– Ryan Stone – Pell Interview 2/9/16
In the frigid hours before a flurry of snow would settle once again on the city, New Orleans rapper Pell stood in a small circle of his fellow tour folk in the dimly lit main area of The Barbary in Northern Liberties. The rapper would be on stage at 8 p.m. — later than expected due to delays at the venue. Nevertheless, Pell was cool, calm, and collected. After a brief introduction and my hints of praise (as I am a fan of the man’s work), we took a seat in the far corner of the venue by the merchandise table to discuss the rapper’s music. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about his new album, Limbo, which released in the fourth quarter of last year. Slightly pressed for time, I asked Pell some bigger questions to gain more knowledge about the man behind the music before he had to break before the show to eat and rest. Below is our conversation, and I encourage you to check out Pell’s music at pellyeah.com after reading. Pell is on tour until the end of March. Tour dates and locations can be found here. He will then hit the stage at both Hangout Music Fest and Firefly Music Festival. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Stone: First, I wanted to congratulate you on the tour and the release of Limbo. I checked that out; that was cool.
Pell: Oh, thank you.
S: How has the response been for the tour and also the album?
P: It’s been great! In my opinion, I feel like it’s something that takes a slow growth, you know what I mean? Even when I was making Limbo, I knew that not a lot of people would understand it as much because it was more experimental for me. Floating While Dreaming was well received and even greater received than I expected in terms of its longevity: people are still finding out about Floating While Dreaming right now and it’s now almost two years old. It’s crazy that that’s still happening to me because I knew that I wanted to put out a project right after it. I wanted to have something that was a little bit more experimental. Floating While Dreaming, although it was something that I feel was very creative, was very safe behind a lot of the instrumentation, and I wanted to challenge myself to really try to bring something different. I credit myself for being unique and having a different taste when it comes to music, and I wanted that to show in the music I produce, the music that I’m a part of, and the people that I work with. So it was good to team up with Dave Sitek, especially on Limbo. I feel like, in conjunction with the tour, they showed me that my movement is one of slow growth. It’s something where people hear about it and they’re not sure, but then they go to the show and they want to tell all their friends. And it’s like “we need to have you back.” It’s something that’s a recurrent process and a cycle that allows this tour to be something beautiful. Every night hasn’t been sold out; Boston was the first sold-out show. But with that show, with every show that we’ve done, the momentum continues to progress. The sizes of the crowds get bigger and bigger. Even at SOB’s [Sounds of Brazil] — I think it was the same night — it was the same amount of people as the Boston show, but it was just a bigger venue. So it’s crazy just to see the growth. I think it’s been good.
S: You mentioned that Limbo was more experimental compared to Floating While Dreaming, but what was the inspiration behind Limbo, the album?
P: There’s definitely a lot of influence of love, I’d like to say, for certain areas. Which is interesting, because the first half has a little more angst, but the second half is more like self-discovery. I feel like that was the main inspiration: the fact that I moved to California and started a serious relationship, and I was going in and out of different social circles that I wasn’t in a year before. Floating While Dreaming was coming from a sense of — like I said, it was very creative, but it was coming from a very comfortable space within me as an artist, because I felt a lot hadn’t changed in my immediate future when I made that music. Whereas, with Limbo, a lot had already changed, and I was open to a lot of experience, so I had a lot of things to harp on, you know what I mean? I had “Almighty Dollar”: the idea of not having money and then the next day having it, and then sharing it with your friends and making sure that you understand that, as an independent artist, you have to take care of yourself. We’re out here on our own, I’m investing in myself, I’m investing on this tour. It’s just one of those things where you start to realize every experience and everything counts in life, and I became less passive. That’s why I feel like the music had a little bit more aggression to it, and it wasn’t so laissez-faire — like “oh everything’s good; I’m going to get there in time.” It’s more like, “I need this, I need that, this is what’s been going on,” and it’s a little bit more honest, in my opinion. I’ve always been honest, but it’s just a different perspective. But yeah, I’d say the key themes were self-discovery and isolation.
