Before netting a deal with RCA and Keep Cool in 2018, R&B singer-songwriter Lucky Daye was couch surfing to keep his head above water. His refuge? The studio where he and R&B producer Dernst “D’Mile” Emile partnered up to create the singer’s 13-track debut album Painted.
Despite a strained relationship with much of his family — his mother having been deeply immersed in a religious cult — and a complicated relationship with God, Daye’s love for music outpowered his life struggles. Because he wasn’t allowed to listen to mainstream music at an early age, Daye taught himself melodies through reading Dr. Seuss books. Then, after hearing his father play The Gap Band’s 1982 funk classic “Early in the Morning” one afternoon, he was enchanted by the colorful vibrations that music had to offer. “[My dad] would play anything with little bass grooves and stuff like that,” Daye recalls of his father’s collection. “That was one of the first times I heard a song with instruments in it. Me and my brothers went in there and had a good time with it. Ever since then, I saw vinyls in his room.”
Daye’s penchant for funk bleeds through his music. On his single “Roll Some Mo,” his buttery vocals melt into the string-laden production of D’Mile, while “Late Night” is an electric bop that blurs the lines between Frank Ocean and Anderson .Paak. And while Daye is open to comparisons, the parallels between him and the former artist are too uncanny to overlook: New Orleans-bred crooners who can drop a fiery rap mid-verse of an R&B song. “I think Frank is super [talented], but Frank has his own lane, though,” he says. “I’m a little funky, a little rockish. I guess if you put us on the same song, you’re going to have to figure out the difference.”
On Painted, Daye chefs up sticky melodies over slippery production. One highlight is the DJ Camper-produced song “Love You Too Much,” a slow-burner anchored by the singer’s searing lyrics and silky croons. “I can’t afford those losses, that’s my ego talking,” confesses the hapless romantic on the track.
Billboard sat down with Lucky Daye to speak about his debut album Painted, his strained relationship with his mom, how living in three different cities made him a stronger man, and more.
I was reading your Rolling Stone interview and you learned how to craft melodies through reading Dr. Seuss books. Were you like a Green Eggs and Ham or Cat in the Hat kind of kid?
[Laughs.] Man, with those books, they naturally rhymed. All you have to do is put a little bit of cadence to it. So I always took books like that and it wasn’t even just those. It was anything I can find. Anything I can read because I felt like I had to get it out. I had to get out melodies and get out singing, somehow. Singing whatever I can read felt most natural. It became a thing where I did it like I was playing a song. Like I would do it with one melody and I’d start over and do it in a different melody or a different cadence. It made reading fun.
That must have strengthened your songwriting abilities at an early age.
I never thought about songwriting when I was coming up. When I left Tyler, Texas to go to The A [Atlanta] and tried to do my artistry, it was more like people wanted me to write. I was like, “Write?” What do you mean? Like somebody want this song that I did?” And they were like, “Yeah. I’ll get you paid for that.” So I was like, “Alright. Let me go and get this bag.” I mean, I was there by myself and l wanted to stay on my feet. I never had a problem being displaced because my mom moved a lot and I never got comfortable in one spot. Being homeless — or I call it, “a nomad” — and not having a place where you got all your shit [was something that I [never] needed. I never needed it. It was pretty easy.
Speaking on you being a nomad, throughout your life, you’ve lived in Texas, Atlanta and Los Angeles. How did each city shape you as an artist and as a man?
Texas ain’t last long, ’cause Texas was like, “Oh. This is what it’s about? It’s quiet and it’s racist in this bitch?” Nobody wanted to go outside the city, and plus, where we stayed, it was like this apartment complex. There were highways and trees and nothing else. So there was nothing to do but be in the apartment with my grandmother, my uncle, my mom and my brothers. I mean, I got closer to them as a family I guess you can say, but I didn’t speak to them much because I had a lot going on in my brain. I knew I wanted to do music and I knew they weren’t going to be OK with me doing the music, especially the music that I was talking about doing.
