Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: How Illenium Went From An "Obsessed" Dance Music Fan To An Arena-Filling DJ & Producer

Photo: Brian Ziff


Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: How Illenium Went From An "Obsessed" Dance Music Fan To An Arena-Filling DJ & Producer

With his fourth LP, 'Fallen Embers,' Illenium kicked off a new era that blends his love for electronic music and pop-punk. As he celebrates a GRAMMY nod, the producer looks back on his journey to stardom and shares how the dance genre changed his life.

GRAMMYs/Mar 21, 2022 - 07:37 pm

Growing up, Nick Miller never really listened to dance music. Now, he's one of the genre's most prolific stars, better known as Illenium — and is celebrating a GRAMMY nomination as a result.

Illenium's fourth album, 2021's Fallen Embers, is up for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. It's a pinnacle moment for Miller, who became "obsessed" with the electronic music world in 2009, launched his career with a self-released EP in 2013, then made his major-label debut in 2016.

Since then, Illenium has put out three more LPs and countless singles, teaming up with fellow dance titans like Gryffin and the Chainsmokers, as well as a variety of singers, from Georgia Ku to Jon Bellion. His versatility is perhaps most apparent on Fallen Embers, which features Tori Kelly, iann dior and Thirty Seconds to Mars, among others.

Though he's already teasing new music — which will debut during Illenium's set at Miami's Ultra Music Festival on March 26 — the producer/DJ feels the next chapter of his career truly began with Fallen Embers. With a GRAMMY nomination to validate his new direction, it may really just be the beginning. sat down with Illenium to discuss the importance of Fallen Embers, how he transitioned from the crowd to the stage, and the role music played in changing — and saving — his life.

What initially made you realize that you were interested in producing — and that you were actually pretty good at it?

I started messing around in GarageBand in high school, and it introduced me to the idea of spending time creating something — even though that stuff back then was really bad. I moved to Colorado, and had some life-changing moments, and I started putting a lot of my time into it. A lot of the encouragement I got from friends, even though it was just mediocre music, was really exciting.

I was writing for music blogs, and I just loved the whole electronic music scene at that time. I would try to create what my idols were doing, and try to learn how they were doing it. I became obsessed, passionate and excited. I got addicted to trying to make songs. The feeling of doing it yourself, and being able to control every aspect of that, was really addicting.

I went to a Red Rocks show in 2012, and seeing that community, especially in Colorado — the Denver-based music scene is really tight-knit and communal, and it's really genuine. It was just really special. It was an experience that really drove me to want to succeed in it.

Was dance music your No. 1 genre growing up?

No, not at all. I didn't listen to much dance music until, like, 2009. I first got into it when I was living in San Francisco. I really liked a lot of the house stuff and trance, and then once I moved to Colorado, it turned into the bass music scene.

I grew up listening to a lot of pop-punk and rock, and my family listens to country a lot. A lot of hip-hop [too]. So I was all over the place in middle school and high school.

That's kind of all I listen to now. I listen to some pop, and a little bit of hip-hop, but it's almost all rock music and pop-punk.

Considering you were a teenager during the pop-punk explosion of the mid-2000s, that makes sense.

Totally. I feel like there's so much emotion and — it's not even aggression, but it's like, intensity, in that kind of music, where it can be really pretty melodically or lyrically, but the instrumental stuff behind it just like, hits. It hits me more than a lot of electronic music does nowadays. So I think that's why I'm transferring it into my type of thing.

Fallen Embers is the first album that doesn't start with "A," but its title still fits into the overall theme that Ashes, Awake and Ascend present. What's the story behind that?

My logo is a phoenix, [because] the imagery behind the phoenix really relates to me and the music that I make, and why I make music in the first place. So my first three albums were kind of this whole birth cycle of a phoenix. They all started with "A," it was a trilogy of that cycle. So Fallen Embers was kind of my take on what pieces were left — the embers fallen from the phoenix throughout that whole journey.

I made that album when I wasn't touring, and that's the first album I made in a long time [that] I wasn't touring, because I've been touring like crazy. It turned out much more calm and much more like a recharge album for me. Lyrically, it [details] the ebbs and flows of a relationship — it doesn't have to be a relationship, but just through finding yourself, and forgiving yourself for making mistakes and moving on.

Sonically, Fallen Embers has more rock elements. It's definitely calmer than Ascend. I love emotional music, so my music is always going to have an emotional aspect to it. That is not going to change. But I don't want to just keep repeating and chasing [the same sound], so now I'm moving very — like, totally — different, post-Fallen Embers. Fallen Embers, for me, was like a farewell, almost. I just wanted to be very clear that that was a trilogy, and now we're departed.

When you announced Fallen Embers, you said this is "the start of a new chapter." So is that kind of what you were talking about?

Yeah. I've been in LA five out of the past six months to start from scratch and write rock songs, and heavy aggressive s<em></em>*, because I feel like I took a break and made music that's kind of calm. Now I'm [going] a little more aggressive and adding some metal aspects.

