“It’s my first time in Toronto… my first time in Canada,” 18-year old El Paso, TX, artist Khalid tells me after embracing me with warmth during our introduction. For a young artist, Khalid’s energy radiates a sense of calmness, but also propels an eagerness to learn from every experience he encounters. With no entourage in sight, with the exception of his label reps, Khalid acts like a seasoned vet in the game despite only having only made music for 365 days (and maybe some change).
Following the release of “Location” at the top of 2016, Khalid was launched into the illustrious music industry as a young singer from a city with no true breakout music stars – El Paso, Texas. Located eight hours from Austin, the border city of El Paso plays to a different drum, sharing a thick identity with its Mexican neighbours; the food, the people, the art and the music all hint at South American influences, but also holds true to its Southern hospitality roots. For Khalid, a military child who spent most of his life moving, its that diversity that welcomed him arms wide open – just like he did me when we started this conversation.
Diving right into your career, is it true that you only started making music at the end of 2015?
Yes! My first song that I’ve ever written was actually just a really personal voice note that I had made to get a sense of closure to get over a past relationship that I had when I lived in New York, but on the course of moving to El Paso, I just met so many different people who kinda helped me to get out of that slump. They were like, ‘You know what, you sing right? Have you ever thought about writing your own song?’ and I was like, “Naaaahhh, it’s not for me.” I was super nervous. I didn’t really have all the confidence I have now as an artist. So, one day, I wrote all my feelings out, I got one of my friends who played the guitar and we got together and created a song. I didn’t even listen to it, I’m like, ‘You know what? Just put it up.’ It was called “Saved,” and to see how much I have grown over the course of a year and a half from then to now, it’s just insane. It’s really crazy because I almost didn’t become an artist – I almost didn’t make that song, I almost didn’t make “Location,” I almost didn’t go on tour… It was kinda me allowing my life make a course of its own, and me sitting back and accepting that my life is gonna do what it’s gonna do. There were so many people telling me to make a song, so I made a song – why did I make that song? Because I was supposed to make that song. It’s been a really special year and a half so far.
What was the moment where you realized that you were meant to be an artist, and thought, ‘this is it’?
The moment that I recorded “Location.” Just how much fun I had… my mom was in the studio with me, and how excited she was to see me express myself through music [was fun]. She even helped me wit a couple of harmonies on the song and all that. Just the creation of “Location” and how that song almost didn’t come about. I actually started the song in Atlanta and had a long studio session, and Syk Sense, one of the producers of “Location” was like, ‘Do you wanna keep going?’ – ‘Yeah, let’s keep going!’ He plays loop, and the moment I hear the loop, I was like, ‘Okay, this song is going to write itself,’ and it did. I dropped it right before my senior prom like, ‘You know what, everyone have it!’ I won Prom King, I graduated and on my graduation day, Kylie Jenner played it on her Snapchat. Everyday it’s growing so much. It’s one of Billboard’s R&B Top 10 right now. It’s super crazy how everything came about.
You’ve mentioned Atlanta, New York and El Paso – these are all places that you’ve lived?
Atlanta, I visit here and there because I have family in Atlanta. New York, I lived in for four years, and I lived in El Paso for a year in and a half. I’m a military child; my mom is in the army… so we lived in Germany for 6 years. Just being military, it’s really opened the opportunity for me to move and see a lot of different places, meet a lot of different people, put myself through a lot of different situations… I kinda like being military and moving, and seeing all this different stuff. And now, here I am in Canada for the first time.
Despite all the moving, it seems safe to say that El Paso has become home. Knowing nothing about El Paso, TX, can you tell me a little about it?
