Appleby has all the patience in the world, yet things are accelerating rapidly in his fledgling career. You wouldn’t recognize his face as the 23 year old artist keeps it hidden, but if you’re engaged in the music scene at large you’ve heard his voice, most likely singing “Tell my ex she was never that cold” in his single “Bitter Boy.” The song has placed him at #1 on Billboard + Twitter’s Emerging Artist chart and on their Trending 140 in between Drake’s “Back To Back” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” One of the first times he sang to a live audience, it was at LA’s All Def Digital headquarters to an exclusive audience of two, Russell Simmons and music industry heavy weight Amir Abbassy. Appleby’s initial impact is his rich, unique sound that spans genres then draws you in deep through candidly honest lyrics, delivered by skillful rapping as well as emotive R&B singing.
We met for lunch at Gibson’s in Chicago. He’d had a late night, his friend Pell was performing with Kehlani and celebration ensued after the show, but he was still on time and beat me and my son Noah to our meeting. (Pell, Appleby and Kehlani were all on Hypetrak’s 10 Artists to Watch in 2015 list.) This interview came about after Appleby sent me a message of thanks for the support – I listen to his soundcloud and have posted his music here on 1833. I’ve been blogging for a minute now and that type of message stands out for it’s thoughtfulness. Appleby lets you know that he sees and appreciates you. In between the time that we scheduled this interview and our actual meeting, a splashy article was published in Maxim, both in the US and in Mexico. While Appleby is not one to tell you everything/everyone he knows, or to boast, in conversation he’s open, warm and speaks directly – qualities which carry through to his music.
Mysterious Hip-Hop Sensation Appleby Is About to Blow Up
Just don’t expect to see the Chicago-based singer/rapper’s face anytime soon. – Maxim
Some history, as a child Appleby was very serious about tennis. He started playing at 5, was good enough by 8 or 9 to play in national tournaments and at the age of 12 doors started opening for international competition. I asked if his tennis training and background were helpful in this relatively new field of music for him. “The discipline that I gained or earned over the years is now translating into something else, a new passion where you just relentlessly work, even if you don’t see a steady improvement or you don’t have a clear way to value your improvement level. So it takes a lot of patience.” On a recent trip to Paris he went to the French Open. “I watched, and a couple old friends both men and women were in it. It was cool to catch up, it’s been four years since I’ve seen a lot of them. They don’t know I make music, it is just cool on a personal level to say congrats on sticking with it, congrats on succeeding with it.”
I asked what he told them he’s up to, “Just working at a hat store. I’m fine.”
The days after he left tennis were challenging, he says. Music has restored meaning and direction for him.
“Music gives me a renewed sense of purpose. With tennis I had that, and when I stopped playing seriously around 17 I didn’t realize at the time what the after affects of that would be. You lose your identity when you don’t have that something, everybody has recognized you as a tennis player or tennis prodigy and the guy that they envisioned was going to be a professional and then you decide not to, people don’t respond well to that. For a long time I didn’t have a natural purpose. I don’t consider that it was quite depression, but you’re roaming. It’s weird to think about that time period because it feels like a giant block when there is nothing there that my mind really recorded because it didn’t have anything really special to hold on to. Once I started making music and I started to have experiences like with Russell Simmons or going to that Rick Ross listening party or being at Classick, it hit me that I have a new sense of purpose. I’m waking up everyday smiling and know that I’m going out to achieve something. That’s a feeling I was missing in that time period, so now I put the same work ethic into music that I had with tennis where you are nonstop working at it. You don’t have to tell everybody that you’re working at it or announce anything, you just have to put in the work and it’ll pay off.”
