Music

Spotlight On: Minimalist Soul Duo Silk Rhodes

Vocalist Sasha Desree on NYC vs. LA, recording on the road (literally), and Yiddish lullabies. Read More

By / January 9, 2015
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In December, minimalist soul duo Silk Rhodes released their debut, self-titled album to great acclaim. Steeped in smooth vocals, soulful 1970s melodies, and enigmatic messages about the human experience, their sound is a cross between Prince and The Delfonics, with a touch of 90s R&B—or, as Rolling Stone put it, “the soundtrack for a roller rink on a cloud.”

27-year-old vocalist Sasha Desree (AKA Sasha Winn) grew up in New York City, attended LaGuardia High School, dropped out of SUNY Purchase, then headed to Baltimore where he met producer Michael Collins. They created their first full-length album in Collins’ Honda CR-V, which was set up as a “studio on the go.” They invited anyone and everyone to contribute to the recording process as they drove around Baltimore, and across the country.

Desree spoke with me from the apartment he shares in Los Angeles with Collins about looping, Silk Rhodes’ unique recording process, and why New York is no longer a stomping ground for young artists.

Check out their new video for their debut single, “Pains” here.

How do you feel about the vibes in L.A. vs. New York? Which pace do you prefer?

Living in New York can seem unnecessary after a bit. I’ve been bouncing back and forth now between Oakland and L.A. for the past year. I grew up in New York, lived there for 20 years. Then I went to Baltimore and made music.

Being from New York, your identity as an American is a bit different than the average American. That being said, I think the West Coast is more my pace. I’m a slow and steady kind of person. I’ve noticed that the similarities between L.A. and New York are things I don’t like… They’re both cities that are run by some sort of publicity beast. There’s a machine that’s working and running there and you can smell it. You can sense when it employs people that don’t know that they’re being employed by that machine to do its bidding.

What was your early creative life like in New York?

The community I grew up in [on the Upper West Side] was radical and that’s what it represented to me. As I grew up and explored New York more and more, it seemed as though being radical was not only not a priority for the people in New York, but New York itself made it hard for that to happen. It’s a hard place for artists to live and make enough money. It seems like these cities, more than being places to really live, are like market places. The Union Square Farmers’ Market for example—all of the sellers have farms upstate and they work on their things and bring them to New York and sell them—and then they leave! That’s kind of how I’m starting to feel about New York. Bring the things there, share them, but don’t stay forever.

Just contribute to the big machine and then bounce! There is a weird script-y element to New York and LA.

Totally. And I do love the vibe in East L.A., but these are the cities that write the script for the media all over America. And it seems like things come to California first. This is where the trends are made and then brought to the rest of the country. So it’s very interesting to have that insight here. But New York and L.A. inspire me to dig deep in film and music, and I realize how important those channels are.

Silk Rhodes has a very 1970s soul/funk-inspired sound that incorporates this really minimalist melody. Can you elaborate on your style?

Our connection with 70s soul music really began when we were living in this house together in Baltimore for about a year; that’s where this project gestated. We were listening to some more recent R&B music coming from many kids who had been previously making indie-pop or experimental pop-electronic music, and it seemed like they were still hiding behind the technology or tons of reverb. The emotionality of it was sort of clandestine. You go back and look at 70s soul, the vocals are right there, in front, and the words are equally important. It’s message and groove-driven music. Going back to that 70s sound in terms of the nostalgia was important to us, but also really clearing it out so it was super minimal. There’s nothing but emotions and the words for you to take in as the audience.

I grew up listening to my dad’s jazz records, a lot of John Coltrane, as well as Prince and 90s R&B. As we’ve gone back and found the lost 70s soul, there’s something in the vocal harmony that is so beautiful, and sometimes imperfect.

You guys had a very interesting process recording this record. Most of it was recording on the fly, driving around Baltimore and inviting people to join you. That spontaneity of recording music—do you see this as an anomaly these days, where albums can be so doctored? In listening to your album, even the placing of the tracks sounds spontaneous, but at the same time it has this common thread; this thread of human experience.

In the studio, you try to recapture that solace you get from being alone in your room. So you write it down, record a demo, and then you’re in a studio where you only have so many hours and things can feel a bit rushed. With our recording experience, we… allowed the studio to be anywhere. Be it your room, your car, or anywhere… Sometimes we would have a room full of people in there while we were working on a song, helping think-tank style coming up with ideas for lyrics. And we’ve always been inspired by our friends and the people around us. One of the things that keeps us moving around is that we want to be continuously inspired by new, different people, and we love to meet people who are making things.

Would you just pull over and open up the doors and start blasting music and chatting with people?

We connected in the world of spontaneous creation. We recorded it all over the place while in transit. And it could be anyone. One time these kids were in a gas station trying to sell us weed in Baltimore, and we told them we didn’t want to buy their weed but if they needed a ride we’d do that, under one condition: that they would make music with us all the way there. And they did.

We made some of our best music on porches and during drives in Baltimore, in a motel in Iowa City. We got into this hotel room at 11:00pm and we decided the only way to really get the full night’s limit of the hotel was to use it as a studio as well.

I’ve heard a lot about musicians using looping techniques more and more, but I don’t get it. I know you did this for this record. Can you explain?

Basically you add make multiple layers to a song very quickly. You can do what one might do when recording multiple tracks, but you can do it quickly. So each time it repeats, you add another layer and it can manifest a complex sound very quickly. But I think there’s something really beautiful about doing it all with the voice. There’s something about when you play an instrument and you can get the same thing out of it in terms of expression as you can get with the human voice.

How did you get into music?

The first song I ever sang was actually a Yiddish lullaby. I grew up singing folk songs and political songs from the sixties. I started singing soprano and training opera in middle school, and then as my voice changed I started writing more music. I play keyboard, bass, drums; a little bit of everything. And then of course, a lot of the stuff I’ve done uses heavily looped vocals. Looping has been a real hotbed of creation for us.

I went to college at SUNY Purchase and then I dropped college and kept one teacher. I found this amazing teacher/mentor named Joel Thome, who was Frank Zappa’s musical director for 20 years. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever studied under, or worked with in music in general, and he really expanded my horizons. It really got me into astrology, the occult, and the connections between that and vibration and music.

I moved back to New York and met with Joel once a week for two years. Both my parents are professors actually, and I’m really interested in the mentor system. That was the original form of teacher-student relationship. I’m anti-institution in general. I think that now, the ideal situation is one where both parties are teacher and student, constantly switching between the two. A free-trade agreement.

Catch Silk Rhodes live in New York on January 10.

(Image: Michael Collins and Sasha Desree (right) of Silk Rhodes, courtesy of Theo Jemison.)