Isaac Dunbar is Finding Balance in His Rise to Popstardom
VMAN sits down exclusively with the 18-year-old hitmaker to discuss his self-taught musical expertise, sources of inspiration and a newfound life motto
Being a teenager is already hard enough (the angst, high school) but couple it with pop stardom (millions of streaming listeners, thousands of DMs) and it gets that much more tricky to navigate. But somehow, singer-songwriter Isaac Dunbar is taking it in stride. Hitting it big during a global pandemic with TikTok-trending tracks like synth-driven “Onion Boy” and dangerously catchy “Fan Behavior,” Dunbar witnessed his socials skyrocketing but saw no noticeable change offline.“There’s a lack of human quality to it,” he says of the surreal uptick in attention. “I would say I felt detached.” But that has changed. Now, Dunbar is reconnecting—to his fans, his music, and his roots. Of Liberian and Italian descent, the emerging star felt out of touch with his blackness and quieted in his queerness in his Cape Cod hometown. “I never had room to be who I truly was. It honestly felt like a facade,” Dunbar confesses. “There was a part of me that I felt was missing.” With a few viral singles under his belt, the 18-year-old is now embracing all sides of himself he once kept hidden. His newfound self-love has been translating musically, too. Exhibit A: recent single, “Celebrate,” the latest addition to his growing list of ass-shaking, high-energy pop hits.
An expert autodidact, Dunbar’s impressive knowledge of music theory and diverse tonal range have set the young vocalist apart from cookie-cutter pop. Dunbar’s rise has been in the works for nearly a decade when the then nine-year-old Lady Gaga stan taught himself how to produce music by following YouTube tutorials aiming to create beats like Artpop producer, Madeon. Since then, he has branched out from self-professed “complextro” electronic music into punk rock and alternative with equal parts ease and creative fluidity. “A lot of people get frustrated with me because they want me to stick to one thing, but I can’t!” he says with a laugh. “The thing that I see that links all of these different types of songs together is my voice. And I think that’s all that matters.”
VMAN: Hey Isaac! Congratulations on the new release of “Celebrate”, it’s such a feel good summer anthem. I understand you’re spending your summer in New York—how have you been adjusting?!
ISAAC DUNBAR: For the first couple of weeks, I was like a fish out of water. Learning the subway—I would always miss my stops. And I would ride my Citibike and I would get honked at because I didn’t know what to do in certain traffic situations. (laughs) But I’m chilling now! I love it. Never a dull moment here.
VMAN: That’s amazing. And speaking of the city: I understand you got interested in music all because of one famous New Yorker: Miss Lady Gaga. How did that all come about?
ID: Totally, it all started when I was nine years old. Lady Gaga, who is still my number one inspiration, released her album Artpop in 2013. Alongside that, she put out a tweet which stated some of the producers that she was working with and one of them was a French producer named Madeon. For some reason, his name very much stood out to me. I did a ton of research on his music and I fell in love with electronic dance music. I illegally downloaded this program called FL Studio at my local Barnes and Noble because that’s what Madeon used and I taught myself through YouTube tutorials—how to produce music and song structure and chords and synthesis and a little bit of subconscious music theory, I think, was embedded in me, as well.
VMAN: Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Did you grow up in a musical home? Or did you just find a love for music on your own?
ID: Oh, yes, my father would always play Al Green to me in the car. When I couldn’t fall asleep as a child, he would just buckle me up in my little car seat and he would just play Al Green and I would knock out. My whole family’s very musical, especially on my father’s side. He’s from West Africa. I grew up listening to a lot of reggae and Afrobeat. And on my mother’s side, she would play me Stevie Nicks.
VMAN: That’s so sweet. I understand your Liberian and Italian descent. How do you feel those cultures have influenced you as an artist?
ID: Actually, for a long time, I was out of touch with my blackness and I didn’t have that much of an appreciation. My parents were divorced so I grew up with my mother primarily. She did her best, of course, but there was a part of me that I felt was missing. It actually wasn’t until recently where I’ve been divulging and learning more about my blackness and growing an appreciation for who I am and loving myself. It’s definitely translating into the music that I’m making right now. I would say, for example, using my falsetto in some new music that I’m creating, in a way that I’ve never used it before and activating different parts of my voice that you may associate with “blackness”—just getting in touch with my black side definitely has made a mark on my music right now.
VMAN: Yeah, definitely. So that’s more of a recent development in your musical journey.
ID: 100%, and especially moving to New York, being surrounded by black people. I mean, I grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is all white people, preppy. Very much Republican, very much lacrosse. I never had room to be who I truly was and I didn’t even know who I truly was. It felt honestly like a facade.