There's this middle ground of electronic, rock and metal that can be really cool. And I feel like there's a lot of people doing similar stuff, but the songs can be really authentic and healing to people — right now, especially.

You also said this album was "an incredibly personal journey for me." Since it was so personal for you, did you see an even more meaningful impact from these songs?

Yeah. I mean, these past two years have been really challenging for a lot of people, myself included. Especially since shows have come back, you can definitely see in people the excitement to get a release of some sort. And to [just] enjoy — it's hard after a long time of people just going through the motions.

Especially in the electronic music scene, a lot of these people use these shows and the music for their healing and their escape. And that's really important for 'em. So to be able to give them a show and also give them new music, and see how that music has been their kind of crutch this past year, has been really beautiful for me.

You had everyone from Tori Kelly to Angels and Airwaves on Fallen Embers. What goes into finding the right vocalist for a track?

It's a mix. A lot of it is availability-based. When I first am working on a song, especially if it's a demo, it'd be like, "Who would sound good on this?" The "Blame Myself" demo had Emily Warren, who has a really amazing voice, and a very unique tone. So it's hard to fill that.

You get this thing called "demoitis," where you're used to the demo so much, it's hard to separate. But you've got to just find the right vocalist that is gonna bring her own or his own whole attitude to it. And you just kind of have to sit with it for a second because you're so obsessed with the first version.

It's not about, necessarily, the skill of singing. It's a lot of tone. Sonically, how you make a whole song, and you have a vocal in there, you need someone that fits that exact same spot. And that can be really challenging.

For "Paper Thin" with Tom and Angels and Airwaves, that was just a bucket list [thing] for me, I've always wanted to work with him. When we sent it to him, we were like, "They're probably not going to do this." Same with Jared [Leto, Thirty Seconds to Mars' frontman]. I'm the biggest fan of all of the people I collaborated with, so it's really been special.

I feel like a lot of people who aren't as familiar with the dance music scene may assume that producers like you, who aren't on their tracks vocally, might not write them. But you, and people like Kygo and Zedd — all of these huge names in the producer world — have proven that wrong. Do you feel like that's a common misconception?

I think there's always gonna be a misconception of a DJ/producer type thing. I don't think there's any way to get around it, unfortunately. But at the end of the day, it's okay. People [who like] different music have a whole different perspective.

When people see "DJ," they're like, "Oh, like, Vegas DJ. Throw a party!" They have no idea the complexities that go behind that. There are some producers out there that can do insane stuff. It's hard to even start describing that. There's some songs where we start with a guitar, and we write from scratch. It's just about having an ear for what is going to be successful, and also just having an ear of what you enjoy.

In 2018, you shared a really personal story about how music changed your life. Was it a certain song, album or artist that did that for you? Or was it being able to use the music that you were creating as your outlet? Or a combination of both?

It's definitely a mixture of both. When I turned my life around from that time period, it was a mixture of getting so curious about music production, but I was also obsessed with music — I was like, "How do these producers create these things?"

That little thought sparked so much curiosity in me, and [I] wanted to figure out how to implement my love for music and love for different genres. For it to change my life, it had to have all of those aspects — being obsessed with music, loving other people's music, and wanting to create my own.

Doing an action in one of those phases every day is what got me going and got me into the scene, and into my career. But also [made me] confident with myself and feeling like I had some sort of purpose. It was a really healing process for me, because I was kind of a s<em></em>*show before that. I needed something to put all of my energy into, and something that my family supported, and I had friends that supported me. So that was just really cool.

When I was so low, I had no faith in myself at all. You just have no confidence, and you're pretty broken. For you to even have an idea of "I might be good at something" or "I might get good at something if I work hard enough at it and I love it," then it's just full speed ahead.

What does 2012 Nick at Red Rocks think of 2022 Nick being a GRAMMY-nominated producer?

It's just mind-blowing. You know, I told myself when I saw the Red Rocks show in 2012, I was like, "Maybe in 10 years, I'll get to play at Red Rocks." I wasn't even saying headline or anything, just play at Red Rocks. I apparently set a very low goal for myself. [Laughs.]

Constantly having goals set and then reaching them throughout my whole career has been amazing, but it's crazy to think about being a GRAMMY-nominated artist. That is a whole different world that I never even thought — I just got into bass music and EDM, you know? To think of that transition, that's crazy.

We're Probably On An Irreversible Course Into The Metaverse. What Role Will Music Play In It?

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner On Self-Actualization, Grieving In Public And Her Nominations For 'Jubilee' At The 2022 GRAMMY Awards
Japanese Breakfast

Photo: Peter Ash Lee


Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner On Self-Actualization, Grieving In Public And Her Nominations For 'Jubilee' At The 2022 GRAMMY Awards

Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. Their leader, Michelle Zauner, opened up to about how the nominations feel, and why personal and global crises just made her more motivated.

GRAMMYs/Mar 9, 2022 - 03:42 pm

When the pandemic first descended on humanity, countless millennials moved home, donned pajama pants and brooded at their parents' kitchen islands. In this sea of dejected Instagram posts, though, a few public figures stood out — those who decided to thrive during the age of demoralization. One conspicuous example was the singer, songwriter and debut author Michelle Zauner. 

