11 May 2010

Ear Candy: Plain Janes Meets Jesse Boykins III

If you've been listening to Theophilus London or Machine Drum lately, chances are that you've heard the vocal talent of Jesse Boykins III featured on one of their tracks. With a voice as smooth as honey and an impressive backlog of musical creation and collaboration alike (two albums, Dopamine: My Life On My Back and The Beauty Created; other collaborations with the likes of Melo-X and Mickey Factz; not to mention having trained under Bilal), it's no wonder that the R&B/Neo-Soul singer is an emerging talent on the New York scene. Recently, Jesse paid a visit to the Big Smoke to perform his first London show and shoot the music video for his single 'Amorous,' off the Beauty Created album -make sure you peep that! Never the ones to miss out, we caught up with him for a chat about music, sunshine, plans for the future and where it is he learned that stage swagger that makes the ladies (including our Reporter Jane) weak in the knees. And while technology failed us in showing documented proof of the fact, there is a rumor around the block that we also got Jesse to play and sing along with a ukulele.....

How do you find the differences between NYC and LDN?

I don't really think about comparing it -to me, it's just a new experience. When I travel anywhere, I don't like to compare it to New York, because that's my home. But I definitely like the energy in London, and I'm very appreciative to be here. The sun's been out lately, so everyone's been a little bit more happy and I've seen a lot of smiles! I've been trying to travel as much as I can, get on the underground and go to to different areas, see what the energy and vibe is like....

Are you familiar with the London music scene?

I'm actually not, honestly, and I feel really bad that I'm not. I've been getting asked a lot about different genres, like everyone tells me 'You gotta listen to grime,' or someone says 'Listen to some funky house, listen to some dubstep,' and I'm like 'Yeah, alright!'. I'm just taking it all in so when I go back home I can go on Google and do my research!

What's your creative process in your daily routine?

As far as creating goes, it's really spontaneous. There's no set creative process -I don't need to be wearing a certain kind of tshirt or anything crazy like that to write a song- it's just whatever inspires me, and whatever I'm able to retain from that inspiration. A lot of the time, my songwriting comes from not even being in my element, like when I'm traveling. I always travel with all of my recording equipment just because I never know when it will hit. When I got here, I wrote something and I looked at it and was like, 'I would have never written that if I was in New York, or if I was in LA or Atlanta.' I really appreciate that aspect of being an artist: being able to take in an environment and just put it out, even if I've only been there for two hours. So I like to keep my creative process as organic as possible, and that goes for songwriting, coming up with a melody for song, laying that melody down and then figuring out what instruments I want to put on it. Nothing forced.

Do you play a part in the production of your music?

I do a lot of my own production, arrangement and vocal arrangement. I feel like it's a similar process to an artist picking what colour paints to use; if I have a canvas, and I have an idea of what I want to paint, I'm gonna draw a sketch out of it -that's the lyrics. Then, I'll pick the colours -that's the sounds. Then, I'm gonna figure out what other details I want -that's the arrangement. So that's how I look at it, creatively.

Who are some other producers/musicians you're interested in collaborating with?

Right now, I've been working a lot with Machine Drum -he's probably one of my favourites, thus far. He's a really, really awesome producer and he knows music so well -because he's a DJ, too- so his ear and taste for music is amazing, and his knowledge is pretty expansive. Melo-x is another cat that I've been working with lately, who is also an awesome producer and DJ. Both of their spans of music are so wide, and even just being around them while they're creating is an experience; I'll go over to their houses and just chill out and be like, 'Oh hey, lemme get that CD to listen to! Oh, that too, and that!' But I also
really like cats like Quincey Jones, and I'd like to have string arrangements on one of my songs. I like Raphael Saadiq, as well -he's probably one of the better producers/songwriters out there right now. There's a really big span of people I'd like to work with, but I'll work with whoever wants to work with me, whom I look up to and appreciate and can tell that they also have a passion for their art. I'm pretty much open-minded if somebody is talented and we have a connection musically.

What led you towards soul music?

It's funny, because I wasn't even really brought up on soul music. I listened to a lot of reggae growing up, and a lot of Latin music when I lived in Miami, which is all about cha-cha-chas and merengue. When I moved to New York is when I started listening to soul music, when I was about sixteen. That's when I started listening to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and before that, I would listen to boy groups like Boyz II Men and Jodeci and H-Town. I just remember being able to connect with soul music on a level, emotionally. I heard R&B singers with songs about being in love with somebody, but that's all they sang about. A soul song can be anything, though, and you can still have that passion. Like, you can write a song about having to pay your taxes and sound like you're about to die, and you can connect with that. It's so easy to connect with. It's really simple, too -it's just a little melody on a guitar and some cat going crazy about something in his life that happened- and a lot of times, that same thing might have also happened to you, or you might think to yourself, 'I wouldn't want that to happen to me, hearing him sound like that!'

Would you ever find yourself gravitating back towards reggae/latin-influenced music?

Yeah, I think about it a lot. My uncle is always saying to me,'Rude boy, you gonna do a Bob Marley or Dennis Brown cover soon?' But it's definitely in my career plan, and I do want to reach back to my culture and say thank you. It's in my music now, even, but it's hard to hear because it's not proper 'reggae'. It's there rhythmically, and in the fact that I value my lyrics so much, because a lot of reggae music is about the lyrics. Everything is a movement, and even when you think it's a love song, it's really about the culture and the upbringing.

Who are some of your on-stage musical influences?

