Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting a rising artist who is bringing something new to the world of music and is capturing our hearts and minds (and ears). This week we’re featuring Sunni Colón, a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter and producer whose colorful energy is set to brighten the course of contemporary R&B.
Sunni Colón is finally finding his feet after a number of stop-starts in his early career: quitting a 9 to 5, a brief brush with Hollywood executives, and an even briefer stint at Roc Nation, all with no fixed abode. Unsettled, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter left his native city and became a self-proclaimed nomad, hellbent on curating his voice and owning his sound.
“I was everywhere,” he admits. “I was in between LA and New York a lot, Europe as well. Just being out in London.” His travels, far from the dream you imagine, served as a necessary springboard for early releases such as “Temple,” which pushed the producer and singer into prominence. From his adventures sprung debut EP Thierry Disko; a genre-bending project which combined ’70s grooves, wafting synths and an undeniable attention to color.
“That project didn’t do so well,” Colón notes. Yet, whatever failures the singer believes it amassed, the record did go onto shift his name across the desks of Kaytranada and Mac Miller. Hungry for more, he eventually set up shop in Paris, and, like many other flâneurs before him, carved out a space in which his production and artistic talents could collide. There, he co-founded the creative agency TETSU and ultimately get to work on his newly released sophomore project, Satin Psicodelic via Stem.
“I feel like I’ve overcome,” he chuckles. “I definitely overcame my hardships, so when I’m laughing it’s genuinely like me laughing at the fact that I did that.”
Before your venture into music, you were working as a project manager for a design company. What made you want to make the switch?
I’ve always been making music. So even during that process, I was making music and on the verge of contemplating what is the next step for me. Professionally, I had like two other jobs that I hated, and that was the real push for me to like go full throttle in music and not just take it as like, “oh yeah I’m going to upload some tracks and see how it goes.”
Were there any hesitations or difficulties you encountered when you crossed over?
My family is not a music-concentrated family. We’re full of educators, business professionals, and engineers, so there are no musicians. Like, nowhere in my family. I was like the black sheep when I decided to make that decision. The hesitation was more so financial.
I had a very interesting period especially after college where when I was like “okay, I’m not going to have money and I have to accept that.” When my first EP dropped, I was coming out of a situation where there was a lot of hardship, so it was those kinds of moments where I realized that I have to really go hard with music and not take it like lightly.
Can you recall some of your early musical influences at the time?
During that time period, it was Stevie Wonder. I’d listened to him my whole life but I literally had every Stevie Wonder lyric in my head. From there, I got into a band called Love. They were based out of LA in the ’70s, a really underground band making music that inspired a lot of greats like Jimi Hendrix to Paul McCartney to a lot of the guys up in Laurel Canyon. It was kind of like psychedelic music and it shifted a lot of things for me musically.
In 2013, Hollywood producer Paul Stewart managed to get hold of your record “Temple.” What was the initial dialogue between you two?
He actually reached out via email and around that time he wanted to use “Temple” and a couple of other songs for a few shows. We spoke about me possibly scoring stuff for him in the future. He literally just reached out and it was very special to have that kind of internet email exchange.
In terms of making music, you’re self-taught. How did you initially start tinkering with production?
I started producing when I was really young but more so making hip-hop kind of beats for other rappers. Then that kind of fazed into me understanding the music that I was sampling. It’s just like walking. It first starts with some type of rhythm or melody or idea and from there I could ponder upon that anywhere from a couple minutes to literally like two days or a week. It’s mostly me just sitting down with a guitar riff or a piano or just like vocal melody. The main idea is to just start making that idea actually grow and not over-producing or under-producing.
For you, do lyrics come first, or a beat?
The lyrics come into play first, with whatever kind of basic instrument I have. So, if it’s with guitar or piano, I kind of sit there and I write the lyrics. And then, that’s when I actually produce it. Or even with a computer sometimes. I’ll sit at a computer until the song is actually written. Everyone has their own approach, but that just helps me actually process and channel everything I do, because if I feel if there’s too much going on, I can’t refocus.
Is this creative process different when you’re working on someone else’s production?
Yeah, it does. I think the thing about being a producer, is that it’s not really about making the hottest beat. I think it’s more so, you’re like a psychologist. You’re like a best friend to an artist, where they’re like, “Okay, I want to make a song but I may not know what kind of song I want to make.”
And I remember one artist in particular. She and I were having a conversation about what she was trying to make and she had no clue. I think my job was just to be like: “Okay, let’s figure it out. What do you like? What are you going through right now? Let’s step outside and have a conversation.” That’s kind of my approach with a lot of other artists.
What kickstarted the drive to work on your 2016 EP Thierry Disko?
