freestyle soul on the rise: durand bernarr on touring with erykah badu, being an outsider & his solo projects

August 20, 2012

Durand Bernarr has dubbed his sound “freestyle soul”. It is an eclectic fusion of funk, neosoul, r&b, jazz, and pop. His voice is that of a soaring male soprano with multiple octaves that could easily rival Rahsaan Patterson or Maxwell. He has already released four albums on Bandcamp, he is part of Erykah Badu’s band, and has performed internationally. I happened to catch him right after he completed his summer tour with Erykah Badu while he was taking a break visiting an amusement park. In between waiting in line for the roller coaster, I had the opportunity to speak at length with this legend in the making.

Interview by Ashley Bennett

How would you describe your sound?

DB: My sound is very freestyle soul. I’ll sing over whatever. I don’t want to just be limited to one genre or anything like that. I remain true to the feeling of what I’m singing whether it is neosoul or pop or rnb. I just want to feel free to not box myself into one genre. Growing up I listened to jazz, gospel, and new age music, so sticking to one genre would be unfair.

Who are some of your musical influences?

Erykah Badu, Enigma, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, J Davy, Tonex, Musinah, Maxwell, Rahsaan Patterson. You know, anything that feels good, really. Lianne La Havas. I have a lot since I grew up on a lot of jazz and gospel. I had some monitored listenings, but I still snuck a little TLC in there. My god brother was a big Brandy head, so that was the stuff that I grew up on.

How did you get started singing?

Well, I have always been singing, but it didn’t shoot off until I was about 16 when I was a production assistant for Earth, Wind, and Fire for their summer tour. When I got back from that tour is when I started recording. I started using an Apple microphone and Fruity Loops and I worked up to a real studio that my cousin Yonny got me hooked up with. That’s how all of that got started as far as music is concerned.

What are some of your favorite songs that you wrote?  

Oh gosh, there is one song called “Sing You to Sleep”. It was that one request because people always tell me that “Oh Durand, you can sing me to sleep.” I actually would do that if I felt comfortable enough to do that for someone. I have songs that I’ve written to encourage people to be themselves and for us to embrace every aspect of our lives and to be your own individual. You know, to stand out with the best of your abilities and not try to be like anyone else. I enjoy those songs and I enjoy my love songs. That first love type of song where the butterflies are still there and you know just a simple holding of the hands or a hug is enough. I am really in tune with that kind of stuff because that is what I want.

What is your songwriting process?

It really just depends on what is going on. I not a hitmaker, so I have to have some type of emotion or experience to stem from. Since I am a poet it is easier for me to interpret certain things in that manner. It is just what feels right and the music comes second for the most part. I always write before I can get to the music.

You have a very successful online strategy. You have thousands of followers on Twitter and Youtube. Is that something that you planned or did that just happen over the years?

DB: That came along right with me just having a flip video camera and wanting to get an unbiased opinion on my music. That’s how that started and from there it went into a direction that I hadn’t planned on going anywhere. So that was definitely something that kind of just fell into my lap.

Can you talk a little bit about how you met Erykah Badu?

I was in Los Angeles for a funeral and I happened to see on Twitter that Erykah Badu was also in Lose Angeles. So, I contacted her and we set up something so that I could stay with her so I could do Coachella that year. How she found out about me beforehand was that she tweeted me because she saw my “Window Seat” cover that I posted. She reached out to me and told me that she liked how warm my harmonies were and that she wanted me to be in her band. I had that color that she was looking for.

Has touring with her internationally changed your outlook on life?

Yes, different cultures and seeing things in the flesh that you have only read about or seen on TV. There were some moments where I really had to sit down and realize where I was. I was in London for the second time and I just really had to take a moment and take in my surroundings because not a lot of people from where I grew up at would have the opportunity to see the world and do what they love. I never take it for granted at all. I really just took a moment to be still for a second, so it has definitely opened up my eyes.

How did you meet Lianne La Havas?

The first time I was in London with Erykah, she gave us solos and I laid on her heals and sang to her. The second year that we were in London, Lianne La Havas was opening up for her and I had just found out about her maybe a month prior to that. When she gets off stage, I tell her “You did such a beautiful job” and she was like “Oh, thank you, you’re in Erykah’s band. What do you do?” I said “I sing” and she was like “Oh my god! You’re the one from last year!” So she already knew about me. After that I asked if I could sing for her and we did and we’ve kept in touch ever since. She’s a real sweetheart.

Do you consider yourself to be an underground or alternative artist?

I always felt like I was underground, but obviously if Erykah Badu knows about me and she is a commercial artist then I guess I am underground, but not really. As one of those people who are really just behind the scenes or are really into finding music that is not on the radio, I would consider myself in that group.

Have you ever felt like an outsider for being your authentic self or musically?

It’s funny because music is the only place that I feel like I fit in. Everywhere else, I feel like the odd ball and the under dog because there are a lot of things about me that are not typical or normal per se because I didn’t have a normal upbringing. It has it’s moments, but music is the one place where I feel like I fit in the most. I’m like a fish in water when it comes to music.  

What are some things that you wish people knew about you?

Honestly, there isn’t anything that I wish that people knew. I make available what they need to know and I am an open book. I don’t believe in secrets. I believe in privacy. There are certain things that I would like to keep to myself because I am so open. Anytime I have a little something to keep to myself, I will do that so it can be special to me and only me or whoever I decide to share it with.

Can you talk a little more about your upbringing?

Yes, my cousin Yonny, he produced a lot of stuff for Mya, Lil’ Wayne, and Kerri Hilson. His recent hit was “Say Ahh” by Trey Songz. I grew up an only child. My dad is an audio engineer and he has worked with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Nelly and the St. Lunatics, the Cash Money Millionaires, and Jill Scott. He is currently working with Barry Manilow. Before that, my dad was a martial arts instructor and he was a model. My mother was a school teacher and currently she does piano and vocal lessons. I grew up in a very musical household.

Your Tumblr account shows a few pictures of your Asian tattoos. Can you talk about what they mean to you?

Yes, I found out what my name meant. My first name Bernarr means brave bear and I have brave bear written in Hebrew on my forearm. I have strong in Japanese on my left hand. On my left thigh, I  have endure written in Korean. So, my middle name is strong and endure and my first name is brave. I found out what my name really meant and it wasn’t just something I my parents just made up. It is in the baby dictionary.

Do you have any type of Asian heritage?

Not that I am aware of. Everybody thinks of Chinese, so I didn’t just want to stick with one language.

What are your future plans?

My future plan within the first half of next year is to relocate to Los Angeles. Everytime I always do something out there or musically, I always do something out there. I figure that I may as well go where my music takes me most and also to get out of my comfort zone because I have been in Cleveland all of my life. I just want a change and a chance to be a grownup for real. I stay with my parents and they’ve been very supportive, but I do want to take that next step and have my own space. I have family out there, so it’s not like I will be completely alone.

Why do you think the Afropunk community would be interested in your music?

I think they have an appreciation for music that is just different period. I remember reading the credits in Santigold’s album when I looked up what Afropunk was and Santigold is considered Afropunk and I happen to love Santigold. I remember in her credits, she thanked her dad for encouraging her to make music with the things that she heard in her head. I feel like when people have that ability to express things that go on inside of their head that wouldn’t make sense to other people and then turn it into something musical, I feel like they would appreciate that I do that. I have different facets of music that I do anyway, so there is something for everyone.  

What advice would you give to other independent artists?

Network. Be focused. Write down exactly what it is that you want to do and take steps to do them because not a lot of things are going to just fall into your lap. Get out there and network and show your face.

Ashley Bennett is a freelance writer. You can learn more about her on