By Levi Todd
So first of all, how are you doing?
I’m doing good. I woke up about ten minutes ago, so [laughs]. No but I’m doing good. This time in Chicago has been pretty amazing so far and revitalizing, so that’s been nice.
And you’re coming right off of Pitchfork Sunday, how was that?
Yo, that was one of the most inspiring days of my life. Sometimes you need to be reminded what you’re doing and why you do what you do as an artist. Especially because I’ve been wrestling with feeling my own worth. And you know, this project, it’s a crazy thing to put art in the world, and so yesterday was just the most inspiring shit. I mean, I was literally taking notes on my phone the whole day. On performance, on band leading, The lineup that I saw was Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Kweku Collins, Rayvn Lenae, Smino, Noname, Chaka Khan, and a little bit of DRAM, and then Lauryn Hill. And Lauryn Hill’s performance was like, oh my god. Like, fucking incredible.
I wasn’t there, but it was fun seeing Twitter get excited when she finally stepped on stage.
Yeah, and last night was the twentieth anniversary [of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill], of that project that has been such a complicated but amazing thing for her, and she talked a lot about it. She said some beautiful words at the end, like just about how she felt this urgency to make this project because it was bigger than her. She called it the people’s music, and how it bridged generations, and talking about the lineage. She talked about music as an endless continuum, so that’s been getting me to ask a lot of questions of myself, you know, like what legacy am I a part of, which I think is a really crucial question to ask. And like, what am I doing this for?
Because I don’t know, the last couple of weeks I’ve been wrestling with like...you know, I’m not blowing up or whatever. I mean, these are all steps, it’s all growth. A friend of mine said something really inspiring to me, which was “There are two ways to climb a mountain. You can climb it to be seen at the top, or you can climb it to see everything at the top.” And I realized like, yeah, I’m climbing this to see everything, and then I’m climbing it to see how I can go back down and help all my people get up to the top. So hearing Lauryn Hill speak and sing last night was really solidifying
The mountain metaphor sounds like a really great way to redirect the way we think about success.
Exactly, and you know, music for me is all about community.I mean, Needs is one piece of the music that I make. I also play a lot of brass band music, I’ve always sang a lot, I played in big bands and stuff like that, and it’s all about community.
On the opening track to Needs, “Start”, you say “I can’t roll solo any more / so I need all my friends”. Who’s worked on this project with you, and what has that collaboration looked like?
The last project I put out, Open Season, was basically just me working completely by myself. There were a bunch of key collaborators for this. First off was the engineer I worked with--I recorded and produced the whole thing, but then I spent 50 hours mixing and mastering it with a very close friend of mine named Nicky Young, and he’s a brilliant engineer. He’s a key piece of this, he made it sound really really good. I’ll walk through the people who were key on it: my best friend Mobey, who goes by Xango Suave, they play violin on “Home”, Yomí played harp on “Home”, Burns Twins did a little bit of production on that. Sol Patches is one of my dear, dear, dear friends, I’m actually going to go shoot a music video with them for “Airplane Mode” after this. Being able to catch Patches on that track was a gift, because they’re a beautiful artist and human being and wonderful friend.
But “Airplane Mode” was hard, because I asked a couple different people to collaborate until I found something that felt right. Patches’ verse felt really right. I had asked Christian JaLon to do a verse on it, and it just wasn’t what I was looking for. But she’s brilliant, so I felt tension around that because I wanted to include her on the project. So I kept her background vocals under Patches’ verse. Those are really the main collaborators. On the next project I’m working on, which I’m kind of just starting to work on now, I really want to work with as many of my talented friends as possible. So we’ll see what happens with that. And my brother was very helpful, very key on the management side of things, and the emotional processing side of things.
What do you think making music is like in the Bronx vs. Chicago?
There’s a lot of different circles for me, musically. Also what the Bronx means for me is different for a lot of people and I’m hesitant about how I use the brand of the Bronx, because I don’t want to encourage gentrification of that burrough. I’m actually from a part of it that is not really wrestling with the realities of gentrification because it’s one of the pockets of wealth in the whole burrough. And now when I go back what it means to be home is a very different thing than when I was growing up. My dad plays Balkan brass band music from Serbia and Macedonia. That was the world I grew up playing music in, with him in the middle of this twelve-piece brass band that now I play with. I used to be in the center of the band as a toddler, like, watching them all play and sitting on his drum at parades and shit, so it’s always been in me.
I think the music that i’m making has really changed as I’ve gotten older. Drums were my first instrument, and then I played keys, and I played a lot of rock, I played a lot of different things. And then I think coming to Chicago...I don’t know, I think both cities have a distinct sound, right? I think the there’s a New York sound, and I think there’s a grittiness to music from New York, and I think there is in Chicago too, but I think there’s more of an acceptance of softness here, an acceptance of vulnerability. In New York people are always trying to act like they’re super hard, which I’m not. I’m critical of things like hypermasculinity, things like white supremacy, all this bullshit that I think should be deconstructed, both in myself and in the world. But it creates a tension when I go back to those places.
