Aaron Frazer on the right Arrangements for Heartbreak

Foto: © Rosie Cohe (Dead Oceans)
On his second solo album »Into The Blue«, American soul singer Aaron Frazer embarks on a journey into the unknown – with stops at the highs and lows of his emotional world. A break-up was the inspiration for the new album released on Dead Oceans.

The video call with Aaron Frazer begins with an energetic “Good Morning” from Los Angeles. In conversation, the drummer, who is also part of Durand Jones’ band The Indications, appears balanced. Instead of hiding away, the soul singer confronted his feelings and processed them in a forward flight through music. He seems to be at peace with himself. The mourning for his lost love is a closed chapter; he has musically sorted out the emotional chaos of that time with strings, drums, electric guitar, courage, openness and a love of experimentation.

From his journey into the unknown, Aaron Frazer brought back, above all, optimism. And an album where all the musical influences of the multi-instrumentalist and audio engineer come together. He spoke to us about how to learn to listen, flowing emotions and crying strings.

Aaron, on your album „Into The Blue” the diverse drums and your clear and soulful voice stand out. In some songs like „Time Will Tell”, the drums are slightly supporting in the background. Other songs are led by the drums. What came first: singing or playing the drums?
Aaron Frazer: Drumming came first by a lot! I started when I was nine years old. At 12, I thought I had a good pitch but was embarrassed to sing. I felt self-conscious and didn’t allow myself to sing.

When did that change?
Aaron Frazer: When I got my driver’s license, I could be in a car by myself and sing. That not only gave me movement but also access to the car as a sanctuary where I allowed myself to try singing.

»When you have somebody in your life who teaches you how to listen, it’s a gift.«

Aaron Frazer

What did you sing back then?
Aaron Frazer: I was a big fan of The Black Keys. Fast forward to 2021: I get a call from Dan Auerbach, the drummer and singer of the band. It was surreal. We ended up co-writing „Into The Blue” – the title song of my album.

Interesting how being allowed to drive helped you on your path of becoming a musician. The car kind of became the lab where you could experiment with your voice.
Aaron Frazer: The car is still the lab! I didn’t grow up with a lot of privacy, but with open doors at home.

You were born in 1991 in Baltimore. What role did music play at home?
Aaron Frazer: Nobody in my family played an instrument or was singing. But my parents love music. One of my first memories is of my mom playing Thriller on the turntable. She also listened to Carole King’s Tapestry – which is still one of my guiding lights in terms of songwriting. The songwriting on that album is like a masterclass. It’s up there with like Smokey Robinson for me.

How did your dad’s love for music influence you?
Aaron Frazer:
He’s a great listener, he would put on a record and say: „Listen! Listen to how the vocals are interacting with the guitar!” Then, he’d pause it and ask me: Did you hear that? And start the song over. When you have somebody in your life who teaches you how to listen, it’s a gift.

One who has learned how to listen can notice the different instruments in a composition and hear the speed changes.
Aaron Frazer: If you don’t have the language for something, you can’t perceive it. It becomes invisible in a way. Getting to learn how to describe what I’m hearing early on helped me become a musician.

You then went on to study Sound Engineering in Indiana. How did that expand your perception of music?
Aaron Frazer:
I love talking about music. Throughout my studies, I learned how to articulate clearly what my dad was teaching me as a kid. Now I can talk about drum compression and saturation. Being able to articulate my ideas allows me to collaborate with others and be able to explain how I’d like things to sound.

When you were growing up, what music inspired you?
Aaron Frazer: Hip-hop was my first love that wasn’t my parents’ music. The first CD I owned, was „Big Willie Style” by Will Smith, which had „Gettin’ Jiggy with it” and „Just The Two Of Us” which is a Bill Withers interpolation. Even on the first rap record that I was listening to I was exposed to soul music as a part of it.

»A good metaphor for the danger of suppressed feelings is being in the swimming pool and trying to push a Basketball under the water. Eventually, it will slip out from under your hand and probably hit you in the face.«

Aaron Frazer

How did that exposure to different styles of music influence your style?
Aaron Frazer: Gospel and country music. Whenever I drive in the southwest, I listen to country music, for example, Marty Robbins, an old cowboy singer. His songs are like movies. The pink cover of his album „Gunfighter Ballads” with a cutout of him is the reason why my last album is pink with a cutout of me on it. It was a nod to one of my songwriting heroes.

