PHOTO: Angela Marklew
Meet Sherri Chung, The Score Composer Shaking Up The Television Academy
Take a peek behind the Hollywood curtain to learn how composer Sherri Chung makes music within the confines of visual media: "It's a really specific pairing of creation and craft."
You might not know who Sherri Chung is, but you have probably heard her music.
A composer for film and television, Chung has written the scores for shows including "Riverdale," "Blindspot," "The Red Line," "Batwoman" and "Kung Fu." She’s currently penning tracks for HBO Max’s new "Gremlins" series, and she just made history by being elected the first female governor of the Television Academy’s music branch.
Chung’s work requires her to set moods that contribute to the stories being told on screen. She can create drama with a piano and romance with a beat, but also has to keep her clients in mind. Her work must creatively serve their story, often working within rigorous limitations of time, budget, and phrasing. As she explains, “It's creation, but within the confines and parameters that are much more specific and set out for you."
Somehow, Chung manages to work miracles, crafting distinctly different sounds for all of her projects and creating whole worlds out of her small studio. She’s a sonic scene-setter, a talented musician, and an important part of the creative process.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Chung for a glimpse behind the Hollywood curtain.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you get into composing? It's not one of those careers that most people really realize is an option; most kids want to be veterinarians or astronauts, not composers.
Most kids don't, but I did. I was 12 or 13 when I saw Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and fell in love with Michael Kaman's score. I had grown up in music. I was a classically trained pianist and I was doing a lot of music with the church, playing piano and playing in a jazz band… but that kind of music was obviously very different from film or television music.
When I saw Robin Hood... I don't know what it was, because I'd seen movies with excellent music before, but I just saw this movie and was so moved by Michael Kaman's score and how it all worked with the picture. It was just like, "I don't know what that job is, but I want to do that." That music just moved me so much. It was orchestral like I was sort of studying, but it was also very, very dramatic storytelling music.
I did my undergrad in straight up composition and then I actually came out to the University Of Southern California for their graduate program for film and TV scoring.
Is there a traditional path to becoming a film composer, or maybe an accepted way to get into the business?
Well, there's definitely a formal-ish way. For me, I'd go to get my education and then put yourself out there doing film stuff, especially if you put yourself in a city like Los Angeles. I made a lot of connections that way through the graduate program and that's just what it's designed to do. It puts you in the thick of it.
Then I became an assistant, which is a solid way to get to where you want to go. You assist another composer, or you could even go work in all different kinds of other jobs that are all part of composing for film and television. You could work in a copy office where they're preparing the music for recording.
There are also the other completely unconventional ways of getting into the industry. Some people just fall into it, or maybe they're coming from the band world and they just randomly do their friend's film and that film happens to do really, really well at festivals.
There are so many different ways to do it, but I would say that definitely going the assistant route, which is what I did...That's a good way to learn the ropes and the skills and get into it.
Say you get hired onto a new project. What comes next? How do you do your job?
Without getting too into the weeds, composing for film and TV has two very different sides that, when you can do them together really well…makes people into successful composers.
There's the artistic side where you're doing the actual composing and writing and creating of music, and then there's the... I don't want to say the administrative side, but it's a little less creative and more on the technical side of things. For that, you're not just creating music, but you're creating music within a very specific set of parameters, like "We need a very specific vibe or tone here, but it needs to be only be the length of this scene or the length of the sequence." Or "I would really love it if we could just touch upon that look that the actor gives," or "When that door opens, we want to feel something there."
It's creation, but within the confines and parameters that are much more specific and set out for you as dictated. You are creating something based on something that already exists that, in general, cannot change. It is the length of time they want it to be, and it has the look.
In terms of how I do my job, I am very much influenced visually, so I'll definitely look at the picture. If there's no picture, maybe I'll just read a script or read a story, or maybe just have a conversation. From there, on a logistical sense, I start mapping out the work. I do have to think about the time that I'm given to do a project — whether it's however long or however many minutes of music, or someone saying, "We really have tight deadlines here because we have a test screening," or "We really want to see what your ideas are here." You have to work backwards from there and then you have to go in and create within a time limit.
I like to write away from picture first, just to conceptualize some things and to take out the parameters. I mean, there will always be parameters, but I do it so that I can be in an editable and producible situation where I'm slowly creating and playing and having fun. Even if none of those ideas ever make it into the project, I like having that time to explore.
What makes a project connect with you? Is there a throughline in the work that you're most proud of?
