For this month’s First Look Friday we talked to singer Velvet Negroni, who explores his new album, NEON BROWN, his creative inspirations, and how to make money in a rapidly changing music landscape.
It’s early September but the humidity of August still hangs heavily in the air. Jeremy Nutzman aka Velvet Negroni is back in Minneapolis after a whirlwind trip to New York City, which included back-to-back dates opening for Tame Impala at Madison Square Garden.
While those opening sets provided only a teaser of an introduction to the artist, it also allowed for his distinct, dub-drenched and R&B inflected sound to reach a brand-new sphere of audience.
While a performance at MSG can certainly help put new artists on the map, Jeremy Nutzman has been on the scene for years, previously performing under Pony Bwoy with bandmate Hunter Morley while developing his sound. His press bio details an early upbringing that emphasized classical training while vehemently opposing secular culture. From a young age, Jeremy was “a black kid adopted into a white evangelical Christian family” who was forced to “climb out his bedroom window to play guitar in his first band.” On a daily basis, and without exception, he received piano training and was prohibited from listening to outside influences that would potentially corrupt his predestined worldview. In his Fader profile a revelatory moment of finding “a pile of scratched-up, abandoned CDs on a neighbor’s lawn” is exposed, a period of his life that I’d later ask him about. In many ways, it feels like a parable tantamount to finding one’s eyesight after a lifetime of living in darkness.
When we chat his most recent record, NEON BROWN (via 4AD), has been out for less than a full week. But it’s already beginning to add layers to an increasingly mythological narrative. It’s not just Nutzman’s background being gradually woven together with each new review and published blurb, but it’s also the behind-the-scenes contributions that penetrate larger swaths of popular culture. The track “Waves” from Velvet Negroni’s previous release T.C.O.D. was played by Justin Vernon at Kanye West’s famously rural writing camp in Wyoming, resulting in a contribution to opening track “Feel the Love” on Kanye and Kid Cudi’s collaboration album, Kids See Ghosts. More recently, he’s lent vocals on both “iMi” and “Sh’Diah” from Bon Iver’s new album, i,i.
These high-profile contributions aren’t just Wiki-friendly Easter eggs and fine print liner notes; they’re a clear indicator that both Nutzman’s voice and creative direction possess a unique resonance that is parting the seas of an oft-impenetrable musical kingdom.
NEON BROWN offers an accessible entry-point to hear Jeremy Nutzman’s evolving artistry at work. Album highlight “Wine Green” is an instantly recitable, dancehall-esque anthem awash in peppy adlibs and ascending jabs of bass. “Poster Child” showcases a catchy, iridescent love-song-hook that glows vividly while the downtempo “Feel Let” spins out soft, palatable utterances that feel as if they’re being belted from a woozy, late-night cab ride home.
We talked with Velvet Negroni to explore the album, his creative inspiration, and a rapidly changing music landscape.
Can you walk me through your contributions on Bon Iver’s album and Kids See Ghosts?
Justin Vernon played [Kanye West and Kid Cudi] “Waves” and it was the first thing that perked their ears that day so they got into it a little bit. There’s a part of the song that goes, “I can feel it in my bones!” I think it was basically just that little snippet that they just took that energy and vibe into “Feel the Love.”
So the inspiration was more cadence than lyrics or production?
Yeah, there wasn’t a sample. While Justin was in Wyoming, I was at his crib working, I was there rehearsing to perform a couple of dates with him. He had helped to work on the record a little bit previously.
How did you two originally link?
I play in a band with a couple of cats that he grew up with essentially and so that’s how that intro went long ago. It was kind of fun. We were just around sometimes, and we got to know each other a little bit. And then my friend Ryan Olsen had played what I had so far of the record for him, he was really excited by it and the next time he saw me he kind of just opened up his place as a base, like “If you need somewhere to finish this or work on it you should come out.”
Can you tell me about the recording process and what went into your new album, NEON BROWN?
A lot of different things but mostly just good vibes, a good schedule and good hours. We would at least kind of sketch out one or two tracks, at least two things every day. Then after a little bit of that, circle back to one that we had worked on previously. The ones with real potential kind of just flowed out of the fucking mess and felt kind of obvious-ish, I guess. It’s like sifting for gold, eventually you keep whittling it down into a body of work that’s ready.
