From sleeping in the streets to selling out concert venues across the world, generating millions of streams on Spotify and Apple Music, garnering co-signs from the likes of Stevie Wonder to Rick Rubin, and earning himself two Grammy nominations, Daniel Caesar’s 2017 has been nothing short of remarkable. Even more so when you consider that the Oshawa native and his team accomplished all of this—including selling out Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall for five consecutive nights to wrap his first international tour—without the help of a major label. His ascent stands as an inspiring example of how to do things your own way and thrive.
It’s been that way since the very beginning.
Born Ashton Simmonds and raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family, the young singer/songwriter struggled to fit in in an environment that embraced piety and frowned upon secular art. His parents wanted him to remain within the boundaries of his household’s religion, while he saw a calling beyond all of that. After a disagreement with his parents about the wishes they had for him, their second eldest son, discouraging his involvement in the music business—his father soured on the music industry as a talented teenage gospel singer in Jamaica who was paid pocket change to cut a radio single—and Daniel moved out when he was 18, leaving the church behind to firmly set his sights on his craft. He drifted for a while, picking up odd jobs around Toronto, occasionally sleeping on park benches in Trinity Bellwoods when he couldn’t find a place to crash. After releasing two impressive EPs, Praise Break and Pilgrim’s Paradise in 2014 and 2015, he released his debut album, Freudian, earlier this summer.
Freudian announces itself as a rich antithesis to Toronto’s usual wintry sound: rooted in R&B-oriented grooves that transform into guitar and piano-anointed melodies awash in gospel tones and honest introspection, these songs are suited as much for the altar (“We Find Love,” “Blessed”) as they are for the bedroom (“Get You,” “Take Me Away”). As Caesar grapples with his inherent vulnerabilities, the dichotomy between his religious upbringing and his own personal opinion on life and purpose elevates the album to an accomplished collection of love songs that hold both heaven and heathen in the same breath. This conflict could easily be swapped out for other themes, too: the extroverted yearning for worldly pleasure and being an introverted young man snared by his own diminishing thought process; revising the feminine form as an object of desire to a symbol of empowerment—all of the featured vocalists on this album are women, and exert a grounding influence on the developing Caesar—and the unresolved observations of an artist navigating the temptation presented by a larger industry as he attempts to remain true to himself.
This homegrown rationale further encompasses his core team, under Golden Child Recordings: the record was produced entirely by Toronto natives Matthew Burnett and Jordan Evans (who also swap managerial duties with Anthony Osei) and whose prior credits include Drake’s “Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2” and Eminem’s “Not Afraid.” Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown, who handle photography and video production, round out the collective, which was pivotal in shaping Caesar’s sound, aesthetic, and realizing the possibilities that exist when you create art with your friends.
The most exciting part is what’s next for the golden child. Daniel Caesar will remain independent as long as it suits him–he already has songs transplanted for his next project; ones that didn’t make the cut for Freudian. His next offering will likely also remain a family affair, except now it seems the whole world will be watching (and listening).
In September, Caesar’s voice provided a powerful chorus for the performance of an as of yet unreleased song by Chance The Rapper (himself a champion of doing things with no strings attached) on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As the stage flooded with white light, awakened by Chance’s rousing third verse calling out the Flint water crisis (and other harsh realities faced by the communities of the world), Caesar’s voice pierced through horns, a celestial organ, and crashing drums, echoed by the rapper as the energy rose and soared to a spiritual crescendo. “The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more, here it comes, here it comes, ready or not, ready or not.”
For Daniel Caesar, that day has already started. We can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.