It’s been a tumultuous year for all, but Broward-born producer HUSH FORTE has rolled with the punches, finding a new home, a new vision, and a new voice – his own.
It’s early morning in Manhattan, and HUSH FORTE is just getting home.
The sun is out, the traffic stuck, the faint din of sirens rising and falling as they echo through the grid. It’s a rough time for a video interview, and at any rate, HUSH is hardly used to them. “I was up late last night,” he explains, a touch apologetic. “Well, I hadn’t slept, and then I kind of hit that wave where it’s like, ‘I might as well just not go to sleep’.” He’s bright and invigorated throughout, enough to make me feel a little lethargic by comparison. “It’s been a hectic day.”
HUSH has been keeping busier than most. In the midst of the all-encompassing pandemic, the Broward-born producer broke from his neighbourhood, moved to New York City, discovered his voice, and recorded his new album, LOOK CLOSELY. He’s hardly had a sound foundation, but that feels like a powerful catalyst: within this COVID upheaval, mired in the complexity that change provokes, each one of us has been struck by some sort of introspection or unease. Seizing upon creative courage and rallying against pandemic stagnation, HUSH has reached for the mantle of his idols. In doing so, he’s crafted a portrait of an artist on the cusp of self-actualization.
LOOK CLOSELY is a product of pandemic solitude, a tug-of-war between dreams and realities, and a reinvention stark enough to count as a second debut. That’s not to say HUSH burst from the ether fully formed — if anything, it’s the opposite. Unwilling to lurk in the liner notes, HUSH leaps the console and throws his hands on the wheel. His new record is an introduction to HUSH on his own terms; a vivid account of the very leap it makes. Aided by his honest self-reflection, HUSH explores the twists-and-turns of becoming yourself, the lingering questions without an answer, the paths we choose and choices we make — and the challenge of never truly knowing if they were the right ones.
“It never feels completely finished,” he says, speaking on the record but conjuring the journey itself, “but I’m ready. I’m really proud of it, and I know what it took to make it.”
That pride is present when HUSH joins me on an August morning. Mere months from the release of his transformative sophomore effort, he takes it back to the beginning, charting a patient arc from bedroom beats to the new singer-songwriter spotlight. He elaborates on his formative artistic spark — an inquiry he calls, “the age old question” — by throwing back to childhood memories. ”I started when I was five,” he says. “My dad was really adamant about me playing the piano. I don’t even have a family of musicians, but he was just like, ‘You’re going to thank me for this one day’.”
That gratitude often doesn’t kick in until adulthood, and finding his passion took a little initiative on HUSH’s part. “I wasn’t really feeling it. It was too classical, boring. The music didn’t touch my soul at all, so I was doing it very reluctantly.” It wasn’t until he fell into the contemporary that his passions truly coalesced, YouTube tutorials bridging the gap between the classical and the classics. “That’s what really ignited my interest in music, because someone can actually play something that gives me the same euphoric feeling of my favorite records.”
Those formal lessons, uninteresting though they were, instilled a deeper understanding in HUSH — one that endures in his oxymoronic mantle. “I’m glad you like [HUSH FORTE],” he responds, letting out a quiet laugh. “I’m glad I like it, because I came up with that when I was like 14. You know how you come up with a lot of shit when you’re 14? The fact that it stuck is like, okay, I was onto some shit. I might’ve been ahead of my time.” Sharp, amusing, striking in cadence and euphony: all things we’d love to be able to say of our teenage Hotmail addresses. “The fact that I don’t cringe at it, that feels like success to me.”
For the better part of ten years, HUSH has been honing his craft, riding out “the obsession.” In the beginning, that meant, “… making Rick Ross type beats and Waka Flocka type beats,” on his mother’s laptop, but more recently HUSH has seen action furnishing Van Buren Records’ dense posse cut, “Nevermind.”
HUSH’s instrumental punches up bars with a spritely lead, ducking and weaving about rhymed cadence as a ghostly vocal echoes across the mix. “‘Nevermind’ was originally just a track that me and Saint Lyor was working on,” he remembers, taking a moment to run it back. “It was one of those things where we made it on the spot and I was happy with it, but I was kind of leaving it in his hands,” says HUSH. “Randomly he was like, ‘Yo, I want to get the whole Van Buren on this shit’… It didn’t sound like a posse cut beat, but that makes it that much more unique.”
“I actually put a verse on it too and they just scrapped it, which is okay, because it sounds good!” It’s no surprise that HUSH is easygoing with the mic: though he approaches LOOK CLOSELY like an actor-director of sorts, he’s cut his teeth in liner notes and hidden credits. “During the pandemic, it was a lot harder to collaborate with people,” he says, explaining his journey from producer to performer. “I was sitting on so many beats that I made over time that I just really loved, and there’d be times that I’d send it out to people… they’re gatekeeping my music, in a way,” he reasons, “because I’m like, “this shit is good. I love this shit.”
