NEONE The Wonderer

Culted Sounds: NEONE The Wonderer on depicting mental health in music

Culted Sounds: NEONE The Wonderer on depicting mental health in music

by Juliette Eleuterio
14 min

NEONE The Wonderer lies somewhere between a rap and jazz artist, with some R&B thrown in the mix, but the best way to describe his artistry is through his own words: “I’m a fusion artist.” When listening to his music, it’s clear that the artist creates an entire universe within a single song. It’s scientific, philosophical but most importantly, it’s intentional.

There’s nothing that NEONE The Wonderer puts out that hasn’t been thoroughly thought of from every angle. From his freestyles to his hit single Heartwing, NEONE isn’t afraid of expressing his emotions, whether that’s depicting his lowest of lows or his highest highs. We caught up with the artist to chat about his new whip, his musical inspirations and the responsibility that comes with musically depicting mental health.

Hey man, how have you been? How have you been spending your grey British summer?

Hey, I’m good, thank you. I just got a new car. It’s not that new of a car, it’s like a 12 plate. In comparison to my instructor’s car, it just feels a lot weaker of a car. I’m trying to get used to what old cars drive like. In that process I keep stalling at traffic lights.

NEONE The Wonderer
NEONE The Wonderer ©

Let’s start off with an easy one. NEONE The Wonderer – where does that name come from?

One of the biggest inspirations behind the name was a comic called The Sandman. It’s about Morpheus being able to go into all these different worlds. I liked the fact that when he goes to these different worlds, he can appear to [whatever] the form is in that world. So if it’s aliens, he appears as an alien. I like the concept of meeting people as they are. 

Within music, I didn’t want to be stuck in a box of just being one genre or one theme. I wanted to be anything and be anyone. So I thought let’s take on the name “anyone.” Eventually the “Wonderer” part came in because I wonder a lot. I question everything. I think about things and how that affects people. It’s an important title to add to what I do with music for people to know what to expect.

When listening to your music, including your latest RagJazz, it’s clear that there’s insatiable curiosity for the art, whether that’s in your use of eclectic instruments, your lyrics or your rhythm and cadence. When did this curiosity begin?

Definitely [an] early childhood thing. I remember I always wanted to make theme songs. I was trying to make music that could go to a computer game or a certain scene of a movie. That’s always what kind of inspired me. Stories [have] always played a crucial role in my creativity as a whole. I’ve been very influenced by mythology. I take that and try to create those scenes. Our imaginations are huge things. With music itself, you can actually create something that your imagination visualises into sound. I like being able to do that.

NEONE The Wonderer
NEONE The Wonderer ©

From jazz to hip hop, your musical influences are all over the place but come together in a harmonious and funky fusion. Who are some go-to artists you like to plug into when you’re looking for inspiration?

Where do we start? When I was younger, I used to listen to a lot of blues and soul music while my mom was listening to hip hop, R&B and jungle, and my brother was listening to grime, and he became a grime MC. The influence comes from a span of different things. I like to say that I’m a fusion artist and so I tend to fuse all these things together. The rapping side definitely came from my brother as an influence. 

From blues and soul, it was James Brown and Sam & Dave. From hip hop, it was Busta Rhymes. I love the energy that he always brought to songs. I was a wild kid. I used to just be hyper all the time and he took that and made it cool. That’s the only way to describe it. 

As years went on, I started producing quite a bit of dubstep. I was influenced by Burial during those times. When I started to get back into doing my vocals, I remember being really influenced by Chance the Rapper. It was because it was my first time experiencing rap used with melody. I was mind blown. I was like, “What is it? Why have I never seen it done before?” Chance gave it that hipster feel. I really liked this vibe so I started trying to adapt that into what I did. 

The last influence I’d say was Kendrick Lamar, and continuously André 3000. To me, all of these artists that I’ve named have a sense of their own identities and something a bit more freeing about themselves in the genre that allows them to explore and carve their own paths. That really resonates with me.

NEONE The Wonderer
NEONE The Wonderer ©

Since you’re blending so many genres into one, how does your creative process look like? Do you tend to work around lyrics, a beat, a piano riff…?

I start by making the music itself. It might be that I find an interesting sound or I hit some interesting chords on the keyboard, and that’s usually just me slapping the keys and thinking, “Oh, that sounds weird. Let’s explore that more.” I explore a lot. From there, I see where my imagination would take me. I always say to people that to me, the sounds of the music is the space that you put a person into. 

Weirdly enough, there was a book I read a long time ago called Moonwalking with Einstein. It was about how to become like a memory champion, so that you can read cards, memorise the deck. What I enjoyed about that book was it describes how to memorise things and [how to] create a memory palace. It could be like a familiar space like your house. To remember things, you place them in this memory space that you’ve created. I thought, “How do I apply this to music?” When I’m building a song, I’ll set an environment or a movie scene, and then within that space, I’ll try and think of the story that is attached to it because then the vocals make me the storyteller. Linking back to the name, I am anyone and I have wondered about these places and now I am here to tell a story. 

I try to link that story to psychology to history or mythology, in order to make it relatable, entertaining and slightly educational. I’m not trying to preach, but I throw in a bit of education in there. There was one song that I released, it’s called Nosedive. To make that song, I watched a bunch of science videos – I was looking at relativity, I was looking at string theory. I didn’t want the song to be directly about that, but I wanted it to have that leading in, and then to link it to something else. 

NEONE The Wonderer ©

I like to do those types of things. It seems really unrelated to the music for a while, but then it ties in. I just absorb all the information that I can as much as possible, and then see how I can process that into something that feels more human and relatable. It gives that challenge as well. Everything that we learn somehow ties in with something that we can then do in the future.

