Q&A with Cliff Notez, a True Renaissance Man

First of all, thank you for reaching out! It’s always really important to me, especially having been a writer and journalist for a while, to connect with Black-centric blogs and more writers of color. I hope you don’t mind me multitasking, my days are constantly ridiculous and they keep getting more and more ridiculous. So, yeah! I guess I’ll just read through these questions. I think I remember reading these questions at least once, so I won’t be too surprised; I always feel like the more authentic answer comes from speaking as opposed to writing, so hopefully this is helpful.

I wanted to ask what it’s like to be from Boston as an emcee? Has the city influenced your music and if so, how has it? 

Boston is an interesting city in the sense that it’s really small, it’s also pretty well-known, relatively speaking. But, it’s also historically, extremely segregated. I often say that Boston is probably the most racist city in America. When you really think about it, places like Alabama or Mississippi, or even down to Baltimore, where the racism is more overt, I think that that is racism that makes a little more sense, in the sense that it’s tangible. I think that the racism in Boston is different, in the sense that it is the definitive idea of structural or institutional racism. They’ve mastered racism in a way, where you can’t see it. It’s not as tangible, which I think is the most dangerous and most effective, especially in our communities.

That being said, I grew up all over the city. My father and I moved from apartment to apartment, city to city, from a lot of different places. I like to claim Dorchester and Somerville. I went to high school out in Malden for a while, which is a city outside of the city. I eventually went to prep school out in Connecticut, which was a school called Taft. It was more expensive than my university, and my university was one of the most expensive universities in the country. That’s the kind of wealth that I was exposed to, but at the same time, coming back to one-bedroom apartments in not the best neighborhoods and also completely different demographics. I like to think of it as my ride from Ashmont Station to Oak Grove, Ashmont Station is the end of the red-line, Oak Grove is the orange-line, so two completely different ends of the spectrum.

© Nick Martin

I think that those experiences as a whole, going to these elite schools because I was lucky to be tall and athletic and good at basketball, which opened up a bunch of doors for me that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think that those experiences really shaped a lot of who I am today. I’ve understood code-switching since I was in kindergarten. It also exposed me to so many different cultures. I think you can hear it in my music, you can hear the influences of anything from Public Enemy to Drake to Radiohead and Fleetwood Mac, anything. I think that they all influence me in different ways, and I try to take it in, in so many different ways. I have so many different friend groups that like so many different things and I’d be remiss to think that I liked any of them less than the other because of certain things that they liked. Unless they were racist, then we probably wouldn’t be friends. I think that definitely influenced the core soul of my music; just that duality, kind-of switching identities, also the appreciation for a lot of different cultures, and also the inherent racism and structural racism that I was exposed to earlier and was lucky enough to be able to begin to see through it in order to make some type of change.

I think, also, a more direct thing is that Boston in terms of hip-hop is massive, there’s a huge hip-hop scene that I was raised in. The thing is that a lot of people don’t even think that Black people are here in Boston. I think a big part of that is the media, the portrayal of Boston. You see the Celtics, or you see the Red Sox, you see the Patriots, and other than that, you see a bunch of movies with Mark Wahlberg or Ben Affleck, which portrays a specific white side of Boston. People think that Boston is very Irish, but there’s a whole community of a whole wealth of different races. Black people are here. We are a very big part of the city. You think about Malcolm Little being here in Roxbury before he became Malcolm X. But even in that movie, Malcolm X, the one scene that was supposed to be based in Boston was shot in Brooklyn. We never really get a fair portrayal of our story. I think that that is a big inspiration as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, as a writer, and as a musician, to tell our stories the way that we need them to be told or at least the way we want to tell them, from our perspectives. 

I saw that you’ve released a 360° music video and that your videos are always visually stimulating. I was wondering how your music videos come to mind. I know most rappers are cookie-cutter versions of other rappers, how do you differentiate yourself and maintain a unique sound? Also, who shoots your videos? 

Excerpt from “Zebra” by Alec Hutson ft. Cliff Notez (Filmed, edited, co-produced and co-directed by Alex Ezorsky, Co-produced and co-directed by Alec Hutson)

I shoot about 90% of my videos. I write them, direct them. I’ve been making films since I was 13, which is right around the time that I started to get into hip-hop seriously. I’ve been rapping since I was 9. I’ve been making music since I was 5. I was a very very intense ADD child, and my parents at that time, were just getting me into anything. Any summer program that did anything, from dance to Boy Scouts, to the things that they eventually saw that I really enjoyed, which was art and access to that. Painting and stuff was given, but I was really a computer nerd at heart.

