which appeared on the initial 2020 release, the rapper builds walls meant to shield himself from the failed policies and state violence that have long ravaged the Black community, while the staggering “Red Light Blues,” new to the deluxe edition, finds Aich at his most unguarded, addressing the sense of paranoia and distrust that grows within him each time news breaks that a Black citizen has been killed.
“It’s a war inside my head, feel like I’m losing,” he raps, going on to envision the aftermath if he were killed by police, questioning how he might be portrayed in the media and picturing the protests he hoped friends and family would lead in his wake. It’s an absolute gut punch of a song, but it captures just a fraction of the unease that Aich has experienced in his own life, and in particular in those years since Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman on Aich’s 18th birthday in February 2012.
“I remember when it happened, and then I remember the trial, and it was like, ‘Oh, [Martin] had weed,’ or whatever. And even people from home … were at college posting online like, ‘He was a criminal. He smoked weed,'" Aich said. "And I was like, ‘I’ve been with you smoking weed before! Every time I go to Ohio State, I see you guys smoking!' And that got me to thinking, if this was me, what image would the world paint about me?”
These questions coincided with what Aich termed a larger “identity crisis” that he experienced early in his time at Denison, when his visage – he described himself as clean cut with short hair and comparatively light skin – often led to him appearing in marketing materials as a means of advertising the school’s commitment to diversity. “And so, I was like, okay, I’m going to wear a bandana, grow my hair out, and it’s not going to be polished," Aich said. "And I want to see you use those pictures."
It was also at Denison where Aich met Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who visited the university for a 2015 speaking engagement that left the rapper emotionally rattled. “Talking to her afterward, she reminded me of so many women that I know in my life,” he said. “My mom’s thing has always been, ‘I want you to get home. I’ve always wanted you to get home.’ … So, it was one of those things where I was looking at [Fulton], but I was seeing my mom, I was seeing my grandma.”
The memories of this conversation again bubbled to the surface following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which spurred Aich to pick up his pen and write an early draft of “Red Light Blues,” in which he mourns the public lynchings that have unfolded in an endless stream on iPhones, tying his own story to a uniquely American tragedy that shows little sign of abating.
“I was talking to someone about ‘Red Light Blues,’ in 2021, telling them I had this song that spoke to all of these things, but I didn’t know if it was out of date because it’s not 2020 anymore,” Aich said. “And they were like, ‘It’s a sad reality that is going to continue to happen.’ And I was like, you know what, you’re right. And I needed to speak on it, and I needed to let myself be vulnerable.”