The first thing to note about 27-year-old star in the making R.LUM.R is that he does not shy away from his emotions—he creates through them. Music and survival are synonyms in R.LUM.R's world. It’s a world of powerful R&B ballads, progressive rock influences, esoteric lyrics, and a willingness to bear all whenever possible.
The artist, born Reggie Williams, received his formal music education in classical guitar. Before that, Sade and Kirk Franklin acted as the foundation for his love of music. Couple that with Coheed and Cambria and Linkin Park, and we get an artist who approaches songwriting with a fearless mentality. We get an artist who understands the responsibility he has to his listeners.
Such an understanding allows his music to carry a resounding message: “There are going to be sharks in your life, but no matter how many you see, know that they'll never pick all your bones clean.”
One of the most striking aspects of R.LUM.R's artistry is his openness. If you check out his profile on Spotify, you’ll find all of his playlists from high school and his first year of college. They catalog the music that got him through some of his most trying times, music that he could not imagine who he would be without. In that same breath, things are beginning to come full circle for the Nashville, Tennessee-based native of Florida, with fans now constantly reaching out to let him know that his music has gotten them through something as mentally and emotionally taxing as cancer treatment.
On his debut project, Afterimage, due out this Friday, August 11 on PRMD, R.LUM.R takes the sum of his influences and interests, with “each song [being] a different piece of who [he] was up to the point of writing the record.” On one hand we have his grandiose breakout hit “Frustrated,” and on the other is a downtempo and contemplative record like “Learn.” “Bleed Into The Water” belies his rock influences, with a guitar that blares while preserving the tender spirit of R&B.
Earlier this month, we spoke on the phone about his musical beginnings, the space—or lack thereof—between classical guitar and R&B, surviving through music, and his debut EP Afterimage.
What are some of your earliest music memories?
Being in the house with my mother and sister, smelling sandalwood incense and hearing Sade and Anita Baker, and Frankie Beverly. There’s also that one cat, Kirk Franklin. My mother always had their music wafting around the house.
Are there any albums, specifically, that inspired you to pursue music?
Coheed and Cambria’s Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, and Circa Survive’s Juturna. They all came right around the time where I started playing guitar in high school. I was realizing that I had an instrument and could start learning these songs and get into the brain of the artists behind them. Particularly Claudio from Coheed and Anthony Green from Circa, they write in a more metaphoric way. They showed me that I don’t have to write straight through what happens; you can treat things as works of fiction. That showed me that you can take these things happening in your own life and create a universe around them.
I don’t just have to write that this girl doesn’t like me, I can write about the way that makes me feel. I can write about the things I’m going through that are happening around that feeling, and build that into something bigger than me just sitting at the lunch table, hoping that she’ll look back at me.
Originally, you started your music career as a classical guitar player. How did you transition from that style to creating powerful R&B power ballads?
I think this is a question I get often because people tend to see these things as opposites. I don’t really see them as super different. It’s still melody and emotion but in different methods of expression. Considering I grew up listening to a bunch of R&B—actually, that’s all my mother let us listen to—it’s in me. I grew up and went to high school, got my first guitar, and began classical guitar. That workmanship and purposeful practice that goes into learning classical music is in me. In high school, I also started listening to a lot of progressive rock. That’s in me. All of these things are just different shades of me. On the outside, I can see how it doesn’t make sense, but for me, this is all very natural.
You’ve described the idea behind Afterimage as a compilation of pieces of yourself. Describe some of these pieces.
If you’re taking it very literally, the idea of an afterimage is essentially a light reflection that is frozen in space after the time of its actual happening. It’s not exactly a reflection. Through light, it’s similar to when an insect has molted and left its shell. I see that as representative of how sometimes people—some of my favorite artists; Sufjan Stevens—will say that they don’t apologize for albums. He doesn’t second-guess or wish he had re-written something because every album is an honest snapshot.
For me, I took that concept and each song is a different piece of who I was up to the point of writing this record. August 11, I’m excited to see what people think of it. I wanted to take this as an opportunity to explore more sounds. “Bleed Into The Water” is a little louder, it’s a little rockier. With “Learn,” I don’t think people would expect for there to be this very chill, downtempo track. These are representative of all the styles of music that speak to me and become reflections of who I as a writer and as a person.
R.LUM.R was initially a side project, right? How did you know it was time to focus on only this side of yourself?
It was a side project with my friends back in Tallahassee. Long story short, I thought this was going to be a cool exploration of things I had not gotten to do. At that point, I was doing acoustic music—my best John Mayer impression. I listened to a lot more music than that, and it serendipitously came about that I had a studio I was working out of and my friends and I could make this new music together.
I had four tunes: “Show Me,” “Be Honest,” “Nothing New,” and another one that didn’t end up coming out. I put these out on SoundCloud and Bandcamp and figured I’d see what happens while still doing my acoustic thing. I was also planning on doing a producer thing that was just me. The first tune, “Show Me,” back when Spotify had New Music Tuesday, was picked up and it got 800,000 [plays] in a month. Suddenly we’re getting all of these calls: “Who are you? Where are you? Come perform here and here.” I didn’t know that was going to happen. Now there was this evidence in my face of people responding so strongly to this music. This sort of feedback makes you realize that this is an organic thing, and this is really working.