My parents split eventually, and my dad was the main person in my life from 14 on. Before 14, both of them were in the picture, trying to figure out what the fuck to do with me. And so, I just got into everything, I think I just really loved being on computers, and understanding technology which was blowing up at this point–I’m 29, so when I was 10 in 1999, that was like the computer generation, and I was obsessed with it.

I think that connecting computer technology to art was really like the ultimate find for me. I’d get into different film programs or graphic design, anything. I’ve been making films for a while. There’s a bunch of short films that I’ve made, I was lucky enough to win a few awards at film festivals and to be accepted into 20 and counting to this day.

The 360° music video is actually one video that I didn’t shoot though. I worked on that video with a friend named Alex. This was at a time where I was working on a bunch of other stuff, and Alex, who’s a great director has been working on this film for legit, a whole year. I just had to show up and shoot it with him. So, I think just having been exposed to all these different art forms coming up, and understanding music, while also understanding film and learning about all these things simultaneously, I always saw them as one in the same, interchanging parts. The way that I think about my albums is the same way that I’d think about a film. I like to think in a narrative structure, or even if they’re more abstract, I’m still thinking about it in a way that when you’re listening to the music, you have a visual in your mind. I think that the pairing of the two is unbelievable.

Filmed, edited, co-produced and co-directed by Alex Ezorsky, Co-produced and co-directed by Alec Hutson

Scoring films is one of my biggest things, being able to go into a film and have this song attached to your life forever. I eventually started to hate this song, but my sister, my younger sister used to be obsessed with “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. I’ll remember that movie forever. There was that soundtrack that had like 8 different remixes, and seeing how that impacted her life, the story had nothing to do with a little 8 year old. I don’t think she even understood it entirely, but that was really impactful to her life. And, seeing things like the Lion King, and Tarzan’s soundtrack with Phil Collins, these really moving, touching soundtracks were beautiful, beautiful things. I also grew up in theater and did showtunes. I think that I try to pair those together in everything that I do. I think that it’s easy to make a song, it’s easy to make something that just plays, but I think the question really is what can you do as an artist to make people come back, to keep people learning more and more things.

How can you have a song that will develop over time, the same way that you have a film or a TV show that you watch over and over and over again. I’ve got Better Call Saul on in the background, and I think about Breaking Bad, and millions of narratives that happen in that show. Everytime you watch it, there’s something new that you get out of it, there’s something different. Those are the things that stick with us, and I’ve always wanted to be someone that can create something like that. I don’t think it’s something that I necessarily try to do, I believe that it’s just naturally how I think about my visuals.

We’re working on the visuals for the new album, we have one video out, which is essentially just one frame, but I think that it’s part of this whole experiment that I’ve been doing and simplifying a shot or a visual narrative to get as much as you can from one specific thing, so it’s all in one place. How much of a story can you get out of that? I can tie that back into music, where you have a song like “Losing Crowns” on the album which comes after a very intense, very angry, complicated song like “Rebel,” and then, “Losing Crowns” is three chords and me singing, and I think that they have just as much power, equal amounts of power between each other.

How can you create something that is just as powerful using three chords and twenty words as you did with “Rebel” where you have like twenty different people on the song and you’re rhyming like 100 miles per hour. That’s one thing that I just really love about film and music in general. All the videos that you’ve seen from short films like “The Methodist”  — with “The Methodist,” I wasn’t behind the camera, because I’m the one acting in it, but I got as much hands-on experience from being behind the camera as I do setting the scene, having all the gear.  I love film as much as I love music. Sometimes I love one more than the other, but having both keeps me sane.

Written & Directed by Hakim ‘Kimo’ Hill

Have you ever been on tour? And if so, which venue would you like to sell out most? Could you tell me your background, I know that I can find that in other published articles online, but I’d like to hear about it from your own words, who is Cliff Notez?

I have been on tour. I’ve been on tour a couple of different times. The first major, real-band tour was the “Hipstoric Summer Tour” in 2017, where myself, Oompa, Tim Hall, and Forté went down from Boston to New Orleans. It was unbelievable. That’s when I really fell in love with performing and really loving this idea of being a full-time musician.

