The Freedom to Be

One year into his journey as Spazz Cardigan, Chaz McKinney is creating more without limits.

Chaz McKinney in West Nashville

Sheltering from the rain inside the tiny Headquarters coffee shop on February 10th, 2018, Chaz McKinney and I are surprised at how quickly the year has passed us by.

“Today, it’s been exactly a year since I put out that first article about you. It was February 7th [2017] that I first met you at that show and interviewed you.”

“Wow. That was only my second show as Spazz Cardigan!” He shakes his head in bewilderment. “My first show had also been a Whiskey Jam, just at Losers Bar instead of Basement East.”

“Thinking back on that, what are you feeling? I mean, it’s been a full year since you started as Spazz Cardigan.”

“I’ve learned a lot since then. At that time, I don’t think I really knew what it was. I just knew how the music sounded, and even that’s changed a little bit — and will continue to. I don’t think I understood how to be comfortable on stage with the music yet, I hadn’t lived with it enough yet.” I nod, remembering how little he interacted with the crowd the first time I’d seen him perform — which is a huge contrast to how comfortable he is on stage at the many shows I’ve been to since. “That night really was kind of the start of a chapter. I haven’t really thought of the time passing as having been a year… it’s been a really quick year.”

image via Spazz Cardigan

You’ve got your first headlining show coming up at the High Watt on February 26th. How are you feeling about that?”

“I’m feeling so excited. Every show that I’ve played over the past year, there were more people that showed up, more people that knew the music, and that’s exciting. Even if there’s only about 10 people there, it’s going to be 10 people that I know are super passionate about it. I’m excited to play with Ni/Co and Saaneah, and I’m stoked to play new music for the first time live!”

“Can you tell us anything about any of the new songs?”

“They’re so fun. I think the new music is going to make people really happy, and I think it’s much more accessible.” He pauses, reflecting. “One thing I didn’t realize when I was writing that first record was that I wasn’t playing to my strengths. I kind of just write music as an impulse, just create as an impulse. But I had this bad habit of writing and forcing myself to fit what I was writing, instead of writing to fit my strengths. Working with these producers on this new stuff, it’s been great to cut the dead weight, leave what’s not working behind, figure out what I’m genuinely good at, and buckle down on those elements. That’s what I’m really excited about moving forward.”

“If you had to explain your experience writing these songs over the past year with one song, what song would you choose?”

He considers this question for quite a while. Finally, he says, “There’s a song on the first Spazz record called ‘be.’ It doesn’t sound like any of my new songs, but the lessons of that song that led to me writing it… I’ve really learned how to integrate, and just be more present. I’m taking myself much less seriously, just existing in the present, and not worrying so much about the past or the future, not overthinking things. I’m learning much more how to be intuitive in my work.”

image via Spazz Cardigan
“I accept what I can’t help and that no one is anyone. Breathe, just be.

Do you think what you want others to get out of your music has changed at all over the past year?”

“I think it’s expanded, but I don’t know that it’s changed. Ultimately, I want to make people happy.” He sits back thoughtfully, then explains, “Making music over the last year has reminded me of why I wanted to be a musician in the first place. I’m making songs now that I’ve wanted to make since I was 12, but I couldn’t have because I didn’t have those experiences until now. It’s freeing, it’s very liberating, and I want to give that to people. I want to unite people and give them something to come together on so that they have the passion to go forward and explore the things that they are passionate about on their own.”

Chaz tells me his first album as Spazz was very self-exploratory, and that he feels he was over-zealous when he was first starting out.

“When you interviewed me last year, I was planning on putting two mix tapes out over the year, and I was planning dropping a whole other LP, I was planning on being on tour by now… I wrote constantly last year, but I don’t think I figured out what Spazz Cardigan was — or is — until this past November.”

He may not have released any new music yet, but he will be performing several new songs at his show on February 26th, and he has a new single being released on March 9th, titled Episode.

