Earlier this summer I took the ferry across to Fire Island, a glamorous stretch of sand and sexy architecture just across the water from Long Island, NY. Arts organization BOFFO were throwing a party to celebrate the end of GEN F graduates Lafawndah and Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy's spell as artists-in-residence. I didn't know it on the ferry over but it turned out to be the first time I would see Thurmon Green perform. Stood by the side of a Hockney blue pool in crimson shorts and shirt, and wearing the most bashful of smiles, Green turned a casual Saturday afternoon into a pure pop moment. There's his rich, sure, sassy voice, of course, but it's more than that: Green is the whole package—a face you can't take your eyes off, a flick to his shoulder that oozes confidence and songs that winkle out a fresh angle on familiar feelings.
Back in March he premiered his video for "The Grind," a song that unpicks the social conventions of the daily grind to a backdrop of nuanced choreography—he sings of vulnerability but his body language frames it as a strength. While it sounds like a hit-in-waiting, it could've easily never materialized. Green grew up in LA—a place he is very fond of, saying "for me LA's not just Paris Hilton and the beach, it’s family ties and this kind of warm softness"—and was all set on being a filmmaker, moving to NYC to study it at college. Halfway through, however, he realized he needed to be making music instead, something he had dabbled in as a kid but without training. Reveling in the "mystery and ignorance" of his experience with music, he sketched out the handful of tracks that would go on to become his debut EP Adolphus (out next week on NYC label/collective DOOM DAB; listen to the premiere of EP track "Like That" below) on GarageBand before recruiting friend and producer Billy Scher to "give the songs legs." Ahead of the release,Green popped by The FADER office to chat about making a proto-The Social Network as a 16-year-old, visual representation, and the joys of subverting pop.
When we were chatting earlier, you mentioned singers like Arthur Russell and Anita Baker who are known for their strength in vulnerability. I’m drawn to singers who weren’t necessarily trained singers or who are not concerned with perfection. I grew up learning if you study something, or you practice it really well, you become really good at it and people will appreciate that. But [becoming a singer] has been the most organic, natural process that’s recalling what I was originally drawn to as a child—instinctually more performance-oriented stuff. But then as a teen it was stamped out of me by the world, so this is me returning to the performance side.
Why was it stamped out of you? I had a totally chill childhood—just in the regular ways that teens are taught to not shine too bright. But as a child it’s just your instinct to do whatever you want and for me it was performing. That’s why I titled the EP Adolphus, because for the first ten years of my life I was known as ‘Dolph’ to my family—that’s my middle name. Iguess it got more formal around sixth grade for roll call, so they started calling me Thurmon. But I still think of myself as Dolph in my head. So with this EP, it’s me going back to Dolph.
When you say performance as a kid, do you mean singing or acting? Anything, honestly. I would just reenact scenes from movies and use my siblings as like the props and the co-stars. I would sing the theme song to Touched by an Angel, this cheesy show about angels. It had a gospel theme song and I would sing it.
How did you end up in New York? I came here for film school. I was like "film guy" in high school. I was entering film festivals and I was also doing teen plays at my high school and dabbling in music a little bit. But it was mostly film because that’s what I thought was the most respectable creative work to my parents who come from a humble background. I loved film but midway through film school at NYU Tisch I fell out of love with the process. The faculty and resources were amazing but everyone was just not really invested in being a critically minded artist and I think that’s so valuable. Luckily, as I checked out of film school, I was drawn to a circle of intellectually minded individuals and music people and started to just jam. You know, college jam sessions. That led to more serious messing around in GarageBand. After I graduated, I started to be like, “Okay, let me do this,” because it combines all the things I’m interested in. It feels like a continuation of me as a film-making artist but I feel like it’s the best job in the world to be a popstar because you get to just combine all these different things and work with so many different people and create this world that can encompass your own personal mythology.
What was the film that got you into film school? I made this film called Connect which was basically before everyone was doing stuff about technology pulling us all away from one another. It was about a group of teens whose lives intersect and finally cross paths when their technology fails them and they have a human interaction. I still stand by it. Of course it was made when I was sixteen but it actually when pretty far—it got into a few festivals and I got some scholarship opportunities through it.
What changed to make you decide you wanted to go for music? I think it was becoming a more critically thinking, intellectually minded person. I was fortunate enough to take courses in college that were on social-cultural analysis and [through that] my own independent reading of performance as resistance and the importance of visual representation. I thought, “Okay, it is important for someone that looks like me to be on a platform.” I think people want that and need that in 2014. That motivated me to put myself front and center and have the courage to put myself in the artwork.
That’s pretty fearless. Yes, but I would say it really took a supportive community of artists and friends around me. My family has always been very supportive of these pursuits. They may not always like the music or understand the film or whatever, but they’re always really supportive.
What do you mean when you say “someone that looks like me?” Someone who is not the traditional, conventional version of a male pop star. Regardless of how I actually look, I don’t feel like that. I mean, I don’t look like Trey Songz. And, you know, someone being involved in a kind of progressively minded, queer community of artists that may not be the person who is going to go for this kind of pop iconography.
We all think there’s this traditional idea of a pop star and how they look and behave, but that tradition has only been around a few years really. Just as I finished talking, I realized someone with that kind of gumption or gall to be so intensely themselves sets the standard. They mold everything. I also feel like as a young African American male to put myself in a position of being looked upon, gazed upon on camera while simultaneously running things behind the scenes feels really important. Also to show that in a really beautiful way. My friends and I made “The Grind” video. It was made with love. They’re the ones behind the camera and it’s made with their loving gaze. It really is all about love in the end. I would love to just be this visual representation of all the things I really care about, which is being positive in the face of so many oppressive things going on in the world—especially as an African-American young man existing in mainstream society. To do that in the pop mainstream would be extremely subversive but so much fun.
When subversion is done well, it’s just kind of opening a door and being like, “Actually, we could go this way.” You can totally do it with music more than anything else. More than any other art form—someone can call me out in a comment—I think music is the most unifying. I’m not the first person to say this. The weirdest song can be liked by the most normal person and vice versa. Subverting mainstream culture can be done through something as cerebral and ephemeral as music.
You’ve said pop a number of times, and you’ve also talked about R&B before. I could be saying R&B interchangeably with pop. To me pop is just the broader global influence. It’s like the little baby in India singing Michael Jackson with a Pepsi shirt on. I mean, to me that’s pop. And pop can be R&B, hip-hop, you know? I have no problem being called R&B because to me that encompasses is all things that I love. It’s like, you know, you have Brandy here, Little Dragon, BB King...you know, just whatever you wanna put, I’m down. And it could end up in my music somehow.
Where does your positivity come from? I think it comes from a really unsentimental place. It’s not about being an optimistic person; it’s about being a hopeful person. There’s just so much horrible stuff in the world that I think that probably fuels me to create things that make people happy, or at least that they can feel like someone is relating to their situation. I also think I probably just have fear of mortality and I just want to make things that make people move, which is like the opposite of dying.
Even when I make songs that are a little more like “The Grind,” which, while being perhaps dark, has a sense of humor and to me is kind of like someone telling a story. I’m really inspired by singers like Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith—the idea of [creating] these intimate environments and someone just telling their troubles. But like there’s always this unshakeable quality to it. It’s not like, “Oh woe is me,” but ”This is what I’ve lived through and I’m still here.” When I perform “The Grind” it feels like this redemptive thing that I bring into the performance. There’s like a wink in it. It’s like, “This didn’t get me because I’m still here and I’m telling this story.”