“You’ve Got to Get to Know Yourself”: An Interview with Henry Canyons

Joel Biswas speaks with Henry Canyons about his new LP, 'Cool Side of the Pillow,' living in France, and politics in his music.
By    April 16, 2018

Since his first serious emergence as a rapper at SXSW in 2013, Henry Canyons’ dedication to his craft has been equal parts work and “working through this.” His music is the sound of youthful hunger for old truths, dense in its flow of ideas and earnest in its delivery. He’s got an appealingly warm baritone and nimble flow that’s intimately confessional one moment and powerfully declaiming the next.

As a Jewish New York kid who grew up playing jazz saxophone and freestyling in Brooklyn cyphers, he soaked up the artistic inclinations of his Basque French mother and grandmother before moving to LA. There, the themes of displacement and wanderlust began developing in his music. His first album, Canyonlands, was a meditation on alienation in LA, while his most recent EP, La Cote West was a conscious sojourn into a place at once familiar and strange thanks to an artist residency in his ancestral French Basque country. While the imprint of these settings on each project is unmistakable, his eclectic roster of production partners inevitably hails from wherever he isn’t—whether it’s Austin’s Boombaptist, KR Meteor of Paris, or Canada’s reigning MPC champ, Fresh Kils. It’s an unusual process of exchanging beats, samples, and verses at a distance without sacrificing understanding.

In conversation, Canyons is as earnest and loquacious as his rhymes—a thoughtful observer of his own approach, foibles, and influences. If the origin of any one song remains opaque, the narrative arc of his work is emerging. It’s the story of reconciling one’s current experience and surroundings with a deeper sense of self. It’s about navigating a physical environment and a psychic landscape, expanding and returning to your roots. It’s about being comfortable in a space that’s both concrete and ephemeral and the quiet victory of finding the pocket—in music as in life. — Joel Biswas


You have collaborators all over the US and you seem to do a lot of collaboration remotely. How does that work?


Henry Canyons: To be honest, that has been the majority of what I’ve been doing for the last couple years. It was a result of me being eager to find beats and people. The people came a little later—you get to know them afterwards. It starts off reading blogs, finding a dope beat tape, checking it out, shooting a line like, “Yo, I’m a fan I think we could make some dope shit together,” send them something that I think they could vibe with that they could see us collaboratively together on. That’s what happened with KR Meteor who produced all of Canyonlands. He’s a French dude based in Paris. I read about him online and I was like, “Damn, he’s right up my alley production-wise”—lot of jazz loops, kind of in the boom-bap tradition but a little more, I don’t know—funkier flips.

Bones is a little more personal story. Bones is my baby-brother’s best friend. And Bones moved into the neighborhood when he was like 6—I mean, our backyards were connected. So, my brother and him became best friends and I became his surrogate older brother in many senses and that’s family as far as I am concerned. So when everyone was making music, he just got what I was doing and it worked. He does a lot of different things on his own but he understood my ear and what I’m looking for, the sound that I’m trying to open up to—we talk all the time. He mixed Canyonlands and we’ve been working on Cool Side for a while. After a few joints he understood what my voice was not only sonically but aesthetically in terms of what I was going for.

I grew up in Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill. Our families are still in those houses. The roots are all still there and I grew up playing music, my brother grew up playing music, Bones grew up playing music—they had a group thing going on for a while. I always had an idea of the chops, flips and samples that I like and he’s really, really savvy with Machine and Logic and getting what it is that I think I want and giving his own flavor to it. That’s how a lot of Cool Side started. He’d send me a beat, I’d send him a sample, he’d flip it and send it back and then we would go back and forth.

I was finishing up Canyonlands and I just wanted to stay busy and working on something new because releasing an album is stressful so having that outlet on the side. It was just one song at a time, trying to have a good time and make fun music. Canyonlands was a little heavier, more personal—LA is a tough place to get acclimated to, to learn the rhythm, the code of ethics and communication…Just what it’s like to live here. So this was me basically putting that into an album. By the time it came out, it was like a big personal testament and I was ready just make fun, groovy, funky songs.

That’s what the first half of Cool Side is. On vinyl, side A is the EP we had done and Side B is what we put together afterwards. Putting those songs together, it all revolved around the production and the songs came later—us collaborating, picking the samples, establishing the vibe.


What has your time in LA brought to your aesthetic versus your deep roots in NYC?


Henry Canyons: It calmed me down a bit, getting to know my voice better. This place is such a music town. New York is too but there are session musicians everywhere…the industry, the pulse of it is just very strong here. Everyone is here for music or entertainment. You hear about it and it’s just when you have that, everyone is practicing, working. For me, it was a just a place to get to work and learn what it is that I think is dope—for me. What is easy for me, what is hard for me, how to strengthen my weaknesses and bring a ranges of styles and flows and vocal tones, harmonizing and shit like that…

When I moved out here I was heavy into the indie New York rap culture. I still am, but it rubbed off on me way more then. I was huge into Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, Aesop Rock, a lot of KRS and Nas, Billy Woods has always been a huge influence on me and just like, a little more obscure beat selection…That’s what I came out here with.

