Lucky Daye Is Turning His Traumatic Religious Upbringing into Hope
The most exciting new voice in the R&B revival grew up in a Christian church that forbade him from listening to music. With his debut album, 'Painted,' he's turning his pain into song.
On a Thursday evening in May, an unusually long line snakes through the middle of Manhattan's Chelsea Market. The group grows, and soon it's clear that the crowd of roughly 60 people isn’t waiting for the Ninth Street Espresso shop. Bystanders want to know: "What are you standing in line for?" A young woman replies: "Lucky Daye."
Upstairs, the New Orleans native is giving a short interview to promote his debut album, Painted, followed by a five-song acoustic performance. For the intimate group of fans gathered in New York’s YouTube Space, it’s a small window into the R&B singer’s life, details of which are largely absent from his music. Songwriting is Daye's superpower, channeling his deepest anxieties and yearnings over vibrant horns and booming basslines that evoke Chaka Khan and Rufus and The Stylistics. When he sings, he seems to lock eyes with everyone in the crowd, but the man center stage right now is very guarded.
"The only time I'm happy is when I'm onstage," he tells the host. He seems a bit nervous, at one point revealing he didn't believe his team when they told him about the line winding around the coffee shop. During the performance, he blushes, seemingly disoriented by the fact that the room knows his songs word for word.
The singer is one of the most exciting voices in the contemporary R&B revival. Last November, he released "Roll Some Mo," a smoky love song detailing how he escapes life's sobering realities with his partner and a blunt, which he says was inspired by the hi-hats and kick drums of Bill Withers' "Use Me." It has spent an impressive 18 weeks in the top ten of Billboard's Adult R&B chart —and I and II, the two colorful EPs he's released in the past six months, have secured him over a million monthly listeners on Spotify. With his debut album, Painted, out this month on Keep Cool and RCA Records, he seems poised to hit critical mass—though in some ways, his surprise at this turn of events is understandable.
Lucky Daye, born David Brown, spent the first eight years of his life as a member of a now-defunct Christian church that imposed strict rules governing how he was allowed to live his life. Popular music, among other things, was considered a sin, and the boy with the golden voice was consigned only to church hymns and nursery rhymes. Nearly two decades later, what was once forbidden is now the fruit of his labor. Lucky Daye's life was never exceptionally easy, but as he stands on stage singing pieces of the album, for the first time it seems to be going just as planned.
At an April photoshoot in a small Ridgewood apartment, Daye is standing by a kitchen table, combing through his music library. He's not someone you want in control of the aux: Songs don't play in full when he's in charge, unless it's an artist whose discography he's trying to learn.
"I still feel like I'm behind—that's why my playlist be so random," he tells me. The singer, who considers himself "infinite" (but who the Internet suggests is 33 years old), sprawls out on a couch wearing a shirt that reads "Miracle"; he kicks off exactly one shoe, like he's ready to get comfortable but not too comfortable. Now that he has access to every artist at his fingertips, he follows up the pulsing percussion of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," with the Texas twang of Lil' Troy's "Wanna Be a Baller,” and NYSNC's pubescent pop anthem "Bye Bye Bye." Daye's choice in music is reminiscent of his own journey: It wanders.
Growing up, Daye moved around New Orleans often, learning street names based on the locations of his extended family. There was Pacific Street, where he was born, and his grandmother's house in Harvey's West Bank area, where he lived sporadically when his mom needed an extra hand with him and his four brothers. "My mama moved like seven times," he says of his childhood.
The Seventh Ward, where he lived in elementary and middle school, is what he considers home. "That's where I got into all the trouble," he says with a smirk as mischievous as the neighborhood's "Seventh Ward hardhead" nickname. Details of the city before Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city when he was a teen, haven't faded. He still recalls the aunt who smelled of cigarettes, and the stray dog, Rocket, he adopted in sixth grade. At a glance, these details may seem insignificant, but they’re the handful of childhood memories that bring with them a semblance of normalcy. It wasn't until he was older that he realized his childhood wasn't so conventional.
Daye said that several members of his family, both immediate and extended, were members of a Christian church his parents joined before he was born. (VICE agreed not to identify the church, now defunct, at Daye's request). Some of the singer’s earliest memories include attending religious protests led by the organization's pastor. "I don't know what we were protesting for, I just know whenever this guy didn't like something we definitely loaded up and protested whatever we were protesting," he tells me, recalling the boycotts that stick out in his memory. Members, he says, were discouraged from seeking influences outside the church, which banned secular material altogether.
"None of it was explained," he tells me. "Don't listen to music. Don't watch TV. The drums is a sin. You telling me if I play instruments, I'm going to burn forever? It was full of fear." According to Daye, children who defied the church's rules, like back-talking or not finishing food, were beaten.
"I don't know exactly what they had going on," he tells me. "I just know there was a room that I hated that they put us in. If we talked, we would get beat. If we didn't eat certain food or complained—it was always some petty stuff, like if you didn't eat all of your food, you would get beat."
