In one fluid motion the NFL player EXUM (Antone Exum) went from dropping wideouts to dropping absolute bangers. The Virginia native has always had a passion for music since an early age with his family playing a wide variety of artists in his household, from Prince and Mariah Carey to Gucci Mane and Snoop Dogg there wasn’t a single genre he hadn’t heard before. From there his inspiration took flight and he expanded his lyrical vocabulary in his youth writing a plethora of poetry that translated into his later life he begun to pursue music.

After a career ending injury back in 2016, Antone Exum decided it was time to explore who he was and what he wanted to do in a way he hadn’t done before. He’d always had a love of music but, up until this moment, he’d put all his time into his blossoming football career, this was the perfect time for him to explore his art. With memories of performing a rap for his dad and his family playing a variety of musicians during his youth, he was spurred to create art that lightened people’s lives.

Diving into the refuge of his mother’s closet, he began recording his music in secrecy so that his family and friends would only be able to hear the final product. A place of comfort, Exum began to lyrically wax and create sonic palettes that consumed his mind and before too long he was crafting sonic works that were more diverse than anything that’d come before it. Xardinal Coffee was a collection of singles that leapt into different territories whilst maintaining a core connection to Exum’s poetic delivery.

Rich textures, idiosyncratic grooves, hyper-charged hip hop, all of this perfectly describes him as an artist. He’s got that special flair that allows his eclectic palette to help his sound to shift effortlessly between genres to create something truly unique with everything he releases. From the world of football to the world of music, Exum is ready to conquer it all and I had the joy of chatting with Exum about his journey, the art behind creating music and the advice he’d like impart onto others.

Been a fan for a while, Dark Kept Secret remains in my heavy rotation to this day, but for anyone who hasn’t heard of you before how would you describe the Exum experience?

One word that’s coming to me is eclectic. I don’t really want to describe it actually, when I think about it it’s so all over the place and like me, I don’t always want to identify with form and I don’t want the art to have to either. I guess you just have to experience it.

That’s an accurate way of describing your sound to be fair because one quote I think defines you is ‘I don’t know where I’m going but I promise you it won’t be boring’ from David Bowie because of how truly undefined by boundaries your sound is. Is this undefined sound something you’ve always be pursuing?

I think it arrived because I love to experiment. I guess you could say during my time here I’ve been a pretty culturally diverse individual, so I don’t turn my head away from anything and that shows through the music at times as far as the range and different sounds you hear. I wouldn’t say it’s something that I was thinking about so intensely when I was listening to music or when I started recording music myself. It just happened and paired with me being open minded.

It’s clear you’re extremely dedicated to your craft, but you also spent a large portion of your life building up to this in the world of American Football, I believe you even walked into the changing room with your nails painted at one point. To hear it from you, what was the official turning point where you decided music was something you needed to pursue full-time?

It was somewhere between 2015 and 2017, when I first started recording music in the studio. I got hurt that year and I didn’t have much on my plate as far as my schedule. In the mornings I had therapy or rehab, but then I had all day on my own and it was such a great gig. I had to get over the fact I couldn’t play, but once I got over it it was great because I was still getting paid but got to figure out what I wanted to do.

The void that was created time wise drove me to be creative, I was taking pictures, creating collections of clothes, learned how to DJ, painting but the one thing I loved the most was creating music. I always had a love for it, it didn’t just happen because I was hurt because listening to music has always been incredibly moving and inspiring to me my entire life. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed writing in this creative purge, and free-styling with my friends on FaceTime! It became a back and forth of writing, recording, saying yo listen to this, then they’d spit their shit and we’d do this constantly.

I wrote so much, really pumping it out because I was so new to songwriting, I kept being exposed to all this new stuff and techniques that got me excited. That’s when I got serious about this. It’s funny though because when I was younger I told my dad to come in my room and I rapped a rap for him to get in the Apollo. I thought that was my in and for whatever reason, it always spoke to me. I guess I just diverted my attention else where for a long period of time before focusing on this.

It’s one of those things where you have to put all your energy into one thing before moving onto the next because you want to be the best you can possibly be at that one thing.

Yeah, I was in a way different state of mind when I was pursuing football. It was very intense, very competitive, very rank-based, where do you fit on the totem pole and all that stuff. None of that means much to be anymore. I had an awakening in that regard.

