I had the opportunity to do an interview with singer and songwriter d4vd (pronounced “David”), who first started writing music to curb YouTube copyright restrictions on his Fortnite gameplay. Since then, his music has prospered through the likes of short-form content on platforms like TikTok and he’s started a series of music videos using both the live-action and animated mediums. His inspirations come from far and wide, and that includes anime.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you grew up mostly with opera and piano, and then you started making Fortnite videos in your teens, but you started getting copyright strikes. To avoid copyright, you decided to start producing your own music, but I think most people who hear about someone who makes music for Fortnite videos would think “Oh, he’s gonna make hype music”, when in reality you go more for an alternative and R&B sound. How did this style originate with you?
d4vd: I had just got put onto like, the one-hit wonder by The Neighborhood and a bunch of indie dance and all that kind of stuff and I was like, “I’m gonna make what I wanna hear in my own montage”, so I decided to make that music for myself instead of catering to other people. That’s how I came up with that sound.
Q: Going for what you want rather than what people expect.
d4vd: Exactly, exactly.
Q: You’ve also mentioned that it’s interesting because you’re a Black artist who’s doing this kind of style and that you liked the idea that you were kind of a “gateway” for it.
d4vd: It’s so interesting and almost inspiring in a way to have people comment that they didn’t know that I was Black or they didn’t know how I looked because I made everything almost anonymously when I was on TikTok and YouTube and things like that, because the content was my face in a way. People knew me for Fortnite and from the BandLab stream recordings on TikTok, but then when I showed my face it kind of put everything up to “the artist” and kind of directed the attention to the art instead of the artist which was cool.
Q: Going against, I guess, ‘genre defines color’ and stuff like that.
d4vd: Exactly, which is like–amazing. It paves the way for artists like me, or even just creators in general, to express themselves however they want to without expectations.
[Sarca: It’s a story that happens quite often: that someone’s voice and the style of music they work with makes them seem like they come from a certain ethnicity or environment–and of course, there is some cultural rationale by which these presumptions are made, after all certain musical styles originate from certain parts of the work or certain communities that are sometimes directly related to color and ethnicity. Of course, that doesn’t stop d4vd or other creators like Yung Gravy, whom many thought was Black before face-revealing, from pursuing their tastes and telling the stories or expressions how they want.]
Q: I think that goes for the style that you’re going for too, because you’re now making animated music videos with “anime-style”; and recently there have been a lot of other Black creators who have been contributing. There’s Arthell Isom, who founded Japan’s first ever Black-owned animation studio; and you’ve got LeSean Thomas and Flying Lotus who are contributing to that scene.
d4vd: Yeah! That’s legendary.
Q: I think you’re contributing to that too as you’re making more and more of these music videos and featuring yourself as this style of creator.
d4vd: I just love bringing in anything that I was inspired by growing up and bringing back pieces of myself that people might not know and that I’m fond of and just bringing them to light. So like video games and anime–everything in that space.
Q: Your first music video was “Romantic Homicide”, directed by Tommy Bauer with cinematography by Dylan Budnieski, and this is where you introduced the character “Itami”.
Q: How did you first come up with Itami?
d4vd: Coming up with Itami as a character was something I did before even starting music. Being such a big fan of anime and manga, I love Attack on Titan, and I love the storyline of the “antagonist” also being the “protagonist” and having the main character have two sides of himself and is ultimately fighting himself at the end. So, I kind of fit this character to follow through the story I was writing myself, and I was gonna work its way through my YouTube content creation and that’s how I was gonna execute it, but music came along, and I was able to put it in there. But yes, it’s like having different parts of myself tell different stories through one outlet–which is music and music videos–so, just kind of telling that story and continuing to expand upon how our different emotions can define us at different points in our lives and different points in time, and kind of just keeping two people at each other and then having them be the same person: me.
Q: You mentioned once that you were trying to bring a sort-of cinematic quality to your music videos, and I think the “Romantic Homicide” music video has sort of like an ‘amateurish’ feel, but it does look cinematic at certain points too.
d4vd: I wanted it to feel very DIY at first because of me making all of my music on my phone, and then bringing it to a screen I wanted it to feel like it was made in a backyard and not too-high production but still felt like a story was being told and the story was being told correctly. All of my music videos are kind of… I won’t say chronological order, but they fit together like a big puzzle piece.
Q: I think that’s represented well in how you produced the music videos. “Romantic Homicide” has this kind-of ‘cold blue’ and, as I call it, ‘melancholic green’ color palette.
