Liner Notes is a close up look at a great new album you may have missed. This time, Shad discusses the debut of his soft rock alter ego, Your Boy Tony Braxton.
Imagine a young guy named Tony Braxton. He's always wanted to be a singer. But when he was 13 years old, Toni Braxton's self-titled debut ran up the R&B charts and cast a dark shadow over his dream. He'll never be that good. And it's not his fault. But he decides to push on. He's dedicated. He's loyal. You can't help but have a soft spot for your boy, Tony Braxton.
That's the character who animates Shad's latest project, a delightful curveball that takes the rapper and broadcaster into the terrain of late '80s soft rock and early '90s lite pop — the sort of stuff I remember playing on my mom's shower radio while I got ready for elementary school.
"There’s an era in your music listening," Shad says, "you're like 8 or 9 and you're hearing these songs and they’re making you feel things that you don’t understand." This is the well Your Boy Tony Braxton taps into. Vague memories of Michael Penn, Janet Jackson, and Terence Trent D’Arby, he lists, “Soul City” by The Partland Brothers, "King of Wishful Thinking."
He's interested in pop songs with an existential stripe and a romantic melody. "Think of 'Higher Love' by Steve Winwood," he says. It's an era and a style that encourages broad thinking about life and love. And on his LP, Adult Contempt, he uses the mode to reflect on getting older, what it might mean to be a better person and a better man.
There’s something about major chords that are inherently funny. So there’s that humour, but it’s not a joke.
Here, Shad discusses Adult Contempt, a project written and recorded over the last two years with his childhood friend Matthew Johnston. It wears its references on its acid-washed sleeve and tackles big ideas with a soft touch, so I asked if Shad would take this slowly and break it down track by track.
Your Boy Tony Braxton's Adult Contempt is out now on Arts & Crafts.
Your Boy Tony Braxton: Thematically, it speaks to insecurity and masculinity. Those are probably my favourite lyrics on the album. It’s a playful pop song. The chorus lyrics came to me first: the dreams and the people I wasn’t good enough for. It’s kind of about male rage, and what I think drives a lot of violence of all kinds, those feelings of insecurity and inferiority. As dudes, we don’t always have a way of expressing it. We harm other people, we harm ourselves. It’s heavier than the song sounds, but that’s what it’s getting at.
I think human beings like to think we’re a lot more complicated than we are when we act out or do weird stuff. Really, it comes down to we feel insecure and we feel inferior.
It’s very croony and I like the crooning and the major chords, it just has a humour to it. It felt nice to start from that place. The lyrics get heavy, but it stays playful and humorous. Very croony, very Buble.
Chart Attack: When you say humorous, there’s an interesting thing: you’re indulging in the irony of these song styles, but you’re also being totally sincere.
Yes. I’m not sure what the split is. There’s something about major chords that are inherently funny. So there’s that humour, but it’s not a joke. I’m singing about real things and that’s why I feel like I can deliver them honestly and passionately. But there’s definitely a playful and humour to it almost inherently from the chords and the vocal style. I can’t tell you what the split is: 60/40? 50/50?
It’s another one I wrote pretty fast. Similar kinda chords: major key and some jazzy stuff. Another one that’s a little more existential in terms of talking about being happy and being free and being honest.
It’s that idea of wanting to be happy and allowing yourself to be happy. When I was younger, I don’t know, there was this vague sense that you don’t necessarily deserve to be happy or that you don’t want to be happy. You want to struggle, you want to be brave, you want to overcome obstacles. But then at a certain part, you're like: "look, life is kinda hard and I just want to be happy." Does that make sense?
Totally. Do you think it’s maybe difficult for people who are driven to let themselves be happy or content with what they have?
I think part of it is being driven. I think another part is the male thing. Being a great man is about overcoming obstacles and doing it by yourself — that whole narrative that I think is subtly enforced as opposed to understanding you’re part of a bigger whole and that it’s okay to be happy and content with what you have and who you are. There’s another theme about masculinity.
So when you’re talking about "being a better man," you’re literally thinking about masculinity?
I was thinking about it as I wrote these songs, there are messages you subtly absorb as a man in the world. You have to be serious and headstrong. Being a man is about overcoming obstacles and the strength of your will and all that stuff. But the first lyrics are: I want to be happy. I don’t want to overcome obstacles and do the whole ‘great man on his own’ narrative. I just want to be happy.
"All I Think About (You)"
I think with that one I was trying to write a Beach Boys song or something. I was just going to these weird key changes and stumbled upon this pattern that worked. The lyrics all came kind of naturally out of that. Structurally, it’s a bit different. There isn’t really a chorus, it’s just this pattern that keeps going up or down a half-step. And then, there’s the whole big arrangement that comes in.
Is that a productive way for you to write? To say: "I’m gonna write a Beach Boys song"? You’re setting yourself up with some restrictions or a guideline.
100%. There’s definitely a couple songs on this album where that was the goal: "I want to write a song like this." It’s a great starting point.
