Singer Hannah Winkler recently toured as part of the Ingrid Michaelson Trio; Brian Robert Jones is a live guitarist for Vampire Weekend.
What cool sounds would be out in the world if the best songwriters didn't have industry expectations weighing them down? That's the guiding principle behind Human Natural, the recent team-up of Brooklyn-based singer/multi-instrumentalist Hannah Winkler and Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist Brian Robert Jones.
The pair connected in L.A. a couple years ago, when Winkler was in town for what the duo likens to a sort of blind date writing session. "Mostly the writing sessions were hilarious because a lot of people are chasing sounds," Jones tells Billboard. "I’ll literally go into sessions where people are like, 'Oh this specific bpm is really hot right now.'"
Only this one was different. Winkler and Jones connected over their love of left-of-center pop acts like the Bird and the Bee and Jones' usage of a rinky-dink '90s Concertmate keyboard he'd gotten as a random gift as a teenager. "Some of the things that ended up being Human Natural songs I’d been trying to show people forever," Jones says, with Winkler adding, "It was unlike anything else I was hearing then, and I dug that."
After sharing a handful of bubbly tracks over the past two years, Human Natural is gearing up to self-release its debut full length in the coming months — by "early summer," Winkler says. Today they're debuting a new track off the self-titled LP exclusively Billboard.
Check out "Tell Me You Want Me" below, along with our recent conversation with the duo: their inspirations, their dispatch from Coachella 2019, and why they think live bands — especially big live bands — are once again having a moment.
I heard "Tell Me You Want Me" and thought of new jack swing — is that the wavelength you were on?
Jones: I’ve been saying I think new jack swing is gonna come back. My dad really likes that kind of music; the past couple years I realized those grooves are just in my bones. There's Bruno Mars and Cardi B's "Finesse"… But not a lot of [other] people are doing it right now, so it sounds fresh and unique.
Winkler: I don't think I realized it at the time why [Jones' music] felt so good to me, but I think it's in my bones, too — what I grew up with, like Janet Jackson, the melodies and vibe. It's easy write over.
How did the song come together?
Jones: Last year I was making a bunch of instrumentals… I made one every day of January and this was definitely one of my favorites. This was the one I was most eager to show Hannah, for sure.
Winkler: I think the “tell me you want me” line is what came to me first. We crafted the song based on that sentiment of like, "I need to hear that you’re into this, otherwise I’m gonna move along." The track immediately made me want to dance. And I really dug the space in the chorus: the idea of putting in that line — “tell me you want me” — and leaving space for the instrumental.
Brian, you were just at Coachella… How does being around so many musicians, music fans, and people in between influence the music you wind up making?
Jones: I really love music festivals. I think that’s my favorite place to see certain bands, just because of the scale of things. It’s nothing I ever really expected, honestly. It's a really unpopular opinion — I know a lot of people loathe music festivals, especially musicians, which is kind of funny. I think with a lot of this record — especially finishing these tracks — trying to decide when something is done is almost impossible. The test I would run it through would be, 'How would this sound at a festival?' I've seen some of my favorite performances ever at Coachella and I try to imagine how our stuff would sound on a scale like that.
Winkler: We’ve definitely talked about the stage setup for these things and how we really want there to be a lot of live elements and not too much in the tracks. I wasn’t a Coachella, but I do see a lot of bigger pop acts put a lot of stuff in tracks, and it loses energy to me because of that. I really dig that when we get to perform live, there’s a lot of energy onstage from a lot of live playing.
Jones: At Coachella this year, everyone on the main stage the first day pretty much had a live band: Kacey Musgraves, Anderson .Paak, Janelle Monáe, the 1975, Childish Gambino. All incredible bands. I didn’t necessarily see that in previous years.
Winkler: [Jones] showed me Paramore, big shows of theirs, and how awesome they sound as a big band… I hadn’t really been a fan before, but I was super convinced.
Jones: I definitely consider myself a top-five-percentile Paramore fan. They rock like, an eight-piece live.
Winkler: Did Bleachers do that first?
Jones: Bleachers has two drum kits, which is the sickest thing ever. I did some touring with [Bleachers] with Muna. Their setup was very inspiring. If the budget worked out, we’d absolutely have two drummers onstage.
Winkler: Oh my god yes, we get into situations where our drummers are like, "I physically can’t play all of this." [Laughs]
Brian, thank makes me think of how Rostam left Vampire Weekend, but they added you and Greta Morgan to the live show, essentially expanding an additional member.
Jones: Yeah, I love big band sounds. When I heard that was what the deal was, I was pretty stoked. That’s how we do [Human Natural] — we just have a ton of people onstage. It’s been very cool.
Human Natural is your up-and-coming project but you both have experience playing with bigger artists, being on bigger labels. What advice would you give to an artist who’s in a similar space to Human Natural, but without those connections and experience?
Winkler: I would tell them to play a lot of shows and keep cranking out the music they want to make. Get practice on stage. Practice in the co-writing sessions. Keep making it, try to get it in front of audiences… The people I’ve seen do well are just doing their thing. If there’s a team of people at a higher level that resonates with what you’re doing, they’ll come and find you.
Jones: I don’t even know what I’m doing most of the time [laughs]… I feel like I’m somewhat surrounded by people who are doing things at a higher level but I have no idea how to get there myself. I’m just trying to make stuff I like, which I think other people would maybe like. I'm excited to finally have our album, our mission statement out.
Winkler: I’d like to try to get it to maybe management or booking, people who’d be interested in helping us grow it. [Now we will have] a bunch of shows under our belt and all these recordings. I think we’ll be in a stronger position to grow the project. The last project I was in [indie pop band Secret Someones] — that happened so fast and there was just a special set of circumstances that made that happen, that got us on [Cherrytree Records] after basically six months of being a band. That just doesn’t happen to everybody; it doesn’t happen often. I think it’s different for everybody.
Find more songs and news from Human Natural on their official SoundCloud page.