The Grammy Award-wining musician on the creative process and being untraditional
It’s a windy day in Brooklyn when Knox Fortune, born Kevin Rhomberg, answers his phone while casually walking through his neighborhood—a habit he picked up over quarantine. Having moved to New York in January, Knox became accustomed to—and later appreciative of—the solitude demanded of him as part of the new normal. He isn’t complaining: “I saw a lot of artists saying, ‘Well, now you guys get to experience our lives of not having a schedule.’ I felt the same sensation that people felt during quarantine all of last year.” Knox’s genre-defying album, Stock Child Wonder, was largely recorded pre-quarantine, with most of the tracks being made in his private studio space, before being shared with collaborators. He attributes the eclectic diversity of the project to the generational gap between older music producers and the younger ones, as well as a host of versatile musical influences.
“One of your jobs as an artist is to surprise your audience and to give them something they didn’t know they liked. It’s a disservice to make an album with the same 11 songs.”
It’s considerably easier to wallow in a bedroom now than ever before but Knox still considers it important, and even imperative, to do everything in his power to expand on his creativity so as to not give into despair. “People kept on telling me it’s cool that, despite everything, despite all the dread, we’re still going out and making some cool, positive thing,” he says. “It’s good to put something out and [hear] people say, ‘This is exactly what I was missing.’” Surprising himself with his adaptability to solitude and his willingness to go on three-hour walks to “maintain sanity,” Knox is a prime example of an artist in his rawest form.
Document spoke with Knox, over the phone, about existential dread, the social maladies behind success, and admiring fiction over reality.
Brendan South: Where did the album name, Stock Child Wonder come from?
Knox Fortune: It came from a song I wrote in 2012. It was written in a different context. As I got older, it stuck with me as a tongue-in-cheek way to mean the ‘next big thing’ in a generic form. On a monthly basis we get hit with the same cookie cutter pop personality, and someone’s like, ‘oh, you’re gonna love this,’ and it’s force fed. No one likes it. It’s just a funny thing to me: the idea of the “next big thing,’ but I’m not saying that I’m that. It was also just an alternate personality I could take on which helped with songwriting. When you do solo albums, it’s very emotionally draining. You have to pull so much from yourself, and if the project fails it’s on you. If you succeed, it’s on you. Creating the character of Stock Child Wonder helped me create, while not divulging too much on some things I’m not too comfortable talking about.
Brendan: How were you taking care of yourself over quarantine?
Knox Fortune: I’ve always liked cooking, so I’ve been cooking for myself. I used to work restaurant jobs before I did music, so I always enjoyed it. I was also getting my Yoga with Adriene on; I literally saw her subscribers boom over quarantine. I was really rocking with it. Also, I was skating really hard once we could go outside. I was eating healthy; I’ve been vegetarian since 2011, and sometimes it’s vegan leaning. Touring for years has a huge effect on your body, so I’m kinda glad I’m not on tour right now. It was good to recognize how insane it is to constantly be on tour. Your body starts telling you ‘you can’t do this anymore.’
“Hotnewhiphop posted one of the songs from my album and people were like ‘I fucking hate this,’ [laughs] and I was like alright. But then they’d be like ‘track 7’s kinda good.’ It’s cool considering their fan base wouldn’t be my first audience, but they still found something they liked.”
Brendan: Ugh, hangovers last all day now.
Knox Fortune: Hangovers last two days now! I hate it. Two whole days of being immobile.
Brendan: Each song on your album sounds different. I remember Billie Eilish once said that she wanted to make an album that appealed to all different types of listeners—if you put lovers of different genres in one room, there would be something for everyone. What made you want to make a non-cohesive album over one with a consistent sound?