I came back from that tour and quit my job a few months after. I loved that. I think the venue I’d love to sell out most is The Garden. Both of them, I think selling out TD Garden here in Boston would be a really monumental thing for me, just to be able to play there. Having grown up as a basketball player, I had so many dreams to be on that stage, or to play on that court. Now having switched my life over and still have made it there, that would be unbelievable. And Madison Square Garden because I think that is the pinnacle of musicianship. I think that if you sell out Madison Square Garden, you’re doing something right. It’s notable universally. 

© SAVVVAG

My background, yeah! I grew up a basketball player, I’m 6-foot-7, so my height was useful at that time in my life to open up a lot of doors for me. At the same time that I was playing basketball, I was in all these clubs and programs, learning about all these things that I secretly loved. Those different worlds never really met. I ended up at Wheaton College, played basketball there, tore my ACL twice.

The second time I tore it, I was like, maybe I should try and do something different. This was my junior year of college, I switched up my major, I switched up everything and really started focusing on what post-college life is. I had European pro-basketball dreams and I was like, I don’t think that this is gonna be a sustainable thing, what is something that I can do that is sustainable. I picked being an artist [laughs]. But, I figured, if I’m in college, let me use these tools that all of these white people use all the time to make something of myself, to legitimize myself in their eyes. So I went there [Wheaton College], then I went to grad-school right after that.

I went back home, to Northeastern University, and got my master’s degree in digital media. So, all that stuff that I was learning earlier in film and sound design and graphic design, audio engineering, I got my master’s degree in that. It felt like finally, I’m a master at this stuff that I used to play around with. I guess I’ve got to do something [laughs].

While I was in college, I was in this hip-hop group called The Valedictorians where we did some touring, but it was mostly just college shows. We were a legit college rap-group, it was dope. We put out 7 tapes working with this dude named Tyrek Greene, who still hangs around Hipstory, which is the company that I started in grad school. He’s still around, he’s one of the best rappers I’ve ever heard, I’ve been lucky to make so much music with him. I think that working with him really opened me up to being a better emcee and being a better rhymer.

Through Wheaton College, I started doing slam poetry which is where I really started to craft the ideas of narratives and storytelling and also performance in a different way. Tyrek was raised in that, he grew up in the Bronx, went to U-Dub, Urban Word, which is this poetry scene out in New York. That’s where I was able to meet so many amazing poets, like all those poets you’ve seen that go viral on YouTube, I know the majority of them. I kind of grew up in that poetry scene for a while.

After that, after I got my undergraduate degree in 2013, I became a fellow with like 8 jobs. I was also teaching spoken word poetry at a nonprofit out in Lynn, MA, still kind of crafting and figuring out what I was doing, while finishing up my graduate degree. I finished that up in 2016, and started this company called Hipstory, I’ve done some pretty dope stuff with that.

Hm, my background…we talked about my parents splitting up, about me growing up a little bit, moving around a lot, being a vagabond in that sense. I’m Haitian and Dominican, which is a whole other code-switch, a whole other racial history that adds to the complexity of who I am. You think about the Black and white divide in America, but there’s also this whole other divide in this country called Hispaniola from the D.R. and Haiti, and here I am, a product of both. So, I mean, the code-switch is real out here. 

Your music sounds sample-free, do you have a backing band/session musicians who work with you? Who produces your beats? Is it one person or do you have multiple people on the roster?

Sample-free, yes! [Laughs]. There are a few songs that begin with samples. I was a sample-based producer when I started producing at 15 years old. I got a cracked version of Fruity Loops and started sampling anything, just because it sounded better than the really terrible beats that I was making otherwise. Those sounded like Nintendo 64, not even like Super Nintendo sounds. It was awful. I started with sampling because it filled out things better, and I was able to really focus on a lot of other things as well.

But, nowadays, with music being a business and people getting sued, if I ever do start with a sample, I’ll always go back and recompose. I’ll learn the key signature that it’s in and kind of transform the song in a completely different way. I think that this new album, though, is very sample-free.

I started a lot of the album out in the middle of nowhere. I was at my first museum residency at this place called MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). I was the first hip-hop artist to get a museum residency there. I was there with a friend, Billy Dean Thomas, who’s also a hip-hop artist, we were the first. So I really felt like this person that was completely out of my comfort zone. Geographically speaking, in Western Massachusetts, just being this person that is not normally here. It was just me with a guitar and some keys, I produced the majority of that album.

