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Human Bloom: The Sonic Self-Expression of Jackson Shepard and Imani Rousselle

Written by on November 26, 2022

Chicago-based music collective Human Bloom is an ever changing combination of sounds and stories, but at its core it’s the self-expressive sonic project of Jackson Shepard and Imani Rousselle.

Jackson Shepard and Imani Rousselle found an unexpected partnership during their days at Columbia College Chicago, when Rouselle substituted for Human Bloom’s original vocalist. It was at this moment Shepard knew he had to work with her.

The collective’s newest single “One by One,” featured on Vocalo’s “In Rotation” playlist, has a digitally emulated analog sound, layered over a chill hip-hop beat and haunting synth lines. The instrumentals remain low-intensity and steady throughout the track, giving center-stage to Rousselle’s smooth, relaxed vocals.

Photo courtesy Human Bloom.

As showcased in “One by One,” the collective’s sound is nothing short of vast. Pulling from a wide array of influences including Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus and Radiohead, Human Bloom delivers an ever-changing sound rooted in soul and jazz. However, the group strays away from boxing themselves into a label.

“People ask me all the time what genre Human Bloom is,” Shepard remarked. “What am I supposed to say to that, rock-jazz-soul-experimental-chill-ambient-hip-hop? How stupid.”

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Human Bloom embraces this sense of complexity in their sound – it reflects what it means to be human and it transcends into every aspect of their writing process. The collective creates music reflective to the nuanced experience of living in this world.

“My hope is that people can allow themselves to be multidimensional beings,” Rousselle said. “My hope is that people can hear that, consciously and unconsciously, and be encouraged to be more fully themselves, and be more accepting of themselves and others as they are.

We heard from Jackson Shepard and Imani Rousselle of Human Bloom about their musical backgrounds, their thoughts on using genre as a label, and the message they hope listeners will take away from their music.

Jackson and Imani — how did you two meet? What made you decide to pursue music together as a collective?

Jackson Shepard: We met at Columbia College Chicago. At the time, I had someone else singing for Human Bloom, but they got sick a few days before a show. They recommended Imani to fill in, and I was instantly blown away by her voice, her style, and her presence. We did that one show together, and it just made sense to keep the collaboration going. It felt like the sound that I had been searching for. 

Imani Rousselle: I’m not sure whose memory is worse between Jackson and I, but I think we met through a mutual friend Rami Ackerman at Columbia College Chicago. Rami and I went to high school together in Dallas. One day, he lost his voice — maybe two days before a Human Bloom show, at which time he was the main vocalist, so he introduced me to Jackson and suggested I sing the show. I remember Jackson was actually pretty apprehensive about having a female vocalist sing his music, and he definitely let me know it. But he was pretty much out of options, since at the time he couldn’t have imagined he would sing the whole show himself. Anyway, sometime after that a switch went off in his brain and he thought it was pretty cool to have me sing his music, and eventually he asked me to start writing with him, so here I am.

Photo courtesy Human Bloom.

What are your musical backgrounds?

IR: I grew up singing in the choir at my childhood church from the age of 3, and my mother put me in a Montessori elementary and middle school where music class was required. So I’ve always been a part of and loved music! Starting in middle school, I joined school choir and I also joined a city choir and started learning Italian arias. I went to Booker T. Washington HSPVA [High School for the Performing and Visual Arts] in Dallas, and when I was there I literally did everything. I had opera class, choir, of course, pop ensemble, R&B ensemble — led by the legend Roger Boykin — songwriting club… and this was also where a teacher of mine, Kent Ellington, asked me to start singing in his jazz ensemble, and that really took off for me. So yeah, you have all the institutional music stuff — but then, of course, mom blasting music early Saturday mornings to tell us to wake up and start cleaning the house, her cranking the stereo and swerving the car to the beat when my brother and I got straight A’s on a report card, Dad cruising in his yellow Jag, windows down blasting Mario, Maxwell, John Legend (pre-“Green Light”), or whatever self-made tapes he got from the men outside the barber shop. Music was always around. 

JS: My parents showed me a lot of great music. I remember listening to Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd and Beatles albums all the way through as a kid, and just developing an appreciation for deep listening. I was messing around on piano and drums from an early age, but when I started guitar at the age of 9, I started to get more serious about music. I studied with a few different teachers on piano and guitar, and started writing and recording music pretty obsessively around the age of 12. From there, I played in a few different bands, one of which was a Beatles tribute band, where I learned a lot about performing on different instruments and singing.

In high school, I studied at the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra Jazz program, and started to get more into improvisation. At this time, I got into BadBadNotGood, and they were covering groups like A Tribe Called Quest. I fell in love with their sound. The more I learned about sampling and the evolution of jazz into hip-hop, I was heavily inspired to create music that combines multiple worlds. Music that combines live instrumentation with electronics to create something entirely new. It was also around this time that I started Human Bloom, and then kept the project going at Columbia College Chicago, where I continued to learn new concepts and meet incredible musicians.

It’s evident you’re a power duo when it comes to writing music. Do you play all the instrumentals on your records?

JS: On some songs, It’s just Imani and I playing and singing everything. Sometimes we’ll feature other musicians around the city or use musicians from our core live band. That band usually includes Leonard Maddox on Drums, Brendan Doshi on keys, Joshua Griffin on bass, and John Cunningham on sax. Going forward, I would like to explore sampling more.

IR: So Jackson plays a lot of instruments, and usually a lot of the synth and percussion stuff is him playing, but not everything. We are lucky to know some of the most talented musicians in Chicago, and we play live shows and record often with Josh Griffin on bass, Leonard Maddox on drums and Brendan Doshi on piano. When we can get them, we love having John Cunningham on sax and Leonard Maddox on pretty much whatever he feels like playing. There have been some other features and collaborations, most recently Club Crib Ent. on the “One by One” single, but those five people are the folks!