It's two things. It's a really good story, or a story being told in a way that I feel is relatable and resonates — and I know that's subjective. It's that pairing along with the trust from the filmmaker or producer or director, whoever it is. That they have the trust to say, "I really would love to hear your take on this and what you really want to do." Then you can go from there.
I think it's a little bit more fun and more effective, honestly, as an artist, when someone says, "I've heard your work, I've heard your music. I know who you are. We talked and we get along, so let's do everything together." It's really about the collaboration and getting permission, if you will, to have a point of view.
In that sense, how important are relationships within the industry?
That's pretty much the basis of everything.
People always say it's about who you know, and the connotation to that is that you have to know somebody important or famous, or somebody who's really, really successful. That's actually not really the case.
It's really about knowing a person who's maybe doing some project that you want to know more about. Maybe they're an editor on a project that's looking for a composer, and they say "Hey, I know a composer that I think would be really good for this project" and they give the creators your name. That editor might not be the most household name editor that you've ever heard of, but they just happen to be on this project and they submit your name.
It really is about knowing a person and doing a good job so that those relationships can build, because even if you may not work with that person again, they might recommend you to someone else. I think it's about each thing that you do, each task or project or gig or even transaction or conversation... just to try and be as successful and reliable as you possibly can. Success begets success and word of mouth gets around.
There's an element of honesty to it as well, I think. You have to have the ability to also be able to say, "I'm not the right person for this project, but let me point you to someone who is." People respect that humility.
My first and only assistant gig started out that way. There were a couple of people that I knew that were up for an assistant position, but I was talking with the composer who was doing the hiring. I was like, "I would love to do this and I'm a quick learner, but if you really need this thing, you should really talk to that other person."
I got the gig and I've always believed that it maybe came down to my honesty or maybe my openness or maybe just the fact that they said, "I want to work with a person who doesn't necessarily come with their ego."
When you're working on a show like "Kung Fu" or "Gremlins" or "Riverdale," how do those creators relay their vision? How do shows differ in terms of their sonic footprint?
In the case of "Kung Fu," the creator and showrunner Christina M. Kim was a writer and then a producer on a previous show that I have worked on called "Blindspot." When Christina decided to make "Kung Fu," I don't want to say naturally she asked me, because she didn't have to, but I do think what I brought to the table was reliability and some experience. Sometimes you just want to start there.
I know that this was Christina's first show in terms of showrunning and there were a lot of people that she wanted to work with again simply because she'd worked with them before. We have something that we can both reference that we were on before.
"Gremlins" [is] such a wildly different score than any of those other projects. That actually came about through a demo. There was an executive over at the studio that I had worked with on a different project and they put me up as one of the options for this project.
I did a blind demo for "Gremlins," so it was one of those situations where you say, "This is my take on the project and this is what I feel I would bring to it." They hired me just because of that.
How are women doing in the composing world? Is there a "Women In Composing" association?
In terms of the ratio of men to women, it's definitely not 50-50. Depending on who you ask and what their experiences are, you'll hear varying reasons for that — like that women haven't been allowed in, or that it's a man's world. There are a lot of female composers, though, and I'm not certainly not one of the first. Instead, I'm one of many.
My personal take is that it's a difficult career, and it's an expensive one. It's also not a huge moneymaker for a very long time, if ever. I've been very fortunate, but it's something that you have to really want and it takes a lot of hard work.
I don't mean that in a gender specific way, really, but when I did my undergrad, I was the only female studying composition for the entire four years I was there. In graduate school, I was one of two females in the class. I think that has a lot to do with interest. Maybe there are other females out there that just need role models and they haven't seen a lot of female composers out there.
There's been a really big push toward equality lately, though. There's the Alliance For Women Film Composers, and that's helped to make females visible. There's been a lot of other support and outreach, and a lot of studios are really stepping up and saying, "We're going to push for this call for diversity, whether it be ethnic diversity, cultural diversity or gender diversity." At a lot of studios, people have been taking their own stand and saying, "We really want to fill some of these positions with different people and we want to hear some voices that we haven't heard before."
Hollywood has changed a lot in the past 10 or 20 years, with more and more outlets producing more and more work. How has composing changed?
It's really changed. There's more content out there, so there's more need to hire people to make more music. That actually opens up the platform for different kinds of music, and not only just culturally. I mean like, "Now we don't have to necessarily hire someone who does this for a living. We can actually just get a band or we can take chances on this other person." With more opportunity and storytelling, people are taking more chances making their films and making their television shows.
Digitally, there's way more music out there because of the dawn of mp3s however many years ago. That changed everything about the availability and the accessibility of music, because it was just right there. People started saying, "I'll license that" or "I found something I like on YouTube. Who's the composer?" I believe that's how Michael Abels was discovered by Jordan Peele.