I produced the majority of the last album as well, When The Sidewalk Ends. So, When The Sidewalk Ends and Why The Wild Things Are are probably around 70-85% produced by me. There are a couple go-to collaborators that I have in terms of session musicians. One is Tim Hall, him and myself are a production duo called Hall and Oates, I get a chuckle out of that. He’s a saxophonist, he’s also a keyboardist. He’s an all-around musician, he picks up whatever works at the moment, just like I do. I’m not a bassist, I’m not a guitarist, I’m not a pianist, but I play all of those on my albums, in whatever form. He was also one of the only if not the only producer on the last album, there were two tracks that were specifically his, “Good Riddance” and “Lights Out.” That was the start of our production duo. He would start a beat, and I’d go, yo, that’s dope, and I’d take the Logic file and mess with it a little bit, throw it into the MPC, do other stuff, and we’d just go back and forth. It became more and more collaborative over time.

This latest album, though, I really wanted it to come directly from me. Even more so than the last. I wanted to really embody this album. There is one other producer that I work with who goes by the name Alfii, he’s in LA now. He produced the simplest tracks on the album, which were “Losing Crowns I” and “Black Incredible.” Those are just guitar riffs that I really loved, and I’d take those guitar riffs and then build an entire song around that. He essentially wrote those chords. Everything else was produced by me with some guest production from folks like Alfii, Tim Hall who played sax throughout the whole record, Eric Seligman, who’s another person that I’ve toured with for a while, he’s a trumpetist, but he’s also an arranger, for my life shows, he’ll do a lot of the string arrangements, most of the time you hear trumpets on the records, it’s him, I’ll structurally arrange different things and he’ll take what I did on the record and transpose that for live shows.

There are a couple of other session musicians that I work with: Dave Brophy, he sometimes plays drums over tracks. Drums are the one thing that I cannot do, physically I cannot play drums. I can play a drum pattern on my MPC, but I cannot play the drums, and there’s times that I really want live drums. The last record had minimal live drums. As an audio engineer, I’ll record drums when I’m not working on an album, so I have a stock of drum samples from musicians that I’ve recorded in the past, and I’ll build from those. Or, I’ll just build a drum pattern from scratch. On this album, I wanted some live drums, so, there’s a few tracks where Dave Brophy, who’s worked on tons and tons of really dope albums, is on there. My guy, Will Dailey, who’s a local talent, he’s been around in the city a little longer than I have and is really well-known out here for being really dope in a lot of ways, Will’s on the record too.

Those are the core musicians for the second album. Some of them were on the first album as well. We’ve been lucky to play with a couple different orchestras and to be able to develop the music a bit further, which is always fun. I think that being able to have access to all of these different parts of artistry has allowed me to tap into my creativity in a lot of different ways. But, the majority of the time, I’m recording the album and doing everything by myself, completely alone. I’m lucky enough to have my own studio where I’m able to work, either at my home studio or my studio space in Cambridge, MA. 

Let’s talk about your lyrical content, could you break down your most recent songs and what was going through your mind as you wrote them? Which is your favorite song that you’ve ever made and which is your new favorite?

This album was an amalgamation of a lot of things. The first album, When The Sidewalk Ends, was very much so discovering and talking about mental health and my instability at the time. It was very much about quitting my job, the only job that I had ever worked. I had worked at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), I was one of three Black people on staff. A lot of things were happening. Especially around the time of their Danish exhibit, which caused so much controversy at The Whitney. It was a very messy situation, very stressful, and this was my first job, in this major institution. It was just a lot. Structural racism, depression, sadness, trying to break out of that.

I didn’t really break out of that. I thought I did, but I really just discovered it. It really dawned on me after touring that album, performing for so many different people, but also reaching people who may have struggled with depression and having their stories shared with me really took a toll on me and made me realize that I had never really taken time to heal. I was like, yo, you’re depressed, let’s go on tour [laughs]. It fucked me up, it fucked me up a lot.

I think the worst part about it was connected to my brother. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015, a couple years before the album. This was around our first couple years out of college, we went to college together, roomed together for four years. We’re very close. This was the first time that I started to see him different. I’m seeing him in the hospital, seeing him go through multiple different psychiatric holes. A lot of what he went through kind of made sense in a way. When you really trust somebody and you really love somebody and their word is their bond to you, when someone comes to you and says, “hey, I think people at my job are trying to kill me” and “I think they’re all Nazis, they’re walking around, throwing up the hail-Nazis sign”…one, I didn’t feel like it was too far fetched in America, and although these were delusions that he was having, it makes you question a lot of things.