His father, whose love of The Gap Band Daye says sparked his own affinity for music, eventually left the church. A few years later, his mother left too. "The only reason we got out was because the pastor dude… He put me on his lap or whatever, and was telling me when my dad dies, he was going to bring me to the park," he tells me. "I didn't know what that meant, but I was excited." When the singer was older, he says, his mother told him the pastor's invitation to the park is what convinced her to depart from the church. "She explained the 'take me to the park' situation, and I was like, 'That's crazy,'" he says. (The pastor, now deceased, later pleaded “no contest” to molestation charges after being accused by multiple children.)
After his mother left the organization, she explored other spiritual avenues. "I feel like she was looking for something," he tells me. "She had us in a bunch of different organizations trying to find what she calls a 'home.' We just went with her." Looking back at his non-traditional upbringing, Daye has complicated feelings about religion ("It's funny how people can use religion to do what they want to do," he says), though he credits these early experiences with teaching him how to be resourceful. "The only thing I did love about [the organization] was learning how to make music from nothing," he says. "I didn't need a beat, a guitar, or anything."
The singer's voice became his refuge, until a stint singing in the choir at his uncle's church became exhausting, and he began to question if he wanted to continue. "They'd always be like, 'When you get to heaven, you're going to sing and praise forever,'" he recalls of the speeches from his family. "I remember telling my mama, ‘I don't think I want to go to heaven,’" he continues, laughing at his younger self. "Forever is a long time. I sing now. I don't want to do this after I die too."
Daye never quite fit in with his peers. Cafeteria table conversations at school felt foreign to him. Although he'd left the organization when he was eight, it would be almost five years until his mother allowed him to watch television. In the ninth grade, he started using his voice for pocket money, singing to girls at school in exchange for the cost of his cafeteria lunch. "I'd sing their name, and my homie would charge 50 cents," he says. "I'd give him a nickel or just buy both of our fries. I didn't think my voice was nothing special; I just knew I could eat from it, so I started using it as a tool." (He even appeared on season four of American Idol in 2005, singing a spirited rendition of "All is Fair in Love," among other songs.)
By the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the singer was inching into adulthood and attempting to abandon his family’s rigid lifestyle. The storm ravaged New Orleans, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying 134,000 homes. In its aftermath, predominantly Black neighborhoods like the Seventh Ward have been the slowest to bounce back. In the decade since Katrina, almost 15,000 housing units in that neighborhood have been demolished, with many residents receiving less funding from housing recovery programs like Road Home. Black residents made up two-thirds of the city's population; five years after the storm, 118,000 of those residents had left. Daye's family was one of them.
Tyler, Texas, where his family moved after Hurricane Katrina, was a new beginning of sorts. Daye, his grandmother, mother, two uncles, and two of his brothers migrated the 400 miles together, only to separate when they arrived. His brothers made lives for themselves in neighboring cities, and Daye prepared for a life on his own. Before relocating, he’d started reconsidering his relationship to Christianity, and says his relationship with his family had become strained as a result.
"I went [to church] and said, 'I know I'm supposed to sing, but God is telling me that this is not what I'm supposed to be doing," he says. Religion had once held him captive, but now he was using the higher power he believed in to set himself free. "I left and never went back to [that] church," he says. "They never talked to me again. My grandma, my mama, my uncle—none of them. Nobody talked to me. Nobody supported me and at that moment, I realized it was just me."
"It got to a point where I ran out of friends, money, and hope," Daye says of his lowest points. "Ever since I was a kid, people have always said, 'You've got a gift.' I realized maybe music ain't for me, and it hurt because I swore this is my thing. This is all I've got."
The singer relocated to Atlanta, looking to find his footing as a solo artist under his given name, David Brown. He landed a songwriting gig with fellow New Orleans native August Alsina, before eventually making the 36-hour drive from Atlanta to Los Angeles, looking for new opportunities. "I came to LA and I realized I didn't know shit," he recalls. "There were a lot of deals I was in that I didn't know I was in that I had to get out of. I was sitting in lobbies like I was Ice Cube and shit, thinking, 'Somebody gon' talk to me!'" he jokes. "I'm going through it, and I'm realizing it's just a bunch of people listening to a bunch of people. Nobody wants to hear me say, 'I'm tight'; they want to hear somebody else say it." Eventually, he started wondering if he was going to be able to make it work."It got to a point where I ran out of friends, money, and hope," he says. "Ever since I was a kid, people have always said, 'You've got a gift.' I realized maybe music ain't for me, and it hurt because I swore this is my thing. This is all I've got."
Just when it seemed like the singer was running low on his luck, he created his own. He’d read that being "lucky" was the result of preparation and opportunity colliding, so he changed his name to reflect the life he hoped for. He added the “e” to “Lucky Day” in an homage to Marvin Gaye, who also had a complicated relationship with his devout Christian family. For both men, the name change signified a break with a difficult past.
After meeting Neff-U, a producer in LA, he started going to church again—this time, one of his own choosing. "All [Neff-U] would talk about is Jesus and God," he tells me. "I don't know if it was something inside of me, but I was like, 'Let me go back to church.' He got baptized and re-read the Bible from beginning to end. "I literally read it like nobody told me anything—like it was a book I found. If this is supposed to be what life's about, then let me read it with a clean slate.”
