Saying Goodbye To The Kojo Nnamdi Show
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
By day, he’s Carlos Valdes, a graphic designer for the Department of Labor. But in his spare time, he’s Say Solos: an R&B-influenced singer-songwriter based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Growing up in Woodbridge, Virginia, Valdes comes from a Puerto Rican and Cuban household where music and dancing were fixtures at every family gathering. But he began creating music seriously more recently.
“About four years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Valdes. “At the same time, the girl that I thought I was gonna marry, she had cheated on me.”
A friend inspired Valdes to turn his low point into a turning point: He began making music. He didn’t let his lack of instrumental training get in his way. Instead, he turned to a loop station, which he first saw while watching Reggie Watts’ Tiny Desk concert from 2012.
Now, Valdes enters NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest hoping to land the same big gig behind the small desk. In his submission video, Valdes is all calm focus, carefully mixing his vocals with sound effects and overlaying them to create a cohesive track. It takes two minutes before Say Solos can begin crooning in his smooth soprano, but the performance isn’t just about the song — it’s also about the journey.
We sit down with Say Solos to talk about crafting songs with just your voice, a microphone and a few pieces of hardware.
Produced by Mark Gunnery and Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. You just heard "Lose You," from the artist Say Solos. NPR Music's Tiny Desk concert series features some of the biggest names in music. Artists from across the U.S. entered the contest last month by filming themselves recording an original song. One of the rules: each video has to incorporate a desk in some way, shape or form. Before the winners are announced next week, we're highlighting a few local musicians who tossed their hats into the ring.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, I'm getting to know Carlos Valdez, who performs under the name Say Solos. Say Solos, hi.
SAY SOLOSHow you doing, Kojo?
NNAMDIWhere did that name come from? Where did the name Say Solos come from?
SOLOSHonestly, it doesn't really have a deeper meaning. I just really like, you know, the old school alliteration, LL Cool J, the double “L,” Bell Biv Devoe. So, I like the SS. And then I took my real name, Carlos, and I just added it on the end, and it became Say Solos.
NNAMDIHave you always performed under that name?
SOLOSBefore, I was Buddy Loso. (laugh)
NNAMDIBuddy Loso. Where did that come from?
SOLOSHave you seen Professor Klump? What's that movie with Eddie Murphy? And his alter ego is Buddy Love. So, I thought that was smooth. I said, maybe I'll go by Buddy Loso. But my friends are like, no, you can't do that. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd so you decided to change it to Say Solos?
NNAMDIWhen did you start making music?
SOLOSI started making music seriously about four years ago, but I've always been able to sing. And me and my sister have been singing since I can remember.
NNAMDIWhat made you decide to start doing music seriously?
SOLOSHonestly, about four years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Around that time, at the same time, the girl that I thought I was going to marry, she had cheated on me. I was in the depths of despair. I was living alone. And then my friend came along, and he needed some graphics. And he just had a different type of mindset, and he kind of flipped my mindset and he asked me, if you were 80 years old on your deathbed, what would you regret doing? And I said, making music. And he was, like, okay, well, then, sing, right now. I was in his car, and I was, like, you want me to sing for you right now? (laugh) So, I sang, and ever since then, I started taking music seriously.
NNAMDIHow would you describe the music that you make?
SOLOSI describe it as a fusion of R&B, hip-hop, some funk, but not traditional R&B and not traditional hi-hop. I try not to be boxed into a genre, but it kind of waivers.
SOLOSAt some point, we thought we heard a little doo-wop in there, somewhere.
SOLOSOh, yeah. I love doo-wop. I love scatting. You have to scat when you have a loop machine, because, I mean, doo-wop and scat is pretty much just an imitation of instruments. So...
NNAMDISo, that's what we did here, was doo-wop. You create some of your music using, you just mentioned it, something called, you said loop machine, loop station.