Q: It has some center compositions and other segments that aren’t too high production-like as you said yet feel cinematic. Were those colors your idea, more the director’s, or…?
d4vd: We both came together; it was a collaborative effort. I feel like when I make music, I can really see the vibe of it and tell the color design. When I made “Worthless” I was thinking of the greens and the blues as well, and when I made “Romantic Homicide” it was more purple than green, but then Tommy brought in the green and it fit so perfectly, so I guess it’s like pulling as many brains as we can together to make the best product. It looked beautiful in the end.
Q: And then a little bit later you introduced an animated version of “Romantic Homicide” (directed by Micah Chambers-Goldberg), and I think here you can feel elements of, at least, Tokyo Ghoul and Jujutsu Kaisen in the visual design and storytelling.
d4vd: I wanted to bring the two inspirations for the character together through one video, and so the initial idea for “Itami” comes from [Ken] Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul, but then the actual character design [is inspired by Satoru] Gojo from Jujutsu Kaisen with the blindfold and everything. Bringing those two together is just paying homage to two of my favorite anime and continuing a story.
Q: Do you plan to continue bringing in other elements to your music videos?
d4vd: Of course. I can’t leave behind the things that shaped my storytelling capabilities and my love for stories like that, so I’m going to continue to bring those inspirations into my own art.
Q: As you’ve continued, your music videos have developed a certain quality and tone. I noticed a few of them seem to have certain ‘geometric’ shaping to the way the shots are composed.
d4vd: I’m a big fan of the cinematography that we’ve crafted and almost unintentionally caught through multiple music videos too. They all feel like they were shot in the same day, which is insane to me because we shot some videos in London, we shot some videos in [Los Angeles] and Arizona, so it’s cool to see.
Q: They do have a very similar quality throughout all of them, it’s really consistent.
d4vd: Exactly, yeah, it’s insane.
Q: And then “Rehab” was your first music video that is originally animated, rather than debuting first as live-action and then being animated.
Q: This song feels like “anime” but it’s also obviously “d4vd”.
d4vd: When I made that song, I was thinking of it being an anime intro. Some inspirations for the track are like Minami and Tricot–just the J-rock bands that I love, and trying to almost score my life as if it was an anime. It worked out perfectly: the instrumental, the vocals, and the visuals all came together so perfectly, and it just feels like it should be in that world.
Q: The song progresses just like an anime intro. I was honestly thinking to myself, “Where have I heard this guitar before? Where have I heard the vocal progression?” As far as that music video, I noticed that there were a lot of animators credited, whereas “Romantic Homicide” was just Micah Chambers-Golderberg.
d4vd: A lot of key framers and in-between frames, and the project was very high-quality for the short amount of time we had to push it out there, and so we had to reach out to a lot of talented animators to come together on the project; and it came out really well, I think everything was really consistent. The character design was spot-on, and the movements were spot-on. The background design is I think what we’re most proud of because the backgrounds just look amazing, especially with the movement. It all worked out perfectly, shoutout to all of the animators and amazing creators who worked on it.
[It’s not mentioned, but it goes without saying that the influence of “Naruto”, another one of d4vd’s favorites, is felt.]
Q: We get to see all of the different styles that the animators have since it’s mostly unfiltered. (Referring to a lack of an ‘animation director’ overseeing the drawings.)
Q: There’s one scene I remember pretty well and that’s Itami being dragged into the water. I really like how his desperation was expressed as he’s trying to claw his way up towards the camera, and then the 3D background behind him is swirling down.
d4vd: So many elements.
Q: Pretty ambitious putting this together and, what, you’re only 18 right now?
Q: As you continue to make music videos, do you plan to keep adding onto the story, lore, characters, and all of that?
d4vd: I’m trying to build it up in a way that everyone will be able to understand without having to question anything or ask too many questions. The greatest stories are interpreted by the actual audience, so if I can keep a clear motive and a clear story that everybody is able to comprehend, then I think that’s where the success is. I’m gonna keep building it out slowly, and I’m gonna keep showing the people where it’s heading and give little hints and little easter eggs here and there, and that’ll show up in the music and in the visuals. Hopefully, it evolves to maybe a manga one day, or maybe even an anime or show, but I just gotta keep building it.
Q: When I first watched it, I noticed that the song itself was… not necessarily “upbeat”, but it wasn’t in the usual tone or alternative style that you have, thus the “anime-style”; but then, as I listened to the lyrics and watched the video itself, they contrasted with the music.
d4vd: Again, it was like the Fortnite montages as well. I forgot to mention that I would literally make the Fortnite video and then make the song based on what the clips were in that video, and it was kind of like the same kind of process where there’s upbeat moments, there are downbeat moments, and the actual visuals themselves to kind of tell that story; but it’s done so well, that you don’t miss a beat. It’s not like “Oh, it’s boring now at this point”, but it all feels very seamless.
