Positioned outside of a church, Darius Scott is dressed in an Art Comes First hat, a priest’s collar, and other clergy regalia. At first glance, taking his attire into consideration, it seems as if Scott is prepared to preach a sermon, or lead in a worship service. In some ways, you’d be right - just two years ago, Scott was in training to become a minister, following in his father’s footsteps. But, when you peel back the layers, you’ll notice that the church Scott is standing in front of is actually empty, and he’s long abandoned traditional forms of spirituality in search of something more fulfilling.
Earlier this year Darius Scott released YOUNG, a journey through the spiritual hills and valleys of a twenty-something year old, finding one’s true voice, and pushing beyond one’s perceived artistic limits. I talked to Darius about his upbringing in Atlanta, the importance of getting alone as an artist, working with Pharrell and more! Here’s our conversation:
Stanley: How did you get your start in music?
Darius: I started doing music very, very early. There are plenty stories of me as child playing the pots and pans under the sink, and just being really interested in music. My father was a deacon at a church – he was in training to become a minister. When I got into the 2nd grade he had just gotten his first church, and so, we would be walking into this building, which was pretty empty, there were no drums, or anything, but there was an organ. So, my dad bought a piano and I brought one of my drum sets from the house to my Dad’s church and I became the church drummer. He hired my piano teacher at the time to be the organist at the church, and we kind of built this band. When I was about 6 or 7 my piano teacher passed away, and I ended up taking over the responsibility of playing the piano at my Dad’s church. My mom directed the youth choir, and I couldn’t really tell her what to do, but outside of that, the selection of music and the musicians, that kind of fell on me. I had a lot of responsibility at an early age. I kind of owe my independence as a musician to [my father] because he gave me so much responsibility early on. Thinking back on it, it probably wasn’t a great idea – he gave a 10-year-old a really big responsibility – but that shaped the music for the rest of my life. I tried to run from the music thing several times in my life. I played sports in High school, and all of that but somehow I landed back in music, and I think it’s because of the seed that was planted very early.
Stanley: That’s really interesting – the trajectory of starting in church, your family, etc. You’re originally from Atlanta. How did growing up in Atlanta shape you as a person and artist?
Darius: Yeah, there are three very specific things. The churches in Atlanta at the time had the country’s best musicians. Growing up in the 90s and early 00s – I remember watching Kevin Bond play at New Birth, Darrell Freeman playing bass – Atlanta just had some of the coldest musicians. I think growing up in that era was just interesting for me. Though we got to travel a lot to the east coast, my family’s from the east coast, so I got to see that up north – New York, Philly sound – but there was just something that was guttural about the south, that connected with me. And it wasn’t just because I was from there, I just felt like the musicianship in the south is just… it just comes naturally. It never felt forced. I never felt like in the gospel scene, or even the R&B scene, I never felt like somebody was forcing an agenda, or like people were trying to show off. It just felt very much like a second skin almost.
The second thing – the producers in Atlanta. I’ve been very fortunate to work with quite a few Atlanta-based producers, and I think in the 90s and 00s Atlanta kind of owned R&B, they owned Hip-Hop, and a lot of brilliant film work was done at the time that led to the city becoming so popular.
Then thirdly, it’s the people. I think my Dad is a character, and his brothers and sisters are characters. If you’ve ever been to Atlanta, then you no its no short list of characters. I feel like the people create a certain energy that yields itself to be used in these records. If you’re in the Hip-Hop community and you frequent most of your time at the strip club, or in the bars, then you have certain characters you can draw from. If you grew up in church in the south, and you have a family that is faith based, then you have a lot of characters to draw from. And the high schools – the marching band scene. I mean drumline was shot in Atlanta. I was in drumline when I was in high school. There are just so many things that were birthed out of that city, and I think it really affected how I see musicianship and songwriting.
I feel like Atlanta is like the A&R city. I think from the music side of things if you’re independent and you want a following, you should target that city.
Stanley: Yeah – I know exactly what you mean, Atlanta is certainly full of characters. I think I took one walk through Lenox Mall and got a feel for one set of characters, and going to school in the West End gives you an entirely different set of characters. Atlanta has a vibrant music scene, especially for independent R&B artists. Could you talk about the music scene in Atlanta, especially for black artists?
