When Durand Bernarr appears onstage at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles for the second-to-last stop on his Wanderlust tour, the energy in the room is palpable.
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Whether it’s due to his entertaining and interactive opening performance of “Ingredients,” the seductive and enviable dance moves he sprinkles in throughout the entire show, or his otherworldly vocal ability that ranges from a jaw-dropping falsetto to eyebrow-raising bass notes, what’s abundantly clear is that the audience is in for a show.
Wait—scratch that. The audience is in for an experience.
The Durand Bernarr Experience is one of one. It’s church. It’s a kickback. It’s a Black graduation. It’s a “laying of the hands.” It’s a club that’s free before 11 p.m. with a fire-ass DJ and people who actually don’t mind dancing. It’s transcendent. It’s all-encompassing. It’s a moment in time and space that you dare not divert your attention away from, lest you miss out on a magical moment. It’s all the things and everything in between. It’s also something that’s been brewing and refined over the last decade and some change, going all the way back to his YouTube cover days when he was adorned in bright yellow garb and sang under the moniker alcholharmony. (Real ones know!)
It began to gain more of a spotlight when he was handpicked to sing background for the one and only Erykah Badu. But it’s also been a consistent truth, as evidenced by the myriad of mixtapes and EPs he’s released throughout the years, as well as his show-stopping performances every time a microphone is lucky enough to be around him.
And now, with his critically acclaimed fourth studio album, Wanderlust, serenading the ears of listeners eager for authenticity and actual artistry, Bernarr’s star is shining brighter than ever. His surreal vocals are somehow getting better and better and his ascent into superstardom seems inevitable. And I, for one, am blessed to be a witness to it all.
“If I’m going to have the attention of anyone, especially if there’s a mic in front of me, I don’t ever want to waste anyone’s time. Because time is currency. And not only would I be wasting your time, I’m wasting mine too,” he explained to The Root shortly after the show wrapped. “So if I’m going to have your attention, not only do I want to serenade and amuse you, but I also want to inspire and encourage you. And teach you to believe in yourself.”
So fresh off his phenomenal (and very viral) Tiny Desk Concert and successful, sold-out tour, I got the chance to chat with the “Boundaries” singer about Wanderlust, his artistry and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Root: Let’s get into your newest album, Wanderlust. Where are we meeting you at the beginning and where are we by the end?
Durand Bernarr: I love that question. At the beginning, you are meeting Durand post-therapy. There’s a certain level of awareness I’ve reached and one of those levels (laughs) that I’ve arrived to is being able to say, ‘No.’ With a smile on my face and without feeling like I have to explain. I come from a space of always needing to explain myself because I don’t want to be viewed as an asshole. At one point in my life, if you met me within the first 30 minutes, you would know my whole life story. Because I just never wanted anyone to have a certain perception of me that would be unbecoming.
Then one day, a friend of mine told me, “You know? Everybody’s not meant to understand you. And that’s OK. And maybe you weren’t meant to be understood.’ And then adding to that, I realized: I’m not meant to be understood, I’m meant to be experienced. So when you’re encompassing a kickback, therapy, Black graduation, Freak Twitter, church, musical theater, improv, standup comedy, hydration for your soul—you have all of those things. So to reduce all of that that I’m piecing together as, “Oh, this is such a vibe,” you might as well have said, “Durand, I enjoyed your little show.” I’m giving people new language to use: This is an experience. This is an adventure that I’m taking you on.
Then, by the end of it, I’m coming to a space of “rest is also work.” Taking a break from anything is also work from ourselves. To just step back, take a moment, [and] breath. That is very important. Because my thing is, work hard but don’t overwork yourself. You’ve got to know your limits.
TR: My favorite song, “Leveled,” has a certain amount of etherealism about it that’s so moving. Talk to me about the inspiration and creation for that.
DB: This album was the first project that I got together with a band and we cut a bunch of songs together in the studio. And then I took those songs home with me to write to. “Leveled” talks about trusting more than loving because you might not always trust the person that you love, but you’ll always love the person that you trust. It’s also about catharsis, these random moments that we have where we kind of…release. And being in a space where we can be brought in by being truthful and honest; being transparent with whatever it is that we’re experiencing. It’s a reminder of what we put out there and to be able to experience that result—someone letting you know who you were to them and where that’s brought them. So it’s kind of a validation almost for your necessity as a human being and your contribution to the space that you occupy.
Of course, we have to talk about “Mango Butter.” I remember seeing it begin to blow up on TikTok first before I heard it full out later. The chorus is both inside and outside of the binary. What message were you sending with that?
DB: It was really and this is not anything that I originally coined. It’s an African-American, queer proverb. “Mango Butter” came from just that space of we as Black people saying, ‘Don’t get it confused because I’m just as much that nigga as I am that bitch.’ The chorus came to me. It’s very churchy. I had every intention of writing lyrics to the verses. I had the structure, I sent it to a homie of mine to write to and he didn’t get it back to me in time. And I just felt, ‘I cannot let this song go by the wayside. So I was just like well, we’re just gonna have the chorus. Every night that I sing the song, it’s different lyrics. And it was also just me flexing on the fact that I can not sing any words and mumble my way through—and it’s still a hit.
TR: What space do you see your talent occupying in the sea of various forms of R&B and musical artistry as a whole?
DB: What’s interesting is, I’ve never said I was an R&B artist. I can play in that area, but that is a portion of what I can do. It’s church. It’s jazz. It’s rock. It’s country. It’s comedy. It’s Broadway. It’s theater. There are so many different other things, but really you just go to see me live. And then once you see me live, if anybody’s actually paying attention, it’ll go beyond, ‘Oh, he’s an R&B artist.’ It’s not even R&B. But whatever you need to label so that you can feel good, you do that. But I’m—it’s an experience. That’s what it is. It’s an auditory adventure. That’s what my music is. And to see it live is just an enhancement of that.
TR: In a previous interview, you talked about the importance of “using your voice as an instrument.” What does that mean and look like for you?
DB: The human voice interests me so much because of the different things we can do with it. The different sounds, the imitations that we can do. It warms me up when I hear guys sing my songs and I hear them utilizing a part of their voice that they haven’t really exercised yet and so it lets me know, “Ooh, I’m the one to study.” And you should! Because I study the greats. I’ve always been a sponge and a student. So a good leader is a good follower. And a good follower has discernment about who they’re allowing to lead them.
TR: For someone brand new to the church of Durand Bernarr and Wanderlust is their first introduction, what would they need to know before pressing play?
DB: What I encourage people to do is listen with a really good pair of headphones. So that way you don’t get to miss a lot. And of course, it takes a few listens to catch everything. But just the initial listen, to receive things that are coming out of the right [headphone speaker], coming out of the left [headphone speaker]. Like “Ingredients,” it’s popping from all over the place. Get you some good weed, you could also cut it on while you’re cleaning your house or getting ready. And also just be prepared to go through a different myriad of emotions and feelings.