I think that was a big part of the story of the first album. The tough part about it was that he eventually died in 2018, December 22, 2018. That was about a year after the album, that was tough to digest. This was a month after I had come back from my residency at MASS MoCA, I had these songs where I was finally addressing racism and figuring out how to heal from that, the depression, the bipolar disorder that I was diagnosed with as well. Knowing that I have this thing, and your brother who also has this thing dies.

Then 2019 happened where I lost nine friends to just some wild shit, from shootings, to motorcycle accidents. The motorcycle accident was ridiculous because it was videotaped and all over the internet for a while, so literally seeing them die. Just losing a bunch of people throughout the past year, by September I just kind of put my head down and hibernated and completely went into a really deep depression, but was finding some release in just working on this album through the beginning of 2019, and those songs that I took from MASS MoCA in November 2018. Really trying to bury myself in the story.

I was also working on all this artwork for the project as well to avoid all these other things that I was dealing with. After performing this really depressing and angry album for a year and a half, I would end shows and literally ball up and cry at every show. I really invested in this character that I had developed who was really just myself, but I hadn’t realized that yet. I came to a point where I was like, I don’t know if I want to end shows this way. I started switching up the flow and order of the show and ending it on happier notes, like, I like this feeling, let’s try and make this. But I realized that I needed to find joy to make things authentic, or else I’m just making crappy pop-hits, trying to make people happy. I really spent a lot of time self reflecting, and trying to understand everything. Everything from that first album, all that pain.

Also, trying to understand who it was that was on that first album cover, how did he develop, and what happened next. It seemed like he fell off of that cliff and the crown fell off of the cliff too, what’s the next chapter of that story? I tried to carry that into the next album. Songs like “Losing Crowns,” “When You Look Down You Lose Your Crown,” that’s a direct reference to the first album. I was really thinking about the fact that when you look down from the bottom of a cliff, you’re going to lose your crown, your royalty, the thing that makes you you, the thing that makes you golden.

You also have songs like “Rebel” which is kind of like an homage to the wild rumpus that happens in the actual book [Where The Wild Things Are]. I think that was one of the first real realizations of what this album was going to mean because…wild rumpus, you think of the story of Max, who’s this really angry kid, he’s got all of this pent up aggression, he takes it out on the cat, the dog, he’s running around causing a mess, his mom banishes him to his room, tells him he’s not gonna have dinner. The first thing that he does is ask the question of if his mom really loves him, he goes off to this imaginary world and he sees these Wild Things, which are essentially personifications of his anger and his angst, his anxiety. It was really interesting to me that Where The Wild Things Are was banned at first because it was the first time that we had seen creatures like this in children’s books. It was also the first time that we had talked about anxiety and children and it was so mind-blowing that it had to be banned, until eventually we realized the importance of it.

Now we’re able to talk about all of these white kids’ angst–and I say white kids because that’s the imagery that we see in the story, Max is not Black–but at the same time, me being a Black boy growing up, I really could relate to this. When I caused a wild rumpus, and a ruckus like all these Wild Things did, it looked more like a rebellion. And that’s at the heart of the song “Rebel,” recontextualizing this whole experience. The whole book. It was contextualizing Max’s story and the Black experience.

© Jourdan Christopher

A song like “Voodoo” serves as the introduction, watching the room turn into the jungle. We see that kind of transition in the production, going from this kind of white-washed symphony orchestra sounding thing turn into this more upbeat, Afrobeat, which is more my life. Both have a very powerful history in my life, so they exist in the same track. That song was something that I wrote amidst quitting my job, thinking about how my job was literally driving me crazy, like, can I get workman’s compensation for this? [Laughs]. Can I get workman’s compensation if my job drove me crazy? That being a very methodical thing to think. If something like that were to happen, it’d be like magic. Is it worth waiting around for that magic? Is it worth sticking around to get that magic verified and have that happen? Or is there something more out there?