There are a lot of international composers, too. There's a lot of film and television being made all over the world. There always was, but I think we always considered L.A. to be the biggest hub; I don't know if that's true anymore. There are people all over the place making so much film, and there's so much opportunity now.
None of that opportunity was there when I started 12 years ago, and people who started 10 years before me would say, "Are you kidding me? It's nothing like when I started."
I think that technology drew a line in the sand for a lot of people before me as well. There were a lot of talented composers, but they weren't necessarily able or willing to keep up with the technology. By that, I mean in terms of being able to demonstrate the music that they could compose and the music that they could write. When [Jaws and Star Wars composer] John Williams first started, Steven Spielberg went to the scoring stage. He'd heard John Williams play his themes maybe only on piano prior to that, but he'd go to the scoring stage and hear this entirely orchestrated piece of what you hear now in the movies. There was no ability to mock up or demo what you would do. There was no fake orchestra or samples. You were it.
It's a different skill set now. The technology has gotten even crazier since I started, too. It just seems like that drew a line in the sand between a lot of the lot of composers who could put pencil to paper and create a gorgeous orchestration, and producers and studios who would say "I need to hear it before we hire you."
You are the first female governor of the music branch of the Television Academy. What does that mean to you and what are your plans there?
It's such an honor to be there. Right now, my co-governor and I are really doing a lot. The Television Academy has been trying to have a call for diversity to make sure that we're representing our community, so…we're just trying to make sure that the Academy is representative of our community, and that the community is represented in the Academy. We have a sort of symbiotic relationship.
I'm trying to be a voice for all of the members of the Television Academy in the music branch. I want to share what the Academy does and how much we're giving back to the community, and how much we're part of the community. I'm still just getting my bearings, but I hope to continue on with the push for inclusivity, diversity, equity and all those wonderful things. It's an amazing organization and I want to keep tapping into how great and intricate and complex it really is.
Photo: Michael Goldman
Terri Lyne Carrington Is Making Strides For Inclusion And Mentorship In Jazz. And You Can Hear All Of Them In Her Sound.
With her 'New Standards' multimedia project, the extraordinary drummer Terri Lyne Carrington is fighting the good fight for representation of women composers. And all of it leads back to her mighty sound — and her connectivity with her fellow musicians.
A rainshower of recent press coverage has positioned Terri Lyne Carrington as a conservator, a custodian, a caretaker of the canon — and that's deservedly so.
In Sept. 2022, the three-time GRAMMY-winning drummer released New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers. This sheet music collection rebalances the gender scales and shines a light on women who have been blatantly underrepresented in male-dominated "fake books" — figures like Toshiko Akiyoshi, Geri Allen, Joanne Brackeen, Carla Bley, and Mary Lou Williams.
Accompanying this was new STANDARDS vol. 1 — the first in a series of albums aiming to cover all 101 compositions. Therein, Carrington, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Linda May Han Oh, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and guitarist Matthew Stevens interpreted compositions by women composers represented in the book — like Brandee Younger's "Respected Destroyer," clarinetist Anet Cohen's "Ima," and Bley's "Two Hearts (Lawns)."
This multimedia project does a lot to contextualize Carrington as something of a gravitational center for gender equity in jazz. As an NEA Jazz Master — one of the highest honors a musician in this field can receive — with decades of experience under her belt, Carrington is a worthy representative for this sea change in classrooms, conservatories, workshops and stages.
But while New Standards is a historic and long-overdue achievement, discussions of exactly why Carrington fits into this nexus can get lost in the sauce. Carrington is an extraordinary musician — full stop.
Both her records and live performances speak volumes about how she brings people from divergent backgrounds together, engenders rapport between them, and encourages them to forge forward on their own terms.
No matter which setting or ensemble she appears in, Carrington conjures an ineffable center of gravity. When she's behind the kit, the music takes on new architecture, fresh integrity and a unique sense of purpose and destination.
This was wholly apparent onstage at New York's Village Vanguard in May, when Carrington appeared as part of Kris Davis' Diatom Ribbons ensemble, alongside guitarist Julian Lage, turntablist Val Jeanty and bassist Trevor Dunn.
"I like ebb and flow, and the other thing is time feel. Kris has amazing time, so we connect," Carrington tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom, with her dry, languid and down-to-earth manner. "Also, this reference you would have in common has to do with phrasing. If she plays a phrase, I'm able to hear where it's going before it goes there, and vice versa." (Adds Davis: "She knows when to light a fire, and when to sit back and let things happen.")
