Tiffany Majette recalls returning from a friend’s place one night in 2015, to discover that her family had lost their home: “My mom was like, ‘Hey, we’re moving,’ and I asked, ‘When?’ She said tonight. She was $10,000 in the hole. I think she knew it was coming.”
The then 19-year-old, New Jersey-based singer — known today as Orion Sun — rushed to pack her room, as her family unknowingly braced themselves for what would become four years of homelessness, and the most crucial years for the budding songstress’ career (that, in her words, changed her life).
Seven years, five projects and a handful of tours later, Orion is talking to Billboard while on the brink of releasing her latest EP, Getaway. Snugly wrapped in a baby blue hoodie, knitted beanie and puffer jacket, the singer pores over the significance of her latest offering: After serving as the lone writer and producer on her first two projects, Hold Space For Me and A Collection of Fleeting Moments and Daydreams, Getaway — which was finally released last Friday (March 11) — marks a pivotal shift for the fiercely independent singer towards collaboration. “I’m usually very insular, but letting go was huge for me,” she says. “And the payoff is beautiful.”
Featuring production and writing from Guapdad 4000, Nascent (SZA, Brent Faiyaz, Kanye West), Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Sampha, Adele) and Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend, Frank Ocean, Clairo), Getaway is powerfully delicate, the soft-spoken singer pouring out her innermost desires and anxieties in a fusion of ethereal melodies and rap-sung cadences. The six-track set solidifies Orion status as an alt-R&B standout, continuing to capture the hearts of millions of listeners across streaming platforms like Spotify — where she boasts monthly listeners in the seven digits — through her approachable writing and disarmingly tender voice.
Stepping on the SoundCloud scene in 2015 — the same year her family lost their home — Orion gradually built a following through self-made singles, covers and EPs. While the days of Steven Universe covers and GarageBand singles are behind her, Orion’s early sonic influences still pervade every offering, the singer shifting to paid streaming platforms in 2017. “Rap is a huge love of mine. I’m definitely one of those [hip-hop] nerds,” says Orion. “But it wasn’t my first love.”
Beginning the interview, Orion gently leans into the iPhone 11 voice recorder facedown on a wooden table in front of her. “Check, check,” she says in a serious tone. Instantly, a shy, toothy grin emerges – revealing her endearing, slightly-chipped front tooth – as she chuckles at her own joke. “I sang in church. I was leading youth worship sometimes. I was really enthralled by it. It’s the first music that moved me [to tears],” she says. “That put the music seed in me to the point where it’s like, I don’t want to go to church, but I go to church to hear the music.”
While Orion’s attraction to music was solidified at an early age, the 5’7″ high school point guard had hoop dreams — until a ball to the head changed everything. She suffered a serious concussion her freshman year of high school during practice, when a pass meant for another player whipped Orion in the head. “My mom was [freaking out],” she says, her eyes growing wide. “She said, ‘Don’t fall asleep, because you might not wake up!’”
The concussion was a prelude to a turbulent period of triumph and tragedy for the then-teenage Sun. No longer able to play basketball, and grieving the death of her grandfather, who passed away around that time, she sunk into a depression. “I didn’t care about what I was wearing, I wasn’t paying attention to whether I [was] full or hungry. My brain and my body weren’t talking. I didn’t know how my body was feeling until I was down for the count,” she explains. “So, I’m really grateful I found music again.”
It was an experience with theater in high school — a predominantly white school with “a handful of Black kids,” making for common microaggressions — that brought her back to music. “There was this English teacher who also did the musicals for the school. They were doing Hairspray and she literally went up to every black kid — even my older brother who wasn’t musically inclined — [asking] them to be in it,” she says with a chuckle. “It was really funny. But I was like, ‘F–k it, I’ll do it.'”
Following the musical, Orion continued delving into her musical side. A major source of support and motivation was her high school music teacher, Mr. Traub. “I used to come before school, around 6:00 a.m. and practice in this little piano room,” Orion says. “Mr. Traub would come in, I’d show him songs, and I was really shy. So he really brought a lot out of me.” During the singer’s senior year, Traub tragically passed away, his death becoming the “catalyst” for Sun’s pursuit of music, she says. “I decided, ‘OK, if he believed in me this much, I might as well see how far I can take this.’”
After graduation, Orion was accepted into the prestigious Berklee School of Music, but her family’s celebration was cut short. “My mom didn’t have money for it,” she says. “I was one of three, there was nothing saved. My brother was at University of Pittsburgh and that was the priority.” As the details of her family’s financial struggles and subsequent roadblocks on her journey trickle out, Orion begins blinking away tears. The topic is her breaking point, as she darts straightaway to the bathroom to exhale.
“It’s so surreal because I remember being in that moment and thinking, ‘There’s no way — I need school, I don’t know how to meet people,'” she says, upon returning. “But there is a way.”
After high school, Orion spent a year traveling the U.S. as a part of the Liberty in North Korea non-profit — living in a home with 25 other people, and facilitating informational presentations at universities, churches, high schools and community centers. Shortly after Sun’s return to New Jersey, her family lost their home. This left Sun, her mother, brother, grandmother living between hotel rooms and the homes of loved ones from 2015 to 2019.
To help support her family, Orion picked up a number of odd jobs, including Urban Outfitters, Bahama Breeze and Chipotle (“I was not picky,” she adds). When she wasn’t folding Adidas sports bras or packing cilantro-lime rice into compostable bowls, the aspiring singer-songwriter spent her time recording music with a local producer who took interest and offered to help her out. But after he demanded $5,000 for everything they had recorded on his computer, Orion swore off collaborations. “Thats what gave me the initiative to be like, ‘I’m going to just learn to produce my own.’”
As she developed her skills as a producer and engineer, Orion began uploading her covers, singles and EPs to SoundCloud, and eventually, streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Since all of her early works are self-made, she retained 100 percent of the masters and publishing rights. Like clockwork, the major labels came knocking. “Columbia’s was one of the most insulting deals,” she adds bluntly about an offer she received from the label. “But it makes sense, because you have to prove yourself.”
In 2019, Orion signed a deal with indie label Mom + Pop Music, after co-founder Michael “Goldie” Goldstone showed up to every one of her New York City shows. “If I had any advice on whether to sign or not, if you believe in yourself and put [music] out that you like, you gain leverage,” she says. “You own that [music] so you can take that leverage to a label and be like, ‘Hey, what are you going to do for me?’”
And with the newfound backing came confidence to branch out creatively. “[Nascent] reached out to me and I was geeked,” she says, a hint of wonder surfacing in her eyes. “It’s so nice to have someone of that stature believe in you and be like, ‘Yo, you’re hot.’”
In 2019, Orion was able to move her family from the Cherry Hill Residence Inn to a home of their own — but it wasn’t until the 2020 pandemic that she had the opportunity to reflect on the winding path that led her to where she is. “I had a moment to just sit back and be like, ‘Wow, I actually did a lot. Even though there’s so much more to go, I’m really proud of myself,” she says triumphantly.
Since its release, Getaway has been met with praise across publications and social media. In May, Orion will embark on the Getaway Tour, which will span across 17 cities. The tour will kick off with a sold out show in Brooklyn on May 1, and end this fall, alongside Remi Wolf in Atlanta. Even with all she’s achieved so far in her career, it’s what she had to do to get herself here that leaves Orion assured of her current standing.
“If I am one of the greats, then that’s that — if not…” she says, pausing. “In my head, I think I will be. And to all my fellow artists pushing through these time–that makes you one of the greats, too.”