IN FEBRUARY 2012, Daniel Caesar took the stage for his first performance in Toronto at the IXXI showcase, “Vanity,” at Revival Bar. Bathed in purple light and dressed in a grey suit and a white button-down shirt, the 19-year-old sang “Scream,” the James Blake cover that appeared on his three-song EP, Birds of Paradise. Almost immediately, the cheering and hollering from the crowd stopped; the room was so quiet you could’ve heard a pin drop. “That was really sick,” Daniel recalls. “When I started singing, I noticed people shut up and listen.”
That’s how it’s always been for Daniel: people can’t help but listen when he sings. When he was in his mid-teens, he sang the hymn “Give Me Jesus,” at his school while they celebrated the seventh-day Sabbath. Daniel, who agreed to perform partly to impress a girl, says it was the first song he’d really sang for anyone. “I think a couple of people cried,” he says, adding that was when he realized his voice “moves people” and that he wanted to pursue a career in music. “I liked the feeling it gave me.”
Daniel, born Ashton Simmonds, grew up in Oshawa, a small suburb in Ontario, Canada. He was raised in a Seventh-day Adventist household by two religious parents-his dad, Norwill Simmonds, was an accomplished gospel singer, who he often sang with at church. For most of his teenage years, Daniel worked tirelessly to pursue a career in music-he recalls shamelessly asking Sean Leon, a member of Toronto music collective IXXI and now one of his mentors, how much it’d cost to get a feature from him for one of his songs. “I was one of those kids,” he says. But after receiving little support from his parents, he moved out after graduating from high school. He slept on friends’ couches and was homeless at times before finally moving into his own apartment in downtown Toronto this past January.
“I had to move out to the city to keep doing what I wanted to do without any sort of hiccups,” Daniel explains. “Yeah, I was out there, homeless, but I could record whenever I wanted. If I didn’t do what I had done, every step to this point, this this wouldn’t be where it is.”
Today, his audience is much bigger than just his high school or that bar in Toronto. This past September, he released his second EP, Praise Break, a seven-song compilation that documents his experiences in love and religion. The record, produced by Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett, the Grammy-nominated producers behind Drake’s “Pound Cake,” has accumulated over 181,000 hits since it debuted on Billboard, who said Daniel was a “new artist that’s bound to break out.” Daniel says he’s “proud of what [he’s] done and where [he] is now,” and that, with help from Burnett and Evans, he’s found his sound. But, he adds, “I can always do better. I’m just trying to win.”
How did you get the name Daniel Caesar?
I don’t find him that interesting anymore, but Julius Caesar was probably one of my favourite characters in history at one point. I really started getting into movies and cinema in high school. Even to this day, Ocean’s Eleven is one of my favorite movies. I just find it really interesting. I want to be like George Clooney when I’m old. Danny Ocean, yeah I really fuck with that. Yeah that’s where it came from.
When did you start using that name? I ask that because I came across a video of what looked like you (though you looked younger and had shorter hair) singing at a coffee shop.
Oh, shit, you found that. Damn. I did a cover of “Unaware” by Alan Stone at that coffee shop.
I’ve been going by Daniel Caesar for a while, from back in high school. But I didn’t really have that many records out. My first real official record release as Daniel Caesar was a collaboration with my good friend, my brother Sean Leon. Back in Grade 11 was when I really started putting shit out in hopes that things would pick up and I could do music forever.
At one point it was Caesar Soprano. But I didn’t like that, so I just changed it.
What’s the story behind the name Caesar Soprano?
I just started watching Sopranos, and I’m really into Mob movies, like Good Fellas and Untouchables, and shit like that. But it kind of sounded like a goon name, and I’m not even a little bit of a goon at all. So I had to change it.
Does anyone still call you by your real name?
Oh yeah, all my good friends, my homes. If I meet someone and instantly I can sense I want to keep them around and be friends with them then I’ll introduce myself as Ashton.
What is it about Gospel that resonates with you, besides the fact that you grew up around that kind of music?
The thing about Gospel music is that it’s vocals but there’s this feeling that awesome music does. It’s just not music you’ll put on your headphones and chill out and do shit during the day. It’s kind of when you want to feel something.
Let’s go back to Birds of Paradise. Why did you decide to do original songs and a cover?
That was kind of a spur of the moment thing. Birds of Paradise was originally going to be 10 songs. We made an album but we decided to scrap it because we decided it was good but not good enough, I could do better. We just kept those songs and put them out; those were the best three that we thought was okay to put out to get the ball rolling and see how people would receive it. It definitely did far better than I pictured it to go. It was almost scary, the reach it got.
“I get nervous breakdowns just because I’m passionate about it; I want to be good.”
