Stephonne is the future of KC’s sound
When I describe Stephonne Singleton’s voice as another instrument in the music on his latest EP, SIS: Side A, it feels like I’m being overly reductive, considering the dynamism of songs like “Want Me,” which contain delicate subtleties and bombastic largess within the span of three and a half minutes. The musician, however, sees it as an outgrowth of how he learned to appreciate music. Growing up, Singleton says, it was always playing in his house.
“My parents had a huge record collection, and I would just play the records all of the time,” Singleton recollects. “In my parents’ record collection we did listen to a lot of R&B and jazz, so there was always Isley Brothers or Luther Vandross or Anita Baker or Phyllis Hyman playing, but we also had Barbara Streisand records and we had Beatles records. When my mom was home, she would cook and she would play records and light incense and it was always on in the car. When I was in my room after school, I turned it on. I would make mix tapes on the radio.”
The musician also credits his local public library to furthering his musical education.
“I was always encouraged to explore new things,” explains Singleton. “We would go to the library every week, and I would check out CDs from there because we didn’t have a lot of money. It was before streaming services, and so I just got in the habit of checking out all of these CDs so I think I discovered Björk and Massive Attack and so many different musical acts through that. As far as genre, there’s really never been a limit for me.”
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When Singleton was seven, he joined the adult Catholic choir at his church, and began to learn about how each voice forms a part of a larger whole.
“I didn’t really have the theory behind that yet, but it really shapes how I hear things,” he continues. “By 10 or 11, I started writing in a notebook and it was so crazy, because I would literally hear all of the lines of everything. I would hear whole compositions, so I would memorize my melody in the way that everything sounded. Then, I would just write it down in the book. That’s all that I had, so I would pressure myself to remember these things vocally. I think that’s why the voice is such a big part of everything for me—because, at one point, it was literally all that I had to make known to people what it was that was in my head.”
That changed when Singleton went to Benedictine College, where he received his Bachelor’s in Music, where he learned a lot about himself, but also expanded his palette of musical knowledge. Being classically trained there, he says, you learn so much about voice, levels, and dynamics.
“Afterwards, I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ especially when I look back at my debt,” Singleton jokingly laments. “But I added Debussy and Mozart and Chopin and, gosh, Grieg and all of these amazing people to my lexicon of musical knowledge and ethos.”
Lest you think that Singleton is a dyed-in-the-wool classical singer, he name-checks a diverse array of those already present in the aforementioned lexicon: “Missy Elliott and Timbaland and Nirvana and Jonathan Davis and Korn and Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan—I added all of that stuff together. I got a really full scope.”
It was combining those years of radio and pop music, along with what he learned in college, which led to Singleton’s current musical awakening. At first, the classical training almost stood in the way of what he wanted to do. While it took him a while to let go of his classical, operatic training, along with the control that implies, when he did, it was freeing.
“I was able to get out of my own way and then really express what was inside and express more of my soul—which is pain—and then everything kind of comes together,” Singleton admits.
Musician Mick Ronson once referred to some of his work as “sad bangers,” a term which has now come to be personified by songs like Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” They come from a place of hurt, but through finding power in pain, experience catharsis. This is definitely something which can be applied to Singleton’s music.
“I’ve been through a lot of childhood trauma,” the musician explains. “I think growing up Black in mostly white Catholic schools and being queer in Catholic institutions has definitely added to depression and anxiety through a lot of my life.”
“If I hadn’t been writing songs about what I was going through—trying to make sense out of it—I would be dead, no mistake about it,” Singleton openly admits.
In college, Singleton discovered the power of using music as a way to get things out there, however obliquely. At the time, he was part of a pop-folk duo—think John Mayer or Michelle Branch doing acoustic jams—and smitten with his musical partner.
“One of the first songs we wrote was called ‘The One Thing,’ and it’s all about tripping over the one thing that you can’t have,” Singleton explains. “I was secretly in love with this guy, but I couldn’t tell him, so my way to deal with it was to write this really catchy, awesome song that he liked. I was like, ‘Okay. Whew! It’s out!’”
From that spark came a fire of creatively-fulfilling, emotionally-honest material, Singleton says: “That led to me writing about my relationship with my dad, and that led to me writing about depression. That led to me writing about casual anonymous sex as a gay man that doesn’t have access to it in Kansas—having to go through all of these weird places and apps and craziness.”
That said, while 2010 was a massive rush of songwriting for Singleton, with the musician writing a song nearly every day, he describes it as “one of the most manic, crazy, dangerous times” in his life. Afterward would come a suicide attempt, but, he says, it was the songwriting which got him through it.
