NoMBe's dreamy new, self-produced album, CHROMATOPIA, is centered on a core concept that defines you: the idea that love is a spectrum. To this end, it's as colorful as it is immersed in emotion and, according to a statement about its creation, this was exactly the point.
"CHROMATOPIA was originally the title of a book on color theory my creative director, Bel Downie, found," NoMBe says. "The album and its titles have many layers and its core concept is that 'love is a spectrum.' It means that relationship status, sexual orientation or gender fall onto a spectrum that is open to interpretation and ever-changing. You get to decide how you want your relationship to be. The color spectrum plays a huge role in showcasing that visually."
This sophomore album cements NoMBe's place as one of pop's most intriguing new faces after spending the last five years establishing his space in the industry. Following a viral 2015 single, "California Girls," NoMBe, the godson of legendary singer Chaka Khan, went on to release his critically-acclaimed debut album, They Might've Even Loved Me, in 2018. He's amassed over 300 million streams so far as the world continues to latch onto his dreamy sound.
NoMBe sat down with PAPER to explore CHROMATOPIA, track by track. This includes the previously released singles "Boy's Don't Cry," "Paint California" and "Weirdo." It's all here and NoMBe goes in depth, so you know exactly what was going through his mind as he created this body work.
"Chromatopia A" was one of the first songs that actually created the theme for the record and I remember writing it with Big Data, who sat at my piano and just started playing those chords. After some time, I started playing the melody — the lead line on top of it — and then I started reproducing it digitally using synthesizers. We decided to still make another version that's just piano, which became "Chromatopia B," and so that theme really summed up a lot of what I was feeling and it's why it's recurring on the album in "Chromatopia C."
I'm super excited with how it turned out and that synth feel was very inspired by '80s, modular sounds and, of course, classical music. It has a very Baroque Boch-style feel, which was very popular in Japan among their composers and video game composers, and it's also a slight homage to the first synthesized record ever, Switched-On-Bach, which was all Bach songs done by synthesizers. It's a subtle nod to that record, as well as the early days of Molk and it's, I think, the perfect theme to set off the record.
"Something To Hold Onto"
"Something To Hold Onto" literally came out of "Chromatopia A" and it was actually my dad who pointed out that a production piece I had coming in after felt like it was a little too busy, so he gave me a reference of Pink Floyd and said, "What if it was more dreamy and acoustic guitar and it just comes in right away?" So I wrote "Something To Hold Onto" based on that suggestion by my dad that "Chromatopia A" should lead into something a bit softer. In a sense, it was kind of scoring the record where I knew the way to record was supposed to flow. Lyrically, the song is about crash landing — an astronaut coming back into the atmosphere. That, of course, is a metaphor; it's really about falling in love, but also feeling like you're going to burn up and feel like it's too hard to handle — like you're crash landing this relationship in a sense. That's where the line, "I'm free falling for you/ give me something to hold on to," comes from.
Sonically, it was very inspired by Pink Floyd and Elton John. There are some subtle references to Elton John in there; one of the lyrics is, "Elton John on my playlist with Flacco," meaning that as I'm crash landing I'm listening to "Rocket Man" and also A$AP Rocky, whose nickname is Flacco. I try to keep it a little cheeky in my lyrics here and there, but I'm very proud of this song in particular — especially in the end when it breaks off and gets a little crazy. That was one of the first songs that I produced on the animal farm in the valley in Los Angeles.
"Weirdo" is a really interesting song because it wasn't supposed to be on the album. I wrote it in France at an ASCAP writing camp in 2019 and it was actually written as a session. I wrote it with Sofia Hoops and Chris DeStefano, who are both very successful writers in their own right — more in the K-pop and country space. Between the three of us, we found this really interesting point where I brought a little bit of the weird and more introspective lyrics, and they made sure that we stayed on topic and have a song that actually upholds in a more commercial space. The song is about embracing the quirks of someone that you love; it was a conversation that we had, and I told them about my relationship and I just loved the fact that she was weird and quirky, and I didn't love her in spite of that but actually because of that. Sofia wanted to write a song about being a weirdo and we were on the same page. One thing led to another and we had this line, "Because you're a weirdo and I wouldn't have it any other way," so the song became one of the main singles and I was super proud to get so much love. Even Elton John talked about it, which was a huge moment for me. I'm such a big Elton John fan. Still to this day, I feel like the song has been out for year now, but it's one of the definite singles with stronger lyrics on the album.
The song is definitely inspired by Tame Impala, Frank Ocean, and I wanted it to feel indie and gritty. At one point we were having an argument about whether this should be more poppy; we thought maybe this is a song we could pitch to Ariana Grande and I was pretty firm that if it was going to be my song. We needed to make it feel more alt rock, gritty and intense, and I'm glad that it ended up the way the way it is now. I love how Chris definitely produced so much of it and the raw skeleton of it was all his production. I then took and put a little bit of my sound on there.
