Bi-costal musician Ayler Young has just released his latest album Portal. In addition to being a musician, Young is also an entrepreneur, arts supporter and philanthropist.
His first professional writing gig came at age 16. A local artist discovered him at an open mic performance and asked if he'd write music to her lyrics at her studio in southern France, just north of Nice. This experience opened Young up to the travel opportunities that being a musician could offer and inspired him to pursue music as a career.
He eventually moved to New York City and got a job as an assistant musical director for a Broadway show. The musical director left the project, and Young was hired into that role at merely 22 years old. He ran the 32-song show for about 17 months, but after doing eight shows a week for 74 weeks straight, his missed the improvisational side of music. He decided to rekindle that love and got back into writing his own material.
Shortly after that, he got a job offer from Robert De Niro to help start Tribeca Cinemas, an affiliate of the Tribeca Film Festival and Tribeca Enterprises, and ended up running the place for 5 years.
He was later a founding member of The Box in New York City’s Lower East Side and was given a key to the city of New Orleans for his fundraising efforts that raised $500 million to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina.
In 2012, he started his own disco/funk band and released his debut album Back to the City.
Music Times chatted with Young about his latest album, Portals, his current entrepreneurial project in Los Angeles, his thoughts on the resurgence of funk music in pop, and more. Here’s what he had to say.
Music Times: You've led a pretty interesting life as a musician, entrepreneur, arts supporter, night life guru, philanthropist, etc. But why did you decide to pursue music as a career?
Ayler Young: I think just the fact that my life always led back to either being around music or making it. I just always felt like there's a difference between what you do for work or to make money and what you do sort of for your calling. And those are two separate things, and obviously it's nice if you can combine the two.
MT: Does having those other entrepreneurial efforts free you up as a musician or take the pressure off a bit because you have other ways to get income and pay the bills?
AY: I think it's a great, I've always been a business man and sort of an artsy musician, and I'm slowly starting to figure out how to balance the two. I've always known that I don't love doing music when I have the pressure of a record label telling me what kind of songs I'm supposed to write. I like the freedom to just write whatever comes out. By having other jobs and other ways of making money, I don't necessarily have to write music that I think will be a pop hit. I write the songs that I want to write when I want to write them, and there's no real pressure to crank stuff out or finish albums. I do it on my own time, and it's been a much more rewarding way to work and for me, a more liberating way.
MT: Before you recorded your new album Portal, I read that you traveled to 25 different countries. Were there any anecdotes or experiences there that particularly informed the album?
AY: I think it was more about the types of music that I was hearing in all these different countries. Throughout Asia, South America, Australia, and Europe, I started to hear a lot of similar sounding music all over, and I hadn't been to a lot of those countries. I wasn't aware of what kind of music was possibly there. So a lot of the music I was hearing was based on this sort of pumping, rhythmic stuff, almost like electronic music. So I came back and just wanted to write a record that would relate to all those people and other musical cultures that I wasn't really familiar with until I had gone and experienced them first hand.
MT: You have ties in California, New York and New Orleans, and I'm sure other cities. I was wondering if there was a specific music city in the U.S. that you feel most connected to?
AY: I think sort of a mix of New York and the West Coast. I was actually born out in California, so I have a sort of laid back vibe to my music. I think the biggest influence overall has always been New York, the city where I lived for the last 20 years, that's been the most influential.
MT: Portal had a whirlwind recording process. How were you able to manage that? Is it hard to not over think things in the studio? Are you a perfectionist or more of a naturalist?
AY: Whenever we get into the studio, we always try to get the best studio that we possibly can with the best board and the best room and obviously the best musicians. So when we record, I honestly don't even rehearse with the band. They come in completely blind, having never played the songs before. I have my own recording studio, so I record a lot of demos myself and have full demos of the songs I want to record with the band. I bring in the band, play the song for them once or twice, write out a couple charts if they want to, and then we go track it. The guys are great, they understand the music and they understand the vibe. I don't think we took a third take on any one song. If they didn't get it on the first time, they got it on the second time.
MT: So you prefer more of an improvisational approach?