Zauner hit two professional home runs during the pajama-pants era. In April 2020, she released her affecting memoir Crying in H Mart, and that June, her band Japanese Breakfast released a critically acclaimed album, Jubilee. Granted, the lion's share of both projects was completed before we started wiping down bags of Doritos — and Zauner wasn't immune to "being depressed and eating a lot." Still, the timing of her breakthroughs speaks to her character.

Read More: How Japanese Breakfast Found Joy On Her New Album Jubilee

"I've discovered through the past few years that I'm a surprisingly optimistic person — I'm a secret hopeful person!" she quips. "Because in any narrative or story I've told, it's been important for me to find some type of hope to cling to. I certainly am not one to dwell on the negative. It doesn't help me to have that be my end goal."

As such, accentuating the positive was something of an animating force while making Jubilee — and the result was a critically-acclaimed album on top of a New York Times bestseller.

Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards: one for Best New Artist, another for Best Alternative Music Album for Jubilee. In the above video, watch Zauner's recollection of drearily watching the nominations roll in, expecting nothing — and her very loud reaction at the results. 

That's her magic in microcosm, alchemizing the depressing into the sublime. And her mother (whose loss looms large in both Crying in H Mart and previous Japanese Breakfast music) would undoubtedly be proud. 

With the 2022 GRAMMY Awards on the immediate horizon (April 3), sat down with Zauner to discuss what motivates her during hard times, the palette of influences reflected on Jubilee, and the life-changing moments it produced— like watching Jeff Tweedy cover her Wilco-influenced song.

This interview has been edited for clarity

During the early pandemic, I felt drawn to people who rose above their circumstances and thrived, rather than sinking into a mire. Where did your motivation come from during a very demotivated time?

I will say that a majority of both Jubilee and Crying in H Mart were done prior to the pandemic, so I was kind of one of those people being depressed and eating a lot.

But I was able to work on the final, final draft of Crying in H Mart during a time I was supposed to be on tour. I do think that having the perspective of going into the final stages of this book, when I had a ton of time off for the first time, was actually kind of helpful for me to get some of the really good, final touches on this book.

Honestly, I feel like I became very motivated in general after a very dark time in my life. I became grounded by my work ethic and my ambition and sticking very close to routine after my mom passed away. So, after this dark limbo period, I recalled being a caretaker for six months and being stuck in the house in Eugene, Oregon. 

In a way, I feel like I've gone through this part of life before, and I felt prepared. I know what it feels like to be out of control of my life and watch a lot of darkness descend around me. I found that sticking close to a regimen or staying grounded through work is what helped me through that time. So, I think that's something I'm unfortunately used to at this point in my life. 

Some people view grievous loss as a moment where their life stops, and they just wander through the past after that. But it seems like you're more interested in moving forward and honoring your mom that way.

Yeah, I think I got there through working through it creatively, in a way. But it is really interesting; I think that happens really often. 

My father and I navigated our grief in totally different ways. I think that happens in families a lot — where one person goes on one path and another experiences it through another path. They can be at odds with one another.

But for me, personally, I was so worried about allowing myself to fall into a deep pit of depression about something very real for the first time — that I would struggle to ever pull out of it. I know my mom would want me to navigate my grief in this way, and that's what really helped me through that.

Another destabilizing factor for people in our age range can be a sense of futurelessness. Perhaps we share a drive to work around global traumas.

Yeah, I've discovered through the past few years that I'm a surprisingly optimistic person — I'm a secret hopeful person! Because in any narrative or story I've told, it's been important for me to find some type of hope to cling to. I certainly am not one to dwell on the negative. It doesn't help me to have that be my end goal.

Is it irritating to have to dredge up your personal adversities over and over and over in interviews?

Sometimes. Sometimes, it's honestly kind of therapeutic, which is, like, gross and weird. But there's this other stage of art making that I'm less prickly to than other artists. I learn a lot about what I've made through the press process. A lot of the themes and questions I navigate in the work get solidified with different perspectives through the press process. 

So, sometimes I don't mind it as much, because it can be kind of enlightening. But certainly, like everything, it can become exhausting.

What's your relationship with pop music, like making something that appeals to as many people as humanly possible? Do you feel like an odd duck on the GRAMMY nominees list?

Yes and no. I'm kind of a poptimist and I really admire great pop music. One of my favorite artists is, honestly, Ariana Grande. In some cases, there are top-tier composers, producers, arrangers, and mixing engineers working to create something with mass appeal, which is widely enjoyable.

Even in K-pop, it's like that. You have the greatest music video directors, the greatest production designers! The highest-paid costume [designers] and stylists and makeup artists! Watching a city come together to create a piece of art that can reach a lot of people is very inspiring to me.

As an indie artist, trying to reach beyond my means in a similar way, on a smaller scale, has always been something very fun for me. I don't like to make purposefully complicated music. I enjoy making what I think to be listenable, enjoyable music that a lot of people can get into.

So, I'm happy to be in this realm, and I think it's really exciting. It's an honor.

