Meet the sax player who's finding his own voice after '4:44'.

Music

7.31.2017

Kenneth Whalum Talks Jay Z, Frank Ocean, & Going Solo With 'Broken Land'

With the advent of Jay Z‘s instantly iconic 4:44 came a fresh start for its sax player, Kenneth Whalum: a solo rising. Whalum, who lent his saxophone skills to the album (as well as on tour for Jay, Frank Ocean, and the like), is finally ready to step into the spotlight post-release, and he’s starting with a fresh, hard-hitting, thought-provoking new project: Broken Land.

Broken Land signals a new chapter for Whalum, who’s career has largely been marked by his work alongside hip hop greats, perhaps most notably the aforementioned Jay Z. Departing slightly from Whalum’s classic jazz mastery, the album takes us into the alt R&B landscape headfirst, where we find Whalum executing with perfect precision his own vision, both lyrically and sonically. We sat down with the rising star to talk Broken Land and what’s next for his career in the solo spotlight; check the full interview below, and stay tuned for more from Whalum (if it wasn’t obvious, this is just the beginning).

I’m stoked to talk about Broken Land. How are you feeling now that it’s out there and people are responding to it?

I’m really excited because the response has just been so personal. Everybody is like—they’re not just responding like, “Oh this is good music” and it’s not just like a couple of people. Literally, basically every bit of outreach was somebody saying like—this guy DM’ed me this morning and saying like it helped him with his situation with his ex-wife, you know? Different stuff like that, so it’s all been really, really personal testimonies of how the music helped. That’s just a great feeling, because it’s kind of the place I was at when I wrote it, and just wanted to bare the truth of certain things, you know?

Yeah, I mean I think when you put out something that’s really personal, people respond with that same level of vulnerability.

Yeah, definitely. And that’s, you know, that’s—like I said, when you’re doing something, it’s like a passion project. Anytime you’re really making—it’s not cookie cutter music, it’s like a different type of music. You know, it just feels good to have that sort of connectivity.

Yeah. I found it really touching, too, and almost soothing even though some parts of it are obviously more heavy. It’s interesting, the dichotomy.

Good, I’m glad you checked it out.

Of course! I would love to hear more about creative process when you’re writing. I know that all the songs come from a personal place, but can you talk more about that?

Well, honestly I’m just always writing. I’m don’t really write in the sense that I sit down and say, “Okay, this is going to be a verse.” I just constantly write down my thoughts, you know, if it’s a sentence, or a couple of like a few lines. But it normally isn’t meant to rhyme, really, or anything. It’s just like a series of thought and when I get to a piano, I feel like my inspiration comes from the same place. So it’s like, you know I often just record those musical thoughts that I have on a piano, and I just kind of marry the two after the fact, you know what I mean? Then, once I have the music set and the tone set, or like the mood, then I just marry the words that are appropriate with that, if that makes sense.

Is there any one song on the album that is super close to your heart, or that you feel particularly attached to?

Not really, I mean I think all of them are because it’s literal stories, you know? It’s literal things that are like—I don’t find one thought more important than the other. I mean, “Motive” right now is probably my favorite one just because it’s at the middle of the album and it’s like—it’s almost like a sunshine within a storm, you know? I mean, all of them, I love them all.

I know that you’ve toured with a lot of other artists, but what is it like just having total creative control over your own project and being more front and center on this one more so than others?

It is really freeing, man. Like, it really makes me happy to be able to just really trust myself and just step out there and put my own art there. I mean, I appreciate all the experiences and the things I’ve learned from other artists etcetera, but it really is a different type of feeling, you know? It makes me stronger in a sense, in terms of what I want to create and the way I create. So, yeah it’s completely different. I learned a lot dealing with other people, but this is my own intellectual property, you know what I mean? So, it’s just a whole different thing, I’m proud of it.

Yeah. I’m not a musician, but I imagine it’s more rewarding just because it’s all from you, and no one else’s vision.

Yeah, exactly. You know, when I’m on the road with other artists or working with other artists in the studio, it’s their vision, which is fine but at the same time it’s like, when do I get to tell my stories?  You just have to get to that personal place where you’re like, “Okay, I cant take it anymore. I have my own thing to say—here it is.”

Do you think you’ll keep working with other artists while you do your own thing, too, or are you taking a break?

I really wanna do my own stuff, you know. I don’t mind going in the studio and working for other artists, but the plan is to do my own solo thing. That’s where my heart is leading me to, I don’t know what the future holds but I definitely want all of my energy to be focused on my own project and my own story, my own shows, my own solo career.

Do you feel like working so closely with other artists, you’ve learned anything from them creatively that transferred to your own project? How did your experience with them influence you?

Yeah, I think that there’s a certain seriousness that all these major artists carry around, that they possess, you know? In terms of approach. I feel like I’ve learned that, for one, learned from other people’s approach to their own music. I pay a lot of close attention to whatever artist it is, whether it be Jay or Frank Ocean—all these people that I’ve worked with. There’s this certain sincerity and seriousness that comes to their own approach to their own thing. I think that I share that, I have a similar mindset and a similar disposition.

Yeah. I mean I think you have to take yourself seriously, otherwise how do you expect other people to?

Yeah, exactly, totally. And I have to fully commit, and I’m all about it. I’m not afraid at all, I’ve never been afraid of anything.

So, what do you have planned now that the album is out?

Well I’m working on a fall tour, and we’re piecing it together now. So yeah, the album is out, I’m always working on music, I’m always writing music. A couple of other tour opportunities have come about with other artists that and turned them down because I don’t want to do that, I just want to take my music and perform it live so that people can see me in the flesh and get the total experience.

Yeah. You’ll have to let us know if you’re playing any shows in New York, we can come out.

Oh hell yeah. For sure. You have to! And that was a big thing of mine, I didn’t want to make any music that I couldn’t perform. I don’t want to get in there and overly produce this stuff that I don’t even feel comfortable going and executing.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of music is so overly produced right now, like you said, that maybe it wouldn’t be great live or a live show just wouldn’t do it justice. But I would be really excited to see you play live.

Man, I really appreciate that, for real.

Totally.

Featured image courtesy of Kenneth Whalum

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