Jamil Rashad, better known as Boulevards, is one of the most idiosyncratic artists making music in the Tarheel State. On his current album, Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud, his dominant mindset—is funk: gritty, warm, weird, charismatic. The music unfolds kaleidoscopically, giving Rashad the space to face up to his own demons while showcasing the energy and charisma that have made him a mainstay in the North Carolina music scene. It’s a new sound for him, but not an unexpected one; he’s been building toward this album for several years, showing new facets of himself with each new record. While drawing from different eras of pop history, he never sounds retro and never loses himself among the references. Grounded in personal experience and haunted by personal demons, Electric Cowboy is an album that reaches out, that embraces the world, that mixes the confessional and the communal. Jamill recently took a break to discuss his newest album.
I really enjoyed the video for “Surprise”. You looked like you are having a lot of fun in the video.
(laughs) Well, we always try to have fun in the creative process. I think that’s it’s important not to take yourself so seriously and have fun and bring the creative energy and charisma when were going into making these videos.
You watch a lot of videos and it’s like they’re going through the motion, like they don’t really want to be doing that stuff. Despite being good for marketing a song, do you enjoy the process of doing a music video or do you see it as a necessary evil?
I love it. I love being as hands on as possible. I let directors and producers do their own thing, but their job is to highlight not just me, but highlight the song. As far as me performing – or whatever you want to call acting in videos and stuff like that, I have fun doing videos. They’re fun to do. It helps when the director has material they’re excited about. It was cool.
One thing I realize while listening to your music is that you are a student of music and musical style. What I thought was cool about “How Do Ya Feel” and the aforementioned “Surprise” is how you are talking at the beginning of the song before the music really kicks in. I’m a little older than you and I always remembered old funk and soul songs that had that element.
Yeah, yeah, you look at guys like Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield and those type of cats, that was important – even George Clinton. It was like a rap piece. Bootsy [Collins] was involved with that kind of stuff, too. It’s current in today’s hip hop – maybe not current, today’s soul music or today’s indie rock, but it’s still considered hip hop. I think it’s something more in black culture. They always like spoken word and talking to the listener and things of that nature. It’s not that indie artists don’t do that, but you don’t see it as often as you do in hip hop and black music. It’s kind of a thing in the culture, where now the new soul – for me as a listener and a student of the game – I guess a lot of the voices have singing voices, too, but that talking voice was important, too. When you hear a lot of those singers, their voice is not as intriguing as the singing voice, I guess. (laughs) You know what I’m saying? Kind of boring, kind of bland. We want to keep it that classic. With my dad in radio, I think I got my voice from him. I try to use that as a tool when I’m writing songs and creating songs, creating the mood and vibe – a part of the story and part of the art. I think it’s something that’s very, very important. Obviously, it may not go well with every song, it has to feel right for the song and production.
It’s definitely a welcome retro throwback. Your music toys with various styles of music. Everybody I think has grown up listening to music of some sort. Was there a concert or concerts you attended that really made an impression of you personally and musically?
It’s funny, even though my dad was in radio, he didn’t take me to a lot of concerts. I didn’t go to a lot of concerts as a kid. I didn’t start going to shows until I was in college – like punk shows and hardcore shows, but I will say, those hardcore punk shows, those were the type of concerts that got me wanting to perform. Those frontmen and seeing those guitars – the energy! The energy, right? It was always contagious and gave 110 percent. It wasn’t like some of these soul artists and indie artists being there kind of bland. Those hardcore punk shows – every musician on that stage has charisma and energy and would bring it. You know what I’m saying? To me, that’s performing. That’s what you want to see. I don’t go to shows to see a bunch of dudes standing around. That’s kind of whack. The music is still cool, but that’s not me. I like to see guys performing and give energy and soul into the songs and feeding off the energy of the crowd. That’s important to me. A lot of my favorite artists are hardcore and punk bands. And that’s obviously one of the bigger components of why I wanted to be a performer. It actually wasn’t hip hop, it wasn’t actually funk and soul music. That stuff made me want to create music and write music. As far as performing, it was always the punk bands and hardcore bands, seeing the energy, the crowd, the lights and everything. I was always drawn to that and that inspired me to be a performer and be a frontman.
As a musician how important do you feel it is to perform live. Today, there are a lot of artists that don’t want to get out of their basement or tour – not taking into account Covid that threw everybody for a loop.
I think it’s very important for somebody in my stage of my career to be consistent and performing a new style of funk music. You have guys that work really, really hard and have s supporting cast that’s really dope and want to be able to grind. I think it’s very important. You should be ready to grind it. For the faint of heart, it’s not for everybody. Sometimes not knowing when you’re going to sleep, or if you’re dieting. It’s not as luxurious as people make it out to be. Sometimes the money’s not always there. For me, touring is the only time I feel like I have structure. Me being at home doesn’t work for me. It’s boring for me. (laughs) I rather be on the road, get up in the morning go for my run, eat breakfast go on the road, load in, go to whatever hotel/Airbnb, sound check, boom, boom, boom, wait around and perform, throw records, merch out. That for me is a productive day. That’s where I get satisfaction. I feel like I have a purpose. I can’ speak for everybody in the band. For me that’s where I get the most satisfaction as far as being on the road.