Daye's life has been a series of new starts, but he says his baptism marked the first time he allowed himself to begin again. "[Returning to church] symbolized me wiping out everything that I ever learned," he says. "I wanted to forget all this religion shit everybody talked to me about. I wanted to forget what they say I'm supposed to do, who they say I'm supposed to be."
Couch-hopping was routine for Daye, and by the time his cousin invited him to crash with him in San Pedro, he knew he had two options: give singing his all, or go back to New Orleans. He moved to San Pedro and started writing in his journal. "My mama used to hate when I talked to her," he says. "I don't know what she wanted me to say or how she wanted me to say it, but she always said, 'Don't talk to me. Write it down.'" He says he’d channeled that urge to express himself into the love letters he wrote girls in high school, but now, the act of writing his thoughts out provided fodder for his songwriting. "Nobody called me for two months,” he says. “I literally didn't talk. I wrote my whole life as if it were some fantasy in my journal. I even told God what kind of woman I want," he says.
In Los Angeles, Daye reconnected with DJ Camper and Dernst "D'Mile" Emile, two engineers he’d met in Atlanta. Before moving to San Pedro, he'd already recorded two songs with Camper under the moniker Lucky Daye—and when it came time to find a producer who could help him realize his vision for a debut album, he chose D'Mile. "I knew that's what I wanted my album to sound like, but Camper lost all his files," he tells me. "I'm like 'Okay, I gotta start over, but I like these. This is the truth.'"
Whenever D'Mile was available, so was Daye—even if it meant he needed to take the hour- and-a-half bus ride from San Pedro to Los Angeles. For seven months, the duo worked tirelessly to refine Daye’s sound, which included reworking the original versions of "Misunderstood" and "Love You Too Much" from scratch. D'Mile granted Daye 15 sessions in his studio; twelve of the resulting songs appear on Painted.
"The only thing I thought about when I was in San Pedro was pain," he says, reminiscing on the time he spent writing journal entries on the first girl he loved. "I was loving her and she was loving her, but nobody was loving me." Still, the process felt cathartic: "These songs came from my blank canvas, and this is the first color strip I put on it,” Daye says.
Painted includes ten tracks that Daye has already released, and three new ones. By releasing an already-finished album in chunks, the singer said he hoped to create a more substantial listening experience for his fans. “We are bringing [the album] out in pieces, so people can live with it,” he told Rolling Stone last November.
The album is a natural progression of a practice Daye has been returning to since childhood—the writing enforced by his mother, the love letters he penned as a teen, and the freestyle journaling he practiced in his adulthood. Painted is colored in so many iterations of love it can, at moments, feel smothering. But it’s a heartfelt reflection of Daye's efforts (now and throughout his life) at human connection during some of life’s most isolating moments.
Much of the album is warm, like butterflies during a first date or that heart-in-your-stomach feeling after the first "I love you." His tone is as tender as a kiss to the temple—sexual, but not raunchy; naive, but heavy-hearted. "Concentrate" finds Daye in choppy waters, struggling to accept that his feelings may be stronger than he anticipated. "I been riding through the streets two weeks / Fighting calling you baby / Know you get a kick out of kicking it / Then stalling me crazy," he sings. If his partner doesn't want to fall, the song suggests, he's willing to have her in any capacity.
As the center of the album, "Paint It" is the only song that references Daye's life before his reinvention. Drizzled with weeping electric guitar lines and synths, the mid-tempo song is about the first example of love he witnessed—the love between his parents. "You ain't gon lay me away / For a rainy day / Can't wait around for it / Gave you life like flowers in bloom," he sings, recalling how their separation left his mother raising five sons alone. During the song, he manipulates his voice into different octaves, shifting registers in a way that seems to convey the pain of watching his parents drift apart as a child.
According to Daye, "Paint It" grew out of a realization that he was beginning to emulate his father’s behavior in his own relationships. "What scared me was thinking about all of the girls I'd talked to—I saw a little bit of [my dad] in me," he tells me. "So I started using a lot of [the song] to talk to myself, because I didn't want to be like my pops."
According to Daye, the last four songs on Painted hold his deepest wounds. "[Those songs are] about the pain that hurt the worst when I was in love," he says. "I didn't want [her] to think I thought I was the victim, but this pain was not leaving." He considers moments like the deleted voicemail on "Call" and the raw emotion of "Floods" to be a dose of realism, or "sarcastic honesty." "Floods" likens a woman's wrath to Mother Nature, with seasons changing at the blink of an eye and Daye a casualty of the storm. Daye says it was one of the hardest songs to write, and it evokes a familiar pain, one not unlike watching his hometown submerged in 10 feet of water. Daye is examining what giving someone the power to hurt you feels like.
These days, the singer says he is redefining the role religion plays in his life—and that what was once something that constrained him is guiding his relationships as an adult. "The only thing that's the most real to me in [the Bible] is love," he says, referencing 1 Corinthians 13. For Daye, making an album that's a celebration of love in all its forms is about turning life's hardships into hope.
Brian Vu is a photographer based in New York. You can find more of his work on Instagram.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. You can find her on Twitter.