Khalid Is Making "Mood Music" For Millennials

"If you love somebody, why would you not let them know that you love them?"

Photographed by Renzo Photo.

One would expect that a mature, soulful sound would have few fans among millennials, but Khalid is here to shatter expectations. Though the rising singer-songwriter rightfully denies that his tracks fit neatly under the category of soul music, instead referring to it as “mood music,” there’s no doubt that his songs reflect an old-school mentality, that prioritizes love above all else, but are still highly relevant with allusions to tweets and DMs, detailing how they can form the building blocks of a modern-day relationship. If the rapid success of his single “Location” is any indication—it’s already allotted over three million plays on SoundCloud—he’s providing the perfect soundtrack for our generation. Here, the 18-year-old military brat tells us about his inspirations, finding love on social media, and why it’s completely okay to cry while watching Big Hero 6.

What got you interested in music?
My mom is actually a really huge inspiration—she sings in the in the army. So, being raised by my mom, everything was about music, and I loved it. She was my favorite artist for as long as I can remember. I've traveled with her everywhere: We've lived in Germany for several years, we lived in the States—we lived in New York—and everything has just been me moving and supporting her. Eventually, I started singing myself, and she’s helped me a lot.

So when exactly did you start writing your own music?
I never really seriously started writing until around a year ago. I had moved to El Paso from New York, and it was a super-tough move, super-stressful emotionally and so overwhelming. So I kind of turned everything into a creative [outlet]. I just started writing, I started singing my own songs and all that stuff, and then eventually, I met a group of friends, and they were like, “You sing, but have you ever thought of recording anything by yourself?” I was like, “Yeah, I think about it all the time, but I really don't know if I'm that confident yet.” It was just all about confidence. It was such a vulnerable place in my life; the fact that I left, I got out of a relationship, I was in a new environment, and I didn't really have any friends. So I ended up putting out a song called “Would You.” It was a love track, but my whole school was vibing with it—they loved it. Everything went well until it hit the most popular kid in school. He goes, “That song sucks.” It was all on video, he said the song sucks, everyone was talking about it. And I guess instead of taking that in a negative light and being like, “You know what? I quit.” It was just like, “Aye, he says I can't do it, well, watch me. I'm gonna keep doing it. I'm gonna keep making music.” Right after that, a couple of days after, I dropped “Saved.” Three days later after “Saved,” I dropped “Stuck On U,” and after that, I just kept going. And we were able to make songs like “Location” and “Let's Go,” and everything [else]. I stopped caring what other people said that I couldn't do and just took control, turning the negatives into positives. It was a lesson I needed to learn. I really needed that at that time in my life.

You mentioned being a military kid, which typically comes with its pros and cons, like having to move a lot but getting to see different sides of the world. What was your experience like?
I loved being a military kid. It really does have its ups and downs. I've seen places—I mean, I lived in Germany for around seven years. So, culturally, it really helped me advance. And when you're a military child, you kind of mature a little bit earlier. So that's why, I guess, when everyone listens to my songs, they're like, “How is this dude only 18?” 

I said the same thing!
[Laughs] It's super beneficial to me because I've lived a lot and I've met so many different people. I have lived in places from the tip-top of the U.S. in New York to the bottom of the U.S. in Texas, all the way overseas to Germany. So, I wouldn't have changed it, I wouldn't have wanted to not be a military child. It really helped me because I am different. There's not a lot of people who go through what military children go through. My parents were at risk of being deployed, and possibly could've been deployed at the same time. And though I would've been sad, and though I would've been upset, my goal was to be like, "You know what, I gotta work to make sure I get my parents out of the military." So that's really what the goal was. I loved being able to watch my mom do what she loves and she sings now, so that's super great. And it's a super-cool experience because I have a lot of best friends in El Paso, but most definitely, I have a lot of best friends from Germany and from New York. I love people. I'm such a people person.

Did your mom want to be a professional singer or did she just do it for fun on the side?
My mom wanted to be a professional singer, and she actually was in a girl group, and they got pretty far, but things didn't really work out, so she decided to join the military. She stayed in the military to support me when she eventually had me. So it was me and my mom—I have a stepfather, but it was me and my mom, my real dad passed away when I was in second grade. When I was young, I lived with my dad, but it was primarily just me and my mother. So, I was pretty much her little protector at the age of three to seven. She was over here in the military, you know, protecting the U.S. She wanted to be a singer, but I feel like she's so happy for me because I'm living the dream that she wanted, and she's living it through me. And actually it makes me prouder, that I'm really doing this for my mom, you know?

Did your mom teach you or did you take vocal lessons?
She taught me. But I feel like it was kind of intimidating to sing with my mom because she was just so good. So I started teaching myself, and I was in choirs. I joined choirs, and I was just learning all about the fundamentals and the technical stuff. I was so into that. I wanted to actually be a music teacher. Music is just such a genuine part of my life. If I wasn't a recording artist, I would still be involved with music, because I love music that much.

Who are some artists who you grew up listening to and are inspired by?
I love American folk music, like Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, and Grizzly Bear. There's a lot of different ones... Beyoncé, Frank Ocean. Stevie Wonder was played a lot in my house, Michael Jackson was played a lot in my house. SWV was played a lot in my house—I love SWV. Musiq Soulchild, India Arie, all across the board. All the way from American folk to your neo-soul, then you have your R&B, everything was played in my house. And it just really kept me open-minded when it came to music to where I can respect the boundaries, but I also don't have to be afraid to step out of them and create my own sound.

How do you describe your sound, then? Because it's kind of hard to put a label on it.
Oh, this is such a hard question. [Laughs] I would say it’s "mood music," music that really affects your mood. It's kind of [like] soul, but it's primarily mood, you know? Soul really touches your heart, and it's kind of a mixture of both [soul and mood].

