On a crisp summer afternoon in New York, I weaved through the always-overwhelming foot traffic of Canal Street on the way to the luxurious Roxy Hotel. At a different hour, it would the kind of place where you might expect to run into the LA-based singer and songwriter A.CHAL, whose music swells with the dusky tension of nights spent getting lost to the vices of life. But in the sunlight, catching the musician felt almost unexpected. Friendly and confident, yet mindful of his words, he sat on a small leather couch in the lobby, wedging his lanky, red sweatsuit-adorned frame into a comfortable spot.
A.CHAL has a tendency to put out music then retreat to the shadows, as he did in 2013 with the now hard-to-find EP Ballroom Riots. He returned in 2015 with the singles "GAZI" and "Round Whippin" before self-releasing his album GAZI this year. Delving into his music for the first time, I found a dark and emotive singer torn between internal pressures and a desire to seek enlightenment. I didn't know him personally, but I felt where he was coming from, facing the conflicts and expressing the thoughts of someone tackling extremely dense emotions.
Born in Peru, A.CHAL has lived in both New York and LA, and he possesses a regionless cool that is apparent right away. In his younger years, he used music to better relate to his new surroundings, which might help explain the powerful beds of sound that mark his own production. "I didn't really understand American language," he told me. "The only common ground I did have was music." I wanted to know more, though, about what went into the type of music that he makes, what drives him to keep going through life and finding new ways to grow. This was my chance to pick his brain while he was out in the light.
Noisey: I read that you underwent a spiritual change?
I did have a spiritual change. To be honest, I'm kind of always changing spiritually. There's different things in life that happen, some of them are tragic, some of them are triumphant. I did have a very profound moment when I went to the Amazon. Just being around vegetation, and life, and animals and people who have been there for so long. It's life changing.
How does your Peruvian heritage figure into your work and your view on life in general? For instance, I'm not sure if your spiritual growth was based on your heritage. I think you picked that up on your own.
You know, that's funny. When I did go to the Amazon, I spoke to a shaman a few times, and he explained that this has to do with my bloodline. My mom is from a very rural part of Peru, mostly untouched land. She is literally one of the most spiritual people I've ever met, but she will never discuss spirituality with you. It's just the she way she is, she's one of the most selfless beings. People who are really spiritual, tend to be very selfless, because they understand that we are all equal. So, I do think my heritage plays a part.
The intro to GAZI is a guy talking about Diego Maradona. Why Maradona of all people? Is there a connection between you two?
I grew up idolizing him because my dad did. I didn't know much about soccer, but I knew about his life. The guy who said it, he's a close friend of mine, he's always talking, he's like Joe Pesci. He's always giving me uplifting speeches, and this was one of them. The thing about Maradona is he comes from South America just as I do, but he came from the third world and went through so much to become one of the most famous athletes of all time. He always had to keep it real, which is why I start singing about substance in the song, because we both do it all for the substance. Also, he was addicted to coke, a substance. But in general he's someone that I look up to because of how he broke through all those barriers.
With the music, your persona is a little shrouded, but the music is very straightforward. As a listener, you just know. Was that contrast by design? Your music is very clear.
Thank you, by the way. That's something that I am still working on. My biggest criticism on my latest work is I could still cut through even more. I really wanna extract as much fat as possible. And to me, fat is just any space being occupied that doesn't have an actual purpose, outside of just being there. I feel like as an artist, that should be any artist's goal, to communicate something clear. I mean there is realism, and there is abstract. I like realism because to me, all art is communication, I wanna just really communicate something to you, so you understand. To put it in a sentence, to me, all art is honesty, with good taste. I try to be as honest, and have as much good taste as possible.
When GAZI opens, it's more abrasive, but as you keep going, it blooms, so when you get to the end it's totally different from where it started. It has a freeness to it, by the time you get to the end. How did you accomplish that? You don't really notice it's happening until the album ends. The change is subtle.
Some of my most memorable moments, like being at the jungle—I've also been at the beach, late night—whether I've been on a psychedelic or something, or just looking at the stars, that's a high within itself. You go from being there at 11 PM, then it's suddenly 7 AM. That mood of transition is something that I've always loved. It's something that effortlessly happened with the project, which is why it starts with the crickets, because I want you to feel that vibe.
