Photo: Lyza Renee
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Black Pumas On Their Breakout Year, Creative Process And "New Chapter"
Black Pumas lay claim to perhaps the defining Cinderella story of the 2020 GRAMMY season. Officially formed in 2017 in Austin, Texas, the rock and soul duo experienced a breakout 2019: Dominating their local music scene, the group was recognized as one of the breakthrough artists at SXSW last year and took home the Best New Band trophy at the 2019 Austin Music Awards.
By the time they released their self-titled debut album—a psychedelic, genre-bending project that explores the many shades of soul, rock, funk and R&B, with dashes of Latin influences—last June on ATO Records, Black Pumas were an internationally touring act, with sold-out dates across North America and Europe throughout last year.
Fast-forward to today, and Black Pumas are now nominated in the coveted Best New Artist category, alongside major pop stars like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Lil Nas X and others. It's a surreal moment the band's frontman, Eric Burton, is still processing.
"For me, it's really hard to conceptualize still. Still sinking in," he tells The Recording Academy a few hours before hitting the stage at The Town Hall in NYC last month. "I come from busking and skateboarding with a guitar in my hand and a tip jar… I don't think that I was really conceptualizing actually winning any accolades for just my own daily regimen."
Black Pumas pairs Burton, a former street busker who charmed tourists and locals alike at the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, with GRAMMY-winning guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, who won a golden gramophone for his 2010 album, El Existential, as part of Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma. While the two come from musically diverse backgrounds—Burton grew up on East Coast hip-hop, old soul and folk music, while Quesada has worked with everyone from Prince to Daniel Johnston—their chemistry in the studio "fit like a glove."
"When I first reached out [to Eric]," Quesada says, "it started by him singing on some tracks that I had before we really brought in his songs and became Black Pumas… But I know [he] said that [he] had a hard time at first singing to somebody else's style and everything. But to me, sitting back and hearing it come into place, it all just kind of seemed to fit like a glove."
The Recording Academy caught up with Black Pumas to discuss their creative process, their breakthrough journey from local act to GRAMMY-nominated global headliners and their road ahead.
What does this nomination mean for you as a first-time nominee?
Eric: For me, it's really hard to conceptualize still. Still sinking in. I come from busking and skateboarding with a guitar in my hand and a tip jar, on my way to a restaurant in little Alamogordo, N.M. And doing gigs like that where I was just playing music to kind of whisk me away to a place where everyone wins and just playing to get through the day really and just having fun in it.
I don't think that I was really conceptualizing actually winning any accolades for just my own daily regimen. That it's happening now, it feels amazing. It feels really crazy. I don't know what's going... I don't know.
Adrian, you've been nominated before. You are now nominated in one of what's called the Big Four categories. Does this feel different from your previous nominations and wins?
Adrian: Absolutely does. It took a while for that to kind of sink in. Every time I start to think about that, I get a little anxiety, so I'm just trying to just enjoy it and take it in and just realize that people are reacting to this music that we were making integrity. We didn't sit down and say, "Man, we'll go for the GRAMMY." We were just like, "Man, that sounds cool. Let's make another one. Let's make a better one."
At one point, I remember we had sat down before we started touring and I just checked in and was like, "Do we want to pursue this?" He's like, "Yeah, I'm down if you're down." Because I said, "I think this could move quickly." But when I said that, I didn't even imagine that we would be nominated for a GRAMMY. It's crazy.
Eric, it sounded like you were hesitant to connect with Adrian in the beginning of the project. What do you think about that now?
Eric: As a busking artist… you kind of are vulnerable to any and all musicians. Engineers, producers who hear something in the guitar playing or your vocals that they want to use it and they want to maybe help me elevate that. I was meeting a lot of people, and it just wasn't working out to the degree that I wasn't very happy with some of the end product.
Right before I met Adrian, I was building my own home studio and learning how to use Logic to try to explore my sounds that inspired me from the perspective of someone who is a teaming engineer, or trying to understand how to do it in the first place. So when Adrian hit me up, I'm like, "Oh no, not again!" [Laughs.]
But to be real, I'm a realist as well, and realistically, I didn't know enough to get the quality sounds on my own. When I read a little bit about Adrian's track record, it convinced me well enough to take a chance and really commit to elevating his project. At first, it started off as his thing, and I was just hoping that maybe we would get some funds or something from just having a catalog of music publishing.
What's fascinating about the story of Black Pumas is how fast it all happened. You formed in 2017, you had a breakout year in 2019, from winning the Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards to now being nominated as Best New Artist at the GRAMMYs. Does this GRAMMY nomination now feel like the cherry on top of a whirlwind year? Does it feel like a validation?
Adrian: It's certainly not the only thing that would validate what we do, but it's definitely one of the factors. I think considering that we didn't really go out there and campaign. Honestly, this came about in a completely 100 percent organic way that surprised everybody on our team [and] us. Which meant that there were truly people out there that in the back of their mind, they were like, "We need to nominate Black Pumas and put them out there."
It feels honest and it feels good because it doesn't feel like we tried to cheat the system or anything. There was legit just people out there that believed in what were doing. And if we weren't getting the GRAMMY nomination, we'd still be playing shows. And if we weren't playing shows, we'd be still recording in the studio. We'd be doing this no matter what, but it's pretty amazing
Eric: So it feels more like a great beginning to a new chapter as opposed to an ending of anything. I think that we both really have our minds set on creating the next thing, trying to just strive to make the better song and entertain ourselves, really.
With Black Pumas exploding so fast, what sorts of challenges, if any, have you faced, either individually or as a group, with such a rapid career?
Adrian: The biggest challenge for both of us is that we have been touring so much that we haven't really had a chance to work on new music. We have a million ideas. He's always writing and recording wherever we can, on his phone or whatever. It's been hard to actually work on your music.
