Ron Avant holds the keys to neo-soul’s new guard

While interviewing Ron Avant, keyboardist of international neo-soul extraordinaire Anderson Paak’s band The Free Nationals, the dramatic contrast between our lives is heightened. We’re both on tight schedules; Avant is about to start a recording session in the distant glitz of Los Angeles and I’m trying to finish my grocery shop at ALDI.

You wouldn’t know it from the player’s phone-line modesty, but Avant is hours away from the release of Paak’s third record Oxnard on Dr Dre’s eminent major label, Aftermath. The album features ‘Headlow’, a track Avant produced and co-wrote, and yet he still manages to downplay his success.

 

“A lot of songs were recorded for that album,” says Avant. “I’m just lucky enough it was one of the ones that made it on.”

 

‘Headlow’, it turns out, was more than a lucky fluke for Avant. The skeleton was written by the keyboardist nearly four years ago, gestating until it caught Paak’s ear by chance at Avant’s house. Avant says Paak sent an unmixed version of the song to Dre, who was on holiday in Hawaii. When the reply came back, Dre said he had been listening to it on repeat.

 

“It’s that whole first major thing. I’ve done a lot of writing and keyboard work for different artists, but actually being a main producer on this record is pretty exciting.”

 

Avant’s musical roots are not in hip-hop, nor does he hail from the city of stars. The keyboardist began life in Cincinnati, Ohio where he learned to play drums in church with the encouragement of his father, a guitarist. Many of his extended family played alongside him, with an instrumental-age linked hierarchy giving the keyboard role to older players.

 

“I played in church every Sunday, and naturally I got better and better,” he says. “It was when I went to high school, a performing arts school, that I found jazz with keys.”

 

Though Stevie Wonder’s ‘70s output inspired much of his early playing, it was Herbie Hancock that kept him practising, edging him toward the Musical Institute Hollywood to study a performance degree. It was here Avant met Paak, playing on the same gig as three other future Free Nationals, sparking the musical relationship that has brought him here today.

 

“At the time, I played in a neo-soul trio with, like, the best drummer I had ever played with,” says Avant. “Until I met Anderson, I thought nobody could beat him. His [Paak’s] drumming is what impressed me first.”

 

Post-graduation, Avant’s malleable talent found him working with the then unknown Paak as an aside to touring with Snoop Dogg.

 

As Avant describes it, the Free Nationals’ human chemistry laid the tracks of touring success, while Paak’s monasticism during sessions for his 2016 breakthrough Malibu honed the sound that brought them to the world.

 

 

Malibu was a lot more structured,” he says. “He [Paak] was trying to figure out his sound and he didn’t do anything but wake up and go to the studio and work all day. He wasn’t eating, he wasn’t drinking, he wasn’t partying, he wasn’t doing nothin’. It was super focused.

 

“His [Paak’s] process for this next record Oxnard, I’d say was party vibes. Every time I’d go to the studio, it was always a party.”

 

The Free National’s viral NPR Tiny Desk concert might be the best document of the band’s musical bond. Avant, guitarist Jose Rios, and bassist Kelsey Gonzalez (without DJ Callum Connor) switch feel breathlessly under Paak’s free-wheeling musical direction, with little more than a faint shout.

 

“It’s more of a jam band, as opposed to having an RnB gig or something where everything is computerised, [and] you play the same shit every night,” says Avant. “We don’t do that. We only just got hip to the click [track]. I’ve always been hip to the click, but Anderson just got hip to the click. He never wanted to play with it but now as we’re doing it, he knows it makes shit a lot easier.”

 

The Free Nationals have recently surfaced with their own music sans Paak, upon his encouragement. Debut single ‘Beauty and Essex’ features Canadian RnB upstart Daniel Caesar, and pops off an off-kilter groove.

 

“He [Caesar] was trying to get into the game, and Anderson sent him that song and was like, ‘Yo, get on my band’s record.’ He sent his part back. Once we messed with the production some more and got it sounding right, it was like, this is dope.”

 

A hellishly congested Oxnard touring schedule means the full Free Nationals project might be a year off, though more singles are set to arrive. There is certainly no shortage of Avant and Paak to go around in the meantime: the Free Nationals will bring Oxnard to Australia on tour this January, and Avant has decided to make the most of it with two production masterclasses in Melbourne and Sydney. If there’s anything he wants you to learn, it’s that you as a producer should take learning instruments more seriously.

 

“You don’t have to be a beast at an instrument, but at least learn theory and see how still important it is to learn it,” he says. “Nowadays a lot of stuff people are making, to an older person it just don’t sound right. Because a lot of times, they're just guessing.”

 

Though Avant never said it, it seems fair to say the keyboardist’s guiding musical principle is feel. Guessing is the last thing he’d do ­– Ron Avant’s feel is as good as science.

 

Mackie and Ron Avant’s masterclasses go down in Melbourne and Sydney on Wednesday January 9 and Thursday January 10 at Abbey Road Institute and Studio 301 respectively. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. Catch Anderson Paak and the Free Nationals at Falls Festival from Friday December 28, with sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne.

 

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