Making Waves in the DMV with April George [Profile Interview on OkayPlayer]
Originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia, April George is a vocalist, pianist and violinist who now resides in the DMV, the hub that forms D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and is the historic birthplace of funk sub-genre go-go music.
April is one half of the independent duo April+VISTA, along with DMV native producer and engineer Matthew Thompson. Since 2014, they’ve been creating genre-bending R&B with influences from soul and futuristic sounds heard on their debut EP Lanterns released in March 2015 followed by Note To Self which dropped last July.
April is also a major collaborator of rising DMV rapper GoldLink whom she initially met through fellow DMV rapper Ciscero. April arranged the strings on “Palm Trees” and sang background vocals for “Zipporah,” “Dark Skin Woman,” and “New Black” on GoldLink’s second mixtape And After That We Didn’t Talk released in November 2015. She co-wrote the hook and is the featured singer on the follow-up single “Rough Soul” released in January.
Most recently, she worked with GoldLink on his debut album At What Cost which tells the story of his life in the DMV. She’s the featured vocalist on “Parable of the Rich Man,” but also supplied background vocals and arranged two separate vocal ensembles for the first time in her career for “Have You Seen That Girl?,” “Pray Everyday,” “Herside Story” and “Kokamoe Freestyle.”
Since At What Cost’s release in March, the DMV is additionally getting a well-deserved spotlight on its current music community. A renaissance in the scene is bubbling up, and April says she feels honored to be a part of it:
“I’m excited for this chapter and to be part of this wave. I became active in the music scene here in 2014. I haven’t been around too long, but I’m very grateful that this music community has opened its arms and been really warm to me and allowed me to contribute to this wave because it’s allowing me to grow as well.”
Musical beginnings and April+VISTA
April grew up in a musical family and learned piano and violin throughout her childhood, practicing and playing consistently into high school. Her grandmother made it “mandatory” for family members to practice an instrument.
“She felt it was a main priority in her mind for our development. She was a teacher so she was introducing us to things to expand our minds and be creative,” she says.
While she didn’t study music during her time in college at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, she picked up graphic design and marketing. It wasn’t until after she graduated that she realized music was her true prerogative. So, she linked up with Matt after a mutual friend introduced them and they hit it off immediately. From that point on, they began working together.
“Matt had more experience than I did because he had been collaborating with people for a while and had been part of the D.C. music scene, but we were both trying to get to the next level. It was like piecing a quilt together,” says April.
Their years spent creating since 2014 took different forms of growth, embodied in their creative approach towards their two releases: Lanterns which chronicles the process of a breakup and Note To Self, a journey of self-discovery and vulnerability.
“When we first started out, we were making songs to order. Matt would come over and play me some beats, and I would play him a song I wrote on keys. Lanterns was like a hodgepodge of ideas because these were ideas we had previously thought of and we glued them together,” says April.
Note To Self represented the next phase of their creative process in which they learned to trust themselves and one another by creating from scratch and brain dumping new ideas.
“We used to do this thing called ‘Song Blitz,’ and we’d try to write 30 songs in one sitting so Matt would make like 30 one-minute sketches, and I would try to write as many lyrics as I could and then we would come back and see what songs were good. A couple of songs made it to Note to Self, and we’ve built upon a couple of them for this new project which is wild,” April says.
She recommends “Song Blitz” for other artists who want to improve, either on their own or when creating with others in a band or group. “It’s like an exercise for musicians. If you want to get good at writing, your instrument, production, you have to do exercises like that,” she says.
The process of creating Note To Self though was a stressful time for the two because of the pressure to put together the follow-up to their first release. April says she even characterized their music as “Stresswave,” not only because of the stress they were under, but also because she felt that the labels of “Alternative R&B” or “Future R&B” didn’t accurately describe their music.
“We came up with Stresswave because we were going through a tumultuous time period, and it’s also a playful way to say that this music came out of a form of struggle. That’s the thing that runs through our music,” April says.
As they currently buckle down to work on their next project due this year, April feels they’re at another level with an opportunity to raise the bar even higher. Having resources like a dedicated team, engineer and studio now allows their creativity to flow more openly.
She says they’ve been approaching the recording of the new project like a full band, since they hope to integrate more live music and live elements:
“I feel like we’ve grown tenfold. With the last project, we were trying to find what our sound was. I was still finding my voice as a singer. Now we feel like we’ve gotten to a more sophisticated place and using more music theory that we learned in our music journeys and from learning instruments and applying them more seriously. We’re trying to use our whole brain, our whole creative selves to push ourselves to the limit.”
Working with GoldLink over the years, especially on At What Cost has also been influential in April’s approach to creating and recording their newest project.
April says her ability to work well with Matt on April+VISTA and her collaborations with GoldLink is dependent on having a connection.
“You really have to have chemistry with the people that you work with to create music that sounds genuine and sounds very intentional,” she says.
Creating with GoldLink and growing sonically
Chemistry is something that has been vital to her work with GoldLink since they met in 2014. One fateful day that year, Ciscero invited April to GoldLink’s studio where he and friends were gathering and hanging out.
“I walked into a discussion about the DMV music scene, and we shared opinions and from that day on up until now, we’ve been a really tight family,” April says.