VMAN: Definitely. So you’ve had a very major past year—graduating high school during a pandemic, turning 18, releasing your EP and just majorly blowing up music-wise. So what is it like to rise to fame during this past year when the world is kind of shut down?
ID: To be quite honest with you, I feel detached from a lot of it in a certain aspect because everything is just on a cell phone. You see numbers on the screen and there’s a lack of human qualities to it, if you know what I mean? A lack of organicness. But truly, it wasn’t until recently where I’ve begun to feel that love again because I just did a show—a little pop up show in Washington Square Park. I drew in quite a crowd and it was absolutely incredible and being able to see the numbers on the screen in front of my face. It changed everything. So at the time, I would say I felt detached. But that has changed. I feel very attached now.
VMAN: Another big life change this year, which we kind of touched on, but you moved to the city this year and I wanted to touch on it because I feel like every artist comes here because they’re inspired by the city but ultimately, the city incorporates itself into the art. What has your experience been like? Do you feel that the city has influenced your music or your aesthetic?
ID: Oh my goodness, yeah! Every single day, I walk outside and I see somebody wearing a really cool outfit and that outfit will inspire me for the whole day. I’ll take it into the studio and that will inspire the song. I’ve found, reflecting on music that I made even two months ago, when I was living on Cape Cod, it’s so different from what I’ve been making now. I would say there’s a sense of maturity in the music that was not there prior. I think the music before is mature but there’s this… I feel like the city is a tough mother in the sense that she’s kind but she’s not nice, if that makes sense. She’s just a very tough loving mother and that’s been translating into my music.
VMAN: Now to touch on your sound because it is so diverse. You have punk rock in there with “Pink Party” one minute and then you’re upbeat pop with “Celebrate”. It’s very genre-bending. How would you define it?
ID: I would define my sound as unpredictable. You will never ever, ever catch me sticking to just one sound or one genre ever. I just physically can’t do that because I’m quite a mutable person. This is a little interesting but in astrology, I’m considered to be mutable. I’m a Pisces with a Virgo rising and a Virgo moon and those are mutable qualities which means I’m constantly changing, always reinventing, never the same. I can never do that. To be honest, a lot of people around me get frustrated with me (laughs) because they want me to stick to one thing but I can’t! The thing that I see that makes sense to me—that links all of these different types of songs together, the one cohesive thing is my voice. And I think that’s all that matters. Especially in the state of music right now! We have Tik Tok. It doesn’t matter what kind of song it is, you could have the best producer in the entire world, A-list level songwriting, and your song still might not blow up. It just has to have that one little catchy moment. It doesn’t matter what it is at all. I will never be done changing.
VMAN: Yeah! And because your sound is so diverse, I’m curious who you listen to. Are your playlists super diverse as well?
ID: Yes, all over the place! I would say just listing off my latest playlists, I have a lot of Gaga, I have a lot of Sade, I have a lot of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. But also I have a lot of hard trap music. (laughs)
VMAN: Amazing. Is there anything that you don’t listen to?
ID: Country. (laughs) Except for Kacey Musgraves!
VMAN: Oh, of course. She’s an important exception. So I also heard that there’s an album on the horizon. What could you tell me about this future project?
ID: This project is a result of me leaving home and exploring the world and finding myself as a young man—a young, queer black guy. And figuring out what life means and how I’m going to approach life. Something that’s been a common theme in my life, especially since moving out, is why I exist and why I was even brought onto this earth and how every single person has a different sense of reality. This next project has been very much inspired by the process of leaving the nest.
VMAN: And so far with your exploration of why you exist, what’s your life motto right now? What is life all about for you?
ID: (sighs) Honestly, I’ve been very inspired by the concept of the Yin Yang which is balance, polarity, every single thing has a good and a bad to it. That’s been something that’s been helping me. But also just in general, I’ve really grown a fondness for life. Being able to breathe and experience all of this is kind of mind blowing to me. I’ve gone my entire life just never batting an eye. I would just go with the motions, going through life with rose-tinted glasses. I’m a very “go with the flow” person. But now it’s just been a period of me asking questions. My motto is just choosing happiness every single day. It’s so many things. There’s so many things that I do now that are different from when I left my home.
VMAN: For sure! To wrap this amazing chat up, and I like to always end on this note because I just find it very interesting who everybody says, I have to ask: if you could collaborate with any musical artist, who would it be?
ID: Lorde! Lorde, Lorde, Lorde. One day I want to produce an album for her. But also I want to produce an album for Nicki Minaj! (laughs)
VMAN: Oh, wow. Okay, very different!
ID: I want to hear Nicki Minaj and Elton John on one song and I want to find a way to make that work.
VMAN: Can we get Nicki with Lorde as well? I’m obsessed with that.
ID: I know! That would be so good.