"I Know There's A Lot More": Through The Strength of Others, Josef Lamercier Finds Himself
April 13, 2023
At every turn, Josef Lamercier has been guided by his faith. Growing up in a religious family on the east side of New Orleans, son to a pair of ministers, Lamercier inevitably fell into the “mystic” draw of the church. It was here he would discover his love for music, singing faithfully in the choir as a child, a product of his environment. As comforting as this environment – New Orleans, spirituality, community, faith – made him feel, it wasn’t safe from disruption. First it was Hurricane Katrina that displaced Lamercier and his family, only for natural disaster to follow them after they had relocated to Texas, this time in the form of Hurricane Rita.
“I don't think people understand how natural disasters can affect people,” Lamercier tells me over Zoom, talking reflectively but with an in-the-moment consternation about him.“Especially when you see it on TV. You're literally watching your shit being destroyed. And you a kid too, so you just like, ‘okay, I got three days of clothes, and we're all here (but) I don't know where my other family's at.' For like a week, trying to call people up. That's the type of shit that never left." Materially and emotionally, little remained for Lamercier to lay claim to. But still lit inside him was a burgeoning flame, surviving in part due to the shelter provided by the faith instilled in him from a young age.
Later, this faith evolved into a more existential approach Lamercier used to direct himself in coordination with his purpose. At first, he thought the church would remain his focus. After graduating from college, Lamercier returned to New Orleans after a 10 year absence and reaffirmed his place in the church, a role that included guiding prisoners through worship services. During this time, he still looked for opportunities to indulge his inner musician. His desire to be an artist had not subsided.
Securing a spot at New Orleans’ Jazz Fest is grounds for celebration for most artists. But for Lamercier, the moment was the intersection of his life’s crossroads. “I remember after doing Jazz Fest sitting in my car and getting super overwhelmed cause I'm just like, ‘man, this is what I'm really supposed to be doing.’ You know?” He takes a pause, then offsets this moment of anxiety with an offering of perspective only available to those when far enough removed from the situation by time: “But you know, shit takes time to develop.”
“I take this very seriously,” Lamercier says of his art. “I don't just look at music like, ‘yeah, it's fun, you know?’ I enjoy it, but I know how powerful music is and I know like frequencies and shit is very powerful…I saw a video, Fela Kuti was talking like, ‘you can't really play with music like that cause it'll kind of kill you.’ I know it's extreme, but it's real though. It really is.” There’s a hard-earned understanding of this sentiment behind Lamercier’s voice when he delivers it to me, a seriousness that is not to be doubted. When he made the decision to commit himself to music, a leap-of-faith may not do his decision justice. He battled homelessness when he first arrived in Los Angeles, at times sleeping in his car or driving four hours to an ex-partner’s house for a few days of comfort. From there he would head back into the city, hit about four or five sessions, and find his way back when the work was done. Lamercier was ready to head back to New Orleans and potentially settle into a more comfortable life.
Before he had the chance to retreat, Lamercier was reaffirmed by faith. Not his own faith in a higher power, not through faith in himself, but faith invested in him from those that surrounded him. The names he shared formed a tight-knit collective: a girl he was once with, who “fucked with me when I ain't really have shit;” frequent collaborator Reuben Vincent and New Orleans producer Malik Ninety Five; he mentions Gage Brown, who offered him an air mattress and endless support. As Lamercier details the experiences that formed these bonds, he makes a point to say that his friends who have outgrown that title. When I mention him and fellow artist Barney Bones’ relationship and qualify it as a friendship, he is almost offended. He interrupts me, correcting me: “My brother, you know what I'm saying? Like, it's not even a friendship. These people, I actually really do life with. It's not a game.” His seriousness shifts the conversation tone once again, undercutting the otherwise candid back-and-forth we had established. The intensity fades a bit when he begins to discuss the true influence these people had on him at the time. “I didn't realize I had a lot of fear in me. But they was all just super encouraging and just like, ‘nah, you need to poke your chest out a little bit and just step into what you're supposed to step into…just be you.’”
Missing from this ensemble of motivators is the catalyst for Lamercier’s musical ambition. When I mention the name Channel Tres, Josef lights up, a smile painted on his face as he delights in the topic. It’s always good to have connections in the industry, and those ties can run deep. But no, Josef was adamant: this isn’t an industry relationship. “That’s been my brother,” he says of their connection. “Like, literally,” he emphasizes, trying to convince me as if I had a reason to doubt him. The two met when they were in college. Excuse me, I meant to say, the two met as soon as they got to college. “My parents dropped me off, I walked through the door and there's Channel and he's like, ‘what you here for?’ I was like, I think I'm here for music. And he was like, ‘Me too. I think I'm here for music too.’” The whole story, as well as Lamercier’s attitude in describing their first impressions, has the childish benevolence of a coming-of-age movie. Using the microphone on Channel’s MacBook, the two experimented with their shared interest, Lamercier distinctly recalling them recording over a J Dilla sample. When Channel made the move to LA after graduation, he pushed Lamercier to join him. When he finally arrived, Lamercier struggled in silence, with those close to him unaware of his homelessness and insecurity. Channel often let Lamercier stay in his studio, but it wasn’t a long-term solution. For Lamercier, it was all part of the process: “I was putting myself through that even though I didn't have to. I could have easily went back home or did some other shit, but it was just like, I had to do it, you know? It's like the rite of passage in most cases.”
