Recent years have seen an influx of independent artists, likely inspired by the success of self-sufficient pioneers like Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean. Also aiding in this renaissance of independence is the ease of access contemporary artists have to creative resources. As is common with most trends, controversy was sparked around the boundaries of independence: whose help can you accept and still keep the title? How much responsibility does the artist need to accept, and how much should they accept? While the answers to these questions are still somewhat vague and evolving, the independent movement among artists has only grown as singers gain access to producer tools and tutorials, with social media helping to build an organic audience for the artist’s voice. These voices come from everywhere, diversifying regionalism and giving credence to areas that were before considered unremarkable.
Rising from inconspicuousness is singer-songwriter/producer Lennie Quest, an Iowa native whose music has adapted to his changing surroundings. His latest release, “Better,” is another step forward in Quest’s career, as he wrote and mixed the record himself. From enrolling at Millikin University pursuing two music majors to being in the Army National Guard and deployed across the globe, he wasn’t short on influences. “One of the hardest parts about being an artist is learning to ignore the person in the mirror,” Quest says about the constant movement of the past couple of years. “I remember right before I left for basic training back in 2017, I was so worried that people would ‘forget about me’ or that I’d ‘lose momentum.’ It has been a constant struggle, comparing my journey to others’, and not even in terms of music but just life…But being a Studio Manager at Millikin (University) has been a blessing, and having 24 hour access to the studios is an asset that I’ll mourn once I graduate.” With more changes in the foreseeable future, what is certain is that Quest’s sound will not remain singular. Inevitably maturing from when he began officially releasing music in 2016, his new releases reflect the shifting perspectives gained from experience and self-reflection.
The range of genres noticeable in Quest’s music stem from his early musical experiences; he explains his eclectic tastes in chronological order, citing Outkast, Counting Crows, and The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour as some of his earliest “life-changing” listens. From there he grew into rap and R&B, getting his start in music when “Young Money ruled the world,” regularly logging in to DatPiff to explore niche voices like Tabi Bonney and Masspike Miles. Ultimately it was the free-spirited group Odd Future that shaped him into the artist he has grown into, inspired by Frank Ocean and Tyler, The Creator prioritizing individuality over genre tropes. Nowadays, he’s less specific with his muses: “Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere; probably best just to leave it at that.”
Armed with inspiration, it’s motivation that sparks the flame for creativity. For Quest, it was the death of a childhood friend and frequent artistic collaborator that lit a fire for productivity — but from a more sustainable approach. “[Cori] and I had our issues, but no one can deny that he was beyond talented. When he passed away, I felt like I had to always be working because he isn’t here anymore to get the chance to pursue his dreams. Who was I to feel sorry for myself or complain about things in my life? It was hard because I was making things hard by forcing creativity. I had to consciously teach myself to be okay with not only not always being productive, but also with not always being okay,” he says of his renewed mindset. “Once I learned to just trust in myself and take advantage of the lightning strikes of inspiration and creativity, I could feel like I’m being true to myself while also feeling like I was doing right by him.” Being true to himself has manifested in different sounds in the past couple years as Quest hop-scotches his way between genres while consistently flashing both his natural and learned musical talents. In a conversation with the artist, he explains more about his artistic journey as well as the process behind crafting his latest single, “Better.” Read more of the artist’s perspective below.
For better or worse, I’m all over the place. I grew up listening to so many different things… I’m always thankful for the music that I randomly stumble upon throughout my life. Both my mom and my grandma definitely provided the R&B influences for me throughout my life, where I probably got my first taste of rap from my biological father. I also credit school for my broader tastes. I was heavily invested in choir during my time in public school, to the point that education was my career plan for the longest time.
It’s so hard not to write a full paper to answer some of these questions. One of the hardest parts about being an artist is learning to ignore the person in the mirror. I remember right before I left for basic training back in 2017, I was so worried that people would “forget about me” or that I’d “lose momentum.” It has been a constant struggle, comparing my journey to others’, and not even in terms of music but just life. Going to Millikin University, it’s so far away from Iowa and my life before college. I have always felt alone there, partially from my own introvertedness and also from feeling like the odd one out. I’d go to drill where we’re doing things like area and route reconnaissance or shooting an M2, drive the 5 and a half hours from Des Moines to Decatur, and the next morning be sitting in a music theory class. It’s a double life, to say the least. But being a Studio Manager at Millikin has been a blessing. Kevin Guarnieri is a legend (look him up on All Music). I promise to not take this last semester for granted.
To get back to the deployment, I took that as a time to try something completely different. Up until that point, I was Lennie Quest, the guy from high school that still wants to be a rapper. While in Texas for pre-mobilization, I stumbled upon Toby Glider’s Novelty, and that was another “life changing” moment. I had always wanted to make and release a beat tape or completely instrumental album like that, and music from artists like Toby or Louie Zong is extremely inspiring to me. Flash forward about a month to when we were in Germany; I was talking on the phone with Jeff Kraft (producer, aka “opaalbeats”) and I’m telling him this, and he goes, “Why don’t you?” It seems so damn obvious, but sometimes you need to hear that from someone else to get the fire lit. So once I got to Kosovo, I just started making random stuff. Each song’s working title was “Something Different” and a number, and in my free time I would just experiment. I am beyond proud of Genesis, and the best part is I didn’t care if no one else liked it because I did. I was able to fly in vocals, sax, and MIDI from friends to get features on it which was awesome to have. Is the album perfect? Of course not. Some of the mixes are gross. But it’s raw me, a dude in a CONEX making an album in Kosovo. Having it on vinyl is so dope too, being able to physically hold it in my hands. It’s a moment in time.
P.S. For those wondering, my non-rap stuff is released under my legal name, Dalton Krum.
First off, let me say that Matthew “SoExtra” Steffens (Iowan producer and audio engineer) is a wizard. I owe my life to that man, for seeing something in me and sticking with me this long. That said, with one semester left, I felt like I needed to try to do it myself, at the very least to see where I’m at. I have such a long way to go, but yes, I 100% will continue to learn and develop that skill. With graduation quickly approaching, of course I’m in the “WTF am I going to do” seat. I would love to start as an engineer in a studio, continuing to develop that skill. Is it something I want to do forever? Hopefully not, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. Versatility in any profession is a must, and being an artist, it is valuable to know all aspects of your job.
It started with Jeff Kraft showing me the “beat” during the winter. We were just at his place and he showed me once. Fast forward a few months and I asked him for it, he sent it over, and I laid in bed listening to it. I’m a Peer Mentor at Millikin so I still stay in the dorms, and in my room last semester someone had left glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. So as I laid there and listened, I was looking up at my ceiling, and the next thing I knew the song was written. I recorded my parts the next day, and asked Priscilla (@priscillasabourin) if she’d want to write a verse and sing on it, and also asked Trever Linkin if he would grace it with a little sax. The collaboration of it all was easy, it was the mixing that was hard. Any engineer knows you could stay working on one song’s mix for eternity.
I have several tracks in the works; I’d love to put out another Lennie Quest album this year. Weeknights came out in 2018, and so much has changed since then. I’m always working on my producing; I’d love to produce for other artists, and I do plan to release some “Dalton Krum” tracks soon. There are plenty of life hurdles coming my way, such as graduating, re-classing to a new MOS in the National Guard, and just starting the next chapter in my life. I’m blessed to be where I’m at in life, and I’m excited to evolve and share my evolution with others.