I just had too many songs and I was just in a constrained situation business-wise with the music. I felt almost powerless and this was my way of saying, f-you to everyone who was holding me back from moving forward in my life. That project alone had a slow build.
On the record, you have songs such as “Multi-Colored Love,” and “PussyainthatPink.” Was there ever a time where you felt your life or music lacked color?
Yeah, actually that’s funny. One year before graduating from college I just felt blue. I didn’t like the music I was making but it wasn’t like it lacked color. More so it almost felt like it was yearning for color if that makes sense?
I would wear black a lot. At that moment, I felt like black was almost consuming me. I wasn’t really fascinated by wearing color, but it almost felt like a reflection of what was going on internally with me. I still recognize it, too.
Many of the tracks on the record I would say are heavily influenced by drum patterns. Can you speak on that?
It’s funny, you probably would never guess this but all those songs on Thierry Disko started on an acoustic guitar. I’m trying not too, but I always do the drums last because for some reason, especially in the music world, I feel like everything’s so drum-heavy. It’s almost like this weird ego-driven test about who has the best drums, and for me, I was like, “I don’t want my music to be defined by the type of drums that I have.” I knew that when I would sing these songs my voice would feel smooth, fragile and, sincere, just like an acoustic version of the song.
Last year you created a multisensory art installation called Manifest 1.0 as part of your newly founded creative agency TETSU. What was that experience like?
Manifest is a series that I’m doing with my partner Jordan Conwell. For me it started in college, wanting to design one day and go into architecture but I soon realized none of the architectures or engineers working around me were inspiring at all. They kind of went by the book and were very bland. It wasn’t until Manifest where I was able to actually explore my creative direction.
Would you consider yourself a visual person?
Yeah, maybe a little too visual.
I haven’t seen much in the way of music videos for your releases. Can you talk about why you decided to work with The Neue School on “Way You Talk About Me?”
It was great. We didn’t really plan any of that, we just shot it in three different cities. One was actually at my old place in LA, and the other ones were in Big Bear and towards East LA. I came to this point, where I said, “Let’s just drive.” In LA everything’s just overly-used, so the process was like showing places you never see really in movies or on screens. It was five of us and we just had a good time. The next day I told them, “Yeah, you should just come over now. I’m playing on the piano.” We kicked it and shot for two hours until my other roommate woke up.
What’s the reasoning behind the title for your latest release Satin Psicodelic?
It stemmed from me being in those moments where we feel like we’re in weird spaces, like figuring things out and things are kind of fuzzy. Imagine not really understanding why you’re working in a job, or hating your job, it’s those fuzzy moments, I guess. Especially in our 20s, we’re figuring out limbo space. The reason why I even chose to use Psychedelic, in general, was because it represented a space where I felt I was at at the moment.
I chose satin ’cause it’s a special fabric to me. It’s a beautiful fabric and I’ve always wanted to be smooth as satin. I always want there to be that underlying beauty that we sometimes miss, even though it can be sitting right in front of us through the chaos.
What were the major differences working on Thierry and Satin?
I was at a different time period in my life. Obviously, you mature a lot more, emotionally and spiritually, you just grow as a person. 27 year-old me is really trying to figure out life from my own personal trauma, that’s what Satin is. It’s me coming to terms with a lot of those things but also finally understanding I can use this music as a vessel. More importantly, I want people to enjoy it and know that I stand behind the project like, “Oh yeah, this is a hundred percent me.”
What was the hardest song to write or produce on this EP?
I’d say “Mornin Dew.” It was a hard ass track to make. I literally wrote three songs before this track. There was a moment where the drums are different and it felt like a really short film. Then the hook was way different and yeah, it was really hard.
At one point, my mom came into the room after three hours of me trying to figure out what I was going to do and she said, “You keep overthinking this thing. I keep hearing the loop while I’m working and it’s driving me nuts.”
She kind of sparked an idea and it was more so her just telling me to let go. She was like, “I actually really love the beat.” It took her only one or two minutes and that was the gateway to me actually entering a space of finishing that track up.
What would colors and tones would you like people to take away from the record?
I would say it’s a cliché, but feeling emotions like love. It’s a very important emotion and concept to society. Being a loving person and loving yourself, understanding yourself. I think those are the different steps in knowing to love and even trying to ever love someone.
I was at a point — and still am at a point — where I’m trying to be self-loving and also understand how to love other people and not make it a dramatic, emotional experience when you say, “I love you.” I don’t need to love you romantically. I can love a brother on the street, out of love. And if he needs help, I can show that love.
As an artist, I’m in a very interesting time, especially creating music where there’s just so much going on and so much for us to filter through. I just really want people to identify with it and like it when they listen.
Be sure to check out our previous Under the Radar with the Tyler, the Creator-approved band Slow Hollows.