Despite the success thus far, Appleby keeps separation; There is a type of freedom in the way that he lives in two different worlds. To family and long time friends, he’s still Justin and manages a suburban hat store, they’ve no idea that he’s pursuing music. He finally told his mother what he’s been up to, “I figured I’d go ahead and tell her so she wasn’t left out of the loop. I told her about it and she could see the smile on my face and she was so bubbly, and quiet while listening to what I was talking about. At the end of the conversation she was very supportive and said ‘Hey, if you need a sounding board or you need me to listen, let me know.’ Then I showed her the pictures with Russell Simmons and she said ‘You really are making music, okay, I believe this.’ When I finally told her that I’m going by Appleby she almost cried because it is her family name. Both of her parents died within 6 months of each other when she was 12. So to now be able to put their name on a platform such as this… She sent me a text the other day saying that her parents would be really proud, and seeing that warmed my heart.”
A few months later he played her some of his music. “For the very first song, I played her a track nobody’s heard yet, it’s called “Wait For Heaven.” It’s about my aunt and uncle who passed away, both from cancer – her brother and her sister. It’s a deep song and she got very emotional. And you know, when your mom cries and you’re sitting there you’ve gotta cry too. (laughs) It breaks you down. After that I played her “Woman,” (a collaboration with Litany) and a few others that aren’t released yet. She was filled with joy and pride and it was amazing. She cried and I cried and then I had to go to work. It’s not like anything has changed though, she is not overbearing. The other day I had the Maxim magazine in my hand, I went to work and left the magazine open to my page and she saw it and sent me a text message with crying emojis. That’s what I’ve wanted. I like the dynamic, I like that she’s the only person really in my personal life that knows that I make music and she doesn’t bother me about it. It’s fantastic.”
By keeping his identity private, listeners experience the music in a pure way without a face attached to it. More than only mystery and intrigue, having his personal and musical circles apart affords the developing artist the time and space to grow without pressure and expectations from those in his private life. At the same time, he isn’t a recluse by any means. When I met him at Classick Studios he introduced himself to strangers as Appleby. One of those was prominent Chicago rapper Logan who then mentioned “Bitter Boy” to him with compliments. Perhaps having nothing to go on visually about the artist compels closer listening and more focused attention to the music as that’s all that’s being offered. I ask if it’s hard to keep all of his news to himself and said that I couldn’t.
“It’s weird because I go through the same struggle – you have something cool happen that is an experience in your life and I’m like man I gotta tell somebody because we’re in that mode now and it’s all at our fingertips and the impulse is to share, share, share. Also you want to retain these things that are memorable, to jot it down, tweet it. As if you don’t share it, it becomes like did it happen? I don’t know how I keep it under control except that it’s a choice. It’s something that I stay on top of. You’ll be in a group full of people and everybody is talking about what they are doing and you are just this guy that says you’re working at a hat store or are a musical groupie. You’re in the middle of a conversation and people are talking about their achievements and what they are up to and then I feel like ‘Oh man, I just want to say this so I know where I’m at in this group’ but I control it, this is not my moment. I don’t need to be this person now and that works for me. I get to see how people treat me when I don’t seem to have value to what they are doing. It’s really like the best of both worlds. I can go home and I don’t get to talk about music with friends but I get to nonstop create and it inspires me to get out of that bubble. So when I’m with musical friends and making music, this is family. We have the common love and same interests and we share that nonstop and you don’t have that at home, so it’s cool.”
