Starchild: Music as a Photo Book

Starchild Live @ Baby’s All Right Brooklyn, NY March 12, 2016. Photo by Salvador Espinoza

Bryndon Cook is Starchild, a musician whose name is borrowed from both George Clinton’s P-Funk mythology and the cosmic glamor of NASA. The latter is headquartered across the street from Cook’s childhood home in Maryland. More stylistically germane, though, is the Starchild from Clinton’s lore, a divine alien being that came to earth to bring people the Funk (that’s with a capital F). Over the years, Cook has been initiated into the pantheon of forward-thinking R&B artists, playing and collaborating with people like Solange and Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) to expand the bounds of the genre.

Last fall, Cook and his band The New Romantic signed to the independent, chiefly electronic label, Ghostly International. Ghostly has given him space to explore the intersections of R&B with soul, funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. Cook showcases those convergences in his debut EP, Crucial—which arrived last Friday—and I spoke to him on the phone before his March 12 record release show at Baby’s All Right. The 23-year-old artist was out walking to a sandwich shop during one of the first beautiful days of 2016. After probing the various influences behind his sound, we discussed Crucial as a snapshot of his teenage years: a soft, lovelorn ode that will forever symbolize the emotional innocence of a teenaged Bryndon Cook.

Let’s start with the beginning. How did you first get into music? What about it intrigued you to the point that that’s what you wanted to do with your life?

B. Well I have to qualify your question; I haven’t even made a decision that that’s what I want to do with my life. I kind of see myself as someone who’s into creating in whatever avenue lends itself to me, and myself to it. I just graduated acting school. I’ve done a whole lot of different kinds of things. But music-wise, I’ve always liked listening to music, and I played a lot of instruments. Once I met a certain group of friends, we all kind of supported each other with writing and recording.

When did that first happen? You taught yourself to play guitar, right?

B. Yeah I did. I have a bunch of people in my family and we all kind of ended up doing different things, but we all tried everything that everyone’s doing now. So like my oldest brother had a guitar, but he could only play a few John Mayer songs, so I would pick it up and I could play those. My other brother and I both played saxophone, so when he started getting more serious in jazz, I would hop on guitar or a piano that we had in the house to play alongside him. And you know, because we’re a bunch of boys, of course we got a drum set. It was a lot of procrastinating from homework. Music was like while you’re doing homework, while you’re not doing homework, in between doing and not doing homework [laughs]. I used to sit on my parents’ bed with VH1 Classic on and have print-out sheets of scales and stuff and I would run over them and try to find by ear what key the song was that was playing. It could be “My Sharona” or a Jackson 5 song, whatever would come up. I wouldn’t judge it and say ‘oh this sucks.’ I’d say ‘oh there’s a reason this is on TV; there must be something good in it.’ So I kind of learned how to discern the elements in certain kinds of music by ear and intuition.

Was there any music that you heard that you felt particularly attracted to when you were listening to this stuff and trying to determine what key it was in?

B. I think I got really good at that when I got into gypsy music, like Django Reinhardt. The whole foundation of their soloing system is purely melodic stuff, and most—if not all—of them [were] in a self-taught culture in guitar, like French, Romanian, and Hungarian jazz/gypsy/folk. I was kind of inspired by the fact that there’s something that’s actually set in stone as legitimate and it’s part of the philosophy—playing by ear. I got really into that early in high school… also gospel. I grew up going to church and listening to a lot of gospel music. All the gospel musicians play by ear and they were inspiring, too.

I’ve read from various interviews that Prince has been a huge influence [on you], and you can definitely hear that in your music. It’s almost like your music is a nostalgic reincarnation of ‘80s romanticism. When you’re making music, are you intentional about doing something to contemporize that Prince-like sound?

B. Well I have to qualify it again. I’m never sitting down and saying that I want to make something that sounds like Prince. For instance, one of my biggest inspirations is Pharrell. He’s another guy who’s from the DMV—I’m from Maryland, he’s from Virginia. And he’s got this quote where he’s like, ‘I never really set out to make this Neptune sound. The Neptune sound just came out of the tools I had around. I tried to construct what I was hearing in my mind with the tools that I had in place.’

