The Beauty Created: An Interview With Singer Jesse Boykins III
By Mawuse Ziegbe, Photo (c) J. Shotti
No one has more swoon-worthy finesse than Jesse Boykins III. With his breathy intonations, boyish hustle and collaborations with artists like Melo-X and Theophilus London; he's making noise in a soul music scene aching for something classic and new. In an age where vocals course through vocoders and double-clicks rule the DJ booth, Boykin's New School-bred production and arrangement skills are both novel and necessary. His second album The Beauty Created is awash in richly textured instrumentation and driven by Jesse's lyrical adoration of a woman's quirks. Giant Step spoke with the Miami native about '90s boy bands, working out with Bilal and, of course, the fairer sex.
The girls were literally going crazy at your show! I've never seen women react like that, especially to a new artist. How does it feel to be up there? Do you see it like that?
I really don't pay attention to it that much. I like performing, I like entertaining. I like making the night memorable. The image stuff, I really don't pay it any mind.
What about that girl that jumped on stage? Does that happen a lot?
Actually it does. If there's a stage, sometimes it gets like that. But I'm not a pop star or anything.
The ladies think you are!
I take that as a huge compliment. It's really rare that somebody does that in soul music. I'm glad that I bring that out of people.
What does soul music mean to you?
Music from the heart. When I say that, it gets categorized as neo-soul. I don't really call my music neo-soul. Anything I put my vocals over...it's still soulful because it's from the heart.
What can people expect when they see your show?
An experience. When I go to shows I want to feel different emotions. I want to be sad for a song, I want to be happy for a song, I want to hear a song that makes me remember somebody. I want people to feel like I know them when I'm performing. I remember, I had a show at Joe's Pub and someone [came] who had never heard of me before. [She said] "I had the most terrible day. But I heard you singing and I forgot about it." That's what I want.
It's interesting that when people listen to your music they wouldn't know that you're originally from Jamaica.
As far as my accent of course, I lost that years ago. I feel like it's still in my music as far as rhythm and my phrasing. Even my songwriting too. My large influence is from the stuff I used to listen to when I was growing up [like] Sizzla, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. When I moved to Miami my big influence was from the radio. [Then] my mentor in the sixth grade started putting me on to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Brian McKnight, cats that I wouldn't be able to hear on the radio. That's when I started getting into songwriting and figuring out how to write a song.
What was playing on Miami radio?
It was like KC & Jo Jo and Shai. I was really into a lot of boy groups like H-Town and Jodeci. I started a boy group with my two of my friends called MSJ. We used to sing KC & Jo Jo's "All My Life." That was the only song we did but we did it a lot! In [high school] I was in a group called Perfect Gentlemen. We would be in the cafeteria and drop a track. I would walk out and do my solo and everyone would be like, "ooh!"
I noticed you also do a lot of collaborations. Do you prefer the group aspect? Would you want to be in a group later on?
I feel like the best things come out when people collaborate. Imagine if Michael Jackson didn't have Quincy Jones. Michael Jackson's demos were dope but Quincy was like, "add this right here, add this there," and it was great. As far as the group thing, not so much. I like to collaborate a lot but I'm still my own artist.
You work with a range of artists like disco funk group Chin Chin and hip hop artist Theophilus London. Tell me about them because they are very different artists.
I've been in the group Chin Chin since I was seventeen. When I first moved here Wilder Zoby, the lead singer, was in class with me at New School. They influence me a lot too as far as not being afraid to just try things and being open-minded when it comes to every genre. I really appreciate that I met him early on before I started creating because they really were like, "you can do whatever you want to do."
You met him before you built your stage identity.
I would say that. My voice changed late when I was 17. I lost a lot of confidence and it was really hard because [my] school was [more concerned with] me learning jazz songs than me getting my craft back. I had to do that myself until I came into contact with Bilal my sophomore year. He was teaching me voice lessons. One time he was performing at this club called Sweet Rhythm with some...friends of mine like [keyboardist] Robert Glasper. Rob introduced me and I was like, "Yo, B can I get some lessons?" He was like, "Voice lessons? I've never taught those."
