Terence Etc. discusses the creation of his new album, V O R T E X, finding a kindred and inspiring multidiscplinarian in Flying Lotus, and why he’s finally ready to share his debut after nearly a decade of tinkering.
No matter the medium or moniker, there’s a cerebral quality stitched into everything Terence Nance touches. From the infatuated probing of 2013’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty to the introspective vignettes of his 2018 HBO series, Random Acts of Flyness, Nance’s exploits take on disparate forms by nature, almost never neatly stacking into any particular column of creative thought or expression even.
In his latest phase, the director takes the stage as Terence Etc., a sobriquet dedicated to his wide-panning, long-stewing, genre-deconstructing experiments in rhythm, melody, and harmonics. The sum of ten years of “fits and starts” and exploring his relationship with the control of his own voice, those trials are laid bear on V O R T E X, his debut album, which is set to arrive on August 19th via Brainfeeder.
Across the album’s 11 winding tracks, Nance oscillates between a range of roles with no regard for genre. On the album’s titular opening track, he’s a spacy troubadour, tapping into an ancestral cross-strain of Afrobeat and samba. The follow-up is a frenetic electro-jazz freakout. “Contemplation” dissolves steamy and collisional world-building R&B into a confessional ballad. On “Dragon,” Nance blends math-rock with post-bop and hymnal gospel. “Sanity Envy” tests hip-hop’s dexterity in a shaky Dirty Projectors pop sketch with ragtimey feel. And the album closes with a longing and delicate elegy that could have been pulled straight from a Tin Pan Alley songbook.
Not unlike his cinematic output, V O R T E X is the product of communal culling and collective effort. With extensive contributions from Nick Hakim, Solomon Dorsey, Nelson Bandela, Djore Nance, Brandee Younger, and serpentwithfeet, he’s joined by creative confidants who helped him appreciate the details, process, and rigor of a craft he’s worked on loosely in the gaps between projects for the screen (which includes a second season of Random Acts of Flyness) and gain the confidence to present a more formal introduction to his musical mind.
During a recent trip up I-95 from his adopted Baltimore home (an increasingly popular hub for priced-out Brooklyn expats) Nance hopped on the line to discuss the creation of V O R T E X, finding a kindred and inspiring multidiscplinarian in Flying Lotus, and why he’s finally ready to share his musical debut after nearly a decade of tinkering.
I’m hesitant to call it a new chapter because I know you were very hands-on with the music composition and direction for An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Random Acts of Flyness, but how long have you been writing music?
Terence Etc.: Since the early 2000s, basically. But it really started in college. Actually, my uncle Brent, who was a big inspiration to all of us in our family, gave me a guitar for my high school graduation. It was a Mexican [Stratocaster.] I had no amp. He taught me one chord and I just started trying to take it from there. I had a bunch of poems I had written. Just thought of myself as somebody who wrote poems and stuff like that. But eventually, I began to make songs, make beats, and try to rap a little bit. I wasn’t confident enough to show it to anybody really, or even tell people that I was doing any music, but that’s definitely when it started.
Is that the same uncle that you dedicated the first episode of Random Acts to?
Yes. That was the year he passed away.
He was a pretty formative presence in your development as a musician then?
Oh, absolutely. He put the guitar in my hands. He’s a musician’s musician. I took it for granted growing up, but you just really know what it’s like when somebody really loves music for real, for real. What that looks like is a way of life and a practice of life. He was really consumed by it on all sides of it. A working musician — worked gigs all the time and at all times. And at the same time, just like all of us as artists, was well renowned for what he did contribute. He was mainly a percussionist, but he was a multi-instrumentalist and singer. Still, in my mind, he had a lot more to give just in terms of his own music that he left behind. He’s a family musician, him and his younger brother, uncle Lenny, are both musicians by trade. That’s their day jobs. And so just growing up with both of them, going out and setting up their instruments for gigs at night at whatever clubs they were at.
They ran the game. Sometimes, they would be on tour, on really long world tours in Lucky Peterson’s band. And Lucky is just intrepid in his touring and his work and his gift. So they would be gone for like, you know, musician life, sailor life, but then also when they’d be back, they’d play every night. So we were around and they watched us a lot. So me and my brothers and sister, we were around it at all times.
Did the process of making V O R T E X feel as holistic as it was when you were just beginning to write music? Has it changed at all?
