Topaz Jones Talks "Toothache", Community, & Coincidences You Can't Ignore
There’s nothing like a little Topaz Jones to put a hop in your step. With a knack for transcending genres, generations and stereotypes, Jones creates soulful music that effortlessly merges funk, R&B and rap influences. Simply put, Topaz Jones is going places. His energy calls back the eras of James Brown and Prince, with electrifying live shows that highlight his bouncing personality. The same is true of his new music video for “Toothache”, directed by creative duo rubberband who are known for their work with the likes of Solange and A$AP Mob. We sat down with the rising star to talk about how the video came together and what’s up with his next album. Check out the video for “Toothache” above and read our full interview with the musician below.
Can you tell me a little bit about your A Side / B Side project?
A Side / B Side was a way for me to express a more full thought than I think singles allow you to do, in a very singles driven market. Everybody is just putting out lots of songs and then collecting all the best streaming ones. I was really frustrated by that, but I didn’t want to give people a full project super early, so I did it to express multiple sides at once and also as an homage to when music was coming out on vinyl primarily, and an artist would put out a single for their project with a B-side on it that would be completely different. It would be like an album cut, something that’s not supposed to be a single, but gives more context to where the artist’s head is at. I’ve always found that to be a really special thing. It’s 2018—there’s no actual records being pressed up unless you really want them to be, so why not play around with the format.
Using that as a sort of freedom is so cool. Can you little bit about “Toothache” and “Zoom”, and perhaps your pairing of the two?
So “Toothache” and “Zoom” were the first ones that really got to a really finished level, and I kind of immediately noticed that they were sort of in conversation with each other in an oppositional way, in that they were everything that the other one wasn’t musically and subject matter wise, so like one is very modern and almost trap-influenced, and the other one is very retro and funky. The retro-funky one is connected to my family and upbringing and meant to remind people of an older era and family and togetherness and barbecues. And the other one is more internal and self-focused — and this is on a very micro-scale, looking into the details, but I thought that was really cool. And I almost did a thing where I kind of intentionally put the more modern sounding record as the B side on most of them. I just thought it was interesting to make it harder for people to choose if they like the A or the B better.
You have three of them right now, right? Are you planning on releasing more, or are you working on a larger project?
I think I may revisit the concept later on, but right now I’m just like fully focused on making an album. It’s exciting and daunting because it’s different than any album I’ve made before. In the past when I was making projects I threw a lot of songs at the wall and saw what stuck and said “ok, we have these songs, what is this about?” And now it’s sort of like I’m deciding ahead of time what I want it to be about, and moving with more intention, which I think is really important for developing as an artist.
The video for “Toothache” just dropped today. Can you tell me about the filming of that and the inspiration?
We wanted to make a visual that really complimented the song. It obviously has a very retro style to it, but for me the making of the song was so much about working as a team and as a group and the idea of family and togetherness, and even having my aunt yelling over the song at the beginning of it. That’s really my aunt, and she’s in the video too.
It’s your real aunt??
That’s like my second mom, basically. I used to go between my mom and dad’s house every week and my dad and aunt and grandmother all lived together, so she would kind of like cracking the whip. My dad would be sleeping from play a gig last night and wouldn’t get up until like 1 or 2 pm, and she would be up early like telling me to go mow the lawn and stuff, and like teaching me how to garden and stuff. Just to be able to include her…and I used all the members of my band in the video as well. It really just felt like it captured a lot of the essence. And I had never really done a full performance-based video. And this’ll be that. It’s going to be a creative take on that definitely, and we got to shoot film, which is cool. We decided not to take ourselves too seriously and to have as good a time making the video as we did making the song.
Who shot the video?
Rubberbanz. It’s a director duo. They’ve done stuff with Milk before. They’re some of my best friends, and we used to live together in school and stuff.
Where did you go to school?
I went to NYU. Clive Davis. We found out the last day of shooting “Toothache” that it was five years to the day from the first video that we ever shot for “Coping Mechanism”. And that was just a really crazy, universal coincidence. It’s hard to overlook, like something is in the air.
Do you have any weird behind-the-scenes stories from shooting the video, or did everything go according to plan?
