One of 2015’s biggest rising stars on alter egos, tattoos and expressing himself through music
Everyone wants to know who Bryson Tiller is. He’s already done a few dozen interviews since becoming one of the most viral vocalists of the last year. Still, it feels as though there’s an air of mystery he upholds that simply can’t be blown away with words. His music divulges everything a guy wants to say and all the things a girl wants to hear so it’s no wonder people have hopped on the Bryson wave hoping to figure out what makes him tick.
Draped in his signature aesthetic of a monochromatic hoodie, which today is burgundy, skinny jeans and a casual black cap, Tiller presents as humble and gracious as far as first impressions go. He’s animated and unexpectedly eager to speak on personal experiences, but when it comes to specific emotions, his words wind down to a mumble or he simply responds with, “I don’t know.”
“I’m terrible at expressing myself,” he confesses when the topic of past relationships comes up.
It’s a characteristic almost unimaginable after listening to his 2015 debut project TRAPSOUL. Tiller’s lyrics have the ability to oscillate between crooning salvation for a love interest on songs like “Exchange” and “The Sequence”, to cleverly calculated bars that will revive your inner trap god on “Rambo” and “Sorry Not Sorry”.
The 23-year-old is still working to grasp his recent surge of celebrity; he is unaccustomed to the thousands of fans who know all the words to his songs or interviewers trying to press him for every detail of his life when that wasn’t the case a couple years ago. Despite his reluctant claim to fame, Tiller strives to cultivate an extensive résumé of hits in order to solidify his role in music. As he embarks on his first headlining tour across North America and parts of Europe, the Louisville native says he’s ready to perform in front of a five-figure crowd.
If we had a school project, [let’s say] everyone had to do a paper mâché dragonfly, mine had to be the best. Not just be the best, but it had to stand out from everyone else…
COMING FROM LOUISVILLE, WHERE THERE’S NOT MUCH OF A HIP-HOP SCENE, COMPARED TO CITIES LIKE NEW YORK OR CHICAGO, HOW HAS THAT INFLUENCED YOUR MUSIC? Real quick, when you say there’s not much of a hip-hop scene, what do you mean? I just want to clarify … because I remember I said that in a recent interview [and] a lot of people got upset. I’m just curious on what you mean when you say that?
I MEAN PERSONALLY I CAN’T NAME ANY HIP-HOP/R&B ARTISTS OFF THE TOP THAT HAVE COME OUT OF LOUISVILLE. Exactly, that’s what I thought the question meant when someone mentioned that a while ago and then a lot of people were like ‘what do you mean there’s no talent here?’ but I didn’t say that.
I wouldn’t say it influenced my music. I think being there and not being able to make it out of the city gave me more [incentive]. I was like ‘alright, I got to be different from all these other artists. I got to stand out.’ I’ve always been like that though with everything that I do in life. If we had a school project, [let’s say] everyone had to do a paper mâché dragonfly, mine had to be the best. Not just be the best, but it had to stand out from everyone else to where people would be like, ‘oh look at that one.’ I always try to stand out, but not to where it’s forced.
LET’S TALK ABOUT PEN GRIFFEY, YOUR ALTER EGO. WHERE DID THAT NAME COME FROM? I was actually writing the song “Sorry, Not Sorry” at work and I was just coming up with bars in my head and that was one of them; eventually it just became my alias. You know Ken Griffey [Jr.] the baseball player? He has a lot of hits and I aspire to have as many hits, I mean hopefully. It’s hard to get that many number 1s. Not even just number 1s, but hit songs as far as the sound, just hit material.
HOW DO PEN GRIFFEY AND BRYSON TILLER DIFFER AND WHERE DO THEY MEET IN THE MIDDLE? When I first came up with the alias I tried to make it a super alter ego thing, like when I’m me I’ll do this and when I’m Pen Griffey I’ll do this, but there’s really no major difference. It’s just a mode I go into whenever I need to just bring it when I’m writing songs or when I’m on stage. When I’m on stage I turn into Pen Griffey.
I’m still trying to get better at writing songs to where anybody could feel like that.