It’s been a lot of fits and starts over the years. Some of the songs on the album are from that long ago. I think I started to conceive myself as making an album around Oversimplification time. I started playing shows, which was really related to just a ritual that I was doing, which was about performing and trying to break through my fear of singing in front of people and playing guitar in front of people and just sharing music in front of people. I think I only did it five or six times, but I performed for one person, my partner at the time. And then two weeks later, I performed for two people and then two weeks later, three and two weeks later, four.
So super gradual.
Yeah, very gradual. And then just played outside a bit, busking vibes. Then just logistically, it was all-consuming to try and make that movie, to finish that movie. And a lot of the songs had been written by that time and were in the movie in different forms. And I remember I had written just hundreds and hundreds of songs. A bunch of demos and different stuff. And then something happened with my computer. I took it in and I thought it was backed up, but then I had a digital fire and lost everything.
I just remember that download. Like, use it, or God’s going to take it away from you. That kind of thing. It was really clear in that moment. And then around that time, I rerecorded guitar and voice demos of every song I could remember basically, which actually wasn’t many of them because it was just that feeling of complacency. You know, like, “Oh, I have it somewhere.” I was using them to rehearse for the shows I was doing. Then when the movie came out, it was really conceived as a film and music experience. But I was never really able to achieve that.
We did do a lot of live shows, though. The band was me and my brothers and Solomon [Dorsey.] We did one at Sundance where it premiered, then one at Brooklyn Museum. And I think in that moment, Solomon was like, “Yo, when you want to record, let’s do it. Come through the crib, I’m in LA.” And then in late 2013 into 2014, I called Solomon and he just showed me the process of actually recording music at that level.
Because I had produced a lot of the demos in a kind of in-the-box type of way, they were pretty articulated in terms of arrangements and production. But he just took it to another level of what I actually needed time and money-wise and instrumentation-wise. So some talent came for two weeks. And I’d say about 80-90% of the record was recorded just live in a room, essentially in those two weeks in 2014.
Oh, wow, you guys really dialed in.
Maybe I exaggerated, but it was a lot. If I listen to it now, there’s almost nothing on it that wasn’t sourced from that time. Except, “Sanity Envy.” Nelson [Bandela] produced that off of the demo I made and then Djore [Nance] played on it and built it out more. But pretty much all of them were tracked live and then just additional stuff, horn arrangements, and other things, were just done later over what had been six, eight years since then.
It was always being worked on piecemeal. You know what I mean? I remember sitting on those recordings from 2014 and just not having the time to do anything because I was just trying to get Random Acts done, or any given thing was happening. And I think the big hurdle at the time, in terms of process, was just trying to understand what I wanted my voice to sound like.
How did you navigate that?
I don’t even remember what year this was, but Nick [Hakim] was like, “All right, every morning, you’ve got to come over to my house so we can work on these vocals.” So I went over his house every morning. We would just do the vocals for two or three weeks. And it created the aesthetic of the sound I wanted: the signal chain vocal stacking that was creating some of the energy of this sort of choral vibe. And we did “Infinince or Infinity” there, and “Stay,” and “I Miss Things I Never Had.” Which then gave me the confidence to engage with this process in my own house. Because it was just that. And we did other things, too. We played keyboards and guitars, just work on the songs generally, but a lot of it was the vocals.
So Nick demonstrated a framework for your vocal production on V O R T E X?
Yeah, he not only showed me, he produced it. I explained the vision of how I wanted it to sound and he just executed it. It was easy to continue that because then I realized so much of what I actually needed to do was just vocal arrangements. Literally, write the parts. And I think that I just didn’t realize how meticulous I am about that. And it surprised me because it just meant that arranging and writing all those parts just took way longer than I would’ve imagined.
Is there anything you learned in composing for the screen that you were able to apply to creating music for yourself or vice versa?
I mean, in one way, not much because I do think that part of the necessity of making music is that the process can feel as different as possible from filmmaking. In the cinema process, the major detail of it is there are agreements. You have to make all these agreements with other people and those agreements create a lot of stakes for everybody involved. You got to take any kind of moral right and wrong out of it, which is very difficult to do. It’s a cauldron, where they smelt iron in. It’s like a fire energy. Forgery. And music is like ocean energy. It’s like let’s just go out to sea today, see what we catch.
