On the heels of their third album, Shivers, local electronic R&B duo Blacksage talks with us about their new sound, being part of the Friends Records family, and that all-important question: What would Prince do?
You both grew up in Anne Arundel County. Did your love of music start there or after you moved to Baltimore?
Josephine Olivia, singer: I always loved singing, even when I was younger and way too afraid to sing. I remember my first open-mic performance in Annapolis when I was 16. It was horrifying but so rewarding. I played more acoustic, folksy, solo stuff before I moved, but it wasn’t until Drew and I met and started making music together that I did anything like this. It came together so easily and was so much fun. It became a new outlet for me.
Drew Scott, producer: I’ve been making rap beats since I was about 17. Once I learned how to sample music, that was it, from that day on. I got hand-me-down records from family and friends and started spending probably too many years by myself in a room making beats. Mostly hip-hop stuff, though I’ve always wanted to make pop music, because it’s not limited to one genre. Like Madonna’s first record—I always like to imagine I made that.
You’re just friends, but you dated for a while. Which came first, the relationship or the band?
J: We started dating and it was pretty soon after that we started making music, and that sort of became the focus.
D: We realized we were better at being a band than a couple [laughs].
You—and we—are lucky you were able to make that work.
J: We both just have a mutual respect for each other and we make pretty decent music together so we figured we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Your last album, Basement Vows, was described as being born “from the ashes of your relationship,” as it was made after the breakup. If that’s the case, what is this new album?
J: Our first record was us getting together; the second was us falling out. On this record, we wanted to stay away from what was our romantic relationship and from just writing about our experiences together, because this record wasn’t about us. This record draws a lot from our other experiences, and the other relationships we’re in now, but we also wanted to create a broader image of relationships in general.
D: This album is more mature. Josie didn’t just write from her own perspective. Some of the songs are more conceptual. And we definitely went in a more jazzy direction. We both love jazz, in many forms, like Billie Holliday’s vocals or, bringing it into the future, I’ve always been influenced by Prince. That’s a huge part of my writing. Whenever we get stuck on a song, we always say, what would Prince do?
That’s a great motto to live by.
J: We try to touch on a lot of different genres without being put into one specific box. I think this is the most accessible album we’ve done.
At the same time, it feels a lot less poppy than your previous work.
J: Our last album went real poppy, and I don’t know if we were that excited about it. We like that this album is more experimental and not a predictable pop pattern. We want to keep you listening and guessing.
D: A cool thing is that the first song samples vocals from Josie’s mom.
J: My mom was in a Renaissance band in the 1970s. When I was little, I remember that they had their own vinyl record that I would listen to and be so excited by, thinking that one day it would be so cool if I had one, too. Then this year, when Friends Records got some backing, we found out we were going to have vinyl, too, and I immediately thought it would be really cool if we used some of my mom’s influence. It adds an even more different style to our sound, beyond just jazz. It’s some kind of weird medieval shit.
We loved the hymnal touch that’s woven throughout so many of these songs, between her samples and Josie’s ethereal voice.
J: The songs are definitely more focused on the vocals. The range is a lot broader—you can really hear the highs and the lows. In general, we took more time to focus on each song. We very meticulously picked apart each song and found the appropriate balance of distortion throughout, as opposed to just kind of winging it and letting it go. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s slap reverb on the whole thing,’ like we did with the first album
After all this time, and all you guys have been through, how does it feel to make music together now?
J: The way we write things together hasn’t really changed. That’s been one of the most constant things between us. Drew comes up with the bones and the beat, and a lot of times, he just plays something, and I sing on it right there, and my first take is what we go with because it’s the most organic, truest thing.
D: We both also like to work alone, in our separate time. It’s pretty easy. We send things back and forth to each other. She lets me know if she doesn’t like something.
J: [Laughs] Yeah. We honestly don’t see each other that much, so it’s helpful to be able to just send things through e-mail.
D: We worked on the album on and off for about a year, both while doing other things, like I helped make Luvadocious with Al Rogers Jr.
J: But we’d always come back to it.
You have some other great artists featured on the album, like fellow Friends Records label mates Microkingdom, and up-and-coming R&B artist :3ION (pronounced Elon).
D: We finally got to work with :3ION. We’ve been wanting to for a couple years now.
J: It was incredible to see him work. I’m just really honored he wanted to be a part of it. We’re lucky to know so many talented people.
How does it feel to be part of the big Friends Records family and, just in general, the Baltimore music scene?
J: The beauty of Friends Records, and the Baltimore music scene, is that everyone actually is friends. We all work together. We build together. It’s an amazing community of people who all just really give a shit about music. It’s one of the greatest things about Baltimore. You meet people who are so talented and you make something so completely different together than anything you’d ever create otherwise. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it, especially Friends, with everything they’ve accomplished and all the new things coming up. It’s amazing to see it all unfold.
D: The Baltimore music scene definitely still has a small-town vibe. When you go out in Station North, you see like 15 other amazing artists, just hanging out. And when they are performing, everyone just puts on such a good show. It keeps you on your toes. You want to be good for these people.
J: You want to keep up.
D: People just work so hard. The DIY spirit is very important here and that’s so cool.
Now that Shivers is out, any other upcoming projects?
J: We are definitely going to keep making music. I don’t know how many albums we’re in for, but one at a time. We don’t really have expectations. We’re just really excited that all these things have happened. We’re just along for the ride.
D: This really feels like our first album. It feels like a good start.
J: We’d like to get more involved with programs like Believe in Music [an organization that promotes self expression and community engagement for Baltimore City students through music education], which is an amazing group of people and kids.
D: We got to make a song with one of the students.
J: We made a beat, she wrote the lyrics, and I helped her find a melody. Being in the booth with her was really a cool experience. Working with kids is the most important thing we can do because it’s the next generation. It’s probably become one of our biggest focuses: to get kids to make music, and help them in any way we can. It’s important to let them know that they can really do whatever they want to do. They can really make it happen if they want to.
You can catch Blacksage tonight, September 23, at the Ottobar with R&B artist :3ION, hip-hop quartet Soul Cannon, surf-pop rockers Sweepstakes, singer-songwriter Beya Likhari, and DJ James Nasty.