You mentioned making it 10. Were any of those songs “Castle Frank” or “Enough About Women”?
Oh man, you found those? That’s crazy. I think “Enough about Women” was supposed to be on it. But those are all songs I made before I knew Jordan. That’s when me, Jordan and Burnett started discussing making music together. Those were references I gave them to give them a vibe. That, “Lost in the World” and a couple others.
Do you think you’ll ever release those?
There’s a couple that Jordan really wants me to work on again. It couldn’t hurt. There were a couple that I really liked that just weren’t up to snuff yet that could potentially be very good songs. I wouldn’t be surprised. But right now, I’m in album mode, pushing this project. I’m writing right now.
Did “Castle Frank” and “Enough About Women” sound like that could be a part of Birds of Paradise or Praise Break?
Maybe with a bit of polishing. Those are just me in my pure state. I’ve now found my sound and it’s kind of polished, so there are a lot of changes I’d make to those songs. But content wise and vibe wise, they could fit.
What’s the difference between the music you’re making now and pre-Bird of Paradise and pre-Praise Break?
As far as subject matter goes, I’m a lot more honest. I don’t write about anything that I’m not living or that doesn’t affect me that I don’t feel.
Praise Break was supposed to be called “Pseudo.” At what point did the music shift enough for you to want to rename it?
It was one of those things where I didn’t realize it happened until after .I was at Jordan’s, and I was on Facebook and I saw this video of some kid playing the organ.
It was just a video of a praise break-this kid was just going on the organ and everyone was like “Amen” and going crazy. I was like “Ha, this is kind of funny. I should name the next album “Praise Break.” “And then I tweeted it and Jordan was like, “That’s kind of a sick idea you should delete that tweet.” I deleted it and we sort of reevaluated where the music, the whole vision, was at. We realized it made the most sense because while that whole Pseudo, non-personal moments, is still a major factor on the album, praise break, my whole religious walk is an even bigger influence on the album. We just felt like that was the best move to make.
“As far as subject matter goes, I’m a lot more honest. I don’t write about anything that I’m not living or that doesn’t affect me that I don’t feel.”
I read that you and Jordan listened to Praise Break and just drove around. What do you remember from that night?
We call those the whip tests. That night, I got off work very late. I used to wash dishes in this fancy restaurant on King Street.
It was a pretty stressful night at work, bosses were going crazy and I work with this other guy in the dish pit and he’s the biggest asshole of all time. That was one of those freak out nights where I was thinking about how I used to live at home with my parents and I didn’t have to pay rent.
Anyway, I was walking home at four in the morning because I finish so late. This was a long walk, probably an hour and a half walk, because I didn’t have any money for the bus. Jordan was out in his fancy car driving to get Tim Horton’s and he saw me. He stopped and walk like, “Yo, I just did a rough mix of the whole project. Let’s take it in.” We drove around and it was insane. It was a special moment because I just realized what we had been able to accomplish. Where I had come from, I was just thinking about my story and it was incredible. That was a wild night.
How did it feel when you found out Praise Break hit 100,000 plays in a few weeks?
That was crazy. It kind of made me realize what we’ve accomplished thus far. It’s cool to think about because it’s just us four guys-me, Jordan, Matthew, and Anthony Osei-doing this all ourselves, trying to get the word out and push the music. I feel like I have the best team of all time. I love my team.
We recorded that whole project in Jordan’s living room, I was living on his couch. So crazy to think about sometimes. It still baffles me sometimes and to think it could only go up from here.
What advice did Matthew and Jordan give you that’s helped you grow as an artist?
Helping me remind myself that I’m good. That sounds very narcissistic but it’s very important. I have breakdowns all the time, like “Man the music is cool but it’s not good enough.” I don’t have any other options. I left home and didn’t go to post secondary school. I freak out all the time and they’re always there to calm me and let me know that as long as I do this for me and not for anyone else, I don’t try and cater to the masses and cater to what I think people eat up and I just do me, then everything will work. They just show me to be me.
Where do you think your work fits in the music scene in Toronto?
I think one thing about the Toronto scene is that Drake is literally the first very important person to come out of Toronto. I don’t make hip-hop music, I definitely have hip-hop influences, but I don’t make hip-hop music. There are so many different types of people in Toronto, but no one’s really done it like Drake. I feel like there’s a lot of room. I feel like I have my own lane, and that’s all I want. I feel like I’ve been put in the position to show that Toronto isn’t just wavy rappers in strip clubs doing cool shit.
Was there ever a point where you doubted if you’d be making music right now?
All the time. I get nervous breakdowns just because I’m passionate about it; I want to be good.