Elujay's Bright R&B Emerges From Two of the Hardest Years of His Life

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Oakland neo-soul artist Elujay had two very rough years, but he's emerged with some of his most thoughtful music yet. (Julian Edward)

In Elujay's latest music videos, he appears through a grainy lens that calls to mind vintage footage of a '70s rock star on his day off. Dressed in effortlessly cool ensembles of slouchy bellbottoms, silk scarves and crocheted hats, he's hanging out in lush landscapes, spending time with beautiful friends or looking out tranquilly into the Pacific Ocean. You'd never guess that he's in the process of slowly emerging from two of the darkest years of his life.

Circmvnt might be Elujay's most thoughtfully composed project thus far, but the story behind his new album is not so sunny. The neo-soul singer and producer, originally from Oakland and now based in Los Angeles, had been on a career upswing when the pandemic swept the United States in 2020. Not only were his live shows canceled, but witnessing so much suffering paralyzed his creative process.

"I was just like, 'Why am I making music when there's people just dying in the hospital?' You know?" says the artist, born Ian Jackson, in a recent video interview from his L.A. home. "Like just reading all those numbers, it just effed me up."

Things got worse when Elujay himself contracted COVID-19, not once, but twice. During his second bout of illness, in the fall of 2020, he was bedridden for months. Vaccines weren't available yet, and his throat was too sore to even think about singing. He barely even had the stamina to sit up at his desk.

Sponsored

"It felt like a terminal disease," he recalls with audible unease. "I lost a shit ton of weight, I was barely eating enough."

There were other difficulties he doesn't get into in great detail during our interview, including losing his grandmother. As frustrating as this period of forced stillness was, the grief and setbacks of the past two years also gave Elujay the chance to immerse himself in new sounds. A steady diet of Stevie Wonder, The Blackbyrds and Johnny Hammond had trained Elujay's ear for writing smooth, groovy melodies that evoked a time when R&B was in constant dialogue with jazz and funk.

But during the pandemic, he started gravitating to stranger, less straightforwardly pretty music. Japanese psych-rock band Fishmans, which formed in the late '80s, became one of his go-tos. Grouper's ghostly indie folk, Burial's electronic dub and Radiohead's intricate art rock were in heavy rotation.

These artists helped him tune into a different side of his creative self. "I've gotten a point in my artistry where I understand how to write a song. Now it's all about breaking the rules a bit more and trying to do something a little unconventional," Elujay says, adding that he mulled over a lot of the musical ideas on Circmvnt while hiking among redwoods around the Bay Area.

Across Circmvnt's 11 tracks, his growth is audible. The songwriting is confident and polished, yet there are sneaky surprises that skew the picture in ways that make you want to listen again. Take the syncopated drums on intro track "Hummingbird (quiet as Kept)," where Elujay tries to make sense of his life path while the pandemic exposes the ambient cruelty of American society. "You’re entitled to fulfill your own life / But you gotta answer on the day you die," he sings softly.

"I think the cool thing about this album, as opposed to my other ones, is that it was definitely, like, 100% related to experience," says the 25-year-old.

While other tracks, like "Ratrace," directly allude to the way a COVID-era capitalistic hellscape warps our psychology ("It's easier to dissociate" is one refrain), some songs on the project offer more of an escape. "Luvaroq," featuring baroque indie-pop singer serpentwithfeet (who is about to go on tour with Björk), soothes with the gentle sway of reggae as Elujay lays on the charm. The singer says the Caribbean vibe is a nod to his Trinidadian roots.

"When the protests [of 2020] started happening, that's kind of when I was really getting back into reggae again," says Elujay. "I was trying to ease my nerves with relaxing music, and it was just nice to play throughout the house. I played it for four months straight."

Elujay is back in good health, but the pandemic still shows no signs of ending. And though big arenas have largely gone on with business as usual, independent venues and artists have canceled events to protect performers, fans and staff from the omicron variant in recent months.

Elujay wants to get back to live performance this spring. In the meantime, he's kept his music out there with Spotify playlist placements. You'll find him on a popular one called "Low-Key" next to genre-bending, soul-adjacent acts like Khraungbin and Tirza. Brand collaborations have also gotten his name out well beyond the Bay: he scored the fall 2021 New York Fashion Week show for Tombogo, an Oakland streetwear designer favored by J Balvin and other pop stars. But the constant flux of pandemic life is making Elujay recalculate and go inward once again. He wants to take more piano and voice lessons, and to lean into his visual talents (he co-directed the action-thriller music video for "Frequently," which also appears on Circmvnt).

"I think I'm in a student phase right now," he says. "I want to be around people that teach me things. I don't want to be the smartest one in the room."