The Minnesotan enigma Velvet Negroni (aka Jeremy Nutzman) is disrupting music categories. Though his label, the independent 4AD, has positioned him as "an experimental R&B artist", Nutzman has already transcended genre through networking alone. Indeed, he has been sampled by Kanye West, collaborated with Bon Iver, and supported Tame Impala on a North American tour. Nutzman issued his breakthrough album, Neon Brown, in August this year - the stuff of tastemaker raves. With his blend of trap, dub and indie, the singer (and sometimes rapper) could be the missing link between Prince, Tricky and Sampha.
Introducing Velvet Negroni
Days before Neon Brown dropped, Nutzman – a hesitant interviewee – was in New York, anticipating two nights opening for Tame Impala at Madison Square Garden. But, first, he's DJing at a hipster hotel. "I've always kinda done it just for myself and for fun at small gatherings or whatever – or in people's cars," Nutzman says. Tellingly, even here, he doesn't adhere to a particular mode. "It's very sporadic. The only cohesive thing about my style is that it's not." Nutzman rattles off acts he spins across R&B (Quincy Jones, Mariah Carey, Ray J), electronic (Aphex Twin, Burial, Jon Hopkins) and indie (Tricky).
A New Prince?
The media has long compared every black male musical polymath to Prince – including Lenny Kravitz, D'Angelo and Miguel. Yet, as an eclectic auteur from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul), Nutzman qualifies more than most. Prince put the Midwestern hub on the R&B map in the '80s. Mid-decade, he established Paisley Park Records, A&Ring Paul Peterson and The Family. His Purple Highness paved the way for R&B super-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, originally members of The Time. They guided Janet Jackson's trailblazing album Control – post-industrial R&B. And, rivalling Prince with Paisley Park, Jam & Lewis built their own stable, Perspective, signing the band Mint Condition, who augured the neo-soul movement. In the '90s, Minneapolis was associated with backpack hip hop – Slug of Atmosphere starting Rhymesayers Entertainment. In recent years, Minneapolis spawned the indie 'n' B outfit Polica, with Ryan Olson as producer. Lizzo launched her rap career in Minneapolis, releasing 2013's debut Lizzobangers on Olson's Totally Gross National Product (TGNP). She collaborated with Prince, and his group 3RDEYEGIRL, on their LP Plectrumelectrum. Ironically, Nutzman doesn't feel a special connection to Minneapolis' scene or its legacy. "If I did at all, it would be purely geographically," he states. "I don't feel a part of that legacy, really. I kinda do feel like my own little world, I guess… No, I don't feel part of that scene."
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The Birth Of Velvet Negroni
Nutzman is outré in a town of mavericks. Minneapolis' Star Tribune actually has referred to him as an "odd-duck". The musician had a regimented, and isolated, upbringing as a black child adopted into a white evangelical family in the Twin Cities' suburbs. Nutzman's mother ensured that he mastered classical piano and competed as a figure skater. Secular music was forbidden in the household – and Nutzman has spoken poignantly of growing up without a soundtrack to his youth, beyond occasional R&B and heavy metal bursts. He eventually enrolled in a nearby Christian college. And, removed from familial influence, Nutzman claimed his freedom. Nutzman became a party kid, even as he endured homelessness. He also threw himself into the local music scene with myriad projects.
Having earlier assumed the rebellious (rap) alter ego of Spyder Baybie Raw Dog, Nutzman initiated the alt-R&B combo Pony Bwoy with beatmaker Hunter Morley. They released an album on TGNP. (Nutzman likewise joined Olson's noise supergroup Marijuana Deathsquads.) Nutzman then recast himself as Velvet Negroni, the name of a bougie Italian cocktail. In 2017, he debuted solo on TGNP with TCOD (The Climb Of Decline), entailing the now cult synth 'n' B song Waves. Last year, Nutzman aired the singles First Time and Crybaby on the nascent imprint b4 Sounds, resulting in a deal with the UK's fabled 4AD. While 4AD is known for its alternative roster – currently being home to The National, Future Islands and Grimes – it has ventured into R&B. In fact, 4AD introduced the Los Angeles duo inc, who created a blueprint for avant soul from 2010.
In the interim, Nutzman developed Velvet Negroni with his Minneapolis cohorts Simon Christensen (aka Psymun) and Elliott Kozel (Tickle Torture). Christensen, who played guitar on The Weeknd's Starboy, has emerged as a go-to urban writer/producer, contributing to BANKS' III. (Along the way, he had an EP on the IDM label Ghostly International.) Kozel, a former indie-rocker, devised Tickle Torture, an incongruous mash-up of R&B and noise branded "sex-pop". He and Nutzman previously collaborated on Full Court Press, a bizarre Prince homage.