NNAMDICan you explain exactly what that is, especially for our listeners who can't see it? What does it look like, how does it work? Show me.
SOLOSYeah, yeah. If you're familiar with -- it started from the idea of the guitar loop. People who play the guitar might play a riff, and there's a little pedal next to their foot, and they might play a riff. They click that pedal, it records it, so they can play another riff over that riff. And I think that's where the loop station started. And then it moved from the floor to the table, and now you can just do it with your hands and a microphone. So, you press a button, it'll record something, and it loops it over and over and over again, and you could keep adding as much as you want.
NNAMDIThat is fascinating. I think the first time I saw that was when I saw, what was then my favorite group, Weather Report. And their bass player did it, and he did it over and over again during a live performance, and I was absolutely amazed by it. And now to see you doing it on a loop station, I'm still amazed by it. Why did you first start using the loop station to create music?
SOLOSHonestly, because I don't have any formal training in any instruments. Right now, I'm teaching myself how to play the guitar and the piano. But I knew I had this music in me, and I just didn't have a way to express it through instruments, but I could do it with my mouth. So, I figured, hey, I saw Reggie Watts on Tiny Desk performance about six years ago, and I was, like, I think I can do that. So, I bought a loop machine, and I tried it out.
NNAMDIAnd preparing for this show today, I watched Reggie Watts' Tiny Desk performance this afternoon, to make sure that I knew exactly what you were talking about. So, that helped me a great deal. So, that helps you, huh?
NNAMDIGot you into the loop station.
SOLOSYes, yes. He's a big influence on that.
NNAMDIDespite the fact that you couldn't play a musical instrument, when you saw him use the loop station, you simply said to yourself, that's something I think I can do?
SOLOSMm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I was like, I think I can do that. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd it turns out that you can. "Lose You," which we heard at the beginning of the show, was your official Tiny Desk contest submission this year. It was the first original song you created using a loop station. How was that different from writing songs using a beat track or using instruments?
SOLOSWith creating something on the loop station, you have power over every component of the song. I don't know how to produce, so when I do find a beat, I don't really have power over the actual composition, just the words. But with "Lose You" I have power over everything, and I can add something, I can take it away. I'm the creator. I'm the master of everything that I create. So, that's the difference. I think it's better.
NNAMDISo, can you walk us through what you're doing with the loop station, how you're using effects on the machine to make different sounds and to change your voice?
SOLOSYeah, with this specific loop station, it's a Boss RC202 loop station. And this one comes -- it's not only a loop station, but it also comes with preset effects inside of it. It has pretty much everything you really need to put on a Tiny Desk performance. It has delay, which is echo. And it has pitch shift, where you can, you know, sing and it'll sing different octaves behind your voice, as well as has another pitch shift function where you can even sound like a robot. I don't know if anybody would use that, (laugh) but it's pretty cool. It's actually packed with a bunch of effects. I'd have to speak for a day for how many effects it has.
SOLOSBut the main function of the station are these two buttons down here. They have a play and record buttons on them. So, once you press it once, it starts to record automatically. And until you're finished with whatever you want to record and then you press it again, it'll play over and over and over again. And that's just the basics of it.
NNAMDIHow long did it take you to learn to use this effectively, or do you see it as an ongoing learning process?
SOLOSHonestly, Kojo, when I got this, it was like I already knew what to do with it. I was in the basement with my roommates, and I just started using it. I had just gotten it, and it just came to me. Maybe because I just watched too many Reggie Watts videos, I don't know. (laugh)
NNAMDIBut you already knew what you were doing from the first time you started using it. The next song that you'll perform for us, "The Evils," is a cover. Tell us a little bit about "The Evils," and why you thought it would translate well to the loop station.
SOLOSYes. Well, "The Evils" is from an artist that I listen to frequently. His name is Inglewood Sir, and he's based in Los Angeles. And what really set out about this song was it was very smooth and very vibey. And then there's a little voice in this song that's a really small, mini-voice, and I was, like, I have that effect. I think I should try that. And I think that's what really made me gravitate towards that song. And my friends really love that song, so I was, like, yeah, maybe I'll try it out.
