NPR MUSIC: JHENE AIKO NARRATES HER PSYCHEDELIC 'TRIP' THROUGH DEATH, LOVE AND REAWAKENING
JHENÉ AIKO NARRATES HER PSYCHEDELIC 'TRIP' THROUGH DEATH, LOVE AND REAWAKENING
"Oblivion is kind of like nirvana, where you become nothing and you don't have to suffer over and over again," Jhené Aiko says. "You're free to just be nothing."
Jhené Aiko is not of this world.
Somewhere between pop-oriented R&B and traditional soul, the singer-songwriter floats like an ethereal voice disembodied from typical format and genre distinctions. So when we talk one week prior to the unannounced release of her epic new album, it comes as no surprise that she's much more interested in easing into the big reveal rather than making a huge splash.
"I don't like hyping stuff up," she says. "It's personal. It's not something contrived or something I want to turn into this big deal.... I just want to share it without it being something people are expecting."
Several years in the making, Trip is totally unexpected. The autobiographical soundscape of Aiko's healing journey follows the loss of her brother, Miyagi Chilombo, to cancer in 2012, and her futile quest to replace that love with romantic relationships and vices that failed to fill the void.
The youngest of five siblings, each born two years apart, Aiko was closest in age and kinship to Miyagi before his death. "Often, when you're dealing with grief, it's kind of like you relapse," Aiko says. "Something little can stretch you all the way back to that moment and you're starting all over and reliving everything. So that keeps happening to me, but the older I get I feel like I'm finding a way to not let it completely disable me. My writing is like my therapy. That's what I turn to."
Most of the songs began as poems she penned in journals, often during trips she began taking in solitude to nature sanctuaries like Big Sur. Beyond the field trips, or even the drug-induced trips that drive much of the narrative, Aiko's odyssey rises to levels metaphorical and metaphysical as her quest turns further inward over the hour-and-a-half span of dreamlike, meditative grooves.
Aiko recorded Trip over the span of three years, largely in the Hollywood studio of producer No I.D., who signed her to his ARTium Recordings label in 2012, before self-releasing her Sail Out EP and Souled Out debut LP via Def Jam. Beyond collaborations with Mali Music and Brandy, the new album features her daughter Namiko Love, Aiko's father Dr. Chill and the "love of her life" and TWENTY88 collaborator Big Sean. More than the 22-song LP, the overarching title encompasses a movie, album and poetry book — or M.A.P. — intermittently released over the course of the first week, along with an audio mission statement that spells out her sweeping vision.
At 29, Aiko has experienced the pain of divorce and death. But Trip is about more than chasing love or a temporary high. As she explains, track-by-track, it's the confessional story of her grappling with the nature of desire rooted in all human experience as she measures her mistakes and awakens to her own power. And she's a brave soul — equal parts vulnerable and visionary — for taking us along for the ride.
"A few years ago, I took my first road trip by myself to Big Sur. I was going through a difficult relationship, I missed my brother and was just going crazy. And I had taken some magic mushrooms with me. As I was driving up there, I was listening to instrumental music and classical music and singing over it out loud and talking to myself. I was recording everything on my voice memo. It wasn't even with an album or anything in mind; it was just for me. I just started doing that often. After Big Sur, I started hiking and writing and taking pictures. I formed a habit of escaping and going on these trips. I still do it and I find that it really helps me. Psychedelics aided in that. While recording new songs for this project, I revisited the notebook that I had been keeping. The song 'LSD' pretty much sets you up for the trip."
"One night I was in [the studio] with the Fisticuffs and we were partaking in marijuana and we were watching a documentary about Aokigahara, the suicide forest in Japan. My great-grandmother was born in Hawaii, but she's actually Japanese. My grandfather is Japanese, too. So I've always wanted to go. After my brother passed — actually, my whole life — I've been very interested in death. Not afraid of it, but interested and intrigued. I was watching that [documentary] and it was such a beautiful forest. Maybe people go there and they just feel at peace. Of course, everyone has different reasons for making that decision.
