Interview: Quinn XCII is on the rise

You may not yet know Quinn XCII, but there's a good chance that soon you will. In a rise marked by online prominence and a unique arrangement with Columbia that demonstrated a remarkable level of confidence in his ability to deliver, Quinn and his friend/producer ayokay have built from scratch a platform on which to advance their careers in the world of pop music, using business savvy, dedication and plain talent.

Fusing a slew of sounds into their own, unique pop sound, the minds behind Quinn XCII have shown a remarkable ability to carefully subvert industry expectations and trends while also knowing how to play the game like pros. Speaking with Quinn over the phone, it became very clear that he is entirely aware of how the music industry works and how to then make it work for him. This means that when you listen to his music, you know you are listening to his pure creative vision, free of the kinds of meddling and micromanaging that has caused countless artists before to lose their edges in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Whether or not you like his music, or pop in general, Quinn XCII seems to be an emerging presence on the scene that cannot be ignored.

In the lead-up to his concert, which is taking place at the Fortune Sound Club on March 4, we sat down for a phone interview with Quinn to talk about the tour, his music and what it's like to go from an aspiring musician living in a dorm-room to a headliner who is performing across North America.

I’m correct in thinking that this is not your first time on tour?

This will actually be my third time on tour. This will be my first headlining tour though. In the past, we’ve had to tour as the support act, which is totally fine and it’s been a great experience — but it was more of a challenge to win over the crowds and perform in venues where you’re not the main attraction. You’re more so trying to win over some people … which is never a bad thing.

I think it helps in the long run and just getting more familiar performing in front of crowds that are a little more quiet and not really there for you. This time around, it’s going to be a lot more exciting for me just because I know I’m going to have a lot of people expecting to see me and nobody else — which might come off as a little selfish, but I think it’s a good feeling to have.

Do you find that you’ve changed how you approach being an artist now that you are signed with Columbia and have a larger audience? Is there a different pressure now? Because I know that for a lot of artists when they’re starting out, they have nothing to lose, so they just give it everything. Do you feel like you’re ever struggling to maintain that?

You know what? I don’t think so, luckily. I know what you mean. You hear so many stories of artists seeing the pressures of a label getting involved and sort of seeing this platform that they need to kind of change their image and their sound to kind of please a wider audience — whereas starting off, there isn’t really that pressure, and you can kind of just make the music you want to make and do what you want to do.

And I think with Columbia specifically, they saw our vision as something that’s super organic and they didn’t really want to touch it or screw around with it. They saw that obviously as something that got us to this point. They really understood what we were going for, and never really pressured us to change at all or to act a different way now that we’ve signed and have this bigger platform, which I think is great because it is so easy to conform to what everyone else is doing in the industry.

No, to answer your question, I don’t think so and I think that’s great. I think I’ve been able to stay true to what we did from day one, and I think that fans love that and they want to see that out as long as possible. I want to please them at the end of the day, so that’s really always on my mind — just to stay true to what we’ve been doing since the start.

Do you see an evolution in how your music has changed since you started out when you were in college?

A little bit. Well, actually not even a little bit — definitely a lot. I started off rapping and it was a lot more hip-hop inspired, and through working with my producer Alex (ayokay), we adapted this sound together. He got more familiar with producing and tapped into his ability, and he’s now a great producer and we’ve been able to collaborate really frequently. That’s the dynamic that we’ve been able to stick with. But from where we started, which was literally taking instrumentals off YouTube and me rapping over them, to now where we’re curating an original instrumental and I’m singing over it — through all of this, I could channel my inner creativity as well, and I got better at singing and that’s now what I do.

The rapping is now totally not even a thing anymore. It’s now really more pop music and we’ve been able to create songs with a more professional structure. A lot of the times when we were starting out, we just kind of slapped around sounds, tweaked with melodies and just threw paint at the canvas, and just whatever stuck stuck. Now we sort of look at it a little more meticulously and we pinpoint exactly what we want to work on in structure in a way that we know the label will like, radio stations will catch onto and I think we’ve understood how the game works at this point. It’s good to know that because that’s definitely what sets certain songs apart from others.

At the same time, I think it is good to stay true to those roots and making organic music. So there’s two sides to it — you can either play the route of making a song that’s really poppy and has a commercial sound, or you can go back to the early days of just making whatever and sometimes those are the ones that stick out. I think it’s nice that we have experiences in both those realms of songwriting and yeah, we try to use it to our full advantage.

Were you ever worried going into the music industry? Because it has a reputation for taking up-and-coming talent, and chewing it up and spitting it out. Were you ever worried that this was the wrong career decision?

I never had that moment where I was like, “Okay, I’m putting all of my eggs in this basket of becoming a musician. If it doesn’t work out well, that’s it.” I never had that ultimatum. I think I just always knew I loved doing music and it was a hobby that turned into a profession, and I think that was, in my opinion, the best way that this could have all happened.

I worked at a health insurance company for a little bit and did music on the side. It wasn’t until I quit that job that I got my first tour set up and ended up just taking a leave of absence for a month off to do this job. Then I did my tour and decided, “You know what? I’m probably not going to come back, because I can kind of see this becoming a full-time thing.” I just went for it, knowing that this is what I love to do and it worked out. Again, I went to school, so I have a degree and so I always knew there was a backup plan at the end of the day, so maybe that was the reason why.

What was your degree in?

Advertising. I went to Michigan State University, so definitely different than what I’m doing now.

Does it ever come in use for you?

It kind of does. I knew I loved music and I wanted to get a degree in something that was equally as creative as possible. I think that advertising is the closest to that because it’s just a way of thinking of new ideas, and with writing and all that stuff, it’s the closest thing to my interests outside of music. Moving forward, now with my career taking off, I can use some of that advertising experience with new ideas of how to market ourselves with branding, or social media or what have you. It definitely does come in handy at times. I never thought of myself as an advertising person but again, a lot of the stuff we do for promoting our music is thinking of new ways on Twitter to promote the music, or Soundcloud, or Instagram, with merchandise or what have you. Those are are little things that I took away from college that I was able to learn, and it’s good to have that knowledge under my belt and apply it to something that I didn’t know was going to pan out the way it did, so it’s cool that I can still use my college experience for what I’m doing now.

What are you listening to these days?

I love Years and Years. They're this band out of England that I’ve just been obsessed with for the past couple years. Jon Bellion is another great artist that I love. The 1975 is great. I love The Chainsmokers. So even the poppier stuff, from things like The Chainsmokers that is on the radio every day, to somebody like Years and Years or Jack Garratt — [music with] a little more of an indy sound — I’m really just into.

Are you working on anything right now, or is the tour taking up most of your time?

I’m actually just finishing up my debut album that we’ll be releasing through the label. It’s going to be out, hopefully April we’re shooting for, but the next single is going to be coming out soon as well. So while tour is obviously the priority, I think the album is actually just below that because we want to get this done before I head off on the road for a month. This is the month we’re in crunch mode, and just getting all of the last little details recorded. It’s still super busy, but it’s exciting.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.