The West Londoner talks depression, social media and politics as he prepares to drop his debut LP.
West London; the rose-tinted home of Kensington Palace, the setting for era-defining flick Bend It Like Beckham and where your average house price sits at just over 1 million quid. It’s also the home of AJ Tracey, who says that, despite West London’s affiliation to bankers and CEOs, his upbringing in the wealthy West was miles away from what you’d expect. “Growing up in West London, there wasn’t much money [in my family],” he tells me when we jump on a call a few hours after his Notion shoot. “It’s not a good feeling because everyone around you has a lot of money, and you don’t have much, but I think it makes you work harder because it shows you what you can achieve. For me it was motivation, instead of jealousy”.
It’s fair to say the hard-work has paid off. This month he will release his eponymous debut album, which he describes as the “narrative of his life”. “It’s basically just me, my life, different stages of my life and different genres I’ve been through and experimenting with. That’s why it’s self-titled.” Made over the course of two years, it features 15 tracks and will be his biggest body of work to date, following the release of 5 individual EPs over the course of his career.
Despite it being his first album release, he admits that it doesn’t feel too out of the ordinary for him, something that he attributes to his 20+ year relationship with music. Tracey grew up surrounded by music; his Mum was a DJ while his Dad was a rapper. “Admittedly, I was more enthused about my Mum [DJing] than my Dad [rapping]. I cared more about the mix of sounds that she was bringing in, and stuff like that.”
His interest in his Mother’s work as a DJ is evidently reflected in his own musical output. Intent on experimenting with new genres, his debut album will see him apply his musical capabilities to rap, grime, country, garage and dance-world, to name a few. When I quiz him on why he chooses to explore different musical styles, he simply says: “Well, to be honest, I’m an artist and I like all types of music so I thought I’d just showcase it.” It also may have something to do with his diverse music taste a child, citing some of his favourite musicians as Linkin Park and Bullet for my Valentine, as well as Mobb Deep and Nas. His ability to deep delve into a plethora of genres is something that seems to come easy to Tracey, although he does admit that it brings him a slight sense of anxiety when it comes to dropping a track that his fans wouldn’t necessarily expect from him.
Anxiety and depression are both things that Tracey has experienced firsthand, and he is happy to speak openly about his mental health. Despite the suicide rate amongst men falling in the United Kingdom, the stigma attached to depression amongst males is still commonplace – so it’s imperative to have role models like Tracey speaking openly, and positively, about battling anxiety and depression. “I think that social media plays a big role in being detrimental to mental health.” He muses. “Social media makes you think you need to look a certain way, that you need to have a certain amount of likes, and fake friends and followers and all this nonsense. On top of that, men just don’t want to speak about their mental health.” I wonder if, having confirmed performances at festivals including The Great Escape, Leeds & Reading and Parklife, being on stage fuels his anxiety in any way. “I’ve been doing it for so long and I’ve had a lot of practise, so it’s not really nerve-wracking, but I love seeing new faces, and going to new places.” As for his own personal remedy in tackling anxiety: “Play Fifa, have a beer mate.”
When he’s not playing Fifa or spitting bars on-stage, he might be found taking to Twitter to air his political views – another trait that sets him aside from up-and-coming musicians who tend to shy away from discussing their political views. This openness has gained him the label as a “political” musician, something which he’s quick to disregard. “Every artist should just speak on what is important to them and hopefully what they’re clued up on, because I know a lot of people like to talk about things that they have no idea about, which I think is more detrimental!” He explains. “You’re not really doing any good, you’re just misinforming people. I just talk about things I care about and things I’m informed on. Brexit and Grenfell are close to home and I feel strongly about them, so I’m always going to have something to say about that”. I tell him that I think people with a public platform have a social responsibility to speak out on certain issues, but he disagrees. “I think it’s literally each to their own, if you feel like you need to, then by all means do it, but you built this platform so it’s up to you!”
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And Tracey’s platform is ever on the up, with his album set to take him to whole new levels. As we reach the end of our conversation, I ask him what it is he’s hoping to achieve. I’m expecting the age-old answer of “a Grammy” or ‘a BRIT Award” that I’ve heard from a dozen musicians at this point in their career, but true to Tracey’s unexpectedness, he has a different answer. “I just want more people to listen to my music, to just hear it! That’s all it is really, about spreading the sound. I just want more people around the world to hear and hopefully enjoy my music, that’s it!” It seems a quick match of Fifa and a bottle of Bud are the perfect remedy for keeping you grounded…
The album, AJ Tracey, is released 8th February.