From exclusive interviews, live performances, special collections and more, we’re celebrating music all month long. We talked to the bands and artists playing our upcoming UO Live in Austin shows about their musical beginnings and the places they’re headed next. Click here to read more from our favorite musicians.
19 year old Khalid is set to break out big with his debut album, American Teen, right around the corner. In-between stops on his first headlining tour, we chat with Khalid about his musical upbringing and how his hometown of El Paso, TX influenced has his work.
Photos by Mancy Gant
Words by Laura Tsunoda
We meet Khalid on his first full day as a nineteen-year-old—nineteen days before the release of his first full album, “American Teen.” With his tour wrapping up and his March 3 release date fast approaching, he’s understandably busy.
Khalid arrives punctually at Tartine Manufactory, San Francisco’s huge new bakery/design temple. Think blonde wood, white marble counters, and floating paper lanterns. It’s the perfect background for Khalid’s pristinely styled look. The beard is James Harden-esque, his flattop tall, his tracksuit turquoise. Sitting in front of the giant window, he looks like a young R&B star made to order.
Khalid Robinson popped up on the R&B scene last year with his single “Location,” which he released right before his senior prom. On his graduation day, Snapchat doyenne Kylie Jenner picked it up. And the song went viral—rising up the Top 100 Billboards, getting radio play, and finding its way into many a curated celebrity playlist.
Khalid speaks a little like he sings: in long, measured, elliptical sentences. In fact, a couple times his speech becomes so lulling and evenly paced, you could set a metronome to it. One other thing: Each time his phone lights up with a new notification, you sense his neurons firing and pulling his eyes to the screen, moth to flame. It makes a ton of sense. Khalid’s work is keen on the important place phones have in the lives of American teenagers. (“Location” may well be the first song to induct sharing an iOS location into the romantic lexicon.) If you think this sounds aloof or distant, it’s not. Khalid is the picture of earnestness.
Tell us a bit about you got here as a musician.
I’m a military child, so I lived all over the place. I lived in Germany for six years. I lived in northern New York for four. I was going through my senior year in New York, when my mom tells me, you’re moving to El Paso, Texas. I had to leave everything that I knew and all the things that I loved and all the friends that I had...I was very confused and very lonely because all the people I was close with in New York forgot about me. But instead of letting that loneliness eat away at me, I just started writing music and recording voice memos and all that type of stuff to find a form of release.
Were you involved in music before you moved?
I sang in the choir in high school. I was a theater kid. I did musicals.
Oh really? What musicals were you in?
Hello, Dolly. Mary Poppins. I did Hairspray.
What was your favorite role?
Seaweed from Hairspray. Very fun. It was very bright and confident.
Did you consider pursuing theater?
I was really interested in that. [Before I moved to El Paso], something kept telling me, you’re going to be a performer. But I saw it as performing arts. So I was like, hey, I’m going to go to a performance arts school. The moment that I moved, I questioned if that was for me. I started writing my own stuff and writing out my feelings. The moment I did, it was almost like a gateway of relief. I got a lot happier. I wasn’t as lonely. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Then I met my best friend and he introduced me to a couple people, a guy with a guitar…and I recorded my first song.
I read your mom is a singer. What music did she play when you were growing up?
Growing up it was a lot of soul and early R&B pop. A lot of Sade, India Arie, Musiq Soulchild, Brandy, Aaliyah, Usher, SWV, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, like all that kind of stuff. But when I [was fifteen or sixteen and] had the ability to search whatever I wanted on the internet, I started listening to American folk music, indie music, alternative music, classical music. Everything from Bill Withers and Billie Holiday to people like Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bears, High Highs, Active Child. I guess it was just a time period where I really wanted to find myself creatively.
Tell us about writing your first song.
“Saved” was the first song I wrote. It was about the sense of loneliness I had. It was directed toward my ex-girlfriend, but at the same time I feel like it was very broad. It was just about the fact that no matter where you go or who you might lose, you always have this sense of attachment for someone. For me it was cell phone numbers. Even if I lost a friendship, or fell out with someone, the only thing I couldn’t do was delete their cell phone number. I would delete pictures and videos and feel like I would be OK. But not their number.
Right, because you always wanted to keep the lines of communication open.
Yes, in case they ever thought about me. Or in case I got the pride to say we should have a conversation.
You’ve written mostly about young love. Is that what you’re writing about now?
Everything that I write right now is related to me. So a lot of my stuff is very youthful. Because I am youth. I just turned nineteen. [People sometimes tell me] what do you know about love, you’re eighteen...But I’ve been in love and it’s relevant. Young love is the hardest love because it’s fresh, it’s new…And I feel like love, and the theory of love, has changed. Because people don’t really want to find love that often anymore.
Why don’t they want to find love anymore?
A lot of people my age don’t wanna accept the feelings that we have for other individuals...Because times have changed. Social media is a very big influence. It’s the distraction, it’s the lack of emotion, you can’t really feel something behind a couple of text messages the way you would feel something if it was said verbally to you. So that’s why I write songs about love.
Last question: Why did you name your first album “American Teen”?
It’s a representation of who I am as an individual. I’m military—I have military background. I’m nineteen...At the same time, I feel like the listener can interpret it any way they want. You can be a German teen, an African teen, an Asian teen, a Mexican teen, a Canadian teen. We’re still going through the same stuff.
See Khalid this month at UO Space 24 Twenty for UO Live in Austin. Click here for more schedules and information.