Aaron Aye is unexpectedly radiant. Born and raised in Minneapolis, by 22, the young artist had experienced more hardship than most: an absent father and losing his mother at 15. His grief, as grief does, inspired his debut album Orphan, but while the title and his circumstances carry a dark connotation, Aye is anything but somber. Both he and his music have a celebratory and infectious tone.
“I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to change the perspective on what it meant to be an orphan,” Aye tells me over the phone. “People started telling me I was an orphan when I came to LA and started telling my story, but the way they were saying orphan, it was just so sad. I wanna change that perspective.”
Of course, Aye was not always basking in positivity. Juggling three jobs and couch surfing sent him into an anxious and depressive low, but it was his work at a nursing home that recalibrated his perspective on life. “There was this guy, actually, who inspired the song ‘Blind Man’ on the album,” Aye recalls. “Every time I would see him, he was always in this great mood. I thought to myself: Here I am complaining about all of these things but this man can’t even see and he’s not complaining at all. Then I realized that I had been the blind man because I couldn’t see all the blessings in my life.”
This realization, coupled with the fact that Aaron Aye had to believe in himself to compensate for the lack of external support, pushed him to finish his record and actualize his dreams. “A lot of people are afraid of the first step, but I take everything step by step,” he says. “No matter how big, it’s a step forward. I just had this underlying faith that something would happen. I think a lot of that came from my mom. My mom did so much while she was alive, being a single mother and providing for me. It inspired me to believe that I could do anything.”
Now based in Los Angeles and releasing his debut album, Aaron Aye’s positivity is paying off. His dreams are coming true, and his music is teeming with resonance, life lessons, and charisma. Finally landing on his feet, if Aye could speak to his younger self in his darkest days, he would tell him one thing: “Trust God’s timing.”
DJBooth’s full interview with Aaron Aye, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
Between the interviews you’ve done and your music videos, you really emphasize Minneapolis. So I wanted to start by asking how the city shaped your childhood.
In a huge way! I feel like the city inspired me to do what I’m doing now with music. We have all the seasons back home, so something about going through the winter to get to the summer really shaped me to have to be creative and utilize my own imagination. The city really forced me to wanna do something outside of the box. Also, the people and everything I was exposed to: it’s so many different cultures and backgrounds back home.
Going around the lakes, being at the parks, going to public school… All of those little experiences shaped the stories that I ended up telling on the album. That’s what inspired the sound, and the people and the experiences… I’ve said it before, but I think it’s the best place to grow up. You get a piece of everything! That really shaped me as a person, which then shaped the music.
At what point did you realize music was your calling?
Music was always there, but if there was a time where I decided I’m gonna take this seriously, it was between the ages of nine and 11. That was when I was like “Alright, I’m gonna do this seriously.” My mom heard me singing, and I would dance around the house. Dancing came first, and then I would draw. When I started singing, it was around the time I got my first album, which was Usher’s Confessions. That really made me wanna sing, and that’s when my mom was like “Aye, you actually sound good.” But that’s my mom, so I had to go test it out at [my] elementary school. I would sing around the girls [laughs] and it got me a little bit of attention. That’s when I thought maybe I could do this.
What does a serious music career for a nine-year-old look like?
After school, I would go to the Boys & Girls Club. They would do these talent shows and they had these shows called Kids in the City. Every now and then, I would do these shows and sing or dance, or both, and people really reacted positively. To the point where, around the Boys & Girls Club, people would always make me sing or dance to entertain people. That was a mini career right there [laughs], being known as the guy who could bust a move on the spot or sing.
I hadn’t even started writing songs yet. That didn’t happen until I was 11. When I was nine, it was me being inspired by Michael Jackson and wanting to try it out, but I was super young so it was really a dream still. I had potential, and that’s what everybody could see. Like, “Oh, this kid: it’s in him.”
Do you remember any topics from your first songs at 11?
I was in middle school when I started writing songs. I was listening to my favorite artists, but at the time it wasn’t as common for them to write their own stuff. So I was like “Oh, I want somebody to write for me!” Then I realized I don’t actually have money to pay for people to write my songs, so it started by accident. I would be in school, while everybody’s supposed to be taking notes, and my mind would just naturally wanna create. I started writing songs and the songs, at that age, they were all love songs about girls. Either girls I actually knew, or girls that weren’t real. A lot of the songs that I was listening to were about love, so I thought maybe I would start there.
