Private Playlist: Indie-pop alchemist Jelani Aryeh is hearing new messages in his favorite songs

Jelani Aryeh. Photo by Natasha Tilly

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments.

Like so many precocious artists, Jelani Aryeh grew up surrounded by music. His uncle produced hip-hop tracks in the adjacent bedroom of their San Diego home. And his father exposed him to countless artists while riding in the backseat of Dad’s vintage Jaguar. Aryeh’s own influences are both wide-ranging and continually evolving. 

His full-length debut, “I’ve Got Some Living to Do,” pushes the surge and shimmer of ‘90s indie rock through a 21st-century pop sensibility. And while he’s already received his garlands from many of the usual critical quarters, he possesses a genuine musical and emotional intelligence that does an end-run around the hype.

For KCRW’s “Private Playlist,” Jelani Aryeh takes us on a tour of his most enduring musical fascinations, from the timeless ache of a Roxy Music classic to the inspirational innovation of Childish Gambino.

“What got me into music [was to] give people somewhere else to reside for a little bit if the outside world is too much.” — Jelani Aryeh

It's definitely been a strange headspace after wrapping up [my] first record. Right now, artistically, I feel kind of empty. I'm absorbing a bunch of influences and trying to build a new framework or a different state of mind for the next project. I'm receptive in a different way which I can't really pinpoint, especially with all the changes that are happening: moving to LA, turning 21. Even listening to the same songs I've been listening to, I'll hear different messages that I wouldn't have heard before that are meant for me right now.


I found out about Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" last year at the height of COVID. Everything was feeling crazy, and in a weird way this album made everything feel like it was gonna be okay. I think it's the way Jeff Tweedy writes. It's very honest and real and kinda sad. I think in my music, too, there's a slight tinge of melancholy. I really understand and feel that music in my bones.

What I appreciate about "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is just how many genres it goes through. There's psych-rock, folk-rock, and a bunch [of genres] that I couldn't even name. I like how you can go from a song like "Heavy Metal Drummer" that's super-bright to a song like "Kamera" or "Poor Places" that are a little more slowed-down, earnest, and blunt. I want to offer people a similar thing: laying it out there, simple and plain, but in a fun way, with big and moving instrumentation. That's what Wilco did really well.


Kanye West's "The College Dropout" is the first album I remember ever listening to. My dad is a big Kanye and Jay Z fan, and he would always play this in his Jaguar. He had an old Jaguar S-Type and he'd always be bumping Kanye, and I'd be in my little carseat in the back, staring out the window, absorbing the words of young Kanye. I think it was the first time music really had an effect on me. Some lyrics made their way through and I could form my own perspective on what Kanye was talking about. I love the way he writes on that record, and I appreciate where he was back then. 


I found Childish Gambino's "Because the Internet" in either my sophomore or junior year of high school. He had this character of The Boy, and it was just him navigating his life through the Internet age. He was meditating on very existential stuff. Donald Glover at the time was, I guess, really going through it. I think he was super depressed. And I'm grateful that he laid everything out on that album in such a beautiful way. 

But what really drew me to that album is the world that he was able to make with it: the website, the screenplay, and the short film. And I think that's what got me into music, being able to make that world. I wanted to do that for people and [to] give them somewhere else to reside for a little bit if the outside world is too much. Escapism is definitely a big theme in that album, and in my music. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. But I want to make worlds for people, and I think that's what "Because the Internet" did for me at the time.


Roxy Music's "More than This" makes me feel like I'm flying over the world and seeing life happen before my eyes, or seeing memories pass. And, of course, it reminds me of "Lost in Translation," and the scene with Bill Murray singing to Scarlett Johansson. That's one of my favorite movies, so I think I just attach it to that. I don't even really know how to describe "More Than This." I would love to channel that energy on the new record I'm making.


I guess Angel Olsen's "Whole New Mess" is a stripped-down version of her 2019 album, "All Mirrors," but I heard this one first. I love the sparseness of it, even though it doesn't feel sparse. It's only her, the microphone, her guitar, and a church for that natural reverb. She's just belting out these songs. Each one is so gut-wrenching and very visceral, and I feel it through my whole body. It gives me the same feeling that I get when I listen to Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. That powerful, belting, wavering voice does so much. It has such a cosmic and universal quality to it. I [like to] drive through Malibu at night blasting it and crying, because it's that kind of record. It's beautiful.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

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TOKiMONSTA is rediscovering her love for the guitar
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on finding solace in Gil Scott-Heron
Aimee Mann looks past the snark to appreciate Steely Dan’s craft
Madame Gandhi on Fela, feminism, and the bravery of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell
Alice Bag is doing the live music withdrawal dance
M. Ward is listening to music by his influences’ influencers
San Cha believes we can create, no matter our circumstances
Bob Mould seeks artful inspiration from Janelle Monáe, Elliott Smith, and the Byrds
La Santa Cecilia's La Marisoul finds hope for the future in music
Pete Tong is comfortable with musical melancholy
Go Betty Go’s Nicolette Vilar shares music that’s honey to her ears
Mary Lattimore is communing with musical kindred spirits
Ndidi O selects music for a melancholy autumn
Julianna Barwick recommends music with emotion and experimentation
DUCKWRTH brews a perfect blend of classic and contemporary
Maral shares music that creates its own unique world
Lyric Jones is all about music that makes you hit rewind
Open Mike Eagle on dark purple jams and musical velvet paintings
Machinedrum keeps it chill with music for self-reflection
Channel Tres shares the classic songs that created his world
Qur’an Shaheed is revealing her inner truth through music
Karriem Riggins embraces the infinite possibilities in creating
Xinxin’s Janize Ablaza spins a soundtrack for space travel
Lady Blackbird honors fearless and transcendent artistry
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Frankie Reyes marries technology with tradition
The Koreatown Oddity is raising his daughter on a colorful musical diet
Dante Elephante is slowing down his life with sides of vinyl
Sasami explores the wholesome world of animal songs
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Ah Mer Ah Su makes the case for danceable melancholy
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