The point of any artist interview is not merely to ask the subject where they're from or who their favorite artist is. It's to hear their thoughts on growing up in several cultures and multiple cities. Or it's about what type of art, if any, hangs on the walls of the apartment they go back to when they're not touring. It's about knowing them outside of their music because ultimately, those are the things that make up their music.
That, in part, was our intent when we spoke with sonic soul crooner, Jesse Boykins III: to learn more about who Boykins is. Since 2008, the classically trained producer, vocalist and arranger, has been consistently securing his place as a critically acclaimed soul artist with the release of his initial album, Dopamine: My Life On My Back and subsequent successful collaborations with The Foreign Exchange, Theophilus London and MeLo-X. He is currently working on his third album, Love Apparatus.
Jesse Boykins III: Right now? I'm actually, um, reading The Heart of Tantric Sex by Diana Richardson. I've been reading it for a while, taking my time.
EM: Tantric sex, eh? Why that subject?
JBIII: I guess I'm just trying to figure out this balance thing between a man and a woman. It's not what people might think. It teaches about self and about the balance between yourself and your loved one and how it crosses over to a lot of other aspects of your life and aspects of your character. It's connected to quite a few other things.
EM: That's cool, I never thought of it that way. Maybe I'll have to look into it.
JBIII: Yeah, [laughs] it's cool.
EM: Tell us about "schwaza". What does it mean?
JBIII: Actually my creative director, business partner and best friend, J. Woo, he made up the word in Berlin in 2011 in January. He came to the hotel saying "schwaza", with a lot of bags of free stuff and kept saying that and was like, "It's 'swag' in German." [Woo and I] don't really say "swag". It's not something I like to say. But when we got to NY, we didn't stop saying it. I had a revelation the other day. I was watching the documentary, "Marley" [on Bob Marley] and they were saying "irie", and was like, "Irie… schwaza… it's like saying, 'That's dope' or when someone does something good, you say "irie" or "schwaza."
EM: Speaking of Marley, you're Jamaican and have lived in Jamaica. How would you say your background influences you?
JBIII: I say I'm influenced by reggae and people are like, "I don't hear it. How are you influenced by it?" But it's not just about the music, it's about the message, about love and peace. And I acknowledge that and I feel a lot of my writing and the reason I write the way I write is because I grew up listening to that stuff. But as far as reggae music goes, that's world music, that's world soul. Everyone connects to that. A lot of people. It's really profound, where it's so simple, "One love, one heart", but it's like, "Wow, that's deep too." I write a lot of songs where the hook is really simple. For example, a pantyhose is symbolic of a working woman who gets up early and comes home to take care of you. You only have yourself to take care of but she's working all day and comes home to cook for you and take care of you.
I like songs that are open to interpretation, those are the best songs. When you have to listen to it over and over again, I like music like that. I feel like people don't pay attention to that or as far as artists go, they don't. There are a lot of artists that do it and are really good at it. It's like learning anything: experiencing it is what basically gets you better at it but if you listen to a song but you don't experience it then you only get so much out of it. With a mainstream song or a bad mainstream song, you get songs that don't last more than three months. Even if it wasn't for me, I promised myself I wouldn't write songs like that. I find the balance between, "Is this major enough for everyone to sing along and be like, 'This is cool,'" and then also be good for those who are intelligent enough to say, "Oh, he's deep and saying some real shit."
EM: I was sort of struck by the art work of "B4 The Night Is Thru". It's really stylized, like all of your other artwork, but different than the others. Do you create your own album art? Did you come up with this concept?
JBIII: I usually come up with the concepts and then I give my concepts to Woo and he just makes sense of it because I always say some crazy shit and then he just opens up Photoshop and will be like,"This is the cover album," and I'm like, "Oh shit, that's exactly what I was thinking of." And the music videos are directed by him. We've been through 10 years of friendship, he knows me a lot and we've been through some shit so he already knows what we're trying to execute. The "B4 The Night Is Thru" picture is inspired by Marcel Duchamp photo that was actually a reflection of a photo I saw; the photo was black and white but there were lights reflecting on it so it was green and crazy. So I researched these lights and Marcel Duchamp and I found out [Duchamp] was sculpting the woman he was photographing with they were taking a break and he was playing a game of chess against his inspiration. I find that to be life: the thing that you're inspired by is also the thing you're threatened by or overcome to beat. A lot of people don't look at it like that. I get a lot of flack for it, which is respected, but people don't buy that. I remember when it was released. That's what the cover was inspired by. There was actually a conflict that I had, when it came up in the shoot and then we were in Berlin on tour last year and I was like, "Shit, I want to shoot the "Zoner" video," and so we just did it.
We just had a friend hit up two of her friends and they understood the concept and [the video] took a day. I came up with the concept of laying rose petals over newspaper to symbolize sexuality because flowers are like the most sexual things — they have more sex in one day than we have in our entire lives — and the newspaper was like information: how we aren't as informed as we should be. And then we shot it, took it to edit and I really liked it. I think I threw people off with the visual but I'd rather just do something that's true to me.
EM: Let's talk about basics: how would you describe your music?
JBIII: World soul, which is to me, soul music. It's anything from the heart, something that someone creates with passion. And I put 'world' in front of it because we're influenced by everything we see and we have access to so many different cultures and styles of music. You see so much more than before, like when we were younger without the Internet. You're more so a global citizen or have some sort of knowledge of the world.
EM: You are originally from Miami but now reside in New York. How is Miami different than NY, when it comes to music and the music community?