Because I went to the church one time where they wanted me to sing. In my mind, I wanted to do it. I wanted to sing, but I didn’t wanna be stuck doing this. Y’all said, “God is supposed to give us our own journey, right?” This was going on in my mind as a teenager. Y’all said I’m supposed to know my journey. My journey isn’t like everyone else.
So that Sunday, I went up there and I knew I wasn’t about to sing. I was just [standing there holding the mic] and said, “The Devil said, ‘God told me that this is not my path and he has a bigger purpose for me. I’m not supposed to be here singing.'” I left and my mama didn’t talk to me. My grandma ain’t talk to me. My uncle ain’t talk to me. Nobody talked to me. They really made me feel like I was by myself. So I was like, “Let me just dip.” I knew I wanted to do music and I knew this wasn’t the place to do it. So I took my ass to where people do music. I went to Atlanta. I used my IDs or whatever to stay at hotels.
After you feel isolated by your family, it’s not really hard to be isolated anywhere else. Tyler got me ready to be by myself. Atlanta was more moving around and learning how to deal with sharks because… I wanted to do music, and I wanted to affiliate myself with different artists, different writers. And not knowing what their intentions were, it taught me that people don’t really care what you got going on. You’re just a tool, and they want you to write for them. They just want the drip.
The bumps and the bruises came from The A. Once I got to L.A., I was trying to do the same thing, but I knew I had affiliations with publishers at the time — because in order to make money in Atlanta, I had to do a publishing deal. So I started meeting with certain people that got fired that I didn’t know. Then, I started waiting in people’s lobbies, waiting for somebody to come down. I guess I gained my respect.
I know your mom was in a religious cult, while your father never was involved with any of that. Did they clash in terms of what you wanted to do career-wise musically?
Nobody is into my music. My mama doesn’t even know what’s going on. I’m still dolo.
And you’re sitting on a major label contract.
[Laughs] I just don’t think they care.
So when May 24 arrives, that’s going to be one of the biggest days of your life. Is that going to make you want to reach out to your mom and tell her that your album just dropped?
Nah. [Laughs.] Because I don’t think I’m going to like what she says. I don’t wanna be disappointed. I didn’t do this for her. I didn’t do it for a response. If I wanted to get on her good side, I probably would have did whatever she said. I already been through shit where [she turned her] back on me.
Clearly you already have this chip on your shoulder, but what else fueled you when you were in the studio making your debut project?
At that point, I told myself if I’m gonna do this shit, I’m gonna do it and give it my all. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss nothing. So the thing that fueled me was not knowing nothing. As a kid, growing up and being told so many things was supposed to be a certain way and finding out it didn’t work, or you’re supposed to show a lot of people love and you don’t get it back, like that kind of stuff will make you wanna know why. I wanna know why it don’t work. I live by this all my life.
So for me, it was more about trying to figure out some answers — and the album came from my purest emotions, because I wanna see it from the outside in. It’s the only way I’ll be able to see it. Doing it, I’m feeling it. Trying to create it, it’s still inside of me, but once I get it out, I can look at it. To me, the aspect of not knowing certain things that I feel like I was supposed to know fuels me. As a kid, just not being able to have the permission to listen to certain things fueled me to listen to things even more. You know when they say don’t touch wet paint, you wanna touch it.
Don’t touch the stove.
I wanna feel it. Especially after I’ve been lied to. It’s like, imagine somebody is telling you don’t touch the fire. And then you touch the fire, and it’s the best feeling you ever felt in the world. And then you’re like somebody lied to me, man. How many stoves they got out here? I wonder what they feel like. Somebody lied to me.
Which album or song would you say was your “touch the stove” moment when they told you that you couldn’t listen to mainstream music?
