Multi-instrumentalist and Velvet Kente/Amasa Hines frontman Joshua Asante has released a new single, “Everybody Gets Used/Tell My Mama I’m Back,” under his own name on Quiet Contender, the label Asante and Seth Baldy launched earlier this year. You can listen to it now on streaming platforms; the 7″ will be available later in July. Tracked and mixed in spaces adjacent to Fellowship Hall Sound in Little Rock, the pair of songs make a pretty clear case for why Asante calls his music “astral soul.” There is an actual angel/alien, and the narrator leaves the listener with the clear impression that he is, first of all, well-acquainted with other planes of existence and, second of all, unwilling to brook any bullshit on the plane he is occupying at the moment. Most of all, though, Asante’s songs are big and beautiful, and I love them for being unafraid of how huge a task they have taken on: to put soul music’s past in conversation with its future.
The artwork on the cover for “Tell My Mama I’m Back” is pretty arresting. There’s this figure sort of backlit by the sun, and the eyes are just lit up like lasers. Who did this work and what’s behind it?
So, I designed that to converse with the front cover. The album is not necessarily a concept album, but there is kind of an Afro-Futuristic thread that runs through it. That front cover has a character that I created — I mean, it’s me, but as a character that I created. He’s what we would consider to be an alien, but he’s actually an angel, and there’s a whole backstory about how the UFOs that we encounter are actually the lowest order of angels who can’t transmute themselves through space and time, so they need these vessels. So he’s one of those people. And the back is him in his illuminated state, as he exists in the heavens, where he’s not necessarily looking like his human form. Which is a lot, but …
Yeah. I mean, to what degree do you consider these mythologies when you’re writing? Do you always think of your music in terms of these stories?
For that initial story, I created a seven-song EP that lyrically and sonically told that story, but I only did demos of those songs. I never fully fleshed them out, but I kept the characters. And since I kind of got that lyrical story out of my system, I didn’t feel like I had to do that. But sonically, I still was kind of in that phase for a couple of albums, with Amasa Hines. And I didn’t feel like I could do it honestly with the band, just because of the democratic nature of being in a band. The story to me, I wrote it first, and it’s very difficult to be in a band and tell people a really specific thing to do or play and have it not come across like a tyrant.
So those synthesizers and kind of off-kilter, distorted drums and all those voices, that is that same story, but just more sonically. Lyrically, that song is about me coming out of a depressive state. And how close I felt to my spiritual self, the closer I got to eliminating my physical self.
You know, suicide is really taboo in our society, and we feel like we lose people in a different way when they decide to take their own lives. But when I came back from that space, I had a different type of empathy, a different type of understanding. Like, I get it. I was listening to Cornel West talk yesterday, and he was talking about the artist and all the sensitivities that you have to maintain. It’s easy to have suicidal proclivities when you exist with those kinds of sensitivities all the time — feeling everything, all the time. So, lyrically, that’s what the song is about, how close to this Eternal All I felt, in this moment of, “Well, I could just step over here, to this vast nothing, because of how much my physical life is tormenting me.” And then coming to my senses, like “No, I still have things I want to do, and people I want to see tomorrow.” I may fall in love someday, you know? That’s what the song comes full circle into, literally.
A lot of us deal with those dips and we don’t know what to call them. Some people are actually clinically depressed, and some of us go through seasonal depression, but if you decide that you want to try again, and not succumb to that, it is going to be a battle. Not that it’s not a battle deciding that you want to leave. But this song is not necessarily about wanting to leave. It’s about [the fact that] I actually made it. And I’m grateful that I did, to my better judgement. This was 2014, 2015, and I feel like in the last five years of my creative life, I’ve manifested a lot of things that I could never have imagined. There are people who I’m in contact with on a regular basis who I grew up considering heroes, you know? It’s not something that I boast about or talk about, but it’s like, my life is kinda crazy. And I’m glad I stuck around to see. These last five years have been amazing. I’ve actualized a lot of fantastical stuff.
But yeah, I kept those characters and those ideas present in the music, and tried to make it as Black and as spacey as I could make it.
Do you think the person who was coming out of that would be surprised at where you’re at?
That person — well, it was maybe a couple of years ago that I had the epiphany of: pressure and time makes diamonds. And since then, I’ve had to operate in a pre-state of humility, because I realize that I became a diamond. And I could be a pretentious prick, you know, if I choose to be. So at this point I’m never surprised. It’s kind of a boring life. When something amazing happens, I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I was supposed to do that, because I worked hard.” But yeah, that person would probably be surprised. Despair is so blinding. Desperation really shortens your vision. I couldn’t see myself making it through another season of that, let alone five or six years.
I caught a lyric, maybe about being saved from the temptation and the static, from this “wicked algorithm.” First off, do I have it right, and second, what is the wicked algorithm?
I was speaking to that time in my life where it’s like, I’d been in this cycle of self-injury and dishonesty and anger, seemingly for forever. And something in the universe and the energies around me have figured out what to put in front of me to keep me doing these same hurtful things. That initial lyric is the question: In the regions of the throne, in the realm of the enchantment, I chanced it and grabbed at the everlasting magic …
I reached out at optimism, really. Grabbed something that was not physical, and wondered: Whatever this thing is that thinks it has me figured out, would optimism crack the code of that? And it did. It did.