S: I noticed with Floating While Dreaming — I don’t want to say it was more telling, but like with a lot of rappers’ debut albums, it’s about everything in their lives up until that point. Limbo is different: now that you’ve established who you are, you’ve got to work on the music
P: Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting when music is all you have to do as well. I had a lot of things to harp on in Floating While Dreaming, but they were outside of rap. I had “Dollar Store,” which was inspired by me actually working at a dollar store. I had things like that that were around the neighborhood and my friends around the neighborhood. I left all that; moving to L.A., I’m doing music full time. To be talking about my music is one thing that I do want to do, so I feel like I damn near took up a relationship just so I can have a connection with the outside world. But what that in turn became was more of a distraction than an actual flow into another world, and I created a certain dissonance between my music and my personal life that was so wide — the gap was so wide that I almost felt like I was isolated from myself, because I moved out to Cali for music. That’s what I mean in terms of self-discovery: I was in two different social circles that I wasn’t in the year before. All of my friends from Mississippi and New Orleans for the most part weren’t out there with me, besides my manager and another one of my friends, who — we’re not even as close as we used to be because we’re working. It’s interesting. It’s really interesting.
S: It’s a trade-off.
P: Yeah, it’s a trade-off.
S: More generally speaking then, what goes into the music that you make? What around you inspires you? What do you listen to that inspires you to make the music that you make?
P: That’s real. Mainly my relationships. And I don’t mean my love relationships — I mean like my friendships, my family. That definitely inspires me because that’s how I get to know who I am and that’s how I, in turn, want to be perceived. So that’s why, every time I’m on a track, I’m shouting out New Orleans. And I know a lot of rappers do this because you’re a product of your environment, so to speak. Whatever you’ve seen, whoever you’ve been friends with, will come out in your music — whatever you intake on a daily basis. I think the main things I intake on a daily basis are words that my friends speak,and stories that I hear from my friends, as well as what I experience with my friends. That’s my main inspiration. Second to that, I’d say, when it comes to the creative process: last year I just got hip to The New Yorker, so I’ll be reading magazine articles or I’ll read newspaper articles, and I’ll find out interesting stories that I feel like people in my generation don’t listen to or talk about, and I’ll try to weave them into my music. Not trying to be preachy or even really coded, but more so to have a tone that’s not kid-like, like Floating While Dreaming was, so that people can take it seriously.
S: So you take ideas The New Yorker present?
P: No — words. I like the words.
S: Oh, like the verbiage.
P: Yeah, the verbiage. I like to look at beautiful language. A lot of times you can listen to so much trap music or rap music and feel dumbed down by the end, and I don’t want that to be what I’m spewing out. Like I said, whatever I intake comes out, so why not have my words be the most beautiful they can possibly be? I want to look at that, I want to read the Paris Review, I want to read things that will actually inspire me to have a different perspective when I speak to people so that they’ll know to take it seriously instead of thinking, “oh, we’ve already heard this before.” Present it in a way that they can actually digest it and that’s actually beautiful to them. That’s what it’s about. It has that poetic element to it, almost. You have to be able to woo somebody with your words outside of your story, because hip-hop at its core is always going to be about the story. But what separates him from her or her from the next girl, you know what I mean? It’s the way you come across. Do you even like the product or do you just like how it was presented to you?
S: I’ve done a lot of interviews with rappers, and to hear your inspiration is from newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker — that’s something I’ve never heard before. I think that also goes towards the kind of music that you make — it’s been labeled “dream rap” by every outlet out there. It has a very accessible element that relates to what sonically works, but it’s obviously got your touch from your various influences.
P: Thank you man, that means a lot to me.
S: You started off making beats, right?
S: Do you still do that?
P: I just picked it back up. Actually I’ve been producing on tour.
S: Oh yeah?
