“Just Say What You Mean”: An Interview with Ed Balloon

Evan Gabriel talks to Ed Balloon about growing up in Boston, finding positivity in rejection, and making the most of meetings with guidance counselors.
By    July 5, 2016

ed balloon

Most students that seek advice from their guidance counselors are fed some bullshit about “buckling down” and fattening up the course load. But for Ed Balloon, a seemingly average meeting with his counselor at Brandeis University clarified perhaps the biggest question in his life at that time: what do you want to do? Realizing the college campus and the law firm that would follow was not his dream, Balloon finished his undergraduate degree and embarked on the always fraught path of being a recording artist.

His debut EP on the outstanding Deathbomb Arc imprint, No Smoking is fresh and concise. There’s ample time to dance without clunky over-exertion. The hooks and melodies that “fall out of the sky” and into Balloon’s head start off sounding peculiar, before bouncing the terrain of club banger.  Abrasive synths (“Blow Up”) and moody soundscapes (“Night Crawler”) become infectious faintly familiar grooves.  To put it bluntly, the beats bang. They’re minimalist and the drums are heard. All the bases and basics are covered. Balloon’s video for “Graduate” is simple too: pastel socks, red balloons and American Spirits fill a party for two. With this lack of overt flashiness, the music has space to speak for itself. His lyrics feel honest, often about love, but not necessarily in an cliche broken-heart kind of way.

My personal favorite, “Tick-Tock” details his love for music. The click in the beginning of the track sounds like it could have come straight from an Alesis SR-16, almost ironically lo-fi. But here, Balloon’s songwriting is strongest and brutally vulnerable beneath the ticking clock. The song is a fitting nightcap for a project that deals in heavy uncertainties, but remains fun and daring enough to blast at a pregame. On the heels of performances at New York City’s Market Hotel and Brighton Music Hall in Boston, I caught up with Balloon by phone. —Evan Gabriel

How did you begin singing?

Ed Balloon: I was singing at age ten and even formed a little group. We really weren’t making music. But that was where I started songwriting, from having a group and we’d make songs and try and perform them in front of our parents and aunts and uncles.

So the songwriting just stuck with you?

Ed Balloon: I’m now 26. I also went to school. Although I love music so much, it wasn’t pushed for me to do it in my family. I noticed that when I would walk anywhere, I wrote songs in my phone or in my journal, and I took singing lessons because I wanted to make sure my voice was still up to par. I went to Brandeis and studied philosophy. The goal was to go to law school and become a lawyer.

I went to the career center, you know they’re supposed to give you guidance, and I went there to speak to a career specialist and go over my resume. She asked, so what are you interested in? And I said law because that’s what I was supposed to say. She was like okay, so what do you do here at Brandeis? Even though I was a Philosophy major, I was taking a lot of theater courses, taking a lot of art classes, chorus. And then she saw that my face was lighting up and so she as like okay, it shows on your face that you actually like entertaining. You have a special shine to you, when you talk about it you can’t stop. So I finished school and decided to try to become a singer.

That sounds like the realest guidance counselor session ever.

Ed Balloon: She kind of changed my life, you dig?

You sort of pulled an Eddie Huang, on the path to being a lawyer before dropping it for your passion.

Ed Balloon: I know, tell me about it. I knew I didn’t want to do [Law] it was just like, this is clearly what I have to do to make my parents happy and be independent but it was just not me. And now they have confidence, they’re like, “Okay, Eddie, this is clearly you are not about that law life, clearly you are about this music which you’ve been telling me since you were ten years old.”

So they support your music now?

Ed Balloon: Yes they definitely support me now because they have no choice [laughs] and because they are actually seeing me do it. And they believe that I am really good at what I am doing. They are actually seeing me do it.

What part of Boston are you from?

Ed Balloon: Roxbury.

You are also of Nigerian descent, correct? Is there a large Nigerian-American community there?

Ed Balloon: I would say yes, but not as big as New York City. Chances are if you’re Nigerian, you know the others in the Nigerian community. I guess it is kind of small. The good thing about a Nigerian party is that you never need an invite.

What role do you feel your heritage plays in your music?

Ed Balloon: Oh, a huge role. I am very fond of my culture. Growing up, it was very difficult but I don’t allow difficulties to stop me in my occupation or my culture. Now it’s accepted, people are like, oh you’re Nigerian, that’s amazing! But in high school, they didn’t care if you were Nigerian or from Ghana, you were African. They just said, okay, you’re from Africa. And I’m not even from Africa, my parents are. But they would say you’re an African booty scratcher, all those things.

