In the wake of his new record, WITH LOVE., Brwnsounds talks to CentralSauce’s Ryan Gaur about the stories, sounds and SAROS crew behind the project.
In any instance, a mind can be a sponge or a shell. At times open to absorbing all, but can just as easily be repellant and fearful of outside influence. Ohio-based artist Brwnsounds understands not only this, but the importance of what we absorb and reject. On his latest project, WITH LOVE., Brwnsounds looks to shut out all that may cause fear and anxiety, while leaving himself open to the joy that comes his way.
Isolationist and combative at the start, as the album goes on Brwnsounds recalls the mentality of his younger self and contrasts it to his current way of life. The overall picture of WITH LOVE. details a journey to adulthood. Now, at 18, Brwnsounds has rejected the idea of absolutes and looks to exist somewhere between isolation and companionship.
The wordsmith basks in the beauty of personal independence and the warmth of loved ones after an arduous journey. The lines from “Brwn”, “Couldn’t shake the sense of loneliness I was feeling / On the fence of holiness / But I was killing myself slowly” are explicit in detailing his inner turmoil. Seeking both his true identity and love from those around him, Brwnsounds grows to eventually find peace on the seventh and eighth tracks, “LUV (interlude)” and “SAROS.” The former spends two minutes meditating on the phrase “I heard I gotta love myself / Because if I don’t I can’t love no one else” while the latter is a jovial posse cut. This run places his will for self-discovery next to an example of him sharing his life, his album, with friends.
However, WITH LOVE.’s closer is somewhat contradictory to the sentiment of “SAROS.” Brwnsounds addresses the hurt felt by opening up to the wrong people. On “XVIII (The end),” Brwnsounds is at his most confrontational: “At first glance I was thinking it was groovy with ya, but in time you was faker than a movie.” A scent of betrayal stains these words as Brwnsound’s mind reverts to a defensive shell — once again fearful that being open to love could backfire and interrupt his internal peace. This combination makes WITH LOVE. a heartfelt exploration of the relationship between love, fear and harmony.
Exploring ephemeral emotional entities is also a core ideal at the heart of SAROS, the artistic collective to which Brwnsounds belongs. This is a community where Brwnsounds finds much-needed independence in abundance, as well as the inspiration-boosting friendly competition that pushes creative boundaries. The spirit of collaboration is alive in WITH LOVE., with Eyeswideshut, Pink Siifu, sirduke and a plethora of SAROS members sharing the spotlight. Though the group is largely known for sample-based hip-hop, Brwnsounds has flexed musical muscles in the realms of jazz and alternative music.
I spoke to Brwnsounds about the themes of WITH LOVE., the development of his sound and a multitude more. Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.
Ryan: The first question I have planned has been kinda messed up by your Zoom name because I just realised that your last name is Brown, I was gonna ask where Brwnsounds comes from.
Brwnsounds: Haha, just kind of like a play on that, you know, like a double entendre type thing? You know? Like, the whole black and brown thing, it fits, I guess.
How long were you making music before you decided to release?
I started making music 2018 I’m pretty sure, but the style of music I make now I started making in 2019.
Ah, so what sparked the change?
I’ve always been addicted to samples and vocals within music. That’s one thing that has always sparked me. My inspirations at first were Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Tyler, the Creator. That’s who I was trying to like mold a sound around — still trying to learn and figure out this whole music thing.
Some Rap Songs dropped — I [wasn’t] familiar with the scene at all. I heard Some Rap Songs coming off of [previous Earl albums] Doris and I Don’t Like Shit, so I’m like “what is this!” I didn’t stick to it. The more I listened to it, some of my friends got me hip to other people, and I was like, yeah, I want to make this [Earl-adjacent] sound.
I think Some Rap Songs sparked that sound for a lot of people. Once you dove deeper into that scene, who were the artists that really stuck out to you? And have carried you to this point?
Mike for sure. Mike for, like, rapping wise. Last summer every day I’d be listening to Mike and to Knxwledge. So many [artists] stand out. There’s no real leader of the underground scene, not even Earl. He’s just a famous person who got involved in it. The ones that stick out to me are Pink Siifu, of course. He’s up there in my all-time. Mavi, a great rapper, great lyricist. And then Maxo for sure. Maxo’s great. If someone asked me to put them on, those would be the people I put them on to.
The “lo-fi” genre occupies a unique space — the music tends to be more honest and introspective. Where do you think that tendency originated?
This movement was set by Mos Def, Kweli, Common, DOOM, artists that were honest with themselves. That was the push for the movement.
There’s something about the simplicity of a sample loop that brings honesty.
