One at a time.
The first time I met Babak Khoshnoud he didn’t really talk to me. Technically, he was busy. We were in a studio in New York City, right off Broadway around the corner from where Tower used to be. It was almost spring but it wasn’t warm yet. Babak’s partner, Will Abramson, had told me to come through so I could meet Chance the Rapper, who hadn’t yet dropped Acid Rap but was already dogged by label people and tracked by music journalists like me. I had written a paragraph about one of his songs and he thanked me for it with a huge hug. He is Bill Clinton-level charismatic and he played us what he was working on and everybody could tell he had it.
I couldn’t really get a read on Babak though. And I wasn’t 100% on why, after I’d talked with Chance and his boys for a while, I was still there. Will wanted me to stick around, come hang out in the other studio, where Babak was shooting. I couldn’t figure out what Will wanted me to see. All the studio sessions I’ve ever lurked at are a discomfiting combo of deadline pressure, co-dependency and inexplicable magic. All the weed and the fruit-flavored vodka and the occasionally hilarious bullshit is there to mask the wholesale uncertainty of the hours. I’ve seen and heard things in studios that I cannot explain. It does not matter how professional the place or the people are. One moment a song is average and the next moment nothing is the same. The craziest part is that most of the magic doesn’t ever see the light of day. A song being fucking great has barely anything to do with whether or not that song is released.
The craziest part is that most of the magic doesn't ever see the light of day.
The only place to escape the roller coaster of stress is to leave the control room, go all the way in, into the dead sound of the recording room. That’s where Will beckoned me. I followed Babak. Ryan Leslie was sitting at the piano. I was really worried about being in the way, in the shot, or somehow interfering with the vibe. But everybody was fine. I thought it was pretty awkward — as being a journalist is, often. You’re supposed to just fucking watch people. You’re supposed to be there but self-efface. You’re supposed to talk to strangers until they get used to you and let their guard down and then you can really see them and then you’re supposed to go tell the world what you saw. It’s so fraught. It’s never worked like that. It gives you an excuse to ask people whatever you want and give very little back. But of course you do, give something even if it’s not what you think you’re giving, and of course you rub off on the people you’re talking to and what you tell the world is smeared with your past traumas and your digestive system and your weird tics.
So it was awkward, me with them in the quiet for zero reason, Babak circling with his camera, Ryan Leslie trilling away. And then Babak laid down under the piano, on his back. I don’t know why. I’ve never asked him. He could have been shooting the underside of the piano but his eyes were closed. Maybe he was trying to hide how plainly happy he was. What Ryan Leslie was playing was uncategorically beautiful. It was like Bob was dreaming the room. And I wanted to have his job. I already had a job, a good-looking job, too. I was working at NPR, talking about music, mostly hip-hop, on their air and publishing articles about rap and R&B and the music industry. But I wanted to do what he and Will were doing, and had been doing for years. I wanted to be present at the creation — and I wanted to tell better informed stories. I didn’t want to wait for a press release. I wanted to write about the song that might not have a future. I wanted to be in the way, so that I could find out what was really going on.
I wanted to be be present at the creation — and I wanted to tell better informed stories.
Babak and Will’s company, Yours Truly, has been making documentary videos and portraits and writing about musicians for years. One of their projects pairs musicians, subsidizes a couple days of recording and shoots the process. It’s called Songs from Scratch and Adidas pays them to make it. Yours Truly also makes things just because. And that’s why, when Will called me and said he had an idea for how to grow Yours Truly, and did I want to come work with them, I didn’t even have to think about it.
The idea is a way to bend the rules of journalism in the service of more accurate reporting. We are not satisfied with the music journalism that’s on offer right now. There is too much, and it’s not that great. It’s not any one person, or even a group of people’s fault. We all know it’s the fault of ad revenue and we’ve all been too worn out to rally against the gradual deterioration of the writing and the reasoning we allow into our lives. The musicians we’ve talked to aren’t thrilled about it either. They deserve better, and we owe it to them, because we make our money off their backs.
We mean to apply our creative and critical skills in support of the people who’ve committed to the perilous labor of invention. We want to do right by them.
The idea is to ask musicians how they want to tell their story. Every Sunday we’re turning our site over to somebody new. We’ll spend the week with them, unspooling who they are — their approach, their history, their personality. We’re shooting portraits and videos of musicians with their families and their counsels and when they’re all by themselves doing the kind of work no one can help you with. We mean to apply our creative and critical skills in support of the people who’ve committed to the perilous labor of invention. We want to do right by them.
And we want to do right by you. Focusing on one musician a week gives us time to tell the whole story. We don’t have to regurgitate that elevator pitch on a band as fact; we can question the received knowledge, contextualize the people who made it and take you with us way behind the scenes. Even under the piano. We’re slowing down. And we’re serving cooked food. Do you want more?