The song “Queen of Paisley” has an old school vibe that may make it hard to believe it was written by a 24 year old artist.
Silas Short, from Milwaukee, is that guy.
Silas is the latest phenomenon to come out of our city. Short’s career began one night on Christmas eve when he DM’d one of his favorite artists. That DM landed him at Stones Throw Records, the same label that has worked with J.Dilla, MF Doom and currently represents artist like Knowledge and Nx Worries.
I caught him fresh off of an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Kimmel with his labelmate Sudan Archives. Silas performed as a member of her backing band for the night. Our conversation was so relaxed and conformable that by the end he offered me an exclusive on the new direction of his next album.
Element Everest-Blanks: Hi, how are you?
Silas Short: Doing well. How are you doing?
EEB: I’m good. This is going to be a pretty in-depth interview. It’s only supposed to be for 15 minutes, but I want to get all of my 15 minutes. All right. So I’m going to tell you some things that I probably shouldn’t know about your life, and that’s okay, because we’re going to have fun with it. Okay. So you are a multi-layered artist. You’re a singer, a songwriter, musician, a visual artist, and unbeknownst to some people, you also have dabbled in clothing design, correct?
SS: That’s true. Yeah. I used to live in a warehouse where I made clothes for a living in Chicago. That was wild. I did that for a few, for maybe two years, and then I don’t do it as much anymore, but I can still sew. I can sew, and actually a lot of designers don’t make their own patterns, but I would make my own patterns and I would put together my whole outfits and everything.
EEB: I want to know specifically, there’s one outfit I want to know, do you still have that orange jumpsuit with the snake design on it?
SS: I gave that to R.A.P. Ferreira. And when I was living in Milwaukee, we actually used to do regular events and I think that’s at Landmark Lanes, but we used to have regular events, and he always used to take me along. And I was like, 19, 18, 19, and I made that and I was like, “Man, I think you should really have this.” And he was like, “I’m going to wear it on tour,” but he never wore it on tour.
EEB: Oh, no. Okay. So you are the youngest of five siblings, correct?
EEB: Do they all play music or do they all have some type of artistic expression?
SS: My sister, she went to art school for design, so she doesn’t do any of that now, but she’s really good at that. And my brother is actually the one that got me into music, who’s the second youngest, and that’s my brother Isaac. But we just grew up together, me and him mostly. And he’s one of those people that’s really talented, but I think he’s doing his thing in Duluth. He’s on his thing, but he’s the one that got me into it.
EEB: So you picked up your first guitar at about eight years old, and you started getting serious about your music around 10, right?
SS: Yeah. Just about. Just around there. Yeah. Basically. I grew up in church, so I don’t know if you ever went to Guiding Light. It’s on the north side. And my dad, he played at Guiding Light. He played at Greater New Birth, he played at Mason Temple. I grew up, I went to all the churches growing up. He would have me in the van carrying his stuff, and he’d be like, all right, because in church, when they have all the musicians have their kids go on stage, we would do that every single Sunday.
EEB: Did you know right away that you wanted this to be a career, or did you just think it was a hobby because you came from a family who’s artistic?
SS: My dad always actually pushed it as a career. He’s like, “You know what? You’re special.” He was like, “You’ve got to be doing this for the rest of your life.” I actually originally started out doing art. That’s the thing that I think I’m more talented at naturally. Music, I have to fight. And that was my brother’s thing. And then I start picking up guitar, and then my dad was like, “Oh, you know what? You should really stick to this.” And so I did.
EEB: That’s awesome. That parents’ encouragement can really help guide you when they see something in you that they possibly feel like, “You know what? I passed this down, this great piece of talent down, and I don’t want it to dwindle and fizzle. I really want to nurture that talent.” One of your brothers introduced you to The Roots, Gang Starr and Black Star. Which brother was that? And how old were you around that time?
