For a guy who co-produced a track on a Grammy-winning album when he was barely old enough to drink, Brian Malik Baptiste is rather modest about his emerging career as a recording artist.
"Even though I've put out records (of my own) before, to me, this is my start as an artist," says the versatile Austin musician, who goes by the name Malik on his new release "Spectrum (Demo)." The qualifying "demo" in that title is significant: Although Malik considers "Spectrum" to be a significant step in his solo career, he’s not quite ready to call it his debut album.
"I finally have figured out my perspective and learned enough about myself that this is what I want to present," he explains. "So this is kind of like the demo — this is what I have to offer. It’s not the debut album, but we're going to get there."
He’s already gotten to some pretty impressive places. A North Austin native and a 2014 graduate of Leander High School, Malik was attending Austin Community College a few years ago when he got a chance to work with renowned producer Tommy Brown on the track "Better Off" for pop star Ariana Grande’s 2018 album "Sweetener."
"I ended up living at (Brown’s) house for several months while Ariana was working on ‘Sweetener,’" Malik recalls. "She would come to the house and record every so often. She was recording ‘Better Off’ and wanted to go a different direction with the production. So Tommy gave me the a cappella (vocal track) and the chords that are in the beginning and said, ‘All right, let’s see what you can come up with to build off of this idea.’
"After about 30 minutes or an hour, I had a strong idea. Tommy helped me clean it up and refine it a bit. He played it for Ariana, she said she liked it, and it made the album." In February 2019, "Sweetener" took home the best pop vocal album trophy at the Grammy Awards.
All of that traces back to an early version of "Spectrum" that Malik made a few years ago. An influential hip-hop management team called Since the 80s, which has worked with Atlanta hip-hop acts JID and Earthgang among others, heard a track from it on the music discovery website Pigeons & Planes. They brought Malik out to Los Angeles.
"I ended up signing with them, and they just asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’" he said. "At that point, a lot of my stuff was super rap, super hip-hop. But I was like, ‘You know what, I want to try pop, because that's where I don't have a lot of experience, and I want to widen my knowledge and my skill set.’"
Since the 80s hooked Malik up with Brown, who subsequently used Malik not only for the cut on "Sweetener" but also the track "Make Up" from Grande’s acclaimed 2019 album "Thank U, Next." Of the latter track, Malik says it was "definitely another huge blessing to be able to work on something of that magnitude, with an artist of that talent."
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Our September Austin360 Artist of the Month was still in grade school when his dad brought home a music-oriented PlayStation video game that got him interested in recording. "Before that, I was playing guitar a little bit," he recalls, "but that's what really got me into producing and creating music the way I wanted to."
By his early teens, Malik was posting mixtapes to online music platforms. "I was putting out music ever since I knew that you could," he says. "It’s all self-taught. It was just me searching for YouTube tutorials and figuring it out. I didn't get any type of actual education until I went to ACC and studied audio engineering, which was really great."
He stopped just short of getting his certificate when he got the opportunity to work with Brown, whose extensive resume also includes work with Travis Scott, Meghan Trainor, Black Eyed Peas and others. Malik is both philosophical and practical about not quite finishing the ACC program.
"The whole point of school is that you need the knowledge to do something," he says. "The music stuff (in Los Angeles) started to take off, so I was like, all right, I'm leaving this situation, because I'm now able to finally do it full-time and make my living off of it. Instead of learning in the classroom, I was learning it in the studio with Ariana, essentially."
Though he got his first break into the industry as a producer, Malik says he envisions his future in music to be "definitely as a solo artist." Thus the late August release of "Spectrum (Demo)," which is titled as such because its nine tracks are all named after colors: "Black," "Red," "Orange," "Yellow," "Green," "Blue," "Indigo," "Violet" and "White."
The idea for it came to him one evening when he’d just left his job at a North Austin coffee shop. "I was driving home from work one day, and it was twilight, so the color spectrum was spread across the sky," he remembers. "I took a photo of it and I wrote down the word ‘Spectrum,’ and I was like, ‘All right, that's going to be something someday.’"
He’d been working on a more "narratively driven" project at the time and was looking to do something that would allow him "to express in a more free, open space, without thinking of the context of each song," he said. "So I’m like, ‘Yeah, each song is going to be a color, and it’s going to represent a feeling that I have as I'm writing and producing the music."
In promotional materials that accompanied the release of "Spectrum," Malik suggested the record was "a sort of musical take on Pixar’s ‘Inside Out,’ if it were as heavily influenced by Outkast, ‘Graduation’-era Kanye West, ‘Days Before Rodeo’-era Travis Scott, ‘Acid Rap’ Chance the Rapper, and ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ Frank Ocean, as I was."
If that sounds like a pretty broad range of touchstones, it reflects how Malik has gradually worked his way through the process of absorbing various influences until his own identity emerged.
"I feel like that's kind of the journey of an artist," he says. When you start making music, a lot of it is, ‘Man, I want to be just like, you know, fill-in-the-blank.’ And then your pool of references starts to widen, where now you're not just pulling from from one artist or two artists, but you're pulling from five, six, seven. And it eventually gets to a point where it finally becomes its own unique thing."
"Spectrum" is definitely Malik’s own thing, in a very literal sense. Though he sampled a track from Austin band Indoor Creature on his song "Violet," Malik produced, mixed and mastered "Spectrum" on his own. That was largely by design.
"I wanted to do something in its entirety myself, which is another reason why I call it a demo," he says. "It's like, ‘Hey look, this is what I can do. This is my perspective without any outside help or influences.’
"But I do know that all the art that I love, all the best albums, have been at some point a collaborative process. So I think I needed this for myself, just to hone in on my craft and the way I want to create — so that I'm comfortable, when bringing in other people, that I don't lose myself."
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