Interview: Jarell Perry on Style, Songwriting & Defining Success
If you’ve seen the Harlequin-steamy trailer for the film Addicted, you’ve heard him. Southern California native Jarell Perry is an easy choice for a racy film based on a Zane novel, but the rising alt-R&B artist is more than just a sexy voice. His sound is hard to categorize— contemplative in moments, club-ready in others, his ability to shift across genres has drawn comparisons to Frank Ocean, another artist who chooses depth and intelligence over the low-hanging fruit that is simple charm.
Perry began his music career in Los Angeles as a session songwriter, where he was introduced to rising producer HSVN (Hassan Johnson), who has worked for Ne-Yo and Chuck Harmony, in 2012 . He’s since released two albums, streamed for free online, and worked with a wide range of big shots from Usher to Rusko. Not to mention he has won over thousands online with his transformational covers of Beyoncé and Sade. Last month, Perry dropped a rather dark single “Quiet Life,” which features a haunting children’s choir as a backdrop to Perry’s strong vocals.
We sat down with Jarell at his apartment in Downtown Los Angeles to learn about his songwriting process, and how minimalism governs his music and personal style. Check out the full interview with the 27-year-old artist who is making waves by refusing to be defined.
How would you describe your sound?
The first thing that I say is always progressive R&B. But that word is interchangeable with alternative or experimental. I’m an R&B vocalist, that’s what I grew up on—but I’ve always been wide open to all kinds of music and influences. I didn’t want to be in a box of what other people consider R&B or soul, so we take a lot of influences from electronic, chillwave, anything that keeps it wide open. The music we make is more discovery music; it’s not hit-you-over-the-head music.
Tell me a little bit about your producer.
There would definitely be no Jarell Perry as you know him today without Hassan. He worked on every single track and we built everything together. We started two-and-a-half years ago out of my apartment. We both came from a behind-the-scenes background. He was trying to produce, pitching songs to major artists. I was songwriting, pitching songs to major artists. There was something missing from that because you are always given a brief or some kind of direction that forces you into some kind of box, creatively. After a couple of years, I decided that if I’m going to succeed or fail, I want to do it on my own terms. I want to do it making the stuff I want to make.
Hassan was on the same wavelength. We grew up into the same kinds of music and the same kinds of vibes right alongside each other. A dope thing about Hassan is that he can take any kind of influence. Like, if I play him a song, he can soak it up like a sponge and then spit it out in a way that’s completely authentic to him and not a direct copy, not by anybody else. That’s the best thing you can ask for in a producer as an artist and as a writer.
What is your writing process like?
It’s a pretty solitary process for me. I write at home and record at home. What you see here [motions to desk], this is literally it. That’s the way it’s been since the beginning. I’ve been in big studios before and it’s not really my preferred way. I like to be in my own vibe. Hassan will send me a track, and I’ll just vibe on it. Normally, I’m just humming and singing whatever comes to mind and a concept will form from there. Other times, I will have a list of words and phrases that I think of randomly. A lot of stuff comes to me while I’m driving. I like to record right after I write so I can hear everything as it’s coming together.
Do you start the process first-thing in the morning, or do you have a morning routine?
I’ve been starting the day with meditation, which has been very helpful to life in general, but also to the creative process. I’ll sit there and just be thankful. I’ve been doing this thing where I wake up really early in the morning even though I’m not a morning person. I was just reading about how the most successful people wake up between five and seven and they have their time where they get their life together instead of hitting the ground running. It actually sets my day up to be a lot more productive. Then, I hop in the shower, wash my face, brush my teeth, shave.
Minimalism seems to govern the White EP. How does the concept of minimalism affect your style?
There was definitely a progression in the music from the first album, which is highly produced and a lot louder; the second album is a lot more minimal. That reflects the progress that I was making in myself, and it permeates everything. Even in my personal style, I prefer to keep it as basic as possible while still being creative and comfortable. I prefer clean lines and go towards more muted colors and earth tones. But I still like to have those accents, like the collar chains and jewelry, so that everything is well put together, but it’s never forced. I want it to look like I woke up and the clothes were just on me. I don’t want anything to ever be too manicured. That’s just my style.
What’s one thing, style wise, that you can’t live without?
Right now, I can’t live without these ZANEROBE pants. They’re an Australian brand. They’re joggers, so they’re just the most comfortable pants but also the dopest-looking pants. I’m the kind of person who just comes home and passes out, so I just pass out and am happy to wake up in these.
Do you think that your overall look affects your success?
I wish it didn’t, to be honest. In an ideal world, your work would speak for itself. But I have fun with it, because I realize it is a 360 experience with the music and the visuals. Also, just being a black male R&B artist, there are so many boxes that people will try to put you into, so I just want to have that freedom to do something different. That extends from the music into the clothes into the visuals, something that you haven’t seen before or you haven’t seen done in this way. To me, the ideal with style is that people can see that you know exactly who you are.
How do you define success?
My definition of success has always been doing what you want when you want to do it with the people you want to do it with. Success has to be on your own terms. It can’t be defined by external factors. That’s what people get caught up in, and then they end up unhappy. That’s why you see all these people who you think had such great lives, but they were really in so much pain inside. I try to define success on my own terms and also leave it open because I’m human. Your ideas change and grow and evolve and you should be able to give yourself that freedom.
I think the secret to my success has been: never stopping. I think most people give up way too early or they think, Oh, I don’t know how to do this. Too bad. The thing you have to realize is that everybody that’s doing anything you admire had a time when they didn’t know.
Let’s talk about L.A. What are some things that you think most people don’t know about this city?
I think people see L.A. as very one-dimensional, a lot more one-dimensional than it actually is. There’s such a cross section of people and cultures and vibes. Any scene you want to be in, you can find it, and in that scene there are sub-scenes, the underground to the underground. Just as much as you see it on the surface of celebrities and fame and how high you can go, it also goes just as far below and just as far left and right.
Tell me a little bit about living here in Downtown L.A.
I moved here just about a year ago, after living on the west side after college at UCLA. I think Downtown L.A. is one of the best places for a creative person to live because it’s so dynamic. There’s a daytime Downtown; there’s a nighttime and weekend Downtown. It’s just a mad cross-culture. It’s really inspired everything about my music.
I like walking cities. People don’t consider L.A. to be a walking city at all. Downtown, I can walk wherever I want to go, meet a friend for coffee, go to The Ace rooftop, go grab clothes for a photo shoot, and just kind of vibe off the different people here. I also really like food, so being in a place with all these new restaurants is dope too.
What artist do you dream of collaborating with?
A dream collaboration for me would definitely be working with a band like Coldplay. They’ve been a huge influence on me, growing up, from the Parachutes album, onward. I worked with a band called Lovelife a couple months ago, originally from the UK, and that was a really dope experience because the way they write music is completely different. I’m used to writing completely on my own. They have four guys. Writing with an alternative band has always been something I’m interested in because it’s completely on the other side of the world.
Images via Gari Lamar Askew II