Photo Credit: Bexx Francois
Producer Jordan Waré is the Secret Weapon Behind Brent Faiyaz’s 'Wasteland'
We spoke to violinist and producer Jordan Waré about crafting the sound" of Brent Faiyaz’s hit album Wasteland.
“Villain’s Theme,” the opening track on Brent Faiyaz’s second studio album, Wasteland, combines a collage of spoken samples exploring his vices, brooding bass lines and synths, and plucked violin sounds filled with anticipation. As the chaos fades into track two, “Loose Change,” the plucked notes turn into sharp string bends which establish the violin as its own character within the sprawling storyline. Within the project, the purpose of the strings is to provide the album's necessary element of suspense. They always feel as if they are building up to something — which is eventually revealed as an epic car crash in the album’s third and final skit. While some may attribute the staggering opening success of the album to Faiyaz’s rising stardom, the strings are the secret weapon of intrigue. And New York-bred, LA-based violinist and producer Jordan Waré is responsible for all of them.
Waré’s journey to being credited on 10 of the 19 tracks of the reigning no. 2 album on Billboard is a long and winding one. In second grade in East Harlem, Waré joined the violin section of his school’s music program because he “didn’t really wanna do recorder” and “they were doing all the cool shit like playing at Knicks games.” After joining, he told his mother who, funny enough, informed him she had been playing violin her whole life and had just never told him. (Waré’s mother is also one of the founding members of the acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock). Waré would eventually carry his evolving passion into Juilliard's MAP program. He credits a world music class he took there with being his guiding light for his artistry and the teacher of the class as his mentor. “She taught me different genres of music, not just classical,” he said. "That's really what opened my eyes to everything. I didn't know that you could play violin other than being at a recital or concert hall. She tore everything down that I learned and then rebuilt me back up into a completely different musician.”
Jordan took a more traditional college route at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Aside from momentarily joining an orchestra his junior year, and randomly getting his first producer credit on the Shop Boys' “Totally Dude,” Waré primarily shifted his focus to music business. One summer he landed an internship at Sony Music in New York where he would meet his eventual music lawyer, Carron Mitchell. He moved to New York after college and started to lock in, producing mainly pop-styled music with his strings front and center. After four years of the grind, Mitchell convinced him to move to LA.
After a year or so of working in LA, Waré ended up in a studio session with producer Karl Rubin and songwriter Pooh Bear. They would work on a song that started as a piano ballad and became more uptempo with Waré’s added strings. Pooh Bear assured Waré that he would show the song to Justin Bieber. In February 2015, Waré’s friend called him to alert him that the track he had made had surfaced as Jack U (Skrillex & Diplo) and Justin Bieber's “Where Are Ü Now."
He was officially in the game.
Waré would eventually meet Ty Baisden (Faiyaz’s longtime business manager) who would introduce him to Brent Faiyaz. They would make their first song together in those early LA days in a still “unreleased” track called “Worth It.” Even though they reconnected periodically, Waré and Faiyaz found individual success in their own lanes. Waré would work on more Grammy-nominated work with Chance The Rapper and contribute to stand-out songs for artists like Baby Rose and Mereba, while Faiyaz would craft his slow build to the center of the R&B sphere. But after a few rougher years leading into the 2020 lockdown, Waré would reconnect with Faiyaz over a few violin loops that would change everything again.
We spoke to Waré about much of what happened from then to now and all that he put into what has become Wasteland.
How did you get involved with Wasteland?
Jordan Waré: It was 2020. Fuck The World happens. It's going crazy. I'm super happy for my boy, but in the back of my mind I’m like, “I need to get on this Brent wave.” One day, I was just like, “Let me just see if I can reconnect." I might have sent Brent three or four of the 10 violin loops I had. He hit me back in April of 2020 just going crazy like, “This shit is insane, please send me more.” He kept hitting me, so, in return, I kept making them. I made “Dead Man Walking” within a month of him hitting me. Then once it came out, and it was going up. I was just like, “I might have something here.” So I just kept making loops throughout 2021 and sending them. Then last year when I was on vacation I found out that Brent was going to be working on this album, and that he wanted me to kind of be “the sound of the project.” Probably the most fulfilling work I've ever been a part of.
You’re classically trained even though classical strings aren’t your main focus. What do you feel like is your purpose when you bring your musicianship with strings to more mainstream compositions?
I like to bring something new to the table. There's so many different things that I do with the violin that people probably don’t realize. There will be instrument sounds they might have thought were something else, but it's actually a violin. I think a lot of times when people think about strings, they just think of an orchestral section. But I'm doing things like plucks, eerie little sounds, swoops, and I run violins through pedals. I guess it's more than meets the ear. I think a lot of times the way people use strings on records is either you'll have a little pluck thing, or you'll have long bow orchestral lush sections. A lot of people just put strings on the last hook or on the bridge leading into the last hook so strings aren’t the actual main piece of the record. So instead of it being like the garnish or the icing on the cake, what I’m doing with them is the actual cake.
