Brent Faiyaz has been picking up a pencil to fight his demons since he was a child; sketching his escape from whatever was plaguing his young mind. Now in his twenties, writing has replaced drawing; from poems in his iPhone notes, to words poured through melody onto a canvas of tender production. The form has changed, but the function remains the same.
For Faiyaz, the act of writing is a selfish one. It’s a self-serving process that helps him navigate life’s obstacles. The fact that his work is attracting an audience is something that is relatively new, and genuinely surprising to him. He’d be doing this anyway, but he’s overjoyed to look back and see thousands joining him for the ride. This year he’s watched a hook he recorded for D.C. rapper GoldLink become the platinum selling ‘Crew’, and ‘Into’ a project that he put together with regular collaborators Dpat and Atu - collectively known as Sonder - lead to a sold-out headline tour across the states.
Throughout this period he’s simultaneously been working on ‘Sonder Son’, a deeply personal collection that follows his journey from daydreamed sketching in his Baltimore high school, to dealing with a successful music career in Los Angeles, with a hell of a lot of hustle and hard work in between.
A few days prior to the release of ‘Sonder Son’, Brent Faiyaz spent half an hour unpacking his creative process for us…
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This album is your autobiography. How did you distill your life into this collection of tracks?
Initially when I first started the project it was going to begin when I got to L.A. and it was going to be conceptual and based off my experience when I got here. But then I realised I’d be skipping out a lot of shit.
It’s one thing for somebody to hear some music, hear shit that you write, and really take it in and resonate with them, and it’s another thing for them to have the same experience and to then [resonate with you as an artist]. So there’s a lot of things that I want to say and a lot of subjects that I want to speak on, but if the fans don’t really know who I am then they’re not really going to listen to that shit. I feel like an introduction piece just to who I am, to let people know what I’m about, is the best way to go about gaining real fans and people that really fuck with me.
It was natural though, it wasn’t really a considered effort to make this shit super personal. When you’re writing music I guess the easiest shit to flow is the shit that you’ve really been through, so that shit just kind of came out.
You’ve just come off the sold-out Sonder tour in the US, how was that experience?
That shit was incredible. I guess just the fact that we paid for the tour out of pocket and then sold out the whole shit, that’s surreal to me. It’s different when people show love online, but when you get to meet and interact with people who really fuck with your music, that’s priceless.
Has the success of Sonder influenced the way that you’ve approached your solo music?
I don’t really think so. I had a vision for how I wanted to do this album before the Sonder shit even really happened. The Sonder shit just happened to us. We just found each other and made something great, then expedited this whole process, this shit we have going as solo artists. I had a vision for how I wanted to do the album from jump. I think more than anything it made me want to dig a little more personal. I wanted people to know who I was.
What were the first things you did to begin the album process?
I didn't really do it chronologically. I think ‘So Far Gone’ might’ve been the first one I cut, or something like that. I really just wanted to make it mad personal. I wanted it to be cathartic for me more than anything.
A lot of times when I was working on ‘A.M. Paradox’ or the ‘Into’ project I made some shit that I knew was good music, but for me personally it wasn’t as personal as this project. The same shit that people get when they listen to it, is the same shit that I take when I listen to it. I learned a lot about myself through the process of making the project. I be going through some shit and it’s not going good, then I write a song about it. And I guess I understand more about what I’m going through, the more I listen to a song that I made about a period or situation. So it’s a lot more personal, it’s deeper than just the music.
There’s a line on ‘Home’ where you say, “There was a time where all I wanted was a pencil, Just to keep these stresses of this cold world out my mental.” Could you tell us about that?
I used to draw. I used to be real heavy into drawing when I was a kid. I was one of them kids who went to like Royal Institute College of Art when I was like eight and took classes with high school kids because I was real nice with drawing and shit. I don’t really draw anymore but at that time when I was a young’n that was everything.
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I wondered whether it translates to music. Is music a form of therapy for you?
Definitely. That’s why I feel real lucky just to be in this position. I feel all of the time like I make music for personal reasons. I be going through so much shit and I make music about it so that I can get over it. So it’s another thing to make that music, put it out and have people fuck with it. To the point where they buy tickets to come see you perform the song that you wrote. That's so much love because I do this shit for me.
So the fact that other people really hear it makes me look at the shit differently. It makes me think about what I say differently. I guess if anything changed from the Sonder project to working on this album, it’s the approach to music thinking about what people are going to think about it. I’ve definitely thought about my listeners with this project.
How would you describe your writing process?
I write a lot anyway, whether it be poems or short notes or little things throughout the week or the day or whatever. A lot of shit based off conversation. Those can turn into songs or they can just say how they are. But I pretty much write anywhere. And then sometimes I can go into the studio and not write at all.
While you’re in album mode do you listen to other music or do you shut off from that?
I was listening to a lot of shit. I listened to a lot of Jeff Buckley, I was listening to Radiohead, Aaliyah, ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’. ‘Me Against The World’ was a big one. Any album that was a big album for being introspective, or when you listen to the artist speak about their own life, that’s what I was listening to. So a lot of rap.
The production is all very stripped back, why is that?
I really just didn't want to distract from the shit that I was talking about. I put a lot more into my writing with this project than anything else I ever did, so I didn’t want people to get distracted. Even I’ll listen to it three or four times and I’ll find some new meaning that I didn’t even think before. I might have dropped a line that didn’t mean anything at the time, for some reason it just came out, and then I listened to it two times and I found something equally different in it. I think there’s going to be a lot of that with this project, so I just didn’t want anything to distract from the writing.
What have you learned from making this record?
I learned a lot more about my process. I learned a lot of habitual behaviour that I’ve got, just personal things with people or with women. I do a lot of the same shit, and it’s a lot of shit that people can relate to; relationship behaviours, family shit. I kind of learned how to resolve my own issues while I was making this shit. I had a crazy point of realisation.
What are you most proud of about it?
I’m really happy with how it sounds. I didn’t have a vision for how I wanted this shit to sound initially. I just knew what I wanted it to be about. But I think sonically it complements the writing so well. My team worked really hard on that. Just being in there with them while we were producing these records and handcrafting these shits from nothing. I really admire how the production changes up so much, so I’m happy about that.
What do you want people to take away from listening to this record?
I just want people to feel it, man. I want people to relate to it, I want people that listen to the music to be like, “Oh shit. This is exactly how I feel, this is exactly how I think. But I’ve just never really had nobody say it.” It’s not even a lesson I’m trying to teach. Whatever anybody wants to take from it is what I want them to take from it. I don't really have no agenda that I’m pushing. I know what I took from it, but I can’t say the same for the next person. I just want them to enjoy it.
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Words: Grant Brydon