Building a friendship by regularly hanging out and bouncing ideas off each other was the foundation for April’s work on GoldLink’s projects, starting with the string arrangement she wrote for “Palm Trees” and the background vocals she supplied on “Zipporah,” “Dark Skin Woman,” and “New Black” on And After That We Didn’t Talk.
April says that working on And After That We Didn’t Talk represented a lot of personal firsts for her too–working out of a studio consistently, going to Los Angeles for the first time, being on a plane for the first time and writing for the first time with other people.
“That was my first time writing a hook right then and there, rather than spending time on it, days or weeks at a time. When you work with a rapper, you have to think on your feet on the spot,” she says.
After the release of And After That We Didn’t Talk, which was also driven more by GoldLink’s personal experiences, April says there were a lot of discussions internally around GoldLink’s next project being more musical and soulful.
“‘Rough Soul” was released as a segue into the new sound we had dreamed up for what became At What Cost,” says April who worked on the hook with GoldLink and is the featured vocalist on the single.
On top of being more musical and soulful, At What Cost was a more collective rally with a deeper message about celebrating and preserving the DMV culture. For April, it also signified another level of her own progression and creative collaboration with GoldLink and the other contributors to the project, from Ciscero to producer Louie Lastic.
At What Cost: Learning from the past to move forward
“At What Cost felt more mature because my relationships with my friends had matured. We’ve grown together and grown in terms of our creative process, so At What Cost was way more deliberate. There was a theme we came up with and a message we wanted to come out with. We wanted a sound and beats that sounded like what we pictured in our minds, so it was more of a collective effort,” she says.
A key learning experience from At What Cost was diving into DMV’s rich musical history. April says most of the studio sessions consisted of sharing experiences with different people in DMV’s music community who’d walk in and hang out throughout the sessions of At What Cost.
“We’d not only share our experiences growing up, but we’d also do a lot of historical digging. We went way back in time to see who was from the DMV. We looked up go-go music, funk music, early hip-hop, and we learned from all those experiences,” April says.
April says that digging into learning about analog sounds was also important as she gained knowledge about modular synths. For instance, At What Cost was run through a tape machine to give it an analog texture.
“You can pull from new ideas that’s never been thought before, but it does you a great service to look in the past and see what has been done and learn from any of the greats that you can–imagining their process, the things they’ve gone through, the sounds they created during their time and applying that thought process,” she says.
At What Cost is special in that GoldLink paints a story of the DMV that honors the past and provides room for experimentation. One day, GoldLink called up April and let her know that he had found a gospel choir.
“When you work with [GoldLink], you don’t know what he’s thinking. He’s a very creative person. He’s very sporadic with his creativity because you have to think on your feet,” she says.
In addition to being the vocalist on “Parable of the Rich Man,” “Have You Seen That Girl?” and at the end of “Kokamoe Freestyle,” April directed and arranged two separate vocal ensembles for the first time in her career: a local gospel choir that’s featured on “Pray Everyday” and a group of singers from the DMV–artist Echelon the Seeker, Gwendolyn Moore and Denae Fielder–who are featured alongside April on “Parable of the Rich Man,” “Herside Story” and “Have You Seen That Girl?” April says their vocals were rich accents that supported the production and GoldLink’s verses.
“I’ve learned that when you work with singers in ensembles like gospel choirs, they’re used to being directed–‘Where do I modulate?,’ ‘How would you want me to articulate this?’ It allowed me to take a microscope to writing and arrangements because you have to pay close attention to how pronunciation is involved. It allowed me to break down how to arrange and that was really awesome for me, and I want to use those muscles more,” April says.
She’s applying her experiences from working on At What Cost towards April+VISTA’s forthcoming project this year.
“I realized that from working on At What Cost, learning from the past matters and it can show you invaluable footsteps, to trace them where you want to head,” she says.
The musical renaissance of the DMV is also propelling April and Matt to challenge and explore new places in R&B with their next project.
“I feel like our job as April+VISTA is to push it even further and allow people to understand that there’s so much to be explored. You don’t have to make music just about love songs. You can talk about world experiences and take crazy textures that have never been applied to R&B and soul music to help tell that story. I feel like our job is to expand that horizon and take it to a new space and create another genre that spawns from traditional soul and traditional R&B music,” she says.
April says creating in the DMV right now is especially exciting because there’s both personal and communal pride, a celebration of a moment in time in the music scene that April hopes to help shape for years to come:
“Even though go-go music was huge here, it didn’t spread nationally. It almost got there, but it never stuck. It was very much regional which is still something to be celebrated. We did our research and realized that there hasn’t been a time for us and At What Cost has a lot of sentimental value to me because it signifies a coming of a time, a new chapter. Anywhere I go, even when I go outside of the DMV, I hear people playing “Crew” or people in coffee shops or shoe stores playing some of the songs from At What Cost. I notice now that word is spreading about this area and spreading about the kinds of talent that lies in the DMV. At What Cost signifies a new dawning for us. This area has been overlooked because it’s known for go-go music, but I feel like there hasn’t been a stamped time period where the DMV was allowed to reign, so I feel this is the beginning of that time.”