By Kelsi Swenson
“Music is universal…it does something to your energy.”—listening to :3lon definitely does. Grounded deeply in the reality of emotion yet transporting, he channels song in a way that is both angelic and painful at once. Fitting, since he says that music exists, “To get you closer to God.” I asked him when he first started: “I feel like I wrote my first song… probably when I was 13? Started feelin’ myself—started feeling like I could do things. When I was 11, I [got] into Evanescence and My Chemical Romance… [my song] was along the lines of that.”
What’s certain is that he is tied to no particular genre, in taste or in creation: “I listened to Imogen Heap a lot when I was in high school. I think I started making electronic music because I was trying to mimic what I heard her do. And then I always listened to Brandy growing up, and just like a lot of soul and R&B singers cause… I’m black,” he laughs.
He takes the blending a step further while describing his artistic process: “When I make songs, a lot of the time I see visuals and hear the song at the same time. It all happens real fast, real simultaneously… My imaginary world that I make music from [isn’t] like this one, but somewhere cool, like the future, neo-Tokyo world. I feel like the whole point of making music is to paint an image with sound.” We can see this narrative style on his 2016 EP ‘Ronin’.
I asked him how he got to this point: “My father lived in New Zea- land. He [came] home with all this music equipment and was like, ‘I’m ready to be your dad again… I’m going to teach you how to make songs and beats on this.’ And I was like, ‘Cool.’ We would have sessions almost every week. [I did that with him] for a couple of years. Then my uncle got [a Mac] computer and I was gone. I would always use my cousin as an excuse: ‘You tryna chill?’ and she’d be like, ‘Yeah!’ and I’d come over. [My uncle went] to work and she’d be watching movies. I’d be making songs the whole time.”
He was 16, so that meant— “I hate high school… it was a real white atmosphere. A lot of favoritism. When we did musicals it was the same person… I would get ensemble, or they would give me some little scrap part cause ‘We didn’t have nobody else for this.’ They treated me like the police treat black people in the street. I remember I would get in trouble and all three of the principals would come in. They’d have the rulebook and be like ‘Ooh, get him for this one. And get him for that one right there.’ And I was like, ‘I can’t depend on none of y’all for shit.’”
He moved on: “I legitimately started going to CCBC because I knew I would get a refund check that I could put toward musical stuff. Made my first couple little songs [and] put them on the internet. It definitely didn’t get the response that I get now— just lets you know that when you ain’t got no clout, your music don’t mean shit. Eventually one of them stuck: when I got to ‘Portraits’ it was around the same time I was going to this rap cypher downtown called Beet Trip.”
Things pretty much took off from there. “It kinda just started on some humble shit… Baltimore’s been a nurturing place for my art. [It] feels familiar; comfortable, like home base. It’s helped me grow in some regards… the people I’ve met are family. But I feel like I could get stuck here easily: [there’s] a ceiling… you don’t get shows [that pay well] in Baltimore. I just feel like the value of the shit I’m trying to create… the more I come off like a two-dollar artist, they’re only gonna keep paying me two dollars. The only difference between me and people who get more money is them saying they deserve more… [I feel like it wouldn’t] be this way if I wasn’t a certain kind of artist.”
So why do it? “I’m at the point where I feel like I’m kind of insane when it comes to music. I feel like a Disney character who breaks out into song whenever they’re sad… but I really save the song afterwards. It’s instinctual: the one thing I know I’m good at, that I can do, that I can feel… I love the way [music] can just make you burst out into tears, from happiness… I think it’s how I’ve kept my sanity.
3lon, “Many Moons”: “If I could feel again—the right way, the way that we always wanted—we can change this world forever.”