In a time when popular hip hop is saturated with trap beats, off-key singing, and autotune, melody-mindful rappers like Pell stand out. By no means mainstream, but beginning to garner press from major rap music media outlets like Complex, XXL, and DJBooth, the New Orleans native takes an honest and introspective approach to music—no easy feat for someone in his early twenties beginning to taste the sweetness of national attention.
On February 6, Pell performs in Cambridge at The Middle East, part of his North American tour. I recently spoke with him on the phone when he was in LA recording and rehearsing. We talked about his favorite Boston venue, why he treats his albums like babies, and the time he was told to stop singing in the shower.
skadoink (noun): a bobble-headed lady of the evening.
Skadoinking aside, here’s our phone conversation.
Jon: Hey, what’s going on, man? How are you?
Pell: Nothing much, man. Hope I’m not too late here in calling you back.
Jon: It’s all good, I’m just here mourning the Patriots loss.
Pell: Oh god, the Patriots lost. That’s terrible. I’ll make sure to hit up my friends in Boston. That’s messed up, I’m sorry to hear that. We didn’t even make it to the playoffs so I’m actually not as sorry as I would be—you know what I mean? We didn’t even get that opportunity. I’m a Saints fan.
Jon: It’s kind of arrogant of me to say, because we’re always in the playoffs, you know?
Pell: Ooooooooooooooh! Well, apparently not for long. [laughs]
Jon: So, you’ve performed in Boston before, right?
Pell: Yeah, I’ve performed at The Middle East. Also The Sinclair—I love it there. I actually performed there twice last year.
Jon: It’s like a little House of Blues.
Pell: Yeah, it’s nice, man. The sound is crazy, and just like the atmosphere. It’s more of a refined House of Blues. House of Blues sometimes feels rustic, you know what I mean? Not ancient, but you know. It feels dated, and it’s really cool that it’s modern and still has a great feel.
Jon: The restaurant is really good, too, if you get a chance.
Pell: Oh yeah—no, no, no. The catering was on point. I probably liked that more than the show, I’m not even gonna lie.
Jon: What are your thoughts on The Middle East? It’s a funky little venue, isn’t it?
Pell: Yeah it is. I think that it’s nice though. It’s intimate, especially the room that we’re going to be performing in [upstairs]. It allows people to connect with you, and you get to actually see people’s faces. A lot of times it can feel a little bit distant if I’m in a room with too big of ceiling, or a room where sonically the sound is being drowned out by the voice. The crowd or what have you. It’s just good to feel like everything that you do is being watched.
I’m a person who’s meticulous about the set, so it’s a good thing I put that much care into it because people get to see all the nuances of the music as well as the performance.
Jon: What do you mean by meticulous?
Pell: I approach it somewhat like I approach recording, where you come out with the set list, and you don’t want to perform just the songs on stage, you want to make sure there’s something people can take away from the performance—maybe how I’m singing it, maybe how the drums are played.
Actually, my homie Bill is playing a track pad, keys, and guitar, so he’s like a one man band. We’re trying to make it look the best that it can aesthetically, as well as challenge ourselves. It’s good for us to be in smaller rooms so people can see all of that going on. As well as the music, but it allows for both of those experiences to happen in unison and for people to actually appreciate it.
Jon: You mentioned singing. One of the things I like about your music is that you can sing, and that’s not something that every rapper can lay claim to. Why do you sing?
Pell: Because it makes me feel good is the main reason. But also there are some things you can’t express just in words. Where words or rapping aren’t enough, singing takes it to the next level.
Obviously for song purposes it’s great to have a melody, but even further than that it’s just something that resonates another way because it’s a different type of passion behind it. I can put aggression in my voice. I can put inflection in my voice when I’m rapping, but singing is a whole creature of its own because it bends to notes and little voices—it’s amazing.
Jon: Did you start singing or rapping first?
Pell: I started rapping first. I sung a lot—like everybody does—in the shower.
Jon: Do you still sing in the shower?
Pell: Yeah, of course I do. When is that not appropriate?
