For the past six years, Amber Navran (vocals, tenor sax, flute), Andris Mattson (trumpet, keyboards), and Max Bryk (alto sax, clarinet, keyboards) have been quietly making a name for themselves as Moonchild, an LA-based neo-soul jazz trio. The neck-breaking nods to J Dilla combined with Navran’s whispery yet sassy Badu vibe have helped them garner the attention of Soulquarian fans everywhere and score collaborations and tours with artists like Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, India Arie, and The Internet. Last week they were incredibly gracious and agreed to have a little chat with me before their show so press play, check out our conversation below, and pre-order their third studio album Voyager.
It’s Friday and I have the day off! I reach Dallas too late to enjoy a trip to the museum (that I had poorly planned) and too early for the concert so I park my car in Deep Ellum and after two and a half hours of wandering unusually humid streets, I walk into Club Dada at 6:25pm and immediately to my right is Moonchild sound checking with “Just a Minute”. I’m still a little early for our talk so I head to the merch table to get a copy of Voyager (an entire week before its May 26th release) and take advantage of the opportunity to slow my heart rate back down.
You guys met and studied music at USC (University of Southern California). What was it like there?
Amber: The jazz school is really small, it’s like 60 people.
Andris: It was probably very similar [to UNT] vibe-wise. A bunch of musicians your age. We did jazz, but everybody in the program listened to other stuff. That’s where we all discovered the music we listen to now– more soul and r&b.
Amber: We got there before the Commercial Music program started. Every class in the Jazz Studies program had a band that wasn’t jazz but original music. I feel like there was a big songwriting culture within the jazz school.
Where did the name Moonchild come from?
Amber: Well our first song [“Be Free”] was about stargazing ’cause when we were touring for the first time with my first project we went stargazing as a band outside the Bay area.
Andris: Yeah, at a friend’s backyard. We drew upon the experience later on… People sometimes think we’re ripping off this Iron Maiden song.
What’s the music scene like in LA?
Max: It’s awesome. There are so many great artists.
Andris: In the last three years there’s been even more cool music coming out.
Amber: There’s a great jazz scene.
Andris: Really good jazz scene, really cool beat-making culture out there too.
Who are some artists you’re listening to that are performing out there?
Andris: Louis Cole, he’s amazing. The short song king.
Amber: We like Joey Dosik a lot, too.
Andris: Yeah, him and all the Yulf[peck] guys are out there except for like two of them. Kiefer, he’s a cool beat making guy.
What can we expect from Voyager that’s different from the other albums? It seems there are a lot more horns on your first records.
Andris: I guess we always try to add new sounds and textures. I think, just as a product of listening to new music, we’re always kind of inspired. We added more orchestral stuff like strings and harp– which was super dope.
Amber: We’ve got guitar for the first time.
Andris: It’s almost like, as time goes on there are less horns on the records, but on the live shows we still make that a big part of it.
I really loved the live arrangements at your last Dallas show. How do you go about writing those?
Andris: I usually do the horn arrangements and just leave the band stuff empty. Pretty much, guaranteed, we can’t do the record sound necessarily so it’s always fun to reimagine that stuff. Maybe just from growing up in big bands we’re used to horn solis so we tend to like to add that. The first time we did it we got a good response.
Amber: We got a really good response. We try to do it a lot (laughs).
Could you elaborate on your writing process?
Amber: We’re all always writing stuff and then kinda sending it out for approval to see could you add a bridge to this or make a track for it or whatever. The song is usually mostly one person’s song and then sometimes other people will add on to it. With their tracks I like to just sing in the car.
Andris: She’ll specifically ask us to send like a 10min version of our beat.
Amber: Yeah, so I can sing over it and then record if anything comes up that I like. For lyrics it kinda comes with the song. Usually if we’re in writing mode I’m trying to find lyrics all the time so I’ll write stuff down that I hear, but I don’t do that all the time.
You state on your Bandcamp site that Voyager has some motifs like the bond between a mother and child. What’s the story behind that?
Amber: My mom lives in Seattle and she’s always talking about how we’re far away and I kinda feel like the older I get, the more everything I do is like “oh my gosh, I’m my mother”. So the song is supposed to be about you’re far away but, actually, I’m reminded of you constantly ’cause I’m always doing the things that you do– which makes me happy. I don’t tell her that really ’cause it’s really cheesy, but I wrote it in my Mothers Day card. So the lyrics of the song are things that I do that remind me of her and the chorus is like “you’re with me all the time”. I’ve been wondering if she’s even gonna like the song ’cause it’s kinda out. It’s a fast song, the melody jumps around…
Amber, are there any vocalists that you try to emulate for performing purposes?
Amber: When I started singing I just wanted to stand there and sing. You don’t need all of that extra stuff, but it’s more fun to watch it though, you know? I don’t know, Erykah Badu for everything. The way she performs is incredible. I think Emily King is a great performer, too. One thing that was cool about opening for The Internet was watching Syd perform too ’cause they get so hype. They do such a good job of getting the crowd involved.
Naturally, musicians have a lot of musical influences. Are there any non-musical things (books or films) that inspired you or changed you as a person or made you think about things in a different way?
Amber: I started “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. It’s a weekly thing and it’s just about getting your creativity flowing when you feel stuck. It has you do a bunch of creative things that aren’t your thing like painting or dancing. That was cool ’cause painting, which is super fun, inspires you to do what you can actually do. I also read this book “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown and it’s just about self-doubt and squashing that. It’s huge and it was really helpful just to hear somebody talk about it and then talk about like “you’re not gonna ever not have that” but here’s how you deal with it.
Andris: This is very recent, but I started reading “The Untethered Soul” by Michael Singer. I started meditating this year just for focus and, also like Amber is saying, taming that inner voice that’s making you doubt everything. That’s been super useful musically ’cause that’s all artists do is just doubt every fu*king thing. Like comparing yourself to people– at the end of the day you’re creating that reality so it doesn’t have to be.
Max: I like reading biographies of other musicians. I don’t know how that influences me, specifically, but I just enjoy it. I feel like it kinda gives you a broader basic knowledge about them beyond just the notes.
I checked out the Spotify playlist you curated of songs that inspired Voyager and there’s a lot of Emily King, Hiatus Kayote, D’Angelo… I was just curious, what are each of your favorite D’Angelo songs?
Amber: Mine is “Lady”.
Max: I don’t even know. I listen to so much D’Angelo. Like, that’s my jam. I don’t think I could pick.
It really is so hard to pick. Mine is either “One Mo’ Gin” or “Send It On”.
Andris: “One Mo’ Gin” is super solid. As a song, it’s so potent. You just think about how he builds that track just with that one drum groove. It’s so hard making tracks and songs. You feel like you need to build it in volume but he figures out a way to make it so full and soulful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.