In a rare interview, the reclusive Minnesota musician – formerly known as Spooky Black – talks his dark, angry and emotional debut album Mourn
Corbin Smidzik first emerged from St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014 with a series of ghostly, lo-fi videos. Often depicting the then-16-year-old singer in the thick of the woods, wandering and wallowing through the wilderness, the videos slowly spread from YouTube and WorldStarHipHop onto music blogs and into the world. It wasn’t always easy for people to understand his appeal – his aliases ‘Spooky Black’ and ‘Lil Spook’ seemed to work against him, while his tendency to treat everything from album announcements to music videos to social media as a joke led many to dismiss the project as an ironic prank that had gotten out of hand.
One thing that Smidzik always took seriously, however, was his music. With a sound that sat somewhere between 80s soul icon Keith Sweat and underground rap hero Lil Ugly Mane, he soon fostered a cult-like audience (before he’d even turned 18, he could count Drake amongst his fans). His young age, unorthodox style, unassuming appearance – often complete with a goofy grin – and absolutely captivating voice demanded attention.
Unlike so many other internet success stories, however, Smidzik was anything but quick to capitalise on that popularity. Just as people were becoming familiar with Spooky Black, he reverted to his birth name, dismissing his old aliases as dumb and juvenile. With his meme-ready past behind him, he seemed prime to make his case as a serious artist. And then, minus a few shows following his joint EP Couch Potato with frequent collaborator Bobby Raps, he vanished.
“I just had nothing to say,” Smidzik sighs, talking over webcam from a dark, bare room in Los Angeles, where he splits his time between his home state. In conversation he seems relaxed, though he often swims around through a sea of thoughts before reaching the point he’s headed towards. “It definitely gave me writing material, because I have just been, like, fucking wasting away and shit.”
Last week Corbin released his long-awaited debut album, Mourn. It sounds like a mind in decay. Fuelled by a fear of the end of times – a fear that only feels more real by the day – the album has an operatic intensity, reflecting the lack of stillness that a paranoid mind experiences. The album follows the last days of a man who urges his significant other to start anew with him far away from civilisation. They move to a bunker in the woods before the man dies in a plane crash; his partner then moves back home and subsequently passes away herself.
“It’s pretty much based off my life – I do plan on just saving my money, rebuilding my house,” Smidzik says. “I do die at the end, I guess. I’m just jinxing myself. I’m telling my future. (That’s) probably how I’m gonna die, driving fast on the highway and I slip.”
In 2013, before he discovered the singing voice that defined his later output, Smidzik put out his debut mixtape Forest. It’s a rap project, and one that’s very much a product of a 15-year-old, with cartoonishly violent lyrics. There’s very little connection between it and his second mixtape Black Silk, released not long after his 16th birthday and demonstrating his stunning voice and grasp of sonics and songwriting. It piqued the interest of his now-manager Doc McKinney, the man partially responsible for bringing The Weeknd to the mainstream, who saw beyond the goofy videos and elusive online presence.
“We were kind of thinking apocalyptic undertones... I’m just a paranoid person. It was what I was obsessing about” – Corbin
Despite his viral fame, Smidzik turned down countless interviews, choosing instead to share his newfound attention with his closest Minnesotan collaborators. Alongside one of his go-to producers Psymun, the eccentric Bobby Raps, and energetic rapper Allan Kingdom, Corbin began work on a different kind of debut. Together as thestand4rd, the four produced an album remarkably quickly before things snowballed even further when they set out on a sold-out tour near the end of 2014, outdoing themselves by getting DJ Khaled to introduce their NYC show.
The tour marked the first time Smidzik ever performed live, and it got a lot of people talking – up until this point, Corbin was still considered a URL figure, but seeing him perform with a voice that was as strong live as it was recorded proved he was the real deal. While Corbin and Psymun quietly retreated to work on new music, Bobby Raps went viral with a track for Hamburger Helper’s rap mixtape and worked with The Weeknd, while Allan Kingdom appeared on stage at the 2015 Brit Awards for Kanye West’s incendiary performance of “All Day”.
