Q answers the phone in deep breaths, apologizing that time escaped him while shooting content for his first major-label release. He hasn't slept or eaten since the day before but he's finally back home. A grey hoodie is keeping him warm in South Florida's 70-degree November chill, and digging into his acai bowl is the only thing on his mind. The rush of the last 24 hours is the type of thing that might have triggered the 21-year-old singer's anxiety in the past. Now it comes with the territory of being Columbia Records' new priority.
"I used to want to feel anxious so I could let that control the music, and that tore me apart," he says. "I have a bunch of new songs that touch on it, but I could never be in a better place and use my anxiety to make music. It's not worth it."
Control, or the lack thereof, is the lens through which the self-taught producer, guitarist, and singer provides a panoramic view of Black masculinity. In a generation more in touch with their mental health, Q's music is a tonic that soothes the soul. He's not pretending to be okay—quite the contrary. Plucking away at his angst like guitar strings, Q's endearing quality is that he wants restless listeners to know they're not alone. The Shave Experiment, out in December, is a magnetic initiation into the disquiet that filled his head for years.
Q isn't a nickname, nor is it short for anything. That's just his name. Raised by Jamaican immigrants in Broward county's Pembroke Pines neighborhood, Q Marsden has music running through his veins. Both of his parents worked with premier reggae and dancehall artists: His father owned a studio where he produced for Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder, and his mother played the keyboard for Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Music is his inheritance, and for Q, who wrote his first song at five years old, it comes relatively easy.
"I grew up in church, so my dad took me to his studio in Jamaica, and I made a song about how God was awesome," he recalls. "I didn't even write the song. I just went into the booth and started to say things." Sixteen years later, his writing process hasn't changed. "I just grab my mic and vent on the song. [Songwriting] is better on instinct when I catch it raw and honest into the mic versus overthinking what I'm writing."
His commitment to honoring intuition over the technicality of writing is responsible for gut-punching lyrics like this one found on Forest Green's "Fearful Heart:" "Why should I come back to help you / When I never got back what I gave?" And while his words can stir even the most stoic, his lo-fi instrumentation makes it hard to classify him as a traditional R&B male vocalist. His sound is what Columbia refers to as "soul and acoustic pop," which is to say, it's hard to peg Q as just one thing.
"You could say I'm pop because anything can be popular," he says. "To me, every song is soul because it's coming from the heart." Q's trinity of influences are also men who have capitalized on defying genre. He studied the musicality of Michael Jackson, Childish Gambino's evolution from rap to "Redbone," and Drake's production from Nothing Was the Same, nitpicking their best qualities until he could tailor it to his own needs. In 2018, he released Thoughts, a bright debut with acoustics that could fill a Hollister dressing room. By the end of the year his creativity was running on fumes, so he grabbed a guitar and a YouTube tutorial as reinforcement.
"I made albums off of three chords," he says chuckling, about teaching himself to play. "Forest Green and The Shave Experiment are all the same chords, they're just different keys."
Last July, Q released Forest Green, a seven-track arrangement which is a passionate display of affection to the woman in his life. On "Lavender" he's infatuated with the floral scent lingering on her skin, and explores that admiration throughout the rest of the record. Despite what he has going on in his own life, Q is dedicated to lightening her load, a concept he sings about on "Lady" and on songs like "Backseat Driving" and "Your Special." The woman Q sings about has been relegated to the "backseat" for most of her life, and all of the ways the world has reduced her attitude and mood swings as traits that make her "a handful," Q finds most attractive. The best part is not just what he's singing, but how he's singing it, layering gravelly low tones and with high falsettos in a way that suggests he's speaking about love in its most unrefined and authentic form.
But some of the most interesting techniques he uses with his voice happens on "Anxiety," a bonus track. "When I made 'Anxiety' I was like, Man, I can't believe I was able to explain it." The song, haunting and erratic, feels like a descendent of D'Angelo's paranoia as Q personifies the overwhelming energy he's felt his whole life: "And now we see the evil child / Is breathing on me, growing wild." It took him years to classify anxiety as what it was and seeking professional help wasn't as easy as it seemed.
"Eventually, I did go to therapy," he says. "Didn't work. It was scary because it felt like it messed with me even more." For Q, something as simple as waking up, like he mentions on "I Get Tired," was a trigger. "Planning and trying to control the narrative of things will give me anxiety. I'm always trying to be hands on with every little thing: music, life, friendships. You're always in a state of trying to make sure everything is good and it's not—that's not the way life works. I have learned to let go and surrender to that every morning."
As it turned out, letting go was an integral part of Forest Green's success because it allowed people in Q's immediate circle, like his manager, Brandon Payano, to help curate his sound. "[Q] even gave me some stake in that process; adding my own ideas and visions for where I saw the project living and what audiences I thought would want to hear it," Payano said via email. "I think [it] was new to him: letting someone else be that hands-on with his process. It wasn't lost on me that he'd never let other people see his process that intimately or often at all."
The day after Q released Forest Green, he knew it was the project that would change his life. "We had labels hitting us up," he says. "I was like, Damn, this was easy." Signing to a label was never a part of Q's plan. "If I'm being honest, it was a rush. I was at a place where signing felt like it would've been the cherry on top. Everybody wants a deal. It's freaking Columbia Records, why not?"
Two months after releasing Forest Green, Q began writing The Shave Experiment, a five-track EP inspired by 70s soul groups like Earth, Wind & Fire. Experimenting with synthesizers and tapping into his falsetto, Q made the project's lead single "Tell Me Where Your Heart Is" on his phone, and it's already received one of the highest honors of 2020: getting a viral Doggface cosign. But The Shave Experiment isn't just noteworthy because Q is trying something new sonically; it's a soul-stirring plea that grants Black men the autonomy to express their feelings, exactly as they feel them.
Looking around Black popular culture, the name Q is often ascribed to hypermasculine men, as seen in cult classics like Omar Epps in Love & Basketball and Fredro Starr on Moesha. But the Q that shows up on The Shave Experiment couldn't be more different from those men. In a society that tells Black men to "man up" and show little emotion, Q understands that his manhood actually means embracing those feelings. More than half of the songs on The Shave Experiment mention crying: "I shedded tears beside you and I made sure that I put them in a place where we can find it," he sings on "Alone," which feels like the most vulnerable song on the project.
"Crying is for everyone," he says. "If I can cry and still be courageous and still be strong, I feel like that's [being] more of a man, if anything. Let me cry, but I'll still take care of what I gotta do. Those are your emotions. It's a feeling and feelings aren't always fact."
Q's songwriting embodies the act of being stripped of your ego in order to appeal to the soul. When he sings "I need you to help me," he's not only putting his own insecurities in front of the whole world, but he's normalizing asking for help.
Q has come a long way in a short period of time, and if his growing catalog is any indication of his trajectory, he'll be opening the door to a lot more uncomfortable conversations—both internally and externally. If there's any lesson to be learned from his lyrics or the way he uses his voice as both an instrument and a guide, it's that the real magic happens when you relinquish rigid expectations.
"As much as we have control of music, you think it'll be perfect when it's done on this big scale," he says. "Wondering what could be perfect and what could not be perfect is all nonsense sometimes. Genuinely presenting something as this is me, this is my voice, this is the guitar, and this is how I play it. It's not the best but this is what I can do. When you use what you have to your best ability, people respect that. There are no boundaries with the music, you create it."
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.