Starchild has the sort of speaking voice that puts you instantly at ease — warmly conversational, intriguingly earnest and surprisingly wise for a 20-something. Even over the phone, he has a calming presence, which came through clearly on his debut 2016 EP, Crucial.
Now, the R&B balladeer and musician who performs as Starchild & The New Romantic — and rose to prominence as a longtime collaborator of Solange and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) — is taking a turn towards the dance floor on his upcoming debut LP, Language, out Feb. 23.
“I didn’t initially intend to make this album,” Starchild, born Bryndon Cook, tells Billboard, while calling in between rehearsals. “I would classify this as a very strongly funk-indebted album that has a lot of uptempo [production]. I had to push myself to turn ballad ideas into something that someone could dance or groove to, so in doing that, in trying to step out of that comfort zone, [I changed] gears from what I had planned as the second release.”
The transition is clear from the opening title track, an irresistibly groovy and densely layered song with sliding piano keys — Bernie Grundman, who mastered Cook’s LP and also Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain and Carole King’s Tapestry largely helped him tap into such plush sounds, and his influence is strong.
Elsewhere, the horn-heavy, heart-pumping “Black Diamond” and the falsetto-reaching jam “Lost Boys” enlist similarly funky production, while songs like “Mood,” “Ophelia’s Room” and closing track “Hand To God” are more airy and atmospheric. The tracks that remain heavily spotlight gleaming synths and driving drum-pad beats (best heard on “Doubts” and “Good Stuff”) that strike a balance between modern-day disco and a hazy late-night jazz club.
Cook’s earliest memories of music formed at the age of six, when he first noticed the liner note booklets that came with most CDs — “I [know] my eight-year-old self, who was reading all those liner notes and would see [Grundman’s] name, is just blown away [right now],” Cook says, recalling how he would read credits as a hobby. “It was that type of fascination that gave me an actual interest in music that was further than just absorbing it as a listener. I’m pretty sure that was the moment I actually bridged a connection between being a fan of music and being an actual student of music.”
Cook also formed a strong connection to the radio early on, growing up with WPGC 95.5 and station DJ Donnie Simpson. “That is one of the top 10 most important things in my life,” Cook says of the station, whose sticker he had on his bed frame as a first-grader. “It definitely [influenced me], and that was also when I developed the ability to tell you what key a song is in just by hearing it — and knowing another song that is either in the exact same tempo or exact same key. That’s very much how my mind dances with music.”
His early fascination with music first guided him towards the saxophone, the only instrument he has formal training in, and later guitar. As one of the youngest in his family, his first guitar was naturally a hand-me-down from his oldest brother that was doing nothing more than collecting dust. “Much like the CDs that I opted to dive into, I would just pick up [the guitar] as I did my homework or watched TV — it became my third arm,” he explains. “I think I learned early on that the only control you have in life are the things you do that make it fun. Music is, in many ways, one of those things for me.”
Music is also what has kept him on the road; he’s toured with Solange (and performed with her at 2014’s Coachella, while finishing his senior year at SUNY Purchase as a theater major) and Kindness, and often performed with Blood Orange and others.
Cook’s mentor Patrick Wimberly, formerly of Chairlift, introduced him to Solange by chance, but he met Hynes independently. As a 16-year-old still living in Maryland, Cook would send him his music and await any feedback. Once Cook moved to New York for college, he and Hynes became fast friends and frequent collaborators (together they released a one-off track “Hymn,” under the name VeilHymn). “I was just in that sphere, as this younger guy who kind of came out of nowhere — but was in the right place at the right time, and was able to fulfill certain duties,” Cook admits.
When it come to Cook hitting the road as a solo act, though, he’s still trying to identify a strategy that will suit him best. “I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to take the blue pill or the red pill, the Dev pill or the Solange pill,” he relates, noting that Hynes opts for broken-up shows while Solange embarks on long stretches of tours.
A relentless worker, Cook is already deep into the recording of his next album. But he also wants to make sure to properly honor the project he just finished. “I’m always excited about moving [forward], but I’m really happy I took the time to make something that can stand on its own and not just be a linchpin in my discography, but hopefully in my life,” he says. “[This album is] a nice testament to a lot of my pedigree. In life, people want to make definitive things — nothing really is — but if you can scratch the surface, that’s a great feeling.”