There’s been a serendipitous sort of poetry guiding Toulouse’s life to this point. The 24-year-old Nigerian-born, Columbia, Maryland-reared singer-songwriter and producer is the only career musician in his immediate family. Despite being reared in a culture that tends to prize academic endeavors -- doctors and lawyers -- over the creative, his parents encouraged him to embark on this journey. With their support, he was able to teach himself to play guitar, drums, bass and piano, ultimately getting into New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music to study production. (To get there, he had to sing over the phone as part of his interview.) As he prepared to play the long game of eventually stepping out from behind the boards, he says he didn’t care if anyone knew who he was, just that they knew the music. He half-jokingly refers to his artistry or, rather, his move from behind-the-scenes to front and center as an accident, but in hindsight, it seems more like divine design.
On the night we chat in a restaurant in New York City, he’s recently returned from Los Angeles. He’s contemplating a move there, but something about that unrivaled New York City energy, imbuing all who come with a sense of purpose and hustle, has him wavering. His first visit to to the Big Apple was a school trip to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway production In The Heights; he’s now, coincidentally, based in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Before that, though, the 1992 movie Sister Act offered him his first glimpses of the big city. The final scene of the film inspired his cover of “I Will Follow Him,” redone as the achingly gorgeous “I Will Follow You,” and landed in an Apple commercial last November.
The ad spot was one of a few fortuitous opportunities Toulouse had earned before his debut EP Extended Plea had even been released. “Hurtin’,” though well-received in early 2016, was a bit of a false start, but his official lead single put a few extra eyes and ears on him. Then in February, his song “No Running From Me” was featured alongside the likes of Sia, John Legend, ZAYN and Taylor Swift on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack. Each of his releases showcased an ability to shapeshift, capturing different sides of the singer who cites avant-garde artists like Laura Mvula and Moses Sumney as influences. Having always been a musical sponge -- the guitar chords in Antonio Banderas’ Desperado made him want to learn music and were the first he could replicate -- Toulouse intertwines styles and sounds such that each song has its own fingerprint. Still, deciding how to follow up such high-profile looks had to be calculated; Extended Plea needed to be a step in the direction he wanted to go and not the one that was expected.
“I knew the rest of my catalogue was unlike what I’d already put out. Arrangement-wise, [the EP’s songs] were different. For example, I don’t think there’s a proper love song, and that’s a big part of the universal stories we share -- love and heartbreak,” he says, referencing Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” which had just begun playing in the restaurant we were in. “I knew what people wanted to hear by taking a cue from radio releases, but I knew that there was more I wanted to say. I knew that if I was going to stake a claim to something different, it would have to be now with the debut, no matter the consequences.” The result was a meticulous and engulfing EP that exhibited an array of sonic and emotional range and depth: no cliches or samples, just the musicality and warmth of live instrumentation and arresting songwriting.
Like a come-as-you-are invitation to climb into Toulouse’s world, Extended Plea opens with the stirring “Reach Out,” which abandons traditional song structure for a cascading composition. His falsetto pulls the ear more every time he sings “reach out to me/I will shelter you,” his lyrics compelling listeners to get vulnerable with him. The next song, “San Junipero” (inspired, of course, by the Black Mirror episode), takes on an entirely different feel. It’s percussive and dreamy, as rich and textured as its namesake. The EP continues in this fashion, building out a cohesive sound that, while uniquely Toulouse’s own, refuses to be named. Rather than settling on any one classification, Toulouse uses a triangle to describe his sound -- each side is its own genre.
“There’s R&B on one and contemporary [on another], which is broad because it can include what we’re hearing right now,” he says as Sofia Karlberg’s cover of “Radioactive” plays over the speakers. “It’s orchestral even though it’s a ballad. There’s a lot of instrumental movement.”
He describes the third corner as a “singer-songwriter almost folk” style, referencing his emphasis on lyrical content as the driving force in his songs. He’s not bound by any of these things, though, it’s just what fits him today. “The triangle isn’t static. The next album could be R&B and country, but there’s always going to be some sort of shape where I’m just pinballing or bouncing around,” he says.
A self-taught musician, he doesn’t engage with music the way a formally trained musician might. He doesn’t “quite read music in a music-theory sense,” and his arrangements are cinematic and seem to build organically, often subverting the typical verse-bridge-chorus format. When he first came into the music industry, he was doing small music cueing jobs and additional production work while working at a label. Making music for music’s sake was just something he loved, no strings attached. As such, Toulouse’s learning methods coupled with an open ear that doesn’t draw imagined lines between race and genre expectations -- the gift of upbringing outside of America -- heavily inform his approach. “It made me prioritize the visceral parts of the musicality before the more quantitative things like ‘is it a good beat?,’” he says. “Pop or hip-hop are so beat-oriented, but I look at what it made me feel rather than what it sounded like and the nonverbal quality of the music.”
On songs like “Hurtin’,” where he pours emotion over old-school soul brass and strings, or “Here and Now” when he interrogates himself in the opening line (“I’m painfully self-aware,” he sings bluntly) there’s a feeling of sincerity that can’t be fabricated. For Toulouse, these moments are the fruits of his own personal challenge to himself to be be more forthright. “Honesty is such a buzzword, but it’s the only way I can make music and it have the potency. It has be to transparent -- not only lyrically but sonically,” he says. “What’s in my head has to come out on record if I’m going to be honest with myself. I’m not going to say I like classical music, but since that’s not what’s expected of me, I’m going to make a trap song. Even if it's unpopular or slightly left of center, I have to put it on record.”
As an emerging artist, he’s committed to taking the steps that fit him best -- on wax and on paper -- instead of caving to external pressure to take every opportunity he’s offered. At present, he owns all of his music, and each of the songs he’s put out has remained true to his own vision. “Everything I do has been from here thus far, and I know that things from here often take time.” he says, hand to heart. “You can’t rush experience. You can’t skip steps sometimes, and every decision I’ve made has been a testament to pace. You can’t be ready before you’re ready.”
Toulouse has achieved a lot in his quickly burgeoning career -- commercials, soundtracks and resounding acclaim from those lucky enough to stumble upon him. He attributes the seed of it all to his parents’ decision in the beginning to support his dreams and allowing him to go to school to pursue music. Their seeing something in him that he wasn’t always sure of has allowed him the confidence to create and to make sacrifices but not compromises. “Sacrificial love is not the most glamorous love we see, but when someone sacrifices a lot for you, it teaches you about empathy, about sharing and being generous. That has shaped me as a person -- how I regard everyone around me and how I regard my music,” he says.
Every musical risk Toulouse takes is underscored by this sentiment. Every time he follows his instincts or chooses to trust his own pace, it reinforces the fundamental idea that his art, like love itself, is a sacrifice. “It takes a lot to take something of yourself and give it to someone else and not expect anything in return,” he says. “It’s doing something and not knowing how it’s going to end but doing it anyway.”