"It's definitely a place I've been in my mind: 'Hmm, if I were to decide to do that, how would I do it?' So we started with a guitar and I wanted to write a song about that place and go there in my mind. I know that sounds morbid, but it was true. It was a fantasy of me going there. It's not super obvious in the song, but I say how my feet keep touching the ground [and] it's not working for me. Then I'm saved by a guy. But in real life I was on a hike in Big Sur and I was getting emotional. Then I looked up through the trees and I saw the sun. It felt like the sun saved me, which, in itself, is [symbolic]: the Son of God or the sun in our solar system. It just felt like a love story.
"It's a double/triple entendre: The male voice that you hear throughout the album is the love interest or my conscience. He also represents the devil disguised as an angel, because he keeps offering me these drugs. It's like, 'Who are you, really?' He appears at first to be an angel, but then he turns into someone that is not."
"While We're Young"
"'While We're Young' is my ideal love situation. It's also the feeling of a new love, when you're kind of naïve and first falling in love with someone and super optimistic about everything. That starts the love story in the album."
"Moments" ft. Big Sean
"We actually worked on 'Moments' in Hawaii. I was on a trip with [Big] Sean and we recorded it out there. There were even some sounds that we picked up from hikes we took and put on the track. Sean really had the 'Moments' idea. I wasn't sure when we recorded it if we were going to have it be a part of our TWENTY88 [collaborative project] or for me or for him. But then, when it came down to it, I realized it fit perfectly within my storyline."
"OLLA" (Only Lovers Left Alive) ft. TWENTY88
"In my mind I have this whole vision of the end of the world, with alien invasions and meteors falling and only the lovers being spared their lives. It feels kind of prophetic to me. We're celebrating but we also have to continue to love each other so that we continue to thrive. I love that we turned it into a jam song, because in my mind we all find refuge in a skating rink. That's the point where all the lovers are meeting up. This is in the beginning, when the love story is still alive and thriving within the album.
"'OLLA' started off a lot more serious [because of] the track that I wrote it to. Then I got with Amaire Johnson, he produced 'One Man Can Change The World' with Big Sean. We work really well together; just straight jam sessions. He'd start playing a little something and I'd start singing a lyric. I loved the vibe. It's more like a party celebrating the fact that we're the only lovers left."
"When We Love"
"I don't even remember writing that song. I just remember recording it in, like, two hours. It all just came to me: It's like he's lying and telling me whatever he needs to say to keep me feeling this way. But I like that; do whatever you have to do to keep me here. It introduces [the period] when you start to feel more aware in love. It ushers in those question.
"I've been studying mindfulness since I was a teenager, just the whole concept of desire and the root of it. They say that one of the roots of suffering is desire. So it is deeper than just love."
"Sativa" ft. Swae Lee
"It's a Fisticuffs track and they know sativa is my favorite. They named the track 'Sativa,' so I knew no matter what I talked about on this song I wanted to keep the name, because it definitely feels like sativa. I had this melody for almost two years now and I just couldn't put it into words. Everyone, even No I.D., was like, 'Why don't you just put it on your album like that, so people can just feel what you're saying.' Then, at the very last minute, Amaire, who produces on the album, said, 'We should call Swae Lee.' And I'm a fan. So we had a session, he came through and he came through. That inspired me and I came up with new verses."
"I started writing this when I had a crush on this boy. Then I fell out of the crush with him and I couldn't finish it. It inspired a great first verse but then I realized I didn't feel that way anymore, so I wasn't inspired. Then I found love again and was able to finish the song and really be extra, extra passionate about what I was saying. And the stuff in the first verse also applied to the new love.
"I've always wanted to work with John Mayer; he's in my top three artists of all time. So we called him to the studio and he brought his guitar and jammed out. I played him some stuff and he said, 'I'll play on that one.' After the new stuff he added, I added the new verse and everything else to it."
"[John] played a bunch of new stuff that he left with me. So I cut up one of his guitar tracks and put it onto 'Newer Balance,' which follows 'New Balance.' It's a transition song."
“You Are Here”
"'You Are Here' was honestly inspired by my current situation [with Big Sean], when I was like, 'This is so perfect.' When I'm really happy, I'm questioning. And when I'm really sad, I'm wondering is it going to be OK. This is when the doubt is really introduced and I'm like, 'You're the one that saved me from Jukai, don't wake me up from this dream and not be this person that I think you are.'"