P: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I can’t share it yet, because it’s not where I want it to be, but it’s definitely a work in progress, and I even did a little production on “Pretty Things,” like a loosey that I dropped two days before Christmas when I was in New Orleans. That was pretty cool. Actually, how that happened was I had brought a lot of gear to my friend’s house — I hadn’t worked with him in like a year, because every time I was in New Orleans it was for a show and I was leaving. This time, because we had the winter break — so to speak, there’s no real break, but because it was the holidays — I went over to their house with a bunch of gear and I had two Ableton Pushers; I was just messing around with stuff all day. We were playing new beats that they had been working on for me to hop on, and I was like, “let’s start something from scratch.” So I played chords on my Ableton Push and they were like, “oh, god, these are perfect!” I hooked up my TC Helicon, which is like a voice box, and started singing into it. It felt like 808s & Heartbreak because I just broke up with my girlfriend. So I was very anxious to make some new music and it definitely came out pretty right. That started me on a trip where I’ve just been producing damn near everything that I’m rapping over. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff that I just spitball ideas over, because I’m still not writing as much.
S: I remember reading about it, but I don’t remember the device you were using when you first started producing.
P: Oh, a Korg beat machine. It had 16 pads or 12 pads, I’m pretty sure, and two bank pads. Twelve drum pads and there was a bank and a mode pad, basically, where you could do “song” or you could do “pattern,” and patterns you can put into songs and songs you can still construct from scratch, but it’s just easy to make a pattern and then put it into a song. I didn’t even really know all of this at that time, when I was first producing it, because this was when I was, like, 14. I kind of gave up on the beat machine when I got a laptop and did everything digitally with a little midi keyboard and Logic or Garage Band. That’s how I got friends, that’s how I identified myself as an artist, because I was in a new environment. I was the new kid in school because I had moved from New Orleans to Mississippi. I had a means to produce for a social aspect, you know what I mean? It turned into a passion later when I got to college because I started falling in love with the writing more and the actual song structure, so much so that I removed myself from the production equation and became a little more soft-spoken. I met up with a lot of people in college that were producers and writers and stuff and we formed a collective called TFG — that stands for “That Feel Good” — and we just made a lot of music. During that time, I wasn’t really producing because I met a guy, Staccs, who was a better producer. I would’ve wasted my time focusing on production. I wish that I would’ve actually produced during that time, but I was so in love with making the words. I’m still reading and stuff, trying to use my intake, and I felt like it was more important for me to spread a message than be behind the sonics. So it’s kind of like we had a team thing going on, everybody in the collective. And, like I said, I revisited and just picked it back up recently.
S: Cool. With Ableton?
S: Well, hopefully we’ll get to hear some of your production.
P: Oh you definitely will! Yo, I’m excited because it’s really my first time to actually show my influences firsthand. Like the indie-rock bands that I listen to, the random Motown stuff that my mom played for me, the random jazz that my dad would play for me, the hip-hop that my brother put me on — all of that coming into one funnel. That’s really what I’m trying to get out of it.
S: That’d be dope! I’ve read through other interviews with you listing all these different influences and to hear that all come together is going to be so dope.
P: Yeah, dude, it’s about time, too! I feel like in a lot of rap, there’s become a certain groupthink because of Soundcloud and Spotify — everything’s so accessible. People latch onto sounds so quickly that you don’t even hear anybody’s influence anymore. You hear these up-and-coming artists and they sound like another artist that’s already making music. I won’t get into names, but I feel like that happens all too often. We’re at a point now where there’s so many things that we can pull from — why can’t we show that in our music? There are so many different types of artists. Not everything has to sound the same just because it’s accessible. You can make something accessible if you make it genuine, honest, and simple, or present it in a way that people can absorb it. That’s just what I’m trying to do with this next project — or the next music, not even the next project. I have a lot of creative things I’m trying to work on.
S: Should be dope. So you also direct music videos?
P: Yes. I write all the treatments: I don’t fully direct. Usually I’ll hire a director to work with me, but all the ideas are mine.
S: And has that been from…
P: Yeah, from inception. Except there was one video that I had nothing to do with that now isn’t even online.
S: Oh. [laughs]
P: But nine out of ten, yeah, they are all my ideas.
S: Nine out of ten. That’s crazy. And you’re going to continue doing that?