The initial burst of interest from record labels put an incredible weight on Smidzik’s shoulders. When he was only 17, one of the biggest opportunities of his life came around – he was offered a deal with Young Turks and XL Recordings, the label responsible for bringing artists like Sampha and The xx to the mainstream. “We were gonna put out a record with them, but we just didn’t really click,” Smidzik tells me. “They’re cool, but it just took a little bit too long. That was the first label I was on, but it was just a lot of pressure on making music.”
In turn, Corbin hid from the public eye. “I didn’t plan to be away for so long,” he says. “I just never really made an album that was worth putting out. I guess it was just figuring stuff out.” He ended up working with Psymun – who was putting together a solo EP for Ghostly International at the time – and wrote what he hoped would become his debut album. “Then it just sat around for too long and I just got tired of it, unfortunately.”
Though he’d occasionally sneak tracks onto Soundcloud only to scrub them from existence, Smidzik hadn’t released anything officially for two years prior to Mourn. “For me, staying off social media and just kind of isolating myself and figuring things out helps me grow as a person,” he says. “The internet is just a toxic place for me. It makes me doubt myself.” He hesitates for a moment. “Well, not really – not that much. I don’t know. I think it was necessary. As long as I’m not putting out music, people don’t need to be hearing shit from me. It’s hard to know when your input is wanted.”
“The internet is just a toxic place for me. It makes me doubt myself” – Corbin
During some free time in Los Angeles visiting Doc McKinney – who was putting the finishing touches on The Weeknd’s Starboy at the time – Smidzik met up with producers Shlohmo and D33J of the LA label and collective WeDidIt. Having previously worked together with the singer on “Worn”, Corbin’s first track under his own name, the production duo responsible for shaping Mourn’s new wave-inspired sound were already well familiar with his idiosyncratic voice.
“I’ve always really respected the way Corbin approaches making music,” says Shlohmo. “He’s an innately gifted songwriter who can also sing with this depth and power that’s way beyond his years.” After seeing his “Without U” video online and sending a couple of DMs, Shlohmo invited Corbin to his studio in Los Angeles, providing the basis for an incredible working relationship. “It’s really special to see someone in his position – especially someone his age – who truly does not give a shit what people want him to do, and is genuinely and only about communicating his vision correctly and honestly.”
By the time it came to making Mourn, the landscape of the United States had shifted dramatically, and Smidzik found his mind occupied by apocalyptic thoughts. “We were kind of thinking apocalyptic undertones throughout,” he admits, “but I’m just a paranoid person. It was what I was obsessing about.” The album’s gothic aesthetic perfectly suits Smidzik’s commanding, often theatrical voice (listening to black metal acts Darkthrone and Hellhammer during the writing process influenced the heavier delivery of his vocals), marking a drastic change from Corbin’s older material.
Isolation and anger is at the core of the album – emotionally speaking, the themes are heavier than anything else he’s released. It’s sometimes surprising to remember that this is someone who used to perform nightcore sets as DJ Crazy Frog. “Had enough of this world, now I’m giving up,” he opens one of the tracks on the album. His voice sounds as if it’s battered and bruised at times, brutish and confident at others.
“I guess it’s the only kind of music I feel like I can make, there has to be some sort of dark undertone or else it seems corny to me,” Smidzik says. The darker content, he explains, just reflects the kind of person he is. “I’m just, like, angry all the time about shit. I’m just not a very positive person – a lot of the time, at least. Most of the songs I wrote pretty fast, we just tried to capture moments of emotional shit.”
For all of Mourn’s ominous sound and lyrical intensity, however, Corbin is quick to remind you of his sense of humour. “You can’t be too serious about everything, especially if the music is super serious,” he says. “I think people take themselves too seriously, especially artists.” It’s here that he captures the reason he’s persisted as a cult figure – the juxtaposition between his captivating music, and his playful appearance in videos like “Welcome to the Hell Zone”.
“It’s mostly just a grounding thing,” he says. “To remind people I’m not some mystical creature – I’m just some stupid idiot.”