Bryson Tiller has conquered America – and now the UK – with his sensual, low-key R&B, but he’s still a quiet, enigmatic, gaming-loving wallflower at heart, finds Leonie Cooper
What kind of man turns down Drake? Bryson Tiller, that’s who.
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A few years ago, the ‘Hotline Bling’ megastar tried to sign the reserved 24-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky to his OVO label, but Tiller politely declined. Not that it did his career any harm; his debut album, 2015’s sumptuous, downbeat ‘Trapsoul’ catapulted him to fame. The follow-up, ‘True To Self’ – released this May –went straight in at Number One in the US. Last month’s guest spot next to Rihanna on DJ Khaled’s steamy ‘Wild Thoughts’ has given him even more exposure, and last week he played second on the bill to Chance The Rapper at Wireless Festival. Not bad for a guy who used to live out of his car.
Shuffling into his manager’s palatial pad in a swanky suburb of Los Angeles, Tiller cuts a casual figure in black basics and a cap pulled low over his head. “I don’t really wear jewellery. I don’t like to spend money like that,” he explains of his unflashy look. “But one day I woke up and I said, ‘Man, I deserve it, why not’, so I went and bought a bunch of stuff – expensive designer stuff that I didn’t really know the name of.” Within a matter of days he’d shunned his lavish new wardrobe. “Yeah, [buying that stuff was] stupid. I regret it right now!”
Tiller, you see, is the quiet kid writing poems while the class clown laps up all the attention. He’d never even been to a gig until ‘Trapsoul’ came out. “I’d stay in the house and play video games,” he says of his younger years, which saw him raised by his grandmother after his mum passed away when he was four. “I didn’t really have a social life.” When he finally lost his concert cherry at a Big Sean and J Cole show in LA, he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “I was like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’”
Crazier still was when he attended his first Grammy Awards after ‘Exchange’ was nominated for best R&B song. “It was weird, cos I like wearing sweats and I hate wearing suits. Anybody who saw me that night knew I was uncomfortable.” Surrounded by the great and good of pop music, the introverted Tiller was uncomfortable for more reasons than a constricting dinner jacket. “It feels like high school, almost. You see all these celebrities and they’re like the popular kids and I’m like the new kid at the lunch table by themselves.”
Serious and sensitive rather than showy and materialistic, his confessional material, which deals with deeply personal relationship woes, took off when he posted a home recording of the intimate ‘Don’t’ on SoundCloud in 2014, which pulled in over 35 million streams. ‘True To Self’ was set to be even more personal than ‘Trapsoul’. “It was called ‘Before You Leave Me’,” he explains of the first version of his second LP. “The whole album was like a letter to some special certain someone.” But that was scrapped in favour of something a little more upbeat. “This album is more about trying to figure out how to be great and feel great. The relationship with myself – I feel like that’s the most important relationship. That’s what I’m working on and still trying to figure out.”
All that emoting can tire a young man out, so Tiller is already thinking about what happens next. “I’m not gonna be doing music forever,” he explains. “I only have two more albums left on my deal.” That something else is video games. “My first love,” he says, as he shows me the Rockstar Games logo – the developers behind Grand Theft Auto – in a locket around his neck. “If they said, ‘Hey, come work for us right now,’ I would quit music. For sure.” He’s currently working on concepts for two different games. “That’s my goal. The same way I say ‘I have to put out an album’, I have to make it into the [videogame] industry. I just have to believe that I can do it.”
He’s done pretty well at chasing his dreams so far. It was only a few years ago he was working for UPS and heard Zane Lowe’s now legendary Radio 1 interview with Kanye West. “He was so passionate about what he was talking about, like the leather jogging pants,” enthuses Tiller. “The way he was talking about his dreams inspired me to be the same way. I wasn’t even making music at that time, but I heard that and thought, ‘That’s dope.’” A year later he started work on the songs that became ‘Trapsoul’ while slinging dough balls at Papa John’s pizza factory for 12 hours straight every day. In 2017 he’s the name to know in R&B – now that’s what playing the rock star game is all about.
‘True To Self’ is out now on Relentless Records