Photo Credit: Lindsay Ellary
It’s safe to assume that more than once in his life, Tolliver has listened to “Son of a Preacher Man” and felt it because that is indeed his reality. A reality that has both inspired and, in his words, “crippled” him. For Tolliver isn’t a gospel artist on his way to dethroning Kirk Franklin. He’s more on that alternative R&B beat artists like SZA and The Weeknd have helped popularize in recent years. Songs of late nights and sex are his norm, and he talked to us about them, his album RITES, and more.
Kendra: Being the son of a Baptist preacher, were you introduced to music through the church first?
Tolliver: Yes, yes. My parents forced me into piano lessons, which I hated and still do. But that choir, tho. I learned to sing there, used to deepen my voice so I sounded like the older kids. Gospel music will always be my first love; it hits me on a level nothing else does.
Kendra: When did you realize you not only had talent but wanted to pursue a career in music?
Tolliver: I fell in with the wrong crowd in high school, aka music nerds. Their passion was contagious and really helped me go for it. My closest friend from that time is in The Lion King touring show. It’s thrilling to track our progress together. We out here!
Kendra: From the church to an album that highlights partying and random sex, RITES is not the album one would expect from someone who came up in the church. Was releasing this record a cathartic experience, like you were breaking free from the confines of your childhood?
Tolliver: Definitely. The church crippled me in so many ways. Even as I type this I’m afraid of what they’ll think. But being in Los Angeles, being a part of artist communities, those things give me the strength to be open and honest about how I actually live and fuck. The EP was cathartic, but there’s still so much inside me. I hope to work it all out someday.
Kendra: Speaking of cathartic. It sounds like “Twisted” was just that. Well, the experience behind it. Was that a true story and what exactly went down?
Tolliver: That story ends with me worse off than I went in. I played a real dope show at Lot 1 in Echo Park. After the show, I got into a very, very dark place with my significant other. I’d bought a bunch of drank for us, which did not help. Already pretty drunk, I stumbled out into the night looking for a party. I found one and had the time of my life, no regrets…until the next day. So I had to go home and face all that darkness; I did not enjoy it.
Kendra: I’ve talked to a number of R&B artists recently that is giving it that alternative spin. What made you want to make R&B music this way instead of the traditional way?
Tolliver: I think it’s just my gospel, R&B upbringing smashing into Kellen’s dark, obsessive, synth-driven sound. It’s a true collaboration. I’d make more traditional music if I was around the people I grew up with, but that’s just not who I kick it with. Everyone I know is offbeat, and they keep me experimenting.
Kendra: Being an LA-based artist, do you find yourself fighting for the spotlight in a city that is overrun with talented acts trying to be seen?
Tolliver: Absolutely. But I think the best and most sane thing to do is make music in as pure a way as possible; to improvise when you can. I can’t act like the sea of meatheads trying to break through to Top 40, it’s not in me. But I can sing honestly and be vulnerable. Checkmate.
Kendra: Any big plans on the books as the year winds down?
Tolliver: Well, this European tour is pretty damn fun. I’m also reuniting with my friend Eddington again for another big ass warehouse show. I’ve got a trove of new shit, will certainly release something before the year ends. I’ll die if I don’t.