I’VE SEEN VIDEOS FROM SOME OF YOUR SHOWS WHERE EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE IS SINGING ALL THE LYRICS OF “DON’T” BACK AT YOU TO WHERE YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE TO SING THE WORDS. WHAT’S THAT FEELING LIKE? There’s one instance where I really didn’t have to sing anything. Most of the time I am singing and people can’t even hear me. I remember one time I was in Atlanta and my mic cut off for some reason. I could have walked off stage, but instead I just stayed on stage and everyone was singing “Been That Way” back to me and it was like a movie. It’s dope whenever people sing my lyrics back to me.
BEING A FATHER OF A BABY GIRL, HOW HAS THAT EXPERIENCE SHAPED YOUR MUSIC? I care more about what I have to say, I don’t just say whatever now.
YOU TWEETED THE PHRASE ‘SONGS FOR WOMEN.’ DO YOU WANT HER TO BE ABLE TO LISTEN TO YOUR SONGS AND BE PROUD? I want her to able to listen to one of my songs, when she can understand the lyrics, and say this is how a man should think. I’m still trying to get better at writing songs to where anybody could feel like that. “Songs for Women” is actually a Frank Ocean song, but that’s how I felt though. I was making songs and all these girls were saying things about my songs and I thought ‘oh, this is what he meant when Frank Ocean said making songs for women.’
YOU’VE ADMITTED TO BEING SHY AND A BIT OF AN INTROVERT. WHERE DOES THAT SHYNESS COME FROM? Being a nobody in high school. I don’t know, I wasn’t the nerd who played Yu Gi Oh cards, but I was kind of in between that. I actually was voted ‘Best Dressed’, but that was only because everyone else wore big ass clothes and shit. I was one of the first people [in my high school] to wear skinny jeans and they ripped me for that.
BUT NOW EVERY TIME I GO ONLINE I’LL SEE SOMEONE DRESSED EXACTLY LIKE YOU. I don’t know if I should be annoyed with [them or] the people who believe that’s actually me. My fans will be like, ‘oh, I met Bryson today,’ and I’m like man that’s not me, at least check his hands for tattoos. Now when I see a dude go out of his way to get fake tattoos on his hands, then that’ll be a tad bit flattering. Right now it’s not flattering at all (laughs).
WHICH TATTOO MEANS THE MOST TO YOU? This ‘11:23’ tattoo (motions to the area between thumb and index finger of his right hand). Every time my daughter’s mother would look at the clock she’d see 11:23 for some reason. You ever look at the clock and just see the same time?
YEAH, FOR ME THE TIME ALWAYS ENDS IN 52. Ah, that’s crazy. She’d always see 11:23 and the day that I found out she was pregnant with my daughter was 11 (November), 23.
WHOA, THAT’S CRAZY. WHEN DID YOU END UP GETTING THE TATTOO? This was like a year after.
One thing I’m scared of is I don’t know how famous I’ll get. I just hope I can be one of those people that learn how to accept it rather than trying to force it away.
IN YOUR SONGS “EXCHANGE” AND “RIGHT MY WRONGS” YOU ADDRESS MISTAKES YOU’VE MADE IN PAST RELATIONSHIPS AND TALK ABOUT DOING BETTER. HOW HARD WAS IT TO SHOW THAT KIND OF VULNERABILITY? That’s one place where I’m comfortable saying anything, in my songs I can say whatever. I don’t care at all.
DO YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE SAYING THOSE THINGS WHEN YOU’RE JUST TALKING ONE-ON-ONE WITH SOMEBODY? The thing is I don’t ever say those things when I’m talking to somebody, even in my relationships. That’s my biggest problem. I’ll be in an argument for 45 minutes and I won’t say anything, I’ll just be sitting there listening. I’ll say little words here and there and then I’ll go into the next room and write a song about it (laughs).
GOING FORWARD INTO YOUR CAREER WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU’RE REALLY EXCITED FOR AND SOMETHING YOU’RE SCARED OF? My last show was like 5,000 people so I’m excited to do a tour with those kinds of venues, or even with 10,000 [people]. I’m ready for 10,000. One thing I’m scared of is I don’t know how famous I’ll get. I just hope I can be one of those people that learn how to accept it rather than trying to force it away.
With files from Gabrielle Austin
Photos supplied by Sony Music Canada