NNAMDICan we hear the song, "The Evils?"
SOLOSYes. Yes, of course.
NNAMDITell us a bit about the stories behind the lyrics in your original songs. How did you go about writing "Lose You?"
SOLOSI wrote "Lose You" from the standpoint of a person who has their cake and wants to eat it, too. It's from a man who has a girl that really wants to be with him, but he wants to kind of stay single and, you know, do his thing. He doesn't want to be tied down. But then he realizes, oh, he -- the song starts with, I found another man's clothes in your closet -- another man's shirt in your closet. And it's showing that she's starting to do whatever she wants, now, and he doesn't like that. He wants her all to himself, and now he wants to be just with her. He wants to be tied down. So, he doesn't want to lose her, and that's the basis of the song.
NNAMDIIt reminds me of an original Sting song, "If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free." And, in this case, when he set her free, then he realized that he didn't want to set her free after all.
NNAMDIYou currently live in Alexandria. Where'd you grow up?
SOLOSI grew up a little bit further south in a place called Woodbridge, Virginia.
NNAMDIOh. Why'd you choose to move to Alexandria?
SOLOSWell, mostly because my day job is there, and it's quicker. I used to slug every day to work, which is terrible. I had to wake up two hours earlier than when I was supposed to, just to get to work on time. So, I needed to find someplace closer. (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, as a part of the series marking my 20th year here, we're doing segments on transportation. And one of the more recent segments we did was on slugging, as a matter of fact. Your parents, they're from Puerto Rico and Cuba.
NNAMDIHow has your family and culture shaped your relationship with music?
SOLOSWell, coming up in a Latino household, you know, you hear music every day, all the time. And anytime there's a family function, we're always dancing, we're always playing music. It's nonstop. So, music is kind of second nature in cultures such as that. So, when I wanted to do music, I knew, you know, I would love that. That's something I would love to do. That's something that I could change people's lives with.
NNAMDIBoth of my sons -- my twin sons, that is, grew up in a home with Caribbean parents, and both of them ended up making beats, one of them doing it for a living, at one point, to pay his way through graduate school, at one point. What do you think of the music scene in this region?
SOLOSIn this region, it's very eclectic. I mean, we have people from all over the globe here, which I love. And, you know, you get to meet somebody from a different country that you never even heard of every day. And that's one thing I like about this area. You even got, like, people like Marvin Gaye came from here. Like, the greats. Some of the greats come from this area. And people today are making really great music that I follow all the time.
NNAMDIBut we're not Atlanta. We're not Nashville. We're not New York. What's keeping us from making that leap to being a central music scene in this country?
SOLOSYes, and that is a complex question. I think most of it is that we're geographically separated. But, for some reason, I feel like we're in such a competitive area, that everybody wants to be better than the next. And they're not quick to, you know, help out someone doing the same thing as they are. And there's not a lot of unity, but I feel like there is potential for unity. But I think the big thing is that we're actually segregated, with three different areas, so...
NNAMDINot enough collaboration. Has living and performing in this region influenced the type of music that you create?
SOLOSNo, I don't think so, honestly. I think, you know, in this day and age, you can listen from somebody in Japan, and never know where they're from, you know. And I think that's great. I think that's great. And I don't really have many influences from this area, but I don't think it's a bad thing.
NNAMDIWhat are some of your favorite places in this area to catch a show or to perform?
SOLOSI really love the Songbird. The Songbird's in Adams Morgan. It's a very -- it kind of looks like a row house, and it's very tight inside. And you're really up close and personal with whoever's performing, rubbing shoulders with them. The stage isn't too far from you. It's very close-up.
