The LA-based, multi-faceted musician chats about his first release 'Blue Gene', his path to working as an artist in his own right and the important intersections between his music and visuals.
How does it feel to have your first solo release 'Blue Gene' out?
Man, it’s kinda surreal - I was talking about this last night with a couple of friends. Because I’ve been in music for so long, it’s a weird dichotomy because this is my first release but it’s not my first time in the music industry, so it’s a weird feeling. It’s a really exciting thing but at the same time I understand what’s next and what I have to do.
So, it’s an excitement coupled with anxiety but it feels really good to share my art with the world, share my voice with the world and share my sound because most people know I’m in music but they don’t know what I sound like or what my take or aesthetic was. So, it feels really good to make that solid now, like this is me, this is who I am. Take it as you will.
What were the initial inspirations for ‘Blue Gene’ and how was the process of creating the track?
‘Blue Gene’ is a song about the ability of people to present a strong front to the world, you know those memes that say ‘check on your strong friends’, people are sad and they don’t know why they’re sad.
It was inspired by my cousin, one night we were out and he just started crying and he was like ‘I’m sad’ but didn’t know why. It speaks true to the black, male stereotype of us having to be strong and aggressive and the same for black women you know, if you speak your mind you’re an angry black woman. We're able to be vulnerable and be sad too and sometimes you just have to give into that - that’s where the inspiration came from.
After that night, the next morning I was walking down the street and thought ‘Blue Gene’ like DNA, and blue meaning sad. So, we went to the studio and flushed out the idea and that was the process.
Was that one of the first songs you created for the EP?
No, so this process of making this album and coming into my artistry started in the beginning of 2018. I started flushing out ideas and figuring out what I wanted to sound like and what I wanted to talk about. ‘Blue Gene’ was the first song in that process where I was like ‘this is it’. It was over a year and a half ago that we made that song.
"I try to stay away from genres but I pull from a lot of different aesthetics and inspirations."
You also released ‘Time’, what were the themes that you wanted to explore in that track?
It’s similar. ‘Time’ is talking about the idea that all of us as humans have been given this kind of script from our parents and to them from their parents as to what ‘success’ looks like and what we should do in life to be successful and happy. A lot of those times, the older you get - especially our generation, we’re questioning that stuff. So, ‘Time’ speaks to our ability to question what is supposed to be and ask ourselves if we have time for ourselves.
How important is it for you to create without the restrictions of any genres?
Oh my God, super important. So, I grew up in the church, as many black musicians do and it’s like a hard battle to kind of fight everything that you’ve been taught in church, plus coupled with R&B. I’m almost classically trained, so I have this weird roundabout trained ear. I’m always checking myself so that I’m not too much of one thing.
With this project what I wanted to do was explore sounds and senses, every track has a synth in it or an organic bass or an organic drum. Like, the drums on ‘Blue Gene’ were made by a bottle cap and a microphone, which is really cool to me - I just want to explore sounds.
We’re taught that as a person of colour and an artist, we have to be one thing and we can’t really deviate from these couple of things that we can make, so for me, just exploring different sounds and eliminating the word ‘genre’ because what is a genre anymore, you have pop stars that are rapping and rappers that are making pop tracks, so for me, I think that term is so outdated.
I take elements from everything, there’s a song on there that’s bluegrass, I’m a big bluegrass and Country fan and a lot of eighties inspiration, Carribean, Afro-beat inspiration in the melodies, so yeah. I try to stay away from genres but I pull from a lot of different aesthetics and inspirations.
Do you think that helped when you were working as a songwriter, having all of these influences made you more versatile when working with these different artists?
Yeah, for sure. The beauty of songwriting and the reason why I probably strayed away from artistry early on in my career is that as a songwriter you get to work with everyone, as you’re not the face of anything. So, I’ve worked on EDM, Pop, Bluegrass, Country, Rock … everything, so that kind of experience has also given me insight into how artists of different genres make music and how melodies and vocal production are done. So, when it came time to do my own stuff, it helped to spearhead how I wanted to sound and what elements I was pulling from.
"... we have so many different elements to who we are ... we can explore that visually, as well as educationally."
How does the process of writing change when you’re creating your own work compared to when you’re writing for other people?
When you’re writing for other people, there’s a couple of ways it can happen. It’s like ‘what do you want to talk about today, what are you feeling? What’s the vibe of your project?’, I’m always asking questions about them and trying to figure out how to write something from their perspective and it’s usually a little bit more cookie-cutter, a little bit more commercial.
In terms of myself, a lot of the talking points, the melodies, the sounds, even the delivery on the words are not anything I would do for anything else because I don’t think the way I approach music for myself is typically commercial and it’s about me. It’s about me, everything that I wrote on this album is about being a black man on this earth and trying to have empathy for other humans and have them share that through the music.
What is something you’ve learnt from working with another artist that’s always stuck with you?
I don’t necessarily think that I’ve learnt from artists but I’ve learnt a lot from other people in production - other songwriters, other producers. When you work as a songwriter, you’re usually delivering a product to the artist, not so much collaborating in that sense. I’m mainly collaborating with other songwriters, producers and engineers, so I’ve learnt a lot about song writing styles, melody choices, editing from the years of production that I’ve had.
