Jelani Aryeh’s voice crinkles over forlorn production. The 19-year-old San Diego artist is distinctly of the post-Frank Ocean generation, tapping into feelings of loneliness and the complexities of vulnerability. Jelani’s latest project, Helvetica, released in October 2019, takes the notions of personal suffering and personifies them across nine songs. Each track features a ballooning emotional depth, wounded delivery, and a wonderfully textured production style. On “Gloss,” glimmers of synth give way to Jelani’s ballad-like singing. His writing basks in itself with sharp imagery, making Helvetica a standout project from a burgeoning newcomer.
“I just love the word, and I like how the font looks,” Jelani explains to me over the phone. “It has this ordinary nature to it, that I feel like we all have. Scrolling past people, you don’t think twice [about] what they’re going through. With Helvetica, I came up with a meaning with the first syllable of the word, ‘Hell.’ We all go through our hell, and we don’t, as separate beings, get to see that. With this project, it’s my best attempt to show my hell.”
Jelani informs the project with suffering: “The songs that made Helvetica were times where I felt suffering the most. ‘Helvetica’ came from an experience of me getting too high and losing control of myself, and feeling like I was gonna die.”
Despite this dark subject matter, Jelani appears methodical and pensive, with a light air to him. In two years, his pen has evolved—Helvetica is more matured and thoughtful than 2017’s Suburban Destinesia—though his themes are steadfast. Talk of isolation and complicated relationships with his father still color Helvetica as they did the 2017 outing. Now, however, Jelani is much more concerned with pursuing peace than he is cataloging his unrest. This clear head-space makes Helvetica a stunning and raw display. There’s a fluidity and musicality to the project, too. A quiet comfort suggesting Jelani Ayreh is more secure in himself and his craft.
“Lately, it’s been hard,” Jelani says of finding peace. “Meditation. Going inside the self. Then going outside and doing the things I love to do [bring me peace]. Traveling. Meeting people and experiencing new people brings me peace. Seeing free-spirited people and people who are themselves brings me peace and is inspiring.”
Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
What artists drove you to make music?
Kevin Abstract for one, and Steve Lacy. They are young musicians that affect a lot of people. I thought that was inspiring, especially with the little resources they have. As of now, it’s Toro y Moi. He has his hands in a bunch of things, like graphic design, and he’s always changing genre with every project he has. That’s my guy right now.
What is one must-know fact about you?
Ooh. I’m a really shy person [laughs]. I like my alone time a lot.
There’s a strong sense of self-awareness in your music. Where does that come from?
I do a lot of meditating and spending time with myself, going outside a lot to read. I’m super into spirituality, and I can thank my Auntie for that. We go on yoga retreats together. That’s an important part of who I am and who I am becoming, stepping into the more spiritual side of life.
Your music gives so much of yourself in subtle ways. Where does the desire to put it all out there come from?
It’s my best attempt to connect the people and show them all aspects of myself. Where I live right now, I don’t have a lot of immediate friends. I hang out with one person. [Music] is my best way to talk to a bunch of people and let them into all that I know of myself.
Talk to me about the new project, Helvetica. Why that font for the title?
I love the word, and I like how the font looks. It has this ordinary nature to it that I feel like we all have. Scrolling past people, you don’t think twice [about] what they’re going through. With Helvetica, I came up with a meaning with the first syllable of the word, “Hell.” We all go through our hell, and we don’t, as separate beings, get to see that. With this project, it’s my best attempt to show my hell.
On the opening of your last project, Suburban Destinesia, you rapped about wanting to “show them art.” Did you achieve that with Helvetica?
I was a bit more open [on Helvetica], and that is art. I was expressing myself more than when I made SD. It’s not all that I wanted to do. I guess all artists say that with projects they release. I feel like I showed the people art on this project.
What would you change on Helvetica?
In my mind, I just wanted to make it more cohesive. I wanted to make more guitar-based tracks, more tracks with live bass. Just make it sound more live; that’s what it kind of lacks. That’s what I’d like to bring forth with the new project: A lot more guitar-based songs, more alternative. That’s my dream project, and I didn’t get to achieve that with Helvetica.
You’ve said, “Everyone has their own version of suffering.” How did suffering inform this project?
Just being in it all the time. Being alone and that awareness… How do I word this? The songs that made Helvetica were times where I felt suffering the most. “Helvetica” came from an experience of me getting too high and losing control of myself, and feeling like I was gonna die.
I like how you refer to Solange as your “big sister” on “Helvetica.” Do you think about your musical lineage often?
When I make my songs, it’s after I watch or read an interview [from my inspirations]. That’s when I feel peak creativity. It’s right after I see something from them. It’s always at the forefront of my mind when I’m creating: my lineage of favorite artists.
Why is it vital for you to be vulnerable?
I think it brings people together, the more you can be yourself and let it all out there. It opens other people up, too. And they wanna know you. I’m still struggling to embody that. I wanna, every day, embody that and be more open.
Curls have been a motif across your music. Why so?
Curls, they go in a loop. A lot of the time, I think in loops. I live in loops. The same old habits that I can’t shake. Musical loops. And the loops in my hair. I feel like all that went into the song, “Curls.” It’s an over-and-over thing [laughs].
How do you find peace?
Oof. Lately, it’s been hard. Meditation. Going inside the self. Then going outside and doing the things I love to do [bring me peace]. Traveling. Meeting people and experiencing new people brings me peace. Seeing free-spirited people and people who are themselves brings me peace and is inspiring.