“I have to finish things now.” Demo Taped is laughing, but you can tell that the thought gnaws at him. The 18-year-old musician, born Adam Alexander, is sitting in the bedroom of his childhood home in southwest Atlanta. But that fact obscures the journey, both physical and metaphysical, that he took to get here. As Adam picks through the moving boxes that are either recently empty or still in the process of being unpacked, he pulls out clues–a pan flute he’s yet to master, for example–that hint at just where he’s been all this time.
A little over a year ago, the Soundcloud page for Demo Taped became a choice destination for kids drawn to the young artist’s eccentric leanings, his ability to blend disparate samples or emotions, or simply to his nimble, evocative singing voice. His Heart EP, released on Valentine’s Day, 2015, made him a minor sensation, and more recent efforts like the glitchy “Game On (demo)” have been played more than 300,000 times. Yet the transition from hobbyist to professional musician has done little to alter Alexander’s creative process–except for that pesky note about finishing things.
“It’s a little more disciplined,” he says of the deadlines that he and his management team set, and then try to keep. “I need that. That’s how Heart got made: if I hadn’t said, ‘I’m going to release this on February 14th,’ it wouldn’t have happened,” he recalls, with another hearty laugh. “But my work ethic hasn’t changed,” he warns. “I’ll make a draft every day, or two drafts every day. That’s something I just have to do.”
“I’ll make a draft every day, or two drafts every day. That’s something I just have to do.”
This creative streak dates back a long time. Before Adam developed a taste for music, he had different artistic aspirations: he wanted to be an “I’ll make a draft every day, or two drafts every day. That’s something I just have to do.”animator. “We got TiVo,” he says, “and I would watch Spongebob and pause it, and try to draw it frame-by-frame. I really thought I was going to be a cartoonist.” In a move that would foreshadow his later career, he went beyond imitation, and began to synthesize the pieces he’d picked up into his own, fully-formed universes. “I had created a bunch of different characters, actually, that I still can draw and tell you about.”
Though Adam says he was “the nerdiest kid of all time,” he had the musical interests of the hippest kids in any school. His first loves include Jimi Hendrix and other pillars of psychedelic rock; his father, a bassist whose own work was planted firmly in the world of funk, introduced him to Earth, Wind & Fire, Funkadelic, and Parliament. His parents also gave him an entree into gospel music, and pushed him into piano lessons when he was only four years old. While he stopped his formal education on the instrument when he was 11 years old, it was that childhood piano teacher who first recognized Adam’s vocal talents. By the end of his stint with her, he was singing on top of his own accompaniment at piano recitals.
The foundation in theory that piano lessons gave him would serve him well. The young artist’s parents moved to Sandy Springs, a suburb north of the city, right before he entered middle school. Though the new school district was better than the one of his early years, Adam still felt like an outsider, especially as his friends developed a greater love for Atlanta’s chief export during the 2000s: rap music.
“My friends at the time would be listening to rap, and they’d know the lyrics to songs,” he remembers. “We’d get in the car, turn on the radio, and I would just be like, ‘I don’t know this!’” he says, laughing at the image. While Outkast’s later, more experimental work eventually drew him into the genre (“they were were blending a lot of different genres, and that helped to ease me in”), Adam’s earliest musical attempts were themselves evidence of the vast choices available to today’s youth: he was playing folk music on an acoustic guitar, directly into digital production programs more often used as training wheels for future hip-hop producers.
“I don’t want to be one of those producers or one of those artists who does the same thing. I want to be an artist that grows.”
That's not to say it was all smooth sailing. In the seventh grade, he read Ned Vizzini's novel It's Kind of a Funny Story, which is about the author's brief stay in a psychiatric ward. The book gave names and perspective to the feelings of alienation that Alexander had been grappling with, and made him take a critical look at his own mental health. While the shift wasn't immediate, he soon realized that he could seek help and eventually found a therapist. "Before that, I thought that I was going through regular stuff," he recalls.
Music, he says, became "kind of an escape"; contrary to the cliche, he found that happier, more uptempo songs sprang forth, rather than work that was depressed or depressing. Most of the Heart EP was made with this in mind: untangling his darkest impulses and using them to build something you can dance to.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before he found his sound–or before others found him. Seldom has a name been more apt than Demo Taped is for Adam; his frequent, often scattered experiments allowed him to circle, and then pinpoint what works for him. His work has developed into an irresistible mix of soul, R&B, hip-hop and electronic music that distills a young person’s competing senses of optimism and neuroses. He cites influences like Flying Lotus and Herbie Hancock, but his work is distinctly personal in both its construction and content.
And his itch to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable, and what works, doesn’t seem to be going away. “I don’t want to do the same thing all the time,” Adam says. “I don’t want to be one of those producers or one of those artists who does the same thing. I want to be an artist that grows. I never want to stop growing. Because when you stop growing, I think that’s when you get stuck.”
This week, we’re making an exclusive remix of the tune 'Speak' by Ben Abraham available for download via WeTransfer.