NNAMDIAnd when you mentioned earlier that now you can hear music from all over the world, who are some of your favorite artists? Are there any musicians, any artists that are your dream collaborators, or who greatly influence your work?
SOLOSYeah. And when you asked me if this area has influenced my music, I think one artist that I really listen to from this area is Brent Faiyaz and GoldLink. They just recently made a song called "Crew," and they almost got a Grammy for it. But I listen to Brent Faiyaz pretty frequently, and I would love to collaborate with him, or GoldLink, not just because they're from here, but they make great music. And it's also I feel pride that they are from here.
NNAMDIAny other favorite artists, just in general?
SOLOSYes. Recently, I've been listening to Anderson Paak, and he was actually NPR's Tiny Desk performance, too. He played the drums. I don't know if you've ever seen that one.
SOLOSHe recently came out with an album, and the whole album is just amazing. He's got great features.
NNAMDIApparently you're a Tiny Desk fan.
SOLOSYeah, I'm a Tiny Desk fan, for sure. (laugh)
NNAMDISay Solos is an artistic endeavor that you do outside of work. What do you do on your nine to five?
SOLOSMy nine to five, I work for the Department of Labor, and I do graphics.
NNAMDIYou went to the University of Virginia, or VCU.
SOLOSYeah, VCU. Yes.
NNAMDIYou went to Virginia Commonwealth University. What did you do there?
SOLOSI studied graphics there in the fine arts school, graduated from there. And now I do it for the federal government.
NNAMDIWell, when people think of federal government employees, they think of bureaucrats.
NNAMDIYou're a graphic artist at the Department of Labor, so your job involves some level of creativity.
SOLOSYes, some level. I would say a low level, but (laugh) it's very stifled. I will say that.
NNAMDIWell, it's better than being maybe in the audit department, for you, isn't it?
SOLOSOh, yeah. Oh, yeah, it's way better than that.
NNAMDIYou're not crunching numbers.
SOLOSNo, no, no, no.
NNAMDIYou get to be at least a little bit creative. So, what's next for Say Solos?
SOLOSHopefully, my sound will grow and grow, and I can create a fan base where I can just quit my nine to five and just do loop station every day, you know. Make music every day.
NNAMDIAny upcoming projects or performances that we should be looking out for?
SOLOSYes. Actually, I have a small project coming out soon called "Three Tune Kid." It's only three songs, but my idea is that it shows a variety of what I have to offer. And it's just a quick, little project, and I think it's going to be the first volume of many.
NNAMDIWell, I think it's going to be the first volume of many, too, because from what we've heard so far, I like what I hear, and I expect there'll be a lot more. Before we go, I'd like to say thank you to Jaco Pastorius. That was the bassist for Weather Report who introduced me to the loop that I talked about earlier. And also before we go, we'd like you to play one last song for us, called "Crushed." Can you tell us about that song?
SOLOS"Crushed" was a song that myself and my friend, he's actually from Nigeria. He produced a beat, and he was living with me at the time. And he said, hey, you should make a song for Valentine's Day. And I was, like, okay. This was two days before Valentine's Day. I was like, all right. give me the song, give me the beat, and I'll make something. And we made it quick, and we released it on Valentine's Day. And it's pretty much a song about having a crush on someone. And at first, they don't like you, but then they start to like you, and then it becomes mutual.
NNAMDISpeaking of diversity in this area, Cuba, Puerto Rico, you're from Virginia, he's from Nigeria. (laugh) You make a song about Valentine's Day. (laugh) That's as much diversity as you can get. So nice talking to you.
SOLOSNice talking to you, too, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd good luck.
NNAMDIThis segment was produced by Mark Gunnery and Cydney Grannan. As we go out, here's one last song from Say Solos, called "Crushed." You can listen to all of the songs we recorded with Say Solos at KojoShow.org. And you can also read about all the bands we're featuring this week who entered NPR Music's Tiny Desk contest at DCist.com Join us back here tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
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