Modern Soul(s): Vulfpeck collaborator Antwaun Stanley connected with former My Dear Disco/Ella Riot leader Tyler Duncan for a new EP
Antwaun Stanley's powerful voice sounds like it came from another time, cast from the deep grooves of a 1960s R&B record.
That's why it's always a treat when the Ann Arbor singer appears as a featured vocalist with jam-funk-soul stars Vulfpeck or with one of the other bands for which he's associated.
But a new EP, Ascension, shows Stanley taking a big step forward as a solo artist. The record was made in collaboration with Ann Arbor multi-instrumentalist and producer Tyler Duncan. His impressive resume includes leading the Irish crossover group Millish and the dance-rock project My Dear Disco, aka Ella Riot, as well as producing songs for Carly Rae Jepsen and Lake Street Dive.
The EP isn’t technically Stanley's solo debut—he released a gospel album a few years back—but it does showcase his artistic voice in a new way with a modern R&B sound.
Ascension features three fully developed songs and three largely instrumental interludes. “Speed of Night” recalls old-school R&B, while “Tightrope” offers inspiration through James Blake-like soul-tronica. “Lost in Translation” is the EP's stand-out with its addictive groove, great singing, strong lyrics, and a crackling horn section.
Stanley answered a few questions about the new EP and his other work.
Q: You’ve been performing since you were a young child, but this release feels like an important step in your development as a solo artist. What led you and Tyler Duncan to decide to undertake this project together?
A: Tyler and I met through our huge web of mutual friends. We’ve known each other for about 10-plus years. In that time, we’ve participated on a number of projects through others, but hadn’t directly worked on anything together. Around the time we met, I was thinking more about my own artistic identity and how I wanted to express that. As time went on, we kept in touch and when it felt right, we discussed the idea of collaborating on some original music.
Q: How long has this EP been in the works and were there any particular challenges making it during the pandemic?
A: We were able to take our time with the EP. Over the years, we’ve found ourselves writing on and off, while also participating in other projects. This EP showcases some of the best musical moments from our time spent just having fun creating in the studio.
While some things were written and recorded before the pandemic, a lot was worked on during the lockdown. Fortunately, Tyler had a spacious setup that allowed us to comfortably proceed with recording. We also had some friends do some remote work. We kept safety at the forefront, so we masked up when it was necessary. Overall, the process was pretty smooth and we felt like we captured something very special.
Q: What inspired the title of the EP?
A: As an artist, my hope is to inspire and uplift, through song. And that’s what this EP strives to do. Whether it’s being free, letting go and finding the beauty in life’s crazy ride in “Speed of Night,” to acknowledging the state of the world and actively working to find ways to connect and better understand each other on “Lost in Translation,” to taking a chance and tapping into your true potential with “Tightrope,” there’s something for any and everybody to take away. And the hope is that by the final note, you’ve been enlightened, transformed, elevated—that you’ve ascended to a frame of mind that helps you to believe that what’s coming is better than what’s been
Q: You’ve got a great old-school-soul singing voice. How do you manage to walk that line between a classic and contemporary sound?
A: Wow. Thank you! Well, If anything, I’m always listening. While I’m deeply inspired by the rich voices of the past, I also find great inspiration with a lot of contemporaries. I think keeping an open ear has helped me get closer to finding my own voice. Also, I just like to experiment. I like to push the limit and see where/how my voice fits with various sounds and styles. I was exposed to many different genres of music at an early age, so it isn’t too surprising to see how I’ve evolved up to now and how my musical interests seem to run the gamut. That said, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the old school. The sound of those days have definitely played, and continue to play, a huge part in shaping my artistic choices.
Q: The full songs on the EP are credited to you, Tyler, and Theo Katzman (of Vulfpeck and Ella Riot). How did the songwriting collaboration work? Were you all together in a room at some point, or was it more long-distance?
A: The collaboration for the EP was a combination of both. While long-distance work can be productive, I think there’s nothing like being able to connect and work together in person, and most of the record was done this way. As for the songwriting process, Tyler and I came together in his backyard oasis in Ann Arbor, farming through melodies and chords. He then suggested the two of us connect with our dear friend and collaborating partner, Theo Katzman, as we moved to the next stage of the process. Here, we each lead an area: I led in the melody realm, Theo in the lyric realm, and Tyler with production. This was something different and unique, but it worked so well! It was great being able to bounce ideas and eventually land some gems.
Q: Is there one song on the EP you’re particularly proud of? If so, which one and why?
A: All the songs on the record come from a genuine place. This [question] is difficult. But if I really had to choose one, I’d say “Tightrope.” This tune here really speaks to me because, in my journey thus far, I have had some frustrating stops and starts and there’ve been times when I’ve questioned my purpose. I think many of us, especially creatives, have dealt with this at some point in our careers. But it’s important to know that each of us has a unique voice/art that deserves to be seen/heard/felt. We have to trust and believe in the gift(s) we’re given and master them to the best of our ability.
All of this first requires taking a step. Many times, it’s a step into the unknown. But if we never take it, we’ll know what lies ahead. “Tightrope” is about shattering those deep fears and stepping out. It’s an inspirational message that I hope resonates with others as they navigate through the inevitable highs and lows that life brings.
Q: Do you and Tyler plan to continue collaborating in the future?
A: I’ve already started working on a full-length album and I’ve asked Tyler to produce. I’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with many others. I’m extremely excited to share what’s in the works. Stay tuned!
Q: Has it been difficult not to be able to perform live during the pandemic? How have you coped with that challenge?
A: I was able to hop on Zoom or the phone and connect with friends and family, etc. especially to step away from writer's block. But I really did enjoy the chance to have more of that alone time for creativity.
Q: You have a number of live shows with Cory Wong coming up, starting in November, including a stop at the Majestic in Detroit on Jan. 27. What can people expect from those shows? Will you be appearing with a full band?
A: Yes! I’m super-stoked to feature on Cory’s tour. Cory and I have had some amazing times in the last few years since we met initially, through Vulfpeck. The show will be a blast of high energy and I can’t wait to connect with all the new and familiar faces out there. People will hear tunes we’ve collaborated on, songs I’ve done and maybe even some classics! It’s going to be a super fun run!
Q: Do you have anything else upcoming you’d like people to know about?
A: For now, I’m looking forward to the tour and writing/recording my first full-length record in 15-plus years. [You may also] see me feature in a few upcoming projects [as a guest star].
Also, for anyone who may need the extra reminder: Don’t forget to take that first step toward pursuing your dreams. Take the limits off and go forward, full-steam. Why? Because you’ve got what it takes.
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.
"Ascension" is available on Bandcamp.