The Youth Issue: Cazwell (Part One)

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That’s right, kids, another The Youth Issue two-part interview spectacular! Get excited, because after the jump you’re going to get a little taste of New York’s most delicious gay musician, Cazwell.

Growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, 28-year Cazwell got his musical start with his friend Crasta Yo when the duo performed as Morplay. Though the made two records together, Mr. C broke off to record last year’s Get Into It.

To celebrate his success and upcoming tour, we sent little old Andrew Belonsky to have a bit of pow-wow. After the interview, Cazwell commented, “You caught me on a talkative day”. We certainly did. We love Cazwell so much that we decided to keep most of the conversation intact.

In this installment, Cazwell chats about growing up in the so-called armpit stain of New England, why he hasn’t heard from his brother in over ten years and ponders the appeal of his mouth – a subject we’re sure more than a few of you would like to discuss. Because, really, who wouldn’t?

Andrew Belonsky: Let’s talk about growing up in Massachusetts. Was it a happy childhood for you?

Cazwell: Yeah, I mean I had parents that love me. They didn’t abuse me or anything like that. I had a really strange childhood in some respects, like my parents actually both taught sex education for my church. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist. Do you know what that is?

AB: No.

CZ: You go to church and you learn about all different kinds of religions. It’s the church for the unreligious – you just have the spectrum of religions. My parents taught sex education for that, but [they] got divorced when I was in my early teens. My father changed his religion and his whole lifestyle and stuff. So, I had a tough childhood in that respect: my parents were going through a really tough time. But I was allowed to be really creative.

I was actually a real creative troublemaker. Me and my best friend used to make puke bombs – we would take plastic freezer bags and fill it with anything we could fill it with and go to the mall to the second floor and drop it on someone’s head. It sounds really bad saying that! I was definitely a troublemaker, but I was really good at getting away with it. I knew how to turn real sweet real quick.

I have two brothers – we’re all named after apostles: Matt, Luke and John. My first name’s Luke, my last name’s Cazwell. My younger brother’s really cool. He’s involved with music now. He’s still lives in Worcester. My older brother is depressed, like clinically. He hasn’t talked to me in about ten years.

AB: Why?

CZ: Sometimes people who are clinically depressed – even some people who aren’t clinically depressed – need some sort of outlet for their anger and they put walls up with people who maybe hurt them. He’s never really talked to me about it, but he doesn’t talk to my dad, either. It’s okay…

[But] Worcester is definitely very trashy. I call it the armpit stain of New England. There are more check cashing spots than any other place in New England and a lot of heroin traffic, but my best-friend from there, his name’s Tyler Steele, he’s actually a writer out in LA – we were both creative and caused a lot of trouble.

AB: You ever get arrested?

CZ: I got arrested for stealing when I was 18. That’s the only time.

AB: What’d you steal?

CZ: I was stealing cough medicine that I couldn’t afford to buy. I moved out of my house when I was seventeen. They let me out really quick. I got handcuffed, but they told me it’s off my record.

AB: Wait, where do you fall in the brothers?

CZ: I’m the middle. What’s that mean? Does that mean I want more attention? Everyone’s always like, “Oh, the middle child”…

AB: It’s probably an awkward place to be.

CZ: Well, yeah, and [we’re all] exactly two years apart and well, I guess I was always gay and I never really connected as much with other kids. I was always really artistic and creative and really good at coloring and paper mache. I was always that kind of kid. My older brother was more into rock and roll and my younger brother tried to emulate him, so it wasn’t until after I started to connect with my younger brother that really [he] looked up to me, but we’re close now. I really like him a lot.

My older brother – there’s no point. He will deny that I’m his brother, if someone asks him. I haven’t talked to him in like twelve years. I feel bad for him. I mean, I can hold a grudge, but I don’t hold a grudge like that.

AB: Do you want to rekindle that relationship?

CZ: It’s not up to me. I think that if he made the change in his life that he wanted to be open, I think that would be really cool. I think it would be really good. I’m learning to forgive people and I hope that people [can] forgive me for things. I think that it’s really important. I’m the kind of person – I think that something I really need to change is that I definitely tend to push people away that can hurt me. Like relationships and ex-boyfriends: people that get too close to me, I tend to either be mean to them or push them away or not talk to them. Anyone that I think can make me less confident, I totally eliminate them.