As time passed, it was about combining that element with something a little more—I don’t like using words like accessible or digestible—but just a little groovier. A lot of my shit is just soul, jazz, funk samples, just super simple. The loops are minimalist. Bones sprinkles things in there and accents certain things but for the most part, I just hear something. As time goes on I know what I like more…The sound of what people are doing out here, the tradition of West Coast hip hop, the sound that’s way more synthy, vibey shit out here—yeah, for me it was just figuring that out.


LA feels pretty vibrant musically at the moment. What is New York’s place in rap right now?


Henry Canyons: New York will always be the Mecca of hip hop. The history is still there. I think it still reflects on the culture. I don’t have my finger on the pulse because I’m not there but I have it through the people I know, like Premrock. There are a lot of awesome people doing awesome shit on the indie side of things—a lot of what Backwoodz Music and their affiliates are doing… Woods and Elucid as Arm and Hammer, Willie Green, Denmark Vesey, Quelle Chris…I’ve been a huge fan for Homeboy Sandman for a long time who is like a veteran figure, Karma Kids who I am a huge fan of.

I don’t listen to the major radio stations, rap playlists and all that so a lot of that shit goes over my head to be honest. I still identify with being from New York, personally and artistically. I think that is a huge part of what I’m putting together.


Let’s talk about jazz. It’s clearly a big part of your aesthetic and you trained a sax player.


Henry Canyons: I grew up playing saxophone from like fifth grade through college until I was twenty-two. My saxophone teacher and my high school band teacher were the two guys that convinced me that music was the outlet for me. Learning those charts from the inside out, you get a very different perspective on what the music is and how it’s supposed to be played and more than anything, it’s all rhythm. My brother was a bass player so he grew up playing a mean upright bass. So the rhythm section was always crazy—super tight, super locked in. It was learning a language and vocabulary of music that is definitely still with me and maybe not in the same application but in spirit, for sure. And specifically in improvisation.

That’s how I started rapping—freestyling… Exercising your mind to be able to uphold a conversation or dialogue on the fly and expanding your capacity to do so, back to rhythm and groove and where you find your pockets. When I got to college, I realized that freestyling is awesome but I want to learn how to write songs, to put shit down. This is a multifaceted craft…I used to be able to rap forever. Time is a little different now—I don’t smoke anymore and when I work I want to put something down so I have something to walk away with.


In jazz, there are standards, the work, and the vocal interpreter. In rap there are also great songwriters and vocal interpreters—like Snoop or Guru—who just have an indelible voice. Listening to your last three releases, I get a sense that beyond the writing, you’re exploring your voice as an instrument.


Henry Canyons: I think Canyonlands was the beginning of that. And it comes back to being in LA, learning what my voice was naturally and learning what beats fit me and made me feel more comfortable. Any kind of art involves all of this critical thinking and slight doubt around what works and what doesn’t. You’ve got to get to know yourself—trusting your gut and trusting your ear. Vocally, I used to be way more aggressive. Elements of my performance are still like that—very high energy—but I didn’t know why I didn’t sound the way I wanted to on a record.

It was like, “Yo, you don’t need to do so much.” Because on record, you can write and spit your shit a thousand times but the first time you press record it doesn’t come out anything like the way you want it to. The process, it’s just kind of slowing it down…Bones and I call it the process of getting that “cherry tone”—more in the mid-lows, not too compressed, pretty dry and kind of just focusing on single takes. Not doing a lot of dubs, layers…For the most part these songs are just a vocal. It goes back to what you were talking about—Snoop and Guru—those are single takes, their voices are so buttery—you don’t have to do very much because their voices are really honed, trained instruments and they just let that breathe and speak for itself.

When I was writing Canyonlands, it was soon after Good Kid, M.A.A.D City dropped. And what Kendrick does, the range of vocal tones that he has but how he uses both in tandem in his song writing. One of the things that is so genius about his writing is his ability to create sections of songs that aren’t necessarily hooks that are so memorable and bring the song to a whole new level—themes and refrains and motifs and things that revolve and come back.

The craziest shit was when I saw him for the first time live at SXSW. You have ten, fifteen thousand people spitting his verses when the DJ hits the fader—and he is a super technical rapper. This is not easy shit to spit back and that is amazing. It opened my mind…Now we are talking about a standard—to what you are referencing—where elements of the song reinforce the whole arc of the song even if it’s not the hook.


Canyonlands was a story about displacement. I wanted to contrast that moment with a different kind of displacement when you chose to go to France and work. The way you talk about LA, one might think you didn’t go there by choice?


Henry Canyons: The real choice was to decide to stay. It took me two years to even begin to like it. The range of possibilities between New York and LA are very similar—it’s just that the environment, the display and the application of it all is just night and day. People are different—socially, culturally. Communicating and navigating your way through getting to know the city and yourself takes time. New York has a lot of layers to it but for the most part everything is on the surface. You go to New York and you know right away if you love it or you hate it. Here, it takes time.


It’s easy to see La Cote West and Cool Side as companion pieces. The genesis is more complex. What did you get out of that artist residency in France?


