In 1994, OutKast released its debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik — an iconoclastic blend of funk grooves, soul melodies, and Southern-style guitar licks. The record not only set the stage for the duo's ever-expanding approach to hip-hop (subsequent releases fused jazz, dub reggae, country, and spacey electronica), it established Atlanta as an incubator of future-forward sounds.
Faye Webster — the Atlanta native whose sophomore LP arrived last month — is 19, the same age André and Big Boi were when they released Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Her self-titled record will win fans across the musical spectrum for its left-of-center approach to folk. Webster is a lifelong student of country-western songwriting and Americana sound (her mom plays fiddle; her grandfather is a bluegrass guitarist). But she punctuates her own tunes with subtle flourishes of funk. Her voice hits a sweet spot somewhere between bluegrass powerhouse Alison Krauss, Natalie Prass, and Tennis's Alaina Moore, whose light vocals glide across any melody.
Webster may seem like a strange signing for Awful Records, the hive of artists rightly heralded as the torchbearers of oddball Atlanta hip-hop. But she's, literally, right at home. Members of Awful's roster play with lo-fi 80s synths, country, and punk, often cross-pollinating each other's work. Shortly before releasing Faye Webster, she contributed silky smooth hooks to "Rollin'," a syrupy cut architected by Ethereal.
Webster met the rapper and producer over the internet during her senior year of high school, by which point she'd already released her first album, 2013's Run and Tell. Soon after, she enrolled at Nashville's Belmont University. College wasn't for Webster, and she returned to Atlanta before completing her freshman year. Her sonics and songwriting style are most akin to the country, folk, and bluegrass titans who have cut their teeth in Nashville. But while in Tennessee, she discovered another way to creatively engage with her hometown's music scene: photography.
After taking a photo class at Belmont, she began to make colorful, humorous, evocative portrait photographs of Migos's Offset, D.R.A.M., and her middle school pal Lil Yachty. In one of Webster's pictures, Awful ringleader Father sips champagne while surrounded by actual kids. In another, Lord Narf's colorful braids are dotted with butterflies. We catch up with Webster to learn more about these Kehinde Wiley-inspired portraits, her unique songs, and what her 20s will bring.
What instrument did you first learn to play?
Is that everyone's first?
My theory is that it's always the first one people learn, and always the first one people quit.
Based on an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence I agree completely. What kind of stuff did you grow up listening to?
My first memory of actually listening to music is Asleep at the Wheel. They're this old country western swing band, and they're still my favorite. I saw them last week! My first concert was Alison Krauss, who I still love. So early on, a lot of western swing, soft folk music. When I started going to middle school, that's when I started listening to rap, which was very different for me. I probably would have never gotten into rap if I didn't live in Atlanta, go to the school that I went to, and hung out with the people I did.
Let's talk about your time at Belmont.
I definitely feel college isn't for everyone, but I definitely also feel people should try it if they can. I went to really give it a try, and I think that's important. Plus, it's where I became interested in photography. I would not be doing that right now if I didn't go to college, which is such a sad thought for me because I love photography so much.
Did you ever shoot before you went to college?
No, never. I didn't even own a camera. I took a film class, and we only shot black and white film. We had to develop it in the dark room, get it on the spin wheel ourselves, do all the chemicals ourselves, print it with enlargers ourselves — it was so old school. And I'd have never, ever gotten into it otherwise.
When you were first discovering photography, what kind of images inspired you?
Every week, we'd have a different assignment, and one was just straight up portraits. We studied a lot of photographers who made portraits, and that's when I realized how much I like portraiture. Right around that time, I went home for Christmas with my best friend from college. We went to an exhibit in Fort Worth, TX, and it featured Kehinde Wiley. I'd never heard of him, had no idea who he was, and I just started crying when I saw the work! He's still my favorite. I think it was those two things happening at the same time that helped me realize this is what I want to do.
Set design, humor, and creative concept really seem to shape your images. What's this process like when working with another artist? Is it collaborative?
Not at all. I've never told anybody what I'm gonna do; it's just like 'Come over and I'll shoot.' I actually still live in my childhood home, which is my dad's college house. It's weird, but awesome. I don't have a studio, it's really DIY. I shoot in my bedroom, light it with a bunch of lamps. I set it all up and then just do what I want to do. I don't know why they keep letting me!
That's actually genius, because if you don't tell anyone they can't say no or water down the idea before it happens.
Right! If I tried to explain anything to anyone beforehand they'd be like 'What? That sounds so stupid.' But when they see it, they get it.
Pitchfork made a direct connection between your images and music. Do you see it that way?
I don't, honestly. The only connection I see, really, is that the people I choose to photograph are people I musically relate to or respect and love. And that's why I think it's so special, and why I put so much into it. It's never been like, 'I took this picture and it made me write this song.' Photography is more of an escape for me as a creative outlet.
Tell me about falling in with Awful.
I first met Ethereal over the internet two or three years ago. We started hanging out and just playing music for each other. A little after that, I bought a print from Eat Humans just because I really enjoy his photography. We became great friends through that, and I think being around both of them all the time, they kind of brought me into the mix with everyone else.
What were some of the challenges of making the record you just put out?
I hadn't released anything since 2013, so I just had a bunch of songs, and felt really motivated to put something out again. It was hard because I was recording in Athens [Georgia]. I'd be in Atlanta or Nashville, then I had to go to Athens to record, so it took about a year to get it all done. It was a long process, but I also wrote about half of the songs in the same month because I was so excited to record.
What's the future looking like?
I'm just home, not going to school, unemployed, sitting here writing all the time. I've already been making and recording new music in Athens, so that's what's next.
'Faye Webster' is available now via Awful Records.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Pierre Pastel