Get Familiar: Contour
Interview by Passion Dzenga | Photography by Violette Esmeralda
This a welcome addition to our Get Familiar interview series, a multi-talented artist who wears many hats in the music industry, Contour. He is a skilled songwriter, producer, scoring composer, and radio programmer with a unique ability to seamlessly blend various practices to create a compelling creative universe around him. As one of the key figures in our Patta x Converse '4 Leaf Clover' campaign, we wanted to share his story so we can better understand where he is going.
Can you tell us about your background and how you first got into music, writing, and programming for events and broadcasts?
I come from a family of singers, so there’s something genetic/traditional about my inclination to use my voice. I was involved in a few different forms of music growing up like musical theater and choir. Once I started listening to music more intentionally/actively I kind of just fell in love with it and gradually wanted to write my own. Programming has been more recent. I just like to share the things/people/works I find inspiring. I like to share information.
Your work is heavily influenced by Black musical traditions such as jazz, soul, and blues. How do you honour and build upon these traditions in your work?
Through research and a kind of spiritual resonance mainly. I think the more I learn the more I can find ways to relate. I do my best to stay true to the source, whether that means in how I’m thinking about my work or the actual making/presentation of it.
Your music often explore complex emotions and experiences. Can you walk us through your creative process for writing and composing new songs?
I’m not the most disciplined writer, so it’s often me responding to inspiration I find from my research practice or just through experimenting and making things. Less so now, but for most of my musical life I’ve made a lot of stuff. Some of that stuff ends up striking me in a way that makes me want to write or channel an emotion. I often don’t know exactly what I’m ‘writing about’ until some time after I’ve finished something. It’s usually a natural flow. Every so often I lock onto something that I have to revisit for a while to actually figure out what I’m trying to say or tap into, so it can take longer in those cases. But I think the song usually tells me when it’s finished rather than the other way around.
Your work seeks to offer tools and perspectives for Black listeners to understand their emotions and experiences. How do you balance artistic expression with activism and advocacy in your work?
I wouldn’t self-identify as an activist or an advocate. That’s a specific tradition that requires a level of devotion and dedication that I wouldn’t say I’m embodying right now. I think history and politics are important and strive to continue to learn about those things but that’s only one part. I think anything political that shows up in my work is just me trying to figure out how to make sense of my experience in the world, and hopefully, the documentation of that can prove helpful for somebody else somewhere/sometime.
Can you discuss a specific song or piece of writing that holds a special place in your heart and why?
The version of Gil Scott Heron’s ‘Better Days Ahead’ where it’s just him and the piano is something I return to often in hard times. It strikes a perfect balance of sorrow and hopefulness both musically and lyrically that I find really helpful.
Your performances have been praised for their raw emotional intensity. Can you describe your approach to live performance and how you connect with your audience?
I really just try to find a way to perform the songs where I can really be engaged with them myself. I don’t always feel natural on stage, and I’ve found being really present is connected with being really engaged with the song itself as I perform it. Things that have helped me with that are stripping songs down and playing them instrumentally, whether on guitar or piano. It can also help me to change the arrangement to activate certain moments that I can sink into in the performance/keep me from getting bored after I’ve performed something a certain number of times. All in all i’m really trying to connect with myself, and I think the audience can feel it when I succeed at that.
How do you see the role of art in society, and how do you hope your work impacts the world?
I don’t have lofty aspirations about my work impacting the world at this time, I hope people come across it and it brings them something they need, whatever that may be. Art takes on many roles in society, many of them political, many of them personal. It’s hard (for me) to wrap that one up into a easily digestible answer
How do you approach collaborations with other artists and writers, and what do you look for in a creative partner?
For a long time I’ve been pretty insular in my process. I can be very self conscious and insecure in the making process, so I typically need creative partners who can 1. bring something new into the collaboration, and 2. help me feel safe and comfortable with the vulnerability around being imperfect and human while creating art. I prefer to build collaborating relationships slowly and orient them around getting to know the person rather than jumping straight into making something. For example, I knew one of my collaborators/friends for years before we really made anything, but we’ve made some of the work I feel strongest about since then.
What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters, musicians, writers, and programmers, especially those who are just starting out?
Make a lot of stuff and consume a lot of stuff from a wide range of sources. Also if you can develop a strong practice discipline early on and a good balance between practice/research/making (something I’ve failed to do), you’ll be in a really good place.