how starchild's scorching gospel enchanted solange and dev hynes
Bryndon Cook's highly anticipated debut album, 'Language,' could not have arrived at a better time.
When it comes to music, Bryndon Cook is all about the unexpected. Performing under the name Starchild and the New Romantic, the Brooklyn singer mixes funk, hip-hop and neo-soul to create his own brand of radical pop he describes as “a conversation.” “I almost look at pop music and the way its evolved like a Netflix series with many seasons,” he says. “So, I like to make that dialogue present in my work.”
Born in D.C. but raised between there and Atlanta, the singer grew up listening to the sounds of George Clinton and Marvin Gaye. But it wasn’t until he graduated from SUNY Purchase that he began working on music with frequent collaborator, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, the two of them eventually forming a side project called VeilHymn. From there, he went on to work with Solange on her groundbreaking 2016 album, A Seat At The Table, and serve as band leader and music director for her world tour. When he got home, Cook poured his energy into writing a new record, Language, released earlier this year.
A soulful mix of funk and R&B, the album is an unapologetic ode to heartbreak and falling in and out love. While a lot of his peers have chosen to use their art as a space to tackle politics, Cook prefers to stick with “simple truth.” “There are so many artists who have been at it for so long,” he says, “that I feel like, for now, I’m going to best serve my music by being honest in a way people can relate to.” He adds: “And I’m just not thinking about the need to be anything other than myself.”
Tell me about Language. What inspired the album?
It’s a collection of 14 tracks that are very near and dear to my heart, made during a period of time that also worked as a kind of exercise in musical stylings that I find very akin to my DNA. Language is my second official LP, but in my mind, it’s actually my fourth work.
So, why do you think people are looking at this as record as a sort of introduction to the world?
Part of that, on an objective level, is the way that — and it’s been a learning experience for me — but you know, learning how labels work, and how rollouts work, and distribution. Those were things that I really had to start paying attention to, that I never really thought about before. But also, when I look back, it’s happened with many artists that we love. A lot of people have completely forgotten about all of Stevie Wonder’s albums in the ‘60s when he was Little Stevie, but those were his first real albums. I mean, he had a Greatest Hits record before he ever even put out Music of My Mind. So, careers — and the music industry, in general — are interesting things. They don’t always follow a linear path. And honestly, whatever helps people feel more comfortable. I don’t want to push anyone away. I want to bring them in to my world.
Why did you decide to release the record now?
When I make music, and when I make records, I don’t always think about it in a way that’s contingent with the roll out of a record. So, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this particular record with quote-un-quote now. To me, this record, and hopefully the music I will continue to make, reflect a necessity for me, and for whoever else attaches to the music. But I try to write songs that reflect a truth and honesty that I experience in life, and communicate that in a simple but also kinesthetic way. So, looking at this record as a whole piece, the urge was to more so let people know who I am, and hopefully bring them into that.
But also, right now seems to be a more urgent time to be making art in some ways, considering the current political climate. As a black man in Trump’s America, do you feel that way? Like your voice is that much more important?
For me, and especially when you’re trying to make more performative art, like music and movies, it’s obviously big for the public consensus. You can see it a lot with things like A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther and the conversations surrounding them. But it’s always huge when these things happen. That’s something I think is unique to the black experience — that it feels like this all of the time. There’s an internal and external pressure to deliver things, because it’s always kind of life or death. So, with this album, and especially because I knew people were going to look at it as my debut, I just really wanted to make sure to live up to the standards I’ve set for myself. But I do come from a family that’s deeply engaged with the importance, and the meaning, and the symbolism of music and of art, intermixed with political times. I just think people who are in systematically disenfranchised groups will feel that more often. That’s why “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye is so great. Everyone knew we were in trying times, but it really takes a song like that to realize, ‘Okay, but we’re always in trying times.’
Right. During turbulent political or social moments, people often look to art for an answer.
I actually have a very particular outlook on this. It’s something I think is totally unique to the 20th century. Ever since the onset of jazz in the ‘40s and ‘50s, we as humans, and especially in America, have adopted this perspective on artists where musicians have been put in this position of priesthood. Because of that, growing up, and being surrounded by the music of Stevie Wonder and Prince — people who I think of as priests in a way, who are speaking ‘the word’ for me — when I’m working on music, I’m always cognizant of the pantheon that is present. So, I don't want to put out anything that’s redundant or doesn’t adhere to the bar that’s been set before me.
