PHOTOGRAPHY BY COLLIER SCHORR | STYLING BY JASON RIDER
A conversation with our latest cover star on the queer influences that shaped him, the joy of rock climbing, and what he wished he'd done when he met the president (not this one, the last one).
Intuition is a big word for Frank Ocean. It’s been a guiding star in his uncharted course to success. His trust in it has led to various awards, beloved albums, even a surprise magazine filled with two years of globetrotting adventures.
Believe it or not, intuition also told us that one day Frank Ocean’s path would cross our own. So when the opportunity arose to collaborate — on the cover story for our 10th issue, no less — we were, on some level, not surprised. We were, nevertheless, nervous, excited and well aware that we needed to create something special. Frank is one of those people who makes you want to be your best.
As Collier snapped her frames at a furious pace, we stood by trying to take it all in. At one point, Frank looked over and, for whatever reason, we responded with enthusiastic thumbs-up. A cheesy move, yes, but once we chatted a few days later for the interview, we quickly realized that Frank is not the kind of person looking for a slick performance from everyone he encounters. He was thoughtful, open and earnest. It was a delight getting answers to the questions we’ve wanted to ask him for years.
Hey, Frank. How is 2019 treating you? Everything’s cool. Everything’s good. Been keeping busy.
What’s been filling up your days lately? Same old: making things, a lot of time in the studio between here [New York] and L.A. I split my time. I have a house in both places.
We were curious: As someone who doesn’t do a lot of interviews, what made you want to speak with us? I’m doing more lately. In an effort to do more, I thought, What do I actually like? What do I actually read and connect with? And your guys’ magazine is one of those things.
The decision to do more interviews, how did that come about? I always thought that was a misconception. I think the whole idea of me as a recluse is absurd ’cause I’m in the streets like all the time. I’m outside all the time, I’m traveling the world all the time. It’s funny to me that that’s the perception, but I understand what people mean by it in this new paradigm.
I don’t know if it’s terribly calculated, but I’m just trying to put myself more into whatever kind of stream is going on here in culture. I don’t think my feelings about press have anything to do with how times are changing. I think it’s more a feeling.
Things are different — especially in terms of how social media has exploded — from when you first started making music. Nah, people have been the same for millions of years. I think the social media thing is kind of amped up. One could argue that people don’t actually get information more than half the time. They browse information. I don’t know if they really ingest it.
Speaking of information, we read that you watch a lot of MSNBC. We watch way too much of it on YouTube, but I had to stop because it was making me feel empty, watching the same stories over and over again. Are you still watching it a lot? Yeah, I watch a lot of talk news. But “a lot” is relative to how much TV I actually watch, which is not a lot.
Do you have any favorite shows? Right now I’ve been watching Chef’s Table. It gets kind of brutal in parts. Some of the ingredients are wild. But it’s cool. It’s real. Handmaid’s Tale is really good. Heavy. I like Yara [Shahidi]’s show, Grown-ish. That’s a fun one.
Do you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race? Sometimes. I have a friend who really likes it, so I’ve seen a few episodes. But I don’t really keep up with it like I should.
Would you ever be a judge on it if they asked you? I’ll say this: Of all the talent shows on TV, that would be the most likely.
RuPaul has this famous quote: “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Do you think of “Frank Ocean” as a drag persona, or is there now no separation between “Frank Ocean” the artist and you? Hmm, that’s interesting. I’ve never considered that. For me, the genesis of that name change came from me trying to make a project without my label knowing about it. It was born from a need. It came about in such a way that I didn’t think about whether it was armor for me. I hear certain people say that about their name, their look, even their sound, that it’s a form of armor or a shield from whatever pain they might not want to feel.
I don’t think that was it, though. I was just trying to be slick, so I could do what I was doing without people knowing. And it worked. I kept with it. I’m such a part of the generation that’s influenced by rap and hip-hop. For me those sorts of names are so commonplace in the genre and in the culture, so it felt correct.
We noticed on your Instagram page that you’ve been rock climbing. What do you like about the sport? I’ve been doing it for years. I’m not like a god of rocking climbing or anything, but I do enjoy it. The routes are like little problems. I like problem solving. It’s kind of a solo sport if you’re bouldering, so you don’t need to organize anything to go; you can just pull up and do something different than a classic day in the gym. It’s super relaxing. I mean, it wouldn’t be relaxing if I was coming at it like [rock climbing god] Alex Honnold, out here risking my life. [Laughs] But the way I approach it is pretty calm.
I read that you met the archivist for Peter Hujar. How did that come about? The first thing was I bought one of his photographs. Then I wanted to do something with his photographs, like license some of his artwork.