Can you talk about the process of you going back and forth with Brent to arrange the strings to create the build on Wasteland?
I'm always thinking from a songwriter's perspective because I'm a songwriter myself so I know structure. I think a lot of the things that as a listener people are hearing are progressions that I heard as a writer. When I was making stuff I was trying to make the strings sing like Brent would. I would try to use the violin as that other voice. On “Loose Change” there's a big last section where he's talking about love and stuff like that. That's actually a section where he sang the melody and I went in and followed it, then just built upon it. Also, Brent does a great job of knowing when to hit people with certain parts. He'll take my sample and grab a part to create a moment. He's very hands-on in terms of curation.
The making of “Loose Change” By Brent Faiyaz #producer #wasteland #brentfaiyaz #loosechange #heisjordanware #traplin #musicproducer #makingbeats #fyp @brentfaiyaz
I saw your TikTok where you talked about string bends and stabs. Can you explain what those are and talk about the different emotions they exude?
Yeah, so disco '70s types of records have a lot of “string falls” or “string bends.” You usually only hear them on nice little fast runs, but I was like, “They should be the main component of the record.” I wanted to give Brent an actual heroic type of anthem on “Loose Change.” I just wanted to give him something nasty so he could soar over that shit. My violin and viola are the two main things that give it that depth.
Another feeling you're exuding with the strings on songs like “Ghetto Gatsby” and “Dead Man Walking” is brooding suspense. Can you talk about creating that within those two songs and the overall structure?
I think the thing that I noticed about Brent early on was that he likes a lot of space. I think a lot of dead space is great. I think so many records that are out now have no dead space. Like, it's literally just like hitting you with sound after sound. I feel like having that discomfort as a listener can sometimes be jarring, but it can also be like, “Oh, what the fuck is going on?” So I tried to produce with as much space as possible. With “Ghetto Gatsby” the initial loop I had sounded like very dead space terribly recorded. Then The-Dream took the song to a whole other level. I remember we were in the studio working on it and Brent was like, “Yo, I'm gonna have Raphael come through.” I'm like, “Raphael Saadiq? Oh shit!” He came through and was like, “Yeah, I just had to leave Beyoncé.” I was like, “Of course.” (Laughs)
With “Dead Man Walking” I wanted to hit him with something that you might not normally hear on violin that they do on a lot of classic soul records. A lot of tremolo-type stuff.
What is that?
A tremolo is basically like playing the violin really fast. Like your bow is moving crazy. So I laid the tremolo first and then I laid these plucks. I was definitely trying to go a little darker on that one, just because a majority of Brent’s stuff has a little darkness. I wanted something a little more cinematic. I wanted something that could possibly be in a Jordan Peele type of movie. Suspense is something that you can't fake. It's a moment when you're listening to music and you have goosebumps. Full suspense leaves you on the edge of your seat. Because so many things are formulaic nowadays, you kind of know how a record is gonna sound before it even drops. I hope this is one of those moments where you can honestly say you didn't know what the fuck you were listening to the first time you heard it. But you kept on listening just because of that feeling of “I don't know what’s going to happen next.” I like Wasteland because it actually tells a story and it's not like a playlist.
You mentioned him earlier, but how was it producing the final track “Angel” with Raphael Saadiq?
That was a crazy day. When I was in college I had worked for Sony doing college marketing and he was one of the artists I had to do an event for. I actually met him and took pictures with the guy. He and Brent had worked on a draft of the record and Brent had written a verse. He said he needed some strings on it so I went into the booth. I was nervous as shit because I didn't want to fuck up in front of Raphael, but everything I played was on point. There's probably only like three or four instruments in the whole record but each instrument takes up so much space that it feels full. I feel like it inspired Brent after I laid the strings to go to a place vocally that he hasn't really gone. I love the way it falls in the album as the last song and the culmination of everything. It's one of those records I'll never forget recording. Being literally around greatness like that. It was kind of like, “Wow, am I great now? Like, does that mean I'm great?”
Photo Credit: Bexx Francois
What did the responsibility feel like to be, as you described, the “sound of the project” on an album of this scale?
It was definitely a lot of pressure because even though I've known Brent since close to day one, I haven't been on every album. But I was confident in my music. There's always that thought in the back of your mind of, “What if nobody gets it?” But luckily people really fuck with it and the response has been overwhelming. A weight is lifted off my shoulders to a degree because I've been working so hard for so many years. So many people put me in a box because I play the violin like, “Oh no, you don't produce, you just play violin.” I feel like it's not only a win for myself but a win for anybody who is an instrumentalist. There's so many people who get told “you're just a guitar player,” or “you just play bass,” or “you don't produce, you're just a string player.” I had been put in that box for so long, but it feels like I finally arrived.
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top tier work of other writers.