When I spoke to Saro on the phone, his Boy Afraid EP had been out for a mere month, but he was on his way to the studio. “It feels great to have [the EP] out,” he gushed, “and to move on to the next phase.”
The Los Angeles native spared no time in making new music, and from the sounds of it, he’s pretty optimistic about the upcoming project. “It’s becoming really cohesive, but also we’re thinking outside of the box and doing weird things — we have more time to play and evolve things — so it’s really exciting,” he explained with glee, adding that it will definitely be released sometime this year.
Despite the buoyant attitude, the past few years have been a whirlwind for the pop noir artist — from dealing with the loss of a friend to couch surfing and even sleeping in the studio — but Saro has persevered, and the results have been two beautifully crafted EPs and spots on numerous festival lineups, including this year’s edition of the lauded Bonnaroo.
Billboard caught up with the budding R&B/pop star to discuss the inner-workings of Boy Afraid, the excitement of playing Bonnaroo, and what’s next. You can also watch an exclusive clip of Saro performing this title track acoustically below, which was directed and edited by Colin and Samir.
You’ve mentioned there are relationship references strewn throughout the Boy Afraid EP, but it’s more about the relationship you’re nurturing with yourself. Can you talk a little more about that?
I write in a kind of disjointed way, about a whole lot of different experiences. Every song, there’s a reference to something that’s happened in real life. I think a lot of the time it’s less about the relationship it’s about and more about what I learned from it, or how it shaped me and how I’ve grown into who I am now. Certain songs have multiple relationships involved, but it’s all how I’ve grown into who I am now.
You have admitted to being a bit of a vagabond during the recording of the EP — staying with friends and even sleeping in the studio, at times. How do you think that influenced the sound of the album, if at all?
It definitely did. I think there was always room for us to do whatever we wanted sonically because I was always in the mood to do something different. I was never in the studio constantly working on the EP—it was more in little spurts—so the cohesion really came in the production afterwards. There was more urgency in writing. Even though it was spread out, I wanted the songs to come together quicker when we were working on them because my life was so hectic in other ways, like not knowing where I was going to sleep certain nights. I think that translated into the music.
It’s interesting because it does sound like that was a pretty hectic time for you, but the EP flows really well and is very cohesive. Would you say all the stability that you weren’t feeling in your life went into the bones of the record?
Yeah, that is exactly why there was so much structure in the songs. This time around, each of the songs were a little bit more by the book, melodically, where we had a full pop structure. Because everything else was so hectic, [the music] naturally went more in line. What I’m working on now, I’m a little more stable these days, so it’s kind of a little bit more hectic in the music.
What would you say are the biggest differences between Boy Afraid and your debut EP, In Loving Memory?
In Loving Memory was primarily about loss—the loss of my friend, Simone—and by the time I was writing Boy Afraid, I had come to terms with that loss and had healed a bit. So Boy Afraid was evolving into more of the other insecurities and intricacies of my mind. The first EP was much more of a mourning EP and this EP was a little more introspective and mulling over all the relationships I’ve been through, and seeing how those have each made me grow.
Both of these albums come from a very personal place. Would you say songwriting is a cathartic process for you?
Yes, definitely. Ever since I was younger, whenever I’m feeling depressed or having a bad day, I just start singing. I realized early on that was the way to make those feelings disappear—get in the shower, sing some melodies and just kind of freestyle. So yeah, writing the songs is my way of relieving pent up thoughts.
Do you still do the shower freestyles?
I honestly do, but it’s funny because it’s changed where now I’ll write in the shower. I’ll either have a pen and paper by the shower or I’ll have my voice memo recording and I’ll freestyle. In a way, it’s become more of a collection process rather than an innocent bloodletting of emotional pain.
You released both EPs on your own label, Mateo Sound. What made you decide to go this route instead of signing with a different label?
It was a couple of different things. I have been working on music for quite a while now, and I never thought I was ready to sign to a label, just because I grew up in L.A. and have a lot of musician friends and have heard some horror stories, so it kind of scared me. I felt adverse to committing to something—and that probably stems from some general commitment issues.
I took a lot of meetings and decided to pass on everything, and then a friend decided we should just start our own label, so we just did it. Who knows if it’ll be a forever thing, but for now it’s working great. It keeps me in control of everything, which I like.
Yeah, especially creative control. You don’t have someone breathing down your neck, telling you that your music needs to sound a certain way.
Exactly. It definitely keeps a lot of freedom in the project. I think as my tastes change, the project is going to change, and I would just hate to feel like I have to keep it contained into a certain box.
You played Day for Night festival in December and you’re playing Bonnaroo this year. How did you react when you got the news?
I freaked out! I found out a few days before the lineup was announced. I was in the studio, and it was a crazy reaction. That’s one of my dreams—to start playing major music festivals in general, but Bonnaroo is the end all be all. It’s one of the biggest festivals in America, so I’m really excited.
You’re working on new music. What can you tell us about this project?
It’s in the very beginning stages, but I’m in the studio much more frequently for this EP, so far, so the thought process doesn’t get cut up with not being there for a week or two. We started three new ideas yesterday, and I’m excited to flush those out. I’m also getting more into possible sampling, and also possibly collaborating with other vocalists. So I’m just going to leave that hint there.