Shai Nowell, a 24-year-old Atlanta-based indie and neo-soul artist, offers a luscious visual for his song “Sunkissed”. Nowell receives soothing assistance from Nai Br.xx, and the two exchange words over an initially uplifting instrumental that quickly subdues itself. The video plays out like a daydream filled with lush colors, ensemble group shots, and cameos from the comedian Miles Hampton and rising artist 6 dogs. “Sunkissed is a depiction of adultery told from that 5-second window where you decide nothing matters and you aren’t thinking about the consequences,” Nowell told The FADER over the phone.
“Sunkissed” is the opening song off of Nowell’s Please Tame Me, a project where every detail was fine-tuned exactly to Nowell’s liking. Not only did the young artist produce and write everything himself, but he also took a directorial approach to all the features on the tape — every guest verse was written by Nowell and even the performances themselves were curated. This process is indicative of how Nowell functions as a musician: everything goes through him, usually starting with the construction of live instrumentations in his bedroom and ending with the supervision of whatever features are set to be on his project.
There’s usually a lot more to unpack in Nowell’s music underneath the surface level of introspective production and intoxicating vocals. On “I love you Jarrod”, we hear acapellas that were sent from the hospital while the actual Jarrod, a close friend of Nowell’s, was in the hospital with cancer. “Red Eye” was meant to prove a point, that he could produce a rattling beat more in line with the conventional Atlanta sound. A majority of the production involves self-recorded guitar tracks: “I look up to Prince,” Nowell expands over the phone: "No one is ready for some black dude with a hairy chest and a chain playing guitar.”
Nowell answers my Facetime as he’s getting out of his car, the only way Atlanta residents take calls. We talk about his creative process when it comes to rolling out a music video while he shops for vegan ice cream and snacks at Whole Foods.
Watch the visual for Sunkissed, premiering below on The FADER, followed by an interview with Nowell about his creative process when it comes to both videos and actually crafting music.
How do you begin conceptualizing a video?
That’s what sucks for me right now as an indie artist coming up, paying for everything out of pocket. Ideas have to be tangible. Cinematography and colors are my main focus. Trying to communicate ideas through those mediums. It doesn’t have to be a direct translation from the lyrics.
How does a budget enhance your creativity, if at all?
A smaller budget definitely enhances it in the sense that you have to make a quality product with some constraints.
What kind of video are you making with a million dollar budget?
A million dollars?
Ok, twenty grand.
That’s a big drop off.
Two-hundred thousand then.
I’ve always wanted to be able to do choreographed, automated zooms with extravagant things happening. So for instance, if i were to direct a rap video I’ve always pictured the artist sitting down and doing whatever. The camera would slowly zoom out while some wild shit goes on in the background. Maybe someone gets stabbed ten seconds in. Maybe a tank rolls through twenty seconds in.
All in one take?
Yeah, I just think zooming out is the coolest shit. That’s my go-to shot in videos that I make, along with really focused shots. Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm” video is something I’d like to do with a high budget. Really focused still shots with an emphasis on color grading. Shots that last well over twenty seconds and it’s not even a lot going on but everything is laser-focused. Shoutout Nadia Lee Cohen.
What did co-directing this video actually entail?
Coming up with a shot list, no matter how over-the-top some of my ideas seemed. Then deciding what can actually be done. I came up with the car mount shots and there was a three-layered shot that was inspired by something I saw at the High Museum. It was this picture of a dude sitting on a crate while someone else read a newspaper. There’s some three-layered shots in Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” video which also helped inspire parts of the “Sunkissed” video. Even with the crowd shots, I got some vegan doughnuts and told everyone to pull up to the Value Village near my place.
Does the prospect of making a video ever inform your song-making process?
It can, but I will say that when listening to music I’ll hear something and know what to do with it visually. As I’m making music I just have a mood in my head and I try to fulfill that. I’m not the biggest fan of storytelling music videos. For example, if I were writing a song about a girl and the video basically repeats the song, that’s boring to me. I feel like your music videos should leave a huge gap for interpretation. Someone who does that with ease is my father, Donald Glover. That’s my dad.
What is your song-making process?
My approach is broken down to a science. I’ll write about moments specifically without focusing on anything too broad. I think with moments you can go so deep even if it’s something that didn’t last long. In the first thirty seconds of something happening you feel those emotions at their strongest. You’re not thinking about repercussions, that’s why I think there’s a lot to extract from moments.