Tyler Enslow’s pliable bass crab-walks through a dense thicket of stuttering percussion, gritty wheels of static, UFO sound effects and a distant chiming anvil. It’s just the opening minutes of the title track of Cosmic Collective’s latest EP Exfoliate, which dropped in August 2022, and already this listener is experiencing a playful spatial/temporal shift — the musical equivalent of having the rug pulled out from under you to reveal that you’re floating in zero gravity.
Then Nikki Enslow’s bright, warm and feathered vocal sails nonchalantly by, tying up the tune’s space-age oneiric atmosphere in a bow. She bears a message that has the brevity, if not the paradox, of a Buddhist koan:
“Feels so good to feel okay/Heals my soul to feel this way…”
A similar sense of joyous agency is present in an earlier tune, “Gaslight,” the title track off another EP Cosmic Collective released in June 2022. Here, light sparkling keyboards part like a bejeweled and beaded curtain to reveal Enslow’s soothing yet determined pushback against the current climate of confidence-busting confusion and erosion of humane behavior.
“Stop gaslighting me/I’m supposed to be happy/Don’t gaslight me/I just want to be happy…”
Though Nikki and her husband, Tyler, write all their original material, they don’t claim to be the sole creators of their band’s music. As a result, Cosmic Collective shares the joy of creation with a body of musical collaborators.
“We call [the band] Cosmic Collective, because it always felt like a collective of musicians,” says Tyler. Since the band was formed in 2015, up to three or four additional musicians have been added to augment the core duo. Players then have been changed-out based on availability. Tyler says each auxiliary player has always been considered more than just a fill-in or a hired gun.
“[Each of] the members influence the sound differently,” Tyler says. “The songs are constantly growing and evolving as each person adds their own touch to it. [The songs] feel like a combination of everybody’s spirit.”
Therefore, all musicians who record or take the stage with Cosmic Collective are part of the creative process, the Enslows say, and that process can produce music that goes pretty far afield.
Although the Enslows met while both were studying jazz in college, they do not consider the sound they make as Cosmic Collective to be strictly jazz. Instead, the band is invested in the art of improvisation, Nikki says, which gives the music a jazz feel.
“We have the [jazz] forms, and we’re playing with the forms every time,” Tyler says. Because of this, the couple hasn’t found the best word to describe their music.
“’Junk’ might be the best word,” Tyler says with a laugh, “because it’s like jazz and funk.” He feels that Cosmic Collective is a perfect fit for the amorphous “something for everyone” category.
“We’re always trying to be in the moment,” Tyler says. “We’d like to take risks with everybody in the room.”
Like Australian alternative R&B band Hiatus Kaiyote, or Anglo-French avant-garde pop group Stereolab, Cosmic Collective molds their jazz influences with R&B, and hip-hop, creating startling configurations. At the same time, the Enslows throw a nostalgic nod to the spirited and sparring jazz standards performed by jazz masters like Sarah Vaughan.
Listening to Cosmic Collective is like hearing a post-modern rendition of “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” where “outside” can be the cold vacuum of retro-futurist outer space, or the nebulae of thoughts, dreams and emotions that comprise our inner being. The point is that either interpretation can be both playful and escapist, as well as empowering and focused on real-life concerns.
Maybe each message conveyed by the Enslows really is as paradoxical as a koan.
Nikki says the band’s last two records, the EPs Gaslight and Exfoliate, were written about what was happening in the Enslow’s lives.
“Everybody knows about getting gaslighted now,” Tyler says. “[The music] was us crying out about what was going on in our lives, hoping other people could feel the release through music that we felt when we recorded it.”
Both EPs tackled growing pains, leaving toxicity behind for a better situation and the notion that personal growth is never easy and may bear many thorns. The song “Exfoliate” specifically deals with a serious skin disorder that at several points left Tyler bedridden and unable to move.
“His skin would get super-hard, and then all fall off daily,” Nikki says. During a period of remission, the couple seized the moment to get married. They scrapped their traditional wedding plans, and instead eloped to Las Vegas where an Elvis Presley impersonator presided over their nuptials.
“We don’t even really like Elvis music [that much],” Nikki says, “but it was so goofy we had to do it.”
Two years after the onset of topical steroid withdrawal (TSW), a condition Nikki says is growing more common due to over-prescription of steroid creams, Tyler is now functioning at around 90% capacity, which explains the first vocals on the tune “Exfoliate”: “Feels so good to feel okay…”
From a gathering of explorers to a pair of motherly arms
Growing up in Miami, Nikki was drawn to the sounds she heard from her musical grandparents, parents and siblings, inspired to eventually make music of her own. She began singing.
Around the same time, Tyler was growing up with his musical family in Baltimore. His father played guitar in a local blues band. One day, Tyler saw one of the other band member’s sons playing bass guitar. Tyler decided at age 10 that playing bass is what he wanted to do with his life.
“My dad said that if I played bass, instead of guitar, I would have more playing opportunities,” Tyler says.
Tyler and Nikki met at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where both studied jazz — Tyler with an emphasis on bass and Nikki with an emphasis on voice. Nikki, who is now 29, was a year ahead of Tyler, who is now 26. They started dating a few months after the start of the semester. Both befriended drummer Jed Smith, and with Smith they formed the first iteration of Cosmic Collective, which recorded the band’s debut LP Abstract Notions, released in 2014.