Well, it's like a craft [performing on stage], and when you're learning something, you always want to research it. There are always people who inspire you visually -just like if you're a poet, and you read everything about your own favourite poet. I definitely study my art, and I do watch James Brown performance videos and Prince rehearsals for inspiration every once in awhile. I do watch Maxwell videos from the nineties, because with those cats, you could always see their passion. I study myself, as well, and I always have someone shooting all of my performances so that I can watch them over again. There's no mirror when you're on stage, so I'll watch [the recordings] and say to myself, 'I gotta stop doing that,' or 'I don't like when I do that,' and keep those things in my mind. It's definitely a learning experience,
and you'll find who you are as a performer as you go along, and you'll also find the things that you like or that you don't like. It's one of those things where you learn as you go.

What's the message that you want to spread through your music?

It's the simplest and most common message: love. Honestly, I feel like when you look at the root of everything, it's love or hate. And I don't want to push hate, I'd rather push love, no matter what form of love it may be. Even if it's a sad song, it's still from love or it leads to love, and it's not like 'I hate you. Oh God, I can't stand you.' I never want to promote or push music like that, because music is so powerful, and a lot of people don't understand that. A lot of musicians and artists don't even understand that, until they do a show and see 10,000 people rapping along to a song about wanting gold chains and diamonds, because you said that. But that's not what life's about, and material is cool, but it's more so about the connection with people and with your surroundings and the environment.

Would you ever write a socially/culturally conscious song?

Actually, with this next album I wrote a song called 'Grayscale' which is about the fact that cultures need each other, feed off each other and transfer information back and forth. We're pretty much all the same at the end of the day. But there's conflict in being alike, in some respects. One of the lines in the song that I really like is, 'Blinded by the tone of you, I feel that the truth is known / The air is brail, I sense you're frail, so I need to hold on / Close the eyes, guide me through, close the lips, seek you / An endless journey home'. It just sounds like some deepness at first, but 'blinded by the tone of you' is like, 'You're a different colour than me, and I'm not gonna look at you, but I definitely still like your food.' (Laughs) You know, like, 'I don't really like Jamaicans, but I'll tear up some of their curry chicken.' You know those kinds of people? It's so funny how people are like that -I have friends that are like that, and I've come in contact with a lot of people who are like that, and it really doesn't make any sense to me. In a hundred years, somebody will get asked what their nationality is and they'll be like, 'Human. It's too much, I can't tell you everything, but I'm human.' That's why I came up with the concept of 'Grayscale', because in art, grayscale is every colour from black to white. So that's probably one of the songs I've written so far that's not about a woman or about love, it's about the bigger picture.

Did writing 'Grayscale' have a big impact on you?

It was so crazy, because it just came out of me when Machine Drum and I were working on a song. He started it, and I just had a melody and suddenly started singing, 'The wind it comes, it goes / I move with every breath you make'. And it was just so natural, it was like we were talking to each other. Machine Drum is from South Carolina and he went to school in Orlando -his upbringing is definitely different from mine- but we met in Brooklyn, and it was like all that he experienced took him all the way there and all that I experienced took me all the way there. So no matter where you're from, especially in this day and time, there's still gonna be a connection. You could be from Egypt and your favourite singer could be Janis Joplin, and I could be from Russia and my favourite singer could also be Janis Joplin, but there's that connection through every culture. I didn't even realise the power of the song until after I listened to it about thirty times, and then I was like, 'How did I write that?' We performed it live once at this place called Santos in New York, and it was an early show, so it was a small group of about forty people, but they really responded like, 'Wow!' and I feel like that's going to be the reaction every time.

If you could be known for only one of your songs, what would it be and why?

I don't want to be remembered for just one song. I'd rather be remembered for everything, honestly. But I think from an artist's point of view, and from a person with a creative standpoint, we're never satisfied. That's why, as artists, we keep creating -because we don't think we've ever done our best yet. I think I'll always feel like that, so there won't ever be a song where I'll look at it and say, 'Yeah, I wrote that song. I'm never gonna write another song again.' I'd like to be remembered for an album, though. I'd prefer people to be like, 'Oh, you did The Beauty Created album,' rather than just remember me for writing 'Pantyhose'. Because it's like, did you hear the album? Did you hear the conceptual project of it? Do you know why I wrote 'Pantyhose' and where it fits in the album? I want to be remembered for that. Like, back in the day, cats were remembered for albums, and that's the way I'd like to be remembered, too.

If you could have written any song in history, what would it have been and why?

Wow, there's so many songs that I love that I listen to. That's a tough one.... I really like the Beatles, and one of my favourite songs of theirs is 'Something'. That's probably one of my favourite songs.

Do you have any plans to tour around the US or UK anytime soon?

Oh definitely, definitely. We're putting out a single in June, and with the new album coming out, we're starting to set up tours and plan things. I can't confirm details just yet because we're still in the beginning stages, though. It's a new journey, so we still have to figure out the plan and see how the single does. But I'll definitely be doing a lot of spot dates -I'll be performing with the Foreign Exchange at BB Kings Blues Club in New York, and then I'm supposed to be opening for Erykah [Badu] in LA. So that's what I'll be doing until the conceptual project and visuals come together, and then I'll go and explore and see what happens out of that.

Jesse's second LP, Love Apparatus, is due out later this year. Make sure you keep up with him on Myspace, Twitter and his website.

Coverage by Miss Artful Dodger
Photographs by Munro

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