R.Lum.R achieved a neat trick with his single "Frustrated." The track lurches and heaves like an old power ballad, but it's gussied up with enough modern knickknacks – buzzing synths, pitch-shifted vocals – to stand next to the rock or electronic music you encounter on the airwaves today. The song has been embraced by R&B listeners on Spotify, amassing more than 15 million streams.
"It was one of those songs we came across and a lot of us loved it," explains Mjeema Pickett, Global Head of R&B for Spotify. "His voice is amazing; everybody was passionate about it. So we decided to test it out in various playlists: Soul Coffee, Chilled R&B, Alternative R&B. It performed incredibly, as well as [songs from] some of the more well-known artists. We can see the skip rates, and his was one of the least-skipped songs in the playlist."
"Frustrated" is now beginning to make the transition to terrestrial radio, putting the Nashville-based singer/songwriter on a path carved out recently by acts like Bryson Tiller ("Don't") and Khalid ("Location"), who streamed their way into the hearts of radio programmers. On August 11th, R.Lum.R will release his debut EP, Afterimage. Rolling Stone caught up with to talk about his transition from classical guitarist to buzzing R&B star on the rise.
How did you first start playing music?
I lucked into going to a high school for the arts and happened to start playing classical guitar. I bought a guitar from Sam Ash in Sarasota, Florida, this Yamaha CG101. I didn't have a ton of friends; I was at the house all the time; so I just started tickling it, and some songs about girls that didn't like me came out, and that was that.
I got a scholarship to go to Florida State. I did the classical guitar thing for five or six years. I remember distinctly a point in my life where I'm like, I'm gonna be the next Julian Bream or John Williams. I was really, really seriously into it.
But all at the same time I was writing little EPs and little LPs. John Mayer was a big deal for me – I thought people like him were just gifted with this thing, born above the rest of us commoners, and we are just hear to receive their gift. Not understanding on the back end, John is putting years and years of work and training and failure to get to where he is. I was intimidated by all that stuff, but at the same time, my life was moving in that way and I wasn't saying no to it.
I remember when I dropped out of college and moved to Orlando, 'cause my then-and-now manager was like, "Move in with me, and we can get you into the bar scene." So I dropped out and did that.
But before that decision, the last year of college was one of the hardest years of my life because of all the trepidation. I had built up my whole life to be this classical guy, and people understood me to be this thing. You're essentially just doing a completely different thing, and you don't know if people are going to go with you on that. I figured, why keep studying commercial music, why not go do it?
The same thing happened when I switched over from Reggie Williams to R.Lum.R. I started doing this as a side project, and I didn't know people were going to react so strongly. But I really like lots of types of music. Why not explore them? There's no reason to be limited. I can sit on the internet and watch tutorials all day and learn whatever I want.
I have a last year of college playlist. If I didn't have Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens, I don't know if I would've made it through the year. Fleet Foxes, that first record was just so soothing. Sufjan Stevens, particularly the record Seven Swans, I love that record, particularly the song "Sister." Ray LaMontagne's record Gossip in the Grain – "Let It Be Me" was the song I would straight cry to. No bullshit. And the National's record Boxer.
How did the transition from acoustic John Mayer-inspired music to R.Lum.R come about?
So my manager was and still is working with a record label. They had a "who's looking" list: Chris Brown or Jason DeRulo or whoever is looking for songs, so go write a bunch of songs, send them to us, we'll send them along. At the time I had never been involved in anything like that.
I was working with a producer named J. Cruz, from Ethnikids, and he said, I don't want to do it the way I've done it before, where a publishing company will just buy a studio for like a week and put 50 of their writers in there and farm songs. He said, I want it to be just me and you in the studio, and then we'll just do whatever we want, do it sincere, and turn that stuff in. We did what we thought was cool, and some of those turned out to be [the first R.Lum.R. songs] "Show Me," "Be Honest" and "Nothing New." We turned them into the label, and they were like, This is amazing, you should consider doing this.
Suddenly I had a producer that I was working with, my manager was with it, I had people in the industry that were with it. We ended up putting it out on SoundCloud and Tunecore, and Spotify picked it up on their New Music Tuesday playlist. "Show Me" kind of went for a couple months; suddenly I had all these listeners. So I kept exploring this kind of world.
What's the origin of the name R.Lum.R?
That one's a doozy. I'll try to give you the elevator pitch. I see it as the three sections are past, present and future. Reggie is my real first name; that's the R; that's the past – my old guitar playing, all the music I used to listen to and hide and not talk about.
The L-U-M is my middle name: My real middle name is Lamar, but if I spelled it that way, you would get Kendrick, so I had to switch it. I see that part of the name as the present, and that's why it's the most letters, because it's the only place you can exist. L-U-M is analogous to my middle name and all the things I hid about myself. I'm a "Jr.," my father's name is Reginald, Sr. My parents divorced when I was like five. As a part of being rebellious, I never told anyone I had a middle name or that I was a Jr. I hid that part of myself. I saw that as analogous to when I was kid and I got into Linkin Park, and everyone else was into rap and basketball. I was fat and couldn't play basketball, and I wanted to listen to Linkin Park, and only the white kids at my school wanted to do that stuff, and it's kind of like that Earl Sweatshirt line: "Too white for the black kids, too black for the whites." You're stuck in that shitty middle ground. So for a long time I just pretended to be into all the shit they were into.
Another period, and then the R at the end – that's facing the future.
How did "Frustrated" come about?
I was in Orlando, it was probably the end of my third year there and my lease was ending. Most of my collaborators were moving to Nashville, and Nashville had kind of called me a couple of times. In Orlando, I had worked up a comfortable living, making like $150 a night playing a bunch of covers of whatever is on the radio. If you live meagerly and you're a single dude, that's fine. But I knew that wasn't everything.
I was faced with this choice, do you stay or do you go? Roll the dice and leave the city and give this new thing a shot? Or stay here because it's comfortable and you know everybody? "Frustrated" is about that. A lot of people obviously think it's about a relationship. It's easy to get that in-between across to people in the frame of a relationship. But my interpretation of it was my life: I don't know what I should do. Luckily, December 2015, I bought that one-way plane ticket. And luckily it hasn't sucked.
Did Spotify reach out to you about the track?
I think they were paying attention [because I'd already been on New Music Tuesday]. I didn't know this before then, but it seems like all that stuff, the big playlists, are run by real people. It's not an algorithm. I remember Mjeema reaching out to me and being like, "Hey, let me get a picture of you," because my face was on the Alternative R&B playlist last year for like six months. And through my management, I knew they wanted to support ["Frustrated"]. I was just like, "I'm gonna keep working, and I'll believe it when I see it." And then I saw it.