Discovering Daniel Aged: The LA musician collaborating with Frank Ocean

Discovering Daniel Aged: The LA musician collaborating with Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean released two new tracks to streaming on Friday – previously vinyl-only releases – and as always, there’s much to discuss. First up: who is Daniel Aged?

Who is Daniel Aged? 

It’s a question that echoed throughout rooms the world over this past weekend, occupied by voracious Frank Ocean fans rapt to find a silver lining to their lonesome self-isolation. The little-known artist – at least, comparably – made a splash by working on Frank’s two new singles: Dear April (Side A - Acoustic), which he co-wrote and produced, and Cayendo (Side A - Acoustic), which he co-produced alongside Ocean. 

Aged’s contributions weren’t credited with as much as a feature, but Frank fans are hardly passive listeners: they pore over liner notes and interpret lyrics with more purpose than most, a habit engendered by the singer’s carefully-curated mystique. The sense of mystery that permeates Ocean’s presence is well-suited to his art, itself characterised by obtuse metaphors, fragmented reflections and heart-wrenching confessions, all mired in an earnest conviction that suggests a larger story.

It’s that great space between Oceans: listening to Blonde, one feels intimately involved in Ocean’s life, but keeping up with Frank otherwise, one couldn’t feel further removed. It’s because of this reluctance to engage with his celebrity that Ocean’s collaborators prove such an essential insight – their very presence says more about his changing artistic vision than he himself ever would. 

Those offsiders themselves run a gamut from prominent to esoteric, with some – notably, the long-elusive Spaceman Patterson – establishing a legend that rivals Ocean’s own. Key amongst that dense and absurdly talented collection are Malay Ho, a writer-producer with a hand in much of both Channel ORANGE and Blonde; Michael Uzowuru, who co-produced Nights, Chanel, In My Room and the recently-shelved Little DemonOm'Mas Keith, the Sa-Ra member behind production across Channel ORANGE, as well as seven Blonde cuts; and Vegyn, the British electronica artist with an influential hand in the sounds on Endless, as well as a writer-producer credit on Nights. As a Los Angeles-based sessionist, there’s a lot that Daniel has in common with that roster – including credits on projects from Christine and the Queens, FKA Twigs and Kelela – though he’s likely the only one to receive the coveted Deepak Chopra cosign

Daniel Aged founded inc. no world – originally teen inc., and then simply inc. – alongside his brother Andrew in 2010. The pair found an early collaborator in Nite Jewel, that inspired electro-pop joint giving way to the old-school funk / new jack swing synthesis of 3, released in 2011. Swear, the opening cut from the EP, finds the groove in a raw, repetitive vocal refrain, the arrangement slowly shifting from dynamic to relentless like a soul train picking up speed. 

Their debut LP, no world, arrived in 2013, and whilst it falls as something of an R&B record furnished by both genuine instrumental prowess and intriguing electronic trim, the Aged brothers don’t see it as such. “I think we just try to follow the song, and allow the elements rhythmically and sonically to suit the composition,” Daniel told SpeakHertz in 2016. “I think we were inspired by combining quality playing and live instruments with some elements that are more mechanical or electronic feeling.” It’s unsurprising that artists behind such a project would push up against the idea of genre, and Andrew’s way of thinking pushes past the illusory: “just chasing the sounds we hear in our heads.” 

If a lack of conventional labelling seems obtuse, know that there’s a long and storied understanding behind it – from opposition to the term alt-R&B, which can be said to “take the blackness out of R&B,” to an acknowledgment of the importance of that identity. “The music that we’re making, like the music that we’ve always been inspired by – black music – it comes from that struggle, and we’ve always connected with that and tried to stay close to that,” Daniel told Fact in 2013. “We’re not just using some kind of sound or idea.” In a way, to imprint ‘R&B’ onto a piece is to feign such understanding, and in pushing up against the limitations that corrall black voices, the Aged brothers seem even more in step with their stylistic forebears. 

That staunch refutation of genre couldn’t get in the way of good music, and no world’s lead single, the place, was featured on GTA V’s in-game version of Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM: no mean feat, given Gilles’ place as one of the world’s most discerning DJs. It makes sense that he’d be drawn to new-age R&B from two talented artists that “studied jazz and improvisation at the University of Southern California,” a honed discipline emanating from their delicate music. trust (hell below) finds the duo flirting with Prince, whilst angel takes them in more measured, hypnotic straits, tapping into the love of repetition that runs throughout the project. If these variations – striking though they are – adhered to a tinkering R&B palette, 2016’s As Light As Light finds a whole new soundscape to explore.

daniel aged frank ocean feature in article

The Aged brothers, or inc. no world.