P: Oh, god, yeah! I like it when people write treatments, but at the same time I like people more who study film and who actually know about that stuff to show me aesthetically how my ideas could work. Because sometimes, if it’s too different from how I intended the song to be perceived, it’ll create a weird type of confusion around the music. And I don’t want to do that, especially because I think the music video is that important. You’re getting somebody’s sight, as well as their ears; you’re taking a lot of their attention, so you want it to count. You don’t want it to be something that just looks good visually or just sounds good on record, and they don’t add up and they’re not congruent and they’re not cohesive. That’s something that you won’t remember. You’ll be like, “oh that was a cool video,” but you’ll forget about it. If it coincides with the songs from the album, you’ll remember it. Even if it doesn’t fully, and it just happens to be something that matches the aesthetic, something like, “oh I know that’s a Pell video because it’s a little bit off or it’s a little bit something or the colors in it.” That’s what I want to do.
S: You also rap and sing, obviously — of all these things that you do, which one do you think you enjoy doing the most?
P: Writing. Literally writing. And performing, I would say. Rapping and singing are like the same to me, in terms of importance of the vision. I think that singing is important because it’s actually how I can show emotion. Furthermore, because my voice is kind of a little high-pitched, I feel like singing can help me go above and beyond getting my message across. But even more than that, I think the most important thing is writing and feeling like you can connect with people through that, because everything else doesn’t matter as much. Lou Reed couldn’t sing a lot of notes, but it sounded good ecause the words were there, and there were a lot of artists that were like that.
S: It’s just crazy that you do all that, and while you’re on tour, no less.
P: We’re trying man. I’ve actually been working on writing something. I don’t want to get too much into it, but I’ve been writing on tour a lot — different mediums of writing, trying to expand my horizons like I told you. I’ve been inspired by one of my friends who just wrote an article in The New Yorker that I saw — his name is Clint Smith, he’s a candidate for a Ph.D out at Harvard — and he’s also teaching kids in D.C. He’s amazing.
S: Oh wow.
P: Yeah, he’s amazing, man. I feel like a lot of my friends have been doing really cool things with not just activism, but also just have been pushing social awareness through their career — like creative arts. And I feel like my piece of the puzzle is tying in what I’ve experienced with a sense of social awareness through not just what’s going on or what you see on the TV, but with what’s impacting me immediately — for my fans and those who are really ready to listen to what I have to say about things that really impact me.
S: On that note, with everything you’re working on musically while you’re on tour, do you think by the time the tour’s over you’re going to be ready to hit the studio?
P: Oh god yeah. I already have dates booked.
S: Oh yeah?
P: Yeah. [laughs] As soon as the tour’s over with, I’m going back to New York. I’m saying “going back” because I just left there, but I’m starting to work with some of my friends. We’re going to see how that pans out. I’m excited about it.
S: Do you think there’ll be more music coming from you before the end of the year or next year?
P: It’s hard to tell. New music — it’s very hard to tell. But there’s definitely somestuff that still is to be discovered from Limbo that will be released and will be rolled out the way that it should. I actually have a beef — it’s not a full beef — with the distributor: we had a miscommunication and I wasn’t aware that the bonus tracks that I wanted to put on my vinyl were not actually on the vinyl, and they were a part of Limbo. So now I have four songs that don’t have a home that were supposed to be released last year or January of this year. I’m trying to figure out how I want to piece those in with everything, because they’re not going to be a part of the next project — I have a lot of songs. But those for sure, if any music is released, it will start with those.
S: Those four tracks. So, you would recommend that people that do hear those should hear them in the context of Limbo?
P: Oh, definitely, yeah. They should play them right at the end of Limbo, actually.
S: One last big, philosophical question: what do you want people to get from your music?
P: Hm, that’s a good question. What do you mean by “get”?
S: Well Kanye is the first example I can think of. With every single album he made,there’s a certain message he was trying to get across. 808s & Heartbreak is the most salient one — the heartbreak and the loss and the emotions that came with that, and then coping with it as well. Then you have Eminem on Relapse and that whole time of turmoil in his life. When artists make an album, sometimes they have a mission: “I want to make this album, and I want people to think or feel this based on the music that I’m giving them.” Do you have a message that you’re trying to get across?
P: I would say I want them to understand the power of belief in yourself and the power of having actual gumption. I think that the main thing that I can tell anybody is follow your dreams until there’s nothing else to follow, because that’s all you have in life. Without that, you’re nothing. So find out what you love and when you listen to my music, believe in those dreams.