Ajay | photo by Liz Jelsomine | courtesy of artist
Harrisburg guitarist Ajay draws influence from the blues and Philly’s Roots Crew to create debut EP Sun Go Down
One thing that helps me to cover local artists in the Philadelphia region is being a part of an open mic event called The Juice Jam Sessions. Before Covid-19 hit the world, hip hop artist James Weldon put together a three-year running jam session every last Friday that has attracted a variety of music artists trying to make a name for themselves in the city. As co-promoter of the series, I’ve met dope artists such as R&B singer CJ Mills, soul singer Re-Mus of funk band Arthur Thomas and The Funkitorium, and more recently, Ajay, a multi-instrumentalist and producer from Central Pennsylvania.
Once, he got on stage he started playing the guitar and singing D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar.” His voice was so smooth that he reminded me of a young Bobby Caldwell. That night he gained a new fan and I became interested in discovering more about Ajay, especially after hearing his single “Sung Go Down.”
The more I learned, the more I could see that the 22-year-old kid from Harrisburg was destined to be an artist beyond his hometown. He grew up listening to music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, learned the practical side of performing by studying jazz, and became more creative by jamming out with blues singers and musicians at local open mics. It was also Philadelphia’s own The Roots that showed him that musicians like himself could bring hip hop elements into their artistry.
After graduating high school, the soulful crooner / guitarist has brought his talents to the City of Brotherly Love when he decided to attend the University of the Arts to study bass guitar in 2016. Whether it was jamming at different open mics, producing for other artists like Brooklyn singer Leeyuh Neptune, joining the music collective known as Omar’s Hat or releasing his debut project Sun Go Down EP, Ajay has been doing everything in his power to make his voice be heard in Philly’s local music scene. I recently got to sit down with him to talk about his early beginnings, his debut EP, and what he’s been doing during the worldwide quarantine.
The Key: Who were some of your influences growing up?
Ajay: I started off really young, at four to six years old, when I was out on to old blues. In middle school, I got into hip hop. By high school, I listened to rock and soul music that was sampled by the hip hop artists I listened to in middle school. Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. I started playing the guitar at 9 and started singing at 14 and bass at 15.
TK: The only thing I know about Harrisburg are two hip hop artists, Mazon and Thelonius, so I’m curious to know how your hometown’s music looks like?
Ajay: I actually have met both of them like super recently. Honestly the music scene, we have our bands and have a following but it is very cliquish. It’s kind of like Philly where you have your R&B, funk, and hip hop scene but everything is very microscopic. There are three or four funk bands and rappers have a following like everything is really small-scaled.
TK: What got you into singing?
Ajay: In my hometown, I used to play guitar for all these old heads who were like blues cats or jazz cats. I would just play songs for people and all these older guys wrote songs and were considered folklore songwriting legends and in a positive way, they basically pressured me into singing. I had musical mentors and I would go to jazz and rock music workshops and the mentors would give me an extra push.
TK: Was Mr. Strawley one of those influences?
Ajay: Yeah I how do you know about him? Wow, this feels like a Nardwuar interview! He was my first school band director until about 6th grade and he retired the year I went to high school. I played percussion in the school band and guitar in a jazz band. In 10th grade, I went to an art school in downtown Harrisburg and when I went for music my band director Mr. Yinger went out on a limb and set it up that I could still play guitar in a jazz band.
But to be honest it was kind of like the random songwriters who did open mics who threw me into the songwriting bag. The first time I sang live this guy that ran an open mic made me sing “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan. The first time I performed original music live was actually funny because I wrote a blues album when I was 13 and I jokingly wrote a song about wanting to perform at a lot of bars even though I was so young. I remember performing that and everyone thought it was a trip and that was like 2012.
TK: Thank you man, I appreciate the compliment! It sounds like you really dabbled into jazz and blues when you first started out. What was it about those two genres that caught your interest as a young kid?
Ajay: It’s kind of two different things for each of them because they’re like the polar opposite in the way I learned my musical identity. I didn’t really feel comfortable playing jazz, which was more like my academic side of learning music. I went to this music school, which was more like an extracurricular program, to take jazz theory and play with other young kids who wanted a jazz education. Jazz was how I learned the technical side of how I learned music, blues was just raw. I credit a lot of my ability to play off other musicians and jam with them to my blues side of my upbringing. There was a thing called The Blues Society of Central PA and they would host jams every Thursday and the musicians that put me under their wing would try to get me on stage to jam with other musicians.
TK: You’re also a big fan or rap music, especially Philly’s own hip hop band The Roots who embodied the genres you grew up under into their music. What is it about The Roots that you picked up from them that you use in your own music?
Ajay: Honestly The Roots were pretty life-changing for me. I had gotten really into listening to hip hop, but as a guitar player, I was doing the blues thing as far as performing and writing. They kind of flipped the script for me where I basically stopped being a guitar player but I had no place in hip hop, you know what I mean? It was like “I love hip hop, but what am I going to do? I am a guitar player.” That was kind of interesting then because I simultaneously came across The Roots and then a local band called The Madmen who were kind of doing the same thing. They’re a group of really good instrumentalists who were into funk and then their friend Jamarr started rapping with them. At first, he would just go on stage and freestyle while they were doing their instrumental thing and then they started writing songs. Seeing them perform a lot while getting into The Roots both have the same impact on me because it was like “Oh shit! I can really do the instrumental, jazzy, whatever you want to call it mixed with hip hop.”
TK: You’re a part of the band Omar’s Hat and I’ve seen how musicians venture out into doing their own thing or even rocking out with other bands from time to time. I’ve always been curious, how does that work for musicians like yourself?