Yeah, cause I know so many musicians who take it on as a challenge because they want to out-do others. You don’t see it as that though because you just want to create the art and love when other people are creating the art as well.

I’d be interested to see a world that wasn’t competitive in the regard of anything. Arts, sports, schooling, politics, religion, because I don’t know what we would be doing that for. It’s just a mind illusion where we could be creating somethings together that’d be interesting and have a taste of home to them. I had that competitive mindset for a long time, it’s still in my brain and I try to flush it out or be in the present moment as much as I can, but I don’t care for competition anymore. Especially in the art realm.

I’ve even gone away from taking credit for my stuff, like when you said you were a fan of Dark Kept Secret, it’s been tricky for me to understand what to say to people. I’m trying to unidentify with the made up, egotistical self as much as I can because if I say ‘whoa man thank you’ I say it cos that’s my conditioned response but it also adds the connotation of taking ownership for what happened and I wanna get away with that. I just want to channel as much creative output as I can whilst I’m here, for the reason of bringing universal light and consciousness to the world, that’s all I’m trying to do.

I even had a thought today that I’m going to shorten my songs. I was studying for a long time, listening to a whole lot of music and thought it had to have so many parts or having an interesting outro. However I think that might be some type of level of an artist being unconfident in how good their original idea actually was and then thinking they need to add all these elements around it to accentuate the idea. They’ve got to add all these elements to establish that this idea is grand to them. Then you’ve got artists like xxtentacion or pink pantheress that are coming in with one or two ideas and that’s it. There’s some songs where they’re just a minute long and then they’re out of there. The shorter I make the songs the better the more I can be in the present moment with that idea before turning another idea into something big.

One more thing, I was studying Eckhart Tolle and he was talking about when you’re watching TV, people think you’re conscious and aware because your mind is turned off because you’re so caught-up in what you’re watching. There’s a facade in that though. You’re just taking on the personality, the conversation, the attitudes, the demeanours of what’s happening on the screen. He talks about trying to watch it consciously. Try following your breathing, remember why you watching the program, turning away before looking back, and it’s practicing this consciousness of presentness. He even discussed trying not to watch too many fast moving things and I think he was saying that there’s a phenomenon of ADHD humans and things like television, the phone and how we consume those things has been perpetuating those systems, or creating them in some instances.

With the songs I see this happening. You get a song, you’re listening to it, it’s moving fast, people are rapping, then it goes to a skit of people sitting around the table having coffee, then it goes trap, indie, the whole thing flips and I wonder if that is by-product of our unconsciousness and ADHD of the human species right now. With the one short song, one idea, I feel like I’ve found a middle ground. By now sticking with a singular idea for longer, the audience now has to stay with it for longer and soak it up. Be in the moment with that song.

It’s interesting that you brought up the whole ADHD thing, because with short form content currently, for example TikTok being the most popular app in the world, as a result songs are becoming short and skipping to the good bit. I believe it was Bo Burnham who made a skit about that years ago and it has become a reality.

Right! Because there’s nothing stopping me from coming up with another great idea. I don’t have to put all my great ideas into one track. I don’t have to sit for weeks or months on end figuring out the other parts of the song, I can just ride out with what I’ve got. I understand that we then have what the industry wants, what labels want to hear, what the radio wants to play, creative sustainability, paying bills, all this stuff that goes with being an artist.

I think we should dive into your own music now. You recently dropped Tickle Pink Hotel, what do you feel the story is of this album?

I don’t know man. I think there’s multiple stories on it. From song to song I’m telling a lot of stories but as a collective unit I don’t think there’s one story. The name comes from my favourite hotel that I’ve been too, it’s called Tickle Pink Inn, not hotel. It’s so beautiful, it’s in the Monterey area on the water and it’s so beautiful man. I get drowsy even thinking about it because of how relaxing and beautiful it is.

We always knew the songs would come from micro-experiments and as we started making these tracks it just had a California feel. A feel of youthfulness as well by not taking itself so seriously. We wanted to hold onto that as the process was unfolding so there was some glue holding it together, a little hub spot so everything could fit into a cohesive mould whilst being different. My previous album Xardinal Coffee, the songs were a family where they were all in different states, not talking to each other or being in the same room, just estranged members who don’t get along but know one another. With this album we wanted them to be in the same household. We’d try different things, hopping between different experiments left, right and centre but that’s how you get a Front Desk. That was recorded to some classic Wu-Tang beats on YouTube, recorded two tracks, stripped the instrumental and then did our thing.

