‘Ambient R&B’: Tay Altair’s musical narrative come to life
Jonathan Taylor Bridges, affectionately called “J.T.” by those who know him, is a Washington University senior majoring in Sociology and minoring in Legal Studies. As a musician, he goes by Tay Altair. Recently he got the chance to sit down with Student Life and talk about his music, his journey and what it’s like being an artist at Wash. U.
Student Life: As a Wash. U. student and as an artist, what’s it like being a Wash. U. artist?
Jonathan Bridges: Honestly, it’s like leading a double life in a way…There are two parts of my life I know I want to pursue. I know I want to graduate from this institution, I know I want to get a J.D. and become a lawyer. At the same time, I have had this love for acting, art, music since I was very, very, very small. It’s like having to have those dual identities coexist day-by-day: I have this to do for class but I have this I have to do for music. It’s juggling a lot; it’s tough out here for college artists.
SL: You went through a rebranding. Can you tell me what that process was like?
JB: Yea so I started—I released music for the first time Sept. 8, 2018 [as] Tay, which comes from my middle name, which is Taylor—you know, J.T., Johnathan Taylor. Anyway and I don’t know, I was talking about it with friends of mine; I like the name Tay, but it’s kind of hard as an artist just trying to put their name forward, like [with] something as short and simple as that, to search up and stuff like that. Like people were telling me, ‘I’m trying to find your song, can’t find it’ and I was like ‘okay.’ Like I need something to attach to this, and like Altair, the last name for this, actually came from something interesting. With the artwork and stuff like that, I like to do a lot of galaxies and…Altair is the name of one of the brightest known stars in the universe. And it also has some really cool mythology that relates to the narrative I’m trying to tell in a weird way too.
SL: And what is the narrative you’re trying to tell?
JB: It’s tough, we can’t get too, too into that, but…we’re establishing characters. [There’s] actually like a website with a bunch of write-ups written by myself and it’s just a kind of linear story about…romance [and] mental health.
SL: What draws you to music?
JB: Music, it’s catharsis—it’s like [a] real release of emotion… Like I find myself dealing with things, like struggling, but music is always a safe place for me. It’s something I can go to; whatever mood I’m in, it can brighten my mood [or] it can lower it.
SL: When did you first start making music?
JB: I’ve been making music for as long as I can remember. My brother taught me piano when I was eight years old, and he left—all my brothers are way older than me—so he left the house and I was self-taught for a long time. Another brother of mine taught me guitar, and I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. But [I] started writing and making music—my own stuff—in high school with a friend of mine.
SL: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
JB: It’s really funny because Brent Faiyaz said something really really interesting about his own music. You know, Brent Faiyaz just released his album too, and he said he made music for ‘empathetic narcissists,’ and I really liked that turn of phrase. I would say that I’m producing something similar. I would say it’s in a more R&B vein.
SL: If you had to describe the music you make in one phrase or sentence, what would that be?
JB: Ambient R&B…I like creating music, I like music that creates a sonic environment—a lot of resonance in the instruments and stuff like that. I like hip-hop elements, but I also really like live instrumentation, and I feel like that’s something a lot of music is lacking nowadays. So, I’m trying to combine those elements into a more interesting sort of medium.
SL: You recently released a new song. Tell me about that.
JB: Well, the song is called ‘Winter Passage.’ A lot of the stuff I’ve released before talks about like, summer and how that’s not really a good time for me. And that comes from my own personal experience…I’m from New Orleans and I lived on the West Bank, and because I didn’t have a car…it was always hard for me to see my friends that I went to school with, because you know, my people weren’t out here driving me. So, it was a time of isolation, reflection, especially like just growing up, childhood [and] teenage years. And being alone wasn’t something that was good for me. I tried—I decided—to do some more acoustic break, live-performance-type stuff with it. I tried taking that idea and transforming it into a more R&B ballad, kinda wintery breakup sort of song. And I hadn’t done something in that vein before, so I thought that was pretty cool.
SL: What artists do you draw inspiration from?
JB: In the direction [that] I’m trying [to] move, I draw a lot of inspiration from Sonder [and] Brent Faiyaz, definitely. In terms of vocally, I like the runs that Daniel Caesar does, [and] Frank Ocean. Subject-wise—I hate to say it—but Drake has been out here making music about breakups and heartbreak way longer than I have…and I’d be lying if I said that’s not where my roots are, so I have to put Drake in that list.
SL: The visual art that goes along with your music, where does that come from? Why do you feel like it’s important to have with your music with the story you’re trying to tell?
JB: Definitely. So I like to think of Tay Altair as kind of a character separate from myself…[Creating] a more cohesive experience like that is something a lot of artists don’t do. You know, people make music videos attached to their songs—me and [senior] Anthony Bartley [J.T.’s manager and creative director] are right now trying to make a visual that explains the narrative, which we’ll be releasing March 28, the same day as the show. So, we’re premiering it at the show, and it’s going to be amazing. Especially with the themes we’re trying to explore, we—well, I thought it would be interesting (he does the artwork)—to actually have characters that are more so representative of these themes instead of creating this separate story and letting it be something that audience members [and] listeners can visualize as well as stream the music. We’re trying to make it a cohesive experience for everyone who appreciates the art, and there’s also poetry on my website as well.
SL: This show that you mentioned, it’s coming up.
JB: It is named ‘Black Stars’; it is March 28. Doors open at 7 p.m. I am headlining the show but the show is a lot more than myself. There are going to be art galleries there, a fashion component with [sophomore] Sparkle Whitaker’s line-up. Anthony [Bartley] is showcasing his art; [senior] Brandon [Wilburn] is showcasing his art. [There are] going to be a number of performances from people from Chicago, Wash. U. artists—E2K, he’s bringing a special guest as well—[Senior] Amaia Cook is going to be singing. I’m going to be bringing a special guest from New Orleans…I’ll be headlining with an hour-long performance. It’s my first live performance as Tay Altair, so that’s going to be super exciting.