When he was ten-years-old, Ljay Currie got a piano and taught himself to play by following along with YouTube tutorials. Within a few years, the California native had also mastered drums and guitar all on his own, as well as learned to make beats and produce his own tracks. But as a star player for the Fairfax High School basketball team—and one of the top 100 players in the country—Currie felt an intense pressure to abandon his musical ambitions and pursue his athletic career.
“Everybody was pushing me toward basketball, but I always had that secret passion for music,” says Currie, now 20-years-old. “I ended up getting all these scholarships for college, but I had to follow my heart and go with music instead.”
On his upcoming EP Free—his debut release for Motown Records and EP Entertainment—Currie more than proves he was right to embrace his instincts. With its deeply melodic yet inventive blend of hip-hop and R&B, Free shows the L.A.-based artist turning his natural musicality into songs that uplift and encourage a more open state of mind.
“The project is called Free because I’m a free spirit when it comes to my creative process,” says Currie, who names everyone from Lil Wayne to Coldplay among his main inspirations. “I don’t ever try to force anything, I just go with the flow and explore and see what I come up with. If the vibe is right, that’s what I’ll follow.”
On lead single “Undercover,” Currie brings his free-spirited approach to a slow-burning but uptempo number driven by his graceful piano work and classic sense of melody. Also featuring some smoldering vocals from singer/songwriter Kiana Ledé, the harmony-laced track reveals a hidden affection between two close friends. “There’s a girl I was friends with for a while, the kind of thing where she was there for me through relationships and I was there for her,” says Currie. “You never would’ve suspected we had a thing for each other, so I went in and wrote a song about it.”
With its layered rhythms and luminous guitar tones, Currie’s feel-good follow-up single “555” centers on a different relationship dynamic. “It’s mostly about a girl I was dealing with who kind of wanted to trap me, and I just wasn’t into it—like, ‘Just let me live,’” he explains. Both defiant and joyful, “555” also draws inspiration from Currie’s love of numerology. “When I was recording I looked down at the clock and the time was 5:55,” he says. “I looked it up to see what that meant, and it’s about how there’s a big change coming, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it. Don’t be scared to try something new.”
Another track showcasing his nuanced guitar work, “Shots You Don’t Take” finds Currie’s soulful vocals making their way around a hypnotic, handclap-backed beat. Produced at Brandon’s Way Recording (a Hollywood studio run by Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter/producer Babyface), the song nods to Currie’s basketball background and unfolds with a laid-back message of self-empowerment. “‘Shots You Don’t Take’ is about an experience where I was out with my friends and wanted to talk to this girl, and I knew that if I don’t go for it I’d never see her again,” says Currie. “It’s about not being scared to speak up and go after what you want.”
Currie played piano and guitar on most of the tracks featured on Free, tapping into the musical skills he’s honed since he was a little kid. Growing up in Gardena, California, he was raised on the jazz and classic R&B records his dad played at home, which he now credits with cultivating his feel for rhythm and melody from an early age. At age 12—soon after picking up piano, guitar, and drums—Currie immersed himself in learning everything he could about music production. “Whenever I had any kind of downtime away from basketball and school, I’d put my headphones on and try to make beats,” he recalls. As he found his style as a producer, Currie moved on to writing songs. “At first I was just writing about money, cars, clothes I didn’t have,” he says. “But when I was about 17 I started taking it more seriously, and writing about real-life situations.”
As graduation neared, Currie fielded countless scholarship offers, settling on Long Beach State but ultimately choosing to forgo school altogether. “My parents weren’t happy about it,” he admits. “Their child had a full-ride scholarship to basically anywhere he wanted to go, and then decided not to go at all.” In an effort to put him back on track, Currie’s parents reached out to his former basketball coach Derryck “Big Tank” Thornton – a longtime producer who’s worked with artists like Mary J. Blige and Fabolous – to have a work with him. “I knew Tank did music, so when he came to meet me to try to get me to go to school, I showed him what I’d been working on,” says Currie. “After that he went back to my parents and said, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before—just give me a year, and if he doesn’t have a record deal by then, I’ll make sure he’s back in school.’”
After that meeting, Currie spent months crashing on couches and working on his music, refining his craft with the help of friends/mentors like Grammy Award-winning musician/producer/actor Jamie Foxx and Khristopher Riddick-Tynes (one half of The Rascals, a production duo known for their work with Ariana Grande, Ty Dolla $ign, and Post Malone). “Khris really took me under his wing,” Currie says. “He went through a similar situation I’d gone through and really made something of himself. He showed me the ropes, and I just grinded it out and kept working on my music.”
Once Currie had built up a body of work, he and Thornton began shopping his music to a number of major labels, quickly landing a deal with Motown Records and EP Entertainment. “Tank had wanted me to take my stuff to a label earlier than that, but I wanted to learn more first,” notes Currie. “I wanted to make sure the music was strong enough before I showed it to anybody.” After signing with Motown and EP Entertainment, Currie focused on bringing Free to life, working with esteemed musicians like Jon Batiste to shape the EP’s organic but innovative sound. “The thing that’s most memorable to me about making the EP is having my friends with me in the studio, and everybody dancing around to the songs,” says Currie. “I had this amazing support system and the energy was so great the whole time.”
With that energy undeniable and infectious all throughout Free, Currie fully intends to stay true to his intuition as he moves forward with making music. “Sometimes I’m in the studio and I’m not really feeling it, so then I just let it go,” he says in reflecting on his artistic process. “But then other times I might be lying on the couch and all of sudden I feel this need to create, and I’ll come up with something right there. I’ve come so far just following my passion like that, and I’m just gonna keep on chasing the dream.”