Episode 20: With Eli (On Navigating the World Through Sound, Identity and Creativity, and Defining Life For Yourself)

Meet Eli. A composer of sounds. A newly graduated student, who briefly taught in my Zoom classroom. A thoughtful human.


Introduction: Thinking about the complexity of identity and defining life for yourself, beyond traditional expectations.


Learning: Eli prefers to digest things quickly and somewhat haphazardly. Eli is self-motivated and didn’t always love being in school.

“When my parents sent me to a math tutor, the tutor explained, ‘His problem isn’t that he doesn’t understand it. It’s that he’d rather be skateboarding.”


We discuss some of the issues of high school education, especially related to math. Eli was a brief student teacher in my ESL Adult classroom.

Remote Teaching and Zoom

Eli taught English lessons using songs he picked. We toggled back-and-forth from YouTube and Google Docs. Students listened and filled-in the blanks in the lyrics. It was a smashing success.


Growing Up and Family Life

Eli describes the complexity of moving back home and living with his parents after graduating from college in May. Living at home during the pandemic has taken a little while to adjust.

Eli’s dad spent years as a musician. His mom is a philosophy professor. As a teenager, he couldn’t win an argument with her. Eli was born in Brooklyn, then his family moved to Florida. They moved to the Bay Area when he was in middle school. Being in Jacksonville, Florida was not easy for the family in terms of the conservative culture. Eli’s parents were born in the Midwest, but spent parts of their late childhood in California, so returning to the Bay Area felt like going home.


On Stage at a Very Young Age

Eli’s dad played trumpet with the band Clem Snide in the early 2000s in New York City. Early Memory: Eli was brought on-stage and asked to sing when he was around four years old. He describes the thrill of that moment. Here’s the song, “I Love the Unknown” by Clem Snide.

Vocals as Pure Emotion


Inventing a Persona: David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust

Eli has created a narrative around a character named Aaron Space. Inspired by Bowie and Sun-Ra — creating a reality around your ideas that isn’t confined to the outside world.

We discuss the power of persona. Spending time inside your imagination is freeing. Allowing yourself to create without self-judgment is powerful.

Eli’s debut album, Fishland, was released in May, 2020. When he was talking with people at the record label, he realized he didn’t want to release it under his own name. It didn’t sit right.

J.Hubner, reviewing music for Complex Distractions, has high praise for Eli’s musical debut:

I say this with the utmost sincerity, Fishland is one of the most impressive debuts I’ve heard in a long time. Elihu Knowles is the kind of artist with a head full of sounds, ideas, and melodies and he knows how to put them out into the world in the most creative of ways. As Aaron Space & His Terrestrial Underlings he takes these songs and turns them into a sort of musical Pollock painting, splashing just the right musical colors in just the right spots. The results are a soul/pop record that reaches high and touches the milky way.


How Aaron Space Came to Be

Eli developed a back story for his persona, in order to release the music

The Problem With Talking About Creating Art

It’s impossible to fully convey inspiration and the creation process. It’s pure and purely subjective.


The World of Sound: Musical Escapism

Music to Get You Through: Trips to Newbury Comics and Musical Discovery. Jonah goes back in time to being a teenager and early 20s. How albums provided a cushion from reality.

Eli describes being born with very limited vision and sound being a focus on his reality from the beginning.


Expression: Jazz and Improvised Music

The spontaneity of making improvised music.

“What drew me to improvised music was the understanding of how far you can take it. I can be playing the drums behind a saxophone player and I can say something to that sax player whenever I want. I don’t have to wait till a prescribed moment.”

Melody amidst the chaos. John Coltrane “Equinox”

Eli has been working on instrumental music lately. “Language is inherently restrictive.”

The Possibilities and Restrictions of Language

Language is too often taught to be formulaic and restrictive, rather than creative and spontaneous.

Eli gets meta-cognitive: “I frequently rely on this narrative — language is restrictive.”

“It’s almost easier to create room for interpretation and nuance within a soundscape.”


Making Music Without Technology

Q. If you remove technology and electricity — left with just a piano — can you imagine how that might change your whole musical process?

Creating change over time — -the ultimate goal of music remains the same regardless of technology.

Process versus Product: Sustaining a Creative Practice

We discuss the issue of remaining focused on creative process versus getting wrapped up in the product. Creation as a necessity. Focusing on the internal vs the external.

Performing is the connection space, but creating is solitary. Figuring out how to share yourself, through creativity.

Social Media: Quantification and Self-Worth

Dealing with the toxicity and addictiveness of social media. Eli has a solid grip on distancing himself from the dangers of social media.

“When I am on it, I try to say aloud in my mind, “Recognize the process for what it is. Everybody trying to experience these tiny little glimpses of external validation for themselves and not really being on there for any other reason.”

Composing and Recording

Eli spent two years working on Fishland. Over the last nine months, Eli has been creating lots of new music.

External Praise:

Shine for Aaron Space & His Terrestrial Underlings — Fishland.

Check Aaron Space out on Bandcamp!

Search for Aaron Space & His Terrestrial Underlings wherever you stream or buy music.

To support Jonah Asks:

Jonah Hall makes Jonah Asks, a podcast about being human. Conversation-interviews with friends and friends of friends about how to live on Earth in 2020.