I like that it ends with "GAZI": You had an emotionally complex night, now we're up, gotta get it, work it. Let's not think too deep about it; it happened. Now we on.
It starts very clearly, and it ends very clearly, but they are on two completely different planes. It's a similar thought process, but they are not the same thing. I think you get that, if you listen all the way through.
I'm really happy you observed that.
Just looking at the stars, that's a high within itself.
Was there a moment in your career that you felt legitimized you or told you that music is something you should commit to?
Well, my career and my art are two different things, you know. I've always known I was gonna be an artist, since I was a kid. As a career, last Sunday when I did my first live set, that was a huge milestone for me. Now I see I can do this. Now my path is a lot more clearer, I see what I can do with my platform, how it can grow. As an artist, I don't really look for validation, because that's kinda how you start fucking up.
How was that first set, at Day N Nite Fest?
It was literally like losing my virginity—but it went well! [Laughs].
How do you keep yourself motivated to create?
Probably by putting myself through trouble. One thing about me, there's something always going on. It's never like everything is smooth. When shit is really smooth, everyone around me is like "get ready, you know something is gonna happen, it's gonna happen soon!" I feel like, the people around me, when they see me really happy, they just start apologizing. I don't know if I do it for my art, but I might. It's more interesting. Like, OK he just put that there, right? [Gestures toward a table where someone has set down three full champagne flutes] I know he's eventually gonna sit there, but if I was to break that, how would he react to that? Would he get mad? Would he be understanding? He could be understanding, and then that would blow my mind.
What is musical success, for you? Or creative success?
I think any artist can attest that seeing your idea come to fruition is the best feeling in the world. Nothing feels better than you having an idea and it coming to life. I'd also add to that the more honest and clear I can be, effortlessly, that's success to me.
What is the most honest moment on GAZI?
Oooh. [Pauses]. The crickets in the background, that's the most honest moment. No, I would say it's either "Memories" or "4 U." It's pretty equal though. All those things happened. I celebrated signing my publishing deal. I was drinking heavily, and my manager was looking at me crazy.
I didn't know you had a publishing deal. How did it feel when you signed it?
It felt like part of the process. It felt like I got a loan.
That's one of the most honest things an artist has ever said to me. When they talk about signing deals, they just talk about the celebration aspect of it, but you signed it and understood you gave a lot of yourself too.
Yeah, somebody owns me.
Does independence with your music mean a lot to you?
I'm independent as an artist. I think the publishing deal was necessary for me to get my feet wet in a creative way, too. They connected me with a lot of writers and producers that I learned so much from. Without that, there's no way my album would sound the way it does. I want to keep my music independent because I don't want to owe any more loans, you know what I mean? Or maybe not even need a loan period. No loan zone!
As for the creative process, what are you responsible for?
I do the music; it's co-produced by other producers I know. I really feel like as an artist, you're a pie, the time and energy you can give your pie. The more you cut up your pie, the less potent things are gonna be. Before, I used to do everything, from my videos to my cover art to recording myself to production. Everything, 100 percent, there was nothing that I didn't do. Now I'm really focused on being a vocalist/performer/songwriter, and because of my experience, I can judge—and I have a good intuition on—who to collaborate with. So I try to give them full control.
Because you trust their vision.
Yeah, and I don't want to interfere. Even with the edits. And that's how I want to work with anyone I partner up with. The vision is still mine, and I feel like because I'm putting my whole pie into the music, the vision is clear. If the music can't tell it enough, there's a problem.
How long did it take you to get to the point where you found multiple people you could trust with your work?
Maybe a year ago. Just because of the realization that you can only be as good as the effort you put in. And because I have so much respect for the craft of film, of photography, of everything like that, I respect that. I don't wanna be a half-assed anything. Paying attention to the details is really important. When someone doesn't pay attention to them, it's clear immediately.
All photos by Rando, courtesy of A.CHAL.
Robby Seabrook III is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.