When SYU came out in March, I sent download links out to anyone I thought may be interested, and Mark Bousquet was on that list. Mark loved the album so much, that he asked if I was interested in being featured in his Atomic Interviews series on his site. After thinking on it for a long time (5 seconds), I jumped at the opportunity.
Welcome to the latest Atomic Interview. It’s the 27th installment of my interview series and I’m happy to be joined by my first musical guest, Kelen Conley/B Hyphen. You might know Kelen even if you don’t think you know Kelen, as he’s the guy who does the opening for Derrick Ferguson and Thomas Deja’s excellent and legendary podcast, Better in the Dark. Kelen’s latest release, SOON YOU’LL UNDERSTAND has been out for a few months, and it’s all sorts of fantastic. Purchasing information is available at BHYPHEN.com.
Away we go…
Mark Bousquet: Hi Kelen, thanks for joining me and for being the first musical artist to be featured in an Atomic Interview. Your album, SOON YOU’LL UNDERSTAND, has been out for a few months now. Lyrically, there’s a lot of taking stock of the past on this album, and it feels to me like the final statement on a chapter of your life. True? False? What does SYU mean to you?
Kelen Conley: What a loaded question. First off, I’m honored to be the first ever musical artist featured in an Atomic Interview. I shall now be known as the One in the Number One Spot for Musical Artist Featured in an Atomic Interview. I’m trying too hard. Anyway, SYU takes a lot of stock in the past because, as with most debut albums, you spend your whole life creating your first album. I felt no different despite my previous material from mixtapes. I felt like I had to deal with some of the things in my past to create quality music in the now. Mostly because I’ve always used my music as therapy. It was supposed to be a final statement, as I really intended this to be the last thing I ever released musically. So true in that sense, but now, 6 months removed from when I released it, I’m going to say it’s a false statement as well. SYU is, to get my nerd on right quick, essentially the moment on Namek when Goku turned Super Saiyan for the first time. SYU is my moment when all the stars aligned and I put all my energy into this one thing, and magic happened. It was truly the first time I felt like I could say I accomplished something I set out to do in my life. It’s the best thing to ever happen to me, after my daughter being born and getting married.
Mark Bousquet: “Rewind” brings me right back to my freshman year at Syracuse. What was the college experience like for you? How did it influence your growth as an artist?
Kelen Conley: College was eye opening for me. In high school, I was 20 minutes away from the school and I had no vehicle, so I had zero social life outside of school hours. When I got to college, I went nuts. Not too nuts, but nuts enough that I had to be reeled in at times. It was a lot of fun; I met my wife in college and also some of my best friends to this day. I wish I could say I experienced graduating, but I could never wrap my head around the concept of school work like I could in high school. But college is when I first started living a life of my own, and without those experiences, good or bad, I’d be a completely different artist. I used to rap about saving the world all time and how much bad was in society. I only saw things in black and white; college taught me about the grays. Oh! And it made me a lot less naïve. I was so dumb about certain things back then. Also another reason why songs like “Rewind” exist; I couldn’t read a signal to save my life. My wife will say I still can’t.
Mark Bousquet: I’m impressed with the variety of vocal stylings on SYU. “Rewind” sees you in a more relaxed, storyteller mode, and it’s followed by “Fit Jammin’,” which has a much quicker tempo. When you were making the album – either writing lyrics or selecting beats or assembling the tracks – was there a conscious decision on your part to offer a range of different approaches or was it just something that happened?
Kelen Conley: It was a blend of both. I was really worried that I had put all my best efforts towards the mixtape I put out almost a year before SYU, The Mind’s Mixtape volume 4. I was afraid I’d have this 14 track album that wouldn’t have a theme and feel thrown together. But then the right beats fell into place. 95 gave me “Independent Headspace” and I knew I could write something inspirational to it. Lip Beats sold me “World Without A Hyphen” and I knew that would be the last song on the album. I wrote “Legacy” one morning when I arrived super early at The Shoe Dept. and was supposed to be opening the shoe shipment. I had that beat for months by the time inspiration struck. And I knew as soon as I heard the beat for what would become “A Journey…” that it would be the album opener. Once those 4 tent poles were in place, the rest of the sequencing came easy.
It also helped that I trimmed 4 tracks and released them as the Live From The Dancefloor EP.
But I did make a conscious effort to make the songs different. Learning what energy goes with what instrumental is something I take pride in. I tried to visualize how the songs would go as you listen to it, almost like the settings on a stove burner:
“Journey” – high
“Bacon” – medium high
“Squares” – medium
“Rewind” – medium low
“Jammin’” – high
“Legacy” – low
“Competition” – medium high
“Winter’s” – low
“Independent” – medium high
“World” – medium low
It made sense at the time at least.
Mark Bousquet: I think “Legacy” might as well be the unofficial soundtrack to so many of us who toil away in relative creative anonymity, who know they’re putting in the work and getting better at their craft, but don’t see the kind of financial success that others do. The song conveys a powerful mix of frustration and pride and gets to the heart of why we continue to do what we do. If it’s a matter of, as you say in the song, “no record deals / no big breaks / no dope wheels / no nice house / not even a nice watch” what keeps you going?
Kelen Conley: By the time I wrote this, there wasn’t anything keeping me going. I wrote “Legacy” because I was mad that I hadn’t gotten anywhere I thought I’d be. It was a conversation with myself because I wanted to know where I was going. I didn’t want to be known as that guy who worked at The Shoe Dept. for 40 years. I didn’t want to be that one guy who used to “fill in the blank”. I listen to people all the time talk about how great this man was or how wonderful this woman was and they made their marks without being famous. I didn’t even feel like I was leaving a mark period.