Knox Fortune: I think that’s just always been my jam. I’ve always liked albums where every song sounds different. One of your jobs as an artist is to surprise your audience and to give them something that they didn’t know they liked. It’s a disservice to make an album with the same 11 songs. We—Billie and I—are just a different generation that grew up with different things; we enjoy diversity in music. We don’t just like AC/DC or something. Looking back on all my favorite albums, they’re all diverse. Going back to Rubber Soul by The Beatles, or any Beach Boys; people don’t seem to do different instrumentation anymore. It’s a bummer. Hotnewhiphop posted one of the songs from my album and people were like ‘I fucking hate this,’ [laughs] and I was like alright. But then they’d be like ‘track 7’s kinda good.’ It’s cool considering their fan base wouldn’t be my first audience, but they still found something they liked.
Brendan: Who would you say your first audience is?
Knox Fortune: People who like me [laughs]. I don’t know. From my childhood until now I’ve made friends with a varying type of people. People can’t be so defined so easily anymore. That’s just our generation. We grew up in a more diverse type of environment, so it’s hard to pin down a demographic now.
Brendan: So, do you like AC/DC?
Knox Fortune: [laughs] Can I tell a story about that? We were on tour around Brighton, somewhere in rural England. The town was so small that there was one taxi, and all he would do is pick people up from the station and drop them off in the city. He picked us up, asked what we were doing, and I told him we had a concert. He asked for some of my music, so I told him where to look. Soon after, we had the same taxi driver, and he said ‘Yeah I actually didn’t like it!’ [laughs]. I asked him what he listens to, and he responded with AC/DC. So, lesson being, if your favorite artist is AC/DC, you probably won’t like my music [laughs]. I can find a way to rock with anything though. I like some AC/DC for sure.
Brendan: I wanted to ask you about your song “Gemini.” The origin of dance music revolved around throwing parties and socializing. Now we’re in a pandemic. What do you think is driving producers to continue making dance music, and people to keep consuming dance music, when the 2020 dance music scene is far removed from its origins?
Knox Fortune: I made “Gemini” pre-pandemic. I don’t think I would’ve changed it having had the pandemic. I still have an urge to dance and go to clubs, and I still want to have that feeling. For me, personally, the way to do it is just to make it at my studio in my apartment. I think that’s probably why a lot of other people are still making dance music. I think they embrace it and find that dance music is super needed right now. I was scared during the pandemic because artists were making sad, nihilistic, insular music and I was like ‘Jesus Christ, someone needs to drop a banger’. It’s good that positive music is coming out now. I think it’s a glimmer of hope in a dark time.
Brendan: Over quarantine, TikTok provided solace for a lot of people. One of the one’s I saw was about daily routine, and it’d go something like: 9AM to 12PM, existential dread. 12:30PM to 1PM, dance party in my bedroom, rinse and repeat.
Knox Fortune: Yeah, everybody was—and partially still is—living with that collective dread. I think the “Gemini” video and the project as a whole was really good for people. I made the video for it with all of my friends at Weird Life Films. People kept on telling me that it’s cool that despite everything, despite all the dread, we’re still going out and making some cool, positive stuff. It’s good to put something out and people say ‘this is exactly what I was missing,’ you know?
Brendan: What’s the most unconventional thing about your creative process?
Knox Fortune: Probably that I start everything alone. It’s not a rule that I have to, but it just always so happens that all the songs that end up on the project I start alone, then I bring it to other people to add their part. Also, I do everything: I do my merch, I do the videos with my friends, I do the cover art. I’m active in every step, and I don’t know many artists that are. I’m also not on a label. And you can totally tell it was an independent album. I don’t think I could’ve taken as many risks if I had someone higher up telling me what I could and couldn’t do.
Brendan: Has anything surprised you about yourself over 2020?
Knox Fortune: I don’t mind being alone. I’ve always lived with seven other people in a big house, and when I moved to New York, especially at the beginning of quarantine, it was just me and my girlfriend. I couldn’t make friends because there was a pandemic, so I learned how to enjoy spending time by myself. Even when it’s just two of you, you still learn how to value solitude, and you learn things, like taking a three hour walk to remain sane.
Brendan: In your Genius interview, you mentioned writing songs about people, because it helps you flesh out a story more cohesively. Lots of artists feel comfort drawing from imagination and creating stories that never happened, almost like actors do in films. In your day-to-day life, do you find yourself emboldened by your experiences, or about things that haven’t happened?