It’s one of the purest art forms in hip hop, in music period. Major [label] music is supposed to occupy a space. For most independent artists, there is no space to occupy, you’re just putting yourself out there. Now, of course, that’s going to change soon because it’s picking up more and more — artists are getting bigger off the sound and you even see the sound slipping into regular music. Like, Freddie Gibbs was nominated for a Grammy. Jay Electronica was nominated for a Grammy. You see it’s coming up more and more. Even Maxo signed to Def Jam so you already know they’re coming for it. I wouldn’t mind being signed to a label. I wouldn’t be there for a long time yet, of course. I’ll take the money.
I feel like the spirit of both your influences and the originators of the genre is alive in WITH LOVE. I think the main thing that ties them is the love of poetry and emotion. You heavily explore emotional ideas such as isolation on the album, is that something that arose naturally?
With the whole isolation thing, even when it’s proven to me a million times, I always kind of get a feeling that I’m kind of alone in situations. Especially during my childhood, I was the youngest, so my older siblings had all left the house, it was kind of just me most of the time. I became almost a recluse, or like an introvert. I think that’s just like the way I’ve always been. That’s why it’s a recurring theme and something that sticks to you in the back of your head. So, of course when you’re writing [it] is going to come out.
Do you feel like people romanticise that mentality a bit too much?
Yes, especially right now with the whole ‘sad-boy’ rap idea. Of course, people deal with mental health problems all the time. I don’t think mental health problems should be something that’s glorified, in my opinion. That’s not some shit you want, you know, you don’t want to go through that. It is very romanticised in a lot of peoples’ music.
It’s okay to express something artistically, that’s good. Some people intentionally do it because they know it’s hot. You can tell when something’s authentic. The reason I’m really so transparent with my music — like I said Kid Cudi’s one of my favourite artists, he’s very transparent with himself, how he feels and it’s straightforward. That’s where it bleeds out sometimes, from that honesty with myself.
On “XVIII” you repeat the phrase “sometimes you gotta get it on your own,” but on a lot of songs, you’re talking about having to open yourself up more, having to place yourself with love. Is that an internal battle?
Honestly, I feel like a lot of things you have to do by yourself, you have to find yourself by yourself. You have to face trial and error by yourself internally or externally. So it’s not really a battle with that. It’s more so just two sides of the same coin, in a way. Sometimes you have to be by yourself, and sometimes being by yourself is too much for you to handle.
I like how in the album, you kind of break down these different avenues of how you find yourself. One of the big moments of that is “Dreams.” It’s so hazy but I feel like there’s so much anxiety in that track.
The funny thing about that is it was gonna be called “Amoah‘s Interlude,” after the feature on the track. Just him on that beat. Then my friend sirduke got on it too and spit a rap, poetic type thing. I was like, “no, I gotta get on it now.” There is anxiety with chasing dreams, because you don’t know. If you think too much about what could happen, you’re just putting yourself forward — that can be nerve-wracking at times. The whole thing with “Dreams” was about just going to go and get it. Because if you can’t find what you want to do, then you can’t find who you are — that’s some part of you.
Is WITH LOVE. a representation of that dream being possible or of it being achieved?
WITH LOVE. is when you’re about to fall asleep. One minute you’re on your phone next minute, you wake up. That moment when it hits you and it’s like, you’re about to hit. It’s a spark.
It’s proof that the dream is possible.
Yes. I got great reactions from it, you know, a lot of people liked it, telling me they’re inspired by it. That’s a good feeling, that your art makes a similar reaction in someone as it did to you when you made it.
That’s something a lot of indie artists would kill for, right? Something that actually cuts through the noise and really touches people.
It’s definitely a blessing. I’m never really tripping over numbers. I know they’re gonna come, but I was like man, I made something that was really amazing, and I just wish more people could get to hear it. Not even for the clout. I just feel like it can do more for people. That’s my whole thing — not for people just to hear and stream it or whatever but I want it to touch as many people as it can.
On the intro, you have a line saying, “had to learn that love is sacrifice.” What sacrifices have you had to make for the sake of love?
Love is a two-way street, you know, when you let something in, you have to get something out at the same time. It can be the simplest thing where — if you need to spend time by yourself, and help yourself — do whatever you have to do personally. Whether it’s work out, read a book, get some peace of mind, watch a movie — whatever you have to do. That’s like the simplest form of it. Now, if you want to go to a deeper level, people make a lot of sacrifices for love in a romantic sense. People give up time with family to be with someone that they love. When you show love to somebody, it’s gonna be a small sacrifice.
Another relationship that comes up is that between fear and love. How do you see that relationship?