What’s crazy is my pops came back this one day and the first song was [The Gap Band’s] “Early in the Morning.” He would play anything with little bass grooves and stuff like that. That was one of the first times I heard a song with instruments in it. Me and my brothers went in there and had a good time with it. Ever since then, I saw vinyls in his room. He kept his room locked and whenever he came home, he would have his Popeyes in the room and he would just lock the door. My mom was in her room and he was upstairs with us whenever he came back. They were on shaky grounds. He had another crib, but I think my mom was just being nice because she was always sick and we had to take care of her. So she wouldn’t mind if a man was in the house, but I guess she got fed up one day and kicked his ass out.
Let’s segue into your friendship with D’Mile. How did you guys link up while you were in L.A.?
I briefly met D when I was traveling and trying to visit L.A. ’cause I came to visit LA twice just to see what it looked like. He was one of them people that I worked with that I didn’t feel like he hated my songs or judged my songs. He just let me do it and that was it. The song was the song and he did his part. So he was one of the only producers that made me feel like I can do anything and he wouldn’t judge it. He allowed me to be myself and to feel something like that, for me, is new. So it was like I have to finish this process because you’re making me feel like I can do it.
When I came back to LA to move, I ran into him. We had a session and I told him I was trying to do an album. He was like, “What are you trying to do?” I played him these two songs that I had from DJ Camper that I had did. I didn’t tell him it was the album either, but I kind of just had these two songs [Laughs]. I played them for D’Mile and he was like, “Oh, I see what you’re trying to do. I think I know what I wanna do with this.” So we just started exchanging ideas. Once he heard my ideas and I heard his, I didn’t even care what his ideas really were, I just wanted to do it. I was like, “Bruh. You can put a cowbell. As long as you make me feel like I can do this album, I’m doing this album before I leave.”
That was me going to close this chapter in my music book and just finally do it no judgment with the little money I had. I would just find some money and go home and release it somehow.
Which tracks on the album would you say display the strongest chemistry between you and D’Mile?
That would probably be “Paint It” because we’re both on that song. He’s doing the background [vocals] on that song, but the way we did was, that track didn’t sound like that. That track was slowed down. We pitched it up and we pitched it faster. It was recorded way slower, it was recorded way lower. It was a song that I was trying to sing as a kid to my grown self or as a kid to my pops. I saw a lot of my pops in me at this point in terms of girls and relationships. I never had seen a relationship, like a successful one.
You have a record called “Ready For Love (Interlude).” Do you feel at this point in your life that you are ready for love? If not, what steps do you feel you need to take to get there?
That’s the hardest question ever because being ready for love is like… how do you get ready for love?! That’s like getting ready for war. You can put on your armor but you don’t know what weapons they got. That shit might cut right through your teflon. So it’s just like a feeling that I have. I want it. It’s like a desire. It’s like, “I’m ready.” I felt it before, but I couldn’t finish it because I’ve never went to a place where it actually happened. I’ve only had the feeling of being ready. So that was the only place I can go.
Have you and D’Mile thought about doing a second project together?
We’re done. Yeah, we’re thinking about Round 3.
Round one didn’t even come out yet. [Laughs.]
We’re moving. Like, right now, it’s just a porridge of emotions and it’s still happening. Like, I still want acceptance from people that I love, but at the same time, I don’t wanna feel like I need it. I want my mom to be like, “I love this song,” and to tell me what it’s about ’cause she really do like it, but I know it’s not going to happen. She’s not going to listen to the songs.
You can’t tell me the kid inside of you isn’t waiting for your mom to one day pick up the phone and say, “I’m proud of you.”
She’s not going to say that.
Is she that absorbed by her religion?
I don’t know what it is. I can’t crack the code. Maybe it’s part fuel, too. I can’t figure it out. My brothers be like, “Oh, that shit is hard.” But that’s your brothers. You’re supposed to say that. Then, you send me pictures of your new guns like, “You need security?” But, you know… I don’t know. Maybe if I sing or maybe if she sees me do something big, she’ll ignore everything else and be like, “I’m proud of you.” That would feel good.