When making a record, I think of the canon almost as a buffet to pick from — a little Richard and Linda Thompson here, a little R.E.M. there. Who did you pick from the proverbial buffet for Jubilee?

I've never thought of it quite as a buffet, but I do really like that idea. One thing about Japanese Breakfast that I enjoy is that we have a pretty broad range of influences on all our records. There's a lot of range and diversity.

There was certainly a lot of Kate Bush in this buffet. A lot of Björk and Wilco. There was some Bill Withers and Randy Newman. Certainly, Fleetwood Mac. Alex G. Those were, I think, the main buffet trays.

I'm a Randy Newman fanatic — I love the Pixar soundtracks, the dark-humored stuff, the love songs. What's your Randy era or album?

It's either called Something New Under the Sun or it's self-titled.

Yeah, the debut.

It's the one with "Living Without You" on it. That was my introduction to Randy Newman. An ex-boyfriend had shown me that song and it just haunted me for years and years. He's just the master of a sweeping love song — a ballad. That was the inspiration for the piano and string arrangement on "Tactics." 

I was always trying to channel my inner Randy. I think he's timelessness incarnate.

Classic rockers are always thrown into court over "stealing," but I think that's part of the musical process. Do you ever hear a great lick and say "I'm going to place that right here"? 

I've never done that purposefully. But it's funny: When [Japanese Breakfast drummer and producer] Craig [Hendrix] and I were working on "Kokomo, IN" — I almost said "Kokomo, Etc." — we were definitely very inspired by the string arrangement on [Wilco's] "Jesus, Etc." The classic nature of that Beatles math that goes into a great pop song.

It was very funny, because Jeff Tweedy actually covered that song in one of his livestreams. I was super-inspired by "Jesus, Etc." for "Kokomo, IN," and I was also inspired by "At Least That's What You Said" — the solo — in the quiet acoustic section that leads to a big solo in "Posing for Cars."

It was amazing. I got to meet Wilco this year and see Jeff Tweedy cover my song! He's such a songwriting hero of mine.

I've never purposefully plopped a direct lick from anything. But there was a moment when we were doing "Kokomo" where we were like, "Are we biting 'Jesus, Etc.' a little too hard with the pizzacato strings?" But it's Jeff Tweedy-approved, so I don't think they'll be suing us anytime soon.

How do you see the musical landscape before you? What do you want your next few years to look like?

God, I have no idea. I feel like I'm just trying to roll with the punches here [with Omicron]. But I hope we just ride the wave of this record and get to play big festivals and travel again. I'm just going to try to do my best, as I always do.

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arooj Aftab On Her Latest Album Vulture Prince, The Multiplicity Of Pakistani Musics And Why We Should Listen With Nuance & Care

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Why Marshmello Strived To Make 'Shockwave' His Most Diverse Album Yet — And How It Paid Off

Photo: MGX Creative


Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Why Marshmello Strived To Make 'Shockwave' His Most Diverse Album Yet — And How It Paid Off

Though 'Shockwave' earned Marshmello a GRAMMY nomination, the LP means more to him than just accolades. The illusive dance hitmaker's fourth album covers every aspect of electronic music, from eurodance to trap — serving as a true artist's statement.

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2022 - 06:43 pm

Marshmello has become one of the most recognizable faces in the modern music scene — by not showing his actual face. The electronic-pop producer has racked up billions of streams while maintaining complete recluse, thanks to a, well, marshmallow-shaped helmet that dons an adorable cartoon smile.

But even if Marshmello wasn't one of music's most mysterious identities (or a playable skin in the wildly popular video game Fortnite), his mountain of smash hits has turned the masked music man into a household name.

Since he first burst onto the scene with the Skrillex-approved "Find Me" in 2015, Marshmello's career has been in a league of its own. His record label debut "Alone" mixed buoyant synth sounds with upbeat rhythms (and his own helium-pitched voice), setting the tone for his sonic universe where youthful sing-alongs meet glass-shattering bass.

After winning over the EDM world, he soon took over the pop crossover realm, digging into his rock roots on collaborations with Noah Cyrus, Blackbear and Demi Lovato, Khalid, Selena Gomez, Bastille, and the Jonas Brothers, just to name a few.

Of course, a spotlight can also become a target, and Marshmello has had his fair share of detractors. On his fourth studio album, Shockwave, the dance star locks his X-shaped eyes directly at those haters and demonstrates just how dynamic his style can be.

It's his most diverse album yet, with features spanning from rap (Megan Thee Stallion and Juicy J) to fellow producers (Troyboi, DJ Sliink, Nitti Gritti) to a spattering of bass music heavyweights (Eptic, Peekaboo, Subtronic). Shockwave explores every corner of electronic music from Jersey Club to trap, dubstep to Eurodance and even pop-punk.

In the end, that experimentation earned Marshmello his first GRAMMY nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. The producer chatted with about why his nomination is so meaningful, how he advanced the Marshmello sound with Shockwave, and why he feels he "needed this album."

Where were you when you found out about the nomination?

