Joël makes grunge gospel. Something of a chemist, the Toronto-based R&B artist creates genre-bending concoctions that look wonky on paper but sound nothing short of natural. Debuting with “Vent,” which secured over three million plays across streaming platforms, Joël’s young career has been one of breaking barriers, both in sound and form.
The data says people love Joël’s sound, and the ease and endearing quality of the music only validate the claim. His debut project, GRUNGE GOSPEL (Side A), takes his range and amplifies it. We get versatility without the mess. We get to step inside the mind of a born tinkerer without losing our heads. We get art for the love of art. Forget genre, Joël, 24, is here to make you feel something no matter his classification.
“People have their own unique styles,” Joël tells me. “The term genre is dying. Even Kurt Cobain, he wasn’t the greatest singer, but he’s still singing, and it still connects. I feel like that’s the most powerful thing. I feel like [genre] doesn’t matter.”
Existing beyond genre, GRUNGE GOSPEL (Side A) is a byproduct of studying everyone from Lil Wayne to James Brown, to Joël’s writing icon, Frank Ocean. The album is affecting and vulnerable, opening with admissions of pain without any pomp and circumstance. Joël lives in his emotions, and he sees honesty as the key to good music. There’s no difficulty in being honest on paper, taking his time, and processing his emotions.
“It’s just easier to let go, you know?” he concludes. We know, and though it’s easier said than done, tuning in to the philosophy of GRUNGE GOSPEL is a good start. My conversation with Joël, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first realize you had a knack for singing?
Joël: I don’t like to self-proclaim shit… I grew up in the church. When I tell people that, they don’t really know what I mean unless they come from a similar background. My pops is a pastor. Growing up, I was super hyper. My mom, being the First Lady of the church, put me in the children’s choir, and I used to hate it. All I wanted to do was run up and down. My mom was like, “Take a half hour and go sing.” I caught myself singing around the house and started to love it more.
When I realized people fucked with what I was doing... it was doing a solo and seeing that love coming from whoever was in the room. I got high off that; you know what I mean? That was humbling. Like, “Woah, this is dope! This is what people like?” It was the high that kept me going.
Who inspired your early sound?
My favorite artist of the adolescence era was Lil Wayne. It’s weird because he’s not a singer, but he was always doing different shit. He came out with some dope, punchy metaphors. The way he was as an artist was super inspiring. Obviously, MJ and James Brown. Jazmine Sullivan, that’s my girl. No one can tell me there’s a better singer. She’s an OG. Even Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. My all-time favorite writer is Frank Ocean. When I’m stuck writing some shit, I’ll always be like “How would Frank do it?” Him or John Mayer. They’re dope writers.
Your first two official songs, “Vent” and “Type” garnered a lot of attention. How did that feel, getting it right the first time?
Yo! That’s just crazy to me. I’m in awe. Lowkey, I been at this for a minute. The first time I hit the studio, I was 14, 15. I was in my oldhead’s basement. I put out a few songs a couple of years ago, and it got love, but it didn’t do anything near what’s happening now—comparing two years ago to now? It’s crazy. I don’t even know how to feel.
It’s special, so many people connecting with your work.
Yeah! Facts. The best feeling, because I’m all about love and shit… I feel like we’re all put on earth for a reason, and everyone has their own path, but we’re here for connection. We should connect more and spread love. One of the best things is when people hit me up on “Yo, that song helped me through this or that.” When I first dropped “Vent,” it was about a relationship I had, and I got a message like, “Yo, I just wanna thank you, because this song stopped me from calling my ex.” My experience is doing shit; it’s meaning something.
I love the title of the project, Grunge Gospel (Side A). It brings to mind duality and also the end of genre. Can you walk me through your thought process in naming it so?
Growing up, listening to different things. My favorite artists were Wayne and Chris Brown, even Snoop and 50. As I got older, 19, 20, I was introduced to grunge music like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. I wrote this song called “So Blue,” and it was the inspiration for the whole grunge-gospel thing, combining the two worlds.
Do you think genre is over as we understand it?
That’s hella confusing to me because when I’m in the studio or listening to music, I have debates about this shit all the time. People have their own unique styles. The term genre is dying. Even Kurt Cobain, he wasn’t the greatest singer, but he’s still singing, and it still connects. I feel like that’s the most powerful thing. I feel like [genre] doesn’t matter.
You’re vulnerable on this project. The first words are, “I got hurt.” How long did it take you to grow comfortable with your feelings?
It’s easier writing my feelings down. I have a hard time expressing my feelings verbally. I have to take a minute and think about it. Being honest on paper? That was never an issue for me. I never cared if this person would judge me. I’m gonna say whatever is on my heart and hopefully, it resonates with someone. Honesty is key. Even being on stage, I used to get in my head a lot, and I still do. It’s just easier to let go, you know?