Nothing ever goes according to plan when you’re shooting a video. In my experience when you’re shooting a video. In my experience, shooting videos is easily the most complicated, stressful part of music in general. This shoot was fairly simple. It was just more a question of getting people there, like we had to shoot the drummer really quickly at the beginning. He had a specific bus he had to catch to make it back for his rehearsal in the city, and we’re shooting in Jersey, but we couldn’t get the shot right for some reason and the smoke machine wasn’t working. It was literally like…he had to be at the bus at 1:45 and we finished at like 1:41 and he was like putting his pants on, hopping into the car, and my boy simon got him to the bus stop in like 3 minutes. Like just a bunch of mini fires that we had to put out here and there. But everybody was a joy to be around on set. We’re really happy with the mood and the vibe. I’d say I was probably the most stressed out, cause I wanted everything to go right, but everybody else was having a good time.
What was the best part of it to shoot?
So I’m super obsessed with the bass line on “Toothache”, and I’m really obsessed with my bass player, and watching him play that bass line in in front of all these new people who had never seen him play it live before, and them kind of witnessing the magic of what this adds to the song was like really cool. And also just having my aunt there, and my little cousin was running around set, and my best friend was there—we had a couple scenes with him as well too. It felt very connected, it was like merging the worlds of my New York network and home, my origins.
It seems like community is really important to you.
More so now than ever. I think it’s really important to always have people around who are forcing me to be better but also reminding me of where I come from.
What do you want people to feel when they watch the video?
I feel like everybody’s experience with a music video is a little different, and I hope everybody will have their own personal takeaway. There’s going to be a lot of people who grew up on that type of music, if they’re like me. There’s a lot of people I know who grew up going to family cookouts and hearing old funk music and old soul stuff blasting, blaring on the radio. And so the idea of capturing that nostalgia is important to me but I would also love it to be communicative for anyone who hasn’t had that upbringing and that interaction with that music—for them to have it be like a great introduction to that kind of music and maybe inspire them to look further into it. A lot of what I stand for musically and sonically is about afro-futurism, so I hope that we did a decent job of capturing some of that energy too.
This song is so high energy, I can’t wait to see the video. And it’s so fun live. You have such a specific visual in terms of your album art and what it seems like you’re about. Can you speak to that.
When I really think about it, for a long time I’ve felt like that was my achilles heel, is that a lot of my visuals were very inconsistent, up to 6 months or a year ago. At least that’s how it felt to me because it was always different people making all the fliers and doing all the single art. When arcade was coming out every single artwork was made by a different person I think, and it was just kinda messy. I’ve always had a very strong compass for what I want to sound like and what’s right for me musically, but I don’t necessarily have the same compass visually, and it’s just kind of like trusting the people around me. My girlfriend worked on the artwork for A-side B-side, which was very instrumental in the process. She’d help me find the fonts and come up with some concepts for photos, so I think it’s just about me delegating more and not trying to be this one man band. And that applies to every aspect of my creativity. And allowing other people to just be great around you, like I don’t have to be the only star. We can be a solar system.
In terms of post-Arcade Topaz, how do you feel like you’ve grown as an artist since that release.
I think that when I was putting out Arcade, it felt like I was taking a big risk. And in retrospect it doesn’t feel like that, because we had songs that were doing really well and stuff, but I felt, and still feel, very much like an outsider to the music industry and especially the hip hop scene and the New York scene. At the time Arcade felt like this big risk because I have this really kind of like different sound. It’s very 80’s funk inspired, very Prince inspired, and now all that stuff feels like it’s naturally a part of the conversation in hip hop in certain corners of it. But it wasn’t then really. To Pimp A Butterfly had just come out, and a couple things were starting to pick up steam, but I had been working on this beforehand and I think just putting it out and being free about this is the actual music that’s always been in my heart, and not trying to chase down like a super big hit or be like contemporary or competitive with all of the trap guys, and the Drake’s, and whoever is killing it, and just be my own thing. To have people actually respond to that and to see the energy in that room, it just kind of emboldened me and reinforced that like, “oooh…we was playing the wrong game this whole time bro.” It’s really about that and capturing that energy. And everybody that I love as a musician, they’ve always been great at finding and then distilling the essence of what makes them unique and quirky and awkward and weird, and making that their flag. And just putting that on the highest mountain they could find. So for me now post that validation, it’s like, “Ok.” Now I trust myself more. I trust my instincts more. and the music I’m making now is more rooted and grounded because I already know the textures that I’m going to paint with, and now it’s just about figuring out what the context and substance and subject matter that I infuse into that is going to be, and what of my story I want to give people. I want people to feel like they know be better after the next album because I have a tendency to be guarded a lot of the time, and kind of speak in these whimsical surrealisms. And there’s a time and place for that, and I really love music that does that, but I also love music that communicates a story and is willing to be vulnerable.
