For our latest First Look Friday, we spoke with Wiley from Atlanta about being influenced by soul and R&B music, immersing himself in Atlanta’s rap scene, and his latest album, Kingfisher.
Wiley from Atlanta embodies youthful Southern charm with an enriching “old soul” to match. With a voice that has a husky, rich tone (both when he sings and speaks), the 23-year-old exudes a post-modern rock realness that is similar to folk artist Chris Stapleton, channeling his influences that span genres — Erykah Badu, Fleetwood Mac, Outkast, and Sade — to create a soulful sound that’s also informed by Atlanta’s ever-growing rap scene.
The roots of Wiley’s musical path were planted 10 years ago when he received his first iPod at 13. Influenced by what his friends were listening to in middle school, Wiley started to find his own taste in music. This, paired with the fact he was already participating in creative classes like performing arts and theater, led to him making music. Becoming a big fan of hip-hop also played a part in that. During the peak of blog era rap, Wiley was being introduced to artists like Earl Sweatshirt and the late Mac Miller, who helped him realize how accessible the genre can be.
“With rap, you’re watching a kid who’s 19 going on tour. It’s like, ‘Oh! There’s The internet, Mac Miller, and Earl Sweatshirt!’ It was really visceral,” Wiley said during a Zoom call. “It was the feeling of knowing that this was accessible. I don’t have to have a crazy big production to potentially tour and to perform in front of people… Reading about all of these rappers and seeing them graduate in real-time was exciting.”
Having become a hip-hop fan (and starting to write his own raps), it makes sense that Wiley inevitably immersed himself in Atlanta’s rap scene, going to shows to not only find community and inspiration, but network, too.
“Before you know it, you’re playing a show with five people that you already know. You’re friends with the DJ and it feels like you’re all kind of a part of something,” he said. “I think that’s what really grabbed me was that sense of community and also the competition of it… We’re all experimenting with what we want to do and how we want to present our music.”
In 2019, Wiley released his debut album, Blue Don’t Make Me Cry, a somber and heartfelt body of work that includes a notable feature from rapper Kenny Mason, and was made in honor of Wiley’s late friend (and singer-songwriter) Jarrod Milton. Last year, he released his follow-up Kingfisher, a sonically cinematic road trip that finds him creating a fantasy world for himself while growing in the COVID era.
“I started to think about quarantine in terms of almost like a purgatory where you’re isolated but still kind of functioning in society,” he said. “This idea of a fictional motel called the Kingfisher Motel came into fruition.”
Made up of eight tracks, Kingfisher calls back to previous songs Wiley has released — like “Grey Skies,” a stunning and chilling continuation of his breakout hit “Pink Skies” from his 2018 Demo 001 EP — while looking toward the future. This is best captured in “Arizona,” a sensual love song that Wiley considers his favorite from the album.
“From the minute I first heard the production, it reminded me of Fleetwood Mac,” he said. “I was thinking of, you know, ‘Dreams’ and ‘The Chain’ — these Fleetwood Mac songs that are kind of like breakup songs but they’re sort of sexy at the same time.”
Wiley is having a professional ascent as he enters his Kingfisher era. He acquired 600,000 plays on Spotify last December, performed a sold-out show at well-known Atlanta music venue Masquerade, and is opening for rapper Grip on his upcoming U.S. tour.
Right before he attended a family outing at Atlanta Mexican staple Mi Barrio, Wiley from Atlanta spoke with Okayplayer about the making of Kingfisher, how soul and R&B influences his sound, and more for this month’s edition of First Look Friday.
Walk me through Kingfisher. What is the backstory of naming your second album this?
Wiley from Atlanta: It was right when the pandemic was starting and people were having to quarantine. We were about to go to SXSW and then it got canceled. All of this stuff was going on and I just thought of “Kingfisher.” I just kept thinking about it and what it meant. Kingfisher birds, historically, are symbols for peace in times of great trial. If you see a kingfisher bird it sort of physically represents the peace that you need to react to a situation that’s really difficult, and see that, “OK, there’s a way out of this.”
I started to think about quarantine in terms of almost like a purgatory where you’re isolated but still kind of functioning in society. This idea of a fictional motel called the Kingfisher Motel came into fruition. Before I wrote any songs for the album I visualized the idea inspired by the Land of the Lotus-Eaters mythology. This motel where everyone that’s there has always been there but they’re not aware of that. There’s relationships going on. There’s people who are in love who are staying there. There’s people who are in gambling debt staying there. There’s a call girl staying there. I had all of these kinds of characters in my head. I started to write songs for the album keeping everything in the context of this motel. It’s ultimately a metaphor in the spectrum of, “How did we all get here and how are we functioning?”
