The cover of Elujay’s latest album, Circumstances, it is art that imitates life. In the image, the alt-R&B singer peeks out from under a colorful quilted blanket, reflecting his condition during a particularly trying time of the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2020, Elujay was completely isolated (apart from the company of his mini dachshund) and bedridden for months, thanks to a horrific combination of COVID-19 and mononucleosis. “It was during the hardest part of the pandemic when there was no vaccine, people were just dying left and right,” says the Oakland native. “I just went inside and it came out in the music.”
Today Elujay posted Circumstances, a melancholy-tinged offering, capturing the 25-year-old artist’s journey from detached to determined – with a little help from psychedelics – throughout the two years he spent working on the album. While in self-isolation, the gender-melding singer spent her days watching Moesha, now the title of the project’s outro track, and one of Elujay’s favorite cuts, alongside “Ratrace” and “Farewell”. To an unfocused ear, the 11-track album may sound light and groovy, but upon closer listening, the lyrical themes of capitalism, addiction, poverty, protest and redemption become apparent. “I just felt like the music had to be a reflection of my experience over the last two years,” he explains, “and that was a very dark time.”
As three years have passed since his last solo album, Adojio, Elujay attended. The singer and indie producer modeled and scored the TOMBOGO show during New York Fashion Week 2021, and the year before released a collaborative album alongside artist J.Robb and Soulection, titled Cornerstore gems. In contrast to his previous work, Circumstances presents a darker ambience and a clearer sonic view of the musician. “I’ve identified the things that make my skin jump or my ears prick up. I don’t want to be boxed in terms of art – I want to take the elements I love and bring them to everything I create. because I’m still making music or art or visuals,” he says. “I have more conviction in my heart than ever.”
Elujay sat down with Billboard to discuss the making of his album, why owning his masters is important, and how psychedelics helped him get out of a mental rut.
What inspired the sound of Circumstances?
I think it was kind of due to where my head had been for the past two years. I went through a lot of pain and heartbreak. I was the sickest of my life. It was crazy. I like to have lost 15, 20 pounds and been bedridden for about two months. The uncertainty of being a sitting duck and all that pressure. The music had to be a reflection of my experience over the past two years, and it was a very dark time – so I wanted to focus on that, and I really like the ambient kind of stuff. I felt like I needed to push the envelope more with my sound into something a little [more focused and] different from what I’ve done before. Which makes it a breathable, psychedelic thing.
I wanted it to be one of those albums where it was like someone was talking to you. I definitely crave a lot of R&B [nowadays] lack of substance. I wanted to talk about some shit that’s real to me. “1080p” is about our addiction to technology, “rat race” is about how we compete against each other in a capitalist society. “Hummingbird” is pretty much like the start of the pandemic, food shortages, people dying, it’s very dark. I wanted people to be able to groove, but I think they listened to the lyrics and were like “oh shit”. I really wanted to create this sad and happy music.
What were some of your musical influences while working on the album?
I used to listen to Radiohead a lot. I was listening to Björk. I was listening to Joni Mitchell. That slowcore band called Duster, shoegaze rock, that avant-garde pop band called Broadcast. I also listened to Sampha. Yves Tumor. Blood orange. Solange. It really lit a fire under me. How can I create something of my own? For a very long time, I did a lot of happy shit, but I wanted to use more minor chords and force myself to think more.
What helped you in this process?
I made a lot of mushrooms. Psychedelics definitely improve your state of mind, by thinking outside the box. It was hard for me to come out of a depressed state because I was so detached after being sick for so long. So I think psychedelics kind of brought me back.
How collaborative was the project?
It was a mixture of different people. I would say the most prominent collaborator I had on it was Simon Ajero. I’ll give it to him, he’s on almost literally everything. “Luvaroq”, “Ratrace”, “Switch sides”. It has keys on “Farewell” and “Hummingbird”. There are many more, but he’s all over the album.
Something really special about Simon, he was battling cancer while we were making these songs. He was in the hospital, sending files back and forth. This guy deserves a f-king medal, he worked like crazy. He’s in remission now. He’s also in my band, he plays keyboards. Everyone who plays in my band has played a small role [on the album].
While you were working on the album, you also scored the Tombogo show for New York Fashion Week 2021. How was that?
It was an amazing experience. It was exhausting, but it was still super fun, super exciting. Yeah, I really like fashion. I think it’s one of my second or third favorite things I like to do. I would like to score more fashion shows that I would really like to know. Mason Margiela, contact me.
Technology and social media have changed the game for emerging artists. What do you think of the current digital landscape?
I think it’s a great time because there’s so much access to equipment, marketing tools for people. you can work with virtually anyone in the world. I think it’s a great time for people to come now. Unlike 15 years ago, there wasn’t really much access. We didn’t have these technologies that we now use to make beats, like software. Now it’s so easy, you can upload your own music. I think it’s wonderful.
My advice is to make music for yourself, make art for yourself. Make music with your friends. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Be boring. It’s the only way to do things. People’s attention span is so short. I mean, there are a lot of negatives [about] this period. People’s level of appreciation is like a week, or maybe two days. So when you release things, just try to be consistent. You can’t wait three years to release an album again. I will never do that again.
Going back to the short attention spans you mentioned, artists are expected to drop music much more frequently these days. Do you feel impacted by the rapid release cycle?
I am certainly affected by it. The music I make — I feel like it’s timeless. So I don’t necessarily have to compete with anyone, I feel like I’m competing with myself. I’m just trying to do better things, but I notice people’s attention spans are very, very, short. Even the stuff I like, I’ll play for a week and then forget. I have to take off now. Once I get to the point where I’m safe enough, I’ll take a lot longer. I don’t want to revolve my life around work and music. I want to experience things. I feel like a lot of people are burning out, so I don’t want to be swallowed up by overproduction and overcooking.
What prompted you to sign a distribution contract with AWAL?
I’m still independent – they just helped a little more than a usual distribution company. They just had a really good history of getting stuff off the ground and going hard for indie artists, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to help them, let me tell my story and bring it to a wider audience. AWAL is awesome.
Why is it important for you to remain an independent artist?
I love ownership and I love the idea of being able to build generational wealth. If you are already financially secure and want to sign a deal and don’t mind seeing royalties [many] years, do you, all power to you. This is certainly the degree of ownership you want. I’m not really kicking anyone – because I think today there isn’t necessarily a right way to make music, even if you’re signed. Obviously, when you reach a Weeknd level, there is sometimes an incentive to make pop music and chart. But when you are [a smaller artist] it all depends on how much ownership you want. It’s creative control.
Who taught you the importance of ownership when it comes to your music?
It was like a mixture of learning from other people, putting my hand on the stove and getting burned. My manager and my brother, Hunter, really emphasized the importance of trying to be independent. Also, learn from people’s experiences and observe how they operate. Chance the Rapper or Brent Faiyaz, the way they handled their independence and ownership, is a really big thing. I think it’s super dope. I strive to be independent as far as I can take it. I think it’s very doable now. You no longer need to sign an agreement.