That’s the beginning of this question that leads us into the journey of who I call Leon. Through that journey, through the album, he grows and understands himself a bit more. I think a lot of different songs approach that in a bunch of different ways. Another song, which has a video, the first video that came out for the album, was “Stevie’s Ribbon,” it’s a song that has taken on a lot of different forms. Probably one of the earliest songs on the album that I had written. I wrote the hook for it in like 2013, it was actually originally performed by my brother. My brother, Brain would be in all the studio sessions, so he’d find his way into any record. He’d also rap on certain things. This was a song that he performed the hook for. That is very much, sonically speaking, very upbeat, very party, listening to it, you wanna get up and dance, clap your hands, do wild things. I go ridiculously wild in it. It’s about alcoholism and drug abuse and this kind of allure that happens, especially in the entertainment industry. Throughout the song you hear that. 

In terms of favorite songs, I think they’re all so different. They all touch different parts of who I am. Although so many blogs would be quick to classify me as a hip-hop artist, this album is often not hip-hop at all. It changes genre and feeling frequently.

“Venus Incarnate” was one of my favorites to begin with because I think it was one of my most daring to date. Singing falsetto in different parts, changing vibes. That song is about a breakup and new love. There are certain days that I really love Tyler, The Creator, then there are certain days that I really love Arcade Fire, so it switches up constantly. There are certain days that I really love “Losing Crowns” and that’s the message that I really need to hear. There are certain days that I really need “Stevie’s Ribbon” or “Black Incredible.” The fact that it switches so frequently is indicative of my mindstate, literally switching through channels. It’s very indicative of my mental illnesses, I guess, as one would call it. My ADHD and everything else. 

To someone outside of Boston, could you please describe it? What’s the most beautiful part (not physical location) of Boston and what’s the ugliest? 

I think we talked a lot about the ugliest parts of Boston. I think one of the most beautiful parts of Boston which is becoming more and more evident, especially in our Black community, is that everybody knows everybody. Because we’re so small, everybody is 2-3 degrees of separation away from everybody. It’s very familiar in that way. There’s a lot of support from others, different artists. I can honestly say that I’m at most 2 degrees separation from every major artist that is coming out of our city.

We haven’t been able to break the mold yet, but I feel like in the past couple of years, we’ve really banded together in the midst of people like Trump and the rest of America that’s showing its ugly face. It’s kind of forced us to band together, knowing that we’re all we really have. Especially knowing it’s dark history and extreme structural racism, I think that is the breeding ground for…think about, like, Batman [laughs], the problem with every superhero movie is that every time Batman defeats somebody, it makes everyone else smarter, the villains become worse and worse. They become more terrifying because they learn from the last.

If we flip that on its head and think about Boston, people that make it out of the city and make their way through this very thick, structurally racist society…the breeding ground of some of the most forward thinking leaders in our world. There are so many people that I know that are so brilliant, that understand the world in different ways that only someone from Boston can really exemplify. I think that once people lift up the rock and see all of the little ants that we are, we’ll quickly infest the rest of the US and the world and not only make change for Boston, but something much larger than that. I think it’s just going to take some time because as we’re learning these very important lessons, we’re crafting something that won’t just be a flash in the pan that’ll last two years, it’s going to be something classic that will last for generations to come. I think that is the most beautiful part of Boston or my Boston. 

Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to talk about?

I’m currently working on a lot of different things. We’re getting ready for a huge festival season. We’re lucky enough to be playing Boston Calling, which is our first major festival. We’re playing a host of other festivals this summer as well. We’re really working on the live show and some dope shows that we’re putting together.

I’m constantly working on music. So it’s never really a question of when I’m getting back to the studio, I live in the studio. I’m doing this challenge now where I’m trying to do three songs a day, whether they’re terrible or not. I’m constantly making music, whether or not I get the inspiration or the story behind it is what really pushes everything. I’ve always had a lot of those songs for the last two albums, it was when we came up with the idea for the album title and the album art and the narrative that I was really able to put something together.

I’m working on a lot of different people’s albums and projects this year. I also made a vow to work on and put out 1,000 songs, not all my own, but across all different aspects of stuff that I work on: as a producer, as a session musician, as a vocalist, whatever, just working on 1,000 of those. There’s a lot of other people’s stuff that I’ll be working on.

We opened up a gallery show for the last album that we worked on, Why The Wild Things Are, called “Into The Wild”–I’m working on trying to expand that and get that into more galleries, and hopefully some museums. Hipstory is a company that I own that’s always working on a host of different projects. I stay busy, I stay active. I’m working on a bunch of different short films with Hipstory that we’re putting out this year. Just to keep creating content. The beautiful thing about that is that even if a Cliff Notez record doesn’t come out, I’m still here, working on a lot of different things, and putting out new content. 