SS: I was probably like, that was my brother, Isaac, the second oldest that I was talking about, I mean, second youngest. And it was probably around the time I started playing 11, 12, started listening to a lot of that. But then I listened to so many other things. My dad, he showed me all sorts of crazy music. My brother showed me all sorts of crazy music. I remember I had an iPod, like the fat joint-
EEB: Oh Lord.
SS: Well, before I had an iPod, I actually had a Walkman. I had a Walkman, a CD Walkman.
EEB: The one with the little fuzz around the ears?
SS: Yeah. So I was that kid. So I would pull up to school, and I remember I used to have a pair of Girbauds, and they had really big pockets. I’m actually wearing some Girbauds right now. I still love them. But I pulled up to school. I had the pair of Girbauds, and they had this big cargo pocket, and I fit my CD Walkman in there, and I would just go through my dad’s CD collection, put them in my Walkman, go to school. And on the playground, I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I would just be listening to my music.
EEB: Of course. I mean, that’s what Walkman’s were for. They were cell phones before we had cell phones. They allowed us to have that personal space in the midst of everybody else. Okay. So your father was a musician and he played in a band at church, but he also played this ambient music at home. And you grew up hearing this music while you’re on the little futon with your brother in the office slash studio slash bedroom. And when I listen to songs, specifically Cloudy June, I feel like your father’s influence is there because there’s so much musicality happening. And if you mix that with the neo-soul sounds that you’ve come to know and love, I think you get that song. Am I right?
SS: Yeah. No, exactly. And I did. I took a lot of elements of ambient, because they’re such good, I mean, you listen to a lot of modern hip hop, you listen to Kendrick in particular, a lot of the beats that he has, they have this crazy ethereal background. And they’re such opposite genres, and you’ve got to make opposite things and put them together. And that was the whole point of the record. I was like, I’m mixed, obviously. So I wanted to put opposite things together. I felt like I’ve always been in opposition with myself, so I wanted to put things that just didn’t usually go together, go together. You know what I’m saying?
EEB: And it pairs perfectly, like people who are opposite. They can pair perfectly. You know how they say opposites attract, right? And I think that’s a perfect example for musicians too. We tend to stray outside of the box because we’re told that we shouldn’t, and that we’re supposed to play a specific or make a specific type of music. But when we listen to music in our lives, we listen to everything. And unbeknownst to us, that creeps into our subconscious and helps us create different sounds and different music that people can relate to.
SS: Exactly. And that’s where I was really trying to go with it. And it feels really good because I was always confused, especially growing up in Milwaukee. It’s hard in Milwaukee. It’s not easy. And I needed to come to terms with a lot of things. And this record really helped me, and I’m really excited for the next one. I’m working on that right now.
EEB: So you’re from Milwaukee, and you have had one of the craziest experiences of an artist, not, I don’t want to say starving artist, because I don’t know if that’s where you were in life, but it gives me very starving artist vibes. You worked at Papa John’s, right? And you were hustling to make money probably to put into your music.
EEB: And while you were here, you played for, Gray Wolf and Early Face. So you played for all these bands, but in the midst of that, you’re hustling, bustling, trying to make money for a studio. And something happened at Papa John’s. Tell our listeners what happened while you were on your way to deliver some pizzas in the middle of this rainy day. What happened?
SS: So I forgot some sauces in the store, and I had to run back into the store, and I slipped on the reflective paint. And I was running, I used to be in cross country. I can run. I can still run. And I slipped, and I tried to catch myself, and I broke this… It’s the point where your wrist meets your thumb. I spiral fractured that bone. And usually when that happens, you don’t actually get full mobility in your thumb anymore. They can only splint it. So it’s up to the grace of God if it’s going to heal or not, and up to you how you’re going to work it out. So yeah, they told me I wouldn’t be able to play anymore because I had a really bad break. And I was like, it ruined me. It really did. It killed me for a while.
EEB: But you taught yourself.
SS: I went right back into it. It was such a big part of who I am as a person. I need to have my instrument. And at this point, and even at that point, I had had a guitar in my hands longer than I hadn’t had one in my hands, so I needed to still play and keep playing. So it definitely slowed me down. It took six months to recover.