That frustration catalysed Hush’s own arrival. “I want to take control,” he said of his response, “that’s what led to me releasing that Ardor beat tape.” A half-hour instrumental record, 2019’s Ardor showed Hush’s propensity for off-kilter beats, sparse arrangements, and organic instrumentation as well as a curiosity for world building and ambience. Album opener “Arigato” is more stage direction than song, a soft motif playing out beneath a first date at a bar; “Car Conversation” spotlights that musical backdrop, the titular talk existing only as an implication.
The back-end of “Love Language” moves like a Tyler beat, the cartoon tinge on the six-string landing somewhere between Flower Boy and Igor. “Humid As Hell” is a little journey of its own — barebones quirk layering piece-by-piece until a crisper band aesthetic breaks through. Yet for all the richness throughout, HUSH remained unmoved.
“That wasn’t satisfying to me,” he admits, crestfallen by the memory. His dispassion calls to mind the disconnect of those childhood piano lessons, far removed from the music he himself adores. “I don’t even just listen to beats on Spotify, so how can I be doing something that I’m not even a fan of in that way?” If HUSH stops short of disavowing Ardor, he doesn’t hesitate to cast it in a transitional light. “It was just like all roads were leading to, ‘well, you’ve got to try this shit,’ and I started trying shit.”
Dissatisfaction turned to discontent, and discontent turned to drive, pushing HUSH closer to a seemingly distant dream. “I felt like it was something that was bubbling that I just didn’t have the confidence for, to be honest,” HUSH elaborates. “I would experiment with things, but I didn’t think I was going to be doing what I’m doing now… The pandemic was really what caused the shift — it put more urgency behind it.”
Calling change scary is like describing water as wet. Though there’s a thrill to it, the exhilaration of something new comes from the necessary dash of uncertainty. That fear is a fount for the dueling pressures of hesitance and impatience, urges that play off against one another even as we close in on our ideal selves.
It’s on “PROMISE,” the record’s penultimate track, that Hush lets loose a telling couplet: “I don’t know what my fate is, but I made it clear / I left them old thoughts in last year.” The second lyric repeats, a mantra that reaffirms his own commitment to growth; a balm for a troubled mind. “The project as a whole is very much in my head, because that’s where I was when I was making this,” he says. “I was in my house in the suburbs in South Florida, and every day feels the fucking same with COVID… I was just self reflecting so much that I was transforming. I felt like I was changing every day.”
Even in flux, it’s making change – not passively undergoing it – that proves the greatest challenge. “By the time I was working on ‘Promise,’ I was in a place where I was like, ‘honestly, I’m tired of getting in my way,’” admits HUSH, his honesty disarming. “I’m tired of hesitating on shit that I’m ultimately going to end up doing anyways, or letting fear get in the way of me doing the shit I want to do all the way to the fullest.”
Hesitation — specifically, that insidious strain of self-sabotage — weaves throughout LOOK CLOSELY, the title track voicing those anxieties with the same worry: “When I get in my own way, I hate that shit / focus!” These curt reminders, sharp and insistent, mark the friction between hesitation and impatience — the inability to pull the trigger and the constant need to take the shot. “I think it’s just a constant battle, honestly,” he admits, contemplative. “I think that the distractions are always going to be there, it’s just annoying when the distraction is yourself. I’ve learned so many tricks to work on my patience, and I still snap, or I still get really frustrated and really impatient. I think for me, that comes with just wanting shit so bad that I get really clouded mentally.” He plunges that feeling on “FRUSTRATION,” the threat of exasperated rage bubbling in both his lyrics — “if I don’t do it now, it’s about to get ugly” — and the mid-track breakdown, a power outage igniting a flash of guitar-swinging, bag-slinging anger.
Clarity is hard-earned in the age of COVID, a fact made harder still by the deafening silence of self-reflection. On “DIFFERENT PATHS,” HUSH runs his gaze across a foggy future, searching for the route that balances means, ends, kindness and fulfillment. In the distance, pillars of change and markers of hardship, moments that may come to one day pass — enough to make him wonder, “what dollar amount will ensure I can always stay free?” In the face of student loans, medical bills, and all manner of unknowable costs, it’s an impossible ask. “Maybe I should get a nine-to-five and live a different life than this,” he throws out, “at least I won’t miss.”
