Daniel Caesar's Reign of Freedom

The formerly homeless son of a gospel singer talks about the inspiration behind his breakout EP and why he loves Tarantino movies.

Slava Pastuk

Photo by Julien Bowry

Daniel Caesar knows how to sing. It’s a skill that he might have picked up while being on the choir as a child—or from his father, Norwill Simmonds, an accomplished gospel singer with a number of critically-lauded albums. Wherever he learned it, Caesar’s talent may have not only helped him reach musical heights, it may have saved his life. Caesar has been transient for the better part of eight months since he moved to Toronto from Oshawa, Ontario. After being expelled from school for selling “like two grams” of pot to a classmate, and then leaving home to pursue a career in music at the start of 2014, Daniel Caesar has been relying on his friends’ hospitality.

“Honestly man I lived everywhere,” he says through a wide smile cut down the middle with a gap. We’re drinking coffee at a bistro, the limbs of his tall 18-year old body extended out from the bistro’s chairs, “I was actually sleeping in Trinity Bellwoods Park at one point for maybe a couple of nights.” Most of Praise Break, his breakout EP, was recorded in the span of two months, all spent living on the couches of friends. The finished project is crisp and cohesive, and despite the fact that its total runtime is less than 30 minutes, it’s laced with enough classical talent and experimental sounds to give all listeners something to gravitate towards.

Caesar’s music isn’t interested in falling in line with the modern, darker sounds of R&B. His sound is more in tune with soulful singers like Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo, and Kirk Franklin. Despite the muted and underwater sounds that dot Praise Break, the crystallic vocals employed by Caesar are what stand out most. His days of singing on the choir have given him the ability to transition from the lightest of falsettos to a commanding tenor in the span of seconds, often tricking the listener into believing that more than one artist is featured on a song. It’s classically good without being rigid—precisely the type of thing you’d expect to hear from the rebellious son of a gospel singer.

Although he’s a solo act, there have been many who helped Caesar achieve the notoriety he’s currently enjoying. Rapper Sean Leon was Caesar’s inspiration for moving into the city from Oshawa and was the driving force in Daniel joining the IXXI Collective, a group of suburban expatriate musicians living in Toronto. Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett, Grammy-nominated producers behind Drake’s “Pound Cake” have also been instrumental in the execution of Caesar’s vision. “Jordan and Matthew produced the album, not only in the way of providing beats, but they’re also the overseers of the album’s vision.” With Praise Break debuting on Billboard, who announced that Caesar was “bound to break out”, the future looks bright for the young singer. Although no prayers were cast in the making of this project, the success he’s experiencing now certainly seems like an answer to one.

Photo by Julien Bowry

Over what time span was Praise Break recorded?
The whole thing took about two and a half months, starting from scratch. I recorded like seven or eight songs for the album, but we scrapped the whole thing and started over. We lived with those songs for two or three weeks, and then we felt confident that what we made was a classic. I’m really impulsive in that I’ll like a song, and I’ll think it’s the most fire thing ever and I should put it out immediately. And then it’s happened to me where I’ll be like, ‘oh wait a minute, I dont fuck with this song anymore and I shouldn’t have put it out.’ So we had Praise Break done, and sat with it, and decided that yeah, this is a classic.

What exactly was it that made this album worthy of being released?
I think I was happy with my performance, as well as how everything blended. In my opinion, it was very cohesive and everything sounded very professional. It sounds like this album had a budget, like we recorded in a professional studio—which we didn’t. That’s what it sounded like to me. It sounded different enough that people would be like, ‘what is this?’

Why choose Praise Break as the title?
This project wasn’t originally even called Praise Break, it was called Pseudo. I don’t even say the words “praise break” the whole album, but it just kind of fit better at the end. It’s like a double entendre. My entire life I was brought up religious and now I’m taking a break from it. But at the same, praise break is just a term used in church, like a religious term. That’s how it generally works for me now, concepts just kind of just fall into place. There were songs that we cut out after we chose the name, because Praise Break turned out to be an underlying concept that I didn’t know was there.

What was Pseudo going to be about?
Pseudo was about, how after moving to Toronto I saw a lot of inauthenticity. A lot of fake people that aren’t about having real moments. Real conversations. They’re not interacting, they’re just acting. So Pseudo was just a collection of thoughts about how I was feeling at that time.

You grew up in a pretty religious environment. Are you still religious?
I’d say no. It’s like, people I know put so much thought into things that can’t be proven or disproven, and I just don’t see the point in that.

What do your parents think about that?
Oh they hate it like a lot.

Have they heard the album?
I’m not sure. Maybe. My mom hit me up on Facebook and was like, “I just want you to know, even if you don’t think much of your God given family, we think the world of you”.

Why would she think you don’t think much of them?
Because when I was like homeless and living outside I didn’t go home, my mom told me that they didn’t necessarily want me to leave, but they also weren’t going to compromise and let me do what i wanted. I had to leave because I wanted to make music, and they didn’t want me to do that.

What did they want you to do?
Just go to school be a regular person and I don’t want that. Thats terrible. I don't want to do that.

So you’re kind of rebelling, in a way?
Well, actually I’m not compromising. That’s all I’m doing.

That's a nice way of saying you’re rebelling.
I’m not making music because it will piss my parents off, I’m making music because I want to. I guess that’s rebelling, but when you think of rebellion between kids and their parents it’s just kids going crazy for no reason, like girls dating black guys just because their dad doesn’t want them to. So that’s why I say it’s not rebellion, I’m doing what makes me happy and they just don’t like that.

Photo by Julien Bowry

I read that you wrote “We’ll Always Have Paris” after watching Casablanca. What made you want to watch Casablanca?
I was at my aunts house and she has these classic movies just laying around the house, and I saw Casablanca and I always wanted to watch this movie, so I was watching it and Humphrey Bogart said “we’ll always have Paris” I stopped the movie and I went to write the song. It just reminded me of every girl I ever had a really good time with that, and how that time eventually fades. Everyone has golden years, sparsely throughout their life, but good things happen and then good things disappear. But you’ll always have those good times, and when you’re on your deathbed you’ll be able to look back on those times when you were with the girl of your dreams. It happens more than once, and when it will happen to me again I’m going to write a song about her, and then we’ll just stop talking. And thats just how it goes, and it’s going to go until I’m dead. I don’t think I’ll ever settle down and get married. I can’t.

You watch a lot of movies, what’s your favourite?
Pulp Fiction without a doubt. Pulp Fiction’s insane. I haven’t watched it in so long because there was a time where I would watch it like 30 times in a row.

What is it about that movie?
It’s the fact that it’s literally a movie that’s interesting the whole way through and it’s about nothing. It’s all in the dialogue. Quentin Tarantino’s top three for me. Real movie students and movie critics are probably ‘like this guy is fucking waste’ but Quentin Tarantino is incredible. His dialogue is just so good. I like the way his scenes are so long, but it’s like real life shit. If you go to the movies theatres today you’re not going to see a seven minute scene of just two actors improvising about foot massages. In my opinion that’s art. It’s more real.

Is that what your music is like? A Tarantino conversation about foot massages?
I like to find a balance. “Porn Star” I’d say is more conversation about, not foot massages, but something important, and then something like “Violet” is more structured, more direct. You have to find balance.

I like giving people something that they have to figure out on their own. I’m not good at explaining. I don’t want to spoon-feed people, because that makes me a pop artist thats just like, “Hey, I'm here to sing songs that you can play in the club and make money .”

You don’t want to be a pop artist?
Not at all. It’s kind of weird because I was on Billboard, but I don't want it. I’m not about that scene.

Slava Pastuk has never had a foot massage - @SlavaP