“Never Call Me” ft. Kurupt
"I wrote this at the height of a very public breakup, so I was feeling a way, for sure. And I'd just taken some mushrooms, so it was like an exaggerated feeling. I know that a lot of girls, or people, period, feel that way: 'Don't talk to other people about me; just talk to me. We're the ones that were supposed to be in this relationship. Now I'm hearing things and people are asking me what I want them to do. You need to call me because I can't control what my older homies are thinking of the situation.'
"And Kurupt is one of those people. I'm a big fan of Kurupt, being from Los Angeles. He came out and performed 'Ain't No Fun' when I was at Coachella. When I was on the High Road Tour with Snoop Dogg, Kurupt was on the tour and everyday we would talk. He became my real-life uncle. And he was with me when all that stuff was going on [about my relationship] on the blogs. It was just a lot of negativity coming my way, and he literally had that conversation with me."
"Since I was young, I've dealt with addiction. I started taking sleeping pills when I was a pre-teen, and then drinking as a young teenager, then experimenting with drugs and prescription pills as an adult. When my brother passed it got worse, like a dependency. Whenever I was feeling unpleasant feelings, that's what I would turn to. And I'm like 90 pounds, so stuff like that really affects me. So then I started having liver problems and kidney problems. It was really affecting me mentally, too. Every time I was performing, even on those late night shows, I was on something. I just felt like it was important to talk about it. I don't like keeping secrets. I feel like to get passed it I have to share it. It's something that I'm still working through.
"'Nobody' is the most introspective and honest song I've ever done. I worked on it for awhile. Whenever I was just feeling really alone, I would write more and more. It was hard for me on some parts, but I wanted to have a really lyrical song where I didn't care whether people said I wasn't hitting this [or that] note just right. I'm a writer, first, and I wanted to share something that was lyrical and super personal.
"Making this whole M.A.P. — the movie, the album, the poetry book — definitely helped me put some things in the past. And I discovered psychedelics, which have helped me not want to even smoke weed. I'm not even smoking weed anymore.
"The mainstream songs glorify [prescription drugs], but it's actually horrible for you. And I think that it's important to talk about why you're doing these things. What's making you feel like you've gotta take pills every day? I'm not saying it's cool; I'm saying I don't know what to do so that's why I [was] doing it. But throughout this whole Trip I find out there's a better way."
"'Overstimulated' is about a stimulant, so that's where I start talking about cocaine and Adderall — which, unfortunately, I've also experimented with. And [when I was recording] that song, I was on one and I was scared.
"We were already in album mode and we had to finish, so I felt pressure a little bit. Unfortunately, I turned to the wrong method of getting something done sooner. I love the song, though; I'm not going to lie. But I remember thinking, 'If my heart goes out right now.' I couldn't stop singing this song and trying to get it right. But I felt like I learned my lesson, because I went back [later] and, of course, I perfected it. Then I realized I can do it without that. I definitely made more sense of it afterwards. I'm almost 30 years old, so I feel like I don't have to do those things anymore to get things done. Shortcuts are not the answer.
"Those types of substances give you that false — it's not even confidence anymore. You just feel like you're on top of the world. But it's not coming from a place of real self-love. It's just superficial, which is why it [the story] goes into 'Bad Trip.' Because when you come down from all that stuff, you're like, 'What in the world? This is not right.'"
“Bad Trip (Interlude)”
"When I did mushrooms for the first time, I got super super emotional. I ate too many and I was around a whole bunch of strangers. I was away from my daughter. I was about to eat rice and it looked like worms. I was just confused."
“Oblivion (Creation)” ft. Dr. Chill
"Amaire and I were backstage at Big Sean's I Decided Tour and we were drinking Hennessy. There was a piano back there and he started playing. I started singing the verses, because it had been written already. We took that to the studio and just had a jam session and a drum circle around it.
