Jesse Boykins III On spirituality, randomness and being true to yourself

Cover Image - Jesse Boykins III
WordsSuzanne Tromp

Jesse Boykins III is one of a kind. Suzanne Tromp spoke with him about randomness, spirituality, culture and being true to yourself.

The title – Bartholomew – is the name of one of the 12 apostles. I noticed on your previous album cover you have a reference to Hinduism. What’s the role of religion or spirituality in your music?

I’m looking at myself as a culture. I’m not just a Jamaican man, or just a black man; I find myself in Buddhism and Hinduism and you know, even Islam. I try to take from all these different cultures to understand why it is segregated and why it is the way that it is. But yeah I don’t know, I just make art.

For me especially it is about the self, first and foremost. I’ve become more open in understanding, or trying to understand, the way this world works. I try to adapt these different perspectives to what makes sense to me.

What is it about this apostle that made you want to use it as the title of the album?

Initially, it was just a joke. I called myself Bartholomew in college. I used it to throw people off and make people a bit more open to talk to me. I’ve always kept it with me. When I was doing research on the name I found out about the principles of the apostles and thought, that’s cool.

I have a very random imagination, so I gave Bartholomew his own personal characteristics. They are four solid things that he embodies at all times. One thing is that he grew up in Never Neverland and was one of Peter Pan’s lost boys, the second is that he is a descendant of Captain Nemo, the third that he secretly works for NASA but he can’t tell anyone and the last is that he is ok with being in the friend zone. I wrote the songs based on those characteristics.

If you had to sum up the message of your new album, what would it be?

I feel like a lot of times in this world people have motives. You can’t really tell if someone’s intentions are genuine or not. Often, when you first meet them, they put on a show for you. Instead I try to be honest and understanding in the environment I am in.

The album is about genuinely wanting to show someone that it’s ok for them to look at the world the way they look at the world, as long as they try to progress in it. That’s pretty much who Bartholomew is to me.

How does that message come across on a visual level?

I think the most genuine thing happens when you put someone in an uncomfortable environment and see where their energy goes. And you can only tell that in an instant. So a lot of the visuals of the album are very cinematic, but they’re uncomfortably necessary. I’ve been shooting everything in a one-take – no rehearsal. It’s like documenting real-life performances, I guess.

So when there’s an error, it’s not a real error because it just happened?

Exactly – even when there’s a mistake, it’s ok, because it was true to you. You thought you were going to do it how you envisioned it, but it came out differently. You just have to accept that.

Everybody tries to be so perfect, which is cool, but there’s also beauty in improvisation. It’s like going to see a fine art painting and it just looks like a whole bunch of bullshit to you initially – but to that artist it’s like, “Yeah I made that mistake with that brush stroke right there, so I just made another one on the other side because that’s what my subconscious told me to do.”

Do you produce everything yourself?

I’ve been independent most of my career – shit, I’ve been independent all of my career.

I produce everything myself, from the visuals to the art direction, to the songwriting and the videos. I’m a visual artist that makes music. When I’m making music, I look at photos by my favorite photographers, artists, sculptures and designers; they integrate themselves into my production subconsciously.

With whom did you collaborate on this album?

A lot of people, this is the biggest collaboration I’ve ever done. I worked with a lot of major artists like Luke James, Dej Loaf, Willow Smith, Syd from the band The Internet, and Little Simz.

What was that like?

It was enriching. I ended up finalizing the album in a house. We pretty much customized the studio with a lot of my old photographs. It was gated off, off a main road and there were hummingbirds in the backyard. Every day, I picked oranges off a tree before I headed into the studio.

There, I got to see sides of people that I would never have seen if it wasn’t for the environment that I was in. I felt like I had my own ship and I would stop at ports and pick somebody up. We would go out on the ocean and be like, where do you want to go? We’d try to find hidden treasures.

In your previous album you worked with Machinedrum and that changed your tunes a little bit. How has your music evolved since then?

With Machinedrum, I had all the song titles written before I even wrote the lyrics. I would sit right next to him and make sure the lyrics would fit perfectly with the arrangement. I put myself in confinement on purpose, to see what it would inspire.

But this album is more about what do I feel. How can I say it right now, so everybody can understand it, and it would still be true to me? It was less coded. It was more like: “Hey, here’s pancakes, you want bananas on the pancakes? Yes? Ok, I’ll put them on the top of the pancakes.’” Instead of when you cut into the pancake and be like: “Is there banana in here?”

But is it also about the listener’s own interpretation?

More than ever. I want to inspire young people to be themselves and whatever they want to create and challenge themselves in that. The idea is that art is a cure, and that being yourself is a cure.

It’s funny that I had to name myself Bartholomew to feel like I can show every side of me. I have never done that before as an artist; I kept certain things to myself. Now, I found sacredness in giving all aspects of who I am. The good, the bad, the reliable, the unreliable, the emotional, the compassionate, the in-compassionate. I just try to be real in every instant.