JBIII: New York is a lot more open to a lot more different styles of music and the community in New York is a lot larger as far as artists and musicians and bands. Miami, I feel, is "the scene", it's very club-heavy, djs, you know. I don't know too many artists come out of Miami. T-Pain, you know. You get the dance world, the trance, the house. I love house music but they're mostly mainstream. Miami doesn't really claim me. I have New York. As far as New York goes, a lot of people are trying to be more innovative while still being traditional: playing live instruments, not using auto tune, writing real songs you can live with. I can't really say I know a lot of artists in Miami in my generation that are like that. Maybe the generation after but I really haven't spent that much time in Miami now and am not that familiar with Miami. As far as getting a response from somewhere, I have a fan base in Atlanta, D.C., Berlin, Paris… so that's where I go. I don't get requested to go to Miami so there's no point in me trying to get there. Miami is usually late for a lot of things.
EM: Can we talk about you as a style icon? Tell me about your style! I love it. You on Street Etiquette, I thought, was so fitting.
JBIII: I just like feeling good. I like um… I feel like its funny because the other day I was with my family and this lady who knew me when I was a baby who I hadn't seen her since I was a baby, she was like, in Jamaican, she was like, "Your mom always had you super fly and you had this little navy outfit and she had you in the baby carriage and I see you ain't change!" I definitely had a fitted cap and a t-shirt era so I seen it come full circle. She wasn't caring whether what I was wearing was feminine or masculine and that's where I recognize now, I like being "fem" and I like when girls come up to me and say, "I could wear that outfit." I like menswear, a lot of colors and prints and things that flow. I guess that's what it is really. I kinda like pieces. I don't have lot of clothes, I have pieces I get from traveling the most recent place I got a lot of pieces from is Tokyo because everyone in Tokyo is, you know… I get lucky like that… I got this little tie-dye tank top that I got in Toronto. A lot of my clothes I just do a lot of layering. I just try shit. It's usually just the same clothes I have. Actually I've been kind of lucky because a few of my friends, actually Street Etiquette, is coming out with a lot of stuff. And my friend Dynasty, is making her own custom clothing line and will make me a few pieces. I will be able to be like, "I am the only person in the entire world that has this piece!" I like that. When I was [in Tokyo], I was like, "Wow." Everyone talks about, "Man, Tokyo got the craziest style," but they're just brave. They just try shit. If it feels good and looks good, they're going to wear it. People are just too self-conscious and they're too worried about what people say or think.
EM: Something else I wanted to ask you about is your hair. It's evolved over the past few years.
JBIII: I've always had hair, I've had it braided though. But I decided one day I didn't want it braided because I'm tender-headed so I just stopped. But I usually just put it in two or four fresh braids. I like wearing it out because i just… feel free. This is my freedom. You'd be surprised, walking into certain environments just because my hair looks a certain way. So my friends jokes about it, he says, [my hair] is a "shallow reader": you know who we're going to talk to and who we're not going to talk to. But usually people are like, "Yea, your hair is cool."
EM: What type of art is on your walls at home? Which artists?
JBIII: The paintings I do have are ones that fans have given to me. Otherwise I don't really have paintings or art at home. But Dali is probably one of my favorite artists. Hopefully I could get into the habit getting some pieces but not right now.
EM: Do you know how to play any instruments?
JBIII: I dabble in guitar and piano. I produce as well. I went to music school [The New School University], I know it's there and I could play chords I just can't play and perform. My confidence isn't there yet but I definitely write with instruments.
EM: You've also worked with Phonte and Foreign Exchange. How did that happen?
JBIII: How we met or were introduced to each other I don't really know. But Phonte is like the funniest man on the planet. He called me up one day, singing "Sunstar" off TheBeauty Created album. I didn't know how he got my number but apparently someone gave him my number. So he called singing and then was like, "This is a masterpiece." I was like "Who is this?" And he was like, "That's the record!" I was like, "Thanks!" We started sharing music and we starting talking about music and he was telling me about his experience in the industry. He's become a good friend of mine. A few months later, 9th [Wonder] called me bumping "Pantyhouse", which was crazy because you know, he and Phonte weren't cool but now they are and I wanted to tell him about talking to Phonte but I couldn't but yea. Phonte and I been emailing. We done a couple shows together and Phonte is actually on my album Love Apparatus.
JBIII: You know I actually didn't work with him. I just sang over his track. One of my managers was like, "This you though." He just talked me so hard into doing it. "You should have been there, b. "You could have been singing melodies into his ear." I still felt some kind of weight, even a track like that, I had to change it a little bit or something. I reached out to him after it was done and I felt like there's got to be some kind of way for him to hear it and we were sending it to his management and then my management put it out and his management got back to us a few months later and was like, "Yea, as long as you don't charge for it." And the next thing I know, I get an e-mail from Gold Panda and he was like, "You know, I was trying to work," so everyone was like, "What's going on?" And we were just emailing back and forth but we still keep in touch. He sends me music to check out. We're supposed to get out this summer, we're supposed to be in the same city at the same time. I don't like just having an artist just send me a track, I want to talk to you, know what kind of cereal you like. But I really respect Gold Panda.
EM: What's next for our readers to look forward to?
JBIII: Look out for Zulu Guru coming out in the fall. It's a collaborative album with MeLo-X. I have a record called Love Apparatus which was produced by Machine Gun and I'm also working on side projects like one with this cat, Sinden who works with Switch and Santigold, we're working on this project called Chartreuse in French. The music we're doing together is really good, the high demand stuff. I'm also doing a song with Tokimonsta. She emailed me and I really freaked out and she sent me the most amazing song so I'm going to realize a song on her album.
EM: Going back to the cereal question. What is your favorite cereal?
JBIII: It's kind of boring but multigrain. Multigrain anything.