Any other major influences?
Aaron Frazer: Wenn du eine Emotion unterdrückst, entsteht ein emotionaler Block. Emotionen müssen fließen. Du musst sie erkennen, ihnen Raum geben. Eine gute Metapher für die Gefahr unterdrückter Gefühle ist, in einem Schwimmbecken zu sein und zu versuchen, einen Basketball unter Wasser zu drücken. Irgendwann wird er dir unter der Hand wegrutschen und dir ins Gesicht knallen.

And what made you excited about country music?
Aaron Frazer:
I moved to the Midwest and started playing the banjo. Later, when I moved to New York, I was hanging out with folkies. Country and folk music remained a big part of my life.

These influences are hearable on your new album as well. How was the creative process throughout »Into The Blue«, an album you stated was inspired by a breakup?
Aaron Frazer:
I was writing it as I was going through all the emotions. First, there is this journey of remembering the good times. Then reality hit. I remember sitting in my empty apartment and that there was echoing every time I talked because there was no furniture. Because I thought she might come back.

What did you learn both from the relationship and from putting that into music?
Aaron Frazer:
On this album, there is a lot of pain and uncertainty. I started working on it at the beginning of 2022, was still in a relationship, and wasn’t writing any lyrics. After the relationship ended, I moved to Los Angeles and tried to avoid writing sad songs. I thought my audience expected tender love songs from me. Then my friend said: Don’t try to fight it. Write sad if that’s where you’re at. I took on his advice and the songs started flowing. And to my surprise, I was then also able to write happy songs again.

What is your takeaway from that?
Aaron Frazer:
When you suppress one emotion, it creates an emotional block. Emotions need to flow. You must recognize them and make room for them. A good metaphor for the danger of suppressed feelings is being in the swimming pool and trying to push a Basketball under the water. Eventually, it will slip out from under your hand and probably hit you in the face.

Hearing you going through the emotions on „Into The Blue” reminded me of a hero’s journey in movies.
Aaron Frazer: I like music supervision. In another lifetime, I would be a music supervisor. My brother and I used to play this game where we would put on the radio while was driving me to school and have to make up a fake movie to a song. If my new album was a movie, the cold open to the movie is „Thinking Of You” before the credits. I’m in New York running into my ex’s friends on the train. If feel lonely. And then I say: fuck it. And head west into the unknown – into the blue.

The last songs of the album sound like your journey was a success. That you have worked through the emotions that were out of place before.
Aaron Frazer: „The Fool”, the last song on the album was the last song I wrote. When writing it, I could feel that I had grown as a person. I was recognizing the sadness but maintaining an optimistic outlook on the future.

You used different instruments in different songs on the album. From „The Fool” I remember the guitar, „Thinking of You” is dominated by slow strings, and „Easy to Love” is the only song where a piano was part of the arrangement (correct me, if I’m wrong) How did you pick the instruments for the songs?
Aaron Frazer: They say the cello is the closest to the human voice. The vibrato of strings has a sobbing quality. Those instruments can cry in a way that no other instruments can. With some songs I wanted to transport the big emotions I felt to the listener. A string quartet can create that bigness, it almost sounds like a choir. When I want people to feel a small moment of reflection, then I go sparser on the arrangement. „Perfect Stranger” is just an electric guitar and an out-of-tune bass. I like to play with arrangements to make people feel what I’m feeling.

You’re going on tour now. Will you bring all the instruments used on the album with you?
Aaron Frazer:
It is not the most cost-effective way to tour. We will be an eight-piece band. How I see it? You can make every color with primary colors but I decided that I’m going to be painting more colors on this tour. This album is the hardest I’ve ever worked on. I want to honor that by giving people the closest thing to my composition.

This is going to be the first time for you touring as a front singer. What are your feelings on that?
Aaron Frazer: It is a naked feeling. I’m going to be out front for a lot of the set. I have spent my whole musical life seated behind a drum kit, and now I’m supposed to use all four of my limbs at the same time. The thought of it is fun and scary. I’m looking forward to figuring out who I am as a front person because Durand, my bandmate, is one of the best front people I’ve ever seen. I love his stage presence. But for me, it would be inauthentic to go out and do the Durand thing. I don’t come from the James brown school of frontmenship. I’m closer to Smokey Robinson.