Russell Elliot Talks Sexual Fluidity, Sampling from Snapchat & His 'Split Ends' EP

John Ellis
Russell Elliot

Russell Elliot isn’t necessarily pissed off. He’s just growing up.

The Brooklyn-based R&B singer spent most of his first, self-titled EP ruminating about love and heartbreak while singing soulfully over gentle melodies, but his new EP, Split Ends, marks a change for the singer. In his announcement for the project, Elliot wrote that “Split ends are like fuckbois -- you have to cut them off to grow.” That sharp self-confidence permeates throughout the album, with the singer more fully expressing his range of emotions.

Elliot says that he doesn’t think being angrier is a bad thing. “Everybody evolves in the way that they deal with love and heartbreak,” he says. “If I was processing things the same way I did five or six years ago, that would be a problem.”

Below, Elliot tells Billboard about his evolution as an artist, his relationship with his sexual identity and how he turned a Snapchat story into a sampled track on his new EP, Split Ends.

Split Ends feels like you went from almost strictly R&B to expanding outward a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit about how that happened?

I think primarily, the last record I recorded was when I lived in Nashville, and it has been a minute since I put out a full-length, or a project of this length. And so moving to New York, I think that you're exposed to so many different types of music and so many different types of people. I think that with the expansion of my life came the expansion of my influences and my sound and things like that. I also think that it's growing up, and learning more about what you like, and not just going for depth into one thing, but breadth into another thing, and finding a bunch of different things. I blame New York.

This EP also feels a little more angry than the last one. Can you explain what you meant by that and what the emotion was behind this record?

My music has always been me going through it, and putting pen to paper on the way that men made me feel, the way that love made me feel, and the way that my identity worked, how confident or not confident I've been. I think that even though the songs themselves might be angrier, or might be expressing that more fully, ultimately it's a signal that I am in a more confident, happier and healthier place. I think that a lot of that was under the surface in the previous project. But for this one, I really allowed it to sit itself front and center where I wanted it to be.

It's also the difference between putting out a record at 21 vs. 26. Those are formative and different years. I think it's an evolved take on the same things. It's actually really exciting for me to listen back to the old project than it is to listen to this one. It's not the same me, thank God, but there's similar themes and ... everybody evolves in the way that they deal with love and heartbreak. If I was processing things the same way I was five or six years ago, that would be a problem.

I have been spending a lot of trying to figure out what you were sampling on the song "Yummy." And I can't find it anywhere, and I need to know what that was.

[laughs] Okay. We were throwing a house party at my spot. This was like months and months ago, like last spring. And I have this friend, who shall remain nameless, who is a teacher, and she is really soft-spoken. Her voice never really goes above, like, a gentle timber, you know? What happened was, her and her boyfriend were pretty fucked up, they had been partying pretty heavily, and I think that they were anticipating that we were going to be leaving soon for the club. But, you know those pre-games that disastrously turn into the party? This was one of those. Everyone ended up staying there, and whoever was in control of the aux cord ended up putting on the song "Candy Shop" by 50 Cent, which, anyone who knows me knows that, fortunately or unfortunately, is my kryptonite. I don't know what it is about "Candy Shop" that will completely turn me into a thotty monster, but it continues to happen.

My friend, my nameless teacher friend, had her cell phone out and was on Snapchat. She starts following me around and gassing me up, like "Oh yes, one, two, three, yummy!" And she started to kind of rap with it, you know, like "Do you want more? Do you want more?" She was all up in my face, completely gassing me. So this happens, and she screams "Hold your motherfucking wallets," just slurring. Of course we end up going out and forget this ever happened. The next morning we woke up, and I was scrolling through Snapchat, and I saw about 3 minutes worth of my atrocious strip-tease dance with her narrating in the back. I swear I was so hungover, but this revived me. I was like, born again out of that, and said "I must sample this."

How does she feel about it being on your record?

She loves it! You know what's hysterical, I was like, "You're the only sample, the only feature on my record, how does that make you feel?" It was incredible. It's a troll gone too far at this point, like putting it on your official EP, but it was a lot of fun.

For your first EP you had to do a Kickstarter to get that up. Do you feel like you’re in a place where that’s not the case anymore?

You know, we're still independent, and still, every project is all hands on deck, all savings account on deck. So I don't know that the reality is that we don't need the support or that we don't need the funding, unfortunately. Like, I'll leave here and go to my day job. But I love my day job, and the kick of it is that it's at Kickstarter now, which I love. It's incredible to work somewhere where it's not taboo that you have an artistic endeavor, you know, a passion that you can go after. Listen, I have worked ridiculous jobs. I've cleaned shit off of bathroom toilets, I've worked front desks, I've babysat, I've dogsat, I've done every ridiculous thing that you can imagine just to try and keep this music thing going. So to have landed somewhere that feels like family is cool.

The reality of it is not that we don't need the community or the support -- that is paramount more now than ever -- but to have it all be a little more established, to have also taken some of the things that are more expensive, like engineering things and moved that in house. I produced my own record; I recorded my own record; I worked with a mix engineer and sat right next to him in my house. That feels really powerful and really good too. It's not like there are people knocking down the door of queer artists when they are first getting started to provide them profitable opportunities. So it was a situation where I was like, "If I want to do this I have to learn to do it myself."

You have openly identified as pansexual. What has your experience been like dealing with the issue of pansexual erasure?

You know, it's interesting -- I have grown into so much more fluidity and ease [with] those labels. Like, I am happily called queer, happily called pansexual, happily called gay. But I do think ultimately that the idea here is to lift us all together, right? And these conversations can get so distilled in the same binaries that we're trying to escape. It's such a signal to how insidious that really is, that brainwashing into thinking of either or, straight or gay, black or white. It's also hard, too, though. I've become really comfortable with that fluidity, and in that way, I may be contributing to that erasure by not foregrounding it and not protecting it and policing it. I definitely recognize that it is an issue, but it kind of exists alongside my own journey in finding that fluidity and ease balancing around those labels.

I think that's the important thing. You know, there's always this conversation that’s going on, but to me, I feel like the conversation has to be secondary to doing what’s best for yourself.

I think that has been really revolutionary for me, frankly. I am allowed to consider my own joy, and my own sense of wholeness in that. I think getting caught up in something like this, especially being a white R&B artist -- the playing field on which you are situated is already problematic. It's culturally appropriative. It is its own mired situation where your allyship and your education and your humility are so important. They have to be right there at the foreground, that they almost shaped the way that I felt I was allowed to feel about my own sexuality. There were political dialogues afoot, there were cultural realities and circumstances that needed to be addressed. I think that that's a really new thing for me, is learning to be an ally, and to be political, but to also allow that to be informed from not just what I think I should be saying, but from actually who I am and what I do.

You also self-identify as a feminist. How are you feeling about the current state of affairs, especially surrounding Time's Up and #MeToo?

I stand so incredibly firmly behind the voices of women that are calling for visibility and action and systemic change and lasting change. I think that women taught me more than any man ever did about being queer, about surviving, about confidence, and so I love that this change movement is being led by the voices of women, and by women of color, and by queer women who have been leading every major political or social change movement since the dawn of time. I have my own history of sexual violence and dealing with that, as a survivor of that realm of experience ... Witnessing it being talked about on that cultural level, and the diversity of the people who are coming forward and saying that they've experienced this, and saying "It's enough" — I can only imagine what it would have been like to see that as an 8-year-old or a 10-year-old me. I can hope that young survivors going through that can see their own experiences echoed out in the world, and in the people they admire in the world and maybe find strength there. It's really special.