Killing it Softly
Chicago’s Noname on writing, reading, Kanye West, self-love and her breakout debut “Telefone.”
Noname quietly dropped her debut mixtape “Telefone” last July, after sporadically appearing on tracks from other rising Chicagoans like Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins since 2013. The record’s juxtaposition of sunny, melodic production and deeply reflective, often dark lyrics landed it on plenty of “top albums of 2016” lists by the end of the year — one that was already stacked with releases by big names. Noname chatted with Top Tree over the phone from her new spot in LA, right before kicking off her Telefone tour and making a stop at The Crocodile for a way-the-fuck-sold-out show in February.
Top Tree: You initially announced the record a while ago, so it’s been kind of a long time coming. What was your writing process like for the record? Your lyrics are
Noname: “I came up with the general concept and title of ‘Telefone’ about three years ago and wasn’t able to find the producers who totally understood my vision, musically and what I was trying to do, until recently. But once that happened I got an AirBnB in LA for the month of June and made the music in that month. I physically only write when I have music to write to. Whatever is on my mind or whatever has been weighing on me, it doesn’t usually manifest itself until I’m writing. Like you know when you’re sad, or your happy, or when you’re feeling an emotion, but you don’t always know the true thing that’s bothering you until it comes out when you’re writing. I don’t go sit down and be like ‘oh this is gonna be a song about this… this is gonna be a hook about this…’ I don’t know how to write like that. It’s very stream of consciousness. And yeah, very dark.”
TT: We read in another interview that your mom actually owned a bookstore when you were growing up. Did you like that or kinda reject it because you were around books and literature and all that stuff all the time?
N: “Yeah, it was around me all the time so I really wasn’t into reading as a kid. I didn’t get into reading and literature and writing until my sophomore year of high school when I was in a creative writing class. That kinda opened my mind up to language and how beautiful language can be in the way that it can connect people.”
TT: Right. So did you just take a liking to it right away, or realize you were good at it?
N: “I definitely took a liking to it, but I didn’t know I was ‘good’ at it until I started getting my teacher telling me things, giving me a little more attention in class, having me read my creative stories for the class, and really talking to me about the fact like ‘this is something that you should really think about, and if you continue to work and study to develop this talent and hone your craft this could be something that could be cool.’ I was just like ‘word, I mean I’ll think about it.’ (laughs)… But then he invited me to this poetry club that he was running in school and I actually went to that and the other kids in the club really liked my work. It just kinda grew from there.”
TT: This is kind of random, but one of our favorite songs from “Telefone” is the last track, “Shadow Man.” One of your lines that really stands out is “Moses wrote my name in gold and Kanye did the eulogy.” Sometimes people forget Kanye is from Chicago. What do people think about him out there these days, in his Life of Pablo/Kardashian phase?
N: “I think Kanye will always be Chicago. But as it is, he’s larger than Chicago. He’s global, he’s an artist of the world, so in a way he can’t just be Chicago. But he’ll always be a part of my Chicago childhood in some way. Even though he doesn’t necessarily do a bunch of things in the city, I still love Kanye. He’s really interesting because he’s such a polarizing figure and people always have so many opinions about him and his art and his life and what he does. He’s a human being that struggles publicly in a way that most people can’t even imagine or fathom — to just go through depression or mental illness or just sadness generally in front of the world in the way he does. He’s equally loved and hated at every moment. My heart goes out to Kanye. I just hope his heart is safe. He’s just a black man in America confused, trying to figure shit out.”
TT: That’s real. Kinda going off that, what kind of advice would you give to young women and people of color and everybody just trying to find their way and do their thing in the craziness of today?
N: “Actively practice self-love. I think regardless of someone being in your corner telling you that you are valuable — even if you haven’t found the space where you feel like you’re able to truly connect with the people around you — that actively practicing self-love is really important. I’m honestly just now getting into that. I slowly was on that wave as I was making ‘Telefone,’ but I’m on that tip more even now. I just find it to be very cathartic and very helpful. With so much going on in this outside world, and really being unable as a person of color or woman of color to actively change the face of your people — like whether or not I go out into the world and protest and scream and hashtag and tweet — all of those things are important, but I will never be able to change someone who has hate within them. But I can love myself and continue to grow as a human and that growth will then hopefully translate or help someone out, especially if you’re making art. I don’t wanna sound super corny or on some super hippie shit, but I believe that if people love themselves holistically, people wouldn’t want to harm other people, or wouldn’t be homophobic, or wouldn’t be racist you know? I think those kinds of very almost mentally insane ways that people feel about other people in the world is in a lot of ways linked to self-hate. If you love yourself you wouldn’t be hateful to other people. You wouldn’t have a need to. So that’s what I’m on, I’m on the tip of self-love.”
As told to TOP TREE Photos courtesy of Creative Commons