I feel like Kingfisher is a body of work that revolves around a certain type of love. One that comes from a person that is so mesmerizing to be around but that is difficult to maintain, because they’re not all in. Is it fair to say that this project derives from the idea of love and loss playing a huge part in your story?
One hundred precent. I write a lot of love songs. I feel like in my life and my personal experiences, relationships are so much of what I know and what I’ve had to learn from. Anyone that’s been in love or has fallen out of love experiences all these kinds of feelings, and I think it’s really interesting to play around with those with songwriting. With this album specifically, there’s that infatuation when you first fall in love with someone where it’s so exciting but it’s also really scary. I wanted to kind of write from the perspective of being infatuated with someone so much that they don’t even seem real to you.
I think there’s a really interesting balance in how we as people cope with losing our youth or trying to hold on to certain parts of ourselves. I think that relationships are just a huge part of what makes us who we are all across the board. Everybody has former friends that they don’t talk to anymore but were super close with. The overall theme of this motel is meant to reflect that. You’re learning new things about yourself. You’re becoming a different kind of person but you’re also trying to hold on to who you used to be. Love and loss is such a huge part of the “coming of age” journey. My first two EPs were very personal, but then my first album was about a very specific traumatic event. Those very focused projects led me to really explore all of those feelings on this album, and try to touch on everything a little bit within that.
I love that the tone of Kingfisher sounds like a nostalgic cross-country road trip. It’s a project that you can truly get lost in. What served as your creative inspiration while creating this project?
I think that I subconsciously write a lot of music with the idea of listening to it in the car. I’m [also] super inspired by movies with whimsical cinematic imagery such as, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Raising Arizona, which is probably my favorite movie of all-time. Those movies aren’t necessarily about road trips but I think they have that feeling of the characters traveling somewhere spiritually. The audience likes to watch movies that follow people while they’re finding themselves along the way. I think that was hugely impactful on what this album is because I think of things in such a cinematic way. If I’m writing a verse I’m imagining the scene of the verse coming to life in my head. I think that having the inspiration of everything in the context of a movie or a script helps with the pace of the album and how it feels. I want the album to feel cinematic, but I also want it to feel like a story where you don’t have to pay close attention to understand. There’s a story in the album but it’s not so specific that you have to know what it is.
Talk to me about how soul and R&B influences your sound.
I really think that soulful music is the heartbeat of our collective consciousness when it comes to music that we love and culture that influences us. You see it all the time: you talk about the artists that have “soul” that make you feel what they’re singing and what they’re saying. It’s not specifically just in R&B, but those are the artists and songs that stick with people because it feels personal and you feel like you understand them on a personal level.
There’s something about when someone performs a song with soul in a way that really grabs people’s attention. You’re seeing their experience through their eyes and you’re sharing their experience. To me, that’s just the music that really captivated me growing up. As I got older and started listening to more R&B, I started branching out in that genre and discovering artists for myself. Listening to Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and The Fugees — it was kind of similar to what Outkast was doing and the other real Atlanta shit that I was super into. It all just felt very Southern to me. It’s another thing about soul and R&B that, to me, feels intrinsically Southern. I think there’s something about it that really speaks to me when growing up in Georgia, and being from this part of the United States with how many cultures are here.
There’s just something about being from the South and I think that’s really present in R&B music and modern rap. It’s something that catches my ear. It’s something that feels relatable to me because it feels like my experience. It feels like the way that I see the world. As powerful as soul can be, it can also be really fucking cool, sexy and exciting in a way that not a lot of music is.
What are your favorite ways to prioritize joy in your life?
I think the way that I prioritize joy in my day to day life is just by being around people that I really care about. I think that I’ve always been a very social person but I’m also not at the same time. I like to spend time with myself and take time to myself. I’ll go write somewhere alone like a coffee shop or go to a show by myself — something like that. However, I don’t like to be alone in the sense that I’m living alone. I really like to be around people, and I especially like to be around people that I feel super comfortable around. Honestly, I spend so much time with my family or with my girlfriend — I always want to call her my partner because I feel like we’re more than that — they are my physical embodiment of “joy.”
Courtlyn “Court Kim” Montgomery is a jack of many trades. She is a well-known culture critic, alumnus of Georgia State University (BA in Journalism/Minor in Sociology), and an accomplished model that has been featured in Pyer Moss and Telfar. Featured in Afropunk, LAPP the Brand, R&B Radar, and The Curvy Fashionista, you can find the ATL/NYC-based Journalist @TheCourtKim on social platforms.