I reached out to the gentleman who controls his estate, and he linked me with the woman who controls Peter’s archive, and I got the opportunity to go through all the photos. It’s really special work.
Do you think your interest in queer art and history has grown since you’ve been spending more time in New York? Well, I’ve been coming to New York since I was 12. Since the old towers were up — I went to the top of those with my mom.
But no, my interest in queer art began at home in New Orleans. Listening to Katey Red and Big Freedia at parties as a youth. It continued to grow as I got into photogragphy, from the photographs I see a lot of in magazines, like Alasdair [McLellan] and Collier to the other heads like Wolfgang [Tillmans], Walter Pfeiffer and Peter. I remember being really into Walter’s work because of his collages. At the time I was working on the magazine [Boys Don’t Cry], and I was interested in that kind of layout.
My time in London was when I really started not just my own photography work but working alongside or commissioning a lot of other photographers to work on things for the magazine. Anytime you’re working in that space, around a lot of artists, they’re showing you what moves them, what formed their voice over time. And it’s that ritual of sharing that puts you on a whole bunch of other shit you’ve never seen. Really, it just keeps going. I’m sure it’s the same with you guys, always getting put onto new artists.
We always think we’re gonna run out of people to feature, but every issue all these new artists start appearing. There’s so much great work out there. Tell us about creating your magazine, Boys Don’t Cry — how long did it take to put together? It was a couple of years for sure. There were a lot of on-location things, from Mississippi to China to Berlin, New York, Japan, Senegal. So many places. The opportunity to work with Ren Hang before he passed away, sadly. Going out to China for that.
It was at the same time the records [Endless and Blonde] were being worked on, and in the same timeframe I was trying to close out this label situation I had going on. And also my Apple deal, which all eventually happened. Some of those things — particularly the Universal thing [Universal owns Def Jam, his former label] — was taking forever. So we kept working on the magazine with everyone, all the graphic designers, all the photographers, the illustrators, the art directors, stylists and makeup artists, all their agents — love them too. [Laughs] I was so high-strung over the record and all the business shit around it, the magazine was a reprieve. It stopped me from feeling like my life was on pause because of those things. It made me feel like my life was very much being fully experienced.
Speaking of your previous record deal, the story has become almost mythologized. ASAP Rocky talked about it on Angie Martinez’s radio show, laying out the chess moves you made to release Blonde independently after fulfilling your obligations with Universal and Def Jam. How do you look back on that experience now? Do you have any advice for newer artists trying to deal with that side of the business? I feel at peace with all that. I feel like the best outcome for myself was that outcome, and I feel proud of what I was able to get done with it. I love the music and the art that came out of that period, as well as the visual work. It’s definitely a period I look back on fondly.
It’s funny you bring up Rocky, because after that came out, I was like, “Rocky, I think we gotta review the CliffsNotes of that situation because you got a couple parts a little fucked up.”
Oh, really? Nah, it was cool. [Laughs] I don’t even remember what he got wrong, but I remember what was correct. When I heard it I laughed, because I was like, It would be Rocky who would say that, ’cause I probably would never have given the real, explicit version of it. Me and him talked about it once, right after all that happened, when we were just having a conversation about the business. There was certainly noise within the industry about it, like Universal saying no more exclusives could happen afterwards. So I was being asked about it, and I didn’t really talk about it too much with people. But with Rocky, we spoke about it. I think with advice, that situation probably won’t ever happen again in the same way, so I don’t know if my advice would be any good as far as how to do it again.
What about more generally — how do you keep yourself protected as an artist in the music business? Well, fucking with major music companies, you’re going to be…deflowered. Anytime you get into the business side of the arts, there has to be some degree of objectification or commodification that you’re comfortable with, of yourself and of your work.
I don’t know about purity. It depends on what you want. A lot of people I talk to about careers in the music industry, their ideas of success have to do with nostalgia. They have to do with tropes of success, things they’ve been shown over the years that represent what a successful career is. I think that helps you become prey, because somebody can manipulate you with those things. Then you may get to a point in your experience where you become disillusioned with those things. So anybody having a clear idea — even if it’s as crass as “how much money do I want to make, specifically?” — I think that’s much clearer than some of these other things that represent success, whether that’s X amount of spins or streams or plaques. Even sold-out venues. If those things don’t help you reach your defined priorities, then what are those things there for?
That’s how I try to make decisions in my life and career, and, if asked, I share that philosophy with anybody who asks. For me, it’s about Why am I doing this? What exactly do I want from this? And how do I get those specific things I want out of this? And what does success look like on those terms? And what does failure look like on those terms? That’s how I think about it now.