“Saved” got me in my feelings—the songwriting is so vivid and intimate. What songwriters have had the most impact on you?
I love Sia. I love Adele, James Fauntleroy, Frank Ocean, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, James Blake. There's just so many different amazing songwriters, and when I listen to them, I'm like, “Oh, I gotta learn from them!” I always try to listen to what they're saying, like the writing.

What's your typical writing process like? 
Sometimes it really just comes to me, like I'll be walking with my friends and I'll be like, “Wait, hold on. Hold on guys, shut up. [laughs] Let me put this in my Voice Notes.” Some of the time, I’m primarily [writing] in my room, or I’ll just sing to myself. I’ll just get in a groove and I just write a whole song, or at least start the song, and then we’ll get to the studio, and then I’ll be like, “Hey guys, I have this song, let’s build a track around the words,” because I write a lot in the sense of like poetry. It’s super personal, whether it’s my experience or my friend’s experience, or someone whose experience I've seen, so I write from my room to in the air  to in the shower  to everywhere. I just really have to be in that zone, that personal zone, because that’s where the music’s coming from.

I’ve noticed, too, that you use “you” a lot.
I really try not to focus too much on gender roles. Sometimes I will here and there, but my focus is really just telling the story in me to an individual that people on either spectrum can listen to and be like, “Hey, I really relate to this. I really feel this song.” “Location” has no gender roles, whatsoever. No boys, no girls. It’s just a song about a feeling. It’s just how I was feeling at the time because I had a crush. I was in high school, really liked this girl so much, and, I mean, what’s the easiest way to impress someone? So, I wrote a song pretty much just about the way I was feeling. It was just like, “You know what, send me your location. [Laughs] Let’s talk on a personal level. I’m tired of interacting with each other on the internet. I’m tired of DMing each other, I’m tired of texting each other. Let’s see each other in person and just see where that goes.”

That said, what’s your opinion on how social media affects our relationships?
I feel like it’s a good thing, but it also could be a bad thing. Sometimes, you really just want to express the way that you feel about someone on a personal level, in-person because it means a lot more. Now, social media can help a lot—we have things like Tinder and everything like that, so you never know who you’re gonna meet on the internet. I had a girlfriend that I met on the internet, which was kind of scary. [laughs] I was like, “I’m not trying to get catfished or anything,” but eventually, I did have the ability to meet her in person, and it was an interesting experience. I feel like social media, especially in this day and age, has so much of a positive impact. You can tell your story on social media. That’s how I started creating music; it was on social media through SoundCloud. So I feel like social media’s super, super impactful.

So what city was your girlfriend from?
We both lived in New York and we met in New York, but she went to a different high school from me, and so I had never seen her, ever. I asked my friends, “Yo, like, do you think she’s real, man?” [Laughs] They were like, “Just hit her up! Hit her up.” I’m like, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know if she’s real.” But she was real. [Laughs.]

I’m glad! Speaking of social media, in your tweets, you’re very open about the fact that you're so emotional. What makes you comfortable enough to be that vulnerable?
My mom called me recently, and she said, “Listen, life is so short—way too short to keep your mouth closed.” So if you feel some way about something, about a person, about an individual, let them know that you feel that way. If you love somebody, why would you not let them know that you love them? What’s the harm in letting them know, “Hey, I’m not really cool with you right now. Let’s fix our problem.” So it’s just kind of accepting the fact that we have emotions. Boys have emotions, girls have emotions, and I feel like people are so afraid because they’re so worried about what everyone is gonna think about them having an emotion. And you keep it in, but when you keep something like that in, it doesn’t do any help. That makes it harder. So I don’t really have to be tough all the time. I don’t have to be strong all the time, but the strongest thing for me to do is just speak up about how I feel. Because there’s probably someone out there who feels the exact same way that you feel. There has to be. So when it comes down to emotions and feelings and all that, I’m so in touch with myself as a person, no one can tell me who I am cause I know who I am as a person, as an individual. I learn more stuff about myself every day. I learn about what I can take, I learn what I can handle, so I feel like I need to express that. I always tell everyone “I love you.” I’m so pro-love, you know?

Let’s get into some trivia. What’s your favorite book?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a really good book. I had to read it in high school, and I wasn’t really into it, but it just felt interesting to see how the perception of just everything was back then, and it was just a really good book. I liked it.

What’s the first place somebody should visit in El Paso?
You gotta go to Scenic Drive. Scenic Drive is one of the best places in El Paso. You go all the way up and you can see all the city lights. At night, it’s just such a great place.

What’s the last song you listened to?
“Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange.

Who’s the one artist that you dream of collaborating with?
Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé so much. That's been my dream since I was a little boy, just meeting her.

What's your dream venue to perform at?
The Sydney Opera House over in Australia. It’s just such a beautiful place, and like I told you, I was in chorus doing classical training, so that's just one of the biggest things that I have to accomplish.

The best movie that you've seen in theaters?
The best movie that I've seen has to be Big Hero 6. I watched it with my little sister, and I cried. I'm over here, 18 years old, crying to a kiddie movie. But, oh my god, it was such a good movie. If it's not that it's Up. I loved Up.

What is your fashion signature?
I really love pastel colors; light pinks, light purples, light blues, light greens—I have so much pastel. I mean a lot of guys wouldn't necessarily wear pastels, but it’s just calm. If I look in the mirror when I’m wearing a pastel shirt, I’m like, “Aye, I'm having a good day.”

What can we expect next from you?
Something great. Something great, because I'm really going to put my all into everything that I do. So, what you can expect is just another piece of me—probably me being sad, because I'm always emotional and in my feelings.