So many people spend their days worrying about the past or thinking about the future, devoid to what is actually going on around them in the present. Living in the moment is becoming more challenging than ever and all of the technology readily available at our fingertips isn’t making it any easier. We oftentimes see people staring down at their phones while they stroll along the sidewalk, narrowly missing each other without so much as glancing up. Singer/songwriter Jesse Boykins III is the polar opposite to the people I’ve described thus far. Jesse’s philosophies on life can be heard through his music, which showcases his ability to tap into and explore experiences as they’re happening to him. Jesse is able to take his mindfulness and fully capture a moment and explore the feelings that go along with it. This allows him to create themes in his songs that the listener can relate to, yet simultaneously expresses them in a way others are often unable to do themselves.
Jesse's outlook on life can even be seen in his immediate appearance. Right when you meet Jesse Boykins III, from the outfit to the attitude, you get the feeling that you’re meeting a unique individual. He’s not afraid to take chances with his style and his music reflects that same disposition as it defies any one specific genre. I recently stopped by one of Jesse’s recording sessions and once we began talking, it did not take long for Jesse to begin imparting his wisdom. Check out Jesse’s interview below as we discuss things like his latest music project, his songwriting process and the evolution of R&B. Young artists should pay particular note to Jesse’s advice on finding your own voice, as one can’t help but be inspired by his words.
What have you been up to since the release of Love Apparatus last year?
I was recently on tour with Jessie Ware in North America, we did I think 8 spots including Toronto and Montreal. Also I’m about to begin releasing new music starting the beginning of summer and going into next year; so I’ve just been writing a lot more songs. Lately I’ve actually been trying to be more stationary and not travel as much. I want to gather everything that’s become me and actually be able to talk about it, you know? When you’re traveling you don’t really have the time to reflect. So reflection and recollection is really helping me and it’s got me super-inspired right now. I’m just using that inspiration and I’ve just been writing a lot of songs and working with a lot of producers; Hudson Mohawke, Brodinski, Salva, this cat named Reazy Renegade, Abjo from Soulection... yeah a lot of people.
You released The Wonder Years music video not too long and that featured some of your travels and the various relationships/friendships you’ve made. What does that music video mean to you?
I came up with The Wonder Years video kind of by coincidence. I was at a photoshoot and I was going through these photos and ‘The Wonder Years’ was playing in the background. I was basically just doing a slideshow with the music in the background and I literally stopped and told the cat who I ended up doing the video with, that’s what I want the concept to be. I just turned 30 this year too, so I looked at it like one of those things that mark me moving towards another decade. Initially, I wrote the song and it was about reflecting on why you’re going through something while it’s actually happening and to appreciate the fact that you were able to do that's in the moment. That way there’s no regrets or feelings like you should’ve done this or that later on down the line. You understand and accept everything that’s going on in the present time and you use it to your benefit. That’s what the songs about. Knowing that we’re in the wonder years while they’re actually happening. So the whole concept of the video and the song was to kind of like put my life in amber; like in Jurassic Park when they put the mosquito in the amber, that’s me.
You already talked a little about the various producers you’re working with. I think that shows the scope of R&B today and how the boundaries of the genre are being blurred. Can you talk a little about the evolution of R&B music and how you feel about the direction it’s heading in?
For sure. I mean everything’s so cross genre right now. I feel like I stopped making R&B music after The Beauty Created album which was in 2008. I don’t think anything I’ve released since then has been wholeheartedly rhythm and blues. There’s still influences of that, influences of soul, influences of jazz, because that’s my background. But after traveling and becoming friends with producers like HudMo and Machinedrum; they’ve actually opened my mind and opened my soundscape of what I think I can sing. They showed me the possibilities. I’m pretty courageous in my artistry so I don’t really care what someone thinks of or will describe my music as. I care more about the moment that I’m capturing and if it’s expressing what it’s supposed to. I feel like now in music you can call it R&B, alternative, indie, soul, all the names they want to call the shit... future soul, you can call it a thousand things, but I honestly just feel like it’s music that’s becoming melodic again. There was a point in time when hip hop was very strong but now you see there’s a lot of rappers that want to sing and are singing over different styles of things and everything is crossing. Thanks to Kanye and Cudi and you know... fucking Feist, all these people who are doing new things. Little Dragon, like you said The Weeknd, you know everybody, myself included, we’re progressing and making progressive music.