Darius: What I love about Atlanta and that independent scene is that it stays independent, but the city makes it grow. And we don’t just love independents from Atlanta – we embrace all independents, because I feel like Atlanta, as a city, in it itself is very self-driven, and you have lot of characters in Atlanta who are larger than life by their own doing. Atlanta gets behind independent artists very, very frequently. Like, for example SZA, I remember seeing her at A3C a couple of years back-to-back, and she wasn’t from Atlanta, but its like Atlanta has its finger on what’s coming next, we always have our finger on the pulse. I feel like Atlanta is like the A&R city. I think from the music side of things, if you’re independent and you want a following, you should target that city.
People forget that all of the majors used to be in Atlanta. A lot of those older industry contacts remain in the city, and they come to shows, I realized that early-on. I remember going to see India Shawn, who’s from Southern California, but went to HS and university in Atlanta, and the city really, really embraced her. I remember sneaking into shows at Apache to see PJ [Morton], because my brother, who’s a musician, would sneak me in to see PJ. For years I didn’t know PJ was not from Atlanta. When I found out he was from New Orleans, that was very new information to me. I would sneak in to see Chante Cann, and The Jaspects, and Janelle Monae.
Janelle Monae is one of the greatest stories to come out of Atlanta. Because Janelle Monae literally used to sing one or two songs in the Jaspects set, and would shut the entire city down. The whole city would be up in arms. I’ll never forget, we got to hear the live recording with the Atlanta City orchestra. When I heard that, I was like, “wait, a minute, how did she pull that off?” That showed that you can literally do anything in Atlanta. If you want it, you can really, really go after it.
Stanley: Earlier you mentioned growing up in a musical family, but not-fully pursuing music. You’re also a graphic designer by trade…
Darius: Yeah, so I went to graduate school for graphic design.
Stanley: How has graphic design influenced your approach to music, as a form, but also how you view art more broadly?
Darius: I’ve thought about this a lot – in preparation for people asking me lol. I see my graphic design and my art very differently than I see my music, although they both speak to one another. In graphic design, I tend to see everything on a grid. Like, I look at the world, and it’s one big grid of paper. I see where everything fits symmetrically and asymmetrically, I can find the corners and the jagged edges. And then, when I sit down to write a song, it’s whatever I’m feeling. It doesn’t necessarily have to fit into a pocket, it doesn’t need to follow a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus format. There are several times on the album where I interpret a verse with a new thought, or a chorus, or a bridge. And I plan to do a lot more of that.
Also, I don’t see music on a grid, or as a formula. I think we are entitled to change our minds, as much as we want, and that’s not just for artists – that’s for people in general. You’re entitled to wake up and feel a different way and decide what it is that you want to do. And I feel that way about my music.
I think for so long I tried to box myself into “Christian music” that I thought was really, really fire. I thought it was fresh, I thought it made sense, I thought it was marketable. And then I would book a gig at a church and they’d hear the music and they got afraid of it. And I think it scared me for a while. It’s like, “yo, where do I fit?” Two years ago I was preparing to be a pastor – and this is to encourage anyone that’s trying to figure that part of their life out, it’s like listen – God will not have you be miserable and if the places and spaces you’re trying to fit is causing you harm and endangering your mental space and hampering your creativity, then it might be time to find the door. I guarantee you on the other side of that door there’s going to be the light bulb that goes off, and I think Young is my lightbulb.
I think every artist has to find a point where they have to get alone with their craft. You have to get alone and create and see where it takes you.
Stanley: The dichotomy you mentioned between the two mediums is interesting. How has YOUNG served as that lightbulb for you?