Q: I think that’s one thing that creators sometimes miss out on when they’re first starting out in making this kind of content.
d4vd: Yeah, it’s like you don’t know what you’re doing because you have no reference point. It’s like if your inspirations are references that are reshaped into something unique, so I had the reference points and the inspirations there already. It produces the best music because it has something to work off of.
Q: In doing so, you’re able to create symbolism and tell a story that is evocative enough to connect with a lot of different people.
[Sarca: From there, I decided to ask a little bit about a song that I had a personal interest in, that being “Notes from a Wrist”.]
d4vd: Leading up to that track, writing songs for me was less about writing about my experiences or writing about the story that I would tell through things that other people have experienced around me and things like that, so finding a way to tell stories in a different way, transforming my creative process, still making a song about myself on my phone, which has pretty much opened a different mindset in trying to be more empathetic and tell a story from a different point of view was a big thing for me and I feel like it was able to bring out more emotion and more quality to the actual lyrics as well as the storytelling because the track is very straightforward. It’s one vocalist, there’s no layers at all–there’s no harmony, there’s nothing–so I just wanted to be able to have something cut through without so many elements, and I feel like that’s what I accomplished with that track.
Q: Even in the music video itself, there’s all of these shots of you staring at the camera while things are going on in the background or it’s silent in a way.
d4vd: Right, it’s super symbolic about ‘the walk of life’. Like, you can be so involved with whatever you’re doing, but there’s so many things going on in the background and you just don’t notice it because you’re so involved in yourself, but there’s so many things that you’re missing when you’re not taking a second to actually look around yourself.
Q: And in the video when people look at themselves, like Itami, it has a sad feel.
d4vd: It’s kind of like talking to yourself about yourself.
Q: Are the tears [in the video] real?
d4vd: Kind of (laughs). There’s a way to get the shot with the tears on my face, so we had to kind of glue them to my face with a special solution that we used. And it kind of like, drifted down the actual water line of the tears so they would stay there, and then we put more to have it for the actual shot. So, it’s a multi-tasking project to get a tear to stay there on your face for that long.
Q: That’s got to look a little bit awkward.
d4vd: Yeah, honestly, when we’re not shooting it’s kind of like, “Why do you have this glue on your face?” But it’s cool.
Q: Or if someone sees you randomly, “Why are you so sad?”
d4vd: Yeah, so many questions were being asked.
Q: “Was this your best performance yet!? Are you really that happy?”
[Sarca: I don’t know if the joking tone of the question came across the call, but d4vd gave an honest answer either way.]
d4vd: Yeah, I mean: it’s my most recent live-action music video so like… when I saw the first cut, I thought it was the best thing we ever produced, and it’s only gonna get better from there.
Q: Do you plan to continue mixing live-action and animated together?
d4vd: Yeah, I plan to do more animated projects, more live-action projects–even 3D animation and stuff like that utilizing Unreal Engine and things in the digital space. Just being very tech savvy and up to date with culture and staying up to date with everything that’s going on.
Q: So, you plan to expand a little bit into the other mediums like 3D?
d4vd: Of course, of course, just bringing that gaming aspect even farther into my life. Artistry has been something that I pride myself in doing even more.
Q: I think that’s enviable. Some people focus on one thing or another, but you’re able to continue to not necessarily change what you’re doing but change how you’re doing it.
Q: You can continue to garner further interest in the visual scene while developing your own artistry.
d4vd: And then it’s just like–you’ve gotta tackle it from all angles: focusing on the music, focusing on the visuals, and focusing on the storytelling, and then how we tell that story through the visuals, and they kind of just complement each other all around because we always have this stuff to work off of. It’s an ever-flowing stream of ideas.
Q: Mhm. I think that’s about all I have time for you today.
d4vd: Awesome, this has been amazing, thank you so much.
[Sarca: Thanks to d4vd for taking this time with me. Looking forward to whatever else d4vd has in store for the rest of the year, and I’m personally interested in how he combines his musical tastes and artistry with visual storytelling in future music videos as he continues to develop himself as an artist, and of course a big thank you to him and the others involved.]
Images used © 2023 Darkroom/Interscope Records
Featured image credits:
Photograph of d4vd – Nick Walker
Satoru Gojo from “Jujutsu Kaisen” (©Gege Akutami/Shueisha/JUJUTSU KAISEN Project)
Itami from d4vd’s music videos