Ajay: It definitely works out for me because I was already doing my own thing before I got into the band. Omar’s Hat started years ago, before I even met any of them. The band had started as a jam session, it was more of a collective of people who wanted to jam. It was more of a free thing anyway and then the newest iteration of it is around the time I joined the band. We actually live together, me, Matt who’s on keys and Eric who plays the trumpet and rehearse here a lot. So the band works out for me because I get to do my own thing when it comes to producing and writing original songs while living with my band mates and dedicating every Monday to rehearsing with them.
TK: I met you at The Juice Jam and saw you perform D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar.” What were your other go-to songs that you would perform at the open mics in the city?
Ajay: That was probably one of them. When I first start getting into the Philly scene I was studying bass guitar at U Arts; so really my first the first half-year in Philly I was in the musician bag. I would just show up to jam sessions and play bass but it was actually the summer I went back home in 2018 when I got back into singing. When I started getting into vocals my go-to songs were “Brown Sugar,” a slow R&B version of Sam Smiths’ “Latch,” and this song by a band called Durand Jones and The Indications. I thought they were a band from the ’60s because they sound like Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. I got into them thinking they were an older band and started playing one of their songs as a go-to for performing, but then I found out they were brand new and were like thirty years old or something. [laughs]
TK: Who have been some of your favorite artists that you’ve collaborated with since moving to Philly?
Ajay: The main artists I really collaborated with in terms of making songs that have or haven’t been released are John Williams, Ian, Ellyana and I’ve even produced a song for Leeyah Neptune called “Natural High.” She’s like one of my best friends from college. We’re supposed to create more but I haven’t seen her in a while.
TK: When did you get into producing?
Ajay: I started in my senior year in high school. My friend Mike who was in The Madmen band showed me how to sample. Taught me how to open up Logic, chop up the audio files, and put drums to it. So through my senior year to high school to my first year in college, I was trying to be J Dilla because all I wanted to do was chop up samples and put some fire drums over it. But over time I started recording my own chords and writing vocals to that.
TK: Do you feel like producing came natural for you since you are a musician?
Ajay: I think in some ways it came natural but there were also moments where it took a lot of time to build up. What’s interesting, man, is that I think production skills are a whole different bag than musical ability. When you’re producing you’re learning what parts of a sound make a track hit rather than showing what you can do on your instrument, you know what I mean? I think the biggest thing to learn about production coming from a background of being a musician is that as a musician it’s about what you can do on your instrument. It’s the technique of how fast you can play, how many chops you have, and I think with production it’s more about looking at the bigger picture. What sounds and melodies create the vibe you’re looking for. Production allows you to think outside of your instrument.
TK: Listening to Sun Go Down EP it sounds like you’re with a woman that you have a past with and throughout the project you two are discussing the past, present and the future while watching the sun set. How did that project come about?
Ajay: It’s funny because I was thinking of how to explain the EP without having to sound too deep, but it really interesting because the influences came of what you feel like life is going to be like as an artist. I grew up privileged in a lot of ways and college to me seemed like a safety net because you are in an education system with a place to stay for four years while your parents are able to help you out. Most of the influences came from dropping out of school, not wanting to get a day job and realizing if I want to pay rent, I have to step my game up and hustle as many gigs as I can. It sounds kind of depressing, but the EP came from the overall isolation and having to deal with real life at twenty years old. I was in a relationship all throughout my two years of college. It was like my first legitimate relationship and I wrote the album towards the end of that relationship. It came from realizing how much you sacrifice a normal life and how you get viewed as when you set it in your mind that you’re going to be an artist.
TK: You were really hands on with this EP, writing and producing the entire project. Was that by choice initially or was it because no one would help you?
Ajay: It was definitely by choice, because I wanted it to sound like myself. The production elements are very base and when I started writing the EP I was introduced to music that I had never heard of before. It gave me the idea to not lead to a genre when creating, like let me make the best music by sounding like myself without sounding like anyone else.
TK: I think it worked out, especially your single “Sun Go Down,” which a lot of people have been drawn to. How has the response been for that song since you released it?
Ajay: The response has been really good, man. I’m getting better at this as an artist but I’m starting to really look at the people who love what you do. It doesn’t really matter the size of the fanbase, it’s just the fact that someone other than you appreciates what you created and I started to receive this feeling after releasing the project. The people who heard it where coming from a genuine place when they said it was something they really liked and that to me is rewarding. I’d rather have two hundred fans that love what you do than one thousand Instagram followers who don’t care or affected by your music.
TK: Since quarantine has been going on, I’ve seen a lot of creatives find different ways to keep the juices flowing during this worldwide pandemic. What have you been doing during these closed-in times?
Ajay: Honestly it’s funny, man, because when I was talking earlier about the isolation and how that was an influence for the project I had to force myself to be an introvert. In the winters of 2017 and 2018, I forced myself to go into isolation mode and create. I still wasn’t comfortable with being that introverted but I was stuck in the house so I decided to make music. This past winter I started to feel more comfortable being an introvert being in artist mode so because of that I’m kind of mentally exhausted when it comes to creating. Right now I’m just enjoying hanging with my roommates and jamming with them in the basement. It almost feels like I’m getting back to my roots.
TK: I believe you’ve been able to perform a couple times outside of the city and experience music from other cities. What is it about Philly that you love that stands out from other places you’ve performed at?
Ajay: I guess what I really like about the Philly music scene is how creative people are here. When I was going to school, music was very academic, and in Philly you can very clearly see the difference between kids who learn music very academically to those who are good just by doing it at a young age. You got cats like saxophone player Yesseh who’s brilliant because he knows the academic part but he’s Philly bred, learning from the older soulful guys. Don’t get me wrong, education does help, but I feel like Philly has a lot of rich culture that adds on to the music.
Below you can check out Ajay’s EP Sun Go Down.