Fear is what you don’t know. You fear what you don’t know. You hate what you fear. Those three things all have a direct correlation to each other. Love is something that people fear, as they don’t know where it’s going to get them. Opening yourself up is a big step of showing love to anything. If you fear what happens next, it’s just a fear of what’s next. It’s just a defense mechanism that will be there until you’ve reached a mindset to where you’re okay with taking a risk and taking the punches.
Have there ever been any points in your life where that fear has been a barrier that you just couldn’t push through?
This past year. This past year has instilled a lot of fear into people. Because there’s a lot of unknown variables happening, firing every direction, almost every aspect of life. The pandemic proved that nothing is really for certain. So the fear and anxiety of what’s not going to happen next, or what is going to happen next, or what do you have to do to stay safe is a constant battle.
I feel like WITH LOVE. is the embracing of all that stuff. It’s embracing that things have to move, that I’m going to have to shake everything up. And if stuff falls out…
It’s only because it’s meant to fall out, you know, nothing happens by accident. Even accidents don’t happen by accident, you know.
Modern thinking is based on the idea that everything has a pattern. When things don’t fit into the pattern, people lose faith, but I feel like those are the moments where you find your faith, because there’s beauty in that chaos.
There’s always beauty in the worst things, you know? It’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re in the moment. Like you said, things are always constantly changing, there are thousands and millions of patterns that we enact or go through on a day-to-day basis. If you can find one pattern in day-to-day life that you see, you can figure it all out. I wouldn’t say it’s chaos, but it’s definitely not perfect. It’s not peace. Peace is not a tangible thing. You can go to a place where there are no wars, no worries at all, no mass shootings, and there could be hella fucked up shit that keeps people on edge. But you don’t see it, because you don’t see people be all out with each other. I think peace is something that is within you, once you can find it in some way, shape, or form, you can almost tackle the world.
For sure. So, let’s talk about SAROS. How did you join and how has having this creative community helped you find confidence in your art?
So, I did an album with Jay Cinema called BrwnCinema and I produced all of it. That night is when I joined. What happened was, Dalton [Animist] hit me up and we had been cool that whole summer. Antoine Sand joined before me and people were like “oh I thought Brwnsounds was next on here!”
I had worked with [Sand] before, so he hit me up and asked me if I wanted to be in it, and I said no, because I was like, I kind of want to do it just me, because I’m hands-on completely with my direction, how I want things to come out. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know if being in a collective would be best for me as an artist. Then Dalton offered me again and I was like, yeah, I’ll do it.’ It’s great having a group of people like that. Ian [in the Water]‘s great, a great rapper. He’s very punchline-heavy. It’s almost comedic. And everyone loves Dalton.
At first it was more individual. We’re all working on our stuff individually, but since then, I feel like we came together more. Especially with opening the Discord and everything. But music-wise, having just that competitive nature within a group is great. Like, Amoah, hands down, one of the best rappers out. I don’t even like rapping with him, even though he makes me better. His pen is insane. Everybody in there just pushes you to go forward. So it just brings out this competitive nature, not trying to top each other, we’re just inspired to do more.
Did that help the features on the album come more naturally? Because you were more used to collaboration.
I was always gonna put my guys on. That’s not going to ever change. If I can, I will. Eyeswideshut is a great rapper. He’s one of my favourites. He’s one of the best out too, just insane. The amount of talent that’s in the underground is insane. With [Pink] Siifu, I was just wanting to get him on there. I had that feature for a minute too. Then Amoah, that was his bag, so I was like, “Yeah he gotta be on there.” Then the “SAROS” thing, I made a beat and I was like, “we have to have a posse cut.” We were thinking about doing an album, but it just wasn’t the right time. So I made the beat and I’m like, yeah, “this subject everybody can work with.” So yeah, it happened really organically.
What was your thinking behind naming the album WITH LOVE.?
With love is not a greeting, it’s almost like a goodbye. You know, someone says, “With love from whatever.” My original plan for the project was gonna be that the tracks would be called “with love from…”, like if it was where I’m from it would be “with love from Ohio” or whatever. So I was just thinking about love. Love is fundamental, it’s a universal law. That’s definitely gonna be on a T-shirt at some point if it’s not already out there. But yeah, that’s just a fundamental thing that’s always a common theme in music because it’s essential. So I’m giving you this, with love, it’s coming with love from me. Love is what it’s made with.
I want to get into the technical aspect of the way you write, in particular, the rhyme schemes, because you’re 18. At what point did you have the time to develop the density of these schemes in a way that felt natural? Because people attempt these but can’t make it smooth.
