A line of coke on a phone screen.
That’s the simple sketch-work on a minor KIIARA release’s front cover that introduced me to someone who’d end up making one of my favourite records of 2016.
lil aaron turned out to not only be “just another kid from Indiana” – as he claims on the third track of his debut release GLOING PAIN$ – but also one of the best emerging songwriters in the game right now. Monday saw him put out his first full record – seven tracks of an inexplicably brilliant, addictive melting pot of Aaron’s most passionate influences – the most braggadocious rap, the brattiest punk & the simplest pop.
Self-confessed on GLOING PAIN$‘s first track, he “went from sleeping on [his] manager’s couch” to being one of America’s most unexpectedly charming musical secrets in mere months.
24 hours into his record being out in the world, he hit pause on his tour rehearsal for an upcoming run with KIIARA to jump on a Facebook call with me.
“I feel really good. I’m too swamped to let it really sink in, but I feel good. I got the reactions I wanted from people – a lot of people like it and a lot of people hate it – so it’s going well.”
Aaron’s intrinsic social media smarts have been a key to getting people to know about him. As much as his appreciators were praising the music on Twitter with such kind words as “the crossroads of Travis Scott and Good Charlotte,” “a sonic progression,” “the best project of the year” and an admission that someone “got head in a parking lot today while listening to this” – his detractors still weren’t comfortable with a fusion of their favourite genre with one they never could quite identify with.
lil aaron loves that.
“I released a couple of songs before this project like DAMN – some people fucking hated that – and Bout Time, which most people liked. It was lukewarm, nobody hated it, and I like that song, but I didn’t want that to happen. I want it to be a polarising project. I want people to either fucking love it or fucking hate it. We worked really hard on being no holds barred, going all out and having fun, that idea of not giving a fuck what people would think at the end of the day.”
The more punky, guitar-led sounds on Go 2 Hell and the more hip-hop stuff like Pink Fenty Slides differ in their core, but still sound somehow cohesive. It’s something I haven’t heard before – where stuff can be comparable yet so distinct. I wondered if there was any plan, or if Aaron just aimed to make stuff that he liked.
“Before GLOING PAIN$ even started, we sat down and talked about the idea of fusing rock with a more current hip-hop sound, because before I even properly committed to the idea, people made comments about my vocal being like a pop punk vocal over a trap beat, which I really liked! So we kind of had the idea to add some of those rock elements into the production as well and so I think the only thing going into it was ‘let’s have some rock/punk inspirations & some, like, SoundCloud rap inspirations’ and the biggest thing was to not hole ourselves in. We made so many songs, some of them are even more rock, some are in way different directions, we made SO many records. The whole process was an exploration. We wondered how weird we could get, yet still be making pop records?”
The reason our pop-focused blog has been fucking with Aaron from day one is that he’s a pop guy at heart. His work with people like Kii, Hailee Steinfeld (on Fragile with Prince Fox), and most of Dev‘s upcoming album has cemented him as an alternative yet brilliant pop writer.
How he manages to incorporate fast-paced punk music & rap music into that, without sounding conceited, is one of his greatest feats.
“At the end of the day, I’m a pop songwriter. I write pop songs. I understand Top 40, and I understand what it takes to do that. I still like to push the line on songwriting especially lyrically, I’ll say a lot of things most pop artists don’t want to say. From the jump I knew the songwriting would be the easiest part, so I made sure to surround myself with the right producers, so when we put together the core producers I decided we needed to really put together the sonics of the production. The songwriting took me fucking, 30 minutes a song. That wasn’t hard. The hard part was getting the emotion on the beats – because as a songwriter too – I very much respond to the energy on the production, so I wanted to get that landscape down first and then lay the vocals on top of that.”
My favourite song on the record is the just-under-2-minutes Drugs, a simple, repeatable and addictive singalong about an illegitimate lust for someone you only really like when you’re high. Because it’s easy to digest, I wanted to delve into Aaron’s songwriting process on this.
