Get to know the electro-funk group Blak Emoji. Fronted by singer-songwriter Kelsey Warren and joined by musicians Bryan Percivall (bass, synths), Max Tholenaar-Maples (drums) and Sylvana Joyce (keyboards), the New York City outfit are hypnotic and penetrating as they navigate electronica, funkadelic and soul, sticky and web-like.
The band’s current single “Love Lust Above” is an intoxicating haze of late-night romance and anchors their forthcoming new album, KUMI, out this Friday, February 22.
Listen to “Lust Love Above” now on Spotify.
Kelsey has been around the block, having fronted a long-running and successful rock band based on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But Blak Emoji, the current face of Kelsey Warren, is something entirely different and new — both for Warren himself and for the listener weary of monotonous music trends.
Warren is capable of plenty: He studied jazz guitar, classical voice and music theory at the University of Miami, and has played and sung in every possible context, as leader, sideman and hired gun around New York City. Blak Emoji is where he puts it all together for himself, mixing his tendencies as a brainy, substantive and complex writer with a fixation on synth sounds. Blak Emoji songs are rarely simple and compact, but neither are they droning and repetitive like so much contemporary electronic music.
One might fit in at the club; another as a morning pump-up song in your earbuds on the way to work or class; another as a bedroom jam; but as a rule, they pack complexity without forcing it. The common denominator is Warren’s effortless vocals, which might closest recall Seal. Whether over electro-groove inspired dance music or a sweet, heart-torn ballad, Warren’s smooth voice makes every track a captivating experience.
Joined by bass and synth player Bryan Percivall, drummer Max Tholenaar-Maples and keyboardist Sylvana Joyce, Warren (a lifelong Prince freak) has made Blak Emoji his focus as a musician, tying together his longtime interest in alt-rock (think Nine Inch Nails, Bjork) with a more recently kindled romance with modern and retro dance beats and everything in between (Phantogram, Little Dragon, Childish Gambino).
Blak Emoji, which Warren began in late 2015, released its debut EP, INTRO, in January 2017. Two singles, “Poison To Medicine” and “Velvet Ropes & Dive Bars” were licensed in the ABC television show Quantico the same year.
Learn more about Blak Emoji in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! What is on tap for the rest of your day?
Thank you! Leaving for Holland in a few days so laying low at home today.
The musical goal is to get Blak Emoji into millions of ears. The new album, ‘KUMI,’ finally drops this month, which I’m excited about, of course. There’s also a new finished EP called ‘TANO’ that’s only available for now to our core fans. I just want to keep putting out as much quality music possible with Blak Emoji and other artists. As far as 2018, I think the band has become a stronger and tighter sounding live unit. It’s not so much “the Kelsey show” anymore. Our keytar player Sylvana Joyce is a friggin’ powerhouse. She’ll grab the baton, which allows me to step back and enjoy the moment more. Our drummer/programmer Max is incredible with shaping ideas and sounds to really make the performance of a song shine. Bryan is like the dissector making sure intricate or simple parts make sense and/or groove so to speak. Everyone is badass and holds their own torch. We compliment each other sonically without getting in the way of a song. Hmm, I don’t do resolutions but I definitely do lists.
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be in this group together? Was it hard to think of a name that you could agree on?
That moment was during our first live show. Since this was a studio project with no expectations, I was hoping that by the time it became a live thing, it would translate well and become a fun entity on its own. It took a few players to get there but now it’s super solid. I remember a sigh of relief and happiness after that first show 2016. We only had two rehearsals. The name just came out of nowhere during a conversation. There weren’t many black emojis on our phone at that time.
How do you think your hometowns have influenced the sound and how you all carry yourselves in this group?
I like to say we’re a NYC band for everywhere. It comes out in the sound and lyric inspiration, the way we look. It’s more of a subconscious thing. However, some things we do don’t fall into that NYC cool category or whatever. We’re NY and proud but want to make music for everywhere, not just our surroundings. That’s NYC in a nutshell though. Most people in NYC are from all over the world which keeps things fresh and versatile.
How has your various musical backgrounds helped shape the sound of this band?
Blak Emoji embraces so many genres but has a consistent sound. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s an electronic based pop thing but we all listen to many musical genres and are pretty versed on various instruments. Some of us studied jazz for years, some classical, played in rock bands, orchestras, choirs etc… And we like to dance! We embrace dance music fully.
How do you think that you have grown as a band since forming? What has remained the same?
Practicing and getting comfortable with each other as players and people. I’m not sure what’s the same except for a few songs in the sets. It’s like we’ve achieved a comfortable groove enough to keep evolving.
Let’s talk about your upcoming full-length album, “KUMI.” What was it like recording this collection? What was it like hearing it all for the first time played back to you? Did anything surprise you about the overall process?
I had so much fun recording this album but took a year to get it where I wanted. Definitely fun but it wasn’t easy. Narrowing it down to 10 songs I felt fit the album was a challenge. Most of my past recordings were in big studios with several people but this time I isolated myself and had fun with it. I recorded 90% of it on my MacBook Pro myself at home or in a diner, on the subway, at the job I had (I can confess that now I guess.) Like I was isolated but not just in my bedroom. It was an adventure learning things, unlearning things and having the freedom to do whatever whenever. That’s pretty liberating. When I listened to it when it was done, I was pretty proud. I’m happy with the songs and the album as a whole. Of course this is after tweaking it for so long!