Darius: I wrote Young for me. I’m so glad that people enjoy it and are loving it – I’m so grateful for the response it’s been getting, but I really wrote it for me. I wrote it to help me get through the stuff I had been through over the last two years. And I produced it myself because I wanted to test my boundaries for what I thought I could do. It’s a lot easier to call people and say, “Can you help me with…?” And then you never learn anything. I work with so many independent artists that…while they are amazing singers, or songwriters, they don’t know how to do anything other than that, and I think it’s important that if you’re going to call yourself a musician, you learn how to do more than just one thing. I had always been producing – and working with my good friend Luke Witherspoon, and he’s never sent me a record I didn’t like, but I had to do this on my own, and he was encouraging about it. He still has a few spots on the album where he’s contributed as well, but I needed to do this for myself. I think every artist has to find a point where they have to get alone with their craft. You have to get alone and create and see where it takes you. It may take you to great places, or to where you realize you need to collaborate with people, but everybody needs that moment for themselves, and I think YOUNG is that moment for me.
Stanley: You mentioned this process of preparing to be a pastor and being in a peculiar spiritual place. A lot of these songs come out of a deeply spiritual place, especially the song Eagles. Could you talk about some of the messages within Eagles?
Darius: Eagles was the first song I recorded out of about 27-28 records for this album. I did it at Luke’s place in Jersey. I’m actually playing guitar on the record, Luke is playing piano at the end of the record. Initially, I made the beat, but it was completely different. I made the beat for someone else at the time, but they didn’t end up using it. So, I had this track that I really, really loved, and it had these drums on it, that I really, really hated. But I did it for another person and they loved the drums. So, I stripped the drums away, and there was an old, beat up drum set in the studio Luke and I were working in, and we mic’d it up and he just let me play, then I chopped up all my samples afterwards.
I start the song with “I swear that I get sick sometimes, when I think about all there times I tried to fly away…” which can also mean stray away, but it also has a double meaning where…if I didn’t fly away I wouldn’t have discovered anything. Because the next song, after Eagles, I Do, I said, “I should have stayed there in my cage”. The chorus is the part I think makes the most sense to people that aren’t me, or my inner circle, and its real simple – I made a promise to God that no matter how much success I got, no matter how much recognition, I’ll never be higher than him. I think that’s what drives me, I think that that’s what fuels me. Most of the things I attach myself to are bigger than me, and I think that’s the moral of that story. Really focusing on the success part of being “high” not necessarily the “high” that comes from drugs. But I promised that I wouldn’t get so high that I forget what He’s done for me. When you listen to the verses, you’ll realize that they were for me.
Part of the problem I had with getting my music in gospel circles is that I feel gospel singers write for a large mass of people and not enough gospel singers write about personal experiences that could help more people. It’s one thing to sing together, but if’s we’re all singing together broken, what are we singing together for, you know? That was a problem I had with my earlier music – I’ve always told my side of the story in hopes that people would listen to it and connect with it and YOUNG is no different, even though the album isn’t completely Christ-centered. It’s definitely my story – there isn’t a song on the record that isn’t about me or connected to me. It’s all real. That’s what I think makes the album unique. Even the songs that sound like a fantasy – like SOCA – SOCA sounds like it’s a story about a fictional character, but it’s not. It’s about a real person in a red dress. I think great storytelling etiquette is including yourself in the song, so people don’t feel alienated by your story. I like the fact people are connecting with my real story.
Stanley: It’s ironic you mention telling your story, in your own way. When I was listening, I kept saying to myself – this feels very autobiographical, and in some ways, like a form of therapy.
Darius: Yeah, in fact, as a theatre person, there’s this idea of catharsis. Some people can see it in one way, where you leave the theatre or performance feeling some kind of way and that’s the way the director wanted to guide you. If you’re an audience member and you experience catharsis its usually an emotion related to what you just saw. For artists I think, you’re always searching for those cathartic moments. And I think you can almost cross out cathartic and call it therapeutic.
You think about how many times a singer has to record a line in a song and that particular line can be the line that hurt them the most. You think about saying something thirty times in a recording session, and how the first fifteen, you’re just trying to get over the line you just said. By line sixteen, you start to get over that hill and by the twentieth line you’re soaring past it. It’s therapeutic.
Even for me – making the music – there are certain records I can’t remember making, like the step-by-step process. I think the catharsis, the therapy, happens in the recording process and in the production process. And I will say, recording this album didn’t make me more closed off, its kind of freed some areas for me. Just getting it done, unlocked a lot of things in my mind about my capabilities and strengths. But then some of the records – the recording, the mixing – really helped me, and I hope it helps people as well.
