Ed Balloon is not yet a pop star, but he might be soon. If anything, he’s well on his way to becoming an indie star in the weird, breakout lane of glam-pop that has been dominating 2017. The Boston-based musician burst on the scene back in 2015 with his debut Bandcamp-released EP No Smoking, and quickly caught attention on the streaming platform, landing a Bandcamp feature the following year for his next EP Yellow 20 Somethings. That’s when I stumbled upon his music, via the west coast weirdo label Deathbomb Arc, and immediately fell in love with his frenetic, earnest style.
If you’re drawn to the psycho-pop sparkle of a band like Deerhoof — who invited Ed to open for them in Boston and helped premiere his “Graduate” video last year — then his sound, and underlying social, political, and personal commentary will strike a chord. All that and more are at play in his “@# TrapKaraoke” video, which we premiered back in March. In the visual for a track off Yellow 20 Somethings, Ed embraces black boy joy, even in the face of dark and depressive forces.
In 2017, Ed is more focused and confident than ever on carving out his own lane. He’s only been seriously pursuing music for a couple years now, and his next project, Flourish which will be out later this year, is his third official EP release to date. Despite the brevity, he’s a refined and poignant songwriter and performer who defies categorization and stereotype. Today we’re highlighting the first track released off the newly announced Flourish EP, “BDA (Still Riding),” which you can hear below.
The song is a bouncy and enthusiastic Afrobeat bop that lasers in on issues of intimacy and support, despite financial success. A sharp take on how money and finances influence our lives is a huge part of Flourish‘s theme, and I spoke with Ed extensively about this, among many other things when he was visiting Los Angeles last month, like the difficult story of how eventually turned to music, learning to accept his deep voice, superseding genre and more. Read that conversation below.
Listening to your work, and as you mentioned in Bandcamp, it feels like your influences are really disparate, what was it that first drew you to music?
I would listen to music when I was younger, but I didn’t really find it to be important until I was like 10 years old. I remember it was the summer of 1998, and I was in Texas. My parents are Nigerian, and I was born in Massachusetts, but we would go down to Texas every other summer because my dad has a younger brother there. My dad would go if he needed to make money, he was a taxi cab driver. So at ten, I was old enough now to listen to the radio, to realize music was coming out and it felt so inspiring.
My dad played Fella, who was a really big influence in my life. Michael Jackson, Prince, all of these Motown musicians. And I began hearing melodies and I would sing along and think ‘Okay, this is really cool!’ So when I came back to Boston at ten years I just started singing by myself. I would be in my room just making songs, making melodies. And so I had a neighbor, and he wanted to rap, so we started a little group, and I would write the songs, and I would have everyone sing. So that’s how I started making music and my love for music. It enhanced when I was getting older, and I just wanted to really be a singer. I would watch other performers and think: ‘I really want to be on stage. I want to be like that. That’s what I want to do.”
It was very difficult though, because I came from a household where my parents are Nigerians, strict on books, they’re immigrants, and it’s very difficult coming from another country and trying to live. And they said “In order for you to live here, you have to have money. And music isn’t going to be a way to make money. You need to be a doctor. You need to be a lawyer. You need to be something like that.” So I would try to sing and it was so hard because my parents were like, ‘What are you doing? Stop it.’ So that was really difficult.
Did that change at all? How do your parents feel about your music now?
Like when I was growing up, they didn’t allow me to sing a lot. They were like, “Shut up! Be quiet!” They would really try to hinder me from singing. I would lock myself in the bathroom and put the faucet on so I wouldn’t hear them. Even at the time, my mom was more supportive though. She would try to put me in singing lessons when I would beg for them. Then, it came to the point where I got old and I was able to get a job and fund my own singing lessons, and I would try to find ways to write my own songs.
I was working at a CVS as a cashier in high school so I could pay for these lessons. My parents were like, ‘Where’s your money going to?’ But I couldn’t tell them that because they didn’t support that, and it took a while, but my family now is really supportive of my music now. When I dropped my first EP, No Smoking, they were like “Wow we didn’t know you could sing! We didn’t know you had this voice! We didn’t know you were so serious about it.”
What happened after high school? Did you pursue music in college?
No, I went to college at a small school called Brandeis and I was studying philosophy and thinking I was going to be a lawyer. That school manufactures lawyers. I saw everyone and thought ‘This is not what I want to do.’ I noticed people weren’t really passionate about studying law because they want to help the world, they just wanted to have reputation. And I realized that’s why I was doing it too. I didn’t have any passion for it, my passion is in music. During my last year of college, I was talking to a career specialist, and she was trying to help me with my resume because I was applying to a law program. And she asked me if I had any other interests aside from law. When I told I loved music, and art, and everything, she said ‘Wow. Your face lit up when you said that.’ I realized I was just doing it because it’s a means to a better life, and it’s very difficult not to gravitate toward that when you have lived with worrying all the time about money.