“We hope the music gets heard and enjoyed for what it is, without regard to genre,” Daniel explained to SpeakHertz in the wake of the release. It’s easy to see why: artists are expected to evolve, but inc. no world embraced a hard pivot, transplanting their instrumental/electronic hybrid to the structures of classic Americana-infused R&B. (Sidenote: I agree with the Aged brothers, but it’s very difficult to write about music without using genre as shorthand!) The lyrics deal in the familiar romantic conceits of roots, such as on Waters of You, held down by that titular refrain:

When the waters of you become the rivers of me / 
We’ll float down to the sea, we’ll float down to the sea…

Steel-string guitars adorn the soft-spoken ambience, a collision of style and sound starker than that on no world. “I spent much of the year before this record playing acoustically and writing with just a guitar in hand,” said Andrew to SpeakHertz. “Daniel developed his pedal steel playing, and drums which helped form the sound of this record. We just hope to open up our sound and make the music we would want to hear, and also create a record we can play live with instruments and a band.” The result are songs that progress more typically, the verses and choruses a product of their acoustic writing process. “We hope people can feel the intention and appreciate the depth of choices, sonically and stylistically, and in the end find peace and dig the music,” said Daniel of their new approach. 

Daniel’s eponymous solo debut, released in 2018, finds itself at a deliberately genreless junction, straddling the intersection of far-flung sounds and styles. Aged has his own roster of influences, an impressive collection of artistic touchstones that play into what his label, Quality Time LA, call his own “ultrafluid distillation.” The refrain-heavy writing of no world disappears alongside the vocals, and though As Light As Light found direction in structure, Daniel Aged proves something far freer.

His fondness for sweeping synth tones, steeped in “post-Eno ambience,” fuses with the sharp triplets of his tinkering drums, a sound that calls to mind the more electronica-angled work of Vegyn. The pair also share a passion for unconventional titling, though Aged’s abbreviated names are even leaner – and stranger – than Vegyn’s “unfinished songs.”

Shared too is a penchant for brisk showings of range. finds Aged toying with a steel string, channelling the classic Americana palettes he previously explored on inc. no world’s As Light As Light, whilst Kawai Sq, the very next track, hits on a soft-spoken groove, drums and embellishments jostling amongst his reserved playing. In all their differences, the two tracks are linked by Aged’s bass, an instrument he imbues with character by way of inflection, that intuition in turn lending longing, melancholy, excitement and elation to his arrangements. There’s a lo-fi comparison to be made, if only aesthetically, and whilst that might make you want to relax/study to the record, I can’t recommend it: whilst wordless and wandering, Aged’s compositions are both brief and dense, their twists and turns demanding attention. 

It’s a demand that nonetheless pushes back against popular convention, and you’ll find no ‘verse, hook, verse, hook, bridge’ in Aged’s spacious arrangements – if anything, those compositions are wilfully shapeless, more exercises in sound and space than anything you’d hear on the radio. There’s a real beauty in the freewheeling fusion of tight drum programming, ebbing ambience, curious production and his commanding guitar. Quality Time likens the palette to “late-period ECM Records,” name-checking the noted German record label that champions jazz, classical and avant-garde movements whilst failing to demarcate down the lines of genre. It was, for a time, home to another of Quality Time’s many Aged forebears: Steve Reich, the lauded minimalist composer.

Daniel Aged is a beautiful (if occasionally inaccessible) arrival. The rhythms are complex, and the pocket ever-shifting, but Aged dances about it with a playful poise, resulting in a record that’s both challenging and fun; sparse and expansive; meditative and unpredictable. His label may have put it best when they said “there is something unmistakably West Coast about the atmospheres of Daniel Aged: the slow-motion propulsion along snaking vistas; shoreline euphoria touched with longing and melancholy; grace cut with swing and attitude; it’s humour, delicacy, depth and clarity.”

There’s not much in the way of humour, but “delicacy, depth and clarity” are three things Aged brings to Frank’s new singles. Burnished by both his pen and his production, Dear April trades heavily in Aged’s signature ambience, doing away with the denser elements of Frank’s sound and spotlighting his performance. The split-second embellishments that run throughout his own work make appearances, as do Ocean’s own vocal effects, and Aged’s bass works as the instrumental cornerstone – a rarity, even in his own work, which often features drums. The bass is restrained as to create the atmosphere, spotlighting Aged’s songwriting ability: though a skilled improvisational bassist, his presence never steps beyond furnishing, his dextrous abilities tamed by his strong pen. 

Cayendo, co-produced by Aged, sees him imprint his sound upon Ocean’s pen, furnishing another restrained, bass-driven ballad. It’s a spacious cut, and without the frills of Dear April, it stands as one of Ocean’s most unadulterated performances: his layered vocals come into play as the track closes out, and though a two-bar guitar lick helps close it out, Cayendo remains the man at his rawest. 

Frank Ocean fans are a tenacious type, and whilst many bemoan his surprising drops and opaque release schedules, there’s something to be said for the statement of the song alone. These two records come without qualification, devoid of the press releases and music videos and sweeping album art. Those silhouettes linking his recent singles might mean we’re gearing towards some ultimate end, but they just as well might mean nothing. Hell, we mightn’t hear from Ocean until next year – you really don’t know. That wouldn’t be ideal, but if those nine months were spent cutting tracks with Daniel Aged...? 

I’d take it. I’d be a little less upset, let’s put it that way.   

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