Actually, one time I couldn’t sing in the shower because it was like 8:00 a.m., and I have really thin walls in my apartment, and basically, my bathroom is parallel to my neighbor’s bathroom, so it kind of mirrors theirs. Any time they’re in the bathroom they hear me, and vice versa. So, I walked in and started singing—I was playing the new Kid Cudi. I’m playing that loud, and I’m singing along to it, and next thing I know, I hear—boom, boom, boom—“Chill that shit out!”
I couldn’t stop because I was in the shower. I didn’t want to electrocute myself, so I kept singing.
Jon: Are you still working with Dave Sitek?
Pell: Not as much as I used to. We’ve been working on a few things, but nothing really tangible that I can say we have this or that together, but he’s just a really cool guy, so it’s hard for me to stop working with him.
Jon: What was it like working on LIMBO with him for production?
Pell: It was dope. I think he brings a lot of things out of me that I don’t see in how I approach music, because a lot of times I don’t approach music just for the sound or the production. I like to give what I know is best for my voice and what brings talent to the track, like what sounds the best in terms of how I sing or how I rap. And I’ll bring that to the track first and foremost, and he’ll bend around it. Like “Vanilla Sky 2.0.” He’ll bend around it and make something beautiful and hard hitting at the same time, and that’s something I feel I was lacking in my first projects.
What’s the name of the The Weeknd’s new album? Beauty Behind the Madness. You can find little pockets of, you know, sweet serenading or crooning mixed in with hard-hitting 808s, punchy synths mixed with an even prettier guitar. Like “Monday Morning,” the track that started the project. I was in love with that. I also loved how he didn’t use computers as much as other producers who I’ve worked with in the past do. It’s all off of feel. There’s a bunch of drum pads and sequencers going off at the same time, and we make beauty out of the chaos, and it’s cool, you know what I mean?
Sometimes the best music is made from correcting your mistakes.
Jon: So you were mostly around when he was producing the songs, or was he sending them to you?
Pell: The only one I wasn’t around for was “Queso.” Everything else I was around for, and even “Queso,” when he made the beat, I wasn’t there but when we recorded it, I was with him and played it for him and he loved it.
Everything he had made before I heard it I had heard in his studio, and let me tell you, everything sounds beautiful in his studio.
Jon: What are you recording right now?
Pell: I’m recording little things. I’m working on the next album, a production project. I’ve recently started producing—I did a little piece of producing on a track that I just dropped at the end of last year, called “Pretty Things,” with my friends Playgroundz—they’re amazing producers.
I’m working on a production tape, which doesn’t mean I won’t be singing on it or anything. I’m working on songs full of my own productions just to challenge myself. I’m also working on a new project. I think I’ve grown so much.
Jon: Are you still following that nine-months-to-a-new-project timeline?
Pell: That’s very real. I’ll approach every project like it’s my baby. I’m that glad you knew that…wait, what? That’s crazy.
Jon: I read that interview and thought it was a cool metaphor.
Pell: I think it’s the truth, though. If you actually spend…well, I dunno. You can spend too long with a project, too, though. I’m somebody that creates at a rapid pace. I have my ins and outs—I’ll create hard for three weeks and then take maybe four to five days off just to experience life without going to the studio.
And once you get into a rhythm of that, that’s nine months of creating. Think about that. That’s nine times… that’s twenty-seven weeks worth of music. That’s a lot. Like, how could I not have at least the recording done for a project? So, I’m still treating it like that.
Jon: What was behind your decision to have no features on LIMBO?
Pell: Oh, wow. I feel like my decision came from me wanting to give an honest and completely unfiltered and undistracted story of what I’ve been going through the past year. The main theme of LIMBO to me is isolation, and I thought, what would be more isolating than not having a feature on any of the records. You’re hearing only my story and my perspective on every song. I know that it can sound a little narcissistic or standoffish, but what I want to bring to the table is who I really am. A lot of the times with these projects you see countless people on them and you forget who the main artist is on the track, and it becomes everybody’s rendition of one idea. And if I come up with the idea and it’s really personal to me, I want to be able to fully flesh out my idea and show you what it meant to me.
