I Drank Milkshakes With Tommy Genesis
The Canadian rapper and visual artist had a conversation with Noisey about sculpture, sci-fi, and spatial synesthesia.
All photography by Chloe Sheppard
During one bored night in 2015, I remember scrolling through the AWFUL RECORDS Soundcloud page. The Atlanta label has a whole load of weirdo rappers and alt-pop artists on its roster—some of them good, some of them better—so it was somewhere I often ended up when I couldn’t sleep. This time, though, I wound up listening to a musician called Tommy Genesis. Her voice was lulling, soft, melodic, even when she was spitting out hard-edged bars. “Why you fucking with me… why you fucking with me…” she whispers on “Shepherd,” her voice hovering and then springing into action over crisp, electric claps.
Tommy wasn’t technically signed to AWFUL (who also looks after ABRA, Slug Christ, Ethereal, and was founded by Father) although people often think she was because they were so closely affiliated back then. They just used to hang out and make music together (Tommy’s from Vancouver, but they’d make it work). And then a few years after those early rap tracks and mixtapes were floating about, she signed a deal with Downtown Records. Her sound got smoother, more emotional, leaning towards R&B at times, and then back to more experimental hip hop; a weird mesh of textures that would ultimately culminate in her self-titled debut album, out in November last year.
But it wasn’t just her music that caught people’s attention. It was her videos and art direction. An early visual for “Execute” shows her sprawled across some dusty train tracks, or else jumping atop cars in a school skirt and Timberland boots. One video, for “Tommy,” sees her rolling around in a bathtub, hair slicked back, chain round her neck, like some kind of mermaid outlaw. A few months ago, she released a short five-minute film called God is Wild, where she inhabits a satanic alter-ego before being reborn as a holy one. She has always been equal parts creative and inventive, overtly sexual but also kind of subtle, like someone who isn't so much pushing boundaries, but showing the viewer she knows where they are, and she could cross them if wanted.
When we meet in person, at The Diner in east London, I find Tommy in a calm and easygoing mood. She greets me with a hug and then we spend a long time debating which milkshakes to order. We're both vegan, but also craving something substantial, so she goes for vanilla soya, while I go for peanut butter with crushed Oreos. We were actually supposed to meet up a week or two beforehand, but she got stuck in traffic and ended up missing it. She's back in London, she says, because she wanted to make it work.
Over the next hour or so, we speak about everything, from sculpture to sci-fi fiction books and spacial synesthesia. Whenever I veer too close to her personal life, though—like her age, or whereabouts in LA she's currently based—she answers with a smile then waits for the next question, as if to say "it's cool, but I'm not going to tell you." By the time we say goodbye, I am so full of milkshake I feel sick, almost like vomiting. She tells me to come to her next show, I say I will, and then we go our separate ways, the sky now fully dark outside, our veins full of sugar. Here's everything we get into before then.
Noisey: You played a show at Oslo in London last night? How was it?
Tommy Genesis: I’ve never had a show where so many people were screaming my lyrics, all stuff from the album. When I started out with “God Sent” everyone was like… [starts singing] "I’m in my feelings like woah / You cannot come to my show.” London showed up for me. They really fucking showed up.
What are your impressions of this city?
I like London and Paris. There’s so much music and art happening, so you can go out and go to a show. We were in the middle of Germany, and it was like, what should we do? I couldn’t even get tacos.
I feel like this place is going to be a let down for you because you’re so used to real diner food.
No it’s not though, I’m allergic to everything. Fun facts. I like to cook. I make a lot of Indian food, pasta salads, soups.
So let’s chat about when you went to art school, I’m really interested in that time. What did you study?
I got in for drawing and painting. I took film first then switched to sculpture, so I graduated with a joint major. But sculpture is my love. I went to a conceptual art school, so it was more about theory and art history than it was about learning a technical skill, although you could do that if you wanted to. But I got dropped into this whole new world. Sculpture, installation art, performance art—that's my true love.
But what I found with art is that it’s so hard to have legs, and to walk outside of that world, and be able to pay rent. People always ask me “when did you want to be a musician?” and I never wanted to be a musician. It’s just the thing that clicked and people would pay me for, you know? I do a lot of drawing, and I have all these drawings piled up in my house and my friends are like “give me one, I want one.” They’re all charcoal drawings in these beautiful white frames, glass and white, but I can’t get rid of them. Now I’m thinking… maybe I could sell this collection?
You totally could and should.
Yeah, now that I’ve done other stuff. We live in this weird world where if you put a little bit into something that’s more… marketable, the other things you can do too. I hate for it to be a game like that, but I do keep looking at my drawings and thinking I want to have a show. If you go on my Instagram, some of them are on there. They’re my babies. They're very fast to make, but I just don’t have time. I've been traveling so much.
Do you want to taste some of my milkshake, by the way?
Oh shit, yours is good, yours is insane. I might just fuck around and order yours.
Right? So what things do you think you learned at art school that you’ve brought forward to your music? Do all mediums feel like a similar mode of expression, or not at all?