You’ve done some collaborations with Theophilus London, another guy who is not afraid to experiment with his sound and cross genres. Can you talk a little about the collaborations you’ve done together? What are some of your other favorite collabs so far?
Yeah, I started working with Theophilus in like 2007. So we’ve been working together for a really long time. Not as of late, the last single we did, Tribe, was in 2013. He’s probably one of the earlier cats I really liked to work with because when we started working in music we were both kind of on the same wave length. We lived down the street from each other, we ate together, we actually were like brothers so the music that we were making was a reflection of our truth to how we saw each other. It was easier to be in the moment and create. I feel like those are the purest collaborations that I’ve had. MeLox as well with ‘Zulu Guru’ that we put out in 2012. Machinedrum, especially after doing Love Apparatus with him because we worked on it for five years. So the amount of songs we did or songs that we started and didn’t finish, they were all lessons and we progressed as collaborators, not just us working together but even him working with other artists and me working with other producers. Before Machinedrum I was producing everything mostly myself. He kind of allowed me to be able to trust producers and let them handle that aspect of it and I would implement arrangements or different sounds but not overtake the whole thing like I was accustomed too. So probably those three more than anyone really.
Who have you been listening to lately and who would you like to collaborate with?
I listen to a lot of things. Since the beginning of 2014, I’ve been listening to a lot of Alex Isley. SZA, a good friend of mine and definitely super progressive in her writing style. Like we were talking about earlier, her music is not necessarily in a genre either, it’s just about a good vibe. Kanye West, would definitely love to work with Kanye but I don’t know who wouldn’t. Andre 3000 of course. It would be cool to write a song with John Legend. And I really dig SOHN from Germany, check him out. Jessie Ware, I’m supposed to be working with her soon as well. There’s a lot of people. I really like Yukimi from Little Dragon, I think she’s very special. Especially how she writes songs like Ritual Union and Twice. She’s dope.
You performed with jazz pianist Kris Bowers not too long ago at his Quincy Jones Presents show. How did that come about?
I went to jazz school, I went to The New School and he went to Juilliard. That music community out in NYC is really small. All the jazz musicians know each other and everyone pays their respects when you see each other and Kris was one of the cats who was playing with a lot of my friends. I checked out some of his stuff and it was really intriguing because I’m really into cinematics so anything that feels cinematic or tells a story through music, I’m down for that. I really like scores so that’s the kind of music he makes and he integrates the jazz and integrates the soul. So once we met, we talked, we kicked it a couple of times. So whenever he’s in LA we make some music. We’re working on some stuff too for the album.
Do you still keep up with the jazz scene?
I mean my schooling was more about the community and the networking that I was blessed to be in. I studied under Bilal, that was my voice trainer in college. Robert Glasper is a homie of mine, he graduated from New School. A lot of cats who are actually doing things in the musician aspect of the industry are my friends.
It’s cool to be in with people who actually have loved something as long as you’ve loved it, you know? There’s no question about why they’re doing it. You can’t tell certain people’s motives in the industry. You can ask someone, “How long you been an artist?” and they’ll say, “Oh two years.” They just want the attention or whatever the case may be. But for someone to be like, I’ve been playing this instrument since I was 6 years old, when I didn’t know anything that was connected to it, I just did it because it made me feel like myself. To have people like that in my life who are my friends, it’s just constant motivation.
You were saying you were just writing new material before I got here. Can you talk a little about your writing process?
I’m always trying to challenge myself in songwriting. For The Love Apparatus album I wrote all the titles down before I even wrote the lyrics to any of the songs. I didn’t even know what the tracks sounded like yet. I just basically had these topics that I wanted to talk about and I told [Machinedrum] and he said alright let’s just do it. I said let’s put Greyscale at this session and I wrote ‘Greyscale’ at the top of the paper and by the time he finished the beat, I finished the lyrics. So that’s kind of how I did Love Apparatus.