I’m a little embarrassed to say I was thinking of it way more literally. Just, the “wicked algorithm” being the way we can be stuck. And with the way our communications work now, how we can be curbed off at all passes from people who the technology hasn’t deemed that we should be communicating with.
There’s that, too. Because I feel like the album, laid out in totality, it’s very much that conversation. … One of the overarching themes is that weird detachment. And how I first encountered that is when I moved to Little Rock. I didn’t really know anybody, so I started making these songs, then I started planning shows, and then I needed some kind of online persona to have a platform to share all these shows, and then things started getting weird and they haven’t stopped getting weird since then. So it’s that, too. And you know how it is. Once you release a song, it kind of belongs to everybody, so all the interpretations are welcome.
Speaking of that, how does it feel to see this track listed under your label, with that “2020 Quiet Contender” tag below it?
I mean, it’s that thing. It’s that thing where pressure and time makes precious stones. I wish I could feel like I think I should feel, but I just see that there’s so much more work to do. I could look at my life, I could look at coming from destitute poverty, and now I’m putting out not one, but two, three records on my label, and I’m still young. I should be more excited than I am, but I can’t fake it. I tried. [Laughs.] I think me and Baldy had a drink, and it was like, via Zoom, and that was it. I mean, I’m kinda focused. I want the progress, but also, I’m always looking for more work. It feels good. It’s alright.
You mentioned that you grew up in poverty. I wonder if that pressure you put on yourself, and that a lot of creators put on themselves, is sort of poverty’s way of staying with you? Like, “Be careful, don’t trust this and don’t get too comfortable.”
I think about that from time to time when I’m trying to tell myself to chill out, maybe take a day off. You know, you just licensed a song or had a successful tour or you got all your bills paid for the next couple months. Just take a nap or something. I think that, yeah, poverty is a part of it, but I also think that it’s being Black. Being Black and understanding that it doesn’t really matter how amazing I am, there’s still this lack of a place to just be. So it’s easier to just stay busy than to try to be still sometimes. Work is a coping mechanism, and something that I feel like I’ve done to detriment. I’m trying to just chill some, but it’s hard.
I want to ask you a couple of questions about production, because the songs are really gorgeously layered. Was the recording done at Fellowship Hall?
It was kind of done in two parts. We tracked the initial instrumentation at the chapel that’s outside of Fellowship, and did the initial tracking there. And Zach [Zachariah Reeves] has this space upstairs, above the main recording space, and that’s where we did all the overdubs and mixing for everything. For [“Tell My Mama I’m Back”], I brought the demo recording, with the arrangement already there, and he listened to it, and made notes about it, and yeah, we started tracking it there.
Was it a logistic decision to track part of it of it in a chapel, or an artistic one?
It was a definite artistic decision. I knew that I wanted it to be in a sacred space, and we talked about tracking it at some other churches in and out of town, and it just made sense.
So you mentioned that part of the reason you went the way you did with this is that if you want something really specific, it’s really hard to ask musicians you respect to do your thing, specifically. What does that mean for you playing any of these songs with a band, or performing them live, when that becomes more of a possibility?
Well, I learned a lot about that, the democratic process of making music in live performances with a band. So I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the co-working thing. But ultimately, my dream for this stuff, Zach and I have talked about, would be for me to have a woman who’s a multi-instrumentalist and can sing. I feel like there’s a lot of energy in the music that would make more sense to a woman, or to someone who identifies as more feminine than masculine. It’s just there’s a lot of space and understanding and all the things that I associate with the women in my life. That would be ideal. I’m open to that. I’m open to collaborating. I just needed to get it out that way. So if I say, “Hey, you wanna come play drums with me” or “You wanna come play bass with me?” These are the parts. This is what it is.
One thing I really love about the production of your music is that the lyrics and enunciation never feel too up front, or too on the nose, but I can always understand you. What do you like to do to put vocals up front, especially when the words are potent and shouldn’t be lost in the mix?
Yeah. The balance that I always try to strike is, because I have a bit of a speech impediment, so I’m always trying to be mindful of the delivery of lyrics, but it also needs to feel natural. That’s the first thing, getting the most natural take down. And then after that, most of what’s going on is mixing. What Zach likes to do on our final mixes, is to start with the voice, and to make sure the voice has its own space, and that everything around that is sitting relative to the voice. And in that way, you can carve out frequencies for different instrumentations, and it may actually be louder than the voice, but because it’s only housed in a certain frequency that is not in the way of the voice, you can’t really tell. We had a lot of fun doing that with all these songs. … The third component is, I always put the lyrics on the album, in case you’re still not quite sure what’s being said. It’s also kind of hard to follow a lyrical story without reading along. It doesn’t matter if you know what’s being said or not, it’s a little more plain if you can actually read it.
I appreciate that. For whatever reason, maybe people think they’re demuring or being modest by not including the lyrics, but it’s really nice to know what’s being said.
Oh, yeah! I’m a word person. What the hell! I wanna read it. I’m still gonna listen. I’m still gonna have an honest relationship with what you’re saying. If there’s a story that needs to be read all the way through, I don’t want to miss out on that.
Order Asante’s new 7” “Everybody Gets Used/Tell My Mama I’m Back” at Quiet Contender.