What kept me going was the realization that while what audience I do have is important, I have to be happy with the music I make when it’s all said and done. When I recorded this album, I was my own biggest fan. Once I realized that I was making the music I wanted to hear and started blocking out what potential fans might want to hear, that’s when I got my motivation back. Once I rediscovered my love for making the actual music again, I was good to go.
Mark Bousquet: One sign of a great album, I think, is that my favorite song keeps changing. Currently, on SYU, it’s “Winter’s Lament (Miami’s Gone),” which is the most soulful track on the album to me and I think the most insightful. The line, “Don’t ever go anywhere warm when you live in a cold place because you’ll never get over that shit” works for me on two levels – one is the literal interpretation in how going someplace nice during the winter season can depress the hell out of you when you get back. But when you drop the line about how you were only there 3 days, it opens the track up to a deeper meaning about depression and how any temporary reprieve from the bad times can make them seem even worse when the good times fade. I feel that and I live in the high desert where winter lasts about 3 weeks. Can you discuss what went into this track as a way of us gaining some insight into your process? Lyrics first? Beats first? How much do these two halves influence one another as you work on a track?
Kelen Conley: I went to Miami in 2012 and I still feel like I just got back and I’m stepping off the plane in Pittsburgh every single day. It changed me and I barely saw any of it. I saw a lot of beautiful women and the rest of the time was drinking, WrestleMania Axxess, and WrestleMania XXVIII. But it changed me because it was the perfect everything for me. So when I came back to the ho-hum of everyday life, I just knew I wanted to write a song about Miami, but not in the typical “partying it up in M.I.A.” way.
I’ve self-diagnosed myself with seasonal depression mostly because those last few months of winter can be really rough on me, especially after my birthday in January. And the drastic climate change from Miami in April to Pittsburgh in April summarized seasonal depression well I thought. So while I talked about how amazing Miami was in some parts of the song, the overarching theme is depression and how the mundane things such as paying bills can just get to you sometimes. Especially when all you want is to be back in Miami drinking poolside.
The idea came first, and then the beat. I asked Lip Beats if he had anything with a Spanish guitar and he sold me the instrumental that would become “Winter’s”. The lyrics were easy; I wrote them in between transactions at work.
I really need to have a beat before I write anything. I used to write without one and try to make the lyrics fit later but it just feels more organic to write to the beat. The beat dictates 80% of what a song is going to be about for me, as I basically let it tell me what to write about. My mood takes up the other 20%, and that’s when you get the swerves in my music when a song doesn’t end up where you think it will. I think this process is another reason why SYU didn’t have “a song for the ladies”, “a song for the thugs”, “a song that’s blatantly designed for crossover appeal”. If I was making music like that…I wouldn’t be making music.
With all that said, I do keep song ideas in my head and I’ll pull them out when the right instrumental shows up. But I never write a lyric until I secure that beat.
Mark Bousquet: The album’s closing track, “World Without Hyphen,” works for me as an answer to the doubt and darkness of “Legacy.” It’s creatively upbeat and positive and thankful. What’s next for you creatively? What do you want the next step to be?
Kelen Conley: I’m glad you got the distinction between the two. “Legacy” is SYU’s rock bottom and “World” is me coming out the other side.
Next creatively? I don’t really have any answer. I waited 31 years to put out this album and now I’m kind of in a “now what?” rut. I hope to start writing new music soon, Aaliyah (my daughter) willing. I think the direction will be different than SYU because SYU was essentially supposed to be me writing my own ending to my life with music. So whatever comes next will be dealing with, “Oh shit, I’m still making music.”
I want the next step to be celebratory though. As annoying as it got there for a while, Pharrell’s “Happy” is an incredible song. He was just creating music for the DESPICABLE ME 2 soundtrack and that monster was born. Born out of a place of positivity and, yeah, happiness. I’d say that song is the template for where I’d like my next step to go.
But I’m going to still keep it real, Mark.
Mark Bousquet: How has being a husband and father affected your creative work?
Kelen Conley: The Mind’s Mixtape volume 4 and SYU were born thanks to my relationship with my wife. I messed up big time a few years ago and one of the reasons I planned on getting out of music was so I could focus more on just being with her. And that was before we got married. So since I decided that, we got engaged, then married, and just had a kid. And I released the best music of my career. I really can’t explain how that worked other than the idea that I was backed into a corner since I planned on never making a song again. But my wife has always been my biggest fan, so she inspires me to get better with everything I do.
Being a father has halted all my creative work because when I’m not at work (like now), I’m with her. And every minute is worth it. I can’t say I felt my life change the first time I held her, but almost five months in…life has definitely changed for the better. The next album might be a bunch of songs about not letting her ever date, who knows?
But I have a feeling next time I go to write a lyric, I’ll have a whole new set of experiences to draw from just from her being born.
Mark Bousquet: Where can people go to learn more about you and SOON YOU’LL UNDERSTAND?
Kelen Conley: BHYPHEN.COM. I have a blog I try to update daily and there’s links to all my music (SYU!), all my writing (Promos By Hyphen!), all my podcasts (they’re all pretty great!), and more. I think there’s enough content over there for the average person to not get bored anytime they visit.
If you do, make sure you check out TricycleOffense.com, where I just reblog 90% of your posts, Mark.
But mostly, just visit BHYPHEN.COM. And follow me on Twitter @bhyphen and on Facebook. Look up Hyphen Nation. I’m that guy.
Mark Bousquet: Thanks for joining me, Kelen!
Kelen Conley: Thanks for having me be the 1 in the number 1 spot for musical artists featured in Atomic Interviews! I’ll stop now.
But I’m beyond thrilled how much you love SYU. Just knowing you enjoy it is the kind of fulfillment I look for when I release music. So thank you sir!
And that’s it for this go-round. Thanks to Kelen for the chat!