HUSH is torn, caught in the push and pull of making a daring escape, tires spinning and rubber burning, or riding it out in the back seat, a quiet and comfortable trip. His lyrics land as loose contemplations of a man in flux, pulled in every which direction — tempted to be all things to all people. “I think there’s a lot of things that made that uncomfortable: even just having friends that are used to a version of me, and haven’t really experienced the version of me that I really want to be,” says HUSH of those shifting horizons.
In order to uncover that ideal version, HUSH made a major change, trading the sunny solitude of Broward County for the brisk metropolis of New York City. “It felt like a smooth transition for me, because I feel like mentally I was already here,” he says, that self-reflection putting him steps ahead. “I’ve traveled to New York a couple of times, I knew this is where I wanted to be. I was low key suffering in isolation in Broward.” Don’t take that as ill will: “I love Florida,” he clarifies. “It’s very much home, but it’s also very much suffocating to me.”
“I feel like such an outcast in Florida,” he says, contrasting it against his New York lifestyle. “You don’t see people expressing themself that much, or taking risks in terms of fashion in Florida.” A bustling new front in his mission to “take control,” HUSH broke from his past and settled into his new lifestyle, soon unearthing a once-unlikely but indispensable partnership. “I’m literally collaborating with myself,” he says, excitement unfurling in clipped sentences. “I have such a critical ear as a producer. I can’t be transactional in that way. I’m kind of like all or nothing. If I’m going to work with someone on a record, I want to toy with something that we’re both super excited about.”
The shared excitement guaranteed, HUSH’s internal rapport splits down the lines of craft. “It’s like there’s two of me in the room,” he explains. “The ‘artist me’ has been doing this shit for a year. The ‘producer me’ has been doing this shit for like 10 years, so the producer me is saying, ‘Nah, try something crazier.’” It’s an internal dialogue that might just push the green vocalist to show and prove, a want emphasised by his handful of guests and stretches of unassisted album cuts. “I feel like that puts a lot of pressure on me, as an artist, to get out of my own comfort zone.”
After a decade behind the decks, it’s hardly surprising that the words come easy. A strong first impression, album opener “IMPULSE PURCHASES” offers a probe into consumerism, dispensability and impermanence, elaborating on HUSH by exploring that which he’s not. In another context, a lyric like “Patti Smith jacket, I’m freezing” might be a flex, but in the hands of NY singer-songwriter Native Son, it’s laced with irony — “spent all them fees, I’m still cold,” he bemoans. It’s on “FRUSTRATION” that HUSH admits he needs spoils – “can’t stop ‘til I see some” – but his lot is security, comfort, peace of mind.
That’s still an object of obsession, and as HUSH moves throughout, his own dogged pursuit of a delicate lifestyle comes into question. “Why you always be on a mission / All the memories you gon’ miss them,” croons HUSH on closer “LOOK CLOSELY,” seizing on fragments of a life passing by. It’s on “YOU UNDERSTAND,” behind the wheel at the cusp of dawn, wind whipping and windows down, that HUSH finds that elusive clarity in the eyes of his lover: “think I finally understand what I need now.” That’s a fleeting glimpse, but it’s something, and even as he turns back to the “mission” on “GO TIME,” HUSH admits as much – “You know I wanna read vows / But in the meantime, you understand.”
If he never strikes that delicate balance, HUSH can hardly be blamed – who among us can truly claim equilibrium? “I feel like it’s therapy,” he says of the trials that dot his tracks, “I think that’s honestly what I’m most excited for with this album. Talking about my problems and putting them out doesn’t make them go away, but I think it will release a little bit of the power they have over me.” There’s strength in solidarity, and HUSH knows as much. “It’s therapeutic to me to just talk with friends and realize you’re not the only one going through this shit,” he adds, “it’s just so human.” In finally taking to the mic, HUSH has cut a reassuring vision of young adulthood, making moves in an age awash with doubt, fear, and anxiety. “Hopefully I can see people connecting with it, and feeling less alone in those things.”
LOOK CLOSELY asks questions of HUSH, but it also answers them. The record is testament to his self-belief, its very existence an affirmation of his path. HUSH is well at home in the driver’s seat, helming tracks, rocking mics and directing clips with a keen eye and sharp ear. He glances warmly in the rearview, throwing back to the people and places that made him – “what can I say, I guess I’m thankful for my people,” he sings on “THANKFUL,” “I can’t ignore the role they played in helping me grow” – but his eyes stay fixed on the next blind corner, prepared for the unknown. It’s never been easy to see that far ahead. In fact, it’s rarely been any harder.
It’s the questions that go unanswered – fearful hypotheticals, mournful counterfactuals – that endure, assuaged only by trust and belief. Those are fickle friends, but with LOOK CLOSELY, HUSH turns risk to a rich reward.
It seems that, so long as HUSH looks closely, he’ll find his way home – wherever it is that ends up being.