Well, I'm not really that good of a sleeper. I'm a person who needs to exude a lot of energy, so when I'm not touring and I'm home a lot, it's hard to stay asleep. I always wake up from 8 to 10 a.m., and it was during that time.

I'm half asleep, don't even know what's real, and I hear my phone vibrate. I see something about GRAMMYs, and when you're half awake — maybe a fourth awake — you don't even really process. That second or third time I really woke up, I was like, "Wait, did that happen?"

I'm sure it takes a while to sink in, even when you are fully awake for the news. What does it mean to you to be nominated?

It's something every artist strives for, even growing up. I didn't really know what to make of it, but in a good way. I was processing that, but I was just also really excited to tell everybody that was on the album. We made the album during the pandemic, and we really put a lot of — I don't know how to describe it.

Joytime I, II and III are very specific and intentionally sound, just, catchy. This album, I didn't name it Joytime. I wanted to try something different.

We did music videos very specific to each video, a lot of them with my ideas. The experience as a whole was different, and this was the album that got nominated for a GRAMMY.

That was all going through my head at once: "Everything was just different. I wonder why, blah blah blah." Then my next move was to tell everybody that was on it.

That intention does come through. It also struck me that the second song "Supernovacane" opens with a clip of some guy calling you an "overrated electronic artist," then you go on to mix your sound with revered artists and styles. Was your approach a message to people who would put you in a box?

I was going to start the album with that, but then I was also wrestling with this track "Fairytale," which is actually the intro that sounds much more like an intro.

Every artist has people that hate on them, right? I don't know if I can speak for them, but that was me saying, "I'm aware that people think this, and I'm just having fun with it."

Specifically with this album, the whole thing was like, "I want to do a trap song," so then I started the album with "Fairytale." I want to advance my Marshmello sound and try to use all my production tips and tricks that I have acquired over the years and just try something different.

Let's say somebody with this kind of hateful intention goes on to listen to that album, right? They turn that song on, and how would they feel hearing me acknowledge and even put in a song that somebody was saying what they were? I just did it because I can.

That matches with the rest of the album. It's like, "Yeah, I made this Vengaboys-sounding track with Carnage because I can. I made this Jersey Club future bass jam with DJ Sliink because I can."

Who's going to tell me not to? Joytime I, Joytime II, Joytime III, I've been doing that style for a long time. I needed this album, just to make the music that I like playing out.

Every single song, I remember sitting in my studio and thinking about playing it — and then seeing the show I haven't played yet and how the crowd would react in my head.

You have huge collaborators from all over the map on this LP, and you've had some really legendary collabs across your career. What makes a good collaboration?

Honesty. You don't want to tell somebody that you don't like their idea, and they don't want to tell you either. It's always tough. I'm not saying that everybody hated everybody's ideas. It's just like, instead of beating around the bush and dragging on, just getting right to that point, down to what everybody likes and just running with it.

Everybody that I worked with on this album, I know they really know how to produce. So you can have this connection — they've been through it all, too. It was very streamlined because of the talent, so that was really nice.

You've got so many fun sounds on this album. What style was most fun to explore?

That song I did with Carnage, I wrote all the lyrics and the melody. That was fun to step out of my box. It's old school, almost like Eiffel 65. I remember listening to Eiffel 65 on a CD. When there was a good song back in the day, you couldn't just get the song, you had to get the whole album. I'd be listening to Eiffel 65, and "Blue" was on there, but all the other songs really influenced me. I still remember them after how many years. It was cool to tap back on that.

It was really great to work with Sliink on the Jersey Club [track "Back It Up"]. I based a lot of my whole sound on Jersey Club, like a little twist on it. DJ Sliink is a legend. He would be able to whip something up and know "this is the right direction," because he is who he is.

I'm excited to see how it influences you going forward, having the opportunity to explore these other sides of yourself.

That was something that was really sweet about this album. I'm racking through my brain here, and I don't think any song does the same exact genre as any other. The Eptic dubstep is different than Subtronics' dubstep.

That was one thing that I wrestled with, the sequence of the album. You want to make it flow, so I decided to put all the heavy songs back to back, and then just close out the album with the title track.

Speaking of "Shockwave," we hear you singing, and while that's not something entirely new, it feels very personal. Are you more comfortable with your voice after spending the first few years of Marshmello anonymously?

I always grew up in bands, but being in front of people singing wasn't called for in the beginning years of Marshmello. Ironically, I did sing on a lot of stuff, but I pitched the voice up. "Alone" was me, and "WaNt U 2."

"You and Me" was the very first one, kind of a pop-punk EDM vibe, which inspired the whole album of Joytime III. I had it pitched up, and my manager was like, "Why don't you just pitch it down?" I'm like, "Yeah, but that's my real voice," and he's like, "Screw it!" I pitched it down and I was like, "Wait, this sounds sick."

That led into Joytime III which had "Proud," which did really well on [Sirius]XM and what is — I think — the biggest off that album. It's with me singing, too.

Was there a right moment to say "This is who I am under the helmet?" Did revealing your identity change the way you approached the project creatively?

