First Look Friday: Kenneth Whalum Interview
First Look Friday: Kenneth Whalum Interview
Photo Credit: Bryon Summers for Okayplayer.

First Look Friday: Believe In The Raw Honesty Of Kenneth Whalum

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

To those who really love and appreciate good music in whatever form it may reveal itself to be — there is no way that you can miss out on the talents of Kenneth Whalum.

The multi-talented musician, celebrated arranger, singer, saxophonist, and impressive songwriter — Kenneth Whalum has helped shaped the live elements for some of the industry's biggest stars. From Jay Z ("Roc Boys") to Maxwell to Beyonce, this Memphis, Tennessee craftsman has cultivated a new sense of emotional fragility with his skill set.

As the artist and the creative force continues to grow, Kenneth Whalum has stepped up to center stage to deliver his own truth in melody. After receiving rave reviews for his debut effort, To Those Who Believe, a self-released project from 2010 — Kenneth Whalum has doubled-down on his atmospheric style with his second album entitled Through Hell & High Water, which is slated for release this winter.

Maturing into the brand of originality that he calls his own, Kenneth Whalum merges jazz, soul, R&B and real life into a way that harkens back to a purer, non-manufactured way of imagining sounds and tones. His single, "Away," which explores hope and the roots of home, was buoyed by a stellar verse from Def Jam recording artist Big K.R.I.T. The two acts similarly possess a unique sense of awareness that charms the listener in a way that others have a hard time doing.

His most recent effort, "Ghost Town," which premiered early this November on The FADER, finds Kenneth Whalum crooning about the adventures of falling in and out of love. "I wanted to express the what ifs of a relationship," he explained to the publication over email. "The song is written from the space of final judgment of that given relationship. It's the moment of suspension between the overview and the end. The deliberation period." Over a swelling wash of piano riffs and hard drum hits, Kenneth Whalum gives his assessment of love in a way that is haunting and ethereal.

Intense, artistically real, and not afraid to push past the conventional methods of other acts, Kenneth Whalum is a force to be reckoned with. In other words, you should get familiar with his work before its too late. Armed with a personal connection to those who have come before us, Kenneth Whalum is the amalgamation of perfect improvisation, hip-hop, soul, R&B and honesty.

Without further ado, we'd like to present this week's First Look Friday interviewee, Kenneth Whalum.

>>>Listen to 'Ghost Town' on Pg. 2...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Okayplayer: Afternoon, Kenneth! Definitely cool to make your acquaintance. I wanted to ask you first about your origins in music and who some of your influences are.

Kenneth Whalum: I came up a saxophone player, y'know? It was my first instrument that I learned how to play and from there I just dove deeper into music. Growing up, I loved Playa Fly, Three 6 Mafia — I'm from Memphis, Tennessee — so that was my generation of artists that I enjoyed listening to. Guys like Project Pat and Eightball & MJG were on my must-hear list! At the same time, my dad was a pastor so I was listening to Marvin Winans, The Williams Brothers and Daryl Coley. Music was just always around, so when I moved to the city, it was my chance to branch out and find my own sound.

I would mix all this great music from working with people and being on the scene and put it into my own efforts. A bit of jazz, a bit of R&B, a bit of soul and put my own stamp on it. All of it has grown into me being comfortable in this zone.

OKP: So, in being in this zone, what would you say the music industry sees in you that the rest of the public has yet to become acquainted with?

KW: For one thing, I'd say, is that I love doing a great job when it comes to making music. I'm uncomfortable with being late. And that has nothing to do with music, it has everything to do with my upbringing and how I see myself as an artist. I'm a down-to-Earth person and I believe that sometimes the gap between being an artist and a regular guy gets overlooked.

A lot of times these artists want somebody who can play, but also operate in-between those spaces. I'm an individual that is able to communicate with our particular demographic, as well as the artists who represent them. I've dedicated myself to my craft, so nine times out of 10, I am deeply embedded into whatever it is I am a part of.

At the end of the day, I'm proud of my ability to relate to people and the artists I work with on an extremely personal level.

OKP: Competition in music is a fierce and ferocious endeavor. Can you talk about any that you've faced during your musical career and how you handled it?

KW: I rarely, rarely, if ever think of competition when it comes down to performing music. I will say that I don't think that there's anyone who operates that way I operate. I'm the only person who gets seen in a lot of these situations, y'know? That's cool where they are at, but I'm moving forward with what sounds and feels best for me. On this new record, I'm not even playing saxophone as much as I have in the past. It's like ten percent sax and 90 percent singing on Through Hell & High Water.

OKP: Other publications have noted that you excel in creating a dynamic live performance for the acts that you've worked with in the past. Can you discuss what elements go into making a stage show one-of-a-kind versus run-of-the-mill?

