Kingdom Talks 'Tears XL,' Working With SZA & Kelela, The Community He's Built Around His Record Label

Mica Lin
Kingdom

Ezra Rubin has been DJing under the moniker Kingdom since the early aughts, and though he’s collaborated on records with the likes of Kelela and D∆WN and dropped a handful of EPs through his label, Fade to Mind, the world didn’t receive a solo full-length album from the producer until 2017.

Tears in the Club is a collection of club-ready R&B jams that features vocals from buzzworthy female artists right on the brink of fame, including SZA and Syd from The Internet. Nearly a year after releasing his debut, the LA-based DJ is back with an extended version of the album, Tears XL, which includes new vocals, remixes and instrumental tracks from his freshman effort.

Billboard caught up with Kingdom to discuss what led to Tears XL, the inspiration he receives from working with strong female artists and how Fade to Mind strives to work closely with the LGBTQ and POC communities.

You recently released Tears XL, which includes new vocals, remixes and instrumental tracks from your debut album. What made you decide to release this extended version?

Really, a couple of the songs felt like they needed vocals. I liked them as instrumentals — I thought they were great that way — but it really was kind of meeting two new singers right after I submitted the album. I met this singer named Semma from London, and she ended up trying out the vocal on [“Into the Fold”], and then I met this singer named Shan and he did [“Timex”], so it just kind of felt like it was getting added to organically with who I was meeting and collaborating with.

Also, the song “Down 4 Whatever” with SZA, I had made a couple edits of it for DJing purposes, and it just turned out the one that really worked when I was DJing and touring all over was this chopped up kind of VIP edit of that song.

It was all just kind of stuff that felt necessary to complete the story.

Tears in the Club came from a place of vulnerability and is a much more emotional collection of songs than its predecessors. What do these songs mean to you now, eight months after its release?

It really encapsulates that time of my life. I was somewhat solitary — I was making connections with these singers, but in my personal life, there was a lot of soul searching and after a phase of DJing a lot and touring, when I was making the album I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to compose and be alone, and just kind of explore my more vulnerable side. I experimented with singing on my own tracks — not that I release my own vocals, but I did demo and co-write on some of the songs. So that was also a time of me getting on the mic for the first time and seeing what kind of vocal melodies I would want to hear myself.

After touring it all and remixing it all, I feel in a more confident place and kind of grew up and wiped away the tears. Now I’m making some slightly more uptempo music, some more aggressive stuff and collaborating with new people. I’m trying to be more social again, and not in my little bubble.

Now that Tears in the Club is approaching its year anniversary, are you working on the next album?

I think I’m going to take a little more time before I can say there’s an album in the works. What I’m doing now is collaborating on vocal projects, doing studio sessions, meeting with people and singing on my own tracks as demos.

As you probably know, I have a big interest in female vocalists. I’ve worked with male vocalists as well, but it still seems to be something that’s coming to me. I’m building that up again with some happenstance collaborations.

Are your collaborations mostly for other artists’ projects or getting a taste of what the next solo album is going to sound like?

I’m actually really interested in contributing to other artists’ projects right now. I feel like with Tears in the Club I collaborated with a bunch of artists and brought them into my universe. The human voice is something I’m obsessed with, and I want to put that up front. I want to be able to sit back and give advice and produce and actually take on that role for a little while instead of trying to put myself up front.

When I’m out there DJing solo on the road, and I’m playing all these vocal tracks, sometimes I’m thinking, “What’s missing here? Where is the singer?” Due to scheduling, it’s really impossible to get SZA or Syd to just hop up on stage and sing with me when I’m playing in Tucson or Warsaw, so that’s kind of what’s missing for me. I want to produce for other artists’ projects really to see it performed live. I just recently saw the Kelela show in L.A., and seeing Kelela perform all the tracks I produced with her live — that’s the culmination of my work in a really satisfying form. I do love doing my solo stuff too, but to see that with backup singers and a band and the lighting and everything was inspirational.

You worked with Kelela and SZA just before they got big — you’re kind of known for working with artists right before they blow up now. How does it feel to see artists you’ve worked with become so successful?

It is really exciting. It’s really inspiring and makes me want to keep going and keep collaborating in that particular way because I see it gathers steam — it doesn’t just end at the one thing I do with them; they’re still hitting me up for feedback on their albums or to remix stuff and continue collaborating, so it just feels like it’s all contributing toward the same movement.

In particular, SZA is a transition that’s so memorable to me. I met her several years ago, and the genius was already pouring out of her but she just wasn’t sure of it. Seeing her so, so sure of it is making me want to work on my insecurities, and I can see it inspiring young women and men to overcome their insecurities. And I absolutely 100% love the vocals that she made for my album, but when I listen to her album I can tell she put in a crazy amount of hours because the progression is just insane.

The level of honesty and the storytelling and the lyricism and the rhythm of her voice — she’s perfected it and it’s her own style. When she’s singing a song, I can understand the story she’s telling every time. Just to see that coming from five years ago when we first met and she wasn’t as sure about what she’s doing — it’s amazing to see that.

Your label, Fade to Mind, works with a lot of LGBTQ and POC artists. This has been and will always be important, but with the current political climate I’m sure having that community and safe space for artists feels even more sacred.

Yeah, it really does. It really feels rare, and it wasn’t even that conscious in my mind when we created it. It almost feels like more part of the label narrative now than it was back then. Back then it was me and my friends. I’ve DJed and collaborated in LGBTQ spaces my whole career.

I feel like it’s important to showcase the diversity of the label, and that’s always been a big part of it, although it feels like the current climate of music is almost against that. It’s almost more separate. I have a lot of friends who don’t feel safe in clubs with straight people most of the time.

I feel like there’s a fear, and there’s so much violence, and it’s caused the risks to be a bit worse. I guess I’m just more giving the benefit of the doubt and wanting to see gay people and straight people and people of different ethnicities partying together and collaborating together — I’ve always felt like that’s really satisfying — but I also respect the movement that I’m witnessing right now, which is that some people of color want their own space to do their own thing.

It is nice to see people speaking out more about their comfort levels and what they want and what they need. The reasons why they’re having to speak out for these things is terrible, but it’s woken us all up. I think the world needed to wake up.

There is a positive side. It’s a tragic era that’s causing all this uproar, but the uproar is really important, I think. I’m even learning things that I didn’t know about myself and learning even more about the white privilege I’ve benefited from. We all still have things to learn from the horrible things that are happening in the world, and I think that’s really important. I still learn a lot from the people I’m working with, and it all ties back in on educating each other on making the world a better place.

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