Henry Canyons: When I went to France, my mother’s French so I was familiar with that part of France but I never really lived there. The women who ran the artist residency are amazing and just get it. They’re artists themselves. There were no constraints, they just wanted me to do something. So that was really freeing but also disorienting at the same time because I want to succeed and do something that I’m proud of but I don’t really know what the expectations are. I don’t think they did either—I was the first musician they had ever had.

I come from a family of artists. My mother and grandmother were artists and everyone’s process and pace are different. All I had to do every day was wake up and work. I had a very personal space—huge and beautifully lit with tons of sunlight. The directors live up top and I was in this studio space that was massive. I brought all my gear out and set up a make-shift booth with those you know, Japanese room partitions and a bunch of blankets and insulation and just set up in the corner.

I literally would just wake up, read, run, and write and I would do that every day. Getting in the routine of it and figuring out what to write about next was all part of the process. I didn’t really know it was going to be a project until after I wrote four songs and though they could work together. Their only prerequisite was that your experience there reflect your experience in that part of France which is a particular one—it’s the Basque country, coastal, a lot of surf culture, outdoors—it’s rural and isolated. It’s the country.

So when I started to show them the songs, they understood what I was going through. I was ready for a removal from LA. It was time for me to take a breath. Things were stacking up on top of me in terms of some personal things and work and I was ready to get out. It was a complete blessing.


Tell me about the title Cool Side of the Pillow.


Henry Canyons: It just came together. I was walking to work when I came up with it. Bones and I had most of the songs but the title song hadn’t been written yet. I wrote that after I decided that this would be the name of the project. It was just a vibe, an energy—a mood. I wanted it to be a mood piece where this is a little lighter sonically and groovier than Canyonlands which hits a little harder. This is funkier rhythmically. It’s easier to cruise to.

It also had to do with Stuart Scott the ESPN Sportscenter broadcaster, after his death. Our generation and my friends grew up with that dude saying “cooler than the other side of the pillow”. He would say that when someone would do some crazy move, some crazy shit, when he was doing the play-by-play highlights. In the back of my mind, I was always like, “What a dope analogy.” So that and living in LA—it’s hot as hell here and I didn’t have AC for a long time…it’s a little bit I don’t know… you’re not starting over, you’re refreshing—you’re giving yourself a fresh start or calming things down and starting from another base.

That’s the mood I wanted to the record to have. It didn’t start out that way. Bones and I were just super-excited to be making music. He gets my ear. I’ve sent samples to other people and you never know what they are going to hear—and whether it’s that same flip or groove that calls me in particular. He gets it. There is a super-open dialogue. So I told him that I had a title for the project which could also be a dope name for a group—the “Cool Side of the Pillow” and he was like, “That’s dope.” So it’s possible that “Cool Side” could be a thing. But it’s the record as it stands right now.


It’s impossible not to notice a certain political bent to things. The introductory sample talks about “turning poison into medicine”—none of your other work comes out and says that. There are some big themes on there, particularly on that B Side.


Henry Canyons: Art suggests what you should think. It can’t tell you but it can suggest. That sample is Herbie Hancock talking about Miles. It’s not only about music, it’s about life. What worked [about that sample] is that correlation between a musical journey which is a smaller piece of the bigger puzzle…Learning how to live in the world and be as positive and as much of a contributor as you can be in every way.

The second-half [of the album] was created directly after the residency in October 2016. I was in a personal space reconciling a relationship in LA that had come to an end and was just dealing with all the things involved in that. I was in the middle of nowhere at [my grandmother’s home in France] and it was like, “Yo, you just need to work your way through this.” And of course, there was the news and keeping up with what was going on [politically in the US]. There are a few references on there to what was going on but one in particular that I felt really good about which is called “To the Dreamers” which kind of just happened. It was after he was elected but before he took office.

I have a particular memory of this one. It was a super-late night and I was in my grandmother’s studio in France. She is a painter. I was in this back area where she stores all her canvases and shit. She works there in the morning and I’m more of a night-owl. I start in the early afternoon when she finishes and it is in the middle of nowhere and I can basically bang music for as loud as I possibly want until as late as I want. I had this beat for a while. It was one of these beats we had that Bones sent me when we seriously started thinking about making an album.

When I first heard it, I was like, “This a really dope beat but I don’t see myself rhyming to this”. But in putting it aside and coming back to it, I found it. I was in this space and it had been ten years since my grandfather had passed, a man who always talked about following your dreams. And not knowing what was gonna happen after he was elected but knowing that shit was gonna happen. I mean, we still don’t have a single clue of what he is capable of. So that reinforced the medicine element of it.

When I started turning that phrase and working it out, he was talking about the Muslim ban already…Things were gonna come to a head so I wrote it in the context of writing a letter to multi-faceted audience. It could be someone in a super-secure place who just wants to live their dream or someone fighting for freedom…I don’t want to project, but everyone has something that they want to grasp. When I finished it, Bones and I recorded it together in New York and that doesn’t normally happen. I mean there’s no hook or anything, it’s just like a train of thought—it just clicked.