How did you first get into music and what led you into songwriting?
So, I grew up in church and I come from a very musical family, like my whole family sings and plays instruments - so, it’s not so much something that I had a choice in when I was younger. I was kind of forced into the Sunshine Band, like this band where all of the youths sang but from that experience, I just loved music and it just stuck with me.
When I was 16, I bought one of those black composition books and I just remember writing songs on the front of it and writing down lyrics and thoughts. Then from the age of 16 onwards, I met a producer in New York and we were both just starting out so we were flushing out ideas, most of them were really bad. Then I went to uni and I would come to New York and go to the studio and I realised this is something that I have to do. Even now, I did it then and I do it now, I walk around and hum melodies all day into my voice notes on my phone. I think it’s something that’s in me and I gave into it, I didn’t fight it.
I was a banker, I have my NBA and I went to uni and did that whole path in life and then I started working as a banker and was like ‘yeah … no’, this is not for me. I just gave into the passion and what’s inside of me and it hasn’t been an easy road, it’s been a long road but it’s been a very fruitful and rewarding journey.
How does the scene and opportunities differ in LA compared to NY?
So, the music industry has always been in New York in America, right, it was New York or London, that’s where you went for music. Around 2012-13, a lot of artists started going to LA at the time to record because the weather is nice here, it doesn’t get cold. It’s December here and it’s 25 degrees outside. So, I started going to LA a lot in 2015-16 and it was for like three or four months out of the year I was staying with friends to work on music opportunities. What I realised was that everyone from the UK and NYC, were here.
They were just flying in to work and I was like you know what it’s 2017, my lease was up and I’ll never forget it. I was on a flight back to New York from a work trip and was like ‘you know what, I’m gonna move’ and I just did it and I’m glad I did because if I didn’t move so drastically, I probably would have never came.
I want to talk about your visuals for ‘Blue Gene’ and who did you work with and how was shooting it?
So, I worked with a woman named Breyona Holt and I discovered her two years ago with people just sharing her images. I kind of like that old time nostalgia, vintage, that’s kind of my jam, I love that. Everything she does in her photos is kind of abstract and nostalgic, I had a friend connect us and we just instantly shared the vision that I had.
For me, in all of my visuals I want to showcase black people differently than we’ve been showcased in the media because we’ve only been showcased, the same as within music as being just a couple of things. Being hood and twerking is obviously part of our culture, you know, but I want to explore different elements of things that we weren’t taught about ourselves or things that we can aspire to art-wise.
So, the cowboy theme was because I discovered that the first cowboys in America were all slaves. They were people who either became free men or moved to the West for the expansion. Then there’s some Nigerian elements in there, my best friends who are Nigerian gave me some hats from the North, the Hausa region. The girl who did my hair, her name is Fesa Nu, she’s South African so there was that influence from her, I just wanted to showcase that we have so many different elements to who we are as black people in a diaspora and that we can explore that visually, as well as educationally.
How important are visuals to your music?
I think they go hand in hand. I actually had a meeting yesterday about my next visual because I just think that in 2020, how we consume things, people have ADD, right? We need something to kind of bring you back to the music but to me the music speaks to the black experience in so many different ways. Whether you’re a man, women, gay, trans, straight - it speaks to things that we can all identify with and having a visual to tie that imagery to the message is paramount to me. So, everything I release will have a visual.
"...I really love making stuff look the way my mind sees it and I guess it’s the same process for the way I hear music and hearing it the way I want to hear it. "
How do you go about intersecting all of your artistic mediums/disciplines into your music?
Interesting. I don’t really have a concrete answer of how I do that. I love photography and visuals so much. Like, my friends send me their photos before they post, I really love making stuff look the way my mind sees it and I guess it’s the same process for the way I hear music and hearing it the way I want to hear it. For me, they’re in tandem and go hand in hand, the process isn’t too different.
I’m inspired by the seventies and the nineties, they’re my two biggest decades for inspiration, visually. I think that it just crosses over because like I said before, the elements that inspire my music are visual components of life. I think that if you’re a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary artist which I consider myself, I think that being able to take my aspect on an image or a video and have that same take on music is something that I’m blessed to be able to do but it’s not something that I really separate, it’s the same process to me - expect that one is sonic and one is visual.
Which artists first inspired you to get into music and who is inspiring you today?
My biggest musical inspiration is Lionel Richie, from the Commodores to now, he is one of the most prolific songwriters to me. The way he continues to span every decade, it’s really inspirational to me.
In terms of who I’m inspired by now, one would be Solange. The way that she approaches her music, I think her last album was one of the best albums to come out of this decade. Just everything from topics, to sonics, to transitions and her visuals - she’s really amazing.
If you had to recommend five artists to your listeners, who would they be?
What’s coming up for 2021?
2021 is something that I’m looking forward to, I’m so excited I was able to release this year and give an insight to the world to wrap it up but I’m releasing my next single at the top of this year with a visual and then the album should be out in March. Whatever the universe has in store for me around those drops, I’m ready for it but it’s a pretty big moment for me to release the album, so yeah, I’m just looking forward to it.