IDMAN Takes An Honest 'Risk' On Debut EP While Embracing Flaws & All
IDMAN photo by Tyler Borchardt
For many artists, their music is a form of therapy. Through poetic lyricism and sweeping melodies, they open their hearts in a way that's healing to their souls and serves as a direct connection with listeners. IDMAN, a Toronto native whose music navigates the highs and lows of love, details this beautifully in their debut EP Risk (released July 14 via Arista Records). With singles like the nostalgic "Hate" and heartfelt "Still", the artist utilizes the heart-tugging feeling of R&B to share their journey of self-discovery and romance.
Below, IDMAN speaks to EDITION about their musical beginnings, the stories behind the singles and the importance of remaining genuine to oneself and the music.
I read that you started diving into songwriting when you got into high school. I'd love to know the reason behind that initial spark that really drove you to start in the first place.
When I was in high school, the songs that I wrote with my friends were always parody songs. So if the teacher was missing or something, we would try to remix popular songs that we'd known before. As a Somali kid, there's something we call the “Somali kid to poet pipeline”. And a lot of my friends have had really young poet phases or spoken word eras. And mine was not great, primarily because you'd have to present these poems in front of big rooms of people in really emphatic ways. So my way of being able to dip my foot into songwriting or creative processes was through humor: making my friends laugh and writing really clumsy, funny songs with my homies at school. So it wasn't anything serious. But it was a way for me to be able to covertly do this thing in a way that felt safe.
When did you start transitioning from parody songs to really getting serious about music?
It didn’t happen in a really serious way ‘til I was an undergrad. I met a friend through movement work. She was in choir and was really musically inclined. I had told her that I really wanted to do music, but that I was too scared to tell the folks around me or my family. I was studying things in school to maybe get a communications degree to become an A&R to still have proximity. So she would trick me into thinking that I was going to her house to organize this rally. But instead, she'd have a piano setup and one of our other musician friends in the corner of her living room. She’d be like, “Go sit down. I think you should be doing this thing.”
Was there something that opened that shyness for you?
Songwriting felt safe for me because I started looking at folks like Mariah Carey and 50 Cent, who were really mathematical about how they thought about songwriting, and also just thought about it really structurally. With the music program that I went to, I just thought that songwriting versus actual artist development felt like a safer thing to do. So every step of the way, I was trying to figure out a way to hide. But up to this day, my pen has been the thing that I identify with the most. I didn't know that I knew that I was gonna start writing songs for myself until I moved to LA.
You've mentioned the word “safe” a few times. The reason why I said earlier that I resonated with your music is because it has that safe and very personal element to it. When you mentioned you being shy and initially starting with the parody songs, I feel like the EP unveils the layers that we don't know about you as an artist.
You’re doing it! I always tell my friends that we have to eliminate the word “try”. We're actually doing and putting action towards our thoughts.
I feel that that lands in a way that I know is true, and that I'm learning to feel is more true in my bones. I want to feel more sturdy. I don't really consider myself a brave person at all. Everyone who knows me has always known me to be the person who's in the room with their knees shaking. A lot of the time, I feel like I'm doing music at the expense of my own comfort. I've been diagnosed with social anxiety and I’m open about it.
So in a lot of settings, my body tells me I'm in danger when I'm around people or when I'm doing things that make me feel afraid. I think that the honesty aspect and the ability to find catharsis or alchemy and sharing really vulnerable things that I normally wouldn't be able to say out loud, makes it feel worth it. If I wasn't saying the things that I was saying in this project, and if it wasn't the actualization for me of things that I told myself I wouldn't be able to say or do. I don't think this journey would feel very worth it. I feel really grateful that you heard it in that way as well. That feels really awesome. I love that.
You explained that beautifully as well. So getting into the EP, tell me the story behind naming it Risk.
I think from a very young age—not only just because of the intersections of my identity, but just because of the world we live in—on a daily basis, I'm told what will happen if I do XYZ. We've been conditioned for so long. I think my specific conditioning has made it so that my whole life, I thought this moment couldn't happen because I will be risking my relationship with this person or risking the comfort that I have in the reality that made me feel so safe, but still so unseen. So I was not standing in my wholeness.