But time and phrasing aside, what accounts for the heft in her playing? The heaving, pendulum-like swing? The sense that even a strike of a ride cymbal is a declaration?
Terri Lyne Carrington. Photo: Michael Goldman
The River Of Tradition
Matthew Stevens, who plays in Carrington's ensemble Social Science, sees her work through the lens of the lineage. He names a few stupendous, highly compositional drummers before her: Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and her personal mentor, Jack DeJohnette.
"She has a certain way of playing time that's really rare by today's standards," Stevens tells GRAMMY.com. "And I think it's just by virtue of coming up under and playing with the mentors that she played with."
The path to DeJohnette came by way of Carrington's early life, when her father exposed her to heavy-grooving records, including those by James Brown and organ trios led by Jimmy Smith, "Brother" Jack McDuff, and Richard "Groove" Holmes.
"The velocity of drummers — of pushing a band — that was my foundation," Carrington says. From there, she analyzed the mechanics of timekeeping, and the concept of interweaving drums through the music in a perpetual flow of organized improvisation.
"I don't feel like I even like to solo," she adds, "because I feel like I'm soloing through everybody else's solo." And all of these concepts are in abundance within DeJohnette, a two-time GRAMMY winner and one of the most revered jazz drummers of the 1970s and beyond.
A Mentor In DeJohnette
Among other accomplishments during his long and storied career, DeJohnette has played on electric Miles classics like Bitches Brew, worked with saxophone luminaries like John Coltrane, Jackie McLean and Charles Lloyd, and cut albums in various contexts for ECM Records. And contemporary offerings like 2016's In Movement show that his abilities remain undimmed.
DeJohnette and Carrington met when she was about 16, by the elder drummer's estimation. From early on, her budding mentor encouraged see the big picture in music, and the value of people — and she not only listened to his counsel, but ran with it.
"We wouldn't really talk about the drums, necessarily, but we listened to music," he tells GRAMMY.com. "She's got her own sound and her own approach, and she started expanding… She learned how to be a good leader, and to get the most out of the musicians she worked with. That's what a good drummer does — inspire the players to forge ahead."
"He's just a really well-rounded drummer who's very organic, and I think that's what I related to with his playing," Carrington says. "He was very open, he could play free — he could play straight-ahead, of course, and could play funky stuff. So, I was very much inspired by him."
Watching Carrington do her thing live, you'll see one of DeJohnette's axioms play out: "We're always trying to be free within the boundaries."
"I like to keep stretching and pushing the boundaries as far as I can, so you're remaining open and can figure out organically: What's the next thing I can do to take the music someplace else?" Carrington says. "It's always about a journey and a mystery: How do I find a mystery? What can I do at this moment to bring things together, or mess things up in a good way, or inspire somebody else, or inspire myself to play something I feel really good about?"
Carrington was asking herself these questions when she performed in Detroit with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Leo Genovese — which was just released on Sept. 9 as Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival 2017.
Her Connectivity In Action
The titanic (and sadly underheralded) pianist and composer Geri Allen was supposed to be on the gig; on June 27 of that year, she had passed away at only 60. In mourning, the reconstituted quartet decided to perform her "Drummer's Song" and dedicate the evening to her.
In this context, the boundaries were partly dictated by these four specific musicians from differing generations, and their matrix of memories and inspirations related to Allen.
"She was looking forward to that show; I remember we were talking about it," Carrington rues. "But the four of us have a strong history in varying ways. There was a lot of love on this stage, and a lot of trust, and a lot of knowledge about each other musically and personally; we've played together a lot."
What transpired on that stage — as you can hear on the record — is what happens when Carrington's the rhythmic core of any ensemble; it takes on a majestic logic of its own.
After the show, "I remember Esperanza, Leo and I kind of looked at each other without saying anything. We all gave that look of, 'Did you feel it, too? Did you feel what I felt?' … It's kind of a lifetime of preparation that sometimes comes together on a certain evening."
That unshakeable integrtion — not just with her fellow musicians, but those before her — permeates all facets of Carrington's work. As the Founder and Artistic Director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice since 2005, she, in the words of her online bio, "teaches, mentors, and advocates for musicians seeking to study jazz with racial justice and gender justice as guiding principles."
How did social justice come to be part and parcel with Carrington's career? She says it was incremental — and predated her position at said collegiate institute.
A Swell Of Empathy
"I started having empathy for people who had experiences I didn't experience," she recalls. "If a woman came up to me and said, 'I'm having this trouble,' I would just give her advice based on my life, which I realized was not the right thing: 'Oh, just plow through. Just be the best.' Or, 'You can; just don't pay attention to that!'"