What was the inspiration for your current single “Love Lust Above”? How do you think this song prepares listeners for the rest of your album?
That song is an ode to a lover and pleasing that person. It was written about my girlfriend at the time, she’s the inspiration. It’s a tongue in cheek sexy pop song. There’s a theme of love and enjoying life throughout the album. It begins with lust then goes through the trials of love and having fun in life. Then it touches on life’s obstacles, dealing with toxic people and environments, relationship issues, coping with depression, and then back to love being the final closer of the album. KUMI is about enjoying life and realizing that love is still a strong force that keeps it all together.
While it’s difficult, can you talk about the inspiration behind a couple other songs on the album?
Several songs on the album were written about that same person. “The Perfect Catch” is one of those, straight up love letter song to the fullest. “Rats” is about dealing with soul suckers on a daily basis and trying to cope. I was working at a mentally draining place at the time so the song kind of wrote itself lol. “Another Club Night” and “Velvet Ropes & Dive Bars” were both inspired by NYC nightlife. “Velvet” is a good night with your friends and embracing anyone who wants to enjoy the same ride without clique or scene discrimination. “Poison To Medicine” is a song a lot of fans mention how much they love and how it helped or inspired them. That’s pretty heavy to me and humbling. I wrote it as a person trying to take hold of depression and having the strength to turn negatives into positives. It was a therapeutic song for myself so to hear how it inspired others positively is the best thing a songwriter could ask for. “Lust Love Above” is another that random fans constantly mention how much they really enjoy, different reasons of course. “Naked” too which is a song that anyone in a serious relationship can understand, the pluses and minuses and wanting to end the night with your lover’s head on your chest.
Generally, how do you all go about writing your music? Do you write together or separately?
I write the songs myself via laptop, keyboards, guitar, piano. Many times I record or sing ideas to my phone voice memos. You’ll be surprised how many times inspiration hits when you’re out or walking the streets. I either complete a rough or finish a song then give it to the band to work out parts and sonics, make it shine live. The tunes take on a whole new life when the band gets a hold of them. I love that, keeps everything exciting.
Where do you think you are all happiest- in the studio recording new music, on stage performing or elsewhere?
We’re not all in the studio a lot so I’ll say live I guess lol. Recording is great but it’s a much better high being on stage performing. Maybe it’s the feedback from the audience, the atmosphere, spontaneity. Hard to describe but it’s a rush like no other.
Where can fans see you perform next? What do you think makes an ideal show for this group?
Playing a few solo shows the next couple of months. First in Amsterdam this week and then a few NE dates when I get back to the states at the end of this month. The full band will start tour dates kicking off April 19 at Nublu 151 in NYC.
Do you find that all of social media and keeping up with your fans has gotten so overwhelming? Or do you rely heavily on others to take care of that for the band? Which platform would you say that you enjoy engaging with the most?
It can be a bit overwhelming. I recently got someone to help take the weight of that off me cause it’s more difficult for myself to keep up. i need time to write, perform, and handle other aspects of music business. I like to be a part though because I think people like to see a sense of who you are. A little look into your world. I’m open to that and embrace it big time, as long as I can keep some privacy at the end of my day. IG is fun.
We are currently living through a very trying and politically charged time right now so I am curious to know how you all think being musicians and in this band still gives you the most joy in life today? Do you find that your music is an escape to all the current events?
Music is more of an outlet than escape I would say. Sure, we can all escape and most of KUMI I’d say is that for example but there’s also music that address the state of the world or your life in general. Personally I’m looking at Marvin Gaye. Here’s a man in the 70s who wrote “What’s Going On” which is one of the most famous American protest songs ever. Unfortunately it still holds true today, probably more so in the past 2 years. He’s also known as the man who wrote “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing”, two of the biggest sexual celebration anthems ever. Then there’s “After The Dance” which is a sensual love track. But that’s life right? Love, sex, politics and fun among many other things. If I can come close to that mix one day! And as an artist if you’re frustrated, happy, sad, afraid, confident, or emotional, then making music is an incredible outlet whether it’s escapism or addressing a situation at hand. This is what true artists are meant to do. I think I could speak for most by saying it’s an extreme healing release.
What musicians would you love to work with in the future? What artists have really been inspiring this group and your music since day 1?
Since my early days I’ve been a Prince freak as well as Trent Reznor. They are like the pillars for me. Also Bowie and Sly Stone. Blak Emoji has this electro hybrid of alternative and other styles. Artists like Phantogram, Little Dragon, St Vincent and as far as category or close to style influence if that makes sense. Awolnation and Panic At The Disco too. Love Childish Gambino! All of these artists have a signature sound but are not locked into one specific genre. I’d love to work with any of the formerly mentioned (RIP Prince). I could also list a bunch of influences we sound nothing like because we all love hip hop, jazz, rock, pop and all in between. Like I dig Joni Mitchell, Mastodon and Drake. I’m now listening The Internet’s Hive Mind in the background.
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?
I just hope it makes people feel good. Sounds simple, but that’s really it. KUMI is a feel good album with a few crazy stops along the way. We hope people enjoy the recordings and the live concerts.