Is it easier for you to make music on your own, or do you like having collaborators around? It depends what I’m doing. If I’m working on lyrics, I might as well be in a vacuum-sealed container. [Laughs] I just need to be on my own. If I’m working out a vocal performance, I need to be on my own or with my engineer, Caleb. He’s been with me so long that he knows when to just be wallpaper. I’m comfortable with him, so I can sit there and write whatever.
On Rocky’s last LP [Testing], the song we did together [“Purity”] is a good example. I went to that session and he played me Lauryn Hill’s sample chopped up and the open space he wanted me at. I just started improvising that verse and putting it together, which is something I would do on my own, where you’re listening with your headphones on, listening to the beat over and over, and you’re piecing it together in your head and you blurt out the verse.
That’s kind of how it works. Maybe you’ll blurt out a few bars and you’ll loop it around and get your next bars and you’ll piece it all together, and that’ll be your verse. But sometimes the energy of having an audience, even if they don’t say shit, that adrenaline or whatever that is. Which is probably a good cocktail of performance-enhancing chemicals that make you a tiny amount more on point than when you’re totally relaxed and at ease.
After doing it for a long time, I can kind of work myself up into that place just off the excitement of the song, even if I’m on my own. Or just really being hyped off saying something I want to say, or a melody idea I want to get off. I can get hyped, but there’s something really special that I always noticed about doing it in front of a peer or, you know, for folks. It’s a little more risky; it’s like, Oh shit, what if I make a fool of myself? I gotta be on point.
What did you learn from your time writing songs for other people? Hmm, let me think about that. I’ve never been asked that. I learned how to be quicker, if you can believe it. [Laughs] I learned how to be quicker in the studio.
I remember, at the time, working at FedEx in L.A. and I was at the studio at night. There were these guys from Kansas City, these musicians I knew who lived in the Valley, and one night I ended up leaving my laptop at Brian’s [one of the musicians] apartment.
So the next day he was like, “Yeah, come pick it up. I’m going to be at Edmonds Tower in Hollywood [a well-known recording studio], but I can meet you outside and hand it off to you.” So I parked, walked over there, and he and this guy come down and I get my laptop from him. I walk away, and the guy he’s with is like, “Yo, I heard you write songs. We’re having this party upstairs, a bunch of writers and producers coming together. You should play some shit.” All my songs are on the laptop, so it’s convenient.
So I went into this mixer with a bunch of songwriters and producers, some names and faces that I knew — most I didn’t, to be honest. There was a pool table, and everybody was hooking up to this aux cable, so I played a couple songs from my laptop, and people were really impressed. I felt a weird mix of confident and nervous. After the party, the guy that was with Brian was like, “Anytime you want to record, you can work here.” which at that time was a real lifesaver for me because I was paying for studio time to record my little demo.
So I started going there every day. The first day I got there, I’m in the studio, and I’m kind of nervous ’cause the guy could pop in anytime — they were kind of farming songs for different labels and artists. So I’m in there writing, and I’m stuck on half a verse. I can’t finish this verse. I’m like, I don’t know, I can’t put it together. He walks in and says, “How many songs you got?” I’m like, “I got half a verse.” And he looks at me and says, “You can’t come in here and write half a verse.”
Oh, shit. So I play him half the verse and he’s like, “Well, that’s good, so you can stay.” So I stayed, but I started trying to really figure out how to write songs. Eventually, after a couple years of doing that, I could write at least a couple songs in a four-hour block. It was just from learning, from writing dozens and dozens of demos.
Kind of like the Brill Building in New York, where people like Carole King were staff songwriters, writing five songs a day. It must have been a great education for you. Yeah, exactly.
There was definitely a time where I had writer’s block, but that’s only happened once, knock on wood. Usually I’ll be able to write a lot of stuff; the harder part is putting things — a whole group of things I want to say — together.
Have you listened to the Dissect podcast on your albums? I know that he does that, but it’s too close. I can’t do it. I definitely only hear good things about it, but listening to something like that, you could probably imagine…it’s just awkward.
On your song “Good Guy” from Blonde, there’s a line where you sing: “Here’s to the gay bar you took me to.” We’ve always been curious: Which bar was that? We went to Boxers [in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC].
What is the quality all your close friends have in common? Being reliable.
Guggenheim bootleg hoodie by Fantasy Explosion.
What is it like for you to date? Do you use dating apps? I don’t use dating apps. I’ve been in a relationship for three years. I definitely wasn’t using dating apps before then. I don’t think I would use dating apps now. I fuck with Marc Jacobs’ philosophy on that, so I wouldn’t rule it out, but it is a little hectic being a famous person on dating apps.