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As I got older and my life started to change, I decided “Let me stop just writing songs that I think people will like, and let me start writing my truth and finding a cool way to do it.” That’s when I really became a songwriter. Now, I would never have someone write my songs.
It is unimaginably difficult to take the grief of being an orphan and transform it into such a celebratory album. Was Orphan always this cheery?
I feel like I spent my whole life making Orphan because it really has elements from childhood to teenage years and high school and graduating. It really captures most of my life in 10 songs. As far as it being so celebratory and being a story of triumph, that was really happening as it was being created. I started working on Orphan right after I moved back to Minneapolis after coming out to LA for a year on my mom’s money that she left me after she passed. I was trying to make it in the music industry and the money ran out because it got too expensive.
Then I was living with friends, sleeping on couches, house hopping, trying to keep it going. That’s when everything hit me really hard. I was working two jobs and being in that circumstance made me wanna write about it in hopes of getting out of it and making something out of that situation. It wasn’t an easy time for me. The only thing I had was my music, but there was nothing in my reality that was guaranteeing this album would come out. It was all hopeful, it was all me just having faith.
I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to change the perspective on what it meant to be an orphan. People started telling me I was an orphan when I came to LA and started telling my story, but the way they were saying orphan, it was just so sad. I wanna change that perspective since I am an orphan. I wanna tell my story and have it inspire other orphans or anyone who might feel alone to believe in themselves no matter what their story is.
I read that while making this album you were also working at a nursing home. How did that impact your perception of life?
Being at that nursing home, it put life into perspective. I was working three jobs at that time. I would get up early and have to be at my first job at six, then I’d work all the way ‘til three and have to go to the nursing home. I’d always be super tired or down because I didn’t know where things were going. After work, I’d record this album, but aside from that, I was sleeping on couches. All this was happening, and then I would come to the nursing home and see all these people and I would start to look at my situation different.
There was this guy, actually, who inspired the song “Blind Man” on the album. His name is Keith. At the time, I was going through anxiety and a little bit of depression, and working a lot of jobs and not knowing where my life was going. Every time I would see him, he was always in this great mood. He went blind as a kid and was pretty much going deaf, but he was always in a great mood. I thought to myself: Here I am complaining about all of these things but this man can’t even see and he’s not complaining at all. Then I realized that I had been the blind man because I couldn’t see all the blessings in my life.
The thing it taught me the most was: I’d hear a lot of people that were older than me tell me “Yeah, you need to go after [your dreams], you need to do that.” I would hear people talking about all the things they wish they would have done when they were younger. That really pushed me.
Do you ever feel burdened by your positive, dreamer perspective?
I definitely have had that battle with feeling this way because I was one of the only people in my circle who had that perspective. It was challenging because not a lot of people my age are looking at life like this. I felt like my life story was teaching me a lesson that I was supposed to teach others. So maybe I had to be the person to take this risk and look at life this way, and lead by example?
You told Billboard that your “whole purpose is to make people believe in themselves,” but how did you come to believe in yourself?
In order for me to believe in myself, I had to realize that I’m alive right now. I had to stop worrying about other people. I had a lot of anxiety and fear that was holding me back, and I realized all of those things were based on things that were out of my control. I had to believe in myself so much that nobody else has to because at one point it felt like nobody else would. Not having parents and having to figure a lot of stuff out on my own forced me.
It’s a muscle that you have to keep working out because your mind always wants to tell you other things. I wasn’t afraid to push myself and see what happens. A lot of people are afraid of the first step, but I take everything step by step. No matter how big, it’s a step forward. I just had this underlying faith that something would happen. I think a lot of that came from my mom. My mom did so much while she was alive, being a single mother and providing for me. It inspired me to believe that I could do anything.
Lastly, what one thing would you go back and say to yourself when you were at your lowest?
It would probably be: Trust God’s timing. That would probably be it: trust the timing, stop worrying [laughs].