The Neon Brown Album
There is a sense that with Neon Brown, Nutzman has arrived artistically. Where TCOD was all soundscapes, Neon Brown presents songs – albeit with cryptic lyrics. Still, Nutzman has retained a latent psychedelia. If anything, Neon Brown delves into the dubby end of dancehall – look to the sax-laden lead single, Confetti. The opener, One One, is a hybrid of grunge and trap with bare guitar and warped vocals. Wine Green is surprisingly jaunty electro. Kurt Kobain, is, like Denzel Curry's Clout Cobain, largely figurative and recalls Prince's guitar-funk. The second half of Neon Brown is more experimental, with Scratchers broaching trip-hop. Weirdest is the minimalist Nester which sounds like Yves Tumor tangled in windchimes (Nutzman also raps). Neon Brown closes with the dual deep dubs Feel Let and Ectodub.
For Nutzman, Neon Brown isn't so much as a reinvention as a progression – or culmination. "Everything that I've created so far, and every bit of experience in specific writing processes leading up 'til now, has definitely been incorporated – whether or not I've even liked it to be, necessarily," he ponders.
Nutzman has realised the importance of self-care, detoxing his life. Cutting Neon Brown itself would become a lesson in pacing himself. Nutzman toiled in a team with structured studio time. This allowed him to achieve perspective. "I learned what it's like to be on a proper scheduling and work towards completing a goal – the goal being finishing the record," he says. "[It was about] approaching that in a responsible manner – like setting limitations to work within, rather than just going as hard as I can, as long as I can, until I'm completely out of creative juice or just physical energy and then shutting it off until I've recuperated and then getting up and having to work again… One of the things I learned is that it can be really beneficial to stop working on something – like quitting working on a song while inside you still have the urge to keep finishing it or keep working more. To be like, 'Alright, well, it's a good thing I'm excited 'cause I'll be even more excited to get back into it, and maybe have a better outlook, if I'm forced to step away and get to think about it in a different way.'"
Ultimately, Neon Brown explores personal liberty, charting Nutzman's regulated childhood to his wild years as a young adult. The mood is sanguine, biting lines aside. "I think the vibe that it's catching, whether it's my reality or my present now, is maybe having been deprived of, at least what I believe to be, a feeling of freedom in the simplest ways – not feeling like I had really any freedom at all to listen to what I wanted, to wear what I wanted, to go where I wanted, to do anything that I wanted – [to the other extreme]. So I feel like this album's kinda touching on not having freedom and then finally getting to a place where I had my freedom to make my own decisions and then took that to the limit. Now it's touching on freedom within bounds, or how to be free and sustained; feel free and still be reasonable and sustained."
Friends In Fly Places
Nutzman has received impressive co-signs. Olson turned his old pal, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, onto him. And Vernon has mentored Nutzman. Crucially, because of the folkie, Kanye West-heard Waves – using it as the basis for KIDS SEE GHOSTS' Feel The Love (with Pusha T). Vernon later tweeted of the interpolation, "I was in the room playing parts of it on the sampler… Kanye heard it and exploded and music was reborn." Nutzman features on Bon Iver's abstract new LP i,i – sharing credits for iMi alongside James Blake (elsewhere, the epic Sh'Diah again riffs off Waves). Nutzman is cautious when quizzed on whether he'll ever liaise directly with Ye in the studio, as Vernon has done consistently since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. "I'd hope so! If it were up to me, I'd say, absolutely. But that's two parties that would need to be involved. I would love to work with him in the future. Do I think that's probable? I don't even know. Yeah, it's hard to say about it. From my side, I would be open and willing to work with him in any capacity."
Over summer, Nutzman and band hit the road with Kevin Parker's Tame Impala – the neo-psychedelia ensemble revered in the R&B and hip-hop realms. He's typically lowkey about the affiliation. "There hasn't been a whole lot of contact, 'cause they've got a long set and there's not a whole lot of overlapping – or maybe we're just shy. But the people that I've met from the band have been just wonderful." He's grateful that Tame Impala's crew have maximised space on stage for him. "It's definitely a good vibe. They've been treating us well." Nutzman reckons that it's now "probable" he'll tour Australia in 2020.
Nutzman has a unique story, but he wants Neon Brown to resonate with a spectrum of listeners. "Obviously I hope that people enjoy it and find it sonically appealing. Honestly, what I hope that people can get from it is just purely a connection at its base level. I'd like for it to be easy on people's ears, easy to listen to, but, on a long-term look – yeah, to be able to ideally just personally have a connection with it in whatever way… I can't say how I hope exactly somebody connects with it. But, if somebody says to me, 'Hey, I really connected with your music in this way,' then I'd say, 'Yeah, that's what I was hoping for.' I can't say exactly how I hope people connect with it, I just hope they do."