"Prototype" is one of my favorite songs on the album, if not my favorite. I had the production for a long time. I was really going for this Daft Punk-y feel, and wanted something more upbeat and dancey than what my listeners were used to. It really came together, and my buddy Rush Davis came over and we started writing and I was in this place where I told him I wanted to write this robot record. At the same time I was having all these doubts about my relationship. Eventually, we settled on this word, "Prototype," and this idea like, "Hey, I can be a better version, there's more to me. I'm not ready and I'm basically still in beta stage," and I love that concept. When we wrote that hook together that line, "I can be a better version if you like, because as far as I'm concerned, you've only met the prototype," really sums up how I felt at that time. On the production, I was just going nuts and trying things like funky breaks and using vocoders. That vocoder voice in a bridge is actually Rush Davis' voice — that's actually not me singing — but he wrote the bridge and he was like, "Hey, I got something," and I recorded him, processed it, played the solo and did quite a few stacks, had a couple of female singers come in. It's a record I'm very proud of and I think it's a feel good song that a lot of people can enjoy.
"Heels" was originally a song by the artist Artokoro, who's a good friend of mine. He's also a creative director, brilliant visual artist and he was starting his music career. He asked me for feedback and to produce some of the songs, "Heels" being one of them. Somewhere along the lines of me producing and adding my touch to it, he fell out of out of love with it. He started to feel like it sounded too poppy and he almost was going to shelve the song. I told him, "Hey, this is such a great hook, it really fits what I'm feeling and if you're open to it, I'd love to sing it. I would just have to change a few lyrics, maybe write the verses." I'm so glad that he was open to it and he is one of my best friends, so collaborating in that way really meant a lot to me. I can't take credit for writing the hook, that was all him, but I love how it has this '80s feel to it. It went through quite a bit of iterations producing and there were several versions of it. Ultimately, the guitars in the post hook, as well as the synth sounds in the intro give it this really distinct retro feel that I love. It's sort of reminiscent of 1975, The Police, Sting and a lot of lot of funky records that I really love. I think it's an awesome song.
"Chromatopia B" is the main theme of the record. It's the classical version, which I knew once we had "Chromatopia A" that it had to be on the album as just a piano version. It's sort of the bare bones, minimum expression of an arrangement. There is a lot of homage to classical music on the on the album, although it is very subtle. It's definitely an electronic alternative record, but growing up playing piano and doing recitals and playing Bach, Mozart and Chopin, I always wanted to showcase that side and using piano was actually a way to set it apart from the last album, which was very rock heavy. "Chromatopia B" is the summary of what I felt emotionally making this record. It reminds me of the score to some Japanese soap operas. I like to call it "happy sad," and reminds me of early anime and a lot of things I grew up on — not just because I played recitals as a kid, but because I was very influenced by the sound of Japanese scores and video games.
"Boys Don’t Cry"
I was very inspired by the production of Electric Guest, Daft Punk, as well as Queen. I started on the plane traveling to Japan and had a layover in Hawaii. I had a few hours in the hotel and started this beat on laptop keys. I didn't have proper keyboards, so I had to type on the actual keys on my laptop. It wasn't until months later that I actually wrote the song and the words, "Boys don't cry," came out. To me, the song is about keeping a cool head in times of crisis. Literally, it is about the engine's going out to your spaceship and so you're all alone, you're an astronaut, you're by yourself, you're out in space and you have to keep a cool head. It's more about my relationship and I envisioned basically seeing my significant other with someone else and trying to be tough. Of course, in a grander sense that could be interpreted as a broad statement on masculinity and how we view boys and this idea of what toughness is. What does it mean to be masculine? What does it mean to be strong? A larger mission that I have with this album is to change those ideals and redefine what strength can mean and what gender norms are, so that song has a lot in it. It's very dense, lyrically, in terms of meaning, but at the end of the day it's a feel-good dance record. I'm very stoked how it turned out; even the horns in the end, which my friend Ariel Shrum came in on, who is an incredible saxophone player.
"To the Moon"
This is one of the songs that sonically leans more towards the last record. It has that rock crossover feel — sort of like MGMT and Foster The People — and I immediately fell in love with the chords and I wanted it to feel big. I remember listening to MGMT and how their lead lines were so catchy. When I was writing the hook, that line, "Let me take you to the moon, baby, baby/ I got a table just for two," came out and the rest of the song wrote itself. It's about taking someone on a date on the moon and so there is a lot of reference to space there, especially with some of the processing of the vocals and this kind of atmospheric sound design. But it is a very in-your-face rock song at the core of it and that's something that I love. It's is a banger, I would say, and I don't use that word a lot. It's less intimate and introspective.
