The human ear is trained to seek out novelty. It’s why music sounds better to people who are on substances. According to neuroscientists, drugs supercharge the mechanisms of the brain that pick up on intricate details and allow people to appreciate stimuli in a new light. By virtue of his rich baritone, Long Beach, California singer, Giveon is consistently able to deliver this novel sensation, irrespective of whether his listeners are chemically impaired.
More than just deep, however, Giveon’s voice is uniquely emotive. On songs like his recent breakout, “Like I Want You,” it positively crackles atop the stripped-back production, at once controlled and tender in a way that—particularly on the song’s chorus—is reminiscent of Sampha.
Sampha is an instructive comparison because much like the world-at-large was introduced to the U.K. talent by way of his feature on Drake’s songs, “The Motion” and “Too Much,” Giveon recently received a similar spotlight on Drake’s latest single, “Chicago Freestyle.” For my money, his crooning is the song’s highlight, setting the tone in much the same way Static Major’s does on Drake’s 2011, “Look What You’ve Done.”
Speaking to Giveon about his influences, it’s interesting to note he doesn’t identify with contemporaries (like Sampha) the way you might expect. He rarely listens to R&B in his personal time, noting he’s only genuinely compelled by artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel, who “make their own world.”
Instead, Giveon’s inspirations are surprising throwbacks to an earlier era. “I had an epiphany after initially hearing [Frank] Sinatra,” it says in his artist biography on the Epic records website. “It was the very first time I heard a baritone singer. I got into Bobby Caldwell and Barry White from there.”
Of course, Giveon is much more than his disembodied timbre. Despite his dearth of original songs available online—just five to date, if you include his Drake placement (and just three when I interviewed him in late February)—he shows a remarkably sophisticated flair for songwriting. “I would write little short stories first,” he informs me, detailing how he honed his craft. “And then the stories were taking too long, so I figured I’d write these stories in the form of songs.”
The further I dug into Giveon’s back-story, the clearer it became why he scans as such a fully-formed artist. He’s methodical without overthinking, confident in his natural gifts, the team he’s curated, and the work he’s put in.
DJBooth’s full conversation with Giveon, edited for length and clarity, is detailed below:
DJBooth: I guess the first question I really wanted to ask you is: why only three songs so far?
Giveon: Well, I had an EP out in 2013, but it was early on. I was like, 18 or 19. Since that time, I’ve grown tremendously as an artist, as a person, and everything in between. So those songs were scrapped. Now it’s just a matter of making sure everything I put out is of quality, and nothing’s rushed. Also, there’s other steps I have to go through now that I have a team around me.
Tell me a little bit about how growing up in Long Beach influenced your brand of music.
I get my music taste from my mom. She listened to a lot of black women R&B: Old school Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and stuff like that. So that’s where my love of R&B comes from. I don’t know if that’s a Long Beach thing. I don’t listen to a lot of R&B outside of my work in the studio. As far as being affected by Long Beach, that’s the stuff I’m listening to in my free time. I have this thing where I don’t want to be put into a category. You wouldn’t be able to tell I’m from Long Beach-based on my music. You’ll be able to tell when you meet me. But it doesn’t show up too much in my music.
That’s interesting. Is there a reason you don’t listen to much R&B?
Honestly, I don’t know how to say this, but I just don’t find too much of it interesting. The ones I do find interesting are the pioneers of their version of R&B. Like, Frank Ocean was the pioneer of his version of R&B. And PARTYNEXTDOOR—he pioneered his style. A lot of times, artists come along and create their own world, and then they inspire other artists to make music in that same world. But, I’m more so listening to the artist who creates that world first. After that, it’s a bunch of copies. It doesn’t happen too often where there’s an artist who is creating their own world, so I don’t find myself interested in R&B. There’s not really anything new left to become.
It seems like your most recent single, “Like I Want You,” has popped a bit harder than the other two you’ve put out so far. What’s it been like for you gauging the reception of that song?
