"It’s not me saying 'I love you' to anybody; it’s my music telling me that it does love me."

Music

5.8.2019

KeithCharles On 'I love you, but you already knew that'

KeithCharles’s I love you, but you already knew that contemplates the many faces of desire—the good, the bad, the cautious, and more. KeithCharles’s words weave in and out of embracing fantasies and expressing the setbacks love can cause, an ambivalence that recognizes there’s no one fix for heartbreak. Within it, there’s a sense of both hope and danger—and at that, a danger that can at times seem thrilling. Like the ever-shifting lyrical style, the production combines unexpected textures. From the atonal synth bounce of “bulletproof” to the jazzy piano arpeggios of “heartbreak at our age” to the melancholy sax riffs in “what’s wrong”, there’s no pinning down the sound to one single genre.

But if there’s any central aspect to this multi-genre sound, it’s his Atlanta rap roots. The sound may call to mind some of his main influences, like the gritty synth bass of Future or the alternative quirk of Outkast. But KeithCharles’s style is entirely his own, a trance-like but hard-hitting sound that lingers on its irresolution. The open-ended lyrics and wandering melodies lend themselves to a sense of transience—being stuck between places, physical or emotional.

While the quality of I love you, but you already knew that may provoke deep inner musings, collaboration is a big part of KeithCharles’s musical background. He’s produced for the likes of Abra and Tommy Genesis, and has also toured with Father, as well as Homeshake and Sports. We sat down with KeithCharles to talk visual storytelling, instrumental training, and the cities behind his music.

So, tell me about the title of your new EP, I love you, but you already knew that.

Yeah. So the title comes from me wanting to provide for myself with my art. There were times when my streaming checks would pay for my rent, but they wouldn’t pay for much else. I think it’s pretty natural for artists to go through ups and downs and want everything to work out, you know what I mean? I really just needed to distance myself because I put so much pressure on my art to provide for me. I started getting modeling jobs in New York, which afforded me the ability to pay for music lessons and experience life how I’ve been wanting to experience it. In the time I took off, I was still making music, but I wasn’t worried about if the music was going to sell. So I brought it back to the central question, “Does this thing love me?” And I came up with the answer that: “I love you, but you already knew that.”

So the ‘you’ is a reference to your art and your music.

Right. It’s not me saying “I love you” to anybody; it’s my music telling me that it does love me.

What’s the relationship between the three songs, and the story that they tell?

It wasn’t planned, I didn’t write a conceptual piece and make music based on me trying to express certain things. The first song that was made was “bulletproof.” And “bulletproof” was a demo that came so long ago, but I was able to write this narrative that is very true and is very real to me. What’s even realer than realizing that you’re in love is not wanting to be. And I think that holds so much more weight for such a longer period than the times that you’re finding somebody new. It’s a common narrative, especially amongst black men—like you don’t need to worry about people or love…you just need to get some money. As cliché or as surface as that sounds, sometimes it’s the best advice. While you could be in love and everything, it doesn’t really matter—like, you can’t be broke.

So it flows from—okay, you have this thing going on, but don’t lose yourself. And that’s the second song, “Heartbreak at Our Age,” because nobody really has time to really be sad about love. Especially when you need to stay on your Ps and Qs.

“What’s Wrong” is the worst case scenario. It’s when you’re in love, you have to focus on yourself, and it’s just bad timing for you. I wrote that song recently after going through my first abortion experience. It was an experience that really changed my life and knowing just how personal connections can change the course of a life. So “What’s Wrong” really was the worst case scenario. Maybe if you were in love and you had your shit together, it wouldn’t get to that point. But “What’s Wrong” is trying to say that things don’t work out and it’s okay. And so, this narrative kind of had a bad ending. But if you were to just play it over again, it just becomes this loop. It’s short enough that you can play it back and feel it again.

That’s interested what you said about love being practical. There’s so many songs out there about love telling us to like, always be in our feelings, but it’s kind of a privilege in a way.

It’s definitely a privilege. And when it’s working out, it’s something to be cherished and something to be watched over. Like, you have to watch yourself. And I’m definitely going through that now and looking forward to what comes out of it musically. But it’s not always the best. It’s not always going to be easy, and I think that a really good parallel for how the title came about as well is not necessarily that my music didn’t love me, but it’s just that I didn’t know it. And you have to be confident…you have to know that everything’s going to work out.

Yeah, there’s an interesting tension between how you talk about love in the title and the songs—whether it’s love for a person, or love for your craft.

Right. And I think that’s because I will never love anything more than music, and sharing music. I feel really blessed that people even pay attention to the things that I do, and I’ve been afforded the privilege to be on tour and see the world because of this. And in a way, I think all of my music is speaking to me first before it’s about anyone else.

Tell me more about how music became such a big part of your life. You taught yourself how to play a couple instruments by ear, right?

Yeah, I have a little bit of formal training just from school on the cello and my mom made me play piano in church. I just started to now pick up bass as well as regular guitar, and I took jazz piano over the summer.

Sounds like you’ve been playing the piano for a long time. How does your earlier piano and recent work with jazz piano figure into your musical style?

