A Starchild Is Born: With ‘Crucial,’ Solange and Chairlift’s Secret Weapon Steps Into the Spotlight

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It’s late on a Saturday night in Brooklyn, and Bryndon Cook is electric. In front of the Fresnel LEDs beaming from the shoebox-sized stage at local club Baby’s All Right, his performance bursts with energy. As he plays his recent single “Slammin’ Mannequin,” he alternates between shredding on the guitar, floating his fingers over a keyboard, crooning sweet nothings, and showing off super-smooth dance moves. His hair coiffed in an immaculate fade, with a clean Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson T-shirt tucked into crisply pressed high-waisted pants, he’s stylish but dressed to move. It’s the record release party for Crucial, his first official release on Ghostly International as Starchild & The New Romantic, and after a few short stints supporting some of pop’s brightest young stars, he’s ready for a starring role. We’re ready, too.

Cook has been a performer for pretty much his entire life. He started in the school band, picking up the tenor saxophone in fifth grade. He joined he marching band in high school, and performed in choirs and musical theater. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a “theater kid,” but until quite recently, he was on track to make acting his career. This comes as no surprise if you’ve seen him perform; his stage presence is strong without being forceful — he commands your attention without demanding it. When he performs with other bands, like Chairlift or Solange, it’s with a reserved grace. But at his record release show, there’s no reason to hold anything back — it’s his time to shine.

Starchild & The New Romantic perform at Baby’s All Right, Brooklyn, NY , March 12, 2016. Photo by Philistine DSGN.

Cook’s rise in music began somewhat by chance. The summer after his sophomore year at SUNY Purchase, he spent his days interning at Pitchfork and his nights hanging out at local DIY space 285 Kent. An open call on Twitter from Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly asking for new music led him to send him some demos, which led to hangouts and a budding friendship. Cook would come by the Chairlift studio in the old Pfizer building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, absorbing sounds and vibes. During his junior year, Wimberly introduced Cook to Solange Knowles, with whom he had been touring. After losing Dev Hynes from her touring band, Knowles was looking for another multitalented instrumentalist; following a successful audition, Cook spent the summer of 2013 on tour, playing guitar and keyboards, and singing backup. He was a perfect fit for the band’s eclectic sound, but he admits to feeling the pressure of delivering a performance worthy of the music he’s playing — or making.

“I got nervous for every, every show,” Cook says of that first Solange tour. “Even if I was chilling out the whole festival, as soon as it was coming to changeover, I would always get a little nervous. But… the more we kept going, it was like a well-oiled machine. By the time we got to Australia, it was like a dance. Not even choreographed, but like knowing your transitions and knowing what you need to be bringing to the next moment to make it as impactful as you need it to be.”

That he was so nervous before each Solange show speaks to his relationship with performance. When he attended SUNY Purchase, it was as part of the college’s famed acting school, a notoriously selective program that takes in fewer than two dozen students each year. (When he met and auditioned for Solange, his hair was hot-combed straight and blown out for an acting role.) The university’s creative environment, fueled by the close proximity of different arts disciplines, inspired plenty of artistic miscegenation. The acting program was housed in the dance building, which was next to the music building — and Cook ended up rooming with a lot of jazz players. In fact, his current band is comprised of other kids from Purchase’s music program (one is now a visual artist), just a few years younger than he.

Bryndon Cook. GIF by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.

If you were to try assigning a genre to Starchild & The New Romantic, you might come up with something like “post-chillwave R&B,” which both sounds and is ridiculous. But the synth-heavy neo-R&B that was so popular in certain circles while Cook was a student certainly affected him, as did the music he grew up with, from Prince to Stevie Wonder to Sade, the British singer whom he told Saint Heron he had a built a shrine to in his room. On “Relax,” the pulsing rhythms and twinkling synths could recall the chillwave vibes of Toro y Moi, or the inspired Theophilus London/Dev Hynes/Solange collab “Flying Overseas,” Cook’s first encounter with Solange as a musician. The music we listen to throughout our lives certainly changes us — consciously or otherwise — and as Cook gains perspective on his life and the music that shaped him, he now finds himself in the position to make the music he’s been waiting to make his whole life.

“I’m trying to connect some kind of through line from my youth to now,” Cook says. “I think what’s stayed true was that, back then, the revelation of certain moments in a song would make you feel like, ‘Oh, at 1:36 into this Stevie Wonder song, there’s this perfect coalescing of these elements that make you feel this in this chakra.’ I wasn’t speaking about it like that when I was eight years old, but I was internalizing things in that nature. That kind of relationship to music has stayed, with a lot more thinking involved. I guess now, I actually have the will to make it. My whole life, though I’ve been that kind of fan of music and played music, I wasn’t thinking about performing it or putting it out or being a recording artist.”

Bryndon Cook. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.

Cook’s tribe is filled with multi-instrumentalists. He recently performed in Chairlift’s touring band, and he’s worked with both Dev Hynes and Kindness’ Adam Bainbridge. But if there’s any one collaborator who has had the most notable effect on him, it’s his college BFF, Chester Raj Anand, aka Lord Raja. It was Anand who used his own deal with Ghostly to get Cook’s music heard by the label that would sign him in July 2015. And while the songs on Crucial are definitely of the “written, arranged, and performed by Bryndon Cook” variety, there’s a high level of trust between two in the studio, one that’s almost required between a musician and a producer who is the first to hear the music he composes in private.

“The bulk of my co-production work with Chester has been like [that],” Cook says. “I developed [the music] in this very insular kind of way… write songs, [put together] all the arrangements, and then start producing the track. He has this Rick Rubin-esque quality where it’s like, ‘Don’t use that snare, use this one.’ Or I’m playing a synth part, and he’ll come up to the keyboard and turn the cutoff down or something like that. We have a Rush Hour, Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker relationship. The only caveat is that he’s fully allowed to touch my radio.”

Cook’s future looks bright. He’ll never want for work as a session player or touring musician, and he’s already at work compiling the songs that will appear on his upcoming debut LP. He might not get as nervous as he did on that first tour anymore, but he still cares deeply, still revels in the art of the performance, working intensely in private on things meant to be shared in the most public way possible, pouring himself into each show as if it might be his last. Starchild might seem like just his latest role, but if he’s playing anything, it’s a reflection of himself.

“It’s for the sake of what you’re trying to create,” he explains. “In theater, you find the magic when you’ve spent hours rehearsing in a room alone with your partner. And then you bring that out, and let people see through a keyhole into that truth. That’s the powerful s#%t to me.”