EEB: Yes it is. You know what? I think that’s something to be said about an artist who really takes ownership of, I have a lot of things going, but I will not let my craft suffer. And you haven’t let your craft suffer. I mean, I was listening to your music this morning just to get prepared, and my husband came downstairs and he was like, “Who is that?” And I said, “That’s an artist from our city, and his name is SS.” And he was like, “Oh my goodness. He is the very definition of the new age neo-soul vibe.” I was listening to Queen of Paisley. So he is like, “He’s the definition of this new neo-soul movement, but there’s something different about his writing.” And I start to listen again. And I realized that that ambient sound was in there too. You don’t really realize it the first time you listen. But if you know your story, you can hear your father’s influence in that song. And I can tell by your smile that it wasn’t intentional, but it was intentional, right?
SS: It was a very special thing. He gave me a really cool guitar pedal that does this really magical thing to the guitar, and I use it in almost all of my songs, and it’s a piece of my father that I carry with me in the music.
EEB: Absolutely. So you moved to Chicago after a really, really, really tough time. A friend of yours had passed away and you continued to make music. Did you use music and art as a part of your healing process, or did you just take some time away?
SS: I definitely did. I was still, right when I moved to Chicago, I immediately started working, but I was working so I could still fund the craft. And I really focused in on this jazz math rock band thing that I was doing called Early Phase, which was fun. And we traveled around the country on the school bus, all this crazy stuff. But right when I moved to Chicago, I was working at a school as a paraprofessional and a substitute teacher, and I was working with my little cousin and she had cerebral palsy, or she has cerebral palsy. And so I would just be in school every day with the little babies.
EEB: Yeah. I mean, that’s motivation right there when you see little bitty babies. And did you ever just play music for her?
SS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, she always asks me funny questions about how the music industry works. And I was just like, “Oh, yeah, this is what I do.” But, so I’m a Pisces and she’s an Aries, but we have a really great relationship. And I’m blessed that fortunately she has a lot of cognitive ability. When you have cerebral palsy, it’s a spectrum.
EEB: Yeah, of course.
SS: So fortunately she can walk with a walker and she can hold a real good conversation, which is surprising because that’s a part of her brain that’s damaged the most. But we would go to school every day. I’d take them to school, and I’ll show them all sorts of crazy music. They hated a lot of the music I played though. They wanted to hear Miley Cyrus and…
EEB: Well, you know what? That’s music therapy. And everybody’s therapy is a little bit different. But I’m sure the music that you played for them in some way felt different and comforting to be in that space, to be able to hear something from someone you love create music. Let me transition to something I think, and you tell me if I’m right. The title Drawing is like you drawing on all of your life experiences. So your multicultural background, you are growing up in the suburbs slash the hood, going to the high school of the arts. Just the combination of being a visual drawer, someone who can make art that you can hang on the wall and drawing from your art as a musician. All of that came together on this project. So that’s what’s in my head when I see the title. Am I on the right track?
SS: Yeah. It’s supposed to be a multi-meaning. It’s like you have drawing from the life experiences, but then you also have, you’re drawing. Because my style is I draw with just a pen. So I’m the black pen on the white page. You need both of them to make the drawing. That’s me. You’ve got to put them together. And also in reference to me making the visual art. It’s all supposed to be just a part of me put into one thing. And it’s the album of self-acceptance, the album where I finally come to terms with I don’t have to be one thing or the other, because being someone who’s mixed, I get this pressure and feeling like, who should I be? I’m myself.
EEB: You’re drawing on both cultures.
SS: I’m drawing on both cultures. Exactly. But with that being said, I’ve never been treated like a white person. So I think for my entire life, I’ve really felt like I grew up around a lot of white people and a lot of white culture. But I think deep down, I’ve always just felt more at home being black. And I just say, “I’m black.” People ask and I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m light skinned, but-“
EEB: I’m a black man.
SS: But I’m a black man because I’ve never been treated like a white person. So it’s just super interesting. But I can’t discount any of the art or any of the things that I experienced within white culture. And my dad’s white.