So Prince’s music—among a lot of musicians—has constructed a language. It’s really like the language of tools that I have. As of now in this space and time, sure Crucial sounds a certain way, but in the next record, for instance, there’s a progression going on. So in terms of contemporizing stuff, it’s weird. I don’t need to have a checklist of certain elements, like a triplet snare or something to get it to sound a certain way. I kind of trust the fact that I’m like 20 and I have friends and I am of the culture. I trust that it’s going to be what it should be. I try to have it classic, more timeless. If there’s anything from Prince that I’m inspired by it’s his bootlegs, really worn down, one-off experimental… You hear him working by ear. Stuff that’s not overproduced, you know.

Yeah I didn’t mean to imply that you sounded like you’re coming from the ‘80s, just that there are obvious allusions to that kind of sound.

B. Yeah it’s interesting. When I write songs from the ground up, those demos sound like Prince’s demos when he was trying to get signed to Warner Bros in like ’77 or ’78. Those guitars, 8-tracks, piano demos and stuff—really kind of simple [music] like Joni Mitchell or Lionel Richie Production-wise there are a lot of things that are very similar to the ‘80s, but you know, like the way the conversation started when I was backtracking to how I have a vision of myself, of my career—I envision this idea of progression. Not like this record sounds like ’85 and the next one’s going to sound like ’86, and the next one ’87 [laughs], but it’s moving more into the specificity of an idea, and I think that idea is really about what R&B/Soul singers [are] songwriting. And then the elements of production that I think that canopy has at its disposal are a lot further and wider than I think people get credit for, or people are used to, or people expect from R&B and Soul. People try to pin it down to these certain kinds of things. But it’s like, nah man, R&B and soul music and pop music [and funk]—there’s this crazy coalescing that I think can be hit.

Can you define or put a finger on, in words, what’s happening exactly and what directions it’s going in?

B. Crucial is a lot about soundscapes. There’s a vibe to the record. I think the difference between the songwriting for Crucial and the songwriting for the next record that I’m doing—there’s more of a full extension of the breadth of song. I played everything on Crucial, but I tracked everything on the next record, from top to bottom. So all the piano tracks were here, all the synthesizer tracks were here, all the bass tracks, all the drum tracks. There’s not a lot of comping. There’s a lot of consecutive, consistent tracking, trying to create an energy. There’s more instrumentation.

And also something where I’m inspired by Prince is how he progressed in his vocal range, so I’m doing different things vocally. More expansive things vocally on the next record than on this one. I wrote all the songs on Crucial when I was a teenager. I’m just coming into my 20s and maturing a lot, but there’s an innocence to it, and a kind of nativity to Crucial that I really wanted to hit. That’s what I love about people like Ready for the World. They were a legitimate black boy band from Flint! They were from Flint, Michigan, you know? It’s kind of beautiful to me. That kind of softness and innocence—especially as a black man—is not something that people always expect, or people are used to. That’s something that also Prince probably inspired in me. I like softness.

Yeah the importance of capturing that era before you mature too much.

B. Yeah man! Absolutely. That’s it, and that’s one thing I realized, too. When I finished Crucial, for a long time this record was my calling card. It’d kind of been done since 2013, and I had been on tour with Solange and Blood Orange and I would meet all kinds of folks, and [my] heroes and stuff. And I’d be like ‘hey I’ll send you my music, I’ll send you my music.’ There’s probably more people with the unmastered version of Crucial sitting on their desktop than people will buy next week [laughs]. I mean hopefully that’s not the case. Yeah, so by the time ink dried I was like, ‘I’m really glad that that idea that I started out with [was able] to capture that nascent stage that I was in. And now it’s like a photo book.

Original Photography for Frontrunner Magazine by Salvador Espinoza from Starchild and the New Romantic Record Release Show at Baby’s All Right, Brooklyn, New York Saturday March 12, 2016.   All Rights Reserved.

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