Daniel Caesar is Breathing New Life into the Toronto Sound
The soul singer talks growing up in the church, finding his sound, and his forthcoming album.
Daniel Caesar’s gorgeously intimate soul music paints the picture of a young romantic who’s shy and quiet, but doesn’t hide his insecurities. “I see you walking out that door / wonder why it took you so long,” he coos on new piano ballad, “We Find Love.” The 22-year-old singer-songwriter’s 2016 breakout with Kali Uchis, “Get You,” is all about his surprise and gratitude that he found someone so far out of his league: “Who would’ve thought I’d get you?” he asks.
When you speak to Caesar on the phone, it’s obvious the meek, thoughtful lover boy in his music is really him. He frequently pauses mid phrase, and often drifts off into revealing tangents, but then apologizes for doing so. “Sorry, I’m really bad at interviews,” he says softly a few minutes into the call. “I’m trying to get better. I don’t want to over-explain anything. I don’t want to ruin it for people.”
Caesar needn’t worry—his music is clearly speaking for itself. His songs have netted over 30 million global streams on Apple Music and 25 million on Spotify, according to his management. Mary J. Blige is a fan, tapping him to write “Telling the Truth,” the song fellow Canadian Kaytranada produced for her latest album Strength of a Woman. On August 25, after three acclaimed EPs, Caesar is releasing his first full-length, Freudian, which features Syd, and producers Jordan Evans (Jay-Z, Drake) and Matthew Burnett. It’s obvious him talking isn’t ruining anything, but ask Caesar what he can tell you about Freudian and he replies, “Honestly, nothing,” with a laugh. “Just that I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve done in my life.”
Caesar lives in Toronto, but his humble, analog soul sounds nothing like the late-night Auto-tuned confessions Drake, The Weeknd, and PartyNextDoor put the city on the map with. Perhaps that's because Caesar grew up in Oshawa, a small city that’s just 38 miles from downtown Toronto, but felt like a world away to him. Born Ashton Simmonds, Caesar grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist; his mother is a nutritionist, and his father is an administrator at the school Caesar attended, which was on the campus of his church.
“It was very sheltered,” Caesar recalls. “I was the only black kid there most of the time. It was…” He pauses again, looking for the right word. “Weird."
Caesar isn’t nearly as religious as his upbringing, but you can hear traces of it in his music—the choir-like hums in the background, the dusty organs, the devotion in his voice. “Love songs are kind of like hymns if you think about it,” he says. “Gospel songs are basically songs of adoration about God, or whatever you want to call Him.”
Caesar had friction with his parents as a teenager, sleeping on park benches and friends’ sofas for a summer after a fight with them at age 17, but now he credits them for his career: He grew up watching his father, a gospel singer, perform at church, and they bought Caesar his first guitar, a cheap sunburst Stagg, on his 10th birthday. “I was so excited,” he remembers. “I wrote a song on it that same day. I wanted to go outside and play but my dad wouldn’t let me, so I wrote a song asking him to let me go outside.”
Now Caesar plays a Fender Telecaster, and the guitar has become foundational for his songwriting. “I can write a song and then structure the music to fit it [on my guitar] as opposed to writing to other people’s instrumentals,” he explains.
The dirty bite of the electric guitar is one reason Caesar’s music is so different than that of his Toronto peers, who built the city’s signature sound around muted, smoky synthesizers. His lyrics are also key—Caesar’s songs about unrequited love stand out from their hedonistic hits about orgies and groupies.
“My goal is to not fit in,” Caesar says. “My worst nightmare is being the baby version of another artist. I remember when The Weeknd came out, I was in grade nine or something, and I was so hyped. I was in the studio singing about cocaine, but I wasn’t doing that shit! [One of my producers] told me, ‘If you’re not into that, you don’t have to pretend. Just sing about the stuff you know.’ I kept that with me.”