I can imagine. Too many agendas. Yeah.
You’ve talked about wanting to study at the New School — is that something you still want to do? Yeah, I’d still love to go to school. I’m sure there’s something about adults romanticizing college again, but yeah. Right now I’m just taking French, and you know, honestly, that’s about as much extracurricular as I can deal with.
If you could go back in time and tell yourself something before the release of Channel Orange, what would you say? I would never time-travel back and tell myself anything at all, because I would be scared to death of the ripple effect. Especially in those moments, it’s such a delicate time. But if there was a version of that super probable scenario you just laid out, I think I would definitely tell myself to get a camera and shoot a lot more. Maybe you are that friend, or you have that friend, who is always shooting photos.
They have, like, all the photos of your childhood and any point in your life. I am super jealous of those people, because I am not that way. I’m, like, running around, and hanging out with the president — the old president, not the new president — and I am in this super cool, once-in-a-lifetime moment, and it would be good to have some photos.
You didn’t get any photos of meeting Obama? There’s photos, but I’m not talking about the class-photo photos — the ill-er version of that moment. It’s all good. Not even that. I mean, that’s a great A1 moment, but there’s so many of those and so many that were more subtle. So I would definitely tell myself to ham it up and take more photos and try to take in what’s going on around you.
Same question, but if you could go back in time, without causing a butterfly effect, and tell yourself something right before Blonde came out, what would you say? Well, I took more photos at that time. You know what, I think I played that one right. That was only a few years ago. I would maybe say gird your loins for some of the betrayals that took place. But I wouldn’t even, because I was ready for all that. It would probably be something stupid like when I went on vacation, I should have stayed out for like four more weeks. Me and a few friends all went and we should have stayed on the road for a little longer. So I don’t know what I would say, other than gird your loins and take more holidays. [Laughs]
When you deleted your Twitter a few years ago, a fan online asked you why you did it, and you replied with one word: intuition. What does that word mean to you? You don’t have anywhere near as much control as you think you have, right? At a lot of crossroads you don’t know which way is which. I think in so many instances, in my experience, intuition has been all I’ve had to go off of. And it’s got such a good success rate.
Was there ever a moment that emboldened you to trust your intuition more, or have you always been like that? Trusting it more, more — that has been the trend for me. Trying to access that place as much as possible, because a lot of the decisions in my life — the day-to-day and the creative choices, even how you assemble a song — it’s a bunch of choices in a row. Each line succeeds the line before it; each note succeeds the note before it. It’s all a lot of choices, and you have infinite possibilities, infinite ways to take a melody, a whole lot of ways to take a chord progression, infinite ways to take a turn of phrase. And as meaningless as some of those decisions are, even those are moments where I try to access that place.
And intuition especially in bigger things. Like we talked earlier about the business issues surrounding Blonde and Endless. A lot of that was everybody I knew telling me I was out of my mind, that there was no way it was going to happen. People older and wiser than me telling me,“You’re off your shit, and there’s no way.” But having the choice to say, “Nah, it’s gonna work. It’s gonna be sick.”
That’s the thing—it didn’t quite feel like when it’s not going to work. It felt like those times when it’s going to work.
Intuition isn’t easy. A lot of times people think you’re crazy or they just want to take the easy way out. Yeah, that can be under the guise of protecting, if it’s someone they care about. A lot of the people who told me I was crazy were completely well intentioned. They weren’t trying to sabotage me. It’s hard to see what somebody else sees sometimes. That’s all it boils down to. Sometimes the vision you have is only yours until you can really bring it into the world as a real thing, a real force; then people can see it and celebrate it and get onboard with it. I think that’s maybe just about trust, to give others the benefit of the doubt when they’re still in progress. Instead of hearing somebody’s idea and going, “Oh, that sounds stupid,” being like “OK, I trust you, so let me believe that maybe you see something I don’t see.” Because I know that along the path to bringing that thing into the world, you gotta go through your process. You gotta have your own discovery.
Is there anything you want our readers to know about you that maybe they don’t know already? Well, my Wikipedia says I’m 5’10”, but I’m 6’1”, so listen, we have to correct the kids on my height. [Laughs] It’s really affecting my future, blocking my shine.
Let’s set the record straight. From now on, we’ll only mention you as the 6’1” Frank Ocean.
Thanks for chatting with us. This is an A1 moment for us. Thanks guys.
This interview has been condensed for online. To read the full interview, and to see the rest of the images pre-order a copy of GAYLETTER Issue 10 here.