With the stuff I’ve been doing lately I’ve been trying to supply like an overload of visuals. I’ve been trying to be a painter with what I’ve been writing and also be way more truthful and way more literal. It’s definitely a challenge to balance everything and try to have it in one song, but that’s what I’ve been working on. Also just being really in the moment. A lot of things I’ve been doing lately is like subconscious, it’s a freestyle. I just freestyle a line and try it a couple times and then I’ll record it and freestyle the next line. So I did a couple songs like that on Love App, but my newer stuff I’m doing that even more.
I moved [to LA], I live somewhere different now, so the things I’m inspired by and the things I’m becoming more aware of and the things that are catching my antennas are not things I’m familiar with. Everything feels very refreshing. This feels kind of like I’m a new person. A new person as far as how I wake up in the morning, my eating habits are different since I moved to LA, everything’s different. So now I just feel like everything that I’m creating is in this dimension that I was never in before. There’s like parallel dimensions, me coming to the west coast is me meeting that west coast version of myself I didn’t know about. I’m working on a mixtape called Bartholomew, that’s basically who that version of me is. The guy who moved and all that.
In addition to your music, you’re also known for your fashion sensibilities. Is that another mean of self-expression for you?
I’m deep into aesthetic and having things be, like you said, a form of expression. But when I think about style and who I am, my style has always been like this for me. People be like, “Where’d you get that shirt?” and I’m like, “Man I’ve had this shirt for 4 years.” I don’t really care about the trends. I just care about feeling good in what I’m wearing and actually making people try new shit for themselves. Inspiring other people to be like, “Damn, if he could do that I’m a try something and see what I can get away with.” I hope to open people’s minds just by looking at me, which is pretty much what happens a lot of the time. So it’s cool to inspire people and actually have people open their eyes to new possibilities in that respect.
Speaking of inspiring people, let me take it back to your days as a motivational speaker to the youth. Do you have any words of wisdom to the young artists out there who are trying to find their voice and their individuality?
That’s crazy because that’s all I would speak about. When I was telling you about me doing that, I spoke about individualism and truth, being true to yourself. I feel like the most important thing, and this is a process like anything, is loving who you really are and accepting the flaws and acknowledging the flaws in the moments that they are exposed. Especially when there’s people around, because then basically you’re challenging yourself. The more self growth there is, the more you appreciate everything that’s around you. I would say to start, be true to who you are, even if who you are is not who you want to be. It’s somewhere to start from.
I’m more so about if I’m mad then I’m going to be mad. If I’m sad, I’m going to be sad. If I’m heartbroken I’m going to be heartbroken. If I feel like saying the word fuck I’m going to say fuck. Just being who you are. It’s not even about not caring about what people think, it’s about not caring about people’s initial emotional responses to things are, because things are very temporary. So if you understand that then you can just be true to yourself, because that’s where the longevity is. Everything else that comes with it is just a nick, a little bump in the road.
Also, I try my best not to take anything personal. It’s very hard to do, especially in this world where everything is so based on attention. So I would say try your best not to take anything personal because you never know what someone’s experiencing, what their life is like, what their childhood was like, what they went through the day you met them. There’s so many things that could come into play and you can’t just be like, “Oh that person doesn’t like me because they were frowning when they met me.” Maybe their dog died or something and they just didn’t tell yo’ ass. There could be so many things that could be the reason why someone is not treating you the way you feel you deserve to be treated, but you can’t take it personally. When you do that you’re killing a connection that could actually grow into something beautiful if you’re just patient with it.
Otherwise you’re just assuming and people tend to assume the worst.
Do not assume! Listen, I ask questions. That’s another thing, ask a whole lot of questions. Don’t act like you know everything. Don’t act like because you saw a picture of something or you read a book about something, someone can’t tell you about what you read about or their experience because that’s probably more real than the book you read or the picture you saw. Be willing to gain information and be a good listener. So to sum it up; don’t take anything personal, be a good listener and be true to yourself no matter what that means in the moment. Understand that things are only in an instant, so if you’re mad you can only stay mad for so long. If you can do all that, you’ll be pretty cool. You’ll be able to continue to create with a clear mind.