It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Cliff Notez, it was Why The Wild Things Are.
As Notez worked on his forthcoming record, he was in some of the most brutal mental spots of his life, bookended by some of his most joyous. Thus swings the pendulum of duality for the Boston-based multimedia mastermind, an artist who’s earned that title after releasing an album, booking a genre-defying residency at Atwood’s Tavern, and publicly sharing a short film in the span of less than a year.
“This album is less about the fall, or the climb up, but the existence, and how that alone with a Black body in this day and age is a key sign of elite resilience,” Notez tells Vanyaland. “I’m not broken, I’m not fixed. I’m just here, and that needs to be enough, so I can build on top of that, and maybe climb back up that cliff.”
Notez concocted the album during a particularly nomadic period of his life; last year, he frequently ping-pong’d from Boston to Washington, D.C. for gigs, causing his home studio setup to be temporarily relegated to storage. In the same timespan, he befriended The Record Co., who offered him free studio time, and also crafted a studio space that he “pretty much lived out of” while he built it with assistance from STL GLD’s The Arcitype and The Record Co.’s Matt McArthur.
Each creative location — especially the artist residency that came next — shaped the landscape of Why The Wild Things Are.
“By the time the studio was done, I still was homeless, but luckily [I] got to head out to Western Mass to do my first artist residency at MASS MoCA,” he explains. “That was my first time being able to like… not be, or worry about anything. I shut it out, and literally tried to fix all the pieces from falling. That’s where I began painting the cover for Why The Wild Things Are, and various other things. I worked on a ton of films and made definitely over a hundred songs. It was an energy I had never felt before and I needed to embrace it. I continued to barely sleep, but it was out of excitement. I’m at this museum finally being respected by institutionalized art as an artist. I didn’t want to waste my shot. A lot of the really guts of the album was made up there. I’m so grateful.”
Upon returning to Boston and getting a room in Jamaica Plain, Notez started nailing down the foundation and direction for Why The Wild Things Are and shared his plans with a group of trusted artistic friends and influences. Sorting through that budding vision, even with confidants, proved to be a project within a project.
Living and performing through the lens of When The Sidewalk Ends had been enough of a brave-faced battle for the past two years. “My first album was killing me,” Notez confesses. Managing the master plan for Why The Wild Things Are took plenty of time and emotional consideration. As a result, like any magnum opus, the record nearly demands its own listening guide to help listeners fully appreciate its multifaceted significance. Who is this side of Cliff? Why so many crowns? And, actually, why are the wild things?
Well, for one, Cliff Notez circa 2019 is used to being metaphorically naked at all times, although the familiarity doesn’t exactly make the vulnerable feat much easier.
“What I feel like I had achieved with When The Sidewalk Ends was an elite ability to express myself in a way that I can understand, dissect, revisit, learn and grow from,” he says. “It was extremely painful to learn that skill. It’s extremely painful to use it… The art is a language I’ve learned to use and it’s the one I speak the most fluent. Without it, I collapse, I fail. This album is no less personal than the last one. In fact, it’s definitely more personal than the last one. I think I just learned to coat my deep dark secrets that are really in there, and present it in this form I feel comfortable with. There’s a line on the last song, ‘Thought If I put it in some lyrics it would finally heal my spirit / Never thought ‘bout the anxiety of having another being hear it.’ I still feel that way. I feel naked as fuck on this album for sure, but I’ve been living in a gym. I think I’m trying to navigate some of the harshest forms of loss in the last year has forced me to really look at what I look like when I’m alone.”
Despite the energetic collaborations that fuel the progression of Why The Wild Things Are, there’s also an essence of much-needed solitude and reflection in the collection of songs. Of his time writing music alone at MASS MoCA, Notez says, “I didn’t know if I was a good performer in my shows or if I just really didn’t know how to break character.” For that time period, though, he was alone in the Berkshires, and what erupted from his solitude was major, both musically and for him personally. After growing up singing in choirs and making his first mixtapes in a rap group, Notez needed to prove his solo strut to his harshest critic — himself. “Get Free I” literally is pure Cliff, on the album as his original MASS MoCA demo, composed and recorded alone.
“The song is entirely made from my body [hums, vocals] and a bass chord. I needed that,” he adds. “The last album really boasted large arrangements and collaborations that I felt were used more as crutch than creative. More than I wanted it to be, where I believed I was growing to. I was alone then, and I needed to prove that that was enough. That I could be enough entirely by myself. So I just layered myself maybe 40 to 50 times, until I felt complete-ish.”
Why The Wild Things Are also presents a far less obvious completion for Notez, somewhat obscured amongst the intricacies of the When The Sidewalk Ends. Connected by a clear theme of crowns (“I’m obsessed with royalty, mostly because it’s what I’ve never seen on my skin before,” he says), the cover art for When The Sidewalk Ends sets the introduction for Notez’s sophomore album.
“The album cover for When The Sidewalk Ends is almost entirely black and white. The only thing that has some color in it is the little black boy we made on the cover, [named] Leon,” Notez explains. “Leon is tiny in comparison to the rest of the album work, he’s barely noticeable amongst buildings that tower over him, signs that show him he doesn’t belong, [that] forces him to cliff made of musical notes, where he looks for his only escape. Amongst all of that chaos, the madness of the picketing protesters on opposite side of the city. Past the sign that says ‘colored only’ not exactly detailing where/what we have exclusive rights to. We miss one shining piece of detail I thought we had put in there as an afterthought. Leon’s gazing over the cliff’s edge, [he’s] lost his crown, and is falling into an abyss – where wild things are. The story isn’t about where they are though, it’s asking a different question, trying to find out why these ‘wild things’ (our anger, depression, pain) are.”
He receives no finite answer for his heady proposition of why, but that fits Notez’s artistic blueprint, too; it circles back to his recurring theme of contrast and the number two. He ends the record on his grandest dichotomy, as “Get Free II” slathers a giddy interpolation of a throwback hip-hop track — you’ll see which one soon enough — over some of his heaviest lyrics to date.
“‘Get Free’ is probably one of the most upbeat sounding, Soul-Train-line- starting, songs on the whole album. But it’s also a song [that] I really blush and have mini panic attacks about, because it’s got some of the most painful lyrics,” Notez shares. “The whole song feels like I’m in this super live surprise birthday party for me in a Project X house, and I’m like trying to make my way through it to find my phone to call my sister ‘cuz my best friend just died, and I don’t really know how to feel. There’s joy and happiness in all the friends that I have there, I’ve found what I think happiness looks like, and how to get it, but I don’t necessarily know how to apply that into my own life.”
He adds: “[In the song] I hear a lost Cliff who has conquered a lot, and is strong, but doesn’t necessarily know their strength. The album ends with a voicemail my sister left me, because, sometimes the our salvation from that pain doesn’t come from being in that party, or being around that joyful music, or surrounded by friends. Sometimes it comes in the form of a note, or voicemail, but more broadly, a memory, of what was past and how it shaped you to where you are now.”
Still, when it appears, Cliff Notez’s happiness is unbridled. It glistens through every crack of a smile you can practically hear on his single “Happy.” It percolates through the record’s well-earned wisdom, grappling with sparks of zeal. It reflects off an invisible crown that’s being pieced together by Notez himself, perhaps unbeknownst to him as he fidgets with his thoughts, creating endlessly, glowing always.
After all, the sun doesn’t apologize for shining. Why should he?