EEB: It’s who you are. It’s a part of you.
SS: It’s a part of me. And I can’t deny it, but I want to just put it all inside the music because it deserves to be there.
EEB: Tell me something, what does the new album sound like? Because I know you are working on something. You are an artist, so you constantly stay working. What does it sound like?
SS: So the new album, I’m going more in the Erykah direction.
EEB: Exclusive. Hey.
SS: Yes. I’m going in an Erykah direction. And it’s definitely a little darker than the first record. The first record’s super light and bright. It has this happy feeling with it. And this next record stays more in the dark moody type of thing. Because I really needed to get out some emotions that I was feeling. I had gone through some really hard times between getting my first record released up until now. I’ve experienced a lot of really crazy life-changing events. But it also has a sense of familiarity. It’s here with you and it can be melancholy, but it can also… It’s music for any occasion. You know what I’m saying?
EEB: I love that. And I know you want your music to be timeless. Is this the record that you feel is timeless?
SS: Yeah, this is going to be my Mama’s Gun.
EEB: Eh. If Mr. Gribble had to describe you in one word, because we went to the same high school.
SS: Oh, true. I didn’t have Mr. Gribble.
EEB: Who did you have?
SS: I had Mr. Roberts.
EEB: Oh gosh. Of course, you had Mr. Roberts. So you sang in choir?
SS: I sang in choir and I was in vocal jazz.
EEB: If you had to do a duet with either Jeff Buckley, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, or Primo, who would you pick? You can only pick one.
SS: Oh man. Yo. Like Primo produced?
SS: Ooh. I mean, that’s tough. D’Angelo, I would be like, I’d be a little like, “Ah, no.” We would go… Jeff Buckley, I’d be like, “We will write some incredible stuff together.” Erykah, woo-
EEB: You can only pick one.
SS: Well, my top two right now that I’ve got to really decide between are Erykah and Primo. Because I’ve always want to work with DJ Premier and also Erykah’s Erykah. Man, you know what? I would do DJ Premier.
EEB: Ooh. Okay.
SS: Yes. And you know why?
SS: I would ask him to do throwback Gang Starr sounding type of beat.
EEB: That’s fair.
SS: Neo-soul type of guitar over that thing. And I’ll write just some dirty, just feel good stuff. I feel like with Erykah, it would be Erykah’s song and I’ll be on it… Any of those, their song and I’ll be on it which isn’t a problem. But one of my biggest dreams right now is working with DJ Premier. And I bug Peanut Butter Wolf about it all the time.
EEB: Oh wow.
SS: I’m literally like, “Yo man, can you tell DJ Premier-“
EEB: Nudge him.
SS: And here’s some insider industry information. Primo, he used to do a lot of stuff more, but I think the last artist that he produced for on Stones Throw was Anderson .Paak. But then I think something happened to where the song got cut or something and he was like, “Nah, I don’t want to produce for anybody anymore.”
EEB: He’s an artist and we are sensitive about… You know the rest. So when you come back to Milwaukee, I want to personally invite you to come to Radio Milwaukee and do, not a full show, but a mini something for us for HYFIN.
SS: Absolutely. I would love that. And I would love to just reach out and talk to everybody.
EEB: Bring everybody here. Even if it turns into a jam session of some old music, some new music. I would absolutely love it. And I would welcome that. So I want you to stay in touch with me and anything that you need from us when you come through the city, let me know. Even if you want to just come here and just kick it, let me know.
SS: Absolutely. I’m due for a visit. I think summer is probably going to be the time where I go to Milwaukee.
Courtesy: Milwaukee Film, Black Lens Milwaukee Film's premiere program Black Lens returns with another engaging series for Black History Month. Black Lens debuts a host of new community events and movies throughout February showcasing the beauty and intricacies of African American society and culture. The events kick off on Feb. 1 and span the gamut of networking, exploring Afrofuturism, music and Black love. "Groove Theory", the Black Lens music series, […]