How did you know music was your calling? I realize your dad was in radio…
I don’t think I ever knew it was going to be my calling. I thought I was going to be a creative director. I went to school and got my degree in Art and Illustration. For me, I never thought I’d be in music. I used to make beats and produce – stuff like that. I don’t think it was until maybe I was in a couple of punk and hardcore bands. And when those bands failed that’s when I decided about 2009/2010 I wanted to do this. I want to bust my ass to get it. You know, when I was a kid and there was MTV and BET and you watch Michael Jackson and you want to emulate that, but I wasn’t like, “Oh, I want to be that.” I was having fun and, “Cool, that’s Michael Jackson. Rick James is cool.” I don’t think it was until early/mid 2000s that I wanted to do it.
How supportive was your father about you going into music with his background in radio?
I don’t think anybody’s parents want you to go into it. (both laugh) Because you don’t have insurance, no 9-5 or consistent income. They support you, but they saw it as more of a hobby. I think now that they’ve seen me perform and make good music – not that I wasn’t making good music before. But I seeing I have a supporting cast and a label, I’ve got these records I’m selling, people are posting music and interviews and the reviews online and seeing me perform. Whether I was performing to a thousand people or 20, they’ve seem me go on the road being professional, they’ve been more supportive. They’re still parents. They want their kids to have insurance and a billable job. It stokes my fire. I want to prove my parents wrong – that this is what I was born to do. I’m good at what I do. I’m a great songwriter. I’m a great performer. I’m a great producer. I’m creative. I’m going to use these tools God gave me to utilize these gifts to the best of my ability.
With your background in art do you put together your album art?
No, I have an artist for that. I have visions and ideas that I present to people. I let those people help bring those things to life. Who knows? Maybe somewhere down the road I may make my own album. At this point I just want to be the person that has the vision and be able to hire somebody that I like that can help me with those visions and ideas that I have.
Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud is your latest album. How did you put together/decide what songs were going to be on it?
I always go with my gut feeling. If you hear too much outside noise – people are always going to suggest, but for me, I’m the one that created the songs, I’m the one who wrote the songs. I’m the one listening to these songs all of the time. For me, I’m all about what’s going to be good for the story – what’s going to feel good with the mood; what’s going to feel good with the pace. I’m all about the pace of the record. For me, when I did that, that’s what I was thinking about. We’re going to start this record with “Turn”. It has a great introduction to all the songs – the style of music we’re creating and we ended with “Problems”, which kind of brings everything together. It brought all those funks together, basically, pulling the whole experience together. It just stops and you can play it together again. I get ideas and opinions, but at the end of the day I believe in myself and I believe in my ear and my gut and my art. I’ve got to make those decisions of how I feel at the end of the day of what’s going to be the best experience for the listener.
How do you feel Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud has progressed from some of your earlier work?
I would consider this my first album. Working with the producers I had; them actually producing me as an artist and the way we worked the tracks and worked the songs, I actually feel like this is my first record. For me, it was a great experience. Electric Cowboy for me is obviously my best music to date, but I know I can make better music and art – you know what I’m saying? I thought it was the best with the tools that have been given to me. I feel like this part of my career I look at the label, I look at what’s in my hands and think how can I make the best with the resources I have. If I was somebody like Drake or Beyonce I’m obviously going to have tons of money and tons of resources to make the best music possible. (laughs) How can I make the best song possible because at the end of the day it’s about the songs I want to create. And then I put them out and people can judge for themselves. It should always start with making music for yourself. You obviously have people that try to be in charge, or try to get in charge and things of that nature, but at the end of the day it will always be about my vision and the art. It’s up to the artist to see if it’s progressing or recessing, growing or not growing as an artist. I feel like I should be growing every record. That’s the thing I’ve always respected – people always have their opinions of Kanye West. Kanye West is the kind of artist that with each record he gets better and better and better. He’s trying new things. Like with Missy Elliott and those artists are like trying to do new things and progress and progress and progress. A lot of artists, whether it’s country, indie or soul they get stuck in one style or they’re afraid to bring new things to experiment. Boulevards is always going to experiment. That’s why I like where I’m at. I’m always going to have more freedom than a lot of artists have right now. I’m always going to be where I have that type of freedom – being versatile with my vocals – talking, rapping, singing and stuff like that. I’m always going to be able to experiment and evolve when it comes to songwriting. That’s always the goal. The goal is how can I make the follow up better than this one. How an you make it sound bigger? What do we need to do to make it better than the last one? That’s the goal.
We’ve already talked about “How Do Ya Feel” and “Surprise”. What song on the album do you think people should really pay attention to?
I feel like How Do Ya Feel” is being overlooked for example. How Do Ya Feel” is a great song. The song “Together” is a song that gets overlooked. “Problems” is one of my personal favorites. It basically closes out everything and lets you know where this artist is at. It puts all those songs together. We have these issues, we have these problems and we’re still trying to tackle these issues. For me “Together”, How Do Ya Feel” and “Problems” are my favorite songs. I love the whole record, but those are probably my favorite songs.
You’re a champion of your home state and hometown. What about living in Raleigh, NC inspires your music?
The South, the southern experience, the Carolina experience – what I see daily – it helped that I lived in New York; it helped that I lived in L.A., but it’s obvious that all my inspiration comes from home. When I wrote this record it was always going to be that way.
– Dave Weinthal
Boulevards headlines the Nightfall Concert Series Friday, July 15.