Grammy Nominee Luke James Said His Album "To Feel Love/d" Was A Love Letter To Himself
"I believe it's my most honest work to date."
In what he calls his "most honest work to date," artist and actor Luke James delivered his heart on a silver platter in the form of his second studio album, To Feel Love/d. And his vulnerability did not go unnoticed, because it earned him his third Grammy nomination (this time, for Best R&B Album).
To celebrate, we sat down with Luke to talk about life and his career — like what inspired him to write certain songs, what we can expect from him in Season 4 of The Chi, how he maintains his mental health, and more! Here's what we learned:
1. What were you doing when you found out you were nominated for a Grammy?
Wow, I had just wrapped up filming this show that's going to come out next year. I just got in my Uber and I received a joint FaceTime call with my team. I wasn't thinking Grammys at all, but I just see them all smiling and everything, and then they were like, "You're nominated for Best R&B Album!" I was just floored, honestly.
2. Who was the first person you told?
The first person I told was my mom. While I was calling my mom, one of my collaborative partners, Cobaine Ivory, who's on the album, was calling me too. I had to keep ignoring him, because I was like, "I gotta talk to my mom first." Then I told the Uber driver. I have to remember his name, because he told me to say his name during my acceptance speech. But yeah, my mom was the first person.
3. So how did you come up with the name To Feel Love/d?
Once the album was finished, the title came to me once I really understood what I created. I guess, subconsciously, I created a love letter for myself. I wasn't exactly feeling appreciated, in that sense, love or loved, and that's how it came to me: To Feel Love/d. That was the purpose of it, to feel those feelings.
4. One of my favorite songs on the album is "Lambo." What inspired you to write that song?
Well, um, around that time, I had a friend who was going through some hard times and not feeling like being here and I was dealing with feeling that myself. Cobain sent me this composition of music strings and everything, and my writing partner Ryan Toby and I had just been listening to music creating stuff. So here we are in this moment, and I'm feeling what I'm feeling — I'm sitting in my beanbag chair, where I normally sit and just calibrate ideas, and the words just came. It just came out of me. It wasn't a thought until after it was all said and done, and then we realized we shouldn't touch it.
It's just honest and my own. I believe it's my most honest, in present truth, work to date. Now, in hindsight, I realized that inspired me to write that but also, in a way, it was another love letter for myself on that feeling. Feeling the urge to do something, but not exactly feeling accepted to do it or given the freedom to express it; the admiration, the love that comes with creating something and sharing with the world and it not being reciprocated in any way; and then personally, not feeling myself, not loving myself — yeah, that's what inspired that record.
BuzzFeed: I felt my eyes watering, because self-love is a big thing. It's harder than people think: to love yourself, let alone love someone else. So I'm glad that you wrote the song. I hope your friend got to hear it and I'm glad you were able to get yourself out of that headspace.
Thank you. Yes, she is. She's doing great. It's the saddest song on the record. Initially, I was going to leave it at the end, because I had started the album off with "Shine On." Funny thing is, I sat down with Snoh Aalegra in the studio and we were playing both of our projects, and she helped me put the track list in order. Putting "Lambo" first kind of sets the tone for the rest of the love, because the rest of the songs are like pouring love in, while this song is the yearn — the call out for those feelings and everything that we go into. Also, it's a song that just opens you up. I'm grateful to Snoh for giving me her expertise and helping me.
5. Which song was the hardest to write?
That's a good question. I'm really trying to go through it. I worked on the majority of these songs for a period of five to six years. I would say "Lambo," because initially "Lambo" was just two minutes and I was okay with that. It said enough for me. Being that it's such a personal record, I wasn't really keen on going in and trying to feel those feelings again and rethink something, or even getting away with trying to do something trendy on it. I like the initial feeling when the spirit's in the room, you lock the door, you're open, and whatever comes out is what it is. But my collaborative partners were really like, "Oh man, we should really stretch this out a little bit longer, if you have it in you. If you have more you want to say." So I guess that took a second to really understand what I was feeling from that record.
So, I would say "Lambo" and maybe "Gratitude." How that song came about, I wasn't feeling grateful. I wasn't acting grateful. I was frustrated and I was allowing my ego to take over my mind and spirit. I was recording with Cobain and I just asked for a blank sheet. I started yelling and then singing, "I am blessed." Just saying it over and over and over, but I wasn't initially going to record it. It was more just me saying it to myself as I'm trying to think of something, and that was it. Right. Um, I live with that. I knew there was another level that I wanted to reach within that. I felt like it was such a strong, powerful affirmation. I knew where it would sit on the album. I just knew that there was another notch that I could get to — I just befriended Kirk Franklin, and I grew up on Kirk Franklin. He was the voice. He was a pioneer, he was the voice that helped guide me to God musically as a kid. I was like, "What better person?" We got in the studio, I told him what I was feeling and how I came up with it, and he went in the booth and he did what Kirk Franklin does. Those two songs were probably, like, the toughest in the sense of just the time it took to really be honest and make sure I'm doing the right things with it.
