Brendan Philip Talks 'Shadow Ceremony' and His "Alt-R&B" Aesthetic

Brendan Philip Talks 'Shadow Ceremony' and His "Alt-R&B" Aesthetic
Photo: Yannick Anton
To hear Brendan Philip explain it, experiencing his new project Shadow Ceremony is akin to learning to swim — there's a bit of fearlessness involved. The haunting EP (out now via Fake Art/Dine Alone) from the eclectic Toronto-based artist mines contrasting musical elements, running the genre spectrum from Bilal, Funkadelic, Outkast, J-Dilla and David Byrne. Philip tells Exclaim! that creating music that pushes buttons — as well as boundaries — has been his aim since he knew he wanted to be a musician growing up in Mississauga, ON.
 
"The idea of writing really appealed to me," he explains. "The spirit of what I'm doing is writing — conceptualizing elements and putting them into form, into language. I kind of went on a journey from there. I bought a lot of Jimi Hendrix [and] Prince and ended up working in a Mississauga record shop across from my house. I just spent a lot of time talking about music. It's been a grand area of study around music rather than celebrity. I still want to be valid and relevant but I think that I'm shifting into all sorts of artistic mediums — music was my entry point."
 
Philip has been creating critical buzz at home and Statestate for his subversive, non-conventional sound and vocals that leverage a Pan-African aesthetic and a heightened awareness and outlook on sexual and gender politics. Ultimately, Shadow Ceremony has a strong focus on lyricism but maintains a danceable quality, according to Philip.
 
While his sound has been called a variety of terms — alt-R&B, slopwave, electro-ambient — he's come to terms with labels. Lately he's been describing his vibe as post-R&B. "I think I'm better at understanding that I have to create a box, an existing framework and fill it with my personality to create a world that people can come into.
 
"The pop format is a great framework and a way for people to digest music," he adds. That said, the new album is designed to be sonically and lyrically challenging. "It's very strange with not a lot of reference points. Maybe SBTRKT would be the closest.
 
"I really love Joy Division and post-punk — things where nerds or really technical people started to infiltrate this simple framework and expand its ideas. I don't think there's anything wrong with that: while people are being entertained, give them something to chew on. Even if its just sex, give as many aspects to it as you can."
 
As an artist, Philips notes that music is just one way to get his message across; he is actively exploring visual mediums including video to accurately convey his thoughts and musical sensibilities. "I love psychedelic and counter culture. It's very much that. I just wanted to create a sci-fi R&B experience (with Shadow Ceremony). This experience of meeting an entity that's perceived as feminine but is just an unshaped energy. Talking about cosmic relationships between a humanoid and sentient being. I also added a sense of dream imagery from Mexican culture, weaving in future mythology."
 
The album was created over 18 months, recorded at Dreamhouse and Acres YYZ, and was co-produced by Jahmal Padmore and Keita Juma, both prolific producers and artists in their own right. Formerly of Toronto underground collective 88 Days of Fortune, Philip has branched out with Padmore and Juma to form the Fake Arts entity, forging a collaborative process that leverages each members strengths from an artistic and technical standpoint, he says. To hear Philip tell it, Padmore is the more technically proficient one on production, while rapper-artist Juma's UK sensibilities provide an expansive musical approach, all of which helped to flesh out and realize the sound on this particular record.
 
"We are so familiar with each other and so unafraid of each other that we got into a good experimentation. I wanted [the album] to feel like Devo or Kraftwerk. It doesn't look like that but something in that vein, projections of the future and what that sounds like, looks like and the stories that happen in that world," he says. "We worked really hard. It is a challenging piece to listen to as it was a challenging thing to create. As in pushing ourselves to let go and still being scared while doing it. You just have to go in. That's challenging."
 
With the new album out this month, plans are underway on visual elements for the singles, with videos to tracks like "The Feels" currently being conceptualized. In addition, Philip intends to divide his time this summer between touring and working on the anticipated full-length album, slated for an early 2016 release. In the meantime, he hopes that Shadow Ceremony makes a splash with listeners, adding it's like "throwing oneself into the water."
 
"It can be nerve racking and uncomfortable I think it's a great exercise. Pushing ourselves to just let go. That's the undercurrent of it."