This enhanced consideration of discrepancies felt across the gender and racial spectrum led Carrington on the path to New Standards. "Then, you start thinking about animal justice or environmental justice," she says. "All the other things that you want to be involved with, or concerned about, so you leave the planet better than when you found it, if that's possible."
This value system is harmonious with that of the Recording Academy, which continually fights for the rights of all music people through MusiCares, Advocacy, and many other outlets. And naturally, Carrington was a prime candidate for their Board of Trustees, where she served for two terms.
And given her positive experience, she's thinking of getting involved again.
Terri Lyne Carrington. Photo: Michael Goldman
"I just termed out as a trustee, but I learned a lot and became a voice for the things that I'm concerned with, which tend to be on the margins," she says. "Just think jazz; that's on the margins when you think about the Academy, because it's such a small percentage of consumed music and the mentorship."
Reflecting on her time with the Academy, Carrington cites a common flaw in public understanding of the organization.
"Everybody wants to win a GRAMMY, but a lot of people either don't join, or don't vote, or don't get involved," she says. "The best way to do that is to get involved and understand the organization — and the biggest thing is to serve."
Translating this advice into action, Carrington has worked under the organization's umbrella to continue pushing for constructive change. Of course, you don't need to play an instrument — much less master one — to do that.
But Carrington has. Which means the heartbeat of her values — and how she relates to and communicates with her fellow musicians — rings out for all who will listen.
"A Bridge Between Worlds"
"She's a visionary, and most likely the hardest-working person I know," bassist Linda May Han Oh, who performed on new STANDARDS vol. 1, tells GRAMMY.com.
Oh calls Carrington "a bridge between worlds" capable of bringing disparate people and communities together for the love of music-making: "She's able to connect like-minded musicians who may not even be from the same genre, from the same style."
"She's a beautiful human being, someone you are drawn to and can easily connect with," he tells GRAMMY.com. But this interpersonal amenability never translated to meek or docile playing — far from it.
"She's such an exciting and explosive drummer, never playing it safe," Ferrante adds, remembering working with her quartet in tandem with her Yellowjackets affiliation. "I quickly realized her music demanded a heightened level of focus and listening. So much is implied in her playing, and a momentary lapse of focus and concentration came at your own peril!"
"Her intuition is in alignment with Linda and I," Davis says about making music with Carrington. "That push-and-pull, with drama and creating a storyline in the music."
That word — "storyline" — piques curiosity. Especially when considering Carrington's role in the music community, whether she's shaping the flow of an ensemble, mentoring young talent or changing the game via lead-sheet representation for women.
Because Carrington isn't just telling a story within the bounds of a composition, or a gig, or a record date, or even her catalog in its entirety. Her wider story could involve all of us.
Up Close & Personal: Shaggy And Sting Discuss Their Musical Beginnings, Songwriting Processes And GRAMMY-Winning Collaboration
Two GRAMMY-winning musical legends joined together in this Nashville Chapter member-exclusive program, which was filmed at Nashville's Ocean Way and moderated by Chrissy Metz.
Friends and collaborators Shaggy and Sting came together for a conversation at Nashville's Ocean Way Studio recently — and the result was a lengthy discussion about the way they write songs, the backstories behind some of their biggest hits, and of course, their GRAMMY-winning work together.
In an in-depth installment of Up Close & Personal, presented by the Recording Academy's Nashville Chapter and moderated by "This Is Us" star Chrissy Metz, the member-exclusive program presented an informal conversation that took fans through both artists' careers to date.
The two stars hail from very different parts of the world — Sting grew up in England, and became the frontman for legendary rock group the Police, while Shaggy was born in Kingston, Jamaica. but over the years, they've found layers of commonalities in their work.
In speaking about his songwriting process, Sting — who has written classic-rock hits like "Roxanne" and "Every Breath You Take" — notes that he mostly writes solo, a rarity in the famed songwriting collaboration hub of Music City.
"I've always been envious of people who have a writing partner," Sting says. "Lennon and McCartney, they were constantly playing off each other, competing with each other, and that was one of the engines of their success."
"But I never actually found that person, and I'm still alone," he adds, with a joke: "Isn't it sad?"
But he found an unlikely but fruitful creative partner in Shaggy for the two collaborative albums they've released together. One of them is 44/876, which won Best Reggae Album at the 2019 GRAMMYs — and includes a number of songs that the two artists co-wrote.