6. Speaking of collaborators, you also worked with artists like BJ The Chicago Kid, Big K.R.I.T., and Ro James on the album. What was that experience like?
It was amazing! Lucky Daye is on the project as well. He's one of my best buds, man, and I'm just so happy for him that the world gets to see him, because he's always been brilliant. Plus, we're both from New Orleans, but It was amazing working with everybody. I don't know if it was quite as fun for everyone working on the music, because I was going through a lot. So there was a lot of trial and error, because you're trying to jump into someone else's head and someone else's feelings, and trying to understand what it is they're trying to convey. That takes some time. But all in all, for them to be there, for these folks to be present and allow me the space and lend me their creativity, it was amazing. I'm really grateful, because I couldn't have done this without them.
7. You touched on this a little earlier when you mentioned your beanbag chair, but where do you write your best material? Can you describe your writing process?
I write my best material at home. This is my sanctuary. I'm a homebody; I could be in here all day, quarantine is not a problem. So, here and in the shower. As soon as I'm in the shower, it just...I don't know, all your thoughts are going down the drain...I don't know. It just comes out. So, the shower and here, in my home.
When it comes to my writing process, it depends, because sometimes the words come to me first and other times it's a sentence, sentiment, or melody that hits me first. Usually, if the setting is me, just recording, I start melodically. I create vocally, especially if I don't have music, I just use my voice and then the intent kind of manifests its way into words.
8. How do you go about picking your collaborators?
I let the spirit move me. However the spirit moves me, that's where I'll go.
9. If you could pick any artist to work with, who you haven't already worked with, who would you choose?
Stevie Wonder and Spike Lee. I know Spike's not exactly musical, but I just feel like I would gain so much from being around him.
10. Okay, there’s a joke in the music industry that fans love “sad Mary J. Blige,” because the songs just hit different when she’s heartbroken. Do your creative juices flow more when you’re writing about heartbreak or when you’re happy?
Hmm, well, I am a sad boy. I'm a pretty sensitive person. Pain is something that can really motivate you to express yourself. In some ways, when I'm experiencing joy, I'm not really sitting still...I'm not trying to create something, I'm out living life. But when you're feeling sad and in pain, that's when you're by yourself. You don't want to be around anyone. That's when the spirits come to you — at night when you can't sleep and all you have is your piano, your pad, your words, and you just start doodling. Next thing you know, when you wake up the next morning, look down at your pad, and you're like, "Wow, I said that? Let's record that!" There's a lot of wealth in pain.
11. Besides writing and singing, what else helps you work through pain?
I train. I work on my body a lot. That really helps me physically push through tension and whatnot. Being surrounded by like-minded people, or semi-like-minded people who are smarter than me, and creative people is something that I also enjoy. It's a blessing to have people or to be around people that can help you push through the dark, darkest times — people who will never let you go. It makes you realize you're not alone. So I'm grateful to have a few.
12. In the past, you opened up about how the politics of the music industry took away some of your love for the art. Has that changed? And if so, what led to that new mindset?
I've regained a new relationship with my passion, which is music. We started all over and this album was that journey of rediscovery for me — and then some. I am no longer the same. I no longer do things the way that I once did that were toxic to my creative being and to my relationship with music, so things are better now. I am surrounded by people who fuel me positively, no holds barred. They don't let me just get away with bullshit. They're very supportive and give me my space — respecting me as an artist, rather than a product to turn around things. I'm happier and I'm still working on that every day, one day at a time. It's waves. You just got to get back on the board and keep surfing. So I'm happy now and I want to stay in this space, and hopefully, God will continue to bestow upon me a lot of things that will allow me to keep expressing myself in a way that helps fuel my happiness.
13. Okay, so I want to switch gears and talk about one of your other passions: acting. From The New Edition Story to Star, Little, and now you're on The Chi. What has been one of your favorite behind-the-scenes moments from working on the show?
I really respect the entire cast. I get full when I'm around people who are constantly pushing the envelope in their craft. Curtiss Cook, who plays Douda, man, I love the cat man. I love to just break bread with him. He's a classically trained actor and I'm not, but I'm a sponge and I'm a child of the arts, so he's awesome and always pouring that knowledge into me. I appreciate that camaraderie, so those are the moments that mean the most to me. Although it doesn't feel that way on camera, it's actually all love off camera.
14. Your character Trig is dating a trans woman, which received mixed reactions from fans, especially people from the Black community. Why was it important for you to tell this story?
I want to be of service. While I'm in my youth, I want to walk in that light and be of service. I feel that the world is in need of understanding. Us, as the Black community, have been in pain for so long, and there's just things that we need to let go that don't help us. It doesn't help us to look down on someone for their differences, when all they want is love. How could you be upset with that? If you've ever been to a pride parade, how could you be mad at that? It's nothing but love, joy, fun, laughter, expression, freedom, and strength. I believe in art that helps activate that bit of consciousness that makes people think and see the world differently. These stories are real people. There are people dying. There are trans women who are being killed, being beaten, being hurt, feeling ashamed to love, and not feeling protected by their own people. I want to show the dynamic of a man who can love someone who's able to love him. He has his own fights, he has his own ideas of who he is, but that's also because of the world and how the world views him.