It’s very hot. It’s 5 minutes away from the Mexican border. I feel like a lot of Mexican culture is super big down there, a lot of the music, a lot of the accents. At the same time, it just has that Southern hospitality. They kinda make you feel at home in El Paso. I don’t really feel like I’ve had a home until I moved to El Paso. The moment that I moved to El Paso and met all these amazing people and showed me all these amazing things… like we have Scenic Drive, which is a mountain drive and you can look across the whole city and you can see all the lights across El Paso and Juárez. They welcomed me. I don’t really feel like I was welcomed in a lot of the cities that I’ve lived in – in New York I didn’t really feel like I was welcomed. But the moment I moved to El Paso and met all these crazy different individuals, all these creatives, all these artists, all these teenagers and people around my age, it really kinda let me know, “Okay, this is where you were supposed to move, this is your home.” So, if you want a very welcoming experience filled with lots of good food and good times, El Paso is definitely the place for that.
Just over the course of the year, my music and all of that has really allowed me to meet a lot of different people and meet a lot of different labels, but I really felt like the best choice for me, would be to sign to a label that would be a great partnership that would express who I am as an individual and as an artist, and keeping everything that I had created and just expanding it to an even broader audience that I could myself. I feel like after my meeting with RCA, that’s what they were to me, so I signed over to RCA. We’re all working together to express my thoughts, my visuals and all of that to the world, but also keeping a part of me within all of that.
Browsing through your Soundcloud, you follow artists like Kaytranda, Sango, Syk Sense etc. What is it that draws you to these specific artists, because you don’t follow too many people?
What really drew me to all these artists is their originality and their own vibe. I’ve always been a big fan of Sango, and I never thought that I’d personally talk to Sango, but my music kinda really allowed that. All these really cool electronic based, soul… all that, that’s all that stuff I grew up on during high school. I was listening to them before I was an artist, but for my art to kinda open up the doors to meet these individuals and to learn a lot about them and how they create, and their creative processes is so dope. They’re all super cool, and in person, all those people who I follow on Soundcloud are just genuine, really cool people.
Moving into the release of your debut album, what was the recording process like?
It was really a state of vulnerability for me creating the album. The album’s name is American Teen and it’s kind of just an expression of who I am as an individual; all the stuff I went through throughout high school like heartbreak, relationship problems, friendship problems, learning who I was in learning who I was as an individual over the course of only 4 years….all of that is expressed throughout the album. All my influences are there, such as American folk artists like Father John Misty, soulful artists like Musiq Soulchild – all of that, I feel like the album is really just a collection of all my inspirations into one, and kind of express throughout the world my own way. So, the creative process was tiresome because I had to make that step and that jump to make the best first album that I could possibly make. But, I’m super excited for the project, which comes out March 3rd. It’s going to be eye opening to me to see the way that everyone else reacts to it. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of other teenagers, not necessarily American teenagers, but German teenagers, Canadian teenagers, African teenagers, teenagers over in the UK that’ll listen to it and be like, ‘Damn I felt that exact same way as I was going through high school.’
Is there a song on American Teen that resonates a little more than others?
Probably “Saved,” because that was the first song I wrote. I feel like that’s a really special song for me, because throughout the course of the first time I recorded it as a rough draft to professionally recording the song, and just to see how much my voice has changed, how much my mind-frame has changed… it’s pretty much the centre of the album for me. That’s what really started everything, that’s what set the footsteps of me becoming an artist, so that song is so special to me.
As you navigate through 2017 and all its changes, what are some things you want to accomplish?
Growth is a really big thing. I want to grow throughout music, I wanna grow as a person, I want my fanbase to grow. I want to learn how to push myself and be more vulnerable than I already am. I want to learn how to relate to everyone who I’m presenting the music to, I kinda wanna learn about those people and meet those people. And I want to find love; meet a lot of different people and artists who all share the same love that I do. I wanna create with people that I love instead of just being thrown into the studio with someone you’ve never met before like, ‘Okay hey, this is the message, let’s make this song.’ I want to have a connection with the other person before I create with them, because that’s where the best music really comes from – through love.
Khalid’s American Teen will be released March 3rd, 2017.
Interview by Erin Ashley (aka Ellhah)