AY: Exactly. Going back to that whole point about how music was killed for me, the improvisation, that feeling of playing a song for the first time, you end up playing differently than if you were trying to rack your brain for, "How did I play that? What was the rhythm there?" I always find when you get comfortable musicians and you get good songs with good lyrics and good progression, that first time playing through the song, something magical sort of happens that doesn't happen when you're using your brain trying to remember what you played some other time. You just are literally in that moment playing it and a lot of special rhythmic things seem to happen, so I like to keep it pretty loose and let them do what they do.
MT: So how did your process for Portal differ from Back to the City?
AY: Well Portal I actually recorded all at one time. The first album Back in the City, I recorded over the course of three and a half years, while I was working for De Niro because I never had enough money to rent out a studio for very long. I'd get a little bonus check or something, and I'd always put it directly into going to the studio and making new songs. Then I finally had 15 or so songs, and I was like, "Hey, I might as well put out an album." Portal was more like, "I have 20 or 30 songs, and let's pick the best ones and make an album out of it." So we ended up tracking 17 songs, and I think we picked 13 of our favorite songs and put them out.
MT: The album features a handful of cover songs. Why did you make the choice to include them on the album? Do you feel like sometimes other people can express the way you're thinking or feeling better than you can sometimes?
AY: The song "Portal" itself was sort of, it really touched on some place that I felt like it was a song I should've written. It's one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, dark, sad songs I had ever heard. But it sort of comforted me, and I just thought it was incredible. So I wanted to cover that song [by Nellie McKay]. And then, while we were in the studio, I was like, "Let's see if we can cover a couple other songs just for fun. A couple of them came out really great, so I was like, "Hey let's put them on the album." But I think more of it comes from a desire to find songs that people may not know and lead them back in time like. When they hear my song and the original song, I think a musician's job is partly to lead people back in time to find great music in the past but also new music to listen to.
MT: Your sound is kind of bringing back the soul, disco, funk, genres. With songs like "Uptown Funk" dominating the mainstream along with Daft Punk's work and "Blurred Lines," do you see a resurgence of those genres coming back into the pop world?
AY: It's funny because I actually recorded that album before Daft Punk released their album. And it was so funny because so many of their influences are my influences, like Nile Rodgers. Every single song on the album pretty much has a guitar, a Nile Rodgers guitar riff on it, going all the way through the entire song. So it was really funny when they started coming out with those old '70s songs. It made me believe I'm not that crazy making this music again because Daft Punk and Pharrell are making the exact same music, and they have a No. 1 selling hit worldwide.
MT: If you could leave your listeners with one idea or feeling on Portal what would it be?
AY: I think it's the type of album I'd love for people to listen to all the way through. I think the album sort of sounds really great on headphones if you're just in a peaceful place, like the end of the night when you come home and you throw on your headphones. I'd love for people to listen to the whole album from start to finish because I think it leads you through a very emotional roller coaster. There are these really happy moments where you want to get up and dance. Then there are moments where you really feel the sadness that I was going through at those times. It's supposed to lead you through the highs and lows of whatever I was going through.
MT: So what is your live set up like? Do you have the same artists on your album performing with you live?
AY: Yup. It's usually a big band, I have a big sound, a wall of sound, so I have 7-8 people on stage with me. For the big acts. It doesn't lend itself off to touring.
MT: So do you do a lot of improvisation in your shows?
AY: Absolutely. A lot of times we don't even know who's going to be taking a solo. I'll just look at somebody on stage and there's a sense of what I want. As professionals, we're pretty much improving the entire show usually based around the original songs, but as we extend them and jam them out, it's all improv. It's totally free. I like to have the freedom to get into the song and not worry about parts and just make music.
MT: So what's next for you? Both in music and in your other endeavors.
AY: I'm writing songs for a new album. I think I'm just going to keep making music and do what I do. I really prefer to be in the recording environment as opposed to the live stage environment. I feel like it's what makes me happier, being in the studio, creating those sounds, making those decisions, it's most natural. I'm going to keep doing that and just make songs and keep writing and recording them. And I just opened a new business out in L.A. It's called Frank's Chop Shop. It's a legendary barber shop in New York City, and I partnered with the owner Mike Malbon to open a new flagship store out here. We just had our grand opening with A-Trak [and other DJs]. We're officially opened for business.