It’s interesting. It’s weird when people tell me they like the song because I get kind of uncomfortable and don’t know how to take the praise. It’s been a surprise, too, because it’s the first song we’ve put out in like a year and I didn’t expect it to go that well. But, overall, I enjoy it. I’m grateful for it 100 percent. It also creates pressure. Because, on my upcoming EP, all of the songs don’t just sound like this. So I’m hoping they don’t expect just this sound and can appreciate whatever we put into it.
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What can you tell me about the upcoming EP? Do you have a name for it? What other styles will you be experimenting with?
As you know, I have three songs out so far, and a new song [Editor’s Note: “Heartbreak Anniversary”] is dropping today. Most of it—like 75 percent of it—is more downtempo: Light drums, if any. On the EP, there’s more uptempo music and more heavy-hitting drums. And the melodies are more staccato instead of smooth. It’ll be interesting to see how people will receive [the music] when it’s not just a smooth record.
I read somewhere that you fell in love with songwriting before singing. What motivated you to take the leap towards becoming your own artist?
I’ve always been a fan of writing stories in general, so I would write little short stories first. And then the stories were taking too long, so I figured I’d write these stories in the form of songs. Because I listened to Frank Ocean and Miguel, I thought that that’s how people were supposed to sound, and if you didn’t sound like them, you probably sounded weird. I sounded nothing like them, so I didn’t know about my own voice. I wasn’t aware people would find my voice flattering until my mom pointed it out. Before that, I was just writing. But then I started to think I could make my own songs.
I read in an interview that your mom used to force you to sing at birthday parties?
[Laughs] Yeah, just at family events. Like a cousin’s birthday. Everyone would sing around the cake, and after that, she’d call me over and force me to sing. Just learning that—singing the happy birthday song over and over—that was building my craft; how to stay in pitch and all that.
I’m sure you probably hated it at the time, but in retrospect, it’s something you appreciated.
Yeah, I call her Mr. Miyagi. I was painting fences and getting better, but I didn’t even notice.
An assumption a lot of listeners make is that artists are singing in the first person, but I know songwriters like to change it up. How often do you think about writing songs from the perspectives of other people?
Yeah, the song I have out right now, “Like I Want You,” isn’t a personal story. One of my friends’ girlfriends broke up with him, and we saw her acting in a way that wasn’t like her, so I was inspired to write a song about a person pretending to be over someone when they’re really not. And then, “Heartbreak Anniversary,” which is dropping tonight—I was talking to a friend, and they told me they broke up with their significant other exactly a year ago, and I was like, “Oh, alright, I’m going to write a song about that.” So, thus far, everything has been from the perspective of someone else.
I was reading your Spotify artist bio, and I came across the following quote: “you seek to defy not only musical standards but expectations of how you should be as an artist and a man.” Could you talk me through that? What are the expectations you feel pressure to adhere to, and how do you go about defying them?
Sonically, it’s the whole thing where people put me in a genre just because of the way I look. With time, I’ve realized I won’t have a choice with that. I used to have a hard time when people asked me what kind of music I make. I used to be like, “I don’t really call it anything.” But now I don’t mind saying R&B. It just became a lot easier to do that.
And what about the expectations you defy as a man?
I grew up in a house of four boys, so singing in general was—I wouldn’t say frowned upon, but people were telling me, “because you’re a singer, you’re soft” As time goes on, though, everyone sees it’s cool to sing. So, just being myself, essentially. There’s still stuff I do now that my friends will try to roast me over, but I’m just myself regardless.
Tell me about how you got involved with the label and how things have been changing since you signed to Epic?
Actually, a year ago from today, I went to a studio session with [producer] Sevn Thomas, and we were cooking up and making stuff, and the chemistry was strong. Going in, there was no business (or anything like that) involved or even spoke of. After that, we just stayed connected. Eventually, he had an opportunity, he brought me on board, and it just clicked from there. Since then, it’s been a process of just learning stuff along the way. In a lot of cases, I learned that I’d already been doing the things I was supposed to be doing. When you’re an artist, and you don’t have that insight into how these things work, it’s natural to feel like you’re not doing the right thing. So, it was nice to get confirmation. A lot of times, I feel like artists don’t know they’re already doing the right thing, and that’s the determining factor of who keeps doing it and who gets over it.