How do you feel now that it’s out?
It’s just exciting that people are listening to it. The album has been done for a pretty sizable chunk of time, that happened long ago it feels like, but now it’s just, knowing that people can listen to it…that’s exciting.
There’s a wide range of sounds on the album, some heady and stirring but also lighter notes. It’s interesting to see you do both.
It’s a natural thing in the songwriting process. Especially when I’m working with Elliott (Tickle Torture) and Simon (Psymun), there’s no off-limits. There’s that many more influences, like each person has a toolbox. Then there’s that added onto the writing process. So, we’re taking from a pretty wide range of shit just in everybody’s own mind and then putting them together. I don’t think any of us think about the style of the song as it relates to the album until after the fact.
What new artists inspire you right now?
I’ve been excited about Yves Tumor on Warp and listening to this cat Mk.Gee. I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head that I’ve really been jacked on. I’m kind of just stepping back into remembering that I can listen to other people’s music you know, like on my own, really just listen to music. Usually, I’m just in such a creative mode in my headspace, or I’m not listening to anything, or I’m working on my shit.
When you were first discovering music at an early age, finding discarded records on a neighbor’s lawn, which albums were especially formative for you?
In that pack of CDs that I found, I remember some 311, Soundgarden, some Metallica, Lords of Acid. I think there was a Crime Mob CD, some Tupac and even Marilyn Manson. Those were my youngest memories of having music that wasn’t church music.
That was huge for me. But I was so young that when I was playing music, I wasn’t coming at it from a composing aspect at all. It was beyond me how you could even make something like that. I didn’t have any of the experiences that I have now to desensitize me to the wonderment of music in general.
What was the original intention of keeping you from being exposed to that music?
I mean those were just my parents’ rules. They were religious and didn’t think that anything else was worthwhile except for Christian music. I was practicing playing piano for at least one hour every single day and my mom would sit on the bench next to me, there was no getting out of it really.
We’re now living in a totally digital age. How do you feel the streaming era is changing music?
Oversaturation is a real thing, but there’s also so much more of a platform. I think that, eventually, for the most part, good stuff will be discovered. Like there’s too many people listening, seeing and talking amongst themselves deep in the Internet at all times that I think that the good stuff, the truth will prevail. It’s just a different style with music in general, because it used to be the furthest thing away to just go to a bedroom somewhere and record. Most people couldn’t afford to even rent studio time, let alone rent a studio and then then take their time writing songs in the studio as they go. People used to write a song, arrange a song, figure it out, get really good at it and then go record it. Now, it’s pretty much the norm to write a song as you’re playing and then you have the ability to manipulate audio. It changed the format.
When I first got into recording on my own, an amazing feature of it was that it moved so fast and I found myself making a couple of happy accidents. It was really exciting. Like, wow, what happened there? It went from writing songs and then finding happy accidents to just showing up and relying on happy accidents, rather than really spending time with the chord progression of the arrangement ahead of time.
I think from the critic or audience’s perspective, you also have less time to win over an audience with a shrinking attention span. Not everyone is even really around for a full album to listen from front to back.
That’s huge, yes. You can grab your albums out of thin air. There was no way to pirate an album unless you stole it from a store. So, it was physical, and I think it meant more just inherently then. It meant more on a tangible level. Like, I paid eleven bucks for this album, I’m not sure if I like it yet, but I’m gonna listen to it and keep listening.
The attention span is so fast that I think there’s more people trying to just jump on a wave or catch a wave and make stuff that’s relevant right then, instead of thinking like a whole album. Instead of maybe making a piece of work that is supposed to stand the test of time.
What’s it like to be a musician in 2019? Especially considering it’s increasingly rare to make a living off your art.
You’re correct with that being a rarity, it also depends on what one person’s definition of living and what you’re satisfied with. I’ve been making music for a real long time, but only recently have I even taken into consideration, oh yeah, I guess there’s a chance I could make some money from this. Really. I can only try and imagine what it was like doing what I’m trying to do right now when the Internet wasn’t the Supreme Being.