They were the craziest lessons. He was like, "We're gonna do some breathing exercises. When you inhale, you're inhaling the universe and when you exhale you're becoming God." I'm 17 and I'm like, "What are you talking about?" He was like, "Do some push-ups." Then he's like, "Get on the [elliptical machine]." He was like, "You want some tea?" So, we made tea and he's like, "Alright, sing something." I started singing and he's like, "OK stop. Do some push-ups again." I'm doing push-ups and I'm breathing hard and he's like start again. [I start singing] and he's like, "You see that first breath, how deep it was? That should be your first breath every time you sing a song." It was a four-hour lesson and after the four hours I was like, "You could have just told me that!"
I love your collaborations with Theophilus London. Tell me about your work with him.
We were doing this little showcase at Sputnik. At the time, a lot of rappers would hit me up because I was working with Mickey Factz and all his stuff was coming out. I gave him my number and he kept calling. He would call me and sing me ideas over the phone.
I went to this studio, [he played a] track and it was by this cat called Machinedrum, a producer he works with. I heard his verse and I'm like, "That's dope." I was in the booth and he was like, "All I want you to sing is [the word] 'higher.'" [I sang] and he was like, "Yo, let's do it." We just clicked. He was like, "What you doing tomorrow?" I was like, "Nothing." He was like "Come back."
I remember the day we did "Cold Pillow." It was last summer and we were both mad depressed. We're both Pisces so we get emotional for no reason sometimes. He was like, "I got this song [and he started singing] 'and I wonder, strangest feeling taking me under.'" I set up the mic and recorded it not thinking nothing of it. Months later everybody's hitting me up, like "Yo, I just heard 'Cold Pillow' in Germany!"
Tell me about the album The Beauty Created.
When I first released [my first album] Dopamine I was over it. I had listened to it so much and it's really personal to me. I put it out and everyone was giving me mad love and I was like, "I really don't want to perform any of these songs, it's really hard." When I started working on The Beauty Created I had just recently moved to Bed-Stuy. My roommate Steve Wyreman played guitar for Keyshia Cole, Joe and Goapele. He would come up to my room and say, "What do you think about this?" And I would just start freestyle singing.
It was so crazy because it was guitar and vocals on a lot of tracks and then I would just call cats in the band over. I'd be like, "Earl, come put bass on the track," and then my boy O.J...would come through and he would be like, "can I take it to the crib and put a horn on it?" It was really natural. I call it The Beauty Created because the band created it. I had the lyrics, I produced it and I recorded...and arranged everything but at the end of the day, everybody put their two cents in.
A lot of the tracks on The Beauty Created are more refined and subtle than Dopamine.
Dopamine was more of a spur of the moment thing. I had just gotten out of a relationship and I had all these pieces of paper with words on them. As an artist, I didn't know what else to do to get over it.
At first I wasn't gonna put out the Dopamine album, I was just letting people hear it. One of my good friends came in and...after I played her the whole thing she got real emotional because she knew the whole story. She was like, "this feels like dopamine." I didn't even know what dopamine was so I looked it up and [learned] it was an endorphin; the chemical for love basically.
[The songs] could have been better of course but I was so ready to [move on]. I wrote it, I don't want to sit and correct it. With Beauty Created, I really took my time with it. I listened to every song and me and Steve would [take notes]. Dopamine was me in the studio by myself. The Beauty Created, everybody had a say in it.
Why did you name your band The Beauty Created?
One day we was coming home from a gig. My boy who plays bass was chilling with us and cats was like, "what you want from music?" I said, "I want people to know my name." [My friend] Jeremy was like, "I want it to make me happy." My [other] homie was like, "I just want to create beauty." At first I started laughing and then a week later I was like, "I know what I'm gonna name the band!"
A lot of ladies are gonna be reading this interview. Is there a specific lady who's inspiring all this or are there multiple ladies?
My album cover explains it all. It's a flower and it represents a woman. That's my answer.
A single woman?
Women. There are certain songs that I listen to and I know exactly what I'm talking about and exactly where I was when I wrote it. At the end of the day, there's a woman that's inspiring it. A lot of men do things for women. We all want to impress women.
So, did you do this album for a woman?
A particular woman?
The Beauty Created?
Like one single woman?