I asked for details about meeting and singing for Russell Simmons and how that went down. He said “I’m chilling in the office, they carved out an office space for me to work in, so I’m sitting down in a meeting with a music video director talking about some ideas and we’re chatting and in walks Amir and behind him is Russell. And Russell’s like, ‘that’s you Appleby? Come here.’ We chatted for about 10 minutes. And he’s making jokes, he goes off does his thing and I’m chilling in the lobby and he walks out of his office which is in a loft overlooking everything and he hollers ‘Hey, Appleby come on up here.’ So my heart starts rapidly beating as I’m walking up to his office to be invited in and I’m getting ready to sit down on the couch and he says we’re going to play your music. At that time I had 3 songs out. Amir sits behind the computer and I’m about to sit down and Russell says ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ and I’m like what do you mean what am I doing? Is this the wrong couch? and he says ‘no, you’re going to perform.’ First time ever, I’ve never performed my songs in front of anybody ever. 10 seconds later the song is on, I have 10 seconds to mentally get myself prepared. People have asked me if I was nervous. If I’d had a few hours ahead of time to know I was going to perform for Russell… but in 10 seconds there’s no time for that, you’re on. So Amir pressed play and Russell sat down on the top of the couch. He’s watching the first song, halfway through the second song he was on his feet and his assistant was in the room too. I’m singing and it’s going well. Next thing I know, by the end of the third song he said, ‘Well, how can I help you? What can we do?’ I’m not a picture person but I had to capture this moment and I asked if I could get a picture. I covered my face and he didn’t say anything, he’s cool. We took the picture and he said ‘let’s throw this on my instagram.’ I’m like what, I’m on your instagram? Then he asked what was the third song I’d played and said it was his favorite one and it was “Rounded Edge.” He posted a snippet of that song with the picture, it was amazing. The next day I was worn out! My first night in LA, Amir took me to Rick Ross’ listening session for Hood Billionaire. Just a month before I’d been dreaming about being in a studio for the first time. Next thing you know I’m at a Rick Ross listening session.”
It is clear that Appleby is a music lover and a passionate fan. He’s the only artist I’ve ever interviewed that was excited to introduce me to his favorite new underground artists and played their music for me out of the big speakers at Classick. (Roy Wood$’ “All Of Me” and Reece’s “Ghost” are two of his favs.) He said “I’ve been a big music junkie for a very long time. Now that I’m making music the thing I appreciate the most now is that I’m a huge fan of all these people that I’ve grown to love and whether I’m watching them on Complex or their videos, now I’m on the other side with them. You might just be kicking it in a room with them but the other side of you, that little kid in you is just amazed.” His favorite genre is indie pop, he’s an avid Pigeons and Planes reader and contributing writer, and has found artists that he loves such as Haim, Shura, Sampha, MØ and more on their site. His first post with them was in their Daily Discovery series and came about from a Twitter exchange with Confusion. Appleby jokingly offered a pair of Jordans for a post, which led to P&P listening to his music. Some of his all time favorite artists are Prince, The Cranberries, David Bowie, Adele and Andre 3000.
Given that he’s a “music junkie,” it’s no surprise that of all the highlights of the past 11 months the thing that he speaks about with the most enthusiasm is a friendship that’s developed with Corbin AKA Spooky Black whose song Without You is what inspired Appleby to make music.
“I watched the video and the look contradicted the sound, and I loved that… He’s got this angelic voice and it didn’t fit the look. I was so mesmerized that I looked to work with one of his producers hnrk on “Spit On Me.” (The first track Appleby released.) So I made the song and put it out on soundcloud. It had 25 plays in a week and I’m like okay, how do I get more than this? I reached out to the producer hnrk and he loved it. He was the first person to follow on soundcloud and he shared it with all his friends and Corbin was one of them. One day I’m on soundcloud and there’s a new like on my song and it’s Spooky Black. I was like, ‘Oh my God, he knows me…’ Then I put out my next song “Beauty In Destruction” and same thing happened, he liked it again. It was fantastic and low and behold, the producer Steamy Peen is actually his production name. So “Beauty In Destruction” is over his production and it was funny that I didn’t know that, because I’d chatted with him through soundcloud messages regarding the production and didn’t know it was him until hnrk told me… So we followed each other on twitter and when the Stand4rd show was here in Chicago, it was the first time in my life I’d ever bought a ticket for anybody’s show. It was so cold that day and I’m standing outside by myself. I can see my breath in this cold and I thought I must really like this person to do this. I watched the show, the performance was amazing, the vocals were phenomenal and after the show I sent him a DM saying it was awesome and he responded asking for my number. Then he called me and I went backstage and we talked and took a picture. Here’s the guy that inspired me to make music and he took that extra step and now we’re friends. After the Reggies show they were having their tour finale at his home in Minneapolis and he invited me to drive out. I drove the 7 hours to get there, went to the show and drove home 7 hours and had to work the next day.”