Totally. It’s so difficult not to choose something that keeps you safe. But, your voice is very unique, too.
Well, I am also someone who everyone was like, ‘You’re not going to be a singer. You can’t become a singer. Your voice is too different.’ My story isn’t the typical. People were like, ‘No, you should not become a singer. You should not do it. Your voice is too deep.’ That scared me a lot. Even my singing coaches, a good amount of them were like, ‘Okay, in order for you to be like this typical, good pop singer, and get all these hits, you have to have a high tenor voice.’ And that put me in a lot of trouble with my voice; I caused a lot of damage to it trying to sing like a lot of people. Finally I had a voice therapist who said ‘Those people were liars. No, you have an amazing instrument, and you don’t have to sing like that. You don’t need to sing like that. You need to sing like you have this amazing voice. Use it.’ It took a while for me to actually be accepting of what I have.
After you finally accepted it all and started releasing music, how did you get in touch with Deathbomb Arc?
I was trying to find ways to really tell my story and trying to find ways where people would be willing to listen, as well as see my creative style.
The No Smoking EP was a self-release, and people were taking me seriously after that. And now-but I discovered Daveed Diggs, and through him I looked up his rap group Clipping, who are signed to Sub Pop and to Deathbomb Arc. And Deathbomb Arc contacted me and loved my music and put out Yellow 20-Somethings. So I was able to touch on bits and pieces of all this on that EP, I was trying to capture a lot of the problems I was going through. With this new EP coming, my goal is to talk about how finances are really a big problem, and how we dismiss them, and how we act when we have money, or in situations when it comes to finances. I also wanted to talk about being from the hood. Someone said to me one time, ‘Oh, you know, you make music where you don’t seem black enough.’ And that really destroyed me.
That’s a terrible thing to hear. But I listen to your music, and I think no one’s calling it “pop music,” because you’re black? That’s what I was actually thinking on the way over here. Your voice is deep, but it’s not soul, and this isn’t totally R&B either. And that’s kind of why I liked it, I find a lot of R&B retrograde or boring, but the diversity of sound in your music interests me.
I still have an R&B background, and I would say I have R&B in my sound. But in 2017, people shouldn’t automatically assume music to be something they’ve heard before and put it there. We need to understand that music is always changing. It’s totally different from how it was five years ago, and it’s always changing! As far as coming from an R&B background, you know, I don’t want to limit myself to R&B; I have a lot of influence in me. I have Afro in it, like African. I say words differently because of my Nigerian accent, I don’t try to hide that. I have these influences and I don’t want to suppress them because I’m trying to fulfill this type of genre.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the new EP, Flourish, and the theme of finance that runs through it. What else is your vision for this release? How does it feel different from the earlier EPs?
I’m very careful when it comes to picking a name for the EP, because I want to be able to speak for everything that’s on that EP. I am very happy with this one. I’m not saying I’m not happy with the other ones, but I see the growth in it, and I like how each song has its own message, but it’s for the bigger picture. I am talking about things where it comes from helping your community.And financially, that’s so important and we lose that. You can talk, that’s really important. But you have to go where it really helps, and that’s money. Clearly, money is the way to have your voice heard. You can do things with that I think sometimes people, especially celebrities, who have this platform aren’t able to give back, which is kind of upsetting, so I wanted to talk about that too.
I also wanted to talk about being in the situations where you don’t have money, and when you’re alone. And how do you find ways to come up, and who do you call? I wanted to talk about trying to hustle, trying to get that dollar in, and finding yourself in a situation where, okay, now you’re doing time. Who’s going to support you now? I think especially now, you see, there’s just a lot of lack of support in some areas, where people just not knowing how to support each other, like publicly, because honestly, people are in turmoil. I feel like when it comes to a people, especially black people, we have to be together, and we have to really come together and support each other. That’s what I wanted to go to, where it’s like, “At the end of it, just try and help each other.”
Even when you’re talking about heavier stuff, meeting you makes the name Ed Balloon make sense, because you’re so effervescent. You’re so bouncy.
I picked a balloon because for some reason I’ve always had this obsession with balloons. And I never understood why, but they’re so comforting. When I was going through finding my artist name suddenly realized I love balloons, and Ed Balloon popped into my head. It symbolizes me trying to be free. Balloons, you know, they just float. And one line I always say, “I’m Ed Balloon, I’m a balloon because I float over bullsh*t.” I’m not trying to be barricaded by what society wants me to be. Because I have experienced that already, and I know where that puts you. It doesn’t put you anywhere, it just suppresses you and keeps you in this box. I’m Ed Balloon because that’s not what I’m going to be. I’m going to follow my own path, and make my own decisions, and I’m going to pray that everything works out. But I’m going to keep floating.
The Flourish EP will be out later this year via Deathbomb Arc.