At the Red Bull Music Academy 2013 in New York City, Jimi Nxir won us over as the guy working in the ladies’ shoe section at Macy’s, with a voice like butter. Lately, Jimi’s music has taken a turn for the somewhat more abstract; oftentimes bending his vocals into a melodic, half-sung mumble and coating his beats with a layer of acidic effects.
His latest offering, which we are happy to premiere here, takes cues from Curtis Mayfield and the heyday of trip-hop, embedding them in a form of blues that seems on the brink of decomposing. We checked in with Jimi to find out more about his current inspirations, his adjustment to post-Academy life in New York City, and that one time he jammed with H.R. of Bad Brains.
Tell us about your new project. What does it sound like and what were you trying to do with it?
I find it interesting that I never realized how blues-oriented I was. I feel like I’ve always had this innate sense for pentatonic scales, but I never took on the blues too much. I didn't think it was mine, in a sense. But there was a point in time when I was listening to John Lee Hooker or somebody, and it just made sense. I was like, "I have been doing this the whole time." This was after I finished the project. It’s kind of like if John Lee Hooker dropped acid and went to space - and didn't play as well as he played, ha. I just created a soundscape for myself and wrote about my usual things.
What are the elements in your work that remind you so much of the blues?
The blues itself is so closely related to jazz, which is another one of my big influences. It’s very spiritual and emotional. I feel like that is where we meet as far as blues being so tied within this album. Also its relation to African rhythms and emotions and feelings. Actually accepting your sadness or whatever and trying to find a way to get out of it. Acceptance, acceptance.
Have your influences or the stuff that you just listen to on a regular basis changed much over the last two years, since you moved to New York?
Absolutely, man. It’s funny because no one really knows my story since I have been in New York. I lived in an artist loft for quite some time after I left the Red Bull Music Academy, with like twenty other artists, a few musicians, a few painters, a few writers. It was a very interesting time. I met two of my best friend there. It was definitely one of several periods in my life where I’ve had people around me who completely changed my perspective on music.
When I was in college my boy put me on to Jimi Hendrix seriously. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and stuff like that. Before I left the artist loft, I really got into Massive Attack and Tricky. I’ve always been into Portishead but not as deeply as I am now. Martina Topley-Bird, Goldie, his album Malice in Wonderland. These are things I am listening to now. I am getting into more trip hop, drum & bass, jungle and house music. I didn't listen to house music growing up. A lot of my friends from Chicago are in love with house music. These are the things that I’m only really finding out about now.
On your last release, Ghouxse., I felt like I could really hear this sort of trip hop influence also. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like in the past you’ve always done more vocal-based stuff and are doing a little bit less vocal work now. What was your thinking behind that creative decision?
Soundscapes is where I live. Isaac Hayes type stuff, Curtis Mayfield. Creating an environment for words to exist.
Honestly, I am always back and forth. I used to play upright bass and violin, but I lost all my knowledge for reading music. I grew up listening to classical music, old soul music, a little bit of funk and a lot of jazz. So music without words feels very natural to me. I have love for that, but I also have love for Al Green or Smokey Robinson or whatever. I am back and forth. But soundscapes is where I live. Isaac Hayes type stuff, Curtis Mayfield. Creating an environment for words to exist. They don't have to be there, but they can be. The sound itself is enough to give you an understanding.
You recently posted a recording on Soundcloud of a session with H.R. from Bad Brains. Tell me about what that was like.
So I was in DC. I used to go to Howard University but I couldn't finish. I couldn't afford it. Anyways, I ended up back in DC. A few of my friends were going to this open mic thing and they invited me to come along. We get inside and there's a band playing. I see this dude dressed in all white up on the stage. He has this kind of pure look about him.
His appearance says he’s like a sweet old man or whatever. Has this long beard. I’m vibing and grooving to the music and start to really like what I’m hearing. There was a moment when he stopped singing and I was thinking to myself, "Yeah, I think I would like to do something.” So I went up to him and asked him, “do you mind if I sing a little bit?" He was like, "Yeah, please. The mic is right there." I gave this girl my iPod and asked her to record.
But you only found out who he was afterwards?
Yeah, it blew my mind. I never really listened to Bad Brains, but one of my friends is a big fan. I guess he’s kind of infatuated with H.R.’s persona and how he changed it up from being that guy in Bad Brains. He has this holistic appeal about him when you see him. He seems to be healthy, very natural, very aware that he is not taking in toxins and whatever.
It’s great to hear that he’s still out there on that jamming circuit, just working casually with musicians. I’m curious to hear more about your time living in the artist lofts, too. What were some of the fruitful relationships you developed there?
I would say there’s about five main people that I still hang out with after we all gravitated out of that area, that space. I say the most fruitful thing about it is conversation and music. We all seem to have this need to challenge ourselves. I am constantly trying to challenge myself, trying to do more or do better. As far as music, I might have a limitation in that I grew up with a certain set of music. It is difficult to travel outside of that if you are not always exposed to certain things. I gotta say our love for Radiohead is probably what draws us all together. Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood. I find it interesting that he is kind of like floating around just doing shit. Like not restricted to Radiohead. I find that inspiring. Almost like old jazz musicians.
How has your transition to living in New York been in general?
It has been rough. A lot of different jobs, a lot of different sleeping arrangements. It has been a ride and I am still going. I am trying to figure out where I will be next. Right now I’m working at a movie theater. I like it though. I enjoy it. I work at the Paris Theatre. The one that they talk about in Sex in the City. What can I say? I gotta eat.