Shaggy explains that one of the reasons their songwriting partnership was so successful was because of their friendship: Where songwriting can be a tedious, solitary struggle, the two artists found that heading into the writer's room together broke some tension.
"I write a lot of songs, I'm pretty successful at it, but I don't particularly love it," Shaggy notes. "I like the live aspects of it. That's why I like working with him, because it's not as intense. It's more [like] we laugh, and out of that laughter comes something that works, that we hopefully both like."
To learn more about the two artists' creative processes — plus Shaggy's stint on The Masked Singer, and why they think the original James Bond might have been Jamaican — press play on the video above to watch the full episode of Up Close & Personal.
Sound Bites: Gladys Knight Recounts Her First GRAMMY Wins, Shares Experience Of Watching Her Music Rise To A Global Stage
In this from-the-vault interview footage, Gladys Knight takes fans back in time to the night she and her band won their first golden gramophones at the 1974 GRAMMYs.
Over more than three decades as a band, soul-funk act Gladys Knight and the Pips rose to the very top of the musical mainstream. And singer Gladys Knight points to one of the major steppig stones toward global success: the evening they won their first GRAMMYs.
At the 1974 GRAMMYs, the band were nominated in two categories, but didn’t necessarily expect to win. After all, they’d been in the mix four times before, and ultimately walked away empty-handed.
So when their names were called as the winners of the GRAMMY for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus — for “Midnight Train to Georgia” — the band was a tad caught off guard.
“And you know how they start looking around to see where everybody is? We weren’t where we were supposed to be,” Knight recounts with a laugh, in this archival footage courtesy of GRAMMY.com. “You should’ve seen us moving people out of the way trying to get to the stage.”
They also forgot the speech they’d drafted four years earlier, back when they were first nominated. Instead, Knight improvised an eloquent speech onstage that thanked their management company, label and everyone else who helped them along the way.
Gladys Knight and the Pips’ time onstage that night wasn’t over: they also won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus, bringing their golden gramophone total up to two during the ceremony.
“Never in a million years did we dream we would win two GRAMMYs in one night. Never in a million years. And we dream a lot,” Knight continues.
To the band, their wins in those particular categories also signified a rise to a global platform unburdened by boxes. People around the world were listening to Gladys Knight and the Pips, and they couldn’t be confined to one genre box or demographic.
“Sometimes in the industry you tend to get pigeonholed, because of either what you sound like, or what you look like or where you come from, or whatever,” Knight continues. “It was just an awesome dream come true. It really was.”
Press play on the video above to hear Knight’s first-hand memories of her GRAMMY-winning experience, and keep checking GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Sound Bites.
Photo: LaQuann Dawson
Durand Bernarr's 'Wanderlust': The R&B Singer Explains Why He's "Constantly In A State Of Arriving"
With Durand Bernarr’s 'Wanderlust' out now, the singer/songwriter speaks about leading the next wave of inclusionary R&B, merging comedy with his crooning, and why joining his congregation makes you family.
Singer/songwriter and all-around tour de force Durand Bernarr has long excelled in showing how dope he is.
Born into a musically rich family — his mother was a professional music teacher and vocal coach, and his father did sound production for Earth, Wind & Fire — Bernarr not only had the chops for singing, but a larger-than-life personality.
Performing under the moniker "alcholharmony," Bernarr became one the YouTube’s first ever viral singing stars in 2007. Following the release of 8ight: The Stepson of Erykah Badu, Bernarr joined Badu as background vocalist, which elevated his profile leading up to his insta-classic album, Dur&, in 2020. The release netted Bernarr into a slate of notable appearances and viral offerings, as well as a legion of "cousins" who have joined his congregation of love, laughs, and lusciousness.
Fast forward to present day, and "the version of Little Richard that religion did not get to," has become a mainstay in R&B. His recently-released Wanderlust features 12 immersive songs ranging from self-reflective and confessional stylings ("Vacancy" feat. Just Liv) to the bouncy and boundary-setting like ("Boundaries," "H.I." feat. Devin Tracy), alongside instrumental work from Frank Moka and Braylon Lacy.
The first single, "Lil Bit," produced by ActzMusiq and featuring Metta, finds the Cleveland-to-Los Angeles crooner looking for someone who is "little bit ugly."
Bernarr and his brand of gangsta musical theater has made him become one of the inescapably popular voices in R&B, collaborating with The Internet, Ari Lennox, Patrick Paige II, Knxwledge, and Kaytranada. Add to the mix that Bernarr’s sold-out "Step Into My Office Tour" kept the summer active for many. The singer spoke with GRAMMY.com about Wanderlust, finding grace throughout the process and growing into his place as a playlist mainstay.