And, like all of us, we're not given the freedom to be who we are in our full complexity, and we're very complex people and sometimes, in a lot of ways, we can be our own worst enemy. That is why we have a lot of hypermasculinity within our community. That's killing us. We need art, because art changes and shakes things up. We need art to help bust those walls down to even start the conversation. Positive or negative, either way, it's a conversation we're having. Love is love, and one thing ain't got nothing to do with the other. Ultimately, just mind your business. It's like if a person is not robbing, stealing, killing, what's that got to do with you. It's important to show these types of stories. These people are real and it's unfair to not be able to see yourself on TV. It's unfair to not be able to see yourself on shows that are supposed to be depicting real life. The real world is here and it's going to pass you by and you'll be dealing with this hate that has nothing to do with anyone else but yourself. And Black people, we laugh a lot and we love, and that's our power. Don't adapt to this other bullshit that America has given us.
15. Can we expect to see you in Season 4? If so, what can you tell us?
I haven't read the new script yet, but yes, I will be in Season 4. Lena Waithe (the series creator) told me something about the plot and what my character will go through. I'm really interested to see how Trig and his family evolves, especially with his little brother now living with him and how he and his relationship with Imani evolves and operates within the space that they're in. I'm also interested to see Jacob Latimore's character become more of a man and take care of business. I mean, the show is so good. It's just so many dynamics to it. So I don't have anything specific. But I'll be back. I'll be back.
16. If you could join any cast, a cast of any show, what would it be?
I have been watching some shows lately. I don't know if it's a show, but the Small Axe series is amazing (referring to Steve McQueen's film series on Amazon Prime). It's absolutely brilliant. It's a masterclass in some ways, for sure. I love the stories. I'd love to be in Atlanta. That'd be fun. They just seem like they're having a really good time being creative and honest. I would love to hop on there at some point.
17. What genre are you really interested in breaking into and who would be your dream costars?
I love drama and I'm slowly getting into things that have been like stage plays that have been adapted to the silver screen, like stories from August Wilson and stuff like that. I love that particular genre — something that's very weighty. It's very truthful and personable. I just want to challenge myself in those ways. I would also love to do some romances about our Black love. Our universal Black love in totality, because we love big and in so many different ways. I'm currently on a show that does that and I just want to keep doing those types of things that I find really great.
There are so many brilliant actors out there, I don't know who I'd like to see as my leading lady. It could end up being someone I've never seen — someone new, whose work I've never seen. I'm just open to whoever's game to play.
18. Who's the last famous person you texted?
Tyler Perry. I wrote, "Can I call you at 12:30 p.m. ET?" That was it.
19. What is your go-to adult beverage?
I don't drink, so my go-to regular drink is water.
20. What are some things you do to maintain your mental health?
I talk to my mom. I let her talk about whatever she wants to talk about, even if we talked about it already. I just try to be present when it comes to my mom. A lot of people lost a lot of people this year, and you just never know, man. That makes me feel good, because we get into this world and we detach ourselves from our normal lives, especially when you're diving into different characters, so I make space to connect with my mom because she's all I got.
Working out also helps me push through whatever I got going on. Exercise is huge for me. And then, of course, I love creating music. I just bought a piano and I'm developing a relationship with the piano — I hadn't before, all these years. Quarantine has really allowed me to sit down, take lessons, and really learn the keys. I also found my own way of meditating, because I had a hard time with traditional meditation. It was really hard to just walk somewhere or to just sit down and be still. I find that I'm at my stillest when I'm sitting down at the keys and the chords and God is flowing through me. When I step away from it, I feel full.
21. Have you ever had a wild fan experience?
Someone found out where I lived and sent a gift to my mom. This was around the time when I first started and we were still listed in the White Pages. We're not there anymore. That was just too creepy.
22. Who is your celebrity crush?
I don't know if I have one.
23. What's on your bucket list?
My bucket list is to read the books that I have collected and finish them before I buy any new ones. To work with Spike Lee is also on there. And to just stay happy...to stay in the vicinity of happiness. That's at the top.
24. What book are you currently reading?
Sanford Meisner on Acting. It's a particular ideology and style of acting. I'm constantly learning, so that's what I do to push the needle and become a better performer.
25. What's your favorite curse word?
26. Describe 2020 using a TV show title.
I May Destroy You.
27. Lastly, what does a perfect day look like for Luke James?
I wake up around 6:30/7:00 a.m., drink some tea, eat some fruit, listen to the Ink Spots, go to the gym, come home, eat the biggest meal I can create, and sit on my piano and just play. Oh, I just bought a bike, so riding into town listening to the Ink Spots or Marvin Gaye should be added to my day too.
If you haven't already, be sure to check out Luke James and his second studio album, To Feel Love/d, streaming on all music platforms now.