I don’t have a method to my music, like I do with my art. I’m not like "these ideas fit within this structure and relates to history." I’m way more strict with myself when it comes to art. But with music, I’ll be like "it sounds fucked up, but I like it." Or "it’s kind of jarring, but it’s punk." It sounds corny, but music is about feelings.
What’s the one thing you’ve created, visually speaking, that you feel most proud of? That you look at now and think "wow... as if that came together."
I watch the “Execute” video and every now and then. That’s a video I shot with a homie who films skate videos, and I made him tag along with me as we walked around Vancouver. I love that video because it shows my city. Railway tracks. Parking lots with expensive cars that you break into. The forest. The beach. That’s Vancouver. That’s the color of it. It’s greens and browns. And no one stops you from doing shit. I was jumping up and down on a Jaguar, and no one stopped me.
Haha! That's off your first mixtape World Vision, right? Your more recent stuff is different. Slightly more R&B, a bit more melodic maybe. Would you agree?
I would definitely say it’s more melodic, more sonic. More pop influences for sure. World Vision was three years ago. And it’s like… do you wear the same pants as three years ago? No. Do you have the same hair? Probably not. So three years went by and I was writing so much, but I never put out what I was writing. I went through phases, I just never made them public. And when it came time to put something out, that’s where I was at.
I put no pressure on the album. I didn’t feel stressed. I hope the people who fuck with my old stuff still fuck with it—but this album, it’s not my ‘crowning glory’ album. It’s not my Rihanna Anti. It’s just an album I needed to do to grow. I love it, but it wasn’t thought out, it wasn’t methodical. It was "what songs do I like?" and "what songs fit together?"
Yeah, that makes sense.
And then the cover was like... it turned out looking way more explicit than I wanted it to look. There's this idea that there's two parts of me. Everyone's always confused. But I'm not confused. I'm me, and I make art, I make music, and it was about those two worlds synching. And also, it's blue, because I felt like that was the color of the songs. A deep blue. We call it the "Tommy Blue.
Would you say you have synesthesia?
I don't, but if you were to say like "what's the aura of this album?," that's the color of it. Ocean blue with flecks of red.
But I feel like that is synesthesia. Like, for me, I have it with days of the week for instance. Monday's always red. Tuesday's always green. Wednesday's yellow and so on...
You know how we think of certain months as longer, even though they're mostly the same? In my head, Monday's here [points to a spot on the table], Tuesday's here, Wednesday's here, Thursday, Friday and then Saturday [points to a longer stretch] and Sunday [points to a longer stretch]. I do that with months too.
I find that stuff so interesting! I think that one is called spacial synaesthesia. Like, for me, the months are on a ladder descending downwards. Then when you reach December, you go back to the top of the ladder.
That's crazy. I don't see it as a ladder, I see it as a circle. It's like endless circles throughout my life, it's not stopping.
I wonder what that says about you.
It's never ending... I guess one day it does.
You never know, we might reincarnate. Are you into the supernatural at all?
No, but I feel like that stuff finds me. I sense certain energies. I grew up in a very spiritual house. But because I grew up Christian, I'm very... anti-conversion? I don't know. I'm not into trying to get other people to get what you believe. I'm so against it that I don't talk about it, unless you bring it up. Who am I to say I'm right? My mind is so brainwashed in so many random ways. Situationally. How I was raised. I probably don't know the actual truth. It's just how I'm wired now. We have different life experiences, and nobody knows. If you think you know, it's because of something you've read, or something you've felt.
I agree with you. What are some books that really changed your way of thinking?
I used to read a lot of sci-fi. You know when you binge-watch a TV show? I binge-read sci-fi. I've read every Philip K Dick. I've read every William Gibson. I've read every Asimov. And it's really helped me, because I always felt like my thoughts were too weird to become a part of any conversation. But then I fell into it and... I love science fiction. William Gibson is actually from Vancouver I think. He'd be drinking coffee at this coffee shop I used to go to. I almost fell over.
Are you as into sci-fi films? What are some of your cult faves?
I watch cartoons, and documentaries when it's important. I love Friends because there's no conflict. I hate conflict. I make myself watch action films and horror and thrillers, and they don't scare me, but it's too much... energy. I can handle everything, but I get too caught up in it, and go through the emotions of everyone. So I like to watch things without conflict. Like The Simpsons.
When you say you get too caught up in the emotions... would you say you were an empath?
What is an empath to you?
So say we were sitting here and you were feeling upset, I'd be able to sense that and feel that from you and your energy, without you necessarily saying it.
I think I'm compassionate. I will change my mood to help your experience. But I don't think it bleeds into me, unless we're really close. But if I don't know you, I'll never take it personally unless it's personal. I'm a pretty big introvert, but I can do the other stuff and it won't affect my real life, I don't carry it with me.
That's a good way to be, I think. Thanks Tommy.
Tommy's on the road throughout the US and in the UK. Peep her tour dates here.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.