Eric, this is your first time in the spotlight at this kind of level. Have you had any challenges facing this level of fame or acclaim?
Eric: For sure, because I believe that it's been a little bit hard to truly conceptualize, even through my own actions as an individual on this train that is going somewhere really bright, as it seems. When you're busking every day and you're doing things on a lower level, you start to do things more for yourself — the immediacy of reciprocating what you need to express, to get through someone cutting you off in traffic or a breakup or whatever it is.
I've always used music to process my own emotions that, with everything that is going on right now, it feels a little overwhelming because there's a lot more feelings now a nd there's a lot more things happening. I'm starting to be held to a more higher standard of professionalism, can't stay up to 4 and 5 in the morning trying to write material and whatnot. That's been a little bit hard for me, just acclimating to the movement that is the Black Pumas.
You got a job now.
Eric: Yeah! I got a job now, mom. Look at me now, dad!
Your 2019 debut album touches on so many eras and genres and sounds. Eric, you listen to East Coast hip-hop, old soul music and folk. Adrian, you've worked with everyone from Prince to Daniel Johnston. How does that all come together to create Black Pumas? Were there any hurdles to face when creating your initial sound and music?
Adrian: When I first reached out [to Eric], it started by him singing on some tracks that I had before we really brought in his songs and became Black Pumas. That was how the collaboration started. But I know [he] said that [he] had a hard time at first singing to somebody else's style and everything. But to me, sitting back and hearing it come into place, it all just kind of seemed to fit like a glove.
But then when we started to work on his songs… I felt like those fit perfectly with the sound of the ones that I was doing. It all just seemed to work.
Could you talk about the creative process behind Black Pumas? How did you work together to create the songs and the album’s overall sonic aesthetic?
Adrian: The process was a combination of two methods: One was Eric writing lyrics and melodies and singing on a few instrumentals I had recorded, and the second was Eric’s songs that we learned and arranged in the studio and recorded predominantly live. The aesthetic, to me, was set up on the first day we got together and recorded "Fire" and "Black Moon Rising." What Eric came up with on "Black Moon Rising," in particular, for me was what set the tone for the album.
Your album features elements from a lot of different genres and sounds considered to be cornerstones of American culture and music, from rock and soul to hip-hop and funk. You both also come from different cultural backgrounds, each with your own experience of what it means to be American. In what ways does your album represent what the American music canon means or sounds like today and what it will mean or sound like in the future?
Adrian: To me, it represents the best part of American music in that it transcends genres, cultures and "scenes" to make sincere and soulful American music. Ideally, we would have fewer boundaries and more bridges in the future.
While your music and your album are rooted in various American styles and sounds, they are also resonating with audiences across the world, from Montreal to Paris to Zurich. What is it about your music and your album that’s able to transcend cultures and languages?
Adrian: Eric’s lyrics and the emotion in his voice and songs, in particular, [are some] of the main reasons I believe our album has transcended language and cultural barriers. People connect in a special way and sometimes adapt their own personal meaning to the songs.
You're also widely known for your live shows and energetic performances, which are key elements to the overall Black Pumas makeup. In what ways have your live shows informed or impacted your actual music and creativity, or vice versa?
Adrian: For at least half of the songs on the album, we had never played a show or even performed those songs at any point. When we began to perform live in conjunction with bringing in songs Eric had written was when it all came to life and one informed the other. About half the album was pre-produced and recorded, and the other [half was] cut almost entirely live, and I like the way it flows like that. At this point, the songs have taken on a new life in the live show, and I really like how the live versions of the songs are almost a different thing entirely.
What are some sounds or genres that you'd like to explore together as a unit? What are you most curious to explore next?
Eric: I feel like the sky is the limit because we're not necessarily a retro-soul band. We emulate some of the colors of some of our heroes and songwriters, such as Otis Redding, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Ghostface Killah. But I think that we're just such eclectic music fans, that just comes through. It doesn't sound so contrived… to the degree that I feel that we have this stage that is soul music.
There's different spaces within the same room that is soul music that we can take different genres of sound to kind of see what marriage works within the soul genre. We talk about different references all the time. We're always exploring different ways to make fresh this soul music, so to speak.
What are you looking forward to the most at the GRAMMYs?
Adrian: I'm not sure what I'm looking forward to the most, honestly, because I just don't know enough about what's happening. Our category's awesome, man. My kids and I listen to Billie Eilish and Lizzo. Yola is great. I checked out Rosalía, I checked out a few of the artists. They're all great, man. It's a great category, and I say that with 100 percent sincerity. It's exciting.
Where do you go from here? What happens next for Black Pumas in 2020?
Eric: Feels like we're probably going to be on tour indefinitely. I think that just trying to do our best with having the foresight that we need as individuals, who have a home of our own, to make sure that the people that we love who are supporting us feel that they haven't been forgotten. And individually, I hope I can find some good advice on what to do with the money that may be coming in soon. I won't tell you what I spent money on. [Laughs.]
I assume you're making more than you were busking.
Eric: Most definitely, man. I'm just trying to get it together, actually living a normalized life. I'm not just this Bohemian Troubadour busking, or just a musician anymore. It feels like a whole different level for me, for sure. Luckily, I have someone that has been doing it and is a perfect role model for it.
Adrian, what do your kids think about you going up against Lil Nas X and Lizzo?
Adrian: I think they're secretly going for Billie Eilish. They jam to Lizzo, too, and Lil Nas X, man. It's pretty cool because I jam to their stuff, too.
Don't forget to tune in to the 62nd GRAMMY Awards Sunday, Jan. 26, live on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS, and the Premiere Ceremony and Red Carpet live streams right here on GRAMMY.com—your home for all things GRAMMYs.