If expertise really is promised with an investment of 10,000 hours—a notion made famous by Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell—then Bryndon Cook’s commitment to his craft will make him a master. Whether that’s inside the studio laying down tracks with Blood Orange, or on the road playing guitar in Solange’s band, he’s put in his time tenfold. But for Cook, the most significant takeaway from the last several years of his life in music is “the power of an original idea,” a notion he celebrates on Language, his new LP as Starchild & The New Romantic.
“The process may be to listen to yourself and tap into something unique that may be your own,” Cook explains, “but may also respond to the pulse—delivering what people want, or better yet, what people don’t know they need yet.” It’s easy to deem his classic stylings as a throwback. But his eloquent purr, electrifying riffs and intoxicating rhythms prove that the music he creates as Starchild & The New Romantic is too alive for classification, as fiercely present as it is nostalgic.
“Artists are like priests in that fashion,” he considers. “Not in a self-important way, but in terms of how we can be revered if we do it right and how music and how culture impact people.”
Cook’s relationship with music is just that—a relationship. And the effort he puts forth is to ensure the spark never fizzles out. “A teacher told me once the reason he feels his marriage has been so beautiful is because every day, he really works and really tries to make his partner fall in love again,” Cook recalls. “He doesn’t want to take that for granted. “I think there’s something important in that when it comes to skills or practice. For me, it’s trying to stay immediate every day, and do something and not get lazy or distracted.”
Pouring over liner notes and diving into the origins of his favorite albums birthed Cook’s passion for music. Naturally, he evolved into a musician keen to make records for music obsessives like himself. “I’m writing for the people who love stories and Easter eggs and those kinds of things—references, things that make you feel familiar feelings,” he explains. “The way that I write my best songs is like patchwork. Hooks come to me, melodies come to me, rhythms come to me. And I can patch them together like a puzzle, so that takes time.”
In 2016, Cook released an eight-song EP, Crucial. Layered with chillwave meditations, Crucial served as a poignant introduction to his solo act as Starchild & The New Romantic, and standouts like “Slammin’ Mannequin” and “Relax” made waves for their invigorating fusion of retro R&B vibes and contemporary beats.
“When I sit at the piano, I have a natural proclivity to write a ballad, but the irony is that I love to dance. I used to come home and make new dance moves and practice dance moves to full MC Hammer albums when I was 11. I taught myself how to do the splits.”
For Language, (February 23, Ghostly International) Cook says it was “paramount” that his music provoke dancing. If Crucial served the appetizer, Language brings both the entrée and the dessert to the table with soulful vibrations at once familiar and original. The album opens with an explosion of joyous funk that Cook was sure to pepper with truth.
Morris Day and The Time song,” Cook explains. “But I want to make a song that, if it sounds like that, it’s the real deal.” He continues, “I’m not stealing riffs or anything like that. I’ve done so much due diligence and studying of people and of movement and production that I’m able to hone in on a feeling they were trying to capture. And I can do that through my own style and my own language and style of playing.”
Cook has roots in Atlanta and the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but left for New York at 17 to join the acting conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase. A stone’s throw from New York City, he’d often trek to the five boroughs to engage with theater, attend concerts, and build roots in the local DIY scene. Cook found a musical soulmate early on in his collegiate tenure with Chester Raj Anand, better known now as electronic artist Lord Raja. A fruitful online encounter with Patrick Wimberly of the band Chairlift led to an invitation for Cook to contribute vocals on the group’s 2008 song “Planet Health,” a collaboration that also netted him an introduction to Solange Knowles, who recruited Cook for her touring band.
As he spent more than a year on the road touring with Solange’s band in support of her 2016 album A Seat at the Table, Cook observed audiences immersing themselves in songs that explored the celebratory and sobering realities of the black experience in America. He notes that the gospel influences evident in Solange’s work—as well that of black contemporaries such as Sampha—demand not only attention, but reverence.
“I really, really want people, when they’re at a show that is being fueled by the spirit of blackness, to respect that and to also respect people of color in that space,” he says. “I think music that is beautiful and safe should be respected with a safe space.”
“I really, really want people, when they’re at a show that is being fueled by the spirit of blackness, to respect that and to also respect people of color in that space,” he says. “I think music that is beautiful and safe should be respected with a safe space.” Life on tour impacted Cook’s songwriting voice and amplified a palpable sense of longing. “Imagine you feel distant from a person. Imagine how much more distant you feel when you’re across the Atlantic from them,” he notes. Although Language is not defined as a breakup album, Cook cites as influence a formative past relationship that ended as spectacularly as it lived.
“It was basically my first [relationship] and it ended very out-of-this world. My time after it, trying to get back on my feet was very out of this world as well,” Cook explains. “And I wanted to talk about those things without name-dropping or gender-dropping or … trying to find a way to be honest and true and let people have their own stories attached to it too. That’s what true mastery is kind of about.”
The vivid imagery conjured up in Language demonstrates the potential of a pop song to appeal to a wider breadth of listeners not just with catchy hooks, but subtext. The many dimensions of loss and, of course, heartbreak are considered in each line in an effort to reflect pain well beyond that of unrequited love. Cook remarks that the murders of central civil rights figures past and present informed how he chose to illustrate grief.
“When Medgar Evers was assassinated, he was assassinated on his doorstep in front of his wife and kids. And they had to live an entire life without someone they started their life knowing. What’s it like to lose that kind of love?” he ponders. “That’s something I always think about with all the casualties and people dying in the streets every day. There are whole families being destroyed.”
These sentiments are expressed visually as well with Cook’s video for “Hangin’ On,” transforming what could otherwise be construed as a love song into a soundtrack for scenes that depict Cook inside a 1960s-era jail cell, gathering up signs of protest, and organizing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—one of the most prominent organizations launched at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
“The idea with ‘Hanging On’ was to tie very specific images of 1964 and some of the people that we lost then, and tie it to the ideas of the song, which are very simple pop thoughts, like losing love and wondering if that love will ever return, or if you’re going to be left hanging on.”
The image of the telephone also looms largely in Starchild’s storytelling. “It’s about tying the past and the future,” Cook says. “The photos all have an analog, ‘90s phone because that’s the phone I grew up with—a house phone you have to ask to have a chat with, and your parents can pick up the other line. In its many formats, it’s become our baseline of communication.”
While Language might officially be his debut album, Cook is seasoned enough to stare down the mountainous task of promoting it with confidence—and finesse. Through Starchild & The New Romantic, Cook offers us a simultaneous glimpse into two worlds, bridges the gap for our benefit. And lucky for us, he has the language to express it all, beautifully.
Special thanks to James Veloria Studio