It started on guitar, but it’s probably the kind of idea that I wouldn’t have written or pursued without doing this Adult Contempt album. It’s a pretty cheesy progression, but I liked it. I was in the frame of mind where I was into that whole era and feeling it. Again, the lyrics are really simple, all about being a better person: following through, calling people back on the phone, that kind of thing. To me, it’s kind of like a Janet Jackson song. Like Janet Jackson doing one of her rockier songs. Or it’s like a dude who think he’s making a Janet Jackson song and it’s not exactly working out that way, but it’s still cool.
You know how a lot of songwriters write like their mumbling syllables and the words just sort of form out of it? A lot of this was like that: doing that mid tempo, almost ballad thing. Like “Sara” by Starship. That was one of the inspirations for this one.
And then the lyrics: again, it’s about getting older. I just turned 34, and you can run away from some of your flaws or think your hiding them, but you realize they’re just there. I have a lot of conversations with my friends around the same age, and a lot of the talk is about how we’re realizing we’re like our parents in this way or that way. You can have the illusion that you’re not, but at a certain point you realize, “that’s who I am. What can I do about it?” If you want to change, you need to actively do something about it.
I think so, too. The stuff I’ve heard by Blood Orange and some of the other stuff Dev Hynes has written, I hear a lot of the same early ‘90s, some late ‘80s, but especially early ‘90s like P.M. Dawn and that kind of influence, too. He wrote “Losing You” for Solange, I think, and that one in the melodies reminds me of “Kick.” It’s like an R&B soft rocker kinda tune.
I think I started with the chord progression from Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” and then that song has a key change into the chorus, so I thought I should probably do that, too. I don’t know how I got that theme in my head, the concept, I was probably writing it in the fall or something.
“The Man?” is more of a New Wave, soft rock kind of thing. A lot of major seventh chords but rocky and dancey. I wanted to do a dancier ‘80s rock song. The lyrics are about trying to impress this woman, but she’s actually impressing me a lot more. And I’m like, “Wait, that’s not how this is supposed to work.” Again, it’s the vulnerable male thing. So this guy’s trying to be charming and impress this woman, but she’s way more impressive and charming and witty than he is, and he’s just sort of confused.
Conviction was just this little melody that came into my mind one morning when I woke up. It kind of has a Beach Boys/Beatles feel to it. I thought it would be cool as a short thing, just a minute-and-a-half ditty. It’s really mainly about that one melody you hear later on the trumpet. Then the lyrics get a bit more serious. They’re about imposter syndrome, I think. Being a young person and being confused and doing what your parents expect because that’s what makes the people around you happy.
I read this short story once about this guy who was around 18 in 1968. He graduated top of his class, he got accepted into Harvard, but it was the draft for Vietnam that summer and he got drafted. And like a lot of thinking, young, smart people, he was anti-war. But at the end of the day, he grew up in a small town, and the people around him were going off to war, so he went off to war, because that’s what you do. I was struck by that: how simple we are as human beings. We’ll risk our lives or kill other people just because, socially, it’s what’s expected. We’re social creatures, we just want to be accepted.
It’s like a straight-ahead rocker, like a Bryan Adams song or something. Kinda bluesy, kinda soulful. And because it’s workman-like blues rock, I was thinking about a dude who’s mad dedicated, he’s mad honourable, he’s just a heluvah guy. He’s just trying to do right by his lady.
Yeah, those are like the platitudes and values of that brand of blue collar rock, and it does seem like you can imagine the admirable sort of character they were always singing about.
Exactly. Like this guy is kind of evolving or something like that. He’s just trying to do right. He’s just trying to make his lady proud of him. That kind of vibe. The character of the music just brought out that story.
“Stay” is the weirdest one. That’s the one where, when I was recording it, my buddy was like, “Dude, I’ve known you my whole life, and I feel like I don’t know you when you sing this song.” It’s like a country song. I think when I wrote it, I was thinking that there are a lot of songs from the early ‘90s that are like “ Stay.” It’s one of the most emotional words you can say. There’s “Stay” by U2, there’s “Stay” by Shakespears Sister.
It’s such a loaded word. You can envision a story pretty quickly.
It’s super loaded. It’s such a great songwriting word. It’s the perfect power ballad word. So that spawned this story: I was thinking about this man who’s a little bit older and he’s in this relationship, but it’s an adult relationship. He’s clear-eyed: we’re two people, we get along well, everything is good, you’re an adult, I’m an adult, you have your life, I have my life, we’re trying to make our lives fit together. Practically speaking, it might work, it might not, maybe we’re too independent to make this work. He just has this sober look at this relationship, but there are feelings there too. And at the end of the day, he wants her to stay.
Then the second verse, he reflects on himself a little more: why he is the way he is, why it’s hard for him to share his life. And the last verse paints more of a picture. He has kids. He’s widowed. The children really like this new woman. It’s weird, but it all came together as this emotional story for me.
It’s a weird story. Like my friend said, “I don’t know where this came from.” But that’s just how it is sometimes with stories.