I love working with people, but LIMBO was a very isolating project because I had just moved out to LA, and I had a different life—not a bad, Hollywood lifestyle by any means, but more just like a lifestyle of solace and solitude. I was more happy about being by myself.
[Here I asked Pell to create and define a word for me. I defined the words Aesop Rock and IamSu! created and told him he could email his definition to me. He later sent me: skadoink (noun): a bobble-headed lady of the evening.
Pell: I really wish I had invented a word now. I like using words that are already invented as slang. Me and my friends have been using tempo a lot recently, in terms of the way you use it like, “These motherfuckers can’t keep up with my tempo.” You know what I mean? Like, “They’re not on the same level as me.” I just came up with that last week, so, I was kind of proud of myself.
Jon: One of the other things I read was that you played trombone in high school. Is that true?
Jon: Do you still practice it?
Pell: No. Not as much as I should. The last time I picked up a trombone was last year. I need to get back to it, because I’m now a year rusty, which I feel is bad with any kind of brass instrument. Like, anything more than a month is bad.
Jon: Any type of rusty brass is no good.
Pell: I was going to get one of those pBones, the plastic trombones. Tonally it’s a little bit different, but if somebody were to hear a trombone and a pBone, a lot of people, you’d be surprised, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I’m actually trying to teach myself guitar.
Jon: What about piano? I read you’re trying to learn piano?
Pell: Yes, all these things. Because I’ve been trying to get my music theory up. I looked up to Kanye West and Pharrell, and I used to think that people did all their production all by themselves. But the idea of being self-sufficient is appealing to me at times. Not that I don’t like help, and I know there are people that are way better at playing certain instruments, or all instruments for that matter, than I am. I just feel like for me to make myself more valuable to my own music, or somebody else’s—say I work with friends—I want to have many hats that I can put on.
It’s like, “Hey, you got any lyrics you can put here?” “No, I can play you a nice trombone solo. I can play you some nice piano chords. I can lay down a guitar riff.”
When you love music, you gotta learn it.
Jon: How would you describe your music without using genre names?
Pell: Introspective. Classic.
Other than that, creative… I don’t want to box myself in to one thing. Since I started making music I wanted to make sure I was bringing something different to the table. Sure, everyone has influences, but if I can be something a little bit different, someone that pushes the needle, I feel like I’ve done my job for my generation and even generations to come. You never know how big your influence is, but what you can control is the creative output. And I just want to make sure that genres aside, I’m making the most challenging music I can for myself. Not challenging for you to listen to, but challenging for what I love, and based off of the influences that I have.
Jon: A lot people hear Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper in your music, and they almost pose it as a criticism, because to them, it doesn’t sound entirely original. What would you say to people who think that once a sound or a style has been done, there can’t be any more voices in that genre?
Pell: You have to look at it like influence, and whoever influences them. I’m not sure, I haven’t studied up on them—maybe they have a similar influences or what have you. But even further than that, you know, day in and day out I’m not creating to sound like anybody. I’m creating to sound like myself.
If I do sound like people and people sound like me, that’s where we’re at in this world of the Internet age, where all of our influences are coming together at the same time. That’s why hip-hop in itself feels like a big melting pot and a lot of things sound the same.
But, I don’t think that I sound like them at all, just to be honest.
Jon: When you think of music in Boston, who comes to mind?
Pell: Michael Christmas.
Jon: Michael Christmas? Nice.
Pell: Yeah. [singing] The GOAT! Michael Christmaaaas. I love Michael Christmas, man.
Jon: That’s awesome. Have you seen him perform?
Pell: Yeah I’ve seen him perform! That’s the homie [laughs]. Who else? Cousin Stizz is pretty nice. I like them. I like their crew. I like them all.
Jon: That’s awesome that you know them.
Pell: Yeah, they’re great people. I’m glad that I met them. [Michael Christmas] is funny. He always says that I need to make an R&B album for him, and he’s going to make a rap album for me.
To read the dad joke I made in my Big K.R.I.T. interview, click here.