And so, in those days a lot of people were like, I’m not going to say I’m African because I don’t want to be made fun of. But my parents always made me embrace it. I feel like it shows in my music, from the tonality of my words, or how I say certain words. No disrespect to Seal, I try to pout it in my music because I think it makes me. I think because it’s there I use it. I’m glad to have it. I grew up listening to African music. Both my Dad and Mom are Nigerian.

Are there any contemporary Nigerian artists you’re really into?

Ed Balloon: Yeah, now I mean, I like Wizkid. Do you know him?

Just from the remix with Drake and Skepta.

Ed Balloon: Yeah, that’s kind of put us on the map a little bit. I was like, okay, okay. Nigerian music to me is just really warm and open to dance and to having a good time. I like that feel. I think a good thing about Nigerian music is that we’re really good at celebrating life and celebrating the moment, and we do that in our music. That’s the part of my culture that I embrace the most.

Who did you listen to growing up?

Ed Balloon: Destiny’s Child…a lot of that. When I was about 10 I was down south and without stop, my cousin would always play Writing On The Wall and she was a huge fan of it. And I was like okay, this is good music, I liked it, I loved it a lot. And so I came back up to Boston. The whole group, they were so good at how they would sing, and harmonize and put it together…I don’t know they brought something that was very different and something that caught my attention and from then they were just an inspiration. Especially Beyoncé too, I think she is amazing and one of the best singers out. Especially with this album Lemonade. I love how she challenged herself.

You know as an artist whether you’re being complacent or not. [For Beyoncé] it’s all good, you have a fan base and people are going to love your music no matter what, but you always know that you want people to grow with you in music. Life doesn’t stay the same so why should your music stay the same? Of course, Prince. I love Prince because he didn’t care and was really good at song writing. I think that’s also something I try to put into my music. If you’re going to say it, say it. Don’t beat around the bush. Just say what you mean. Because this is your music this is your art, and so I don’t think you can go wrong with it. So that’s one thing I really appreciate about Prince’s music.

How do you go about putting together a song?

Ed Balloon: I write my songs and come up with the melodies, and then I have two producers I work with [Dave Chapman and Sam Creager] who make the beats. Usually when I’m writing, it happens a lot in the shower. But it doesn’t matter where or when. I’m like, okay this is cool. I used to write it down but the melody gets lost. So I’ll record it on my phone. I have had an issue where I have a song I want to record, but then instantly, I have another song. I’m like, okay, I have this other song I need to record right now, because clearly this is the one I want to record. So pretty much, they just come out!

I write my songs and they just come out of nowhere, they just randomly happened. I have to have my phone on me a lot. I walk a lot. I generate my songs through walking I guess. When it rains too. God is good. God just puts it in my head. So I record on my phone, and then I go to [Ugly Duck Studio] and take it to the studio with the producers.

I have really been enjoying your No Smoking EP. I’m curious about how you came up with that name?

Ed Balloon: I feel like we’re in a generation that’s hungrier, like, wants to be high, and that’s cool, if you smoke weed I see you. But I don’t think I need to smoke weed to…see because my name is Ed Balloon. So people are like, you must get high all the time. And I’m like, no that’s not actually why my name is Ed Balloon. So that’s pretty much what the connotation was: if my name is Ed Balloon then I’m high [laughs]. So I try to…kill that [laughs]. When I come up with good music I don’t have to be high. You don’t have to be high either. If anything, my music should put you on a natural high.

What is your go-to brand of cigarettes?

Ed Balloon: I don’t smoke cigarettes either. That was the high thing too. I mean, people use the same thing to get into the zone, the mood, and I just felt like you don’t need cigarettes, weed or anything to get into my mood. Here the mood should already be from the music. It could be any drug, but I think sometimes artists use certain types of things to convey tone but the purpose is for the audience to be really focused on the music. I just want people to really like me for my music and to really focus on what I’m saying and trying to convey.

How did you get signed to Deathbomb Arc?

Ed Balloon: I had this friend. And I guess he took a picture with Daveed Diggs. I looked him up and I was like, oh he has a rap group, and it was good music. And around this time it was really hard because nobody was really listening to my music, blogs weren’t writing about me. I’m like, let me just find someone who is interested in my music. I saw Clipping and was like this is good music, and it’s different, not regular. I saw they were on Sub Pop and then Deathbomb Arc, and I’m like okay, well Sub Pop I had already sent my music to.