Whenever someone is around you, they’ll notice just how much your congregation flocks to you and appreciates your presence. What do you think it is about the Durand Bernarr Experience that connects so strongly with others?
First and foremost, I think people love it when someone has a very good attitude. They like it when they can come experience someone — whether in person or virtually — and feel uplifted by them.
With me having that familiar presence and feeling like a family member or best friend, it has that Midwestern/Southern charm that connects people to me. I feel a balance between them and me as a human being that goes a bit beyond just the music.
There are quite a few lyrical gems on Wanderlust that will surely find their way onto social media. "When the journey ain’t s—t, but the destination is lit," is affirming to those who are a work in progress. What inspired the hook for "Destination"...? What did giving yourself grace look like while putting together this album?
It came from a conversation I was having with someone; I was just trying to encourage them. This process of growth and getting out of one’s comfort zone is never comfortable at all. It takes going somewhere to get something. We sometimes forget to be present so that we can appreciate this journey from grinding to hustling to a space of arriving.
I’m constantly in a state of arriving, in a constant state of being in the journey. But these destinations are kind of like pockets, there is always going to be something else that we can learn and discover. And giving myself grace looked like not being so hard on myself. Grace looked like knowing I’m not going to get it right the first time and to allow myself to be a human being.
There’s this quote that I saw where it said, ‘When you’re talking down to yourself or negatively, your inner child is listening.’ We have to be careful of how we speak about ourselves to ourselves because we are always listening.
How would you describe your growth from your humble beginnings to now?
Dur& is my ninth project and I understand that overnight success is actually 10 years. From putting out mixtapes to a compilation project to the actual albums and EPs, I’ve built a brand from Alcoholharmony to now, and I let the music really tell the story. [With Wanderlust] I think I scaled back a bit on the vocal gymnastics and reveled in moments of simplicity.
There’s a song on there in particular where I don’t adlib on the chorus at all, only on the bridge, and it is a bit more simple as opposed to my earlier approach. It’s like each instrument on the song has its part and that’s that. So, you’re able to catch things easier with this album.
Wanderlust is the first time you had a band joining you in the studio. Can you delve into the production and who joined you for this joyous revival?
I was talking to [producer and musician] Sam Hoffman about this. He did all of the interludes on Dur& and produced two songs on this project. Up until this point, I’ve had boot camps that were just full of musicians who loved to create moments. We did that constantly during a Monday night jam session and it ended up being something that turned into a project.
I cannot ever not do that ever again, because to be in the room with all these musicians was great. The first time I did that was with the Free Nationals back in 2019. I got a chance to create from scratch working with them in the studio, which really inspired the need for me to do that with Wanderlust. So, playing with me are guys who I’ve been playing with for some time now. We were able to create so fast and get off so many different ideas.
It was dope to have these different perspectives. From Frank Moka, [the] drummer with Erykah Badu to Brother B, who played on Mama’s Gun, to Daniel Jones — we have very strong vibes and a different musicality that came together to create Wanderlust. I’m so proud of it and proud of them.
I know which song is going to be the one that’s going to take off — and it’s not even the first single. I’ve been listening to it nonstop and if I have been sure about nothing else, it’s this — Wanderlust is a beautiful moment that I’m grateful to have had everyone a part of.
I hate to say that I’ve outdone myself because I wasn’t trying to do that, but I definitely outdid myself [laughs].
Wanderlust also features the voices of Just Liv and Devin Tracy, who offer some more range and color to the album. Did they share any lessons or words of advice that helped during the recording process?
My main struggle was just the timing of everything, making sure that we loved the song. I wanted us all to love them. It reminded me of something that Teedra Moses told me a while ago about her music: "I don’t like people to listen to my stuff until it’s completely done," she said. "I’ve done everything that I need to and put everything into it. So, if I release that and you don’t like it, well, hey, I get it. But if you don’t like it because I didn’t get a chance to really love it myself, then that affects me."
I’m in a space now where I love these songs on Wanderlust — from the nuances to the things I want to pout when people hear it.
This album is made for your headphones, for your cars. It is really to immerse yourself like my CoronaJournal, which is also recommended listening because you’ll get some laughs or ‘I know that’s right’ moments when you listen to it [laughs].
How would you describe Wanderlust to someone who’s just becoming familiar with your sound?
I’d say that Wanderlust is still in the realm of gangsta musical theater. There’s humor in it throughout and full of perspective and sonic adventures. The album takes you on a myriad of different genres from African funk to ‘80s video games, where I tap into my Sault bag — I love me some Cleo Sol — to New Orleans church vibes.
