Meet Nsolo, the Mexican-American Singer Making Tender R&B Out of the Backseat of His Car

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Fact: a car is a great place to listen to music. Whether it’s a road trip or a cruise around your neighborhood, the experience is always transformed by the sound system and the tunes you play on it. Newly minted R&B artist Nsolo has discovered your bucket can be a pretty good place to make music as well. A recent transplant to Los Angeles, his living situation doesn’t afford him a lot of privacy, so, determined to complete his self-titled EP, the California native devised a studio on wheels, setting up a mic stand and laptop in the backseat of his 2007 Toyota Camry and covering the windows with blankets to seal in the sound. Speaking over the phone, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter explained how the tender and haunting tracks on the forthcoming EP had their genesis in a secluded corner of a 24 Hour Fitness parking lot.

If it wasn’t the most convenient way to make his musical statement, he’s happy to report that the acoustics were surprisingly good. “It ended up dampening any reverberation that would have happened,” he offers. “It worked out really well, actually.” Though it was created in a Toyota, the recording sounds more like it came from another dimension – a small, quiet one, the kind you wish you could slip into when you need some alone time. The production is enveloping, without being soupy, textured, or busy. The words, sung in his warm and resonant tenor, sound like they are being addressed to someone who isn’t there. Most of the songs aren’t exactly catchy, but phrases from them stay with you. In a way, it’s easy to believe that this music was born in solitude wrapped in blankets. It’s a little harder to believe that it’s the work of one guy who says he only started singing seriously last year.

The project began with a mixtape. Nsolo, whose given name is Steven Maribojoc, released it a couple of years ago, when he was completing his degree at UC San Diego. He says the songs on there came out of a period when he was depressed and lonely. For a Mexican-American kid born and raised in the small town of Corcoran in California’s Central Valley, life at a big university could be daunting and a little isolating at times. He dealt with it by pouring his emotions into music. The EP he’s about to release continues the lonesome feeling, exploring the concept and experience of loss, though not directly with his own experiences. Maribojoc thinks of the songs as stories told in the voice of a character, a lonely figure who is called Nsolo. Though the lyrics, if taken at face value, are open to interpretation, the song “Steady” is meant to be a dialogue between two characters, one of whom is dying. The other, Nsolo, is trying to let go. “Getting into the mind of the character was pretty easy when I was alone in a parking lot,” he quips.

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True to form for an R&B artist, the theme of loss attracted him because it’s a rich vein of emotion to mine. “Loss and regret are two of the most powerful feelings in my opinion, because when you lose something or when you regret something, that’s impossible to reconcile. It’s a finite thing,” he reflects. Indeed, when something is truly gone, it’s absolute in its goneness, which is awe-inspiring. That sense of awe comes across in the confessional, even prayerful tone of the EP. On the more downtempo songs like “Faith” and “Drown,” his whispery falsetto gives the impression of someone making an impassioned plea in an empty chapel. It’s classic, and that’s refreshing.

“Loss and regret are two of the most powerful feelings.”

His dad, also raised in the Central Valley, was a DJ in the 80s, so Nsolo grew up steeped in his records: Michael Jackson, Prince, Shalamar, and DeBarge. As a teenager, he got into Usher and Ne-Yo, cementing a life-long love of R&B. In college, he came to appreciate the artistry of D’Angelo and Maxwell. Today, he calls Frank Ocean “the gold standard” and cites How to Dress Well as an influence. A feel for all the classics of the genre across eras runs through his compositions and vocal style, giving the music a timeless feeling. It doesn’t quite fit in with the new school of floaty R&B, but it isn’t a nostalgic throwback either. That the sound is hard to place is a big part of what makes the music so compelling. Though he has only released two singles from the EP to date, “Hush” and “Eyes,” which Remezcla is premiering today, both songs point to the emergence of a promising new voice, one worth watching. Hopefully, he’ll be able to record the next release in a studio with a little more room to stretch out.