The Free Nationals
The Free Nationals

The Free Nationals have long been in the shadows, waiting patiently for an opportunity to prove they’re much more than just Anderson .Paak’s backing band. Well, we’re pleased to report the group’s first studio album achieves exactly that.

Transitioning from nostalgic ’70s soul (“Apartment”) to stoner introspection (“Eternal Light”), the music on Free Nationals is backed by the kind of drums that bounce like a low rider on Crenshaw Boulevard. Over 13 breezy tracks, the band – which is comprised of Jose Rios (guitar), Ron T.Nava Avant (keyboard), Kelsey Gonzales (bass), and Callum Connor (drums) – bottle the warm euphoria of Los Angeles on a summer’s day with preternatural ease.

The pops and crackles that underpin these funky bops are designed to make you feel like you’re sitting in on a Sly & The Family Stone session, something achieved by running everything through a cassette machine so the music sounded more raw and like a byproduct of the analog era. The group fluidly combines live instrumentation with enigmatic guests such as Daniel Caesar, JID, T.I., Mac Miller, Kali Uchis, Syd, and Chronixx.

Sonically, this self-titled record could almost be the spiritual successor to .Paak’s (who the band affectionately refer to as ‘AP’) Malibu, with the Free Nationals paying homage to their city’s over-abundance of sun, sea, sex, and sticky weed in a similarly giddy way to their friend and mentor. You can tell a lot of these songs were recorded in one take, the result of a group of friends having fun in the studio and pushing one another to be the best they can be.

“We would just jam and hit record. Then we’d go back and add the different layers or a hook, and suddenly it was like ‘wow, now we’ve got a song!’” agrees Ron, during a group interview session over the phone. “That spontaneity is what gives the album its energy.”

Jose goes one further: “I think this is the record AP wanted to make, but didn’t, after Malibu. There’s some incredible stuff on his new records, but when it comes to having that cohesive sound, well, that’s something we really captured with this project.”

“When we work with AP, he’s like the quarterback and it’s our job to sit back a little and support him, but it was fun to finally get a chance to show we can lead too,” he adds. “We’ve all been friends for 10 years, and we finish each other’s sentences; this album is filled with that kind of love.”

Highsnobiety caught up with Jose, Ron and Kelsey to talk through their self-titled project and the intentions behind each song. Scroll down for the full track-by-track breakdown.

1. “Obituaries” ft. Shafiq Husayn

Ron: The album and all the songs were done, but we still needed a dope ass intro. We reached out to Shafiq, who is a real deep dude and actually the guy who first called us the Free Nationals, and he just came through with this perfect spoken word monologue. He is really going in, talking about solidarity and the kind of love that underpins what we stand for. It’s really spiritual.

2. “Beauty & Essex” ft. Daniel Caesar & Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Kelsey: This one was real fun, and the music came from one of the first sessions. Me and Jose switched on guitars and bass, and it was a genius idea as it made it sound a lot more raw and improvisational.

Jose: The song just came alive so naturally; the music was literally all recorded in one take. It wasn’t planned that we would go get Daniel and UMO, but AP made it happen, and they just mixed together so perfectly.

Ron: Daniel’s vocals are straight D’Angelo baby-making music. I think I’ve made some babies to this song already. People gonna be making baby after baby after baby after hearing this shit, trust me!

3. “On Sight” ft. JID, Kadhia Bonet & MIKNNA

Ron: The way the two chords came together created this real Death Row sound. It wasn’t the intention, but we found ourselves making a ‘Where the fuck is Tupac Shakur at!?’ kind of beat. We sent it to JID, and he just killed that shit.

Jose: We recorded Kadhia’s hook at my house. Her voice is so killer. Um, I might have laid down a scratch vocal before that, but it was pretty garbage to be honest. This track just has those drums that sound so much like LA on a sunny day. We’re out here smoking weed, hanging out, and drinking together every single day, so our music naturally reflects that vibe.

4. “Shibuya” ft. Syd

Ron: We weren’t thinking of Syd at first, we were just fucking around. But we had the skeleton of a song and Syd then did her thing over the top of it. When she handed in her vocals, we flipped the song completely and got rid of all the old chords. Everyone you can think of played something new, but when we played it to Syd, she was like: “What the fuck bro, this isn’t what we recorded!?” So we went back and dug out the original, and that’s what you hear now.

Jose: We sent her the track when she was on the road so it took a long time to come back. Artists are busy with interviews and shit, and I know she was real sensitive about getting it right and taking her time. But when she sent back what she had done, it was so perfect. There’s a real vulnerability to the vocals; it’s very pure. She’s one of my favorite artists, so this honestly was such a thrill.