Not really, because I don't really want to bring a lot of light to that. Being anonymous is a big part of the project and what I like about it now. It's not really about following a person around and watching everything they do. It's just listening to music, seeing the helmet and things that I say, which is fine, but I don't think it's about specifically who I am.

Video games are a big part of who you are, from your sound to your early days with Monstercat. There was the Fortnite concert which literally changed the way people see in-game opportunities, and you're a payable skin. What does it mean to you for Marshmello to be a video game character?

It's awesome. I like that people can buy Marshmello helmets in real life. I play a lot of video games, and I know a lot of people play video games. They can be Marshmello and have that feeling almost even more in the video game.

That goes back to the idea that everybody can be Marshmello. Now people who really identify with that can do it in a video game, too, and it stands out, right? All white with that smile. It just gives everybody a chance to connect more with myself.

You've accomplished a lot in your career, but is there a moment you're most proud of?

A lot of big shows that I've done — all the planning, and then executing. Those really stand out to me as far as accomplishments.

Coachella [2017], that was my first time playing. Lollapalooza [2021] really stands out. That was like two weeks of planning. Not even planning — that was two weeks of being on the stage that I played on, and then executing it to exactly where I, and everybody who worked on it, wanted it. I think we're going to come out with a little mini documentary about that whole thing.

So is that what's next for you?

There's a lot of things next. I like elements of surprise, so even if I could tell you, I don't want to.

Everybody wants that feeling of being a rock star in their own way, and in my way, it's DJing — and being able to craft a show with a group of guys that I spend most of my life with. Everybody's connected, all doing the same thing, and has the same passions. It's great to get together, make an idea, practice it, and do it.

I have a lot of songs ready. I'm really excited, and I have my head down right now. Expect to see me a lot [this] year, everywhere.

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: How Illenium Went From An "Obsessed" Dance Music Fan To An Arena-Filling DJ & Producer

Grey Goose And The Recording Academy Gear Up For The GRAMMYs With 'Monday Mix' Featuring JoJo, Lucky Daye, Tinashe, & Law Roach


Grey Goose And The Recording Academy Gear Up For The GRAMMYs With 'Monday Mix' Featuring JoJo, Lucky Daye, Tinashe, & Law Roach

Premiering today, the multi-faceted content series will feature exclusive performances and interviews from top trendsetters from JoJo to Lucky Daye

GRAMMYs/Mar 14, 2022 - 09:35 pm

Grey Goose, the "Official Spirit Partner of the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards," and The Recording Academy are pleased to debut "Monday Mix," an all-new content series that will premiere every Monday throughout the rest of the month.

Starting today, the digital series will feature intimate musical performances and behind-the-scenes footage from trailblazing artists including JoJo, Tinashe, and six-time GRAMMY-nominated artist Lucky Daye

Additionally, Grey Goose will be collaborating with stylist-to-the-stars Law Roach as its official GRAMMY-Style Partner, who will facilitate intimate conversations on music, artistic expression, and effortless style with each artist. Roach will also debut an exclusive new GRAMMYs martini cocktail recipe that viewers can easily make at home.

With each installment of "GREY GOOSE x GRAMMYs: Monday Mix," the vodka brand will reimagine the traditional start of the work week as a day of celebration and build excitement for the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony on Sunday, April 3rd. 

"I'm thrilled to be partnering with an iconic vodka like GREY GOOSE to showcase music and style for the GRAMMYs this year," said Roach. "Music and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand, so getting to speak with some of my favorite artists about how individual style has shaped their artistic vision is really exciting for me. 

"These conversations always go well with a great cocktail," he continued. "So, my guests will be sipping on the delicious Passion Drop — the official cocktail of the GRAMMY Awards — while I'll be sipping on my own twist on a martini cocktail that I call 'The Law.'"

The first "GREY GOOSE x GRAMMYs: Monday Mix" segment launched today at 11:00am EST on Instagram and YouTube with an acoustic performance by multi-platinum recording artist JoJo, followed by Lucky Daye — who is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best Progressive R&B album in this year's ceremony — on March 21, and Tinashe on March 28. 

Read More: With Candydrip, Lucky Daye Is Ready To Deliver A New Kind Of R&B: "I Didn't Want To Sound Like Everybody Else"

"I'm so pleased to be a part of 'Monday Mix' and celebrate a year of incredible music with GREY GOOSE and The Recording Academy," said Tinashe. "Everyone looks forward to the performances at the GRAMMYs ceremony, and I love that this series is extending that enthusiasm beyond just one night. I'm excited for my fans to see my performance later this month. It's going to be a good one!"

All "GREY GOOSE x GRAMMYs: Monday Mix" content can be accessed by following each artist, along with @greygoose and the Recording Academy on all social platforms, as well as on the official GRAMMYs Content Hub. Performances will be accompanied by exclusive interviews, product drops, and behind-the-scenes GRAMMYs content from now through the 28th.

The Content Hub will also house all official GRAMMYs cocktail recipes, including the ceremony's signature cocktail The Passion Drop and Roach's new twist "The Law."