Thinking about the way that you’re trying to merge those two sounds, you’ve coined a genre called “electrabrasspop”. Can you tell us about that style and who’s influenced it?
Yeah, I didn’t coin that on any me being smart shit, I coined it on just not knowing what the fuck to call my music. It’s kind of just a way for me to merge the worlds of what I care about. Horn playing, electronic production, and poetry. In terms of the people who have gone into that sound, I do think it’s been shaped a lot by Chicago artists. I put out this playlist on my Spotify called “Ingredients”, that’s just a lot of the inspirations that went into making Needs, and I think it’s really important to pay homage to the people that’ve shaped that sound. Especially as a white artist making this music, I think it’s crucial to recognize where a lot of the roots of this music are. I'm deeply inspired by producers like Pharrell, by writers/producers like Missy Elliot, by Beyoncé (especially B-day era), by early Black Eyed Peas, by legends like Celia Cruz and Willie Colón, by current innovators, and by New Orleans/Second Line Brass Band Music - the album Hot Venom by Rebirth Brass band is one of the greatest pieces of music ever made. Chance and the Social Experiment have played a big role for me, which sounds corny to say when I’m in Chicago, but I think it’s true. Paul Simon too, just in terms of songwriting and on some pop music shit. I was trying to talk to my brother about whose legacy I continue, in terms of bringing things together. It’s a complicated thing to make music that doesn’t sound like other people’s.
Going off of that softness that you’re trying to tap into with your music, on the song “Private Parts” you take a look at what we consider to be intimate. How do you think about the role of intimacy in your position as an artist?
Yeah, this music is very intimate. Like it’s very personal. I think it’s really important for artists to be vulnerable. I think vulnerability is not weakness, that’s something my father taught me. Vulnerability is strength. I’m hoping to inspire people to not be afraid of their feelings, even though shit can be scary, because we’re all fucking wild. I think intimacy also takes a lot of forms. This album is me--I put this album out right at the end of a very long-term relationship that I had, so I think that played a role in this music and helping me process it. I had also gone through a lot of traumatic shit in the fall, just being surrounded by a lot of death, and so I think I put a lot of pressure on this music to help me process that. So that’s part of why it’s so vulnerable. But yeah, for “Private Parts”, that’s exactly what it’s about. It’s not about the physicality.
“Need” s my favorite track off the album, and in it you sing about the importance of acknowledging both big and small needs. Now that this project is done after starting in 2016, what do you find yourself needing these days?
Hm. This is a question about me as a person and not me as an artist so it goes deeper [laughs]. I find myself needing, in a way I have never before, validation. Which is just shitty, because I don’t want to depend on external validation. But I do. A lot of this project is about self acceptance, so I need to accept myself wholly, which is a process. I need my family and friends. I need routines, my rituals that keep me grounded. Meditation, stretching, practicing, exercising. I don’t know, I’ve been wrestling with feeling like...I have this thing where no matter what I’m doing I feel like it’s not enough, and so when I’m alone I feel like I should be with other people, when I’m with other people I feel like I should be working by myself, which makes it so I’m never content with what I’m doing. So it’s part of the self-acceptance piece, I need to just be okay and content with what I’m doing in that moment because I know it’s enough.
I need to value myself outside of the things that I make. And to wholly and completely love myself and accept myself no matter what. I need to communicate with people and consider other people, and prioritize myself, but not neglect other people. Yo, I just need to be in the sunshine mostly. And I just need to perform this shit. I have a show coming up in New York on July 31st at Trans Pecos, and I need to keep performing this music and sharing it in the world. That was some shit at Pitchfork that was so inspiring, just seeing how people perform their music. It’s a whole other art, and I’ve never been the front person to a project before. I need to keep expanding and working on what I’m learning, I feel like I get a little bit trapped within the ideas and the knowledge that I have, and I want to keep collaborating with people who push me.
What was your general goal in releasing this EP? What do you want your audience to be left with after listening to it?
I want people to be thinking about themselves in honest ways, and not not be afraid to ask themselves hard questions. I want people to be able to do all the things I can never do [laughs] so I’m just projecting that onto the listener. But no, for real, I want people to be vulnerable, to be true. I also want people to walk away from this thinking like “Damn, this is a lot of creativity and maybe I can create things as well.” Or maybe just “What I create is valid,” or “I’m valid.” Like, that’s really what I want the takeaway to be, and that it’s valid to have needs because everyone does. You can prioritize yourself, you can love yourself. I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of bringing light into the world. So I just want to people to finish listening while smiling. And also a little bit confused, like what the fuck was that?