This is Aaron Aye’s first interview ever and it’s endearingly obvious. He’s got a tentative smile that he uses to punctuate the end of every paragraph-long answer he gives to me. His sunny disposition is undergirded by the quiet confidence of a young person who’s not a star yet but is sure he’s completed the work required for it.
By the time we meet, on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in July, the 22-year-old R&B singer and producer from Minneapolis has only two singles out — “Since ‘96” and “Care 4 Me” — and a very modest following on social media. But he’s already completed two albums: this August, he will release Orphan, a debut full of charismatic pop R&B tracks that will serve as the music industry’s introduction to Aaron Aye.
“I feel like I took my whole life to make Orphan,” he says. “All of the music I've made up to that point was trial and error when I look back. But I needed to grow up a little bit and have new experiences. Orphan is a like a letter to my adolescence and all of that took place in Minneapolis.”
Aye says the city served as his “canvas” for the painting he was trying to make with Orphan, but really Minneapolis appears almost as its own character. “My city needed me to pop / All I needed was the ammo,” he sings on “Since ‘96.” The city’s musical legacy is overwhelmed by the reputation of its biggest star, Prince, whose music Aye grew up listening to. “He really was the first person to shine a big light on Minneapolis. I want to continue what he started.”
His mother, who died from cancer when Aye was only 15 years old, casts a long shadow over every song on the album. “I spend a lot of time thinking about my mama,” he sings on “Cold Winters,” one of the Orphan’s more somber tracks, heavy with the use of organ music. He inherited much of his musical taste from his mother, who actually went to high school with Prince, and used to entertain her only son with stories about how the legendary musician used to play music with his band during lunchtime. It was his mother who, overhearing him sing in the shower, encouraged him to pursue music and bought him his first recording gear.
“She wanted me to be a triple threat or more if I could,” he says. So he learned to dance too, watching videos of Michael Jackson and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on YouTube. At 11, he started writing his own songs. But with such limited life experiences, he struggled to select his subject matter. So he wrote about falling in love — with imaginary girls. “There wasn't a real girl yet. I didn't know what else to write about,” he said. “I was just like, everything else on the radio sounds like a love song or it's about girls, so I'm just going to do that.”
Since his mother died, the tenor of his music had also changed, suddenly charged with grief. He started to rap, too, for the first time. “When I made Orphan, I was talking about stuff that was so personal that there were certain lines that I couldn't sing to you,” he says. “I had to rap it, or else you wouldn't feel the emotion that I needed you to feel.” In “On Cue,” the fifth track on his album, Aye spends most of the time rapping lyrics that speak frankly about the depression he suffered in the wake of his mother’s death: “It just made me hate myself, family wasn't nothing nice / Cry for help to other fam, every day was roll of a dice.”
Aye never knew his father, but he didn’t really identify as an orphan until years after his mother’s death, as he was producing the album. “The producers I was working with, I would tell them my story, and they would be like, 'So you're an orphan?' Yeah, I guess I am. I never really thought of it that way, but I am,” he says.
The word ‘orphan’ may be steeped in negative connotations, but he doesn’t want it to be, and that’s why it serves as the title of his debut. Coping with his new reality, he looked to pop culture to find other orphans like himself but the only ones he could think of were fictional — and they were all superheroes of some kind. “Harry Potter. Superman. Anakin Skywalker…” Aye lists their names. He takes a pause. “I mean, he kind of went to the dark side. But you get the point. He was still the chosen one.” He wants his music to imbue the word ‘orphan’ with new meaning, with hope rather than despair.
“I don't have parents, and I'm still figuring it out for myself, still going after my dreams… even though I have the adults there to remind me I'm on the right track,” he says.