If they were archetypal practices, it’s like cinema is blacksmithing and making music is just being a fisherman. That said, when I’m acting in something, it is very much like learning a piece of music. Learning it well enough to where you don’t have to think about, “I’m going to sing this note and then hit that note and then sing this note.” It’s like, I see the script and there’s the emotional beats of it. And that’s the melody. It has a very one-to-one sort of process relationship with making music.
Was it always your intention to create an album of these songs?
Yeah, it was always going to be an album. I had it sequenced as an album since 2014. Maybe even a little before. And when I went into that process in 2014, it was to make the album. The Things I Never Had EP was definitely just the first three songs I finished. And then it was just the ritual of getting accustomed to sharing music and the necessity of that. I had to put time in I didn’t have, but it just spiritually started to become necessary to announce itself as just a practice and sort of a medicine that I needed for myself. I had to have it urgently and imminently. That definitely is what pulled it across the finish line. I think the EP was almost like a contract with myself to make sure I was going to finish V O R T E X.
What’s your relationship with genre? Is there a place you feel most comfortable musically?
For me, my experience of it is I was always doing whatever came out, trying to be a channel and seeing what happened. Collecting it all together. That probably comes from my family. My older brother is an opera singer and I grew up listening to him, listening to Leontyne Price. He was really into Broadway and he would listen to the original Dreamgirls soundtrack and The Wiz original soundtrack. Then my dad is into everything, but definitely a lot of Afro-Brazilian music, like Milton Nascimento. He took us to see Pharoah Sanders when we were kids.
That must have been incredibly overwhelming.
Yeah. I don’t even remember it, but he says we fell asleep a lot. He says we fell asleep when we went to see Nelson Nascimento, actually.
Oh, so not that overwhelming.
No, no, no. But we were used to that kind of thing, so it wasn’t bizarre. Then it was also just hip-hop and R&B we were growing up on in the 2000s and ’90s, I think there’s that. And I think I, if not everybody on Earth, have always been particularly drawn to Stevie Wonder. Everything that he is and means. Just where he would go in even one song or one album, more culturally than genre-wise. And how deeply he listens to what the spirit is in those different places.
I’m a big fan of Malcolm Cecil and was really just thinking about how deep Steve was into Nelson Nascimento, and even how deep he was into even Wayne Shorter and Weather Report, and that whole thing, he was like into that clearly. You could feel it in his music and then he’s also into TONTO, and just what that yielded is this weird, not weird, it’s just almost natural, it’s just…
And it’s just what that is something about different parts of the world and different ways of… just different spirits that are in those different cultures that then get stories about them. And those stories are like the sounds of instruments and the chord progressions and the in Brazilian music and Europe music, it’s the specific rhythms a lot of times. So I think of it like that. Like he has been the portal for so much of that collapse of different cultures of music, of black music especially. And I was just really brought up as a student of him and of Earth, Wind & Fire, and of Sly [Stone,] and of Prince.
How does it feel to present this with Brainfeeder?
It feels great. I expected to put it out alone or independently without any kind of label situation. But I just sent it to Steve [Ellison.] I think he’d just me what I was doing one day and I was like, “Oh, I just finished this.” He was like, “We definitely should put it out.” And I was like, half of course, and half pinching myself. Because it was pretty clear that this thing was taking on a life of its own. It wants to be considered and shared in a way that has more support and more intentionality than I would’ve been able to give it without Brainfeeder and without their skill and their curation and their level of care for what music is today.
Do you feel any kinship with Flying Lotus as people split between the screen and music?
I do. I think we all are in a portal of creativity generally and in a mode of production in a culture that only understands artists as disciplinarians, essentially. And I just think spiritually, most [artists] don’t understand ourselves centrally as “disciplinarians.” There’s just something more unstructured about which collection of media we might express any given thing in and there’s something more free about that. And he’s an example of that.
There is something wildly brave and vulnerable about flipping that switch, bouncing between formats and specializations.
Yeah. And people have fucked it up so much. You’ve seen it go wrong so many times. I mean, even like Bo Jackson or something like that. Bo Jackson should have just stuck to one and he wouldn’t have been so tired and he would’ve pulled his hip out of place or whatever it was.
But I think you kind of can’t avoid it with music and with the film. There’s a discipline there, there’s a high level of rigor you have to put into your craft to even be competent at, to ever have any fidelity between what you intend and what the result is. There’s a lot of rigor that has to go into creating that for yourself as a crafts person.
It’s also how black musicians, especially like transcendent, culture-shifting black musicians have always moved even if we didn’t know it.