5. “Apartment” ft. Benny Sings

Kelsey: This is one of the early blueprints of the record, one of the first riffs we recorded. I sent this song to Benny Sings, an artist we love, and he sent me back this version that flipped the whole thing upside down. He pitched it down a third and it became this new song. He wasn’t sure about it, but we thought it sounded so fire. He has this timeless voice. He sounds like Bill Withers on “Lovely Day,” or even Bobby Caldwell.

Ron: It’s so cold. Very old school. It’s soul, baby! Benny is like the Bee Gees and shit.

6. “Gidget” ft. Anderson .Paak & T.Nava

Ron: ALL OF A SUDDEN AP TURNS UP! This one was created when Jose was having a weird day, this girl was stressing him out. Tell him about it…

Jose: Well, I was having a falling out with this chick over some video stuff. She was holding this video footage of us – from when we were younger – hostage, and AP could hear the argument. He took it one step further and made it into this crazy ass love story. AP always writes about what goes on around him. He is always listening man! Every. Single. Detail. He is watching!

7. “RENE” ft. Callum Connor

Jose: The other three guys took the lead on this one. It’s similar to “Gidget” in a way, as it’s all about this girl. Ron met this chick called Rene, who had this trailer, and she would follow him around to our shows. She had loads of weed and mushrooms, and was a real voodoo kind of chick. We wanted to capture some of her energy. Wassup Rene!

8. “Time” ft. Kali Uchis & Mac Miller

Jose: We were having a session with Kali and she was breaking down the issues in her relationship, and getting really emotional about it. AP walked in and asked us to leave. We went downstairs to get some food and when we came back she had this entire song laid down. It was crazy. I’ve never seen someone write like that before.

Kelsey: Kali uses the studio like a confessional booth; it’s similar to how Amy Winehouse used to write! Her vocals are really cathartic and timeless. It was AP who gave it to Mac. If I recall right the first verse Mac sent wasn’t the dopest, but AP asked him to send another one and that one was incredible. I remember I was eating one day and Mac called. He had just broken up with Ariana Grande and was worried about some of the lyrics, and asked me to change them. I guess he didn’t want to sound like he was heartbroken or begging on the verse, because he has this lyric where he says: “Don’t leave me!” He recorded it before they broke up, but he was obviously worried the lyrics would now have a different meaning. A day went past and he called again like: “Bro, keep it as it is.” I love that he didn’t change it, it shows how brave he was. He wasn’t afraid to show weakness and that’s what made him a real man.

9. “Cut Me a Break” ft. T.I.

Kelsey: T.I. really rocked with us. He did the “Comedown” remix with AP, so that’s how he became a fan of our band. We would all eat crab with him and he was just the nicest dude. He’s a big star, but still so down to earth.

Jose: It might sound weird hearing T.I. over a rock joint, with those energetic guitars, but that’s the point of the shit. We’re about creating the unexpected.

10. “Eternal Light” ft. Chronixx

Jose: Chronixx is one of my favorite artists. I am a big reggae guy, but I guess he’s more of a soul singer too. We liked this idea of having a reggae singer on this R&B beat; the juxtaposition was ill.

Kelsey: He’s really going to surprise people with the music he’s working on. Chronixx is going to be so big. This is probably my favorite song on the whole record. He’s just such an enormous talent.

11. “Oslo” ft. Calum Connor & T.Nava

Jose: Ron and Calum really took the lead vocally here. There’s no feature and we wanted this to be Ron’s chance to shine on the vocoder like Roger Troutman or something. This will evolve more in the future. We can see Ron taking more of a leading role when it comes to the vocals in the band. This is the beginning of something special.

Kelsey: Chance the Rapper actually recorded a verse for this song, but he never finished it! We could have put it on their unfinished, but we wanted to be Gs about it, so decided not to. Sorry Chance!

12. “Lester Diamond”

Jose: This represents all four of us going in and playing music with a smile on our faces. Callum really pushed us to experiment. He made the synths sound like they were howling.

Kelsey: He is the mastermind of the production. We’re so lucky to have him, honestly. He pushes all of us and isn’t afraid to take risks!

13. “The Rivington” ft. Conway, Westside Gunn, Joyce

Jose: Mixing street raps with that neo soul vibe was such a cool combination. Maybe it’s a bit like Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” musically, but that’s because it just came out and we all loved it. It has the same kind of drums as “Obituaries,” so was a nice way of bringing everything together at the end of the record. I like that we can play with people’s expectations and put people rapping their asses off over such a chill piece of music. Great music should always surprise you.

Stream Free Nationals’ ‘Free Nationals’ here.

Words by Thomas Hobbs
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Thomas Hobbs is a freelance journalist / Tupac-obsessive based in London. He also writes for the Guardian, Pitchfork, NME, New Statesman, Dazed, Noisey, Time Out, and Crack Magazine.