Only faith can make sense of Lamercier’s path. A week before he was supposed to leave for Los Angeles, the transmission in his car broke down. This easily could have been taken as a bad omen, akin to seeing a black bird perched in your window. These kinds of detractors rarely affect Lamercier; when a force bigger than yourself is driving you, a faulty transmission is the least of your worries. After contributing to music for the likes of Tyler, The Creator, Kyle Dion, Lucky Daye, and Tkay Maidza, Lamercier had a realization born out of unfortunate circumstances. After returning to New Orleans to visit his ill grandmother, he was able to affirm his identity in the reflection of his grandmother. “I would sit with her in the hospital and I was sitting there just thinking, man. I was just like, ‘she didn't really get to see me.’ She saw me (perform) once; she actually was the only one that came to Jazz Fest from my family. I could only get one ticket and she did it. She used to always call me Lil Marvin.” She had given Josef some songs she had written decades ago, along with a note that sparked a flame. “In that moment I was like, ‘alright, I have to do this for her. (My grandparents) invested so much into me. Me stepping into being an artist wasn't really about me. I don't think anything I've really done was more so about my selfish intentions.” For all he’s been through, it’d be easy (and acceptable) to give himself some credit. As our conversation took shape, it became clear to me that it was not in the outline of Josef Lamercier but instead a mirage of others, all of those who have made him into who he is today.
Who he is today is a solo artist, for the first time in his life. The release of “Figure It Out”, featuring additional brothers-not-friends Huey Briss and Niko Oroc, made this designation official. Though, “solo artist” seems an ironic title given the amount of contribution responsible for Lamercier’s current standing. He has reason to wear it with pride, knowing it was earned. And it fits him well: “Figure It Out” is a song that moves at an inherently contradictory pace, like watching a character in a movie run in slow motion. Built on a foundation of the same brand of faith that delivered results for Lamercier, the track is as soulful as his roots would suggest. Enveloped in the hypnotizing loops and lyrics is a paradox indicative of Lamercier’s state of affairs. “It's almost like the crying clown…a smile on his face, but he’s crying on the inside. That's the visual that I wanted people to get from (“Figure It Out”), sonically,” comments Lamercier. Billed as “a marriage between Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation and André 3000’s The Love Below,” there was an intentional effort to accomplish a playful way of saying, “this hurts me, without being too forward about the feeling.” The harmonies on the track are born out of Lamercier’s gospel background, characterizing his vocals just as he enjoyed hearing in the music of Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone as a child. (“I remember Niko, I was like, ‘Ni–, put some auto-tune on my voice.’ He was like, ‘oh, okay bro.’ There's no auto-tune on my voice. I was like, ‘what the fuck?’” he shares with a laugh.) Lamercier hits the mark on all fronts, later revealing that “Figure It Out” is the first piece of music shared from an upcoming album in spring 2023. Having just stepped into the solo career outfit, Lamercier is already filling out his threads nicely.
In only his first release, Lamercier has established a very conscious relationship with art that was impressioned onto him from a young age. His mother was an art dealer in New Orleans, displaying pieces within the home and setting the standard for how works should be treated. The hallways of Lamercier’s childhood home were decorated with paintings from Clementine Hunter, a self-taught artist who painted as a slave. “I remember seeing those (paintings) and I’m like, ‘man, this feels like where I live,’” recalls Lamercier fondly. When his mother would bring artwork home, she would store paintings under beds to protect them from humidity. When I mention that perhaps his mother’s relationship with art has affected how he creates, so personally and intentionally, he acknowledges the parallel. “A lot of that time was erased from my memory or her memory, so whenever we talked about it, it was like we started remembering it. When she told me she used to store the art underneath the bed, I would try to go underneath the bed and she'd be like, ‘get away from that, get away from that.’ And now I understand why. I felt like I was throwing art underneath the bed for a long time, you know? So I'm able to pull the shit out and start doing it.”
We close our Zoom call with a few quick-hitters, me questioning Josef and him relaying answers back to me. On what working behind-the-scenes with other artists has taught him: “Art imitates life. And I wasn't really living my life to imitate the art. I was just kind of living my life to live my life.” I ask him if there is anything we should know or expect when it comes to his debut album. “Come to it with open ears,” he answers plainly, and we share a laugh at his simplicity and unintentional cliché. Who is he listening to nowadays? “I always listen to oldies and listen to some new shit. I listen to Sly Stone and Playboi Carti, that type of shit. Sly is such a crazy, crazy artist, crazy writer. They definitely play a huge impact on what I do. I want longevity in my records.” What words is he living by this year? “Take care of the art and the art take care of you.” I reference a previous interview, one of his only pieces of press to date, where he says that the biggest sacrifice he made was “sacrificing comfort.” And now, through all the growth and accomplishments he’s seen come his direction, has he found any comfort in the position he finds himself in now?
“No,” he replies immediately, with a bit of a chuckle.
“No…I’m happy, I’m grateful. But I don’t think this is it. I know there’s a lot more.”