I feel like when you make your own music, you get to say two separate things in every song. Things that can’t really be expressed in words go into my production, and that’s what I learned with playing piano. It’s just like a foreign language—you put together words, and you put together sentences. When you’re really good, you can have a conversation. That’s really what learning different styles has played a part in—helping me say more than what I was able to say just fucking around. It’s kind of like, before I was just like shouting, and just trying to be loud enough to be heard, and I feel like now I’m beginning to talk in different ways musically.

Yeah. Like listening to the EP, it moves through moments that feel spontaneous and moments that have a more structured vibe, like moving through different tonalities and genres. Can you talk more about the way you blend different styles, tones, and instruments?

Yeah. So, I’ve figured out a long time ago that there’s just certain sounds that come innately from me. And my attempts to build on top of that have allowed me to express myself more. I wasn’t into rock at all up until high school. Timbaland and Pharell’s whole style in The Neptunes is kind of what I’ve based my production style around. That and Southern rap music. But being able to integrate different styles like jazz or rock or R&B or blues has led me into doing it, but like you said, there are moments that come out spontaneously. Like, the bass of everything I do is rap, trap, Atlanta shit, and out of nowhere I want to play a jazz riff. Trying to get those to weave in together is the fun part. I don’t think I’ll ever fit into one genre. I think my music stands out to people only because they’re kind of like images, not quite paintings yet, so they’re not meant to be stared at for too long—at least for this EP.

Talk about the images in the video for “bulletproof.” It’s very luminescent and there’s a lot of color. How does your visual style relate to your music?

I kind of start with the visual. I see videos before I even make the music. That wasn’t the case for every song, but there’s a visual that accompanies in my head for this one. My friend Alex Russell, who wrote the treatment, was able to depict that so perfectly. He was able to get the point across visually—getting the feel of how dreamy I wanted to be in that song.

Where was “bulletproof” shot?

“bulletproof” was shot in LA.

It looks super LA—with the palm trees and everything.

Yeah, so I was out there with my friends, we rented a theatre and they brought all their equipment and we shot it, and it turned out really sick.

And the video for “Heartbreak at Our Age,” which came out about a month ago—where was that filmed?

That was shot here in New York.

The videos seem so tied to place, and they really have a sense of nostalgia and time with the lo-fi aesthetic.

Yeah. And I hope that becomes a theme in all my music. I really want to travel and make some stuff. I’ve always had a dream to record an album in Berlin. LA goes well with “Bulletproof” because it was so much more of a narrative. I think that’s more of a vibe that you get from being in LA in general. It’s like Tinseltown. It’s Hollywood. Everything is bigger and more dramatic, whereas New York is such an individual place. The “Heartbreak at Our Age” video was so much more about me and just me and the camera, me and my friends.

What were the key moments shaping your artistic vision?

I was part of the group Alpha Records, who I played a great support role. I still believe this to be true; for me to get any of my dreams, it’s very important for me to help people actualize and realize theirs. Unfortunately, I thought that was my only place and my goals were to be more of a support. But that helped me a lot to become a producer and make records for other people. But I moved to New York and left Atlanta in pursuit of doing something for myself, and I think that was a very pivotal moment. And I think I’m just now putting out music again because I got away from worrying about what I was going to do on my own without the close support of my friends and the people I’ve supported for years. This is me standing on my own.

Can you talk more about your musical influences from Atlanta?

Outkast is number one of course, and it’s the most pivotal artist arguably for rap music. At a time where gangster music was really taking a hold, they showed that you can be different, you can be weird. They first put out some pimp shit, then they went on to their more introspective stuff, and then they were even able to cross over into the mainstream without sacrificing their morals or values. Their music just got better over time. I interned at Stankonia Studios and was able to be around Big Boi, and I’ve met André…you can’t be something that you can’t see. Being in Atlanta and being so close to people who were showing the world what the South had to say let me know that I could say something too. My music comes from regional Southern sounds—Atlanta, Florida, Alabama, other parts of Georgia. I think that’s part of what Atlanta did for me. We popped up when Future, Makonnen and Father did their thing, and we created a whole new weirdo, alternative sound just from East Atlanta alone.

Will you keep doing more producing or more collaboration in the future?

Hopefully a bit of both. Now I’m getting into the world where the more people hear my music, the more I’m able to produce for other people. So I just want to be known as somebody who can help bring other people’s sound out when people hear my sound. So I’m working on another album called “What’s Wrong,” named after the last song on the EP, and I’m hoping to produce more. 

What’s your lyrical process like?

Most everything I write is retroactive. It’s me sitting with emotions for a bit and internalizing them and just seeing how my world works around events that happen in my life. I write most songs way after the fact, and it gives me the ability to be conversational. I’m not trying to impress anybody with a tight bar, or a tight verse, but I’m really just trying to say something that people can relate to. I’m just trying to say how I feel in a way that’s pretty theatrical and dramatic, you know what I mean? I’m very over the top as a person, and I think it fits well with how I make music.

It’s so relatable—that theme of wanting to feel but not wanting to feel, and being afraid of vulnerability, in “bulletproof”.

Yeah. And it always happens…you think you’re taking it slow, you think you’re protecting yourself, and then you realize that you’re knee-deep in whatever is going on. It’s a crazy feeling, and some people would rather not feel it. But the whole point of that song is that it’s too late for you to even choose. If you’re in love, you’re in love, bro. You can’t control it.

Images courtesy of Alex Wang

Stay tuned to Milk for more new music.

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