How does your dad influence your music?
I mean he just like introduced me to everything I know, pretty much. He was like seeing this girl in Minnesota [Laughs] in Minneapolis, and we used to go. Every summer we would drive up there, it’s like a 21-hour drive. You break it up over a couple of days and he also had a producer out there from the band The Time who he worked with on records. So he would have a trip planned and we would go out and that would be like our time to spend together for the summer. And he would get a stack like this high of CD’s. And we’d just be in the jeep going through and changing, like, ok, now we’re gonna listen to Jimmy Hendrix. Ok now we’re gonna listen to Average White Man. Ok now we’re gonna listen to Toto. Ok no we’re gonna listen to Funkadelic and Prince and all these people who…I sit there like we’re listening to all this old ass music and I’d rather hear like…Ja Rule was popular I guess, you know. President of the Ja Rule fan club, by the way. It brought a musicality to my sensibility that I carry with me now. And also him being somebody who has experienced both extreme ups and extreme downs in the music industry gave me a super realistic and pragmatic view of what it meant to be working in the industry from a practical sense, and not make it feel like this huge daunting thing. The people around me just saw super stars like a Michael Jackson or a Kanye and they thought oh, well I’ll never be that. And I saw them and was like no, there’s just hard work behind each of these people’s…every decision that they’ve ever made has been based around good instincts, really thinking things though and being thoughtful. I think his influence has been all that and dedication to his passion. He’s still making music to this day.
As you get bigger, how does it feel to go from a dude in New Jersey making music to Topaz Jones.
I don’t know. I just have more weird interactions than I used to. People are weird when they assume certain things about you. The only thing that’s changed for me is I think people assume that I’m changing. And I don’t think I’m changing at all. If anything I’m just becoming more of the same kid who was in that basement in New Jersey, but the only difference now is people predict or prejudge all these things. Like oh well, he got this look so now he’s going to be thinking this. And I understand. I’m sure I treat some people differently too around me who have become successful, and I think it’s hard to avoid that, but that’s the only real difference. And other than that, I don’t have to go to a job anymore that doesn’t relate to my music. And that’s like the greatest gift in the world, I’m super thankful for that. And it’s been like that for like a year now. It’s been a year since I quite my job and started surviving off music, and that’s like such a miracle within itself.
And you just played with Noname! How does that feel?
Second time! I think musically she hits a lot of the same notes that I like to hit. She’s an awesome musician beyond being a phenomenal rapper, and I think a lot of people box her into being this really dope female rapper, but just in general she’s a fire rapper. In the same way that Lauryn Hill can hang with the best of them. We don’t need to sequester female MC’s off into their own category, you know. Especially because there are so many good ones right now. We’re in like a resurgence of the female MC. And that’s amazing. And I’m really here for it. And I think that she’s probably the best.
What do you feel like is next for you?
Definitely touring. Working on this album. I’m really kind of tunnel vision on that. For me it’s just really trying to make a great body of music. I’ve been listening to a lot of old classic records, watching a lot of old classic movies, just like surrounding myself with good art and trying to read more. Preparing myself for the task at hand, which is to out do myself and express myself and be vulnerable. It takes a lot to break down the walls that you naturally put up.
Do you like being that immersed in your art? I would go crazy.
I don’t know if it’s a like. I’m just a multi-dimensional person. I’m a person who really loves music and all of my experiences end up revolving around it. Like even if I go to the beach, my favorite part of the beach is having a speaker and playing music. It’s not the sun [Laughs] although the sun is great too. Hopefully…I think for me though reading and watching movies and exploring other people’s art is what gives new life to what I’m doing. And also just talking to family members. I’m trying to spend more time talking to my aunt and my grandmother and mom and dad and get as much wisdom as I can kind of extract. All the wisdom I can extrapolate from them because they’ve been here much longer than I have, and it’s easy as a kid to just kind of shut them off, but the older you are the more right they become. That’s big for me now too.
If you had to describe your music to someone who had never heard it, how would you describe it?
I guess when people ask me what my music sounds like, I reflexively say funk-inspired hip hop. But I think I’m influenced by so much more than that. There’s new wave influence and rock and roll influence and there’s even some jazz snuck in there too. I just see it as like…it’s hip hop that envisions a path forward in which hip hop fully encompasses the history of black music in one genre. And I think in a lot of ways hip hop has already done that through the samples, and now the actual artists are beginning to do that themselves as well. So I think I’m one of those.
Images courtesy of Topaz Jones
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