AB: I can understand that.

CZ: It even says it in my sign – in my astrology book.

AB: What sign are you?

CZ: Cancer.

AB: What month is that?

CZ: June.
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AB: What kind of music did you listen to as a kid? Do you remember your first record?

CZ: My first record…I don’t remember. I think maybe Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual. I think [she’s] a great live performer. I like how uncontrived she is, I like her voice, I think she’s cool – [A bug flies into Cazwell’s mouth.] Ug, what was that? Did you witness that?

AB: I did witness that.

CZ: Was it a bug?

AB: It was a bug.

CZ: Oh my god. That must mean something.

AB: What do you think it means?

CZ: I don’t know. My mouth’s a pretty good place to go, huh?

AB: I guess. So, with this record, your website talks about how you’re looking to capture a sound that was sort of like “pre-AIDS New York”. Did I read that right?

CZ: Yeah.

AB: What’s the appeal of that sound? Is it the message or is it more a rejection of today’s music?

CZ: Well, I’m definitely not trying to reject today’s music. If anything, I want to combine some of it – I want what I do to be up-to-date and not sound dated. I don’t know, I just remember when I was in Morplay before this and when I first got out, struggling, all the hip-hop beats I was getting and hearing sounded the same…

AB: You recorded your first album in ‘99?

CZ: No, well, yeah – I had two Morplay albums. One was in ’99 and then 2001 we put out Thesaurus Metamorphosis. I was putting out solo things and selling [them] at shows, but not like a big thing and then this record came out in 2006. But I was doing songs here and there that got on records – I did an Avenue D song. Once I became solo, I wanted to continue working with those people – I was working with Amanda and stuff like that, – but I [also] wanted to find my own sound. I felt like everything sounded the same or – I didn’t want to sound like electro-clash. I really wanted something that sounded like New York.

I have this vision that will probably happen with the next album: an autobiographical album [about] the life of a gay guy in New York City, so I really wanted this to sound like New York, but what New York sounds like to me. New York to me doesn’t sound like electro-clashy type stuff or more electronic stuff. I really hear disco, but not like – that’s what I like about West End because their disco is like – like I have really heavy musicians in it. Something about it is really grassroots live disco, because it’s not all synth and it’s not offbeat house. I don’t even know what it is – it’s like soul disco. And then when I got a hold of their catalogue and, I don’t know, there’s something really raw about it. I don’t know. It’s like when I hear “All Over Your Face”, I just totally – you know those Andy Warhol movies and shit and those ‘70s movies when the hooker’s on the street and New York was falling apart and like in Taxi Driver? That type of grittiness. I really love that. I’m fascinated by pictures of Time Square from the Seventies and Eighties. I think people still come to New York trying to find that and some of it’s still there and some of it’s coming back.

West End didn’t want me to put out a full-length first. They wanted to do a single. They were like, “We want to work you up and we’re going to do an EP and then we’ll do a full-length.” I feel like that’s the way to work any relationship: you tell a little him a little about you and then you tell him more and hopefully he’ll be interested…and then I can really talk about who I am without boring people and keeping it dance…The thing about dance music is that when I sing to dance music, it’s not as easy to show off skills as far as writing and what you can do with your rhymes. “Watch My Mouth” is a really good dance song [but] it’s not skills to me. I had to go and do that song like four times, because my manager’s like, “You need to cut down on the words.” That’s always been a problem with me: I’ve always been really wordy. I’m always like, “No, I’ve got more to say.” I really want to be able to do, like, The Miseducation of Cazwell.

AB: With the interludes and everything?

CZ: Totally. I go back and forth; sometimes I want to call it Faggot [but] I don’t want to push away my audience, either. I go back and forth. I think it’s really important – you know, I don’t think I’ve proven myself to be that groundbreaking yet – but it’s really important to me that some gay, out artist captures the lifestyle of a gay person through music and it doesn’t really happen. Not for me. I think that there are some gay artists that are out and are talented, but I don’t totally connect with [them]. So, basically I’m trying to make something that I want to listen to. Hopefully other people will connect to it, too. So, I’m really excited about the new album.

