VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring Paradise, the debut LP from Chicago singer and producer Knox Fortune. Paradise is out on vinyl now in the VMP store, and you can read our interview with Knox below.
Kevin Rhomberg, 25, is a man in transit. When I called, he was fresh off the plane from Chicago to the Big Apple to visit his girlfriend and work in a new environment. His debut album Paradise has had a warm reception for its left-leaning pop anthems, sounding like they’re clinging to the last sliver of summer; so much so, his first Chicago headlining show in support of the album sold out in a weekend. Well-adjusted to playing the background of this decade’s Chicago musical renaissance, the man known as Knox Fortune has thrived as an outlier: he’s a pop songwriter cut from an Americana cloth with a digital facelift, his pitch scaling and floating as he croons on romance and responsibility like a young man with a bleeding heart. He’s right at home, yet elsewhere, and that’s why he’s an indispensible piece to his citywide contemporaries, even as his foray into rap production was almost an accident.
A skate rat at heart, the Oak Park oddball spent his youth scraping down North Avenue, dashing between Chicago and the burbs to gain his name while mostly sidestepping the age-old debate of where the city limits end. (For the uninitiated, think Forest Park, River Forest, Evanston: suburbs with train stops, yet notorious footnotes for kids who claim Chicago for clout.) While the Beatles and the Stones tucked themselves firmly into his summer memories of family vacations in South Haven, Michigan, Rhomberg found rap closer to middle school when Outkast went pop with “Ms. Jackson” and 50 Cent became an American obsession.
Armed with the family Macintosh in a time when all the PC games were made for Windows, Rhomberg cites Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack as a heavy influence to discovering the humor hip-hop could place into the bleakest accounts of reality. Once he hit Oak Park-River Forest High School, he became obsessed with his friend Abe’s ability to make mash-ups and blends in Final Cut Pro, inspiring Rhomberg to pick up Garageband and make his own. The customizability became his new obsession, and informs his process to this day.
“I was putting samples from Looney Tunes -- like, Yosemite Sam saying something -- over a weird synth line; it made no musical sense whatsoever,” Rhomberg says. “But, I think the fact that that’s how I was learning it was really influencing my sound later on, which was a more untraditional sound. Especially from Chicago, where there’s a lot of incredibly musically-enriched people -- like Nico Segal or Peter Cottontale -- I was making more audio collage art. And they were like ‘Oh, this dude is on a completely different wave.’”
Avoiding the collegiate pursuit altogether, Rhomberg cycled through jobs while forging his own connections in the city: serving at Winberie’s in Oak Park, working in his aunt’s bakery in the West Loop, and lighting film sets with his father. Once he fell in with Vic Mensa, who connected him to Joey Purp, KAMI, and the rest of SAVEMONEY, everything else fell into its natural order. The team needed Rhomberg’s efforts, and Rhomberg needed a core collective of talent to put those efforts to work. He secured a studio job at See Music, became a primary collaborator, then a best friend; this facilitated his executive production role on Joey Purp’s breakthrough iiiDrops project and KAMI’s Just Like the Movies. The latter project came from a weekly session schedule and resulted in Rhomberg touring internationally as Purp’s DJ, realizing the album’s vision far beyond the session window.
Happy accidents became routine. Rhomberg moved into Chiller’s Paradise: an impossible utopia with a demolition date that came far later than anticipated, resulting in him paying $300-a-month for his room in Wicker Park. While the Knox Fortune name became a staple, his knack for crafting an earworm landed him an unforgettable hook on Chance the Rapper’s “All Night:” a dance record about needing a ride home on a palette of new-age gospel rap. It wasn’t quite what Knox Fortune did, but it wouldn’t matter: the single went on to hit radio, Coloring Book went on to win Best Rap Album, and Knox Fortune became a Grammy-winning artist with a handful of singles to his name. Impending fame aside, Rhomberg couldn’t buy himself a nice outfit for the after-party, let alone anything else.
“It was this weird surreal experience: I go to the Grammys, we won, and then I went back to my tiny bedroom in the basement of my old, decrepit house that I’m paying $300-a-month for… it was so backwards-seeming,” Rhomberg says. “It was hard to understand… where am I right now, in life? Do I have tons of cool points, but no money? Cuz that’s not cool. Am I going to make money, eventually? It was a strange figuring-out process, but… we figured it out!”
Paradise gives us the Knox Fortune that refuses to be claimed by the accident that lifted him here. It’s a culmination of three years of Chicago sessions, and several rainy Malibu days working with Rick Rubin in Shangri-La. There’s no “All Night” in sight, Joey Purp and KAMI are the only features, and it’s far darker than its surface. The bright synth lines and soothing falsetto of “Lil Thing” could bleed the last days of summer into the dead of winter; “Help Myself” applies the latter to an indie rock palette that shakes like a boom-bap break. There’s an anthemic quality to love songs you’d find prefaced by Dick Clark in a room of screaming teens, matched by a melancholic tension from someone who can’t escape himself. “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It” was a product of Election Night rage, while “Torture” masks the ills of capitalism under big band swells. “No Dancing” threatens to trick you into dancing through your pain; dedicated to the late Mikey Thomas, a fellow Chiller’s Paradise resident who passed in November of last year, Rhomberg made it in recovery from the malaise that comes from losing a friend.
“I think songs like that are really important because… by the time you’re around our age, mid-20s or later, you’ve lost a friend,” Rhomberg says. “”No one gets to that age without losing one person. When that happened, I was listening to ‘Waves’ by Kanye [West,] and Chance wrote these lines, actually: ‘Even when somebody goes away, the feeling never really goes away.’ And that’s like kinda corny to be like ‘Man, this Kanye song really helped me through a hard time,’ but it really did. In that moment, I was really thinking about how music could help people; there’s empathy through music. You could listen to a song and feel better about yourself and your situation. It kinda just drove me to write a song that I felt people could relate to that were my age and were in similar circumstances.”
Losing someone means losing a piece of what once was, though something else may always remain. Knox Fortune thrives in the complications of this exchange, and Paradise tirelessly turns this theme on its head. Whether singing of a relationship gone great or a love turned toxic, nothing’s lost in the fire to prioritize a good time or a clean break. It’s riskier, poppier, and more sincere in the face of a toxic world, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks.
“My whole headspace was: work with it ‘til it sounds good,” Rhomberg says. “If I think it sounds good pitched up three semitones on the piano, then that’s what my brain is telling me. I’ve learned a lot about making music in the past couple years, and I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is to trust your instinct. It’s not gonna betray you; if you think it sounds cool, you think it sounds cool and you shouldn’t ignore that. In the creative process of manipulating my vocals or finding the register or whatever, it was just trying to take what’s in my head and have it coming back to my ears the way I was imagining it, and not really settling for less.”
His transit’s finally upward: he can’t skate through the city like he used to, his parents are finally proud, and the Garageband boy’s preparing to plant his melodies into the memories of others. While he talks about love the way they did in the ‘50s, the dreamboys of yesteryear wouldn’t fly today; not when love seems to sink under the weight of everything else, and lust is 500 feet away from our screens. It begged the question: does Kevin Rhomberg believe in true love the way Knox Fortune does?
“I do believe in true love, I definitely do. I couldn’t sing about it to that extent if I didn’t mean it,” Rhomberg says. “True love is just, like, a best friend or something; you can truly love your best friend. It’s just a person that you’d really be sad without, that holds an important piece of your life and a part of you is within that person. Sometimes when you fall outta touch with somebody, you kinda lose a little piece of yourself.”
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.