Knox Fortune: I would say things that never happened. It’s all half truths I guess. The song “Sincerity” has a long story about a girl sneaking out and crashing her car, which is something I never experienced [laughs]. The second verse was about the cops coming over, but it’s more personal and weaving it in. It’s creative nonfiction so to speak. The lines are half blurred. I definitely look to fictional things versus to my reality. It’s easier to write that way. Sometimes, yes, it’s better to say something incredibly personal. But sometimes- many times- you don’t need it to be specifically about yourself, and I think that’s how you reach a larger number of people. People can take whatever they want from the story I’m telling. That’s where the fiction part comes out. What’s fiction to me, isn’t for someone else.
Brendan: What’s something that you’ve yet to figure out, either about yourself or in your artistic expression?
Knox Fortune: I’m not a traditionally trained musician so to speak, so it’s hard for me to tell you at what point a song gets good, without me being there the whole time just working it. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what people are reacting to. I know producers who can be like ‘oh I know exactly what this part needs, this is going to be where people’s ears turn.’ I’ve been finding that out.
Brendan: Martin Scorcese said that in his productions there always comes a point in the middle of filming where he has all of his doubts. ‘No one’s going to like this, people are going to think I’m a sellout, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Do you feel that uncertainty is a very common and understated compartment of the creative process?
Knox Fortune: Oh absolutely, and I had that same sensation working on this. And I’m not in a band: it’s me. Of course there are a lot of people who play with me and do sessions, but at the end of the day there’s nobody else to level with me and say ‘this isn’t very good,’ you know? It’s a lot of doubting it until you’re like ‘it has to come out, and here goes nothing.’ That Scorcese quote is a big inspiration. I must’ve reworked the lyrics for “Compromise” like 3000 times. Just changing words and pronouns and being like ‘does this even make sense?’ Then changing some verbs, the word order, and going down a rabbit hole all while thinking nothing makes sense.
Brendan: What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
Knox Fortune: Great question. I’m curious. I like to meet people. I like to experiment, I like to find out new things about myself, and in the process of getting older I never felt it dwindling, especially since I moved to New York. I feel more inclined to have deep thoughts. I’m just trying to learn more. It keeps me occupied. It’s interesting: I saw a lot of artists saying “Well, now you guys get to experience our lives of not having a schedule.” I thought it was rough, but there was a lot of truth in it. I felt the same sensation that people felt during quarantine all of last year. Lots of time alone being introspective, and then moving out here was another year of that.
Brendan: Do you know Kenny Beats? He was asked how he became a successful musician, and his response was along the lines of, “you have to spend so much time in front of your computer, alone, making music, to the point that it’s the only thing you can talk about, to the point that you sound weird to all of your friends, and you lose to ability to communicate like a regular human being.”
Knox Fortune: And that’s the unfortunate truth. Today I was gonna buy a guitar so I could be more attuned with the music without a computer. But making music in general rewires your brain, and makes you less socially adept. My friends will be like ‘do you ever wanna talk about something other than music?’ [laughs]. I definitely think that’s true, increasingly with everyone being in the crib. I usually wake up and make a nice breakfast, and instantly I’m in the studio. You gotta literally train yourself to do that. It really requires that. People gave me shit for taking three years to make this album. You should give people time to make things. You should wait for others.
Brendan: Frank Ocean wouldn’t have made Blonde if he didn’t take four years to make it.
Knox Fortune: Exactly! And it’s a timeless record. I think in the past decade it’s one of the only ones, and it took incredibly long to make. That’s the benefit of taking your time to make something substantive, but where we’re at now, it’s preferred to make a hit pop song that has zero longevity and zero emotional impact, that no one thinks about in a few years. Imagine how different we would be if everything that came out impacted us as profoundly as Blonde did.
Brendan: I think that’s a bit of a necessary evil though, you know?
Knox Fortune: It certainly is. I have so much to say about this, ugh. I don’t even know what your original question was. I just kept talking.