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Velvet Negroni
Velvet NegroniPhotography Tim Saccenti

Meet genre-crossing Midwestern musical experimentalist Velvet Negroni

As he releases his debut album, Neon Brown, we speak to the Bon Iver, Kanye West, and Tame Impala-approved songwriter

Velvet Negroni is not afraid to let his art speak on his behalf. In fact, speaking to the Minnesotan artist over the phone, you get the feeling he’d rather not talk about himself, full-stop. Having a conversation with him feels like stop-and-go traffic – he picks out words carefully, rapidly shifting gears mid-sentence when the first thought isn’t quite right, while some thoughtful pauses lead to precisely spoken lines and others to more hesitant, brief responses. Rather than telling his story, he’d prefer to chase down his next idea. “I’m learning to get better at interviews,” he says. “It’s one thing to write the music, and then another to look inwardly with someone else. It’s an odd experience. I can’t say I hate it, but… I’m trying to get better at it.”

Maybe he’d rather put his ideas into the work itself. Velvet Negroni – whose real name is Jeremy Nutzman – makes music that dances across the cracks between genres (you can hear shades of pop, R&B, rap, indie rock, and funk) and doles out deep, palpable emotion. His rippling synths and beguiling vocals have caught the attention of droves of fans and tastemakers alike: he’s opened for Tame Impala on tour, while fellow experimental Midwesterner Justin Vernon (AKA Bon Iver) invited the musician to play on his latest album, i, i. Vernon also played Nutzman’s music to Kanye West, who ended up using the hook of the Velvet Negroni song “Waves” for the KIDS SEE GHOSTS track “Feel the Love”.

Nuztman grew up in an evangelical family and was raised solely on Christian music, but you wouldn’t know it, listening to the tactile, sumptuous, decadent experimentation of his debut album, Neon Brown. Pay closer attention, though, and the just-off-kilter nature of Velvet Negroni’s music becomes apparent: the concentric circles of percussion on “Wine Green”, the haunted flute and swank saxophone of “Confetti”. After years of studying classical piano, the clever precision with which Jeremy Nutzman deploys his words is to be expected; the unbridled emotional resonance that comes from those chosen words, however, shows the unique way he’s found to express himself in the shadow of his upbringing.

With Neon Brown out today, Nutzman speaks with Dazed about reinventing his songwriting process, the value of a Kanye cosign, and how he balances his love of Brandy and Metallica.

There is a special limbo leading up to an album release. How are you navigating that? 

Velvet Negroni: I’m excited to officially be done with one chapter and move toward another. Now, I can start feeling excited about writing music again. This album was completed months ago, but it kept getting pushed back – I don’t know why, probably poor planning on my part. 

What are the questions you bring up on this album? 

Velvet Negroni: It’s still absolutely relevant to me. I always ask whether I’m doing the best I can and using my potential. A lot of what I ask has to do with overcoming obstacles that my brain puts up with, whether it be relationships or other toxic roadblocks that I need to get over. I always try to write in a way that allows people to connect to me, to the music. 

Where in the process of realisation and reflection were you when you started writing? 

Velvet Negroni: For me, writing has always felt like it’s (started to happen) right after a decision in my life has been made. It sounds dumb, but it can be a therapeutic sort of thing.

There’s a powerful organic feeling to your music, despite what I’m sure is a strong sense of refinement and revision. How do you balance the drive to perfect that raw emotion? 

Velvet Negroni: It sounds really cliché, but in the studio, you’re asking questions and forming ideas, and you’re essentially working through it yourself. The difference between this and therapy is that in the doctor’s office, you have somebody talking with you and immediately giving you a response, rather than you being in a space posing a question and then thinking about how it could possibly be answered in different ways. It’s a difference of self-diagnosis that I find comforting.

You’ve been co-signed by Bon Iver, Kanye, and Tame Impala, among others. Does it feel more exciting to be recognised by other artists, or by fans?

Velvet Negroni: Oh, definitely just regular people. That’s what will always, by far, have the most effect on me. I feel more connected with the people, the fans – not that these artists aren’t people, but it doesn’t feel like the real thing. It’s just not the same as somebody saying, “Yo, I listen to your music and I like it, it really speaks to me.” Knowing my music could help someone through a tough time is super real to me.

(Working with Bon Iver and being associated with Kanye) has given me the ability of having these names dropped around my name, but that’s honestly the only way it’s affected me professionally. Some people would not have heard me otherwise, and it’s giving credibility to get people to listen and make up their own mind. Plus, I’ve had significant feelings for each of these artists. If I were to listen to any of them now, it will just move me to another place. It’s like an olfactory memory, when you have that smell and all of a sudden you’re there.

You weren’t allowed to listen to non-religious music as a kid. What was it like diving into the musical world you’d been denied so long? 

Velvet Negroni: It was like indulgence. My brain was ready to hear something. It was so exciting, and it happened around the time when people actually paid for CDs and would listen to them all the way through. It was more work to get ahold of something as simple as music. Deep, deep listening allowed me to explore the world of music.

“It sounds really cliché, but in the studio, you’re asking questions and forming ideas... (you’re) in a space posing a question and then thinking about how it could possibly be answered in different ways” – Velvet Negroni

What was the first artist that you indulged in? 

Velvet Negroni: The ones that I was able to grab onto were Brandy and Blackstreet. Early on, when I was living in my classical piano world, I was laying on the low, just really pumping the R&B of that time. But I was also catching the metal side from my older brother, and grabbing Metallica CDs along the way. It’s all in there.

Do you find that because you weren’t allowed access to that much music, it became a private thing for you – making it, consuming it?

Velvet Negroni: Definitely the making of it. I used to be a lot more excited for people to hear my work as I was creating it, and always asking for validation, wondering what people thought. Now, it’s gotten to a place where I am always completely finished before I have anybody listen. Maybe I’ve grown jaded and the process seems less magical, or maybe I’m just thinking about my work differently now.

While you weren’t able to take in that pop music as an influence in your younger years, were you consuming other art forms as creative input? 

Velvet Negroni: I feel like I was collecting data. I draw in the same way I play piano, which is athletically.

How connected are you to the piano? 

Velvet Negroni: It’s strange, because there's obviously a connection there, but I feel like I traded it in. I tried recently to sit down and look at sheet music, but now I think of all the things that I’ve lost that I can’t do anymore. These skills are muscles and they’re still there, but the energy is just in a different place. I feel like I’ve lost the technical skills, and on this album they're coming out in different ways. Piano sometimes makes the most sense to me in the writing process, and other times it doesn’t make any sense. Or I’ll just get stuck doing the same things, and it’s hard to figure out how to break free. 

How did you figure out how to break free on this album? What are the things that you have overcome in order to get rid of old habits, or learn new ones?

Velvet Negroni: Working within limitations that me and the other guys had set up. I wrote this with Simon Christensen (AKA Psymun) and Elliott Kozel (AKA Tickle Torture) on a daily schedule. It was interesting to work on a monitored pace. Even if we were excited about a song at the end of the day, we would still reconnect the next morning instead.

You’ve transitioned from working alongside other musicians in groups to now becoming a lead voice. What inspired that shift?

Velvet Negroni: It was out of necessity. I got to my wits’ end getting myself into these musical marriages, and all of them falling apart constantly. I still need a lot of help from people, but I’m happy with the people that I have now found. I don’t think chronologically about things, so it’s hard for me to step back and see this as my story. On a level, I am unaware of my awareness.

Velvet Negroni tours Europe from November 3