Black Pumas: With Flying Colors
photo: Jody Dominque
There are several generally accepted markers of true success in the modern music industry. Many of them are quantitative, revolving around numbers—album sales, streams, total tour gross—and some are more qualitative, focusing on collective acclaim from tastemakers and the powers-that-be of the music world.
In 2019, Black Pumas burst out of nowhere with the release of their self-titled debut and quickly checked off pretty much every box on those lists. The Austin-based duo—composed of singer-songwriter Eric Burton and guitarist/ producer Adrian Quesada—have now garnered seven Grammy nominations, millions of streams, clocked in dates on three different continents and earned high praise from seemingly everyone who gave their songs a listen.
So, how to follow up such an explosive introduction? Well, among a myriad of other answers, Burton and Quesada decided to try something that almost nobody was expecting: They took a break. In late summer 2022, Black Pumas surprised—and, admittedly, disappointed many fans who were awaiting their much-hailed live show by canceling all of their scheduled appearances for the rest of the year, including several festivals. Heartfelt statements from the band noted that they were “devastated” to cancel on their fans and that it was a “difficult decision” to make.
Reflecting on that time over a year later, Burton explains how it was also a necessary decision, and one that may have been crucial in paving the way for the return of Black Pumas this year, with an excellent new album in hand.
“It’s no small feat to be on the road for an extended period of time with six or seven people and a big crew,” Burton says, checking in from North Austin, where he recently bought his first house. “The days are always new and different, and that can become a bit exhausting. We just hadn’t had too many breaks.”
The grind of a post-album tour—especially one coming on the heels of a breakout debut like Black Pumas—can seem never-ending, with even time off the road being enveloped by prep for the next outing. In Burton’s case, part of the reason for the hiatus was a need to spend time with family, which included helping his mother and brother move from Los Angeles to Texas so they all could be closer together. He also admits, though, that there were creative motivations for the pause as well.
“We just hadn’t had time to truly conceptualize an album that we felt exceedingly moved by,” he explains. “I started to feel a lot of the pressure—my face is on this thing and my songwriting credibility is attached. I just needed to make the music. To a degree, it’s a very solitary situation, as the main songwriter of the group. These songs don’t just fall out of the sky for me all the time. I’m just glad that we took a break—I’m glad for the music, and I think the album is great because of it.”
That pressure wasn’t limited to Burton, of course, but Quesada is quick to concede that his bandmate is the heart and soul of the band and the unquestioned star of their electric live show.
“He’s the one writing the words and delivering a feeling that people resonate and connect with,” Quesada says, calling from his Electric Deluxe studio in Austin. “So I had to be cognizant of that—when we were both feeling pressure, there was certainly a little more on him. I just have to make it sound cool and not suck on the guitar.”
The expectations surrounding Black Pumas’ second album, Chronicles of a Diamond feel lightyears away from the state of the band prior to their debut just four years ago. When the duo first formed Black Pumas, they weren’t even supposed to be a proper band, let alone a successful, globe-trotting outfit with top-tier accolades and millions of people waiting on their next move.
Burton and Quesada were first introduced by a mutual friend in 2017, not long after Burton had made his way from his hometown of LA to Austin, with the goal of continuing to hone his songwriting on the local busking scene. The new collaborators felt each other out a bit before meeting, with Quesada watching YouTube videos of Burton and Burton asking friends if Quesada was worthy of his songs and trust. As Burton quickly learned, Quesada was already a respected industry veteran and mainstay on the Austin scene who had even won a Grammy as part of Latin-funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma. Burton was in good hands.
“By the time we got to the studio, he struck me as a calm and collected guy. I could tell that there was some nervousness in our initiation as a collaborative situation—you feel those things,” Burton remembers. “There’s a transparency about him that points to him being a grounded human in the studio. It was easy for us to get chummy—he’s just an easygoing kind of guy.”
“I was immediately floored by a number of things about him,” Quesada recalls. “The obvious ones were his voice and his songwriting, but another detail that jumped out to me—one that I don’t think he gets enough credit for—was his unique guitar style.”
While discussing those nascent days, both musicians paint the picture of a partnership that crackled with a near immediate spark, first in the studio and then onstage. Soon after coming together, Black Pumas booked a one-month residency at a local club, which quickly turned into two months, then snowballed from there.
“We just thought we’d both have some of this music in our back pocket. I was trying to keep my cool and not just start a band for the sake of starting a band,” Quesada says of the duo’s initial humble aspirations. “But we started to gain momentum and started to feel the chemistry and get excited about it. A few months in, we both realized it would be foolish to not perform these songs live, to not put more effort into making this into something. After that first show, I remember feeling like, ‘OK, yeah, this is some shit.’”
“We realized that we would work well together almost right away, but I don’t know that either of us would have guessed it would turn into what it has turned into. It’s a trip,” Burton reflects. “We’re really grateful, obviously. There’s so many wonderful acts—technically Jody Dominque sound, soul- and heart-filled musicians— that aren’t seeing the same stages, so we’re fortunate to be a vessel for what might be influencing culture in some ways.”
The collaboration that resulted in that fateful first album started with Burton adding his vocals to songs that Quesada had already developed, before the singer started bringing in his own material, including the record’s lead single and biggest hit, “Colors”—a sweeping, soulful track that became a calling card for the group. However, Burton still didn’t have much of a hand in the production of that first batch of music—one of several things that changed in the process of crafting Chronicles of a Diamond.
