After taking a break from music in 2018 to work on developing his most authentic sound, Tafari Anthony's epic 2020 return was solidified with his latest EP, The Way You See Me.
Anthony released two of the tracks earlier this year, including "Centerfold" and "Live In The Dream," as well as "No Good," which he dropped with an accompanying video.
This EP means a lot to Anthony. Not only was he able to collaborate with one of his good friends, BLUE WILL, and write about his loving partner, but he also was able to find the musical style he'd been looking for and free his mind from the limitations he placed on himself, and the boxes he felt others placed him in.
"I just allowed myself to just be freer and do the things that I've always wanted to do," Anthony said.
PAPER sat down with Anthony to talk about the new EP, finding his sound and not letting anyone get in the way of his happiness.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I usually say that I'm a soul pop singer who kind of is trying to be as open and honest as I can in the music, and a bit accessible.
After two years of a break from music, what prompted your return earlier this year?
The work I was doing before was more on the indie side and there was a bit more rock and that kind of stuff. So after taking the break and really exploring different sounds and honestly just not being as afraid to explore pop because I feel like, for some reason, the genre "pop" (or just the name of it) freaked me out. I allowed myself to be freer and do the things that I've always wanted to do. By the time this year came around, I had like a good handful of songs that I was super proud of, super happy with; the team that I built ... kind of created that sound, I just felt like it was the right moment and everything was lining up to be like, "this is what I've always heard in my head" and it was actually happening in the music, which hadn't happened for a while.
What was the creative process like, especially working during a pandemic? How long did it take to finalize the EP?
This is a good question. At the start of 2020, I had the plans to actually do the EP later in the year. But then obviously once the pandemic hit I think everyone had to switch up their shit. I had already released "Centerfold" and "Live in the Dream," so I was just taking a moment. I wasn't sure if I was going to continue on because I felt like with the pandemic happening, I wasn't sure if it was still going to be the right time. That's why there was such a break between "Live in the Dream" and "No Good." In August, I decided if I don't finish off what I started I know I'll regret it. So I just decided to do the EP anyways and make it happen.
But as far as the creative process, a lot of it was me writing at home on my own. There's a couple songs on there that — I met some people in Edmonton (I met them online) when I was touring and ended up just saying "Would you guys mind if I came into the writing session?" And so that's actually where "Centerfold" came from was that first session. I was in a room with three people I had never met before and we came up with that song in one day, and I think all of us were equally shocked. That was honestly the first or second time I had actually co-written in that way because I'm so used to doing everything on my own. Not necessarily because I want to but I just think, for me, I'm always like "I just need to get done." If I have to rely on people's schedules, I get fed up. So a lot of it is me on my own and then I was trying to find producers to produce a song I had written on my own. And so, obviously I started looking at home first, people in Toronto.
I think after like a year of trying to find people to just hunker down and get the project done, it just wasn't happening. So I ended up finding the platform SoundBetter, which I think Spotify bought out now, but basically it's what I call almost a Facebook or a Craigslist for musicians and producers and stuff. So you can go on there, you can basically just send a proposal saying I need a producer to do a single or an EP or whatever. That's basically what I did. From doing that, I met two producers that actually worked on the album. So the first one was Alex Shenkman who did the song "When I Come To You." And then the other one was Alexander Flockhart who I've been collaborating with. He did the majority of the album actually, so he did I think three of the six songs on the album.
The EP obviously has a very loving and romantic energy throughout. Talk to me about why you chose the title The Way You See Me. Is it more abstract, or pointed at something or someone in your life? Walk me through the inspiration for the EP.
It was actually a double meaning for me. So number one is a line in the last song, "Feel The Love," and basically the line is, "I wish that I could see myself, the way that you see me." And so, "Feel The Love" was a song I wrote about my partner, which I usually never write about him, oddly enough. We've been together for like 15 years and I don't know why, it just doesn't happen. But the song is wholly dedicated towards him. And it just deals with the fact that I have pretty much always had body issues. I've had issues with feeling sexy or feeling attractive or feeling wanted. I know when people look at me, people think I'm attractive or whatever, like they can find something to love. But when I look into the mirror I can't see it for myself. So, that's where that whole concept came from.
When it was coming time to title that up. I was trying to think of how to sum the whole thing up. And I feel like even the whole process of getting this together and all the songs, to me, they are challenging the way people see me as well. So obviously being a gay Black man you're already put into a category: I should be making this kind of music and I have a soulful voice so I should be singing R&B and nothing else — that kind of stuff. This whole process, like when I think about the two years I took off to just trying to recenter, it was really all about me trying to push aside everyone else's views of me and present, how I actually want to present it.
I want to talk about your experience collaborating with BLUE WILL on the track "One For You." Your voices mesh so well together and she seems to have been the perfect addition to the track. How do you know each other, and why did you want her to be featured on this track?
BLUE WILL is a really, really great friend of mine. We met through Instagram, it was I think 2016. She had DMd me randomly and was like "I like what you're doing. I would like to work with you." We hadn't actually worked together I don't think as far as writing until the song happened. But we were good friends, like if she has a video shoot and she needs help, I'll go help her, if I have one to do she'll do the same. And so this song, I had written it at home on my own and then when I finished it I was like, I really like the song but I wasn't sure if it was something that Tafari Anthony could sell, but I was like "Oh, this sounds like BLUE WILL to me." So I sent it to her, she did like it, and then I think a couple months had passed and she never did anything with it. And again talking about just getting shit done I was like "Okay well I'm gonna do for myself." I started singing on it, and I said, "Listen, I still really think that you need to be on the song." So I got her to do the second verse. Because we've been so close together and I've done lots of backup vocals for her live shows, our styles really gel; we really complement each other in that way. The fact that we're such good friends [is] where the energy on the song comes from; you can't really fake that kind of chemistry.
