The song “In the Flesh” marks a change in Quisol’s musical path — a turn from projects that amplify social movements to more personal songs in which the alt-pop artist delves into his heart and soul.
Appearing on Quisol’s second album Dreamworld, which dropped on streaming platforms April 18, “In The Flesh” is a lilting indie-pop love song for the digital age. It’s also an autobiographical narrative from Quisol, a Gates Millennium Scholar with a Master’s of Education degree in Arts in Education from Harvard University who is also queer.
“I left my home for Cambridge/ And I don’t know nobody/ But now I love somebody/ And now we’re dancing in my room…” The lyrics reference Quisol’s time in Boston, and its title and imagery look to his upbringing in a Filipino-Puerto Rican-American family with deep ties to its church.
“The imagery of the scriptures are relatable to people; [it’s] like old language that feels familiar,” Quisol says. “The imagery of flesh is … Christian symbolism [that] I use to talk about someone in real life that you communicated with mainly digital. It’s ‘the word become flesh,’ and the person you’ve been texting is now actually there.”
Running alone on a playing field in the song’s accompanying video, the 27-year-old Quisol appears to be looking toward his future, but a sequence of him scrolling through footage of friends on a video camera seems a bittersweet reverie on the past.
Quisol prefers to call his music pop, but his songs contain elements of alternative R&B, pop-soul, electro and jazz, often utilizing unconventional melodies and prominent use of electronic keyboards.
Most of all, Quisol’s tunes trace a through line to praise music. That connection comes with mixed feelings for the performer, since many churches that feature praise music are not accepting of queer people like him.
“It’s complicated doing praise music, just because of the modern social mores around LGBTQ identity,” says Quisol, who is not a regular church-goer. “I think, theologically, if everyone is a sinner, then what’s the difference?”
That said, the praise genre also represents an emotional and intimate tie for him.
“It’s part of my family,” he says. “Church music … reminds me of a safe home space. That’s the part that pulls at my heartstrings and makes me feel connected to the creator.”
Music for protest
Quisol’s family moved to Charlotte from Florida when he was 10 years old. By that time he was already singing at churches, and upon arrival in North Carolina, he began playing percussion and guitar, forming bands in middle school. Attending North Mecklenburg High School, Quisol played alto saxophone in the school’s concert band. In freshman year, he started writing songs on ukulele. He formed the band Yara with some classmates and played a showcase gig at The Evening Muse. Quisol was 16 at the time.
In his junior year, Quisol started dating his school’s valedictorian, who encouraged and inspired him to apply for college scholarships. After he completed a practice round of SATs, Quisol received a letter inviting him to apply for a scholarship through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Their informants found me!” Quisol says, laughing.
The grant funding was a boon to the young artist whose parents hadn’t attended college. Quisol attended the Honors College at the College of Charleston, where he studied political science and international studies.
“I needed to get out of Charlotte, and out of the suburbs, and study internationally,” Quisol says.
He went to Cambodia for a month to study media and journalism. Drawn to governance and nonprofit work, Quisol became interested in working for non-governmental organizations working in community development and empowerment.
In 2016, Quisol became involved in the protests that arose in response to the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott. He joined Charlotte Jail Support in hopes of furthering the Black Lives Matter movement.
The experience convinced him to focus on community organizing, he says.
“I wanted to change the world and be a leader,” Quisol says. His studies abroad took him to The Hague in the Netherlands to learn about international relations, but he soon began to doubt the direction he was taking.
“It didn’t feel like a fit for me, because I wanted to be an artist,” Quisol says.
After earning his degree at the College of Charleston, Quisol briefly moved to Atlanta, but soon returned to Charlotte to pursue his music career. Partnering with singer-songwriter Celeste Moonchild in Queens Collective, he began to organize house shows in Charlotte. Gigs were hosted in artists’ garages in NoDa, backyards in west Charlotte, and in the basement of the home of artist and house-show organizer Michelle “Bunny” Gregory.
DJs and promoters came to the house shows and invited Quisol, Celeste and their musician friends to play at local venues including Hattie’s Tap & Tavern and Snug Harbor.
“After that, we started playing out, and one thing led to another,” Quisol says. At the same time, he started looking for a way to organize shows professionally, to take the Queens Collective model and turn it into a community project or a nonprofit or a social impact LLC.
“That would be my career,” he says, “Not just a collective thing, but something that could sustain everyone involved in the production of these shows, to scale it up.”
As it turned out, Quisol found a way to scale up his vision by turning once again to the Gates Scholarship. The program funds graduate school in education, so Quisol applied to the foundation to fund a degree in Arts in Education from Harvard University.
“It’s not the stereotypical path of moving to L.A. and mixing and mingling with people until you end up on a huge record label,” he says.
Instead, Quisol went to Harvard to earn a master’s. He also cross-enrolled in the undergraduate school of music for his electives, where he took songwriting and composition with jazz musicians like pianist and MacArthur Genius Vijay Iyer and Grammy award-winner Esperanza Spalding.
In Spalding’s class, Quisol studied music activism, looking at singer-songwriters who wrote lyrics and performed songs that raised awareness about issues. Of particular interest to him was the song “Huelga en General,” which translates to “General Strike,” written by Luis Valdez.
