Sean, in past interviews you’ve spoken about your mother’s passion for music and your father’s life as a working musician. Did both these factors ultimately influence your decision to become a musician? What are some of your earliest musical memories?
My ﬁrst musical memory is Chuck Mangione’s ‘Feels So Good’, I was just a baby, but I remember hearing this melody. The ﬁrst cassettes I had were, LL Cool J’s ‘I’m Bad’, and a dubbed copy of the Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed to Ill’. I vividly recall riding with my cousin Jay, blasting ‘I’m Bad’, that bass line shaking the whole car, heads turning, made an impression on me.
Fortunately, I grew up in an environment where music was encouraged. My father, a trumpet player, worked with the Bill Chase Band, Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign, the Playboy Club house band, and as the press release said, “other gigs too jive to mention”, but was murdered in an unsolved homicide. So, I was not inﬂuenced in the typical way of having a parent who was a professional musician. However, even as a baby, he had suggested to my mother that I should play the piano. My mother played guitar, wrote songs, and had a lovely voice, but never pursued music as a career. And when I started formally studying music at the age of seven, my stepfather was the one hauling me around, from school to piano lessons, to athletic teams, a rock-solid man, old-school-honourable.
In the late 2000s, you left your native Chicago and relocated to Europe. Since then you’ve spent some time in Paris, and currently are living and performing in a resurgent Berlin. How are you ﬁnding Berlin compared to Paris and do you think the move away from the US has ultimately beneﬁted you as a musician? Do any artist serious about their craft should consider experiencing life in a different countries and cultures?
Creatively, I don’t recall the experience of being in Paris translating directly, but then again, it has to make some impression being in such a colorful, stylish, historically and culturally rich city. I’ve traveled so much, it has largely been a holistic effect, a sense of adventure, the feeling of freedom and knowing that there are unlimited ways to live, perceive, imagine, deﬁne, and invent. I have only been in Berlin since October, and deﬁnitely feel rejuvenated by the youthful, carefree, and vibrant energy. I don’t think it’s necessary to travel, but at the same time, I ﬁnd it important to take risks. And throwing yourself in a foreign culture presents challenges, but opens all sorts of new opportunities. For me, I was too comfortable in Chicago, and needed to put myself on edge, navigate new pathways. Routines can provide a foundation for development, but they can also lead to stasis and decay. It’s important to assess and reassess.
How do you approach the writing process? Are you the type of person that continuously sketches ideas if and when the inspiration hits or are you more akin to locking yourself in a room for a few months and writing a whole album?
I am always thinking about music and listening for inspiration. This might come from any element within the music, a beat, bass groove, harmonic voicing, a rhyme scheme, anything. There are so many inventive people out there, and the increasing democratization of music making has probably opened the gateway for a lot of people who might otherwise feel unable to enter this creative world, without having had formal training, so there’s no shortage of source material. I deﬁnitely work more from a standpoint of a continuous process. For me, the idea of shutting out everything and being only absorbed in writing would not be enjoyable. I continue to practice at least a few hours every day and have this constant appetite to discover new music anyway, so it already exists in a good balance. I have cultivated an approach and lifestyle over the course of many years, which allows me to continue developing, so I go with the working formula. Things get shaken up enough, by moving around, so I ﬁnd the continuity in certain routines allows freedom in the creative life. I don’t need hyper-indulgence to get inspired. I remember the time when I realized that I needed to get serious about music and started practicing piano around six hours a day. I felt like I had lost time, and had some resentment about not having my biological father around, who certainly could have showed me a lot musically. I set some challenge for myself, which might not have been fair, but drove me. I wanted to reach the level I would have, had I not experienced this loss. I refused to allow tragedy to deﬁne my life, and tried my best to make sure that this talent would not go unfulﬁlled.
Coupled with your music career, you’ve also consistently pursued training in martial arts. What forms are you ﬂuent in and as it’s quite a disciplined sport, has it had any effect in the way you approach your music?
I started training in Tae Kwon Do at seven years of age, same as music. I learned discipline and respect. My master was on a high level, tough and no nonsense, but cared about his students. Since, I’ve trained in boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, freestyle and submission wrestling. There are many parallels that can be drawn between the training. And in the moment you are sparring, there can be nothing else in your mind. When someone is trying to punch you in the head, what else would you be thinking about? When performing, it should be the same urgency of awareness.
You’ve self-released all your work so far through avenues such as Bandcamp. There is a growing school of thought that technology is making it easier for musicians to market themselves without the need of a label perse. What have been your experiences so far? Would you recommend the route to other artists seeking to make a name for themselves independently?
I chose this route, not because it was the one I initially set out to pursue. I would have liked to have been on a label at some point. However, it was not to be the case. I always fell between the cracks. I understand that from their perspective, everything has to be the perfect timing, and they can’t afford to take so many risks. They are also inundated with demos. My music is often not processed on the ﬁrst listen. What would they listen for on this ﬁrst pass, maybe one minute, if lucky? The lyrics, in themselves, must be considered. I have invested a lot of time, attempting to craft words which have signiﬁcance, independent from the music. And then there are all of the musical elements to process. It can be difficult to pin down where it’s coming from musically, so I don’t see how it could have been successful, given these considerations. This is not just A&R, of course. We all have so much going on. To listen to an entire album is a massive commitment, it seems. To do so without checking email, sending texts, looking up any number of miscellaneous things which might pop into your head, a monumental request. These are challenges we all face. Multitasking does not come without compromise. Maybe we shouldn’t have to work so hard to extract meaning. Life is meaningful, and we have to make sure that we are allowing ourselves to experience this fundamental beauty. Music is clearly one of the most profound expressions of this meaning, I try to tap into this. My advice to other artists is to respect the music, honor your craft, meditate, reﬂect, listen, and try to create work which you would ﬁnd inspiring, because we are already overwhelmed with media. I have no brilliant advice about the business because any success I have achieved comes through this dedication. Every day, I am thrilled and motivated by the thought that I only grasp but a tiny fraction of the knowledge and wisdom contained within.
I often think the last twenty or so years have been so fruitful in terms of the ‘soulful’ music that has been produced across genres, meaning there’s a whole new era of music to draw inspiration from if you dig hard enough. Your sound now melds elements of hip-hop, soul, spoken world and jazz which over the past ﬁve to six years have seen a bit of a resurgence of fortunes on the underground. Is it currently an exciting time to be an artist? Do you identify with any of your current peers?
Yes, when Robert Glasper wins a Grammy for best R&B album, I have no idea if I am making underground music anymore. And of course, there are the successes of male jazz/soul voices, Jose James and Gregory Porter, which is great for someone like me. I identify with these artists, because I think we came up listening to a lot of the same music. Run this through personal ﬁlters, and then you never know where it goes. Hearing Mikah 9 on Freestyle Fellowship’s ‘Parkbench People’ around ’95, had a huge impact, so James’ recording made sense. I also listened to this music and imagined how I might integrate these elements, from a stylistic perspective and within my identity as a vocalist, pianist, and lyricist.
Thanks for the insight Sean, as a little sign off, can you leave us with a song you’ve recently been bumping on your headphones?
Thundercat’s ‘Apocalypse’, a wonderful album. Check out the track ‘Lotus and the Jondy’…
-Rob Coley, Jazz Meet
In Brief..with Haef