I’m almost ashamed by it, but I didn’t start writing officially and making it a practice until last year. But of course, I’ve always been able to rap. It’s just a skillset I always had, it’s like a gift. But I never really put it into practice. I hate telling people that because most people really worked for it. I didn’t really work for it. I’m working for it right now. I’m writing a lot more right now.
It’s also who I listen to. When I was making the project, I was really listening to Maxo a lot. Where I get the schemes or flows — it’s really from Kendrick — my favourite rapper of all time. How he puts together words — some things just kind of stick to you. I feel like this is one thing that just kind of stuck to me and, yeah, just came up. I never wrote something with the purpose of trying to fit a scheme. It just kind of happens. People tell me their favourite scheme is on “Brwn,” but it just happens — the beat takes me as well.
So from a poetic standpoint, and from an emotional maturity standpoint, this conversation is not a conversation many 18-year-olds have, and your album isn’t one many 18-year-olds make. So where do you think that higher level of emotional maturity comes from?
I deal with a lot of internal stuff, which is why it comes out a lot in my music. That growth just kind of comes with me. It’s definitely from prayer and things like that — nature and spirituality — spiritual growth as well. I think like mind, body and soul — all that stuff goes hand in hand. But it’s also on what you take in, too — what you let into your mind and your body, with music or whatever you watch. I feel like I kind of changed because I wasn’t as open as I am now. But then I started listening to different music and stuff that fit me. And really you just have to be honest with yourself. Because what’s the point of lying to yourself? It’s yourself!
Reaching adulthood is something talked about in the album, being 18…
This the thing, right. One second you have to raise your hand to use the restroom in class and then as soon as that bell rings, you have responsibility. So at that point, it was like, what’s next? College? Music? Is this what am I going to do? That was the anxiety on the project. The maturity thing is crazy. Like right now, man, I got to do these taxes, this sucks. You don’t even got to pay a lot of bills yet! But whatever happens, happens. I’m doing my best, trying not to be homeless or broke.
There’s crazy pressure to grow up fast.
Especially when you’re Black in America. Your innocence is taken a lot younger than other peoples’, because you understand that the environment you’re placed in is not the best for you to grow. You have to grow up fast — at least from me. I’m a smart kid. So I noticed these things — I’m very observant, and that comes up in my music. That’s probably what helps me mature — being observant with myself. When you turn 18, now the whole world is like, “No, you really have to grow up. Now.” You’re almost forced, you’re out the pan into the fire at that point.
Yeah, it’s very different in Eastern cultures. It’s very common to live with your parents until you’re like 27. Until you get married. But I feel like Western culture is a lot more accelerated.
It’s capitalistic, they want you to go work as soon as they can make money off of you. That’s the whole thing. They want to make money off of you. America is a company. By the time you turn 18 is when your application is submitted. Your interview is when you’re younger, training is when you’re younger, and when you turn 18, now it’s time for you to start the job — you know?
Yeah, it’s kind of infecting the East too. Globalisation is modern colonisation.
It’s not good. The world is currently in a decaying state, physically and socially, which is almost frightening if you overwhelm yourself with it. But if you do the best that you can to keep your mental, you’re gonna be alright.
I saw you tweet the other day something like, “I’ve tried hip hop, jazz. All these things, what’s next?” So how do you feel about being labeled like a lo-fi rapper or just a rapper?
That lo-fi thing’s gonna change the next couple of months *laughs*. That’s always gonna be like the base of me and how I started. I’m always gonna produce in similar ways, but yeah, that’s gonna be taken off soon. I feel like in music, unless you’re an artist on a label, there’s no exact genre. There’s 808s in country music and then there’s acoustic guitars in rap. At this point, if they label you it’s for their own sake, so they can make sense of what you make. So if you want to label me as lo-fi, as long as you’re listening, go ahead. You go and listen to me, call me lo-fi and share with your friends, play it in your car. That’s fine with me.
So what is the next sound for you?
So even with this project, I had a house beat I was gonna put on here because I love house, but it didn’t fit. My favourite producers are Tyler, the Creator, Kaytranada, Knxwledge, Flying Lotus, Madlib. That’s my top five. Right? They all can do different things. Every single one can do different things. So I don’t really have a next sound, even like this album had a sound because it fits together.
The next thing that I plan on doing and making is not going to be strictly cohesive, I just want to make good music and make it work together. One of my friends was like, “What’s an album that has no track sounds alike, but it feels cohesive.” He said Wolf by Tyler, the Creator, because there are no tracks that sound the same, but it’s a very cohesive album.
I’m just gonna make what I want to make. I do jazz, I made an alternative track. It’s on a burner SoundCloud. But I can’t even tell you what [the next] sound is. It’s not really gonna have a distinct sound, it’s gonna be whatever feels good. That’s really all I ever make.