Who are your biggest influences? Who would you say you sound most like, if you’d say you sound like anyone? I think you’re super original. But I like to know what someone sounds like to themselves. I also wanted to know who people say you sound like.

Thank you for thinking that I’m super original! Let’s start with who people think I sound like, I’ve gotten a lot of different comparisons. There’s a few that I’m very proud of. People like Chance The Rapper, someone called me a mix between Brockhampton and D’Angelo, which blew my mind, like, yo, you got it. You figured it out. André 3000, which also blew my mind.

I used to consume music in media in so many different ways, so everything from Nina Simone to Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Kanye West (as a musician and beyond), from Arcade Fire to Radiohead to Pink Floyd. Everything that I come across, I try to pull something from. I think that there’s value in everything, even the terrible stuff. I think that people like Outkast and Mos Def and Jay-Z really influenced the rhyming side of me while Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone and D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Luther Vandross, Barry White, Brian McKnight, folks like that really inspired the vocal aspect of my range. People like Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl and Tom Morello and those people inspired a lot of different things about my musicianship. There’s a lot of actors and actresses, directors that I also really get inspired by. People like Spike Jonze, Little X (Director X), also had a big impact on me.

I feel like we’re often times scared to admit our influences because we never want to be copycats or whatever, but I believe that I went the complete opposite route, just accepting the fact that I’m going to be inspired and influence by a lot of people and that if I can soak up all those influences, it’s going to create something new and original because it’s a mix of all these different things.

There’ll be songs where I sound like Michael Kiwanuka, songs where I sound like The Black Keys, songs where I sound like Run The Jewels, and those all inspire me. I think that’s important for me, to consistently be consuming and putting stuff out in lots of different ways. I saw this interview recently with the dude Tame Impala talking about how he doesn’t listen to anybody when he’s making an album because he’s scared that he’ll be like the kid that writes a paper and accidentally plagiarized, but I think that if you’re welcome to being inspired by many things, you kind of balance that out, or at least that’s how my mind works. 

Your style is always on point, where do you find your clothes?

Maaan, I be thrifting. I be thrifting. I’m constantly trying to find new, different things. I’ll thrift most of my major pieces, and then I’ll shop for other basic things at, like, ASOS, like black t-shirts. But the more colorful pieces I like to find or get from places that nobody else would. I’ll go through endless searches on Amazon trying to find the weirdest things and try to piece them together in different ways.

I’ve been moving more and more into fashion, especially as we’re designing merch and the new show. I work a lot with Nick Martin who does graphic design stuff for both Hipstory and Cliff Notez, so we’ll collaborate on a lot of different things. Moving into fashion is going to be an inevitable thing, I think it’s more of designing my own look and fitting into my abnormal body shape and trying to figure out how to make the best of that really forced me to relook at fashion as a whole. 

What was the highlight of 2019 for you and what do you hope to accomplish in 2020?

Damn, there were a lot of highlights. There were a lot of lowlights too. I think one would be the album, two would be Boston Magazine naming me the best musician in Boston. That was their first year naming a musician and they named me. It was like woah, this is very strange. This has to be fake. There were a bunch of articles that came afterwards. I think that was a major highlight. Another major highlight was Boston Answering, which was kind of a response festival show that we put together with little to no money and little to no time. It was very much deemed to be like a Fyre Festival situation, but Boston Answering got really picked up by the press and showed me the support of my city. I felt a lot of love for my city which was very important for my sanity. Those are all the biggest accomplishments. 

What I want to accomplish in 2020: I feel like I just have to say this, I wanna get nominated for a Grammy, Oscar, Tony, and Emmy. [Laughs]. That’s definitely a long term goal.

Winning best musician in Boston Magazine and winning best new artist at the Boston Music Awards, I didn’t expect for these things to happen, so it kind of shifts my perspective. It shifted my perspective on time and really believing myself more and speaking things into existence. I’d love to really break nationally this year, not only individually, but the city as well. I think the city is not gonna be a small breaking, people are gonna realize that there’s a lot of us out here. Starting to do national tours in 2018, traveling a bit, putting into motion a sold-out national tour by the end of 2020 is a huge goal for sure. It’s gonna take a lot of work. But we’re excited for it. 1,000 songs is also another thing, and to find healing within myself and setting in motion those things that I failed to do in the first album and making sure that I’m in the best place emotionally and mentally moving forward. 

Stream 15 excellent Cliff Notez tracks here:

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