Music: Black Pumas
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, the South by Southwest festival is one of the many sporting and cultural events that have been canceled due to the coronavirus. The music and film festival showcases artists from around the world, and many people have gotten their big break there. But it has special meaning for the city of Austin, Texas.
The city hosts the festival every year, of course, but it's deeper than that. There's a reason Austin's official motto is the live music capital of the world, and a big part of that live music scene are all the musicians giving impromptu performances on the street - in other words, busking. You'll hear why that matters when you meet our next guests, singer Eric Burton and producer Adrian Quesada of the band Black Pumas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLORS")
BLACK PUMAS: (Singing) It's a good day to be, a good day for me, a good day to see my favorite colors.
MARTIN: That's their song "Colors." Earlier this week, I visited with Eric and Adrian. And long before the "Today" show appearance and the Grammy nominations, Eric spent time busking. So I asked him what it's like performing on the street and if it's ever scary.
ERIC BURTON: It depends on how sure of yourself you are, you know? It's, like, people who are afraid to be in a bustling city, like, such as New York or Los Angeles, are people who probably aren't as sure of themselves. And I think that the passerbyers (ph) - they can kind of - they can tell if, you know, you're sure of yourself.
And I learned at a young music age that it was always important for me to kind of remain true to myself. And that was what was very engaging to people. I used busking not to learn other people's songs. But what I was in search for was the perfect song of my own that had yet to be written. So, you know, I kind of used busking as a songwriting tool. And I was happy to have, you know, the free beer and money and funny...
BURTON: ...Cigarettes in my guitar case...
BURTON: ...As well. So...
MARTIN: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness. OK. Can I just talk a little bit more about how - you just said something I wanted to pick up on. You said that it continues to inform you. What do you think about that experience you continue to carry with you? Presumably you don't anymore unless it's, you know, like, a thing, you know?
BURTON: I mean, you know, it is scary going back. And just as much as it is scary for anyone being forced to be honest with yourself, I think that busking has a way of filtering out all the glamor of - and the smoke and mirror that is being an artist in today's culture and art scene. But yeah. I mean, I would definitely try my hand at it again just for the sake of getting myself to a place where I don't care as much about my externality ironically more than I care about going internal and getting my validation there.
MARTIN: Well, let's hear a little bit from the album. This is the song "Black Moon Rising."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MOON RISING")
BLACK PUMAS: (Singing) Shoot me down and break my heart. It's the black moon rising. Oh, you brave the sight, I paint the picture. And you wanna (ph) do it. Oh, 'cause (ph) all she wants to do is cruise to the black moon rising.
MARTIN: Somebody want to tell me a bit more about this? I've been puzzling over this song for three days. Like, what...
MARTIN: Somebody help me out.
ADRIAN QUESADA: So that was actually the solar eclipse of - was that 2017 or - yeah.
BURTON: 2017, yeah.
QUESADA: I had walked outside and had to run some errands. You weren't supposed to look at the sun without those glasses. But I did. And it...
QUESADA: ...Kind of left me in a weird, like, hazy mode all day long. Came back, and, I mean, I think I wrote that - the demo for that in, like, 10 minutes when I got back. And - because I don't write lyrics, and I don't consider myself a songwriter, in that mode, when I write these instrumentals, I have to give them a title so that I can remember what it was. So I called that one "Solar Eclipse." We gave it to Eric, and he kind of just ran with that theme. And we might have done that the first day we got together.
BURTON: That was the first song we recorded. Yeah.
MARTIN: That's crazy (laughter). I mean, that is crazy because it has - I'm hearing when you - I can see where you're saying it wrote itself. But it's still - like, every time I hear it, I hear it differently. It's hard to explain. You know, it's hard to explain, but it just - it almost has, like, a physical feeling. Does that sound right to you?
BURTON: Yeah, for sure.
BURTON: I mean, I kind of like to write in abstract ways that allow the listener to kind of take the, you know, subtle messages within the song and run with it and kind of - I don't know, just kind of take and use the way that they want to use it, you know? Putting ideas like comparing the solar eclipse to a mysterious woman, and how she's going to shoot me down, but she's my sunshine and just kind of close my eyes and try to get out of the way.
I don't really focus too much on what a song is about too specifically when I'm writing it. But I hope that people kind of can conceptualize their own meaning.
MARTIN: That makes sense. Well, before...
MARTIN: ...I let you go, I think people may remember that Black Pumas had major buzz at South by Southwest in 2018. This was really shortly after you two had gotten together. And a lot of people look at that as another example of where this festival really exposes, you know, great artists, up-and-coming artists to the broader scene.
And, you know, South by Southwest has been canceled this year, which means that some other bands won't have the opportunity to be showcased in the way that you were. And I just, you know, wonder, do you have any encouragement for some artists who are so disappointed right now and who are, you know, so looking forward to sharing their work?
BURTON: I guess my two cents would be to be a busker, man. And I don't mean that literally. I mean that - well, actually, I do mean it literally. Be a busker in the sense that you're focused on what it is you're searching for specifically. Do you just want to come to Austin, Texas, and play a show? Or is it to make a piece of art that moves you so deeply that people anywhere and everywhere can't help but be moved by?
I think that is going to - you know, if you can move in that way, it's going to give you some legs that South by Southwest, ACL or any other festival in the world would never be able to give you.
MARTIN: Adrian, what about you?
QUESADA: Absolutely. I mean, I think you hit it on the head. But the other thing is, I think this - you know, this is a time for people to keep creating, you know? And it's a way that - yeah, it's kind of just - kind of piggyback off of what Eric said, it's just, like - you know, we were just discussing, we're going to have a little more time on our hands.
And it's, like, just keep creating. Keep doing it for the right reasons, you know? Do it because you love it, and use it as inspiration whether that - whether it makes you - brings out something light or happy or some anger or whatever it is, just channel all that and keep creating. And, you know, this isn't the last time you'll have this opportunity.
MARTIN: Well, thank you both for that. What song should we go out on?
MARTIN: Adrian, you agree?
QUESADA: Yeah. I love that one.
MARTIN: OK. Here we go. That was Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton. Together, they are Black Pumas. We reached them at member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Good luck to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us. And keep washing your hands.
QUESADA: Thank you.
BURTON: Thank you so much, Michel. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK PUMAS' "CONFINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.