KW: I've been blessed to be a fan of whomever I am working with at the time. Whether that was Maxwell or Jay Z or D'Angelo, these were people that helped shaped what I like to see on stage and in a performance. I don't really care about how I personally work these ideas out for the artists, I just come in and do what I need to do. I try to add as much as I can to whatever is necessary in order for the people to have a great time.

There's no particular element because it all depends on who I am working with. Some artists I work with them on the actual records, which is what I am doing most times these days, and I enjoy that nature of collaboration.

>>>Continue reading our Kenneth Whalum chat on Pg. 4...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

OKP: In your opinion, it what was does Through Hell & High Water serve as a continuation or sequel to your debut effort, To Those Who Believe?

KW: Sonically, I wouldn't say that there's necessarily anything that I could point to, but personally it was transitional part of my life. I was just progressing out of a stage in my being, as I had just left The New School when I was working on To Those Who Believe. I was really just listening to a whole bunch of John Coltrane at that time.

Since then, though, I have moved on from that feeling onto this new one with Through Hell & High Water. People tell me that they still listen to the first album and I love that, but this is completely different from that. I am very happy with Through Hell & High Water and I think that it shows in the songs themselves. The first album was just a tidbit, a small offering of what I could do, whereas this new record is more of who I am as a person and as an artist.

OKP: Along with yourself and other jazz-rooted artists, you have resurged the fusion of trained musicianship with hip-hop and soul. Can you talk about why people maturing from that element into a deeper sound?

KW: In particular, I cannot stress it enough that this new music is not jazz. It is live instrumentation, but I am not falling into the pocket of "he's just a jazz musician" or "he's only a saxophonist," you understand? The music that I am producing is like alternative soul. It's more of a feeling that doesn't have any ties to jazz at all.

That's the part that I'm most excited about because I almost felt like jazz was weighing too heavy on me. I don't want to be like that all the time, you know? I am excited to hear this music and be able to witness my growth and understand this new narrative that I am pushing. I don't think that this is something that people would expect, especially if To Those Who Believe is all they have in mind when they hear my name.

What I am presenting sounds and feels totally different than that recording and I'm so proud for the people to hear it! The song "Away" with Big K.R.I.T. helped me to move away from that jazz sound. I wanted to hear something that would feed my soul, and who better than K.R.I.T. to kick some stick-to-your-ribs raps that have some weight.

OKP: Speaking of "Away," in another publication it was written that that wasn't the original track that you sent to Big K.R.I.T., correct?

KW: Yeah, the song that he originally had ended up on his See Me On Top 3 mixtape called "King Pt. 4". It was hard [laughs]. He pocketed for himself, which was funny, but I was surprised that he got off on that one like he did.

OKP: How can your music continue to speak truth to power in an age where things are so quickly digested and disposed of?

KW: I really feel that it is important to be honest. If an artist feels compelled to say something true, then I believe that is what he or she should say. I think the problem arises when artists attempt to force a message or belief that they're not truly invested in. When it comes off as forced, then it isn't believable, and I don't present myself as an act that is trying to force an agenda on anyone without being behind it.

Sometimes I might want to speak to a more spiritual way of being and sometimes I might just cuss — but that's who I am. As my mom used to say, "It takes all kinds to get a point across." Having too much of the positive without the negative doesn't hip anyone to anything. Same can be said on the vice versa. We all know the truth. There's something wrong with you if you don't understand that we need more positivity in our lives, but if you're not lending yourself to that cause then you're not being genuine.

OKP: What would you say is your message in your music that audiences should become familiar with?

KW: Like I had mentioned at the beginning of our chat, this new music is all about me writing a narrative or a story. I was raised to be a person of high moral standing, as I said my father was a preacher, and so I should be the person who can help others. But I have also seen the other side of the game, and I feel like knowing that and having lived that, gives me another perspective that you won't find anywhere else.

I try to offer both sides up in my music and my writing. To keep my truth in the tone of my singing and in how I present my work to the people, I work hard to offer dual perspective. A lot of my stuff is about love and I hope that there is a healing factor that comes out when I sing that helps others. Most of my work isn't going to be the traditional, first-verse-hook-second-verse-bridge type of formula.

No, my music is about me being completely honest, vulnerable and raw in my approach. I feel like that quality in and of itself is unique and can add a freeing element to the listener because it was like freedom for me to make it.

OKP: That freedom, that liberation sound comes out in your effort "Ghost Town," Kenneth. Can you break down the story behind the song?

KW: Wow! I appreciate those words, man. The story is basically the overview of a relationship. It's not based on any specific one or even a tumultuous one. It's that moment when one is able to review and look over the impending judgment of a relationship. A lot of times, there are people who know that the relationship has reached its end, but they stay. Everyone identifies with that moment and that time frame in a relationship.

That feeling of knowing whether you should cut this person off or not just proves that the review is necessary.

Be sure to follow Kenneth Whalum (and us!) on Twitter!