The former boy band star steps out.
Everything you needed to know about life after boy bands you could’ve learned by watching N’Sync’s brief reunion at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. 45 seconds of “Bye Bye Bye” in the middle of a 15-minute Justin Timberlake medley isn’t quite a triumphant return, but there was no mistaking the subtext: Timberlake was a winner, and his bandmates were losers. Sure, J.C. and Joey and Lance and Chris were still recognizable and presumably rich but they’d failed to reinvent themselves as specifically and successfully as Timberlake, who seemed to be sending a message by burying his friends in the middle of his victory lap. “Look at what I’ve done,” he was saying. “N’Sync? They were just a drop in the bucket.”
If all goes right, Travis Garland will be able to say the same about NLT, the group he was a member of from 2007 to 2009. You probably don’t remember them—they fell into the second tier of late ‘00s boy bands (of which the Jonas Brothers were king) and were most notable for featuring the wheelchair kid from Glee. NLT broke up a few years ago but Garland continued making music, turning away from his saccharine past toward more heady, mature R&B in the vein of The-Dream or Miguel. It’s a little surprising that his new music would be as enjoyable and fully-formed as it is, but I suppose that reaction comes from expecting very little from a former teen heartthrob—a bias that Garland’s encountered, but one he seems to be dealing with just fine. His self-titled album is out next week, but we decided to stream it early because we love it, and we love you.
I do like the album a lot, and I guess the first thing on my mind was wondering about the transition from NLT to this.
Being in the group was definitely a great learning experience for me. I learned a lot about writing and production, and when the group kind of ran its course I decided to work on my solo project. From there I’ve just been on a journey to discover my sound and who I am as a solo artist, and I think that kind of comes to fruition on this album.
There have been other artists like Jeremih and Miguel who built up this artsy R&B sound through EPs before breaking big. Were you looking to someone like them for inspiration?
I definitely made a conscious effort to steer clear of anyone else while making this project. I think that’s pretty clear in the music. That being said I’m really inspired by artists like Miguel who are really true to their craft and their art, which is something I really wanted to do—music in a way that was really accessible to the fans and didn’t depend on a radio budget or a label agenda. That’s kind of the beauty of being an independent artist.
About those fans, have you been noticing any difference between then and now?
Yeah, definitely. With the group—you know, I was in a boy band before—so it was targeted mostly to younger girls, which was our main fanbase. It’s cool seeing the transition with the EP coming from more cool, independent, R&B sound. I’ve seen real R&B fans come over and people who probably would’ve laughed at the group or turned their nose up at NLT, they’ve kind of been won over through the course of the EP. A little part of this album is continuing that process, to keep winning the fans over and show them that I am a real artist, and I have something to say.
I imagine that must be validating.
I’m not necessarily on a mission to prove anything to anybody, but I want people to recognize the music for what it is. We worked really hard to give people something that regardless of whether you’ve heard about me or if you haven’t heard about me at all, I think you can listen to this album and recognize it for what it is. I think it speaks for itself.
Where did the concept for “Motel Pool” come from? When I think of a motel, I think of seedy places where people get murdered.
It’s funny. I did that song with the Stereotypes—they’re my production team. They created this track, and the second I heard it, it was one of those where I heard the whole song immediately. I immediately heard what the concept was going to be and what I was going to write about, and it was kind of a no brainer. The track just sort of dictated the concept of “Motel Pool.” You know, I went in and wrote it in the next couple days and recorded it, and it’s just one of those where it’s light, not too heavy, and it’s just kind of about getting away. Sometimes we just all need to escape from our problems.
You’ve also talked about your church background, and this is definitely a sexually forward album. Is that dichotomy something you had to struggle to embrace, or were you ready to go from the beginning?
Oh, definitely. I definitely faced that sort of—that’s like an everyday challenge for me, you know, the conflict of being a warmblooded man and also a good Christian boy. But I’m really inspired by artists like D’Angelo and Prince, and I’m really—they’ve got in that territory before and navigated it so well, and that’s something I aspire to and want to deal with and do it well. I want to show people you can be one thing and the other as well; you don’t just have to stick to one side, do you know what I mean?
There’s a song on the record called “Homewrecker.” Have you ever been a homewrecker?
[laughs] That song definitely comes from personal experience.
Well, what happened?
All I can say is… lamps. Lampshades. [Editor's Note: No idea.]
Is the song “Chariots of Fire” inspired by the movie Chariots of Fire?
What’s funny is that that song concept was based on a relationship I was in at the time and I’d never seen the movie, but I made the point to watch that movie before I’d finished the song. I wrote half the song and then watched the movie. I don’t know if the movie had anything to do with the concept of that record, but I just loved that title—it’s such an iconic title. I wanted to do it justice.
You mentioned the Stereotypes brought you the music for “Motel Pool,” and then you wrote the concept. Is that how it usually goes?
Every song is different. I wouldn’t say there’s a process. Sometimes they’ll come to me and create a track and I’ll hear a concept around it. Sometimes I’ll have a concept and come to them first and say, I want to speak about this, I want to talk about this, and they’ll create a track around it. It’s kind of just a pure, organic collaboration.
Not to harp on it too much, but when you were trying to transition away from NLT did you have people trying to force you in another direction?
Definitely. One thing I learned is you really have to know who are as an artist and what you’re trying to accomplish because everyone else is going to try to push and pull you in one direction or another. One thing about me is that I’m very much… I know what I want and I know when I decide something I’m going to do, I go after it. I had a vision—the Stereotypes and I came up with this vision together and went after it full speed. We kind of never looked back and knew exactly what we were trying to do, and I felt like we really accomplished it with this album.
Well, if you were telling Noisey readers why they should check you out, what would you say?
I would just say if you’re a fan of R&B, if you’re a fan of contemporary music, just listen to the record. I think it speaks for itself. I don’t feel like I need to sell people outside of checking it out, and they can make their own mind about it.
Jeremy Gordon is in a boy band of boy journalists. He's on Twitter - @jeremypgordon