“Face to face to face to face is too real,” sings 22 year-old German R&B artist Thilo on his 2019 single, ‘Disconnected’. Although the track was released before the pandemic began, it exists now as a grim prefiguration of the digital dystopia created by perpetual lockdowns.
Yet speaking to Thilo as he effuses about his debut EP - over Zoom, no less - there is a distinct lack of the kind of detachment on which he ruminates in his music. The EP, ‘INTRO:W’, is the product of a year of self-reflection, with the title itself combining the themes of introspection and growth. It is clear that emotional awareness is at the forefront of Thilo’s identity as an artist. “It’s about looking inside, reflecting,” he says of the project. “Asking yourself, ‘what is life trying to tell me?’”
He sets himself a monumental task in attempting to make sense of the past few months, and he cites the difficulties of finishing his EP during the pandemic. But he has a knack for finding the positives: “I would say that I grew a lot, starting with my first singles a couple of years ago and then standing here as an artist now… it’s a development, for sure.” He speaks of his own progression with exceptional clarity, and it is this readiness for self-examination that helps to imbue his summery R&B with hefty psychological weight - broadening, often, into social commentary, like that which ripples among the vibrant guitar licks and smooth falsetto of ‘Disconnected’. “It’s really conflicted, my relationship to technology,” he notes. “I do see all the possibilities and the benefits, but at the same time, I’m always catching myself being distracted, really numb.”
Yet as an independent artist with a modest collection of singles under his belt, Thilo leans heavily on the opportunities provided by social media to promote his music. His online presence also encompasses an engagement with politics, and he shares his views on current affairs frequently. “I’ve become more and more aware of stuff that’s happening that is so unjust,” he explains, pointing out his position “as a white man, happening to be born in Germany,” and the kind of privilege this affords him.
Just as many people now feel compelled to discuss injustice online, Thilo’s position as an R&B artist has necessitated a specific kind of relationship with politics. “I think especially as an artist drawing inspiration from black culture,” he reflects, “as a white artist earning profit through this music, it’s just my duty and responsibility to acknowledge that.”
With its potential to become performative or disingenuous, social media activism is a prickly topic, but Thilo displays an earnestness that is hard to deny. “I started to educate myself more and more, and it simply felt natural,” he states. “Like, ‘hey, I’ve got to speak up for the ones that don’t have these privileges.’” The millennial generation and its emphatic devotion to activism online may be met with both reverence and rolling eyes, but Thilo seems genuinely committed to using his platform for good.
His identity as a German artist within the R&B scene is certainly intriguing. Growing up, he sang in a gospel choir, and his formative musical influences were English: “My idols have always been English, and their music was English, so I always looked up to them,” he reflects, helping to explain his decision not to write songs in German. Germany, after all, “has no cultural or historical relation to R&B music. It’s just not as deeply rooted in the history". Thilo confesses that this might hinder listeners from relating to his music, but he also notes that many people have connected with his songs even without understanding the lyrics, and his fanbase speaks to the growing celebration of R&B outside of the UK and America.
The clichés besieging German music also increase his reluctance to make changes in his writing: “People are like, ‘there’s no good music coming from Germany, the only thing they can do is cars!’” he chimes. His discography certainly helps to prove otherwise.
Despite being destined to battle these musical stereotypes, Thilo is remarkably self-assured, and his excitement about his work is infectious. At the heart of his debut project lies a bare-boned kind of honesty, a championing of feeling. “Being vulnerable is ok, being numb and feeling nothing sometimes is ok, feeling too much is ok,” he says in summary. “Just leaving room for being in a conflicted state, just accepting that.”
Such are the truths he wishes to share. It may be a lot to ask of an artist still unfavoured by the omnipotent streaming algorithms (“There's a lot to be changed,” he says of the music industry, “but I feel like we have to just keep going, keep pushing”). Yet Thilo is committed to the task. In his EP, he casts his gaze both backwards and inwards, reflecting on his own small evolution. As he himself notes, however, he hasn’t stopped growing - and good things certainly lie ahead of him.
Thilo's EP 'INTRO:W' is out 27th May on all platforms. Click here to listen on Spotify.