“On this album, he had a lot more input on the production side,” Quesada says. “He was bringing these really out-there ideas that were super welcome because it was really important for us to not repeat ourselves. And he started us off at a point in a lot of the songs where we absolutely were not repeating anything.”
“I had to figure out how to bring more to the table on my own, to formulate ideas that communicated well with Adrian,” Burton explains, noting that the apartment he was renting in Austin was also his personal studio, where he spent much of his time when the band was off the road. “I took that time to do some things on my own. The song ‘Ice Cream’ actually came from me starting to sample—I sampled some Al Green drums. I was putting together colors that, at face value, didn’t look like they would go together. It was a lot of trial and error like that for me to find out how to communicate better with Adrian and how to glue our identities as individual artists together a bit better. And we killed that.”
“What I love about what he’s doing is that, no matter how much production, ear candy and audio manipulation is happening, you can still pick up an acoustic guitar and play all those songs at a campfire,” Quesada says, remembering the moment he first heard Burton’s idea for the track “Hello”—a lilting, synth-fueled ballad that sounds nothing like what Black Pumas have done before. “That’s what is amazing about being able to work with him—even if he has this idea for a crazy synthesizer-loop bed for the whole song, the most important thing is that there’s a good song under there. Having the best of both worlds like that was definitely a highlight this time around.”
Quesada’s role on this album, in his own words, consisted of “plugging holes and being called to where needed,” including arranging and editing songs and helping Burton perfect some vocals parts, if necessary. He also “helped shape the overall aesthetic of the music,” which has been the guitarist/producer’s main role in the group all along.
Part of that aesthetic-shaping came in the form of experimentation in the studio, in parallel with what Burton was doing on his own. While Quesada aimed for a strictly live-in-studio approach with Black Pumas, he expanded his creative net for Chronicles of a Diamond, using more studio effects and even manipulating and looping recordings of the band from past sessions.
“We purposely didn’t set any boundaries,” he says. “I wanted the first album to feel live; it was a raw snapshot of that time. But, this time around, I wanted to just make it sound good, and I wasn’t precious about anything. It was liberating to be able to do that—to say, ‘What the hell?’—and I think it made for a better record.”
That free-flowing approach started right after the release of Black Pumas and continued for years, with studio sessions taking place in Austin, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and even during tour stops in places like Amsterdam. The songs themselves were born in individual writing sessions, late-night jams and during soundchecks before performances.
Some of the tracks were even heavily road-tested, like lead single “More Than a Love Song,” which dates back to the weeks following the first album. Quesada explains that the tune—a meditation on the richness and diversity of life that was inspired by sage words from Burton’s uncle years ago—was shaped by their live show. The song conjures onstage energy with its transitions between sections and Burton’s loose-feeling vocals, which jump octaves at a whim and even incorporate some spoken-word passages at times.
“I’m thankful to be in a position where I’m allowing myself to be completely honest and make music in the same way that I might’ve come up with a funny melody with my siblings in the house as kids,” Burton reflects. “We played musical games, and that music was coming from our soul, just to entertain each other. That was before I was doing an impression of something, trying to sound like an externality, so to speak. My biggest challenge now is how to utilize the instrumentalists, the equipment, the engineers, in a way that feels just as honest as me playing a song on my own with an acoustic guitar.”
Quesada admits that while working on the album in so many disparate locations— and utilizing so many methods—increased the quality of the songs and allowed him and Burton to spread their creative wings a bit, the approach also lent itself to the dangers of a never-ending cycle of rewriting and second-guessing.
“At some point, you just have to wrap it up, put a bow on it and give it to the world,” he says, while also calling the final push to complete the album a “magical” time in the overall process. With pressure from the label to deliver a finished product, Quesada took off to Mexico City, looking for solitude to fully immerse himself and perfect the minutiae of every track. (He made sure to have some fun in Mexico too, adding with a smile, “I enjoyed some amazing food and a good mezcal after the studio.”) Meanwhile, Burton returned to LA to put the finishing touches on some lyrics and vocals, enlisting help from producer extraordinaire John Congleton. Then the duo reconvened before turning in the album.
“That chapter of Chronicles of a Diamond was probably one of the more beautiful ones,” Burton remembers. “We enjoy working in different manners, whether it’s the full band in the studio or doing things on our own. Sometimes you have to meditate on your own to reach a place that feels engaging within yourself. And if you can bring that substance to the table, man, the conversations that happen are really cool.”
“It’s not the traditional ‘get into a studio and record everything consistently,’” Quesada says of the piecemeal approach, which made the final, cohesive record a bit more difficult to achieve. “But at the same time, we’ve never really done anything in a very traditional manner with Pumas. There’s no formula for anything—it’s just whatever the hell works”
Black Pumas’ sophomore effort is a gorgeous collection of tunes that showcases the best of what the duo has to offer—catchy melodies and soaring vocals, impeccable instrumentation and backbeats that will have heads bobbing before the listeners even realize it.
“It feels a little bit more individualistic, a little bit more honest to who we are as musicians,” Burton muses. “And I’m quite proud of it because there was a lot of pressure to show up as everyone’s superhero, and the sophomore album is always the dreaded one in this industry. I think we gave people what they remember and love about the first album—that retrosoul feel—but we were able to take that color and explore what we’re really moved by more deeply. And while I still feel a lot of the pressure, I think that I’m wearing clothes that fit me, and that makes me really confident and solid.
“At the end of the day, you never know who’s going to like it, who’s going to accept you,” he continues. “But if you’re being honest with yourself, there’s a tribe for you anywhere. If it’s coming from your heart, it’s going to touch someone else’s.”