Does that affect your writing process? I mean, if you’re comparing everything you do to some of history’s greatest records, I imagine that could feel pretty daunting.
Coming off of the A Seat At The Table tour with Solange and seeing how that record really impacted people — I don’t think another album, except maybe [Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp A Butterfly, has risen to that level in a long time. So, when I was finishing the record, I realized that it’s just not my time to hit a watermark like that yet. When I look at the legacy of music, what I thought would be more fortuitous for me, would be to reflect those things in my simplicity, and the uniqueness of my own story, and to stay a constant within this ever-changing need, or ever-changing presence, of musicians and artists being these big vessels of change. I want to do that with consistency. But also, tap into escapism, which is something I really connect with and love about pop and soul music.
How do you think the record compares to your previous work?
This record, compared to everything else, is definitely the first time — or maybe the strongest, most consistent time — I decided to really focus on the things that I believe are the best natural qualities of my singing and songwriting: my language. With Crucial, that was the first time I knew I was making a record that would be printed to vinyl and could be streamed, so there was a pressure to just present, to just do. This time, I didn’t have that pressure. The dam had already been broken for me. So, I was able to push myself in different ways. I’m someone you’d never know has stage fright, just because I’ve figured out so many ways to deal with it. But just like for anyone else, to jump out on that limb and take that risk, is always new and kind of scary. For this record, because I didn’t really have to deal with that fear anymore, I was able to say, ‘Okay, I have a chance to express all the little things that make me tick, and make me me.’
Like, have you ever listened to music and expressed to a friend how some little itty bitty thing in the chorus makes you flip? That’s kind of my life blood. I grew up, even when I was like five years old, paying attention to things and finding moments like that. So, I really wanted to make a record that just spoke from that place. Almost like, creating full songs that exemplify even the smallest moments in music that have changed my life and made me the musician I am. Long story short, it felt like a lot of pressure was finally off my shoulders, and that allowed me to take on new goals, and really express myself.
Where about the name Starchild and the New Romantic? Is Starchild a character for you, or an alter ego?
In a sense. But it’s more like an extension of myself, an extension that gives me the permission to really go forward with all of my inclinations and not have any fear. Because it’s attached to something bigger than myself, the percentage of me that may be reluctant has to live up to the greater percentage of me that wants to claim it. So, it’s almost like a constant challenge to myself. But I mean, everything I do, no matter what it is — even if I changed my name to White Glove or SoulCycle — it’s me. You can never escape who you are. But you are allowed to give yourself permission to do more than you thought you could, and sometimes there are tools that help give you that.
Where did you come up with the name?
There was definitely a time when I was weighing whether or not I wanted to put out this music under my full name. I was at a position where I was in college, and had moved past the point of not wanting to put out recorded music, to then all of the sudden wanting to, and I guess I came to a kind of crossroads. Like, ‘I could either put out music and live up to my birth name, or I could create something wholly individual for myself that is connected to anything higher than I’ve ever imagined and set myself up for something like that.’ So, I thought about what gift I wanted to give myself for Christmas, and I think, I gave myself a really good gift.
How do you describe your sound?
Right now, we’re living in a time where, if you’re talking with someone at a bar, and they don’t know an actor’s name or something, someone will just challenge them to use their smartphone, like ‘Look it up on Wikipedia.’ We have access to everything our hearts could desire. Because of that, within music — and especially for people who are music fans — you can find out the samples that were used in any track, who was playing on a track. You don’t need to go to the record store and buy an album and look at the liner notes, or find a DJ who really knows their shit. We’re living in a highly knowledgeable time where people understand references and the recurrence of tropes, and I get that. I’m not trying to beat anybody at that game. I’m just saying, ‘I’m just like you, I was raised in the same time you were. We all came up listening to Michael Jackson and trying to do the moonwalk.’
What do you want people to take away from your music?
That it’s okay to be imperfect. I really want people to take away the fact that it’s great to be yourself, but even better to know yourself. And to share it? It can be incredibly scary, but in the end, it’s empowering.