Nathaniel Star gets most of his ideas in the shower. It’s where he ruminates on a beat, hums melodies, and devises lyrics.
When he knows he has something good, he’ll hop out of the shower, wrap himself in a towel and dash, water dripping all over the floor, into his studio to record it.
“I’ll be recording wet,” he says over pita-wrapped falafel, a cup of Moroccan stew, and a mug of “Soul Soother” tea at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar.
He laughs while describing his song-making process, noting that while other musicians might use candles, incense, or lush fabrics to create a certain in-studio mood, all he needs is “a microphone, my computer, and some software. I don’t need candles.”
Star (a moniker, not his real name), who will play his first local live show in about a decade at The Front Porch on Saturday, grew up on South First Street and has been making music his entire conscious life. At first, he harmonized on gospel songs with his mom and sister; then he wrote country-esque songs with titles like “Hey You” on an electric guitar; and as a home-schooled teen, he snuck over to the Music Resource Center, back when it was on the UVA Corner, to rap.
Those raps, Star says, were “good from a lyrical standpoint” but also “extremely violent,” and he felt it wasn’t music he could put out into the world. If it wasn’t something his religious mother’s ears could hear, he wouldn’t release it.
Inspired by singers and songwriters like D’Angelo and Bilal, Star later sang and played guitar in local neo-soul act Acoustic Groove Trio. “Everyone [in] the audience making out, because it was real sensual music,” he says, laughing. Acoustic Groove Trio broke up about 10 years ago when the percussionist and bass guitarist moved out of town. Star stopped performing, but he continued making music.
Star released his debut solo album, Collide-A-Scope, in December 2016, and two EPs, Nat-Blac Presents: EH-SUH-TER-IK and C.R.A.C.K., this year. He works with Vintagebeatwitsoul, making beats for other artists, and he writes music for documentary films, including Tanesha Hudson’s forthcoming A Legacy Unbroken: The Story of Black Charlottesville, directed by Lorenzo Dickerson and produced by Sarad Davenport. Star has also written music for Maxine Jones (a founding member of En Vogue). By day, he’s an elevator mechanic.
All the while, he’s waited for the right moment to return to the stage. “It’s time, it’s time. It just felt right again,” he says.
“I breathe music and bleed lyrics. You can’t live without breath and blood,” Star says of his songs about life and love, songs that are influenced by black culture and by African culture, by the potential of music to heal.
“Ghetto Physics,” off of Collide-A-Scope, is a song about overcoming, and “Via Dolorosa” is a song that compares Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion to black people’s walk through life. “Everything imaginable, in a wicked way, was done to Jesus right before they killed him. Everything imaginable, in a wicked way, has been done to black people the world over,” says Star. “But in the end, of course, it’s triumphant.” Jesus rose, says Star, and in the song, he and others will, too. “Stab me, shoot me, do whatever you can, but ultimately, I will rise again,” he says.
Star plays with genre on all of his records, oscillating between neo-soul, 1980s and ’90s R&B, funk, go-go, soul, and rap, sometimes blending the closely related genres together. He likes to make people think, including double, even triple meanings in many of the record and song titles, and in the lyrics, too. On the C.R.A.C.K. track “Respect the Shooter,” Star could very well be singing about shooting a gun, or shooting drugs. But he’s actually talking about a guy who’s taking a shot with his girl.
“You need to make people feel,” says Star. “A lot of music now just gets you amped. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I like a full scope of emotions—get hyped, but feel vulnerable, too. Feel like you wanna go march down the street. Feel emboldened to do.”
Star records lyrics on the fly so he can capture that full scope of feeling, and he doesn’t mess with the words much after the fact—he might switch parts around, or lay down some harmonies. “If you can create from that place, that’s the purest form,” he says. “How do you refine that?”
And while that purity, that genuine reflection of a moment, is important to Star as a musician, there’s more to it. He looks down at his bowl of Moroccan stew, chock-full of vegetables, then looks back up, inspired.
“Music should be an onion,” he says earnestly. It should be of the earth. It should be strong and sharp and robust. It should taste good, and it should make you cry. There should be layers in layers in layers. “It’s seasoning,” says Star. “And even when it’s gone, it lingers.”
Nathaniel Star and Kinfolk play The Front Porch Saturday, October 6.