Drugs was definitely a guitar song, and then I don’t know what point I actually got to put the vocals on it, but I knew as soon as we had the main progression down – I mean, obviously that hook is the simplest thing ever, the pre and the hook is like one line, I had the idea, and even that in itself, some people think that’s like a cop out or lazy songwriting, but I think that in itself is pushing the boundaries – pop is a beautiful, simple art form, and on that song I feel like we really stripped it down and made pop structure even simpler. Half of the verse is the same on both verses, and I was like “how simple can we get with this without annoying people?” Like, people will still be annoyed, but ‘how simple can we get without the standard lil aaron fan getting annoyed by it’? Drugs was the result of that.
As we spoke about the song, I heard it come on in the background. Aaron’s surrounds were his rehearsal studio – where his crew were listening to the songs and working out everything that goes alongside it. I wondered though – how his rehearsals for an upcoming launch show, Kiiara tour and Lil Yachty support worked – when the music would sound more at home alongside something like Slipknot, tbh?
“It’s funny you say that. From the jump, before I even started my music, I wanted to brand myself through touring. Obviously through just being friends with KIIARA I got that opportunity, which is cool because that hits the pop side. I’ve got a kind of triangle of what I’m trying to do here. There’s the pop side, I want to be associated with pop artists. There’s the rock side, I want to be associated with the KORN, Slipknot, nu-metal type bands, and then there’s the Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Lil Yachty type shows I want to do. So the KIIARA shows are an amazing thing to be able to do, I’ve got one off-date with Lil Yachty that’s really cool, and that’s kind of been the angle for live shows. My live show has a lot of energy that a lot of people aren’t necessarily used to unless they’re going to punk shows on the regular. So putting that in front of the rock kids who are used to that energy, the pop kids who are used to standing there, the hip-hop kids who are used to just beats – no drum and no guitar – but it still somehow fits into all those areas, that was kind of the idea. I remember a conversation I had with my manager Nic where we were like “let’s build this into a project where I can tour with Travis Scott and The Weeknd, then I can play Oz-Fest, then I can tour with Disturbed. I think the problem with ‘rap-rock’ – and that’s probably not the best way to phrase it, I love rap-rock – but I feel like the majority has come from the rock world and been less accepted by the rap world, so I wanted to be really aware of growing it in both worlds at the same time and not just be some white kid playing rock songs that wants to be a rapper. Obviously through some of the music I’ve put out and some of the relationships I’ve built – with people like Makonnen or Skizzy Mars – the rap world has kind of embraced the early on music, so that was the idea behind releasing the project as a rock project, so we could catch up there and then bring it back, it’s a whole process.”
But if he’s trying to hit three different audiences at once, who the fuck comes to a lil aaron headline show?
“I think everyone in high school comes to a lil aaron headline show,” he tells me confidently.
“My high school experience was very much that there were two groups of music lovers. The kids who listened to A$AP, Cudi and Kanye and the kids who listened to Black Veil Brides, Blood On The Dance Floor, the Warped Tour kind of music – and my whole goal is to get both sides of the high school in together. A project that both groups of people can associate with and link themselves with and really get behind.”
With an artist project that feels so strong, considered and confident, I find it hard to work out how Aaron can split his time between this and writing innovative pop with – and for – popstars.
“At first it was really hard, because I thought I could do both really easily, but the thing is as a songwriter myself I like to get really invested in projects – I don’t like to just do one song with someone and say goodbye – I like to get behind artists that I really like, KIIARA for instance, and really get involved with their projects and shape their sound. I tried to do both for a while, but GLOING PAIN$ didn’t properly come together for us until I made a conscious decision to stop working on other artists’ projects and work on mine, so for the time being I’m focusing on lil aaron the artist – I do have a lot of songwriting cuts coming out soon – but for now I’ll focus on my own artist stuff and we’ll see what happens with that. I’m definitely still a songwriter and I definitely want to still write with dope artists – I guess only time will tell.”
Although it feels like what Aaron is doing right now is really his own space to be in, he’s not worried about others having a go at the sound.
“I think a lot of people are going to try. I encourage it. I don’t want to create a lane and then be like “only I can live here,” I encourage other arttists to explore this world of rap/rock, and explore putting guitars on rap songs. I’m by no means the first person to put a guitar on a rap song but I encourage other people to explore this sound, this genre that we’ve created and be a part of it.
“I’m not salty about people trying to emulate what I’m doing, I think that’s awesome.”
Get GLOING PAIN$ here.