The protest tune became popular during the Delano Grape Strikes of 1965, a labor dispute turned civil rights struggle. “Huelga en General” fostered solidarity between Filipino and Mexican farmworkers striking for better wages and working conditions. With his part-Filipino heritage, the song spoke to Quisol.
When Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, that hit close to home for him as well. He organized an interview and live session with Fabiola Mendez, a Puerto Rican cuatro player, the commonwealth’s national instrument. The event raised awareness about U.S./Puerto Rico relations and the legacy of American colonialism.
Music for love
Quisol further put his entwined interests and expertise in music and organizing to work in crafting his first album Revelations. He was awarded a $15,000 Live Arts Boston Grant from The Boston Foundation to begin sessions and production on the full-length release, which features an all-star lineup of queer and trans artists of color from Boston, Charlotte, and beyond.
Released in March 2019, Revelations opens with a quote by Boston-based queer, nonbinary, Afro-Puerto Rican poet Eddie Maisonet: “I woke up with guitar strings in my belly.”
A standout track on the album, “We Must Go” is a collaboration between Quisol and Charlotte R&B artist Dexter Jordan. It was inspired by a meeting between the two men when they were both in Uptown Charlotte during the 2016 protests.
“[The song] is about the feeling of that protest moment, the urge inside,” Quisol offers. “It’s like, ‘This is a moment we need to protest, but there is a lot of doubt and anxiety surrounding it, too.’”
Revelations amplifies causes like LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter, but one song on the album, “Blue Curaçao,” foreshadows the turn to personal issues that concerns Quisol’s newest music. The tune’s title, based on the liqueur blue curaçao, is political in nature, he says. Spanish colonists planted Mediterranean citrus trees on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, but the resulting fruit was bitter and unappetizing. When Dutch colonists replaced the Spanish on the island, they took the bitter fruits and turned them into a liqueur, dyed it blue and sold it.
“It just felt like this extraction, like how much more money can we pull out of this island and it’s natural resources,” Quisol says. Yet, despite the song’s politically inspired title, the lush alternative R&B-inflected tune is personal, applying the symbolism of a draining ruling regime to a toxic personal relationship.
The video for the song goes further into affairs of the heart, offering sensuous imagery of Quisol luxuriating in the deep blue waters of Lake Mono in the snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Amid a beautiful yet alien landscape of jagged limestone spires, Quisol emerges from the water and executes a series of martial arts moves — he holds a blackbelt in taekwondo — in a sequence that suggests a healing ritual.
After Boston, Quisol lived in San Francisco for two years, where he organized with the Tenants’ Union, a group working against corporate landlords to secure better rent and living conditions.
Quisol continues to support organizations that work for issues like housing justice with graphic design work and media consulting. He is currently a co-director for Arts Connect International, a nonprofit that builds equity and inclusion through the arts. He runs an internship program for the organization, bringing undergrad students from marginalized backgrounds into arts leadership positions.
Quisol believes his work as an organizer feeds into his music career and vice versa.
“My whole music career is without a label,” he says. “It’s grassroots. It’s making stuff and putting it out. It’s like … how do you build a base for a movement? We have many movements, and one of my movements is my music.”
While in San Francisco, Quisol was exposed to new production techniques that he quickly adopted.
“There are tons of people doing music different from top 40 music that has a lot of the same elements,” he says. “They’ll still have that electronic sound, but it’s more niche execution and delivery. It’s alternative music, but it’s alternative pop music.”
Quisol applies those techniques, including pitch shifting of vocals, to his new music, which he describes as “accessible and relatable while still being authentic.”
“Because of my identity, I feel like an outsider a lot of the time — a brown person with a mixed Asian and Latino background,” he says. “So, I find some power in being able to say I make pop music and it’s not [something] weird.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic setting in and wildfires raging across California, Quisol decided to return home to North Carolina. He currently resides in Mooresville.
He wrote Dreamworld during the pandemic, accessing his hopes, dreams and feelings about love and relationships. He’s assembled a band comprised of drummer Nik Maldonado, bassist Max Hoffman, synthesizer player Walker McNeil and Michael Gonzalez on congas to play the new album live at Snug Harbor on June 10.
“When I made Revelations I felt there was so much to be said,” he says. “I had been protesting to get people to hear about the issues.”
But by 2022, with the pandemic dragging on and having experienced new momentum in the protest movement after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Quisol says he felt like the mainstream had finally been forced to face reality.
“I felt I said my piece and really needed to write Dreamworld to process my inner world,” he says.
The resulting songs feature electronic production, strings and piano. Some of the tunes are more classical sounding while others have jazz chords on guitar, and Quisol says he has sequenced them in a way that will engage the listener and take them on a journey.
The album is definitely a departure from Quisol’s previous social movement music, an inward turn to all the feelings associated with love. He calls it heartfelt music — positive, uplifting and also queer.
“It has a vibe for the LGBTQ community to [foster] some self-love and some mindfulness,” Quisol says. “It’s a reminder of the beauty in the world, and I think it’s hopeful. It has a lot of the feelings that I have experienced from praise music.”
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