Quiet Luke’s name naturally misleads. He’s bombastic. The 24-year-old New York artist blends rock, pop, sci-fi aesthetics, and a twisting logic to create engaging music with an orchestral tinge. His full-length debut album, 21st Century Blue, releasing on December 4, is a grand coming-of-age story. In it, Luke uses competing aesthetics to tell a tale of clashing identities. Luke structures 21st Century Blue like a rock epic with a pop ethos, and the driving heart of a young man looking to find himself in a fractured world.
If this all sounds intensely heady, it’s because Quiet Luke has thought through every note. There are no accidents in his world. In an era where people are leaving the album behind for the curated playlist, Quiet Luke exists to deliver something worth sitting through.
“I know what I’m doing is subversive, because I’m trying to make music that’s so epic, and have it not sound like it’s bedroom [pop],” Luke reasons to me over the phone. “There’s this realization that we’re at odds with where we think we are. That’s what the album is about as well—being trapped in the 20th century and tropes of postmodernism.”
21st Century Blue feels high stakes. Every turned page feels like the most crucial page. Quiet Luke’s delivery and soundstage transcend pithy conviction. He more than means this, as on “Something to Lose,” where Luke sings of good intentions over pensive piano chords. His piercing voice drills into our chests. The yelps and danceable breakdown inverts our understanding of song structure and tonal consistency. But Quiet Luke does not wince out in pain. His howls are carnal, yes, but they also sound heavenly.
Quiet Luke is a transportive artist. He is an escape artist, quite literally ducking out of his ballads to summon feeling otherwise trapped. He is 2019’s answer to 2019 and the 2010s at large. As influenced by Timbaland as he is the Dada art movement of the ‘20s, Luke embodies the notion of a polymath.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you realize music can shift the way your emotions align?
Quiet Luke: It’s been my lifelong journey. I was having a moment a couple days ago, where I realized I’d been involved with music for almost two decades. Some of my first memories are playing with this little keyboard my mom gave me. It had preset songs that I would play and dance. My mom put me in piano lessons at a young age, about five. Around that time is when my journey started. Getting CDs, listening to music on the radio, it all snowballed from there.
How did that lead you to make your music as it stands today?
I did [piano] for a few years. I’m grateful for it because it shaped my ear and gave me a specific sense of melody. I did that; I sang in school, sang in choir. In middle school, I got really into rock, everything from classic rock to metal, grunge, alternative rock. Then, punk and post-punk came a little later on. I was a rapper and a producer for a while. I had a big phase in beatmaking—everything from Kanye to DJ Premier, and West Coast stuff. Timbaland and Pharrell were super huge influences on my beatmaking.
I just figured out how to fuse everything at some point. There’s an aspect of beatmaking, pop, bedroom romantic avant-garde tradition. I know what I’m doing is subversive, because I’m trying to make music that’s so epic, and have it not sound like it’s bedroom.
In my notes, I have words like “Rock, pop, and sci-fi.”
That’s the other thing: Film and TV, to an extent, influenced the world I wanna create. I went through a phase where I was making cinematic beats, maybe 2013 to 2015. I had a few tracks I condensed into the first EP I put out. Stuff in the sci-fi canon, and I’ve been into this concept of the neo-noir.
There’s some representation to be had there for people of color because it’s a canon that’s so classic but focuses on white male protagonists. Flipping the script helps me fit into the world more—helps me see myself as more normal, or even more “epic.” Watching movies, growing up, I never got to see myself represented. So [the work] gives me some representation as a protagonist in this far-reaching world.
21st Century Blue is structured like an epic. Why go so ambitious in an era where people believe less and less in the album experience?
The craziest thing is this album didn’t get made in a year or two years. It’s a labor of the past four years of my life. The answer is: that’s how I felt, and that’s what I wanted to make. The experience of giving this to people… I know [the] people it’s meant for will listen to the whole thing and be different at the end of it.
I have to ask about the significance of the color choice. I think of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, where she breaks down her relationships to heartache and identity.
There’s some of that in it. This album is, in some ways, a coming-of-age story or a time capsule of late childhood and early adulthood—my first heartbreak, my first experiences moving to a new place, and discovering identity. Also, in the last half of this decade, there’s been a sameness about it. It became obvious in the 2016 election. There’s this realization that we’re at odds with where we think we are. That’s what the album is about as well: being trapped in the 20th century and tropes of postmodernism.
In short, I realized we’re living in the dystopian sci-fi universe we created. This work comes from the period of my life that was the “blue period,” and I wanted to highlight that.
Could you label the “blue period?”
There’s depression involved in it. When you listen to the music, a lot of it feels blue. During the middle of the album and the end as well, there [are] more colors, but the first four songs… That’s deep in my—I don’t wanna say depression, because it’s more than that. It’s almost like becoming disillusioned with the promises of what you think becoming an adult is going to be. And being in this somewhat broken world, and having to navigate it.
The color blue makes me think of universality, almost. That’s why a lot of companies choose it as their color. And the “blue period” thing is also a reference to Picasso. I realized we’re letting history repeat itself, and something about that made me feel like I was living in this strange loop.
The record is very much so rooted in the past and the future at once. How do you make sense of those competing timelines?
That’s a really good question. Not to cop out completely, but one of the ways I make sense of it is through the work. The process of making these songs helped me reconcile the past and the future. On track ten, there’s a place I got to in that song where I felt like it was moving towards the future and digging deep into the past at the same time. Culturally, we move in 15 to 30-year cycles. The further forward we go, the further back we’re going to look to understand what is going on. People still look at Greece and Rome as touchpoints on how to conduct themselves.
The recorded music canon is so young. It’s easy to go back and see things that were happening in the 1950s or ‘60s and see how they connect to now. One thing that inspired me is this canon of art that comes up in Dada—people like Man Ray. I appreciated that Dada was an early form of proto-punk. Essentially, it was people in the avant-garde being like, “No, we’re not that smart. WWI just happened, and we’re killing each other, and art can be anything.”
I take the sonics of the album to be a comment on how identities clash. What identities do you feel clash within you? How do you reconcile them?
Really good question. First, that’s one of the main things that influence me: trying to make sense of opposing identities or feelings. We’re just tapping into the idea that something can be scary and euphoric and sometimes boring, and we can have these experiences one after the other. The experience of love can sometimes be harrowing, but it’s something we’re drawn to. My parents are both immigrants. My dad’s Ethiopian, my mom’s from the Philippines. They met in America. Culturally, I got their cultures passed down to me, and American culture I just learned from television, my friends, video games, and the internet.
There was always this lost-in-America kind of feeling, being a half-outsider. That’s something I grapple with in my work. There were always these contrasts in my life. The work I made is just a crystallization of all these different things I am. I talk about all these things—Timbaland to Dada—in 10 minutes, and that’s just the way someone’s mind can work these days. There’s no linearity.