As artists who explore a variety of sounds and styles, what are your thoughts on “genre”? Do you like to label your music?

IR: I think the concept of genre grows less relevant everyday. People ask me all the time what genre Human Bloom is… what am I supposed to say to that, rock-jazz-soul-experimental-chill-ambient-hip-hop? How stupid. Now, as much as I dislike labels, I do see the benefit in them as well, especially when it comes to marketing. We haven’t exactly mastered marketing ourselves, definitely in part because it is so hard to put our entire sound in the box of a genre, but I get it. Pop acts get on the pop charts, tour with other pop acts, yada yada. It’s marginally easier to label one of our songs at a time but even then, it’s pretty muddy.

Photo courtesy Human Bloom.

JS: There are so many different styles, eras and cultures of music that I love. I never want to feel like we have to stay in one genre. I don’t like to label it too much, but I feel like it always takes some form of soul music. I love the idea of combining experimental sounds, production, grooves, etc., with melodies, lyrics, harmony, rhythms that come from an internal place of soul and vulnerability.

In your bio you mentioned that your song “Capillary” has been internationally covered by a wide range of musicians. How did it spread so far? Do you have a favorite cover you’ve seen so far? 

IR: “Capillary” really blew up without us having much say where it went, which was really cool! People really just shared the song with their friends and it just caught the wind. A huge boost also came from the algorithmic playlists it got put on — next thing we know, people in more than 125 countries are listening to it. Wild. I personally love the dance videos we’ve gotten, I love to scroll through YouTube watching people dance to anything, so seeing people dance to our music is always super cool to me.

JS: I’m not sure! I think it’s a very musician-friendly song. There are moments for each band member to shine, especially the vocalist. I think it’s a relatable topic, too. This cover [by Miss Milo] goes hard.

When we heard your song “One by One,” we noticed the sound and character of the tape on your music. Can you tell us a little bit about your production process? Do you actually record analog?

IR: “One by One” was recorded digitally and run through a tape-something-or-other… I defer to Jackson on this one. He sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and adds effects to the music then shows me the next day. I’m pretty sure what you’re hearing is the product of one of those nights.

JS: I mainly produce everything in Logic or Ableton, and just use different plugins like the Sketch Cassette II to get that sound. But I just started working with a producer/engineer who has the ability to record with analog gear directly to tape, and that shit sounds incredible!

Your newest single, “One by One,” was featured on Vocalo’s “In Rotation” playlist for November. Can you tell us the story behind that track?

IR: I actually hopped on the track after Jackson and Club Crib made the foundation of it. It was one of eight-ish songs that I recorded in Jackson’s family home, sometime nearafter the height of the pandemic. Most of those songs were started already, so I took a few days to go visit Jackson and we knocked them all out! It was kind of a magical span of time; it was snowing like crazy, we ran on a frozen lake, we were visited by a family of 16 deer and the music just flowed effortlessly.

JS: This song had a very interesting process. I recorded the strings, guitar and some other orchestral elements first. I brought the track to Club Crib, a group that I collaborate with frequently. Nate McGhee added the perfect drum loop, and Erik Hunter added that ominous bass line. I came up with the main vocal melody after all of those elements were added. At the time, I was going through a difficult breakup and all of the words to the first half of the song came to me really naturally.  I was thinking about how each person you meet in life helps you realize who you are, what you want and what you need. “One by One, we become who we’re supposed to be.” Imani wrote the second half of the song, starting at, “Time has moved but I’m still wondering…” Exploring different thoughts about doubting where you stand with someone, and fear of the unknown.

The cover art for this track is stunning. Who created it and is there any importance or story behind the art?

JS: Imani created it! This was from a really fun photo shoot we did in Central Park, NYC! I love any kind of surreal, psychedelic art with a little bit of realism thrown in there. Kind of similar to our music style.

IR: Thank you so much! I did the edit myself! We had a shoot with the amazing Ebar in NYC. He’s so funny and warm, truly a joy to be shot by. We knew that one of the pictures he shot was going to be the cover art, but then I had the idea to make it warped similar to the “Capillary” cover. I made something like 10 different edits and sent them over to Jackson, and we ultimately agreed on this one. This was a big deal to me, because Jackson and I have notoriously different ideas on just about everything which leads to a lot of standoffs, but this was a pretty smooth decision so I did a little mental happy dance.

Photo courtesy Human Bloom.

What do you hope that people will take away from listening to Human Bloom?

IR: My hope is that people can allow themselves to be multidimensional beings. I think Human Bloom is a crazy combination of a lot of different things, and sometimes people would rather exist in only the “most presentable” versions of themselves. This sounds really heady… but I really believe everything is related. Lyrically and musically, we’re pouring a lot of ourselves into this music, and it isn’t always the parts of ourselves we’re proud of that make it to the paper. So yeah, my hope is that people can hear that, consciously and unconsciously, and be encouraged to be more fully themselves, and be more accepting of themselves and others as they are.

JS: I hope that there’s something for everyone. Some songs are very experimental and more about exploration. Some songs are about relationships and things that anyone can relate to. Some songs are just intended to make people move. I hope that our music can be meditative, healing, or whatever people need it to be.

Anything exciting coming up that listeners should know about?

JS: We’re planning on releasing an album early next year!

IR: Oh boy… we are sitting on an emotional rollercoaster of music. Early next year is when we’ll put more out, they’ll have to follow us to make sure they know when to expect the goods!

Follow Human Bloom on their Instagram and check out their music on their Bandcamp and on Spotify below.

Introduction and interview by Makenzie Creden

Editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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