Nowadays, the album is no longer posted anywhere online. Nikki says the pair took it down because it no longer reflects the band’s brand and style.
“That was our first time ever making a record,” Tyler says. “A lot of the decisions that we made were not the ones that we’d make now.”
“It doesn’t feel like us,” Nikki offers.
After graduation, Tyler and Nikki moved to Nashville and launched Cosmic Collective in earnest. The band released a self-titled LP with legendary Nashville-based musician, producer, composer, and arranger Jon Estes in 2019.
“[Estes] remains a mentor to both of us and our music,” Nikki says.
By 2021, various configurations of Cosmic Collective had played clubs like Rudy’s Jazz Club, taken the stage at Murfreesboro Main Street Jazz Festival, and gigged as far afield as Indiana and Mackinac Island. Despite these accomplishments, it was time for Cosmic Collective to move on.
“Nashville was a great place for us to get better,” Tyler says. “[The city] felt like an egg. We played with world-class musicians, and … that brought us up a lot of levels.”
However, if you’re not playing music that the tourists want to hear, there are not that many opportunities to make money playing original music in Nashville’s super-saturated market, he says. With more musicians moving to the city every day, willing to play gigs for less money, no money at all, or even offering to pay to play, the writing was on the wall for Tyler and Nikki.
“Staying in that city wasn’t sustainable anymore,” says Tyler. He notes that Nashville crowds are mostly tourists, seasoned with some local musicians. Playing for tourists yielded no permanent fans, while musicians tended to analyze their fellow players and not enjoy the music.
“When we moved to Charlotte, [we] started playing for people who just really loved music,” Tyler says. “That’s a different experience.”
Before leaving Nashville in mid-2021, Cosmic Collective rush-released some music recorded live, the Afraid to Die EP and Internet Dump, a soundtrack compilation of videos the band had been posting on Instagram and YouTube every week during the COVID pandemic.
Also during the pandemic, Nikki devoted herself to learning to play the piano. Keyboard parts heard on subsequent Cosmic Collective releases are hers, though Tyler also plays some.
Nikki says moving to Charlotte has allowed the band to build a concrete following in a new hometown city. That process began when Cosmic Collective started playing an eclectic assortment of gigs in the Queen City, to get their music before as many people as possible.
“We said, ‘Let’s just book every place possible just to play, meet people and get people knowing our names,’” Tyler says. “It worked out really well.”
Cosmic Collective also revived a Tuesday night jazz jam the band had hosted in Nashville, but this time the event evolved into an all-inclusive freeform jam. After the band outgrew Petty Thieves Brewing, the session moved to Crown Station.
“Now, the jam is crazy every week,” Tyler says. “It’s become a weekly gathering for many local musicians to play music and hang.”
Through the jam sessions and word of mouth, Cosmic Collective began to get in contact with a shifting cadre of Queen City musicians who sit in with Tyler and Nikki to become rotating band members.
As the Enslows settled into life in Charlotte, they began to sense changes in their musical influences.
“When I first got into songwriting, I was inspired by traditional jazz artists such as Sarah Vaughan,” Nikki says. In the last couple years, ever since she started playing piano, Nikki has been galvanized by artists like Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and Moonchild. “It’s a melting pot of inspiration and influence.”
In his evolving approach to the Collective, Tyler turns to less-musical figures like comedian Eric André for inspiration.
“The Eric André Show made me reconsider everything,” he says.
Tyler cites André’s ruthless clowning of celebrities and the show’s avant-garde editing as points of interest. He also cites the Enslows’ cat Stella as an inspiration.
“Her unconditional love and warmth are life fuel for us,” he says. “She is usually sitting on my lap when I am mixing or working on music, which helps me infuse the music with that same feeling of love and warmth.”
Also, around this time, Nikki and Tyler became the Enslows, saying their vows in front of an ersatz Las Vegas Elvis in December 2021.
As Cosmic Collective prepares to blast off into 2023 with a New Year’s Eve celebration at Petra’s, where Cosmic Collective will include drummer Trey Tarzia and trumpet player Jeremy Durgeon, Nikki and Tyler assess what each member of the core duo brings to the Collective’s musical exploration.
“[Nikki] doesn’t think about music conventionally … and plays and writes with feeling first,” Tyler says. “She means every note she plays, and has a beautiful and unique voice that can shine in complex or simple contexts.”
For her part, Nikki appreciates Tyler’s talent for writing beautiful harmonies and melodies.
“His playing carries endless powerful musical intention, making every song and performance incredible,” she says. “He’s the musical sherpa onstage, guiding the group through the unknown.”
Both these talents are quick to acknowledge their collaborators, like frequent Charlotte drummer Mark Clark, who plays with the band at Visulite on Feb. 11. As for the upcoming NYE gig at Petra’s, Nikki hopes audiences experience a Cosmic Collective show as a kind of spiritual encounter.
“I hope they take away … something they can relate to, something that makes them feel some kind of emotion — happiness, sadness, whatever they’re dealing with … that our music … helps them cope with,” she says.
Tyler employs a tactile metaphor to describe his hoped-for reaction to a musical expedition launched by the Cosmic Collective.
“I hope [audiences] feel giant motherly arms come down and cradle them up, kiss them on the forehead and say, ‘There’s more than you could possibly understand,’” he says. “Then [the arms] cradle them a little bit more and send them back on their way.”