“Depending on how the single goes, depending on how it’s received, and the buzz we’re able to build, it’s realistic that I’ll be on a few tour dates with other people this year. But I have to take it day by day and focus on the show, and then releasing the first single, and then releasing the second single, getting people into the music who would enjoy it, and trying to just get it across to more people.”

image via Spazz Cardigan
“I’m learning much more to let the music speak for itself and make people happy. It’s not coming from a place of wanting to pare it down or simplify it. I genuinely want to give people something enjoyable.”

Last time I interviewed you, we talked about artists that inspire you… is there any individual in your life that you look up to as an example for you and your personal growth?”

“The person in my life who inspires me the most — one of my best friends in the world — is a rapper named Foundation. He’s on that first record.”

“Oh, he was featured on your song Tribal Nature!” Chaz confirms this.

“He’s been my best friend since I got to this city. The way that he’s able to provide for his wife and his kid — they’ve dealt with some real struggles, and to see the way that he has been able to maintain balance through that, to provide a better life for his family and his kids; to constantly become a better creator, and a better activist, and a better community organizer, and a better human. That inspires me every day. He’s incredible. And he’s making incredible material, too.”

He met Foundation at a hip hop collective in 2013, where all sorts of creatives — from DJs to R&B singers to country singers to violinists to rappers and more — would get together and freestyle.

“It changed my entire relationship with music. That was how I started to find myself. I met Roy [Foundation] and we just clicked creatively and started making tracks. Over almost 5 years now, we’ve been really good friends. He’s one of those people in my life who’s been constant, and we push each other to be better all the time. I love him so much.”

“In a tweet about your upcoming show, The High Watt called your music ‘progressive pop.’ Do you feel like that’s a genre you fit into?”

“Sure. I have a very hard time defining my music, which of course everyone does… Everyone listens to music fluidly now, so you become inspired by everything, and it becomes difficult to define music when you’re inspired by everything because you don’t want to label it. I’d say the first record is much more progressive, this next stuff is more pop than progressive — but it’s still colorful, it’s still left-leaning.”

I nod thoughtfully. “That’s something I’ve bumped into with many of the artists I’ve interviewed, such as Ni/Co, who will be performing with you, and the painter, Rachel Karr. They don’t necessarily want to label their style as it’s fluid and influenced by many things.”

“Yeah, I think we don’t want to put limitations on it. This generation of artists, we’ve grown up on MP3s, and so we grew up in a time period where you could put Lil Wayne and the Lion King together on a playlist and it’d be completely cohesive. We’re not as bound to genre. I’m so excited for the generation growing up now in the post-streaming world because they don’t care about genre. The 13-year-olds now, they just want music. They want what feels genuine.”

Spazz Cardigan performing at The Basement, December 9th, 2017
“Creativity is creativity. It’s a singular learning experience of how to express yourself through whatever medium you’re using at the time.”

We begin discussing our mutual love of creating using many different mediums, and I ask if he thinks Spazz Cardigan will expand beyond the music.

“I don’t want to limit what I’m allowed to do. I think we’re in an era right now where it’s the best possible time for you to make whatever you want to make. I don’t feel like I’m limited to just making music or just making visual art or just making food — I think it can be anything. And that’s ultimately what Spazz Cardigan will be — the freedom of creativity.”

Standing outside the Basement East in February of 2017, lightning and thunder began to roll across the sky, and that seemed to be a sign that I should wrap up the interview. I asked Chaz if there was anything else he would want people to know that I hadn’t asked him about. His simple yet perfect response was, “everybody should love themselves.”

One year later, before braving the rain in West Nashville, I ask the same question, and he has another simply perfect response.

“Drink water, get sunlight, and love each other.”

Stay up-to-date on Spazz Cardigan’s journey by following him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Be sure to grab tickets to his show at The High Watt on February 26th, and get ready for his single, Episode, to drop on March 9th!

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