By: Ammar Mooraj
Xavier “Sleepydog” Hall is one of the strongest examples of how art reflects the artist. Sleepydog, for the unaware, is an artist known for his midwest-emo/math rock music. His most popular video on YouTube has 2.2 million views, his most listened to song “Space Cadet” has roughly 1.4 million listens on Spotify, and he racks up around 78k monthly listeners. He’s just coming off the release of a new album– a lo-fi hip-hop collab with producer Sleepdealer called Friends.— and if the album weren’t enough of a blessing, he also responded to my hail-mary Instagram DM and agreed to interview with me.
“[Friends.] took a really long time. It seems like longer, to be honest… but since the beginning of 2018.” The first thing I noticed while talking to Sleepydog was also the thing I was most drawn to in his music – his voice. Hall has a unique sound when he speaks or sings. There’s a harsh, coarse quality to his voice which finds itself at tension with his warm and light demeanor. It is the marrying of these two seemingly conflicting qualities that creates his voice’s appeal. As the interview continued, I began to realize that this is where much of Sleepydog’s power as an artist comes from – the ownership, acceptance, and unity of tensions.
My favorite song by Sleepydog is “Space Cadet,” to which Hall told me “I can’t listen to it.” “Space Cadet” is perhaps one of the best examples of how Hall accepts and unifies tension to create success. The track is built off the back of upbeat drums, beautiful flowing guitar riffs, and a vocal line that sounds like Hall is having the time of his life. Except the lyrics are about, as Sleepydog himself put it, “a cry for the girl of my life.” For me, the beauty of the song is exactly that, the conflict between its heart-wrenching tale and a carefree sound.
Hall told me the story behind the song. It was a turbulent time for him where he had friends coming back into his life, friends leaving his life, and new people entering. As he spoke more about this time, he developed a stutter on his words and I could tell how emotional the topic was for him. “It was all just so overwhelming for me with that and with the music.” At the same time, as his personal life was rapidly changing, so was his musical life. At the time, his university had just offered to produce a studio album with him for free, so long as they could be involved in the process. “That was probably the most naïve thing I’ve done in hindsight because that was the first sense of me being an artist and not knowing what to do in a situation.” Again, it’s in tension that he produces his best work– the tension created from the conflict of both losing and gaining friends, or of being given new opportunities but feeling ill-prepared. “Space Cadet was like my first song where I was really just by myself, and I just needed to express myself in some way. It became a cry for the girl of my life to just like give me this comfort.” He ended his story by telling me, “no wonder people love that song… it has so much in it. For me, I can’t listen to it because it’s so heavy.” Even as he says that, and as he stutters and seems to still carry the weight of that period, Hall never stops smiling or laughing.
“It’s one of the hardest things… to identify as the artist people want you to be.” What it meant to be an artist was something that came up often in the interview. For him, there exists conflict between the artist people see him as and who he feels like: “I don’t really think I’m recording music, it just feels like something I enjoy doing. I think as an artist you have to remember that.” When I asked him what advice he would give to aspiring artists, Hall said, “If you’re an artist, it’s something you should attack head-on and really identify with… I, personally, lost many opportunities… [because of] my anxiety of not really wanting to identify as something I wasn’t sure of at the time.” To Hall, identifying as an artist is a necessity if you want to be able to deal with all the different ways life and music are going to pull you. “You can get all of the opportunities or none of the opportunities but you’ll feel the same when you’re at home at night… it’s up to [you] to decide if you’re going to go with it or just watch everyone else.”
Perhaps one of the most obvious tensions in Sleepydog’s life is between his genre and race. “When you play music, you don’t get to pick your genre,” he said as we dove into the topic. How and who sees your work, he says, is down to people and the Internet. “The hardest part for me in music and why I had such bad anxiety about identifying as an artist was that it was hard to identify as an artist in my own genre.” The distraught in his voice tore me apart. As a person of color aspiring to be in the arts, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Hall said he felt “ignored.” He clarified by telling me, “I have been treated so so so well by companies” and that “your first dirt in the industry comes from the artists.” He went on to say, “every artist in a genre knows the other artists… it’s up to [the artist] if they want to acknowledge that… being a black artist in [math rock], it’s extremely hard to get acknowledged by other artists.” What was most heartbreaking was when he told me, “I had to stop playing shows at one point because I felt like such an outsider in my own genre… People don’t wanna acknowledge you, the same people don’t wanna tour with you.” Hall said they saw him as “competition” or as “this black kid trying to change the game,” when in reality he was just trying to make music in the genre he loved in the best way he knew how. “You can’t live the same,” he advised me. “You can’t ignore it, as soon as you do is when it’s going to bother you… so you have to make it your power, you know, you can’t let it be your weakness.”
As I spoke to Sleepydog, I learned that “you have to make it your power” is perhaps the best description of him as a person. Midwest-emo is a genre defined by the tension between its delicate prog rock and angry hardcore roots; Sleepydog is an artist whose life is defined by a very similar tension. His power is his ability to repurpose these tensions productively, whether it’s his turbulent social and professional life or the underlying racism of the music industry, Xavier “Sleepydog” Hall smiles and makes it all into his strengths.