I made the first version of YOUNG, and I played it for Pharrell. And he told me to go back to the drawing board. I was hurt, man.
Stanley: Man, you talk about listening to something over and over again. Ex-Nihilo was that for me. The blend between you and Inida Shawn’s voice is incredible. I really don’t have a question about it – I just want to hear you talk about it lol - how the song came about, themes within the song...
Darius: It was definitely a work in progress. It was laborious. Mainly because India and I had a hard time scheduling a recording time. There aren’t any parts of the record that we didn’t watch each record. It’s a duet, and we needed to be together for it to happen. There are a lot of duets where they’ll fly to where ever the artist is, and then they fly to the producer, and the producer will piece it together. Well, I didn’t want to do it that way. This record happened over like 4 sessions, over about a year and a half. The first time we met up – it was actually my first time in the studio with India, because I had reached out to her about 3 or 4 years ago when Outer Limits came out, I bought the most expensive pack, and wrote her an e-mail, like I’ve been a fan of yours since your first project, and I just want to send you some records.
I sent her my first verse, just the demo, and she immediately hit me back like, “I love this! I just keep playing it over and over again. It’s just speaking to me. I’m down.” So, I went to Atlanta and we recorded the first draft of the verses. We hadn’t quite put together the parts where we’re singing together because we ran out of studio time. I went back to Dallas, worked on it some more and we met up again in Atlanta. Then she moved to LA. So, we had more months go by where we didn’t finish. We eventually got together and finished it, but I still didn’t feel great about my mix. I realized that it was missing something, and that was the guitars. So, I called my boy Mike Clouse, and I’m just like “yo, I’m going to send you a record – just play it how you feel it.” He sent a bunch of different versions and I just figured out how to maneuver all of them into the record.
The concept came from Ex-Nihilo’s Latin origin – which means “out of nothing.” When I read about the term – there are some many different interpretations of it often used in the Catholic Church to talk about creation, where out of nothing God created the earth – but from a creative standpoint, I realized that I had been in a place where felt like I couldn’t climb out of. I made the first version of YOUNG, and I played it for Pharrell. And he told me to go back to the drawing board. I was hurt, man. I didn’t tell him I was hurt, but I really thought it was something special. But it wasn’t the album everybody ended up hearing. So, I’m grateful for him telling me to go back to the drawing board, and tighten somethings and write some new songs, and that’s what I did. That song means a lot to me because out of what feels like nothing came something. Even with the smallest budget, at the bottom, with limited resources, you can still make something great. I think that’s something India and I can relate to because we’re both independent, and we know that better than anybody – how to make something out of nothing.
Stanley: You mentioned Pharrell. He was your coach on The Voice – how has he impacted your career, your approach to music, and just his overall influence on you?
Darius: His influence is strong. He’s the kind of mentor, though, where he goes away to let you discover, which is great. I’m not going to lie and say we talk every week, but when I see him he always has the next move. I think that’s important where you mentor respects your process, and who you are as an individual, but also has the knowledge and the wherewithal to push you forward, and I think he’s done that. I’ve been fortunate to work with his company i am OTHER on some projects as a producer, and these projects he had nothing to do with – it was just me. He doesn’t give you all the answers and he expects you to know what you want, so he can help you figure out how to accomplish it. Very grateful for him.
I’ve been a Pharrell fan since the NERD album – In Search Of. My friend Jamal bootlegged a copy because my parents wouldn’t buy it for me. And it completely changed me as a person. After In Search Of, I injured myself playing basketball and I had to make a very serious decision about my life and whether I was going to fight through the pain of playing on my injured leg, going to rehab, or if I would just pursue what I knew I was called to pursue, and I think that album directly spoke to that kid on the come up. My first tattoo was the NERD brain symbol. I’ve been into the ethos of what Pharrell does for so long, it was just a natural fit that we would meet each other and understand one another. I learned production by what the Neptune’s did, and figuring out how to decode what they did and make it my own. I owe a lot of my success to him and his music. I have a lot of respect for him.