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Jeremy Nutzman is an hour away from leaving Washington, D.C., after wrapping the final nights of supporting Tame Impala’s summer arena tour dates. A week away from releasing his second LP, NEON BROWN, he’s wandering, confused about whether someone’s calling his name, and often interrupted by the unmerciful prospect of consistent airport cell signal. It’s almost too obvious to feel a deep irony about the choppiness of the call; as Velvet Negroni, Nutzman often finds himself misunderstood. He won’t preoccupy himself with the feeling, and he may not even correct listeners who misquote a lyric. He’s hidden in plain sight, reeling from trauma and love and yesteryear’s drugs with an otherworldly voice that glides across genres like none other in his class.
Today, he’s ready to sleep in his own bed. The arena lights have faded dim, and so has Nutzman’s fascination with the whole ordeal. He landed the Tame Impala support slot from a booking agent’s Hail Mary into Kevin Parker’s inbox. It landed, and thrust Velvet Negroni into Madison Square Garden with seven other folks on the ride.
“It’s definitely a shock to the system, but it’s amazing how used to it you can get in just a matter of eight shows,” Nutzman recalls. “It went from [being] backstage to not really paying attention to anything, just kinda having drinks until 15-minute call and just waiting there at the edge of the stage, and not feeling any type of way, really. It’s amazing how comfortable it becomes right away.”
Nutzman’s career hasn’t run on miracles, and likely never will. Born and bred in the Twin Cities’ DIY scene, he’s thrived in sync with the energies of his trusted collaborators. These days, it’s the tandem of revered Minneapolis producers Simon “Psymun” Christensen — most recently known for his work with Young Thug, Future, and Juice WRLD — and Elliott Kozel of Tickle Torture and the defunct indie band Sleeping in the Aviary. The Velvet Negroni name arrived almost at random, but symbolized Nutzman nudging himself toward maturity, pulling the tongue somewhat out of his cheek.
In a few years time, Nutzman’s been sampled by Kanye and Kid Cudi’s KIDS SEE GHOSTS, worked with Justin Vernon on Bon Iver records (this year’s i,i), and is on the verge of releasing his second album NEON BROWN via 4AD. For someone who spent most of his career outside the industry sightline, building and screaming in the frigid Minnesotan winters, Velvet Negroni’s successes have only been attributed to falling in line when the world makes a way. He only aims where he pleases, never begging or bowing to earn his stripes.
“I feel like if I were to start making musical decisions based on the audience, then that could only serve to be negative for me down the long run,” Nutzman says. “Or, to start thinking about what people want to hear rather than what I’m trying to tell… I think that would just get me into trouble, so my best bet is to keep hoping for the best after the fact.”
This bet’s only continued to pay dividends; Nutzman goes out of his way to ignore the growing noise around him in protection of the integrity of his process. He finds it laughable how interesting people find him no matter how much he tells them about himself. He doesn’t read his own press — he won’t read this piece — he doesn’t dive into comments, and he’s not one for distractions, whether praise or hate. A quick glance at the comments of his 4AD-released singles places the public opinion somewhere between budding genius and one of the worst things to happen to the label since its fall from the grace of decades past. (A closer glance will find Psymun comically trolling the naysayers back.) One of the most notable comments on “KURT KOBAIN” finds a listener praising the record, but positing how they don’t want to look bad for singing the wrong words to a song they so thoroughly enjoy.
The trio of “KURT KOBAIN,” “WINE GREEN,” and “CONFETTI” catapult listeners directly into the mystery of Velvet Negroni without warning or preparation; he’s maximizing the minimal, carving earworms into the brain from all directions, rooted in a gentle falsetto that twitches and morphs at the seams. Onscreen, Velvet Negroni’s wading through the spark-lit darkness with a soda cup, and staring longingly at a man making hibachi before spraying the oil into his mouth. In sync, Velvet lulls the listener into a comfortability while making one dig past the surface; he’s often unintelligible, but deeply resonant nonetheless.
“I’m sure that the lyrics are gonna be posted, and I guess it could be frustrating for a listener,” Nutzman resigns about his new work. “But I kinda like it when people have already come to their own conclusions about it. It might not be necessarily what I was saying, but if they’ve already connected with it in a certain way, it’s not my thing to take the wool outta their eyes.”
NEON BROWN — the title also reveling in the nonsensical — serves plenty of wool to cover the eyes. It’s the product of a summer packed with 10-hour days, the trio wandering through pieces of the first act of Nutzman’s life to create what they’ve described as “the prelude to the second act.” Let Nutzman tell it, the first act was a whirlwind as expected, but now he moves with a newfound professionalism and the proper backing to execute his ideas to the fullest. Gone are the moments where his ego and substance abuse threatened to sabotage his talents and the relationships around him. NEON BROWN runs like a talisman of things left behind. It’s about love, and survival, and whatever else we’d like.
Psymun and Kozel’s wonderland give Velvet Negroni an infinite canvas to sprawl his ideas out, only leaving clues and challenges over engrossing synth-pop that dabbles somewhere between a pleasant afternoon stroll and the lucid dreams one never wants to have. Somehow NEON BROWN revels in memories while pulling itself back from the future, though Nutzman never finds himself running from a good time or the dirt he’s done. His delivery’s often poetic and rarely plainspoken, leaning on the power of how he articulates the raw emotional capacity of his range to embed his truths in the illusion. It’s often possible to slow whine to his trauma, to chant along as Nutzman pulls himself from the fringes of who he’s in danger of becoming. The danceability is demanding, and the gems offer themselves to those who journey alongside him.
“I’m prepared to be vulnerable in my own way,” Nutzman says when I ask him about the record “U DUNNO.” “I’m sure that you could tell [that record] has a masking over it, or a little bit of a backdrop, you know? I’m leaving it a little bit more open, it’s not so... obvious. It’s not like I’m being like, ‘Why’d you break my heart? Why does my heart hurt so bad because I miss you?’ It’s a little bit of leaving it to somebody else’s interpretation, but the general themes are pretty laid out. For you to be able to give it a synopsis like that, it has to be getting across pretty easily.”
The excitement lingers in Nutzman’s voice as he’s mere days from release, fresh off playing songs made in isolation and somehow translating them to thousands of people when it was never imagined in spaces that huge. He recalls how the team spent most of their downtime in coordinated YouTube holes in Airbnbs across the country, scrolling through music videos for inspiration. Now he has the money to build whichever visual aesthetic he pleases, with or without the hibachi flames. There’s a pride beaming through the choppy signal, how he’s merely reacted to the world and come so far.
Nutzman often paces through thoughts to find the right answers, or lack thereof. He’s a character that only explains what’s needed, and nothing more. NEON BROWN is a record that comes from Nutzman committing himself to sobriety as he recalibrates the operation. The record works much like he has, foraging through the details of many nights past, living on borrowed time with other people. He often gives his work time and space to breathe before making any alterations, siphoning the best moments from his outbursts. On the contrary, he’s yet to even listen to his own work after months of obsessing over bass parts and mixdowns. He’s unsure of what this album’s said about his life’s first act as the second one unfolds before him… right now, he craves sleep, and the next chance to write again once the spectacle’s over.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.