There are a lot of things I say on this project that my childhood best friend has told me when I played her the project, she cried. She was like, “I don't think that if you weren't doing this job I would ever know that you feel things like this or that you're moving through this.” So interpersonally it's allowed me to evolve in my relationships with people who've known me my whole life. At the same time, there are truths that I get to share. There's a version of myself that I get to see within this project that feels like a really big risk for me. As I jump into this career, I'm consistently trying to meet fear face-to-face. This project is the biggest risk I've ever taken with my family, with my friends, with myself. If I want people to walk along this journey with me, I want to be honest about what's at stake for me at every moment.
Our self-actualization and healing is not a linear journey. But after creating this project, do you feel like you're getting closer to who you are as a person?
I think that in putting out the EP, I'm committing to just being malleable about who I can be and who I can become. I like that music is this archival piece of documentation for us where we get to look back at it and we get to think, “This is who I was when I made this. This is what I was going through.” I want my next project to feel completely different. My only hope is to just grow and be expansive. I hope that there are folks that resonate with that and see themselves and the part of me that is really cowardly and a punk. It’s not heroes you've been taught to want to aspire to be like, but there’s the hero in the human parts of us that's like, “This is terrifying, but I'm trying.”
I like that you mentioned that because a lot of people move with ego and display this false sense of confidence. But they're also cowards. I think you outwardly saying that makes a big difference compared to people who are just faking the funk.
I also think people aren't dumb. The collective lens isn't as hazy as people like to say it is. We like to tell people what they're thinking often, but people can always tell. If I was trying to be anything other than who I know I am, I think people would be able to see through it. I just don't think that you can play a part that long. My favorite artists have always been the people where I can see their heart beating out of their chests before they go on stage. At the last second of their performance, I exhale with them because I feel it for them. Even if I said I'm really feeling this, I think they see the shake in my hand. So I'm gonna let them know before they see me.
“Hate” was the first song that I was introduced to. It’s my favorite on the EP because it’s mirroring what happened to me recently, just being consumed by a person who you need to remove from your life. So hearing this song at the time that I did was a big wake-up call. I would love to know how you recovered from that experience, or if writing the song helped you move past it.
It definitely did. I remember when we cut the demo, I cried every day listening to it for like four days after. It was the last song we wrote for the EP. But it was the first instrumental I heard when we were making this batch of songs —we made them all around the same time. It was the story of my first heartbreak. But I always knew what I wanted “Hate” to feel like. I just didn't know if I'd be able to execute it. It's my favorite song on the EP as well. I think it's the most honest. When we wrote it, it was the most free-flowing just because my heartbreak was like the wildest blow to my ego and my pride because I'd been in relationships, but I don't think I've ever felt heartbroken by a breakup in this way. The journey of that healing process sent me—it took me a year and a half to really process and all the things that I was moving through.
I was retrospectively looking at all the ways in which I might have not shown up in the best ways, all the ways in which my own ego might have stepped in the way of me being able to salvage something. And also just the reality of the fact that the universe doesn't make sense and that feelings don't always have to make sense. You can understand that it is not good for you to be around someone, not good for you to have someone in your life. But also those feelings are sometimes not linear, they don't have an expiration date. You can come to terms with all the things you're feeling in real time. Everything doesn't have to be mutually exclusive, and it's fine. I can feel these ways and it's fine.
I think I need to write “Hate” to root myself in the reality of the fact that it happened, that I was feeling these things, that I could say these things out loud as undignified as they might have felt. I almost didn't put it out.I fought my A&R is about it. I wanted to give it away to a couple bigger artists just because I was like, “It's too big of a song.” Also the person that I wrote this about, do I want them to know that they feel these things? It can be hard to contend with. Especially in my given situation, this wasn't somebody who I felt like I had access to their emotions or access to the things that they were feeling when I needed them the most.
So I was just like, “Is it fair that I have to do this job now?” I have to make this art that feels intrinsic to me, where I tell these truths, and now they have full access to know exactly how I feel when I was devoid of that type of understanding. I'm so proud of “Hate” because of how other people feel about it. Because heartbreak can make you feel so alone. Most of the time we process that stuff in solitude so it can feel like a really lonely experience. As I hate that anyone's going through it, I think it does something to the brain to know that this is not a singular experience. It's something a lot of folks have to move through.