My personal favourite track was Strawberry, love the laidback vibe and how it’s even got an air of The Gorillaz to it. What are some of your favourite musical moments from the record?

On Front Desk there’s a moment where I say something that I wanted to be more sensitive about and somebody brought it to my attention. I knew if I kept it that it would offend somebody, but it’s been brought to my attention early enough to make me aware of the situation so I could at least have a choice. I didn’t want to take the energy out because it was flowing so well so we reversed those two moments and it fits together like a glove! I love that moment.

On Over I love the moment the piano comes in, it lifts it and to the point where I thought I should put it on all the hooks. I do like that each hook was introduced differently, we had a choir in the second hook and then in the third they did something different. So as the song progresses you get something different despite it being the same, it’s an old trick but I love it.

Mehico, that’s a slider! The richness of the violin from Jake Falby I love and the idea of that was a Mexican or Spanish ballroom gathering where they’re serving champagne. I told Jake that image I had for it and he nailed it on the head.

Bloom, I remember when I recorded it. I went out to my back garden and lost my mind to the chorus! It’s in the style of an indie alternative melodic song but the pace lets you hop around. If I really wanted to insight a mosh pit to Bloom on stage I’m 100% certain I could do that. Might even try it soon.

Then we’ve got Love Me, I recorded the demo, we mixed and master it but we couldn’t match the energy to the demo, no matter what anyone did the demo was unmatched. Some of the grit or edge that was getting lost as it was being made too sterile, nobody could get it to a place that I envisioned it and I didn’t want it to lose any of the essence so we just cleaned up the demo which I did in my mom’s closet. You can probably tell because it’s more of a lo-fi song but I think it’s incredibly cool.

You brought up something there that I really want to discuss, your last record Cardinal Coffee you recorded and wrote a large portion of it in your mum’s closest because it was where you felt the most creative at the time. What’s the place you’ve felt most creative when creating this record?

I can do it wherever. There’s a song on my mixtape that’ll come out in the future, hopefully December this year and the first single I think comes out September 27th. There’s a song on there that I recorded in the car. I was parked outside my mother in law’s house actually. To be completely honest the reason I recorded in that closed off space originally was because I didn’t want anyone to hear my process, I’d much rather they hear the final version than the ups and downs of me trying to perfect the song. Especially coming from someone who’s not professionally trained as a vocalist. It started as a privacy thing and then I just became comfortable in there, it became routine and now I enjoy it. I’ve been recording a lot in L.A recently and the energy there’s been great, but if I ever need a bit more time to figure something out I know where I can do it.

What one piece of advice that you’ve been given would you like to pass onto others who are starting out in the music world right now?

Make sure that you’re intention is pure and clean or it can lead to suffering, disappointment and even some moments of being lost. Make sure you enjoy what you’re doing first, find out what that is whether it be singing, playing the guitar, performing live, writing, what is it? And make sure you find enjoyment in it. Then I’d say to be as present as you can be with it, don’t think about who you’re trying to be, who you’re trying to imitate, what people are gonna think about this, where it could get you, any egotistical thoughts or tricks of the mind. It can dilute the art of the process and you might not get out of it everything you could have. Stay present with what you’re making. Another good intent is servitude, that being a reason of why you’d want to do something. Just take the you, me and I out of it and just do what you love to do with the intention of bringing light to others.

Finally, who are you Counting In?

Y’all got an artist in the UK called Henry Greenleaf. Downloaded Put By and Headache District off of his new Kirkstone, it’s so rhythmic and heavy that I love it. Alex G has been releasing some phenomenal music, I’m so excited for his album with the singles he’s been putting out, especially as they’re do different to his discography. Someone who’s been around for so long who does that is really interesting and ridiculously inspiring. Malice K goes hard, his song Changes was one of my favourite songs for a while and the video is brilliant too. There’s these dudes out of Africa too, the tracks called Sithi Shwi with Young Stunna, Big Zulu, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small. The drums go so hard.