2022 GRAMMYs Awards Show: Complete Nominations List

Nnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music
Nnenna and Pierce Freelon

Photo: Samantha Everette


Nnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music

When Nnenna and Pierce Freelon learned they'd been individually nominated for golden gramophones in different fields at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards, one thing was certain to both of them — the very missed Phil Freelon was cheering them on

GRAMMYs/Mar 16, 2022 - 05:25 pm

The great architect Phil Freelon once said that "art is the most powerful force in the universe." And in a spacious, light-filled house he designed in North Carolina, the wife and son he left behind are meditating on that quote — how it comforts, nurtures and galvanizes them.

"Whenever I say that, I'm capturing the residue of his energy and essence," musician Pierce Freelon tells in a Zoom window with his mom, Nnenna. "I'm pushing it forward into the future, and I'm celebrating his legacy and his wisdom. Everything he told me — he gave me lots of gems. And sharing those gems — sharing a piece of him with other people — I think that's the best way I can do it."

Both Nnenna and Pierce released albums in 2021 — the former made the loss-imbued jazz album Time Traveler, and the latter made Black to the Future, a children's album that explores Afrofuturism. Phil plays a massive role in both, despite passing away of ALS in 2019 — it's like he's in the director's chair. Using sampling and stitching techniques informed by hip-hop, Pierce weaved his father's presence through both albums, even incorporating audio footage of his voice.

And then, a surprise: Nnenna and Pierce learned they'd both been nominated individually in different fields at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. (Nnenna is up for Best Jazz Vocal album; Pierce, for Best Children's Music Album.) At press time, it's official — nobody can find another mother and son nominated for GRAMMYs in separate categories in the same year. And to hear both tell it, it was emotional watching the nominations roll in — and Phil was heavy on their minds. 

"Listen: he's laughing right now," Nnenna — a six-time GRAMMY nominee — tells "One of the things he really, really wanted me to do was keep singing. He is happy, happy, happy right now." 

Read on for an in-depth interview with the Freelons as they discuss Time Traveler and Black to the Future, how they reacted when they learned about their 2022 GRAMMY nominations and how they keep the very missed Phil alive — in music and life alike.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How did you guys react when you learned you were nominated for GRAMMYs as mother and son?

Pierce: I'd called my mom the previous day to say, "Hey, we should get together and maybe do an Instagram Live. It'd be a way to engage our audience. It'd be fun!" Talking my mom into a social media thing isn't always the easiest.

Nnenna: I said no.

Pierce: She said no! She was reluctant to join me. But it was totally cool — I spent the day with my wife and her parents at their place. We were sitting at the edge of our seats, super excited — Children's was first; it was pretty early in the day — and we were super pumped, calling my mom: "Hey!" She congratulated me, and it was really exciting.

But the highlight of my day came 15, 20 minutes later when they did the jazz category. I was sitting there at the edge of my seat, and when they announced her name, I was so thrilled — so excited. I picked up my phone and it was ringing and ringing — "Pick up!" — and she's not picking up the phone! So I called back again and again and again. I'm like, "Where is this lady?"

Meanwhile, I'm a complete mess. It's tears and snot bubbles galore. Way more emotion than when I heard about my nomination. I was just thrilled and moved because I knew what that album meant for her. It was about my dad, and a lot of his energy and presence was with me. And it was so frustrating that I couldn't reach her!

So then, finally, call number five, she picks up the phone. She's like, [Bewildered] "What is it, Pierce?" I'm like, "Where have you been?" She's like, "I was walking the dog." "Mom, you got the nomination!" It was enthusiasm and joy and…

Nnenna: Tears. I had a few tears too. I was like, "Really? Are you serious?" I decided I wanted to be in nature while all this was going down. So, I was walking the dog. There were all these messages from Pierce and other friends and colleagues. It was just an amazing day. It was so great.

Pierce, does everything you do feel like a tribute to your dad, at a certain point?

Pierce: I hold all my ancestors close to me. They influence my voice as an artist, as a father, as a husband. So, yeah, my dad is a big part of my creative voice. My grandmother — my mom's mom — Queen Mother Frances Pierce is another one.

There are a lot of other folks who are not in my family who are deceased, but whose voices ring in my ear with a type of clarity. Sometimes, I say something into a mic and I'm like [Glances upward], "Is that you, Baba Chuck? Is that you, Dad?" Different folks who've poured into me.

I think, absolutely, my dad has been an important part of my music. Particularly, in children's music, as I reflect on themes of fatherhood and love and caregiving. He was that for me, so I hear him a lot in my voice when I sing about those topics.

What was your dad like in person, Pierce? What was it like to have him in the room?

Pierce: Dad was a large presence, physically. He was 6' 5", athletic, charming, and had a great, beautiful smile and laugh. He was positive energy. He was optimistic, had a great sense of humor and was very loving. 

Sometimes, I meet other people's parents and I'm like, "I'm so grateful!" Nothing against them, but there's a brand of Black masculinity that can be very stoic and cold. Not just Black masculinity, but men in general around things like empathy and vulnerability. My dad was loving and goofy and silly and great. 