“If I hadn’t been writing songs about what I was going through—trying to make sense out of it—I would be dead, no mistake about it,” Singleton openly admits. “What really got me through it and got me through after that was just that I wasn’t finished yet. I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted to with music. I hadn’t yet been able to make someone feel like Kurt Cobain or Sarah McLachlan or Alanis Morissette or Billie Holiday made me feel.”
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As Singleton puts it, what music did for him was get him through some really, truly dark night of the soul circumstances. As he hadn’t done that yet for for someone else, he found a way to carry on, in order to help someone in the world that looks like him: “People in the world that that were queer but didn’t know how to come out in their communities. People that were raised Catholic or super-Christian, that couldn’t tell their mom or their dad for fear of being thrown into conversion therapy or being beaten to death.”
The musician sums it up by saying that he has to write to live, and SIS: Side A’s first single, “Want Me,” was the culmination of all that.
“My frustration with being a Black queer man and having doors shut on me in relationships due to the fact that I was Black,” Singleton says with determination. “It was okay to have sex with me, but it wasn’t okay to acknowledge me as a person when the lights are on or in the day when everyone else was around.”
He also says the song is about having an unrequited love with queerness itself.
“Because I’m queer, right?” asks the musician rhetorically. “I love the gay community. I love sex. I love boys. I love all of these things, but I was in an imminent situation where that is not reciprocated to me as a Black man.”
Singleton points to the fact that he’s done drag in this community as part of Late Night Theater, and feels that he’s given a lot of himself. When Singleton is onstage, everyone claps and everyone is happy, but when he would leave the stage to take off his makeup, he would once again feel as though he was invisible again.
“I really felt invisible to men in the community—to a man, in particular, who had pissed me off for the last time,” Singleton explains. “I wrote ‘Want Me’ about him, from his perspective, to make sense out of what was happening. I had to get all of that out. The cool thing about a song is that you have to be so concise, because you have five minutes. All of these crazy thoughts and possibilities and places your mind can go that you take and make it so that they’re accessible and simple for other people to relate to their situations, too.”
It’s not something which Singleton set out to do, but he feels that, as he’s written more, it’s a skill that he’s honed. While the musician doesn’t want to generalize his personal experience into fact, he loves the way in which the accessibility of the words can change their meaning.
“I can become the subject of ‘Want Me,’ and I can be the person that wants to be wanted but doesn’t want to be wanted at the same time,” Singleton says. “I think that you have to find a way to get the attention of listeners where there are layers so, while they’re definitely nodding in agreeance to the bass and to the kick and to the snare, they’re also like, ‘Whoa! Wait, where did that line come from?’ and then then an ‘A-ha!’ moment hits them. I love that.”
“I’ve been going through this thing where I’ve realized that I am enough as an artist, I am enough as a person, as a Black man, as a queer man—and that was huge, that healing and that journey for me to finish this EP. I think that it’s a perfect example of coming to that conclusion. It’s concisely me.”
– Stephonne Singleton
While Singleton has been somewhat pigeonholed as an R&B singer, thanks in part to his debut album, Caged Bird Sings Songs About Red Beard, SIS: Side A draws a lot from those ‘90s rock influences we talked about early in our conversation, and that’s not a coincidence, he says.
“It’s definitely how I heard these songs in my head as I was writing them,” Singleton explains. “I’ve always leaned toward making something that expresses all of my influences. It’s the strangest thing because, all of the weird dynamics of everyone that I’ve mentioned to you doesn’t make any sense all together, but for some reason, ‘Want Me’ was everything. It was R&B and rock colliding. It was Jonathan Davis or Nine Inch Nails, but it was also Prince, hints of jazz, and some funk.”
Everything collided in a way which Singleton had always wanted it to. What he wanted to do was express these songs in the rawest way possible, because he feels musicians can get in their own way with overproduction, a thousand instruments, or words that no-one knows, trying to make alliterations and metaphors that will go over people’s heads.
“I just wanted to cut all the bullshit out,” laughs Singleton as we wrap up our nearly hour-long talk. “I had met Johnny Hamil, Ben Byard, Adam McKee, and Justin Mantooth through the recordings of Caged Bird Sings Songs About Red Beard, but they rode with me and stuck with me. We had this connection and they trusted me, my energy, and these songs that I delivered to them. They just gave me themselves and that’s all that I wanted. I just wanted them to give me what they heard from these songs. It was really important for me to highlight the song because the song is enough. I’ve been going through this thing where I’ve realized that I am enough as an artist, I am enough as a person, as a Black man, as a queer man—and that was huge, that healing and that journey for me to finish this EP. I think that it’s a perfect example of coming to that conclusion. It’s concisely me.”