"There's a poem [titled "Nobody"] by Emily Dickinson: 'I'm Nobody. Who are you? Are you Nobody too? Don't tell! They'd advertise.' That's the idea. I don't do this to get attention. I like to keep to myself, so oblivion is not the worst thing that can happen. Oblivion is kind of like nirvana, where you become nothing and you don't have to suffer over and over again. You're free to just be nothing. At least, that's what it means to me. That's why I sing, 'sweet oblivion.' It's just a philosophy I have.
"After 'Oblivion,' my dad [Dr. Chill]'s voice comes in. He's a doctor and he's super smart. I didn't really have a close relationship with him as a child because he and my mom were separated. But as I got older, we connected on a spiritual level. He's like 73 or 74. In the studio, it turned into this very spiritual jam session that was like 90-minutes long, and he just kept coming with wisdom. I knew he was going to say something crazy because, even in conversation with him, he always has some crazy life bars for you. That's probably the most time I've ever spent with my dad, the closest we've ever been, making these jams. So it was a special moment."
“Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” ft. Dr. Chill
"Plants are healing, and mushrooms are definitely a plant from God. The things that they open you up to are very, very special. So I chose to put that in 'Psilocybin.' I had drunk a lot of mushroom tea when I recorded that song. When I was writing it, it literally felt like I wasn't writing it. It felt like somebody or something was just channeling through me and I was saying these things: 'I'm the divine mother' or 'I have seeds of promise in my garden.' When I looked back I was like, 'Woah, this is trippy.' Psilocybin is definitely a powerful psychedelic that can open your mind. This song is all about that enlightening experience. That's one of my favorite ones, too."
“Mystic Journey (Freestyle)”
"Every time I would sit down to write to it, I couldn't because I just liked hearing the beat [No I.D. produced]. And then, at the last minute, something just came to me. I worked out of No I.D.'s Hollywood studio and he would always end up coming in and we'd have these deep conversations. He'd interrupt the whole session and, for the next seven hours, we're talking about life and philosophies and astrology and astronomy and science — literally every single thing. That one pretty much wrote itself, too. I just started singing it and then the words came out and it was a freestyle."
"Picture Perfect (Freestyle)"
"When I was in Big Sur I stayed at this place where they had speakers in the wall and I was just singing along. 'Picture Perfect' has a big role in the short film as well."
"Sing To Me" ft. Namiko Love
"It's a T-Wayne beat that he sent to me when I first met Sean [around] 2011. My daughter [Namiko Love] was only a few years old then. I was working on GarageBand and she and I were messing around with it. I found it on my old computer this year and thought we should totally do this. So I had her come in the studio and she loves being on the mic. I was standing there with her, teaching her how to breathe and figure out her notes. That was a special moment.
"She's the one that sort of wakes me up out of this whole trip, this dream state — which [is true] in real life. She's the one that brings me back to reality. Like, 'You need to get it together.' Especially the older she gets."
"I worked with Mali Music on this one. First of all, he is anointed. He is like an angel; his presence is so positive. And his voice and writing are amazing."
"Ascension" ft. Brandy
"This is how I meditate. I ask myself questions and meditate on those questions: What do you do it for? What are you running toward? What is the path you're going to choose?
"This song is me running to the light at the end of the tunnel. I feel like I'm on the right path now and I'm on my way. I know I still have things to get over and things that are going to come my way, but I feel like I'm [headed] in the right direction.
"This is a special song, too, especially because Brandy is on it. Brandy and John Mayer were the only two people that I wanted on my dream album, and I got that. I'd [already] recorded the song in its entirety. [Then] we got in touch with Brandy, and I didn't know what she was going to do because there was no open space on the song. So she just recorded one of my verses, which was even cooler to me because she was singing something I wrote. And she sang it with so much passion that I was like, 'Dang!' She really elevated the whole message of the song."
"Trip" ft. Mali Music
"'Trip' is another song I worked on with Mali. I feel like he's someone who's very connected to a higher power. So I customized the song to what I'd say, but, for the most part, it was like he literally channeled something that needed to be said to me. And it was just magic.
"He said, 'Yeah, this song is going to be called 'Trip' and I think you should do this song. And I thought, wow, he didn't even know the project was going to be named Trip. I felt like it was the perfect song to end the album. It sums up everything. And it also feels like I'm still on this trip and it's still going on, but the path has been cleared and I have a better vision of it."