That's what I was hinting at before. When I listened, it provided a sense of comfort. The reason why I love music is because it’s such a shared experience. Even though everyone has their own journey and their own stories, I think the undercurrent of songs (especially with R&B) is that we all go through the same shit. So it's always nice when I could get to speak to an artist and they relate to my situation or vice versa. It makes listening to the song even more even more significant.
That's really cool, too. And that's why we made this project specifically R&B. All of our references were R&B. When I first got signed, I was making jersey club songs and house music.
I would have never expected that.
The first batch of songs I made was really experimental. But when we were processing this heartbreak, I think that there's this thing that happens with artists where they're really embarrassed to say that they make R&B. music. They're like, “But it's pop.”
Or they add an R&B slash x genre.
There’s a historical context and the relationship growing up that I have with this music that's just rooted in our culture and in our identities as well. So it was an intentional decision to be like, “We're gonna reference some real strong R&B references like Rodney Jerkins and Brandy.” We really were trying to do our homework with the songs that we love and we grew up with when we were making this project. The R&B element was intentional, very much so.
I also want to talk about “Still”. The way I interpreted it is that you're at this point where you're maybe 90% of the way moved on, but there's still a part of you that misses a person. That's completely human and normal. Since it is summertime, I'm having a hot girl summer. But I want to know if you're more of a lover or if you’re going to turn up this summer because that song evokes this tug-of-war of being this lover person but also wanting to live carefree.
“Still” was supposed to be that song for me that was the period at the end of the project because it was what I was feeling when we started working on it. You know when you go through something bad and you call seven of your friends to tell the same story seven different times because you want to relive it.
A year and a half later I just don't think anyone wants to hear about your heartbreak. [laughs] So I was just really embarrassed that I still felt this way. “Still” for me was that song if you had a moment where you could say all the unfiltered things you want to say that you still felt buried really deep in your underbelly, what would you say? My feelings felt really undignified, but I couldn't shake them. As far as right now though. I definitely am going up this summer.
You've poured your heart out on the EP so now it's time to really enjoy yourself and continue that healing process.
I don't know if I'm in love mode yet. I'm really excited about getting back in therapy. I have a lot of self work that I'm committed to doing. I think it's the year of me right now. I don't think healing ever ends. But [I focus on love] when I feel sturdy enough.
You mentioned wanting this EP to be intentionally R&B. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on the current state of the genre.
I think R&B is doing really really well. I love that in R&B and also hip-hop right now, non-men are leading the way and are showing up in a really strong way. There was a time when folks used to love to say on the internet that there was nothing going on the radio — you could not say that right now with a straight face and mean it. Summer [Walker] is out and doing really crazy things. SZA is on tour right now, so the ocean is healing. Coco Jones is doing incredible. She just won Best New Artist at the BET Awards, I’m rooting for her always. I saw Keke Palmer even put out a visual album and an R&B album which I thought was incredible. I think everything she does is awesome, too. There's R&B singers like Thuy coming up from The Bay that are doing really amazing things. Destin Conrad is killing it. Leon Thomas is making music right now. I think it's a really great time to make R&B music and to be a fan of R&B music.
So many dope artists out. It's so great to see.
It's so amazing to see and there’s so many different variations of what R&B feels like. We're not monolithic and the landscape of music is really reflective of that.
I mean, I love it, too. This is why I'm enjoying this conversation. Another factor that I really like about you as an artist is that you're very authentic, especially when it comes to speaking about love and being in the queer community.
For as long as I make music, I think I'll always make love songs. I think love songs are the most important type of songs. They're unifiers and connectors intergenerationally and cross-culturally. I feel really lucky that I got to make the video for “Still” the way that we did. I want to be really intentional about how I communicate about who I am just because I'm not a totem or a mouthpiece for an entire community. I would never want to say that I speak for everybody.
Also, there are aspects of our lived experiences that should not be commodified. And that cannot be held to the breadth of all that they are and are worthy or deserving of being spoken about or be revered within or stewarded within in a specific way, I just don't think that music spaces or commercial spaces sometimes have the range to be able to have certain conversations. So I'm actively learning how comfortable I am talking about what and when. But currently, I feel really grateful and honored that as a Somali person—with all the Olympians, models, actors or singers—we've never had anybody from my country that contributed to the cultural zeitgeist that's openly queer or trans ever in mine and my parents lifetime ever. As sad as it is to be the first of anything, I feel really honored to know that I am. I want for folks to understand that queer and trans people are normal. There's no punch line.