Orion Sun | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com
Nostalgia Ultra: Rising Philly star Orion Sun fuses decades of classic music into something new and bold
Ever since seeing her open up for Daniel Caesar at the Rotunda, my friends and I have been hooked on Orion Sun. The one-woman project of Jersey-born, Philly-based singer, producer, and multiinstrumentalist Tiffany Majette crafts music that is relatable, and cathartic. With clever lyrics and mellow beats, it feels like she’s soundtracking my tumultuous young adult life. She makes songs to dance to, cry to, fall in love to. I recently got the chance to sit down with her and ask her all about it.
The Key: The name Orion Sun. How did that come to you?
Orion Sun: When I was younger, music wasn’t even on my radar and I wanted to be an astronaut. Like, Mae Jemison, I did all my projects on her. Then in 7th grade, I saw [the video of] the spaceship explode, and I was like “Maybe that’s not for me, I don’t want to die.”
I’ve always loved stars and space. In my hometown, you can see Orion really perfectly. I feel like him sometimes, in the sense that he’s the hunter, so whenever I’m making art, I feel like I’m hunting for something, if anything parts of myself. And then the Sun came about because…I was going through a time where I felt like I’m a better person away from people, but still close. Like, if the sun got any closer we’d die, ya know? So sometimes I think things get complicated when people get closer to me, so I try to be distant. Hopefully down the line that drops off my name, but it’s me right now.
TK: So how did you get started then? What made you think “Let’s do music”?
OS: I saw Brian McKnight holding the blue guitar on the Back At One album, and I was like “Wait — Black people can play guitar? Oh my God!” Then of course, Lauryn Hill. My mom introduced me to her, so I started loving music then.
When I got to high school, I was in choir and we had a vocal assessment. I was so anxious, so nervous, I just ran out of the room and hid in the bathroom. When class was over, I came back, grabbed my backpack and he kept me in there, and we were just talking for the whole day. I was like “…I think i want to do this” and he said “You have a great voice, you just need confidence.” His name was Mr. Traub. Then I was writing for a bit and every morning I would come in and show him stuff, ask him what he thought about the songs. I was supposed to work with him over the summer break, then he passed away.
It was tough. I said I was never going to do music again. My mom came into my room one day and was like “I’ve let you get away with this for too long, you have to get up NOW and start doing stuff. He would want you to keep going.” So I started writing music again, and singing. It was one of those things where, I didn’t have the money to go to college anymore, and this was the only thing that I loved doing that didn’t make me sad. So I was like BAM! That’s how it’s going to be.
TK: How do you go about writing songs, especially writing things that seem very vulnerable and honest? Is that difficult to do or…?
OS: I actually wasn’t going to put up anything I made for A Collection of Fleeting Moments and Daydreams, just because it was so vulnerable. It was during a time when everything was falling through and I had very few people to talk to about it. So when I was sitting down, writing for myself…it just became a very spiritual kind of thing for me. It was very meditative, so I’ve been trying to channel that energy more and more.
Only until I released the music did I realize that it had the ability to help people, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s so crazy because that energy…energy can’t be created or destroyed, right? But it’s definitely transferrable, and I’m so happy that music can do that.
ML: I wanted to ask you about your beats. They’re generally mellow and not overpowering of the lyrics or the vocals, but still interesting on their own. What’s your process in making them?
OS: I recently just got into sampling. The only samples that I’ve done are on “Mirage”, “My Foolish Heart”, and “Goodbye.” I had a blank canvas on Garageband, and I didn’t know how to do anything. I was coming up with melodies on my guitar and then transposing them to piano. So once I got into a rhythm, it starting becoming really meditative for me, which I think is reflected in my work because it is really mellow. I make my beats in private.
One of my favorite composers is Henry Mancini. And then Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, all those people have this thing that can’t really be recreated. That genre, whatever that is. It’s like jazz, but also magic. I just want to make things that can force you to not be present in a way. I like music that has that escape. When I listen to Nat King Cole, I’m like “What year is it? Where am I? Does it matter? It’s still beautiful.” So when I’m composing beats, it’s a lot about environment for me, and it’s very visual.
ML: I was going to ask you more about your influences and inspirations, but I feel like you’ve already answered that…?
OS: I feel like Brian McKnight and Lauryn Hill introduced me to the fact…
ML: That Black people play guitar?
OS: Yeah, because honestly I didn’t grow up on Jimi Hendrix. I discovered that stuff later on. But my mom was heavy into Lauryn Hill, which changed my life, honestly. But I think definitely my biggest inspiration would have to be Frank Ocean because I’ve never fangirled over anyone as hard. His writing is so…it makes me nostalgic for a life I’ve never known. He gets so specific, sometimes I have no idea what he’s talking about but I’m like “I was there! I remember that too!” I love Daniel Caesar, because I grew up in the church too. And he’s got that juice, in the secular range. And that voice is amazing.
I must say this though, Kanye West is one of my biggest inspirations. 808s and Heartbreaks is one of my favorite albums of all time. “Streetlights”… just puts me in my bag immediately, wherever I am. And I think my grandma is a big influence on me. She gave up her career to raise my mom, and her voice is so beautiful.
Musicians like Orion Sun are endeared to almost everyone. Her music instantly puts you in a better mood and validates your thoughts and feelings by being honest and relatable. She writes lyrics that leave me breathless because it’s almost like she’s in my head, narrating my thoughts. That Frank Ocean / specific nostalgia thing she talked about? She has that.
That being said, if you’re ready to dive in and discover your new favorite musician, check out Orion Sun’s mix for Smelly Feet Records down below, and check out her live show this weekend. Orion Sun will be performing at Space 1026 on February, 24th. More info on that show can be found here.