"This Is Not A Love Song"
"This Is Not A Love Song" is probably tied for my favorite song this album. It's very direct and personal. It's sort of this retrospective breakup song, imagining me being broken up and not being able to cope. I painted this image of me basically laying on the floor of my apartment and going through one bottle of liquor after the other, and the floor is covered in liquor and I drank myself to death and the song's told from the perspective of me basically having died. It's a gross exaggeration of that image I paint, but it's a really interesting song.
The sound design started as a collaboration with an artist named Mikey Mike. Ten minutes into coming up with the chords, he fell asleep and I finished the whole song with him sleeping there. It's a unique progression; it taps into a lot of the sonic things that are happening on the record, from synths to lo-fi guitars. It's a more falsetto song and is very difficult for me to sing as a more vulnerable part of my vocal, but maybe that's why I love it so much. The song itself has a lot of irony; it's a lot of sarcasm and exaggeration and it has that whimsical melancholy. It also has a lot of '80s references with the production. The drums sort of have the drum machine feel, and the song also features strings by a musician and good friend of mine, Bianca Mcclure.
This was the first song that we all knew was going to be a single. I wrote it with Kyle Morman, an incredible producer out of Los Angeles, and Cam Alexander, also an incredible writer and artist in his own right. I remember writing and working on it and us being so excited about the chords and the melodies. For the longest, the lead line was, "Pancakes in the morning." Eventually I told them, "Hey, guys, I can't sing about pancakes, it's just not my thing! Let's say like something like, 'Paint California.' Let's make it about promising a girl the world and basically saying, 'I'll paint California for you.'" In a very personal sense, it's about customizing our relationship. I've been in an open relationship for many years and that song is sort of an ode to this idea that you are free to have the relationship that you want; you just you have to communicate. So the song celebrates life, it celebrates love, it celebrates wanting to impress and wanting to give everything to a significant other.
"Chromatopia C" is another interesting one that I anticipated sounding like a soap opera. I just realized I needed one more song; I wasn't comfortable with it being 13 songs, just some of those superstitions. I thought, What if we create another score for another promo piece we were working on? Initially, it was going to only be for that piece and then we were thinking, Hey, this is cool, and I decided to add it to the actual album.
"Water Into Wine"
I had the melody idea as I was falling asleep one night, and so I pulled out my phone and started thinking, What does this mean? What could these lyrics be? I must have written down like 100 lyrics that sounded like, "Baby, can you turn my water into wine?" When I landed on those lyrics, that concept was so interesting to me: this idea that you can cry so much that it becomes an ocean you drown into. Could you take this water and make it a celebration? It's obviously a religious reference and saying, "Can you take my tears and turn them into something positive?" So the rest of the song is more a visual description of what it's like to drown. It is definitely about sadness and not wanting to lose someone in a breakup. With the production, it just sounded so weird. I actually pitched down a whole song, and then sang it three steps lower and then pitched the whole song up. That's where the intro vocal comes from, why it's so slightly sped up. Then, of course, on the production, it's very inspired by Elton John and everything from "Yellow Brick Road" to "Rocket Man" and those big ballads. There is a bit of an electronic influence; it gets a little crazy towards the end, even almost like a Flume record. It's a completely non-genre specific song; it's all over the place, and I like the lyrics and how it feels very moody.
"Think About You"
"Think About You" was a song that started as this '80s beat. I have this keyboard, this Vox Continental, which had all these cool sounds. I started playing over the drums and coming up with the chords and just having fun with the production. Eventually I was just like, "Let me make this a very straightforward love song." My dad gave me a nudge when he heard the chords and what I was writing. He was like, "This is a song that should be a moment; you come out and you sit on a piano and don't overcomplicate the lyrics. Make it something that people can sing and relate to." So I tried my best at making it that and, ultimately, it breaks out into this piano jam that also has a slight '60s, '70s feel. It's another song that I think will grow on people. It's not the obvious single, but when I was writing it I was like, "This is going to be good."
"Happy Birthday, Frank"
The final song, "Happy Birthday, Frank," is very dense. It jumps between genres a lot. It's obviously classical on the surface, has a lot of fourths and theseclassic Baroque movements, but then it breaks into rock and roll, bluesy or even jazzy moments. And it's another homage to Japanese composing and how they tend to live in between jazz and classical a lot of times. It's a very long song; I've actually worked on his song for many, many years. I've always had bits and pieces and when I'd get some time, write a little more. I've been working on a song for five or six years. Eventually, I was hired to play piano at Frank Ocean's birthday; his 30th and he needed a pianist. We knew each other from way back when and I was really happy to accept; playing his birthday was a huge honor. I wanted the song to be done for his birthday. I never explicitly said it to him, but I needed that as a deadline. That's why I titled it "Happy Birthday, Frank," because that was ultimately why I ended up completing the song. I think it's a good exclamation mark on the record, and ties in so many of the album's themes.
Photo courtesy of Jose Franco