Did you have a similar reaction when “Frustrated” blew up?
“Frustrated” is wild! It feels like we’re still just at the beginning. I remember I flew up to Nashville to work on the track with this producer Super Duper, and I had it written. I showed him some songs and he said we could just work on this one. We worked on it in one five-hour session, I got a mix back a few days later, and as soon as I heard it, I thought it was incredible. I didn’t know how people would react. Maybe my reaction was an omen of good things, but I had no idea.
With Afterimage being your debut, at what moment during recording did it really crystallize in your head that this would be the project?
I approached it in the sense that these songs are indicative of the process of developing this new avenue of expression. I remember getting these songs together and knowing that they encompass what I have to say up to this point. I’ll always have more to say; I’m already working on new stuff. Anyway, there were times when writing these songs where I thought they were really emotional and felt like something. During “Learn,” it was a bit emotionally draining, but because of that, it was emotionally fulfilling. It’s like ‘you’re not lying here, you’re really doing your best.’
“Learn” is a truly gutting track. How difficult was it to write the song?
It’s real life, so it was as difficult as having to speak to the real parties involved. Like I said, though, if it’s honest and something that can help someone else see their situation and realize that it doesn’t have to be a terrible choice to learn to love someone else, it’s worth it. This song can be any type of relationship. It’s really all about that idea of ‘we need to try.’ There’s gotta be effort put into these relationships. If it can help someone else out of their painful memory, it’s worth it for me to get on stage and go through it every night.
I hear you grappling with the risk of being vulnerable across this project, how do you overcome that fear of vulnerability?
Is vulnerability really something to be overcome? True vulnerability is not a one-foot-in-one-foot-out type of thing. If you have guards up while being vulnerable, it’s not true vulnerability. At the same time, you don’t want to air all of your business out into the streets. But if I recount specifically through all of my events, it won’t be me trying to help fans through their situations. It will just be me talking about me. True vulnerability is being willing and able to be hurt or being completely elated.
You once said that “one of the greatest things about music is how it can help a fan survive the darkest days.” Which albums have helped you the most?
Break The Cycle by Staind, that was a big deal for me. Especially that song, “Safe Place.” I also remember Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory being a big deal for me, because I couldn’t relate to a lot of the people around me. There’s that Earl Sweatshirt line, “too white for the black kids, too black for the white,” that was really true of my time in middle school and high school. [Linkin Park's] Meteora, particularly the song “Breaking The Habit,” was a big deal for me.
On Circa Survive’s Juturna, the song “Always Getting What You Want” was important. It’s not the lyrics, but just the mood. It was so pensive and dark, it allows me to live in that moment truly, be angry, and then get it out of me. A lot of people say that sad music makes them feel really sad, whereas I feel the opposite. Sad music makes me feel better because I can relate to it.
The National is probably my favorite band, and if I hadn’t had their album Boxer in college, I don’t know if I would have made it. I didn’t graduate, actually, I dropped out, but without them, I don’t think I would have made it through. If you go to my Spotify, there’s actually a bunch of playlists of all the music I don’t know who I’d be without.
How does Afterimage address survival?
I try to touch on emotions that are pertinent and [that I] felt trapped in, that kind of in-between with another person that I talk about on “Close Enough.” There’s anger in “Bleed Into The Water,” but in the chorus, it’s turned around, that while yes I’m angry in the verses, I am in control of myself and in control of this situation. There are going to be sharks in your life, but no matter how many you see, know that they'll never pick all your bones clean. You don't have to lose all of yourself to these people or these events.
You're in control of your life. It's the same with "Learn." It's a purposeful action to learn to love someone, but you can do it. These emotions seem so troubling, and like they're too much to handle, but at the end of the day, you are in control. That perspective is one of the most important things for someone to figure out. So I hope people sense that from the overall record.
Your utilization of drums to underscore the emotions you deliver through your vocals is the most unifying element of your music. Can you break down your relationship with the instrumentals?
The environment of the tune is very important. Growing up, I wasn’t a lyrics person, I was an instrumentalist. With classic guitar, there are no lyrics. I come from a place where I remember listening to the tunes and feeling the way certain keys and drum sounds make me feel. The writing came later. I think it would be hard to say that I approach every song the same way because things don’t always come in the same order. I can say that there is a conscious effort to make the environment match what is being said.
Or, in the case of “Learn,” the first verse took a couple months. I had the refrain and the piano line as well, and you sit there and think about where does that piano line take you. Then you think about how I could display that through instruments.
Now that you’ve been on tour, how does it feel to see the fan response to your music?
Yo, it’s wild! In Santa Ana, they were singing “Love Less” so loud, I had to take out my in-ears. It’s awesome that fans will send me messages telling me what songs mean to them. This young woman, Rose, in Portland, was like, "I had cancer for a while and this was one of the only things to get me through my treatments." This guy, Amadeus, was so excited to come see us in Berlin. This is all crazy, especially because these are just thoughts and ideas I had in my room, by myself. I also understand that it’s a responsibility, and I’ll do my best with it.
Once this tour concludes, what can we expect next from R.LUM.R?
I’d say writing. I’m working with some other artists. I can’t talk about too much yet, but there will be more shows. I see myself hitting the East Coast pretty soon.