The quality of the music on Wanderlust has beautifully evolved. I feel like I can still go back to albums like Sound Check and Dur& and sing these songs 20 years from then.
There’s still things that are adult enough or age-appropriate enough for me to still be able to dig back into. Dur& has aged very well and on its two-year birthday; I love that people are still getting into it. Getting into songs like "Stuck," and I love that.
Tyler, the Creator had recently said that one post about your art isn’t going to be enough. Every day is a new opportunity to introduce people to your work. And while I thought that Dur& was the masterpiece — and it was — Wanderlust came along and was like the Voodoo to its Brown Sugar.
It’s no secret that there’s a rise in there being more gender-fluid and inclusionary artists who are breaking through and impacting the charts. How does it impact you when people see you as a leader of this new wave? Do you view yourself as such?
I have to remind myself that I’ve been out here for about 15 years. My first YouTube video is about to be 15 come this December. [Laughs] This means that it is now legally able to work. When I get approached by others or told that my music is being studied, I love it. To open people up to achieve agency to be themselves, to write the songs that they want to sing about is a powerful feeling. If Durand can say he’s in love with somebody’s grown ass man, then I can write my story about whatever because it is also important.
You never know the impact that you have on someone by just being yourself. Hopefully, by you being yourself, it can be seen as a positive thing. It is an asset to the space and not a liability. I’m grateful to …even have a moment where Lil Nas X and Normani are getting big eyes. I’m excited to see how much further being who I am can take me and what that can do for other people in their journey.
How much of this music that I’ve put out is going to be the soundtrack to their lives, their adventures of self-discovery, and taking chances and believing in themselves? It’s an amazing and beautiful thing to think about because it’s such a tangible thing that I can feel [within].
It’s really showing that you’re laying the groundwork for others to follow. How do you deconstruct yourself to pull out these raw truths that make it into your lyrics?
I have to be in a space where either I’ve already worked through what it is that I’ve experienced and now I can tell the story, or I’m writing to work through it and get it out.
I’ve mastered the art of being able to tell a story without really telling a story. It’s worded in a way where it is ambiguous enough to get a reaction, but depending on where you are in your life and what you’re going through, a person might interpret it in a completely different way than what the reality is for me and where it stems from.<em></em>
A few months back you drove the internet into a tizzy with your "Vocal Charm School" post, which namechecked some notable voices in the industry. When the spirit moved you to make the video, how did you respond to the reaction you got?
I was almost not going to post it because I felt like I needed to be focused on other things. But at the same time, I am a consumer, I’m a comedian, and this is funny [laughs]. I love to make people laugh and my whole thing was I don’t like to complain about something if I don’t at least have a solution to go with it. So, [for the R&B Verzuz,] if I see someone with shaky breath control or needs to work on their blending, I just put it out there that I’m willing to assist. [Laughs] That’s the thing: Hit me up, let’s work together, and we can get this moving in the right direction.
I was serious [in the post] when I said come to the show. I wanted them all to be there. They would’ve been taken care of and have a great seat. They would get a full comprehension of what it means to use your voice as an instrument. When you spend time with it, when you really take it serious, then the results are going to show. For a lot of us, if we did not have music or our voices, we would’ve pressed eject on this motherf—ker a long time ago.
After it was all said and done, has anyone taken you up on the chance to stay after altar call and workshop with you?
There were people who wanted to be in it, but as far as [those who were on Verzuz], ain’t nobody responding [laughs]. It’s OK, I’m just gonna send them the DVD.
For those who missed your Step Into My Office tour, but are excited to delve into Wanderlust — sum up why this project is important to be placed into audiophiles’ rotation?
We are in dire need of some razzle dazzle in the music scene right now. Everybody is so sad. Everything is so dark. Don’t nobody know how to love. Their discernment is off. Mercury is in retrograde and I just want everyone to pop their shoulders effortlessly to this album. That’s why [on Wanderlust] there’s only three-and-a-half songs out of 12 songs that are below 80 bpm. Anything else that you hear is going to move the body, hell, even the slow stuff got some knocks to it [laughs].
I’m really interested in people dissecting "New Management," which was inspired by the end of Lil Nas X’s "Call Me By Your Name" video, and started out as a joke. But then as I’m writing the song, I made it into a song and started to dive into my childhood traumas, which led into realizing that everything I was taught to be afraid of was a fear tactic. Now, I’m able to live my life happily as a human being and revel in this opportunity to experience this beautiful thing called life.