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Aaron Aye on His Debut Album 'Orphan,' His Minneapolis Roots & Why J.K Rowling Is One of His Biggest Inspirations
"Without Minneapolis, I would be nothing."
The young, independent Minneapolis native Aaron Aye is an artist to watch, as a triple-threat equally proficient at singing, rapping, and dancing. Aye's debut album Orphan, released Aug 8, takes listeners on a journey of the artist finding himself and growing up in his hometown while dealing with the loss of his mother, and all without the guidance of his father.
Starting off with "Since 96," Aye introduces himself to fans and opens the album flawlessly with lyrical prose and soothing vocals. What follows is a cohesive nine remaining tracks that properly show the artist's skills and potential to be the next big thing in music. Billboard got on the phone with Aye to talk more about his upbringing in Minneapolis, and what's next to conquer now that the album is out.
What inspired you to name your album Orphan?
Honestly, Orphan is a letter to my adolescence. It's based on my life and upbringing. My mom passed away when I was 15 and my dad was never in my life. So, essentially, when she passed away, I didn't realize it, but that's when I became an orphan. It wasn't until someone else described me in that way that I realized it.
But I wanted to flip the meaning of orphan, because I feel like when people hear orphan, they think of a sad story or think of something that's very unfortunate. But I wanted to make that word powerful and give it a whole different perspective, going after my dreams and succeeding at everything that I set out to do, despite the fact that I didn't have two parents.
I could inspire other orphans to know they could do the same thing. It's scary when you have to do things on your own, and I feel like that's what a lot of album is about. It took my whole life to make it so I wanted to tie it to something that was true to my story.
You mentioned your album is about "the lost kids struggling to find their purpose." Talk about how you found your purpose?
Music was always there, but I started realizing how I was able to give people good experiences, and create the soundtrack to people's lives through music... I feel like music is a universal language, and with me, I always have been a storyteller and have always been a creative. Because I was an only child for most of my life, so I kind of was bored, and that's how I found my purpose. I was by myself and having to make fun out of my own imagination.
That boredom sparked all of this creativity -- and I realized it wasn't an accident, it was a gift, and I just happened to be good at communicating what I feel like everyone goes through or everyone is thinking about. I just find a cool way to say it.
Who or what inspired you musically growing up?
It started with Michael Jackson. My mom was the same age as Michael, and the biggest fan growing up. From the moment I was born, Michael Jackson was the first artist I ever heard or saw perform on TV. For the first five to seven years around that time of my life, he was the only entertainer I knew existed. There are stories of me as a baby imitating him. I just think it was that magical feeling he gave me as a fan and as somebody who would've been in the audience for it. That feeling he gave me I wanted to give to other people.
Later on, of course, Prince -- who my mom went to high school with -- became another influence on me, when I got to high school and I could understand his music better. I got inspired by J.K. Rowling, because of her incredible personal story of how she was able to create Harry Potter, who had a story similar to mine: an orphan who discovered his gift... I studied also Walt Disney. The list goes on and on. It comes from all different genres of art, long as it's something meaningful. Michael Jackson used to say "study the greats and become greater." And so I would study the greats, and study who they studied.
Did you have any formal music training?
In the beginning, I didn't have training. For dancing, I've never had training. For singing, I started off on my own, and then in high school, I joined the choir. From time to time, I would have a vocal coach, but it all started raw. Then, I just worked on my craft and learned more. I taught myself how to play piano by ear and play guitar by ear for the most part. Writing songs as a kid came from imitating people until I found my own sound and direction.
In the "Care for Me" video, it's a day in the life of being in your hometown. How did growing up in Minnesota influence you?
Minneapolis influenced my art and is the backdrop to this painting. I made the album there. My life is really in this album. All of the pieces I included took place there. My lyrics come from real experiences whether it's high school or family. Minneapolis is where it all starts. I'm biased because I'm from there, but I truly feel like it's the best place to grow up, because I was exposed to so many different cultures and backgrounds.
Also, I had to learn how to appreciate the summertime, because winters were cold. That played a part in my art too. When it's winter and cold, you can't be outside as much, so it allows more time to make music. It forces me to be inspired by what's going on in the city. I rep it so hard, because it's the city that made me. Without Minneapolis, I would be nothing.
What's a song on the album that's very personal, and the story behind making it?
There's a lot of personal songs, but if I had to choose I would talk about "Blind Man." It's actually a song I wrote about an actual blind man when I was working at this nursing home. This blind man used to come to the front desk where I worked as reception and he would talk to me every day. I would read him the menu for him to eat. It was crazy, because I was working two jobs, trying to make this album and sleeping on my friend's couch. It wasn't an easy time for me. Money was low, and I remember I would come from my first job and go to the nursing home in a bad mood sometimes... I wasn't sure where I was headed and if everything I was doing was worth it. I was wondering when things would actually start happening for me.
It's crazy because no matter how much was piling up, every time I came to work, I would see that man. He was blind, but the happiest man I've ever known. He never complained once, and it was like no matter what setbacks or cards he was dealt, he always appreciated what he did have. His energy and how he carried himself inspired me so much that I felt like writing a song called "Blind Man." So many people feel in their life the problems they're dealing with are the end of the world, but there's someone who always has it worse. If you can put yourself in their shoes, you will start to realize how beautiful your life is. In a sense, I realized I was the blind man, because I was the one who couldn't see all the blessings in my life.
What's a song that almost didn't make the album but you decided to keep it?
Probably this song called "'Til It's Done." The reason why it almost didn't make it is that it's the only song on the album that talks about love. It almost didn't make the album because I wasn't really focused on love in a romantic way but I was in a place of remembering when I was in love. I wanted to write something that was fantasy-like. So I wrote a love song about love that wasn't really there, whatever my imagination would envision true love. It was an interesting story to write because there wasn't a girl there or anybody I was in love with.
So for that reason, I almost took it off the album. But I think the approach and how I wrote it as a fantasy made me stay true to my story. I did want to experience it but it just wasn't there at the time. Still, sonically it fit with the album as well. I knew, in the end, I made that song for a reason and think that people will actually enjoy it.
What's the overall message you want listeners to take from this project and what are your goals next year as an artist?
The message I want people to get from me as an artist and specifically for this first album Orphan is I want them to hear my story, see my story from what it is and learn from it. No matter what in life, they can make any dreams they have a reality. So my whole purpose is to make people to believe in themselves. You have to believe in yourself even if no one else does if you want to live a good life or be happy.
It doesn't have to be that you want to be a famous singer. I hope that I inspire people to live the life that they truly desire living by being comfortable in who I am through my music. As far as goals, I want to take it as far as I can take it [laughs]. I have my first and second album done. I want to start performing all over and making an impact. Hopefully, people know who I am by the end of this year.