I saw Brian’s email address but I didn’t even think I was going to get an email back. I didn’t hear from him until a week or two after. He hit me with this email like, I listened to your music and I was blown away and I can’t stop listening. You make really good music. And he was like I want you to be a part of this. I don’t know, for me it’s really hard to get compliments because I’m used to getting negative comments about music, or what I’m putting out because it’s different, or not what you hear all the time. So for him to say that was amazing and it really made me feel good. And I was like yeah of course! That’s what I like about Brian’s music, he’s really good at finding authentic artists.

Where should I eat in Boston?

Ed Balloon: You’re asking the wrong person. But there’s this place I’ve been going to the last three months called Life Alive, it’s this dope vegan spot and it’s right across the bridge in Cambridge.

I love the energy that you bring to videos like “Graduate” and “Bad People.” What was the inspiration behind “Bad People?”

Ed Balloon: So that was actually the first song that I recorded with [Chapman and Creager] and it came about when I was going through it. I was in the process of my senior year at Brandeis. A lot of people were like, it’s not going to work, everyone wants to be a singer, everyone wants to be a superstar, what makes you different? And if you don’t how to fight it it’s going to get to a point where you don’t know what do with yourself. When you get to that point you’re also going to start hating yourself. Why? Because you’re going to start listening to some peers, or people who think they know your destiny as opposed to listening to yourself. I’m not saying for people to not give advice, but it comes to a point where it’s like: is that advice or are you trying to tell me? Or are you telling me that I should be something because you find it to be something acceptable by society?

Being a musician it’s not really acceptable. My life has not been easy. I went to school and got the education and everyone was telling me to get something that’s tangible and solid. But I think I’m more than that. Don’t underestimate my power, or God’s ability to use me to outdo your opinion about what I can do. So “Bad People” came out when I felt like people were telling me to do A and B and I’m like no, because clearly I just want to do A. My friend is Jamaican and one time I think I was complaining about someone and he was like, “You have a bad mind. Your mind is bad.” And I put it in my head, and it just popped off when I made it.

The songs on No Smoking are very dance driven. There’s so much emphasis on movement. Are you big into clubbing yourself? Or does that setting sort of work as a muse for you?

Ed Balloon: Sure, I go to the club. I like dancing. I actually sing and dance so if you ever want to see me perform one day, I make sure that I dance and sing. Because I also can’t stay in one spot. I feel like I want music to move me, and that’s what it does. So yeah I dance a lot. My dad designs and I grew up on African dance a lot and I also did a lot of freestyle. So I’ve created my own style of Edmund’s unique dancing when I’m performing live.

What does a normal day look like for you?

Ed Balloon: It would be a day of working in the studio working on an EP.

Would you say there is a central message in your music?

Ed Balloon: I think the central message is in my name. Just being able to get over it, just release. Just give into it. I am someone who loves seeing people smile. It really makes me feel at home. But I also go through life and it’s not always happy. But I think my goal is to find that little bit of light because that’s all you’ve got. Without that you’ll feel like your life is meaningless and of course that’s not true.

So you need to find a good release and I think that’s what I encourage in the music. It took a while for me. People were telling me I shouldn’t do music. I needed to find a way to build my confidence. And the only way I was able to do that was by saying I need to float over these opinions, float over these haters and this bullshit because it’s clearly not going to help me prosper. So when you do that that’s when you’re able to find that light. And then you’re like you know what, that wasn’t hard at all. I just needed to float over those opinions that never mean anything, unless you let them.

My favorite track is definitely “Tick-Tock.” The production just feels so simple and honest. How did that song come together?

Ed Balloon: It’s actually me talking about my music. How bad do you want it? That’s music. If you really want that then go get it, if people are saying you shouldn’t get it. Because music is something that I love, I love music. I always felt like I’ve had to fight for it. And I’m like why am I fighting for music? And I’m guessing that if you have to fight for music you really want it that bad. I also named it “Tick-Tock” because the tick in the beat reminded me of a timeline. I felt like I was hurting myself because I was trying to be on a certain timeline, like okay, I needed to be this way or need to be here. But that’s not the way it works. You just don’t know how life works. You’re doing the best that you can but that’s it. You don’t have control over life because when life hits life hits and when it does hit you have to keep fighting.

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