Nnenna: He loved to tell jokes. He loved puns. Word-y sort of jokes. There's this brand of dad joke that's so corny. It really isn't funny, but you crack up anyway. He was the king of the dad joke.

Pierce: He's up there. might be the king, but he's up there.

Tell me about the creative intent behind Black to the Future. I generally don't think of Afrofuturism as something easily funneled into a medium like children's music.

Pierce: Afrofuturism is a lot more infused into our daily essence than I think we give ourselves credit for. When I think about our family in particular, my mom and dad fell in love over "Star Trek" and books like Dune and authors like Octavia Butler. That was part of our childhood growing up. 

For me, telling stories about Black male vulnerability, celebrating figures like LeVar Burton — who played everyone from Kunta Kinte to Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek" — stepping into spaces of fatherhood that are rarely depicted. On songs like "Braid My Hair," I'm doing the primary caregiving and caretaking of my daughter's crown. 

Those things are very much rooted both in Afrofuturism and in our daily practice as Black people surviving and thriving in this country, which was not designed to happen. So, I think Afrofuturism shows up in a lot of different ways, and it shows up in my family on a daily basis. That's what I tried to communicate through the album. 

Nnenna: I also think that if you really want to look at the future, you need look no further than the youngest person in the room. We create these multiple futures by what we do in these moments that we have. It's not out there; it's right here.

I'm so proud of my son for activating this space, that is a nontraditional place to look for Black men.

Tell me about your experiences working on the record together.

Pierce: Going back to my dad and thinking about my previous album, D.a.D, it really was rooted in a grieving practice — which was connected to digging through the archives.

When my dad was ill, one of the activities we shared was looking at old family videos — VHS and Hi8 tapes. It was kind of a nostalgic grieving ritual that we did together. No music whatsoever — just sharing a moment and memory with my dad. At that point in his struggle with ALS, he was wheelchair-bound. 

But at the same time, as a creator and creative, digging through these archives was sparking a lot of ideas. I was finding things in these old tapes that were ripe for sampling, transformation and reinvention. One of those things was a tape of Mom in eastern North Carolina in 1980-something, singing a song as part of a residency at a school.

The song was really pretty and felt timeless. [Sings and snaps with jazzy cadence] "No one exactly like me/ No one exactly like you." I was like, "Mom, tell me about this! Did you ever record or release this?" It was this relic. She had forgotten about recording it. It was that old.

Digging into those archives and sampling them was part of my practice for Black to the Future. Also, bringing my mom and this lullaby she sang into the future.

Nnenna, I keep thinking about something you said in our last interview — how one needs to propagate grief like a plant with any containers you can, of any size. It seems like both of these albums were vessels of that sort.

Nnenna: Indeed they were. 

I came to music as a live performer. The recording part of what I do came after I developed as a live performer. Of course, now, there are artists who come to music through recording and they've never been on a stage until after the record comes out — and maybe never! There are some people who spend their entire creative lives in a virtual space, and they don't travel.

Pierce really helped me think about a new way of putting this music out there with Time Traveler, using my husband's voice. Incorporating his loving message to me. In that way, the record really became an instrument of time travel. The track ["Time Traveler"] opens with Phil's voice talking to me, even though he's on the other side of the veil. 

It isn't something I would have necessarily gravitated to without Pierce supporting and saying, "Yeah, Mom, yeah! This would be great!"

What's it like to hear Phil's voice these days?

Nnenna: It's a joy for me. He could see his death coming, but he thought, "Let me drop this piece of sweetness for my honey for a time she's really going to need it." He had to think of doing that. For me, it's a super-sweet moment when I hear his voice.

Pierce: I'd have to agree. Around when he passed away, it definitely choked me up. There have been times when a song popped up in a playlist that I didn't expect, and I'll hear his voice. I always smile.

We're at my mom's house right now, which my dad designed. As I pulled up, I felt his presence. I just said [Casually]"Hey, Dad." As if he were here, and he is here. His energy's here.

When I encounter him sonically, energetically, spiritually; when I walk into one of his buildings; when I hear one of his quotes; it's as if he were still here in the physical realm. And I speak to him and relate to him in that casual tone. It's very familiar, and I treat it as a real, human encounter.

I wish you all the best with the GRAMMYs ceremony coming up. Are you guys going?

Nnenna: Yes, we're going. I thought for a moment that maybe I wouldn't, but I have a super-handsome man to walk on the red carpet with.

Pierce: Eyyy!

Nnenna: Somebody that I love. My boo! You have me on one side; you have your beautiful wife on the other side! People are going to be like, "Man, how can we get it like Pierce has it?"

Pierce: I went to the GRAMMYs a ton as a kid, when my mom was nominated in the '90s and early 2000s. This is something I'm really looking forward to and excited about.

How psyched would Phil be about this?

Nnenna: Listen: he's laughing right now. One of the things he really, really wanted me to do was keep singing. He is happy, happy, happy right now.

Living Legends: Jazz Titan Dee Dee Bridgewater On Fighting For Her Rights, Mentoring Young Women & Not Suffering Fools On The Bandstand