The former model – and Hey Arnold! star – has a Frank Ocean-esque knack for storytelling on her triumphant LP ‘thesis’
"If I had one superpower, it would be to read people's minds," says Avriel Epps, perched on a cushion in her spacious, white-walled LA living room. That statement should surprise nobody with a passing interest in the 23-year-old songwriter’s music, which reflects on modern psychology, self-image and patriarchy with all the pinpoint detail of an autopsy report, rendered in slinky R&B hues akin to André 3000 and, in particular, Frank Ocean.
That comparison might’ve seemed a stretch before the singer’s debut album. But thesis sees Epps step from the sultry shadows of SZA, Kelela and FKA twigs to trade subtle vibes for slinky vignettes in a new pop awakening. The transition is overdue: a former model, dancer and actor – famously, she voiced Timberly in Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! – Epps has never lacked a voice, and thesis marks her entrance as King avriel, a rising star in her own orbit set on “intellectualising” R&B.
It's 8am LA time when we Skype Avriel (pronounced ah-vree-EL), whose apparent joie de vivre means she spends most of the hourlong chat beaming like a lighthouse, patrolling the apartment in extremely tiny workout shorts and, in moments of modesty, stretching down her faded Death Row tee to cover herself while giggling privately. Part of the reason you enjoy talking to the singer is her emotional fluidity: despite her sometimes harrowing backstory, Epps draws quiet currents of vulnerability, humour and self-certainty into a wellspring of charisma, the human face of radical wisdom.
What are the record’s themes?
One of the big themes is masculinity – which is ironic, because I'm so on my female empowerment shit right now. But more than that I'm about creating cross-group dialogues. So I'm taking time to analyse the male psyche.
It's interesting that you appropriate symbols of male power – “King” avriel, for example
I think you have to work within the system and subversively tear it down. Not everyone agrees, and that’s one reason I gel with (Pedagogy of the Oppressed author) Paulo Freire. It's about how the oppressed group has a responsibility to liberate the oppressor at the same time as themselves.
In interviews and your blogs, you come across as quite literate and well-read. Were you always a bookworm?
Yeah! That's one of the reasons I had to stop modelling. School was always the place where I could shine. Up to high school I was always the ugly kid, the follower of one of the lead mean girls. And the one place I could always dominate was being the smartest kid in class.
“I want people to understand where I've come from. And that's maybe selfish or egotistical, but that's our generation”
Growing up, which fictional character did you relate to?
I honestly wanna say there’s no one. That’s why I make music! I wrote one of my college essays on how I was constantly being compared to Hilary from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey – whoever the light-skinned mulatto girl of the moment is. (laughs) I couldn't identify. Plus, mixed women in media are always represented as this sex-symbol, Jezebel type character and I definitely internalised that as a teenager. It felt like the only place I had power – through my sexuality. And that's one of the reasons I got myself into a lot of shit, too. But right now, I feel like Jessica Day off of New Girl. I’m really awkward, generally.
What was your day to day as a teenager?
From 17-19 it was really bad. I was doing a lot of drugs – a lot – and I was living out of my car, sleeping at random people's houses. I’d stopped modelling and had nothing else going on. I was in the studio but without an end goal. I was floating. That was the darkest time. I got addicted to pills. I started cutting. I was really, really depressed. I was in a terrible abusive relationship, on multiple levels. But I mean, everything is my own doing. I make choices to react to things.
I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes people create bad situations for you.
That's true. And I'm sure I've done that to other people. But I think what triggered that was getting raped, getting pregnant, getting an abortion and all of that. I didn't tell anybody. I was like, ‘I'm gonna move forward from this by myself.’ And I wasn't equipped to handle it. That's the story of “180”, actually.
You seem regretful – weren’t these situations out of your control?
I don't think I'm hard on myself; I'm actually grateful for it. Going through that forced me to get serious about school. Then I found LA, this community, and all this information about how I can translate that experience into something meaningful. But I mean, sometimes I get resentful. I think, Why the fuck did I have to go through that?
What happened to your modelling career?
A few seasons after I got scouted, my body started changing and I became obsessed with how I looked. I had this regular job with Billabong, modelling swimwear. One time I was in my swimsuit, hair and makeup done, and when they come around for last checks... I guess I just didn't fit in the swimsuit the way they wanted. My agent gets a call, and she calls me like, ‘You're not gonna walk today.’ That was traumatic. The thing I didn't know at that point, nor did anybody else, was that I was pregnant. That's the reason my body was changing.
Where does the song “Follow Me” fit in?
In this project, I work my way out in institutions. So the first song deals with my relationship with my dad and how that affected my relationships with men. And then (on “Follow Me”) I move out to the family. How my dad’s role-modelling affected my own role-modelling for my sister - that never-ending cycle. For a long time I didn't set her a positive example. One night she almost got arrested for drinking and attempting to drive. And I went off on her, like ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ It made me really emotional, because my siblings were like, ‘It's okay! People mess up when they're 16!’ And I'm like, ‘You guys don't understand. My little sister's really beautiful. She's gorgeous. Everybody who sees her thinks she's at least 10 years older than she is.’ I had to say to her, ‘One of the big reasons I was raped is because I was naive about my position as a woman. Especially one who was taller and developed. I didn’t really understand how that affects the way people approach me.’
With your music, you’ve talked about applying a new approach to R&B. What’s it lacking?
There are so many kickass female artists, but there’s still a lack of female diversity. Of all the female artists - SZA, Kelela, FKA Twigs, maybe Janelle and Tink - a lot of us are doing very similar things. However, there has started to be more male diversity. Frank (Ocean) started talking about different things; Drake... at least had a different perspective on the same things. Even The Weeknd. But one thing they have in common is that they pathologise their female characters, portray them as broken women. Which is fine - people have issues, I'm one of them (laughs) – but I was like, Well, I’m gonna flip the mirror on you guys. At this point I feel like I'm the only girl looking at the male psyche that way.
Does the fact that this new vulnerability sells so many records suggest attitudes are shifting?
Oh, definitely. I think that, because of social media, we’re a generation of over-sharers. But now we realise, like, sharing what you had for breakfast is really superficial, we need a more intimate understanding. That's definitely a driver for me: I want people to understand where I've come from. And that's maybe selfish or egotistical, but that's our generation.
How will it be in five years? What’s your vision for music?
I feel like Western civilisation is on the brink of completely breaking down. Something I'm really interested in is ancient world history, and I see these similarities... history definitely repeats itself. I feel like the virile American Empire is just not working for people anymore, around the world. And hopefully the African-American experience is gonna change, because it's so unfortunate that we're still perceived as second class citizens around the world. I hope there isn't that need to prove we're more than just gangsters and thugs and strippers and hoes. (laughs) And hopefully music will have a part in that.
Do you believe that will happen?
Yeah! I mean, if I have anything to with it it will. I just need Beyoncé to let me write her next album and then the world would be saved.