Through your music, there’s definitely an exploration of the art itself but also of yourself. Has music helped you uncover facets of your being or help you understand yourself better?

Definitely. Without a doubt, that was one of the reasons I place [so much] importance on music. I feel like creatives are the voices of those who don’t know how to voice what they feel. It does mean that creatives are very sensitive – I was an extremely sensitive child. I figured out how to put that into language and expression through music. The more I explore these topics and ideas, the more I will figure out things about myself. Over the years, I think it’s refined and I’ve gained more wisdom from that process, which is what helps make the music better as well, because it becomes more honest, it becomes more me. And there’s nothing better than being able to present myself, being genuine and authentic. 

From Dopamine to your freestyles, mental health is a subject that you haven’t shied away from singing about. Have you found that music can help as a support system for you?

It’s been a very complex journey. My mental health was one of the reasons why I quit music at first. Mental health lands on a spectrum. When I was [at] the lowest [point] of my mental health, I was trying to continue with music. The only way to describe it was very low vibrational. I was scared of what outputting that would do to anybody else who could be influenced by it. Once I got to a better place within my mental health, I felt almost a duty to be able to help people to get through that process. The isolation and alienation of being in a low place with mental health means that you can feel alone. 

NEONE The Wonderer ©

When I started getting into music again, I was telling people, my process was that I would make music that is transitional. It would meet a person where they are within them and guide them or show them a pathway out of that. I feel like that’s what was helping in communicating with other people that were suffering with their mental health. You can’t just meet them in a place where it’s just positivity, it becomes toxic. That becomes toxic positivity. I remember talking to people like that and I couldn’t relate because I felt rejected for being negative. 

I realised it’s easier to meet somebody where they are, make them feel seen. Say, “I can see what you’re going through. I can relate here.” Even if there’s parts of you that can’t relate, still see them where they are, and then say, “Have you looked over there?” where there is a difference. I started doing that within music, some music that isn’t released yet. I even did it in the sounds of the music where [it] starts sounding dark, and transitions into the middle ground and then transitions into a lighter place. I was experimenting and exploring that. This is an important thing that is going to help just enough. I’m not trying to be the cure. I’m just trying to say “Realise and see these things in yourself and figure out where to go from that.”

On the flip side, you’ve previously talked about taking a break from music because you didn’t want to spread the negative vibes you were feeling to your listeners. How do you draw the line between a sad song that explores downhearted and gloomy feelings (which we have all, at one point or another, felt in our lives) and a song that continues to spread negativity?

I love sad songs. I love beautiful sadness, I absolutely love it. There’s a jazz song that I’m listening to at the moment called Silhouette, and it’s just beautiful sadness. There is a difference. For me, what was low vibrational about the songs I was writing was the intention behind it and the message that I was putting out. I was just angry and trying to take out those emotions on things. Rather than looking at what my emotion isn’t expressing it, I was trying to deflect it onto other things. 

NEONE The Wonderer
NEONE The Wonderer ©

If you leave [the song] as just the heaviness, what is the listener left with? Without those kinds of answers, I consider it slightly dangerous to leave somebody in that space. It’s like telling someone all the horrors of the world to then say “now go and walk amongst yourself.” It’s not cool. Everything ebbs and flows, and if you just send it all the way down without any slight ramping up, to me that’s problematic. We don’t have to give people everything to get all the way out, but you have to inspire it. I try to do that in songs instead.

Do you think artists have a certain responsibility to their listeners to depict sensitive topics such as mental health in a specific light? 

Music should be made holistically. There’s a debate on it but there is music out there that I think is influencing people to neglect so many things. It’s because these things aren’t being addressed. Every lyric I write, I will consider the potential outcome that the listener will take from it. If there’s too many cons, then I believe that lyric needs to be reviewed. I would hate to know that my music is causing bad outcomes in the world. 

I remember in my younger years, I wrote a song and I felt everything that I wrote in that song a year later. And it wasn’t a positive song, it was about negative things. So I was like, “Whoa, if I’m writing these things, and I’m experiencing them,” I wondered how that correlates. If I’m writing something about a sad subject, I want to put the conclusion in so that I can still come to that conclusion, if I ever end up in that situation. If I’m writing about good stuff, then so be it, let it be good. I just think that there needs to be a balance. I’m a Libra, we’re all about balance. 

NEONE The Wonderer ©

That being said, I don’t think every song has to be happy all the time. I can’t stand happy sometimes. I don’t know where I’ve heard this but passion comes from pain, and then art comes from passion, so not all art is going to be happy and joyous. If you think of happiness and joy, it’s sometimes in comparison to that time that you experienced something that wasn’t happy and joyous. That makes you identify and be happy about the thing that you have, so it all ties in.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on in the pipeline?

I am releasing a song about getting a new car. It’s not just about getting a new car, but that’s the main message of this song. It’s being released through the MOBOs, because I’m the MOBO Class of 2023, and it’s also being released with TikTok, recorded at Marshall studios. 

The idea around this whole song is that I’m not going to release it until I get a new car. I’ve been doing a miniseries showing the process of making the song and all the school runs that I’ve had to walk to instead of getting in a car or catching the bus. It’s going to be called New Whip Who This. It’s a fun song about celebrating accomplishments with the friends that have been along the journey and going on road trips and all that stuff.

NEONE The Wonderer
NEONE The Wonderer ©

More on Culted

See: Culted Sounds: Genesis Owusu on his new album STRUGGLER, the power of resilience & Duolingo 

See: Culted Sounds: Orchid talks UKG and her personal attachment to pop music

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