Photo by Emery Meyer
In addition to playing keys with Pittsburgh indie folk-band String Machine, Dylan Kersten has been an event DJ for eight years now–first pumping out the jams for fellow high-schoolers’ sweet 16 parties before moving up to school dances and weddings. But to him, dancing was more than just the basis for a livelihood. It was A Celebration of Being Alive, and years later, that gave him the title for his dance-pop solo album, which he’s releasing soon under the name Ron Mist. But as much joy as dancing has brought him, he’s also seen the difficulty others have in accessing it.
“Especially when I used to do school dances, I observed that so many folks were timid about dancing because it seems to be only understood as performance in our performance culture–something you have to be ‘good at’ to enjoy,” Kersten says. “It bummed me out to see so many people afraid of doing what I found to be a liberating experience.”
When you get down to it, what is dancing? Kersten had his own answer: “It’s allowing your body to be joyous and completely one with the moment.” But ask a room full of people, and you’ll likely get a bunch of different answers–so that’s exactly what he did. While Kersten was a student at Point Park University, listening to Disclosure’s Settle on repeat and starting to make electronic music for fun, he was also becoming friends with dance majors, who inspired him to take a survey.
One night in the fall of 2018, he gathered eight friends–five trained dancers and three who just liked to get down–in order to sample each of their answers to the question, “What is dancing?” From there, he had the bones of the Ron Mist album. Each of those eight samples, plus his own answer, is the basis of a track on A Celebration of Being Alive. For example, on the new single “Floor Have Mercy,” Kersten’s dictionary defines “dancing” as “a mercy on human beings who are bound by necessity.”
“This track’s sound was born out of my first ever experience at a funk dance night and the freedom I felt grooving in that 110-115 bpm range,” he says. “I wanted to capture that feeling, and after a year of chiseling and adding features, this track is the result. I strongly believe in its power to allow people to feel four minutes of blissful release and inspire some booty-shakin’.”
First came the feature from Point Park dance major Adie San Diego, who makes her singing debut on the track. Kersten showed her the base instrumental on a visit to North Carolina last July. “I knew she had pipes from seeing her rock Alicia Keys’ ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ at my favorite local karaoke bar, Sonny’s Tavern. I was like, ‘Yo, I have this verse melody in mind on this song. Let’s see what happens if you sing it.’ So she lays it down, and I’m like, ‘Gee dang, Adie! We gotta keep going!’
He put the chorus section on a loop and cranked out more melody and lyrics on the spot, chewing over the core idea of necessity in familiar dance-pop fashion; there’s freedom to be found in a groove that exists solely for its own sake, after all. Five takes from Adie San Diego later, the section was done. Kersten’s String Machine bandmate Ian Compton then added trumpet and screaming backup vocals to the bridge, while Z.A.C.H.–another Point Park alum–provided the rap verse.
“I needed a rapper with a charismatic and joyous personality, and I reached out asking him to add some gospel preacher vibes. I originally just wanted him to do some ad libs as it built up in that bridge section, but he was like, ‘I wrote a verse; can I try it?’ and proceeded to slay that bridge with steez. I’m eternally stoked that he went beyond what I’d asked.”
For the finishing touch, to really bring the groove to life, Kersten brought in drummer Thomas DeVinko of New Jersey band ManDancing, who he calls “the best drummer I’ve ever seen when it comes to meshing chops with feel and spirit.” DeVinko dressed up the original beat with his own funky fills, and there you have it–a sprawling jam with a hook that doesn’t quit, guaranteed to crack that self-conscious shell between you and the party.
You can stream “Floor Have Mercy” now via Ron Mist’s Bandcamp. A Celebration of Being Alive is due for release this spring via Power Nap Records.