Corbin made a mix for The Fader and included Appleby’s “Spit On Me.” It was especially meaningful to Appleby because Corbin introduced the track by saying “The next song is by my friend.”
A theme that comes up frequently as we talk is having patience and choosing your moments. He wants genuine relationships that develop naturally, he is not an opportunist. “There’s no rush, if you believe in yourself there is no rush to jump on an opportunity because you know things will happen again. I have a belief in myself that eventually the things that I want to happen will. And you have to continue to push but not take advantage of a moment because you don’t think you’ll have one again. I might end up in a studio with someone like Chance by accident, but that doesn’t mean I say let me play my music for you – then you’re an opportunist. You’d only do that because you’re so afraid that the moment is never going to happen for you again and you feel the urge to take advantage of it. I never feel that way. You might have that thought, but I’m not that person and wouldn’t take a risk like that.” Musically, Chicago is a small city. He met Pat, Chance’s manager via Eric Montanez of See Beyond Genre. A short while later he heard from Pat who’d been listening to Appleby in Action Bronson’s dressing room that both Bronson and Chance stopped what they were doing to ask whose music was playing.
We continued our conversation about a week later at his session at Classick Studios where Appleby records exclusively. He considers it a musical home. His first time there his plan was to mix 3 songs that he’d recorded on his laptop with a little Apogee mic that he got as a Christmas present and still carries with him everywhere he goes. Chris Classick suggested four hours and in an effort to not look amateur he bought them. Then at the first session Chris sent him into the booth which wasn’t what Appleby had in mind, but it obviously went well…
It was fascinating to watch the collaboration that occurs with his engineer Bryan “Kawaakari” Schwaller. They know each other well and while Appleby worked on a feature for a track for young phenom Ravyn Lenae, Kawaakari knew when they had the take and when Appleby had hit the vocal appropriately hard. It’s an energized environment at all hours of the day and night. ClassickFam artists hang out – on this night it was Smino, Jay2, Telana and Monte Booker. They listen to each other’s work, dance, eat and laugh. I’m informed that there are always a few people sleeping there. Kawaakari lives just a few blocks away and Appleby crashes at his place often to avoid a late drive home to the suburbs. We watched a fan made video for “Woman,” and he was psyched and loved that the kids took the time to make a visual.
Appleby is growing a passionate, engaged fan base. Artistically he is confident yet strives to achieve the level that would make him want his tracks on his own phone – it’s a very exclusive playlist. I say in wonderment, you haven’t hit your own phone yet? “Nah.” He laughs. “I haven’t hit that level yet, I’m steady striving. I’m working towards that. There’s a level that I have in my head that I know I can achieve, if I allow myself to think I’ve hit a certain level, I might slow down. So, I love where the songs are at and I appreciate it, but my vision is much larger. I work on execution and getting the resources to realize my vision.”
“A lot of people have reached out. Noisey has something they do on Wednesdays, they have open submissions. A fan of “Bitter Boy” sent in the song for them to check out and Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park reviewed a bunch of songs they chose for this open submission day and “Bitter Boy” happened to be one of them. I wasn’t aware of this even when the article came out and Joe Price from Pigeons and Planes messaged me about it. I read Shinoda’s response to my song – “I love this, I will listen to this every day.” The fact that he said he’d listen to it every day made the 12 year old in me fly and do a somersault.” Sounds like his music has reached some discerning ears and phones. It’s rare to meet an artist such as Appleby, fairly new to the game, yet with such depth of character and wisdom beyond his experience. He’s at work on his first project, titled Mask and Lies. I believe he’s a real artist and whether his hidden identity helps him retain a certain honesty (or conversely reveal who does not..), I’m pretty certain that the man behind the mask is true.