AB: When are you going to start working on that?

CZ: Well, I’m already working on it. The funny is, which is very interesting to me, is that I have to go back to Worcester to work on it, because the guy that did “All Over Your Face” – the producer, Kaz Gamble when I did that song with him, he lived out in LA and we did there. He’s from Worcester, too, coincidentally. He got sick a few months ago and had to go live with his parents and he’s still there and that’s where he brought his studio. So, I need to go back home. The last time I was back home – it was like three years ago – I had an anxiety attack and I left the same night. I didn’t want to be there anymore. Everything about it was gray and felt rundown to me.
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AB: It seems perfect for the autobiographical aspect.

CZ: I guess so. I’ll be there in a week.

AB: Your folks still live there?

CZ: No, my brother does. My whole family still lives in Massachusetts, but different parts.

AB: Has it been hard for you to – I don’t know if ‘integrate’ is the right word, but is it hard for you to sell yourself to a broader hip-hop community?

CZ: I’m not trying. I’m not even calling myself hip-hop.

AB: What do you call yourself?

CZ: I just call myself Cazwell. I started rapping because I can’t sing. If I had a really great singing voice, maybe I would have gone a different direction. But then I started to rhyme and I got good at it – my goal is, when I do it, is – Do you ever watch someone sing and they have a really great singing voice and they’re singing about something really emotional and you feel it with them and you’re like, “Oh my god, I could do that”? Of course, you can’t really do that, because you can’t sing, but there are times that I can create a rhyme that has such a flow and such a sound that when I do it, I feel like I’m singing. It’s kind of like that, especially if it’s about something really important. It has nothing to do with breath control or whatever; it’s all about the sound and the imagery behind the words. So, that’s why I started rapping. I just see myself as using the power of rhyme to rhyme with music and right now the style tends to be more – I’m taking advantage of the disco that I rap to. I don’t know, if anyone’s going to rap to disco, shouldn’t it be a gay guy?

AB: Is it hard for you to sit down and write?

CZ: Yeah.

AB: What’s the routine like?

CZ: I wait until I have a deadline. That’s what inspires me – I just keep it all in my head and I think about it and have a hundred thoughts and then I’m like, “Oh shit, I gotta go to the studio tomorrow.” I usually have to get out of my house because there’s too much I have to do at home, whether it’s cleaning or whatever. But once I sit down with a beat, I can just hammer it out. It’s just the way I was in school. [It’s] the way I am with everything: I wait until last minute, but I always get it done.

AB: When you were a kid, did you start writing first or did your interest lie more with music or did they come together? I mean, I guess they kind of had to come together, but were you more interested in being a musician than a writer? Does that make sense?

CZ: I guess I didn’t realize I was a writer until a couple years after I started writing. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’m a writer. I write. I wrote.” How did it start? I guess I just had some lines in my head and the first thing I wrote to was house music because I lived in Worcester and I would come to New York and get these house music tapes. I had no other instrumental beats to write to, so I would write to that. Then me and Crasta Yo started Morplay. The first time we performed, we grabbed a drummer from the previous band. It was where all the skater crews would hang out in Worcester. They would have keg parties at this run-down shack and shit. There was this band called “Thunder Cock” and we just grabbed the drummer and the bassist and we would just do our raps there. People wanted us to perform live and we were like, “We don’t have any beats”, so we started making beats – we found this guy across the street, he made beats and then we would write – it just built from there.
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AB: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

CZ: God, I don’t know, it’s taken over my life for so long.

AB: Well, what did you want to do when you were a kid?

CZ: I was always interested in fashion, but making clothes for other people didn’t really turn me on. I like making clothes for myself and making outfits and the chains and the jewelry. I’d definitely be doing something creative. I don’t know. I would like to make a brand of hoodies. It would probably have something to do with clothes. I spend all my money on clothes and music.

[Can’t get enough Cazwell? Well, come on back Monday to read what he has to say about dating younger men, why he won’t be moving to LA anytime soon and how he can tell he’s growing up.]