Your track "No Good" was released less than a month ago with a music video that you starred in. Both the track and the video represent the complexity of relationships, and how people can get roped into pursuing them even when they're not good for us. How did you work to make the video reflect the track's meaning?
So the video I actually shot last year in London when I went for my birthday. I was in a city I had never been to, I didn't know anybody and I was trying to find a way to get this video across. Again, being raw and being more honest with this cycle of music, I knew that I didn't want to shy away from presenting the video exactly as the song depicted. Which I think in my previous work I would have made it more abstract and I also wouldn't have been starring in it, just detach myself a bit so it wasn't so close to home. What really helped in this one is that the actor that I was able to find through Instagram really committed to the role. As far as same-sex relationships go, I haven't really seen a lot of focus on situations that are a bit more like domestic violence. I don't know if it's because it's two men and two women, [but] people just brush it off like "Oh it's not a big deal," because on the outside, it looks like there's no power dynamic: "Oh, same sex, so they're kind of equals in that regard." But there's always gonna be a power dynamic in pretty much every relationship.
With this one specifically, it was a situation where it wasn't necessarily physically abusive, but it was very emotionally draining and taxing and I was just trying to communicate to this person that certain things that he wanted out of me, I couldn't provide and vice versa. The funny thing about relationships I find is that we often – not that we want the drama – but I think the drama in relationships can kind of add a bit of excitement. It's not great excitement, but it's something different than the mundane or "Oh we're just living life and everything is great." So I think when the drama is happening in these relationships, people don't recognize it because they're just saying "This is how it's supposed to go." But if there's no drama, there's no arguing then "Something's not happening right." I wholeheartedly believe that that is not true. What makes it really good is that you can have a disagreement, you can talk about it calmly or if you're heated you can come back down and you can both realize your wrongdoings and come together and work that out.
Toward the middle of the EP is your track "Centerfold," which takes a break from the more romantic tone of the EP and dives into the idea of someone who thinks they're the center of attention, to which you respond "Won't be revolving around you no more." Have you experienced this a lot in your life while pursuing your career: people trying to distract you from your goals to be the "centerfold" in your life?
100%. I don't know what it is about me — actually no I do know what it is. The thing about me is I really enjoy seeing people win and I have this thing where if I can help somebody achieve something, I want to be that person. So I find a lot of times, it's those kind "need me" [personalities] that I'm attracted to. But what happens is the person in that relationship is replaced. If it's just always that, like they really just live their life like "I'm the shit, what I'm doing is all that matters," you can't really get anywhere past that. For me, it's a conscious thing I have to be aware of now because I definitely realized that I do attract that personality.
Do you have a favorite track off of the EP? If so, why?
Oh my god, this is a hard question. I'm gonna stick with "Feel The Love," the last track on the album. I'm gonna say it's my favorite because one, it was the first actual co-write I did for the album and two, I think in that session this was probably the first moment where I really really felt like what I was saying in the song was completely honest and I wasn't trying to shy away from anything. I haven't very much talked about the fact that I have these body issues or that I can't see myself as attractive and these kind of things. So by saying those words in the song to me was super empowering and liberating, and even to this day when I perform it, just singing the words, my body has this crazy reaction to it. It's almost like a reminder to myself, "Yes, you have these feelings but you have to realize that's not true." And so it's just a daily reminder for me.
While creating this EP, did you learn anything about yourself or relationships in general along the way? Or was it more of an emotional catharsis to create by encompassing what you have learned along the way?
I'm gonna say it's probably a bit of both. Usually when I'm writing the songs it's like something has happened and I'm just writing it as my way of almost processing the situation. So there's that aspect to it. But what happens is, I'll write it, and then I'll sit on it for a couple of months, and then I go back to and listen to it again; it's almost like what I've written has kind of morphed into a new situation. I kind of end up finding new meaning in the songs and it then makes me realize new things about myself. And so I think, in doing the EP, and selecting these songs specifically for it, I think from what I learned about myself is I really actually do enjoy collaborating for one, and I noticed that my perspective of like trying to just get everything done myself — I'm not sure exactly where it comes from — but I find that it can be detrimental. I have this thing in me where I almost feel like a letdown if I have to ask for help. I know people do feel that I'm sure but yeah. I had to really own up to the fact that it's okay to ask for help, and it's okay to not be able to do everything.
What do you hope listeners get out of The Way You See Me, in terms of their own emotions and their impression of you as an artist?
I hope that people listening to this will obviously have a good time listening to it for one. Two, I hope that the stories are relatable. Because I think that was my main goal with this: to actually just be super honest in what I was saying, and in hopes of by doing that, the honesty would translate into people being like, "I really relate to this," or "I've gone through a similar situation and this is speaking the words that I could never really find to describe it." As far as me as an artist, I'm very big on trying to incorporate all the different genres and styles I like because I'm into so many different styles of music that it can be challenging to kind of fuse those influences into a cohesive sound. I hope that comes across as cohesive on the EP and that people coming to listen to it, or listen to the rest of my catalogue, [will think] it all makes sense and they can get different moods and different vibes and whatever they're feeling I can hopefully offer that somehow.
Stream The Way You See Me, below.
Photography: Daniel Lastres