Breaking boundaries with Maxo Pardo and Weighted Keys

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This spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down with RnB vocalist, producer, and Tufts Alum Maxo Pardo (Max Hornung) as well as producer and Tufts senior WeightedKeys (Bryan Cleveland) to talk about Maxo’s new EP, Boundaries. Our interview also touched on their journeys as Tufts artists and the ways in which the music scene at Tufts has connected them to the resources and people necessary for such projects. Boundaries, released in early February, is true to its name. The EP just as much tests the limits of genre-classification as it tests the definitions we apply to each other and ourselves. It also stands as a testament to Tufts students’ creative spirit, and showcases the university’s artistic community can nurture musicians both during and after their time on the Medford campus.

In one sense, the boundaries pushed in this EP are sonic ones. Both artists come from a distinct jazz background, and something that shines through in the EP is their vast range of genre influences, from Blues to Hip-Hop. The album’s opening track is emblematic of this—taking Ella Fitzgerald’s masterful rendition of the Gershwin classic “But Not for Me” and giving it a distinctively Trap turn with added instrumentation and production. The sonic goal of Boundaries is partially to inject musical forms with elements not typically associated with those styles; thus, testing the boxes that we attempt to sort music into. This injection is most obvious when the two producers create lush and complex harmonies out of overlapping recordings of Maxo singing and place them over catchy Trap beats.  

In another sense, Maxo Pardo pushed boundaries in his performing and writing. Citing his work as a college adviser and music teacher at an alternative high-school, Maxo Pardo said, “there’s a level at which you need to ignore boundaries in order to connect with students in a meaningful way… but there are also times in which you need stricter boundaries.” He brings this same versatility when it comes to his writing. This is shown in his ongoing and active project to balance lyrical sensitivity with artistic expression. Just like with his students, he makes sense of context during live performances and adjusts his lyrics accordingly. Lyrically, Maxo does not allow his EP, nor his individual songs, to be forced into particular thematic molds. When I asked him about the major themes embedded in Boundaries, Maxo said “this project gives an insight into how I think about shit and process shit,” a quote that explains the EP’s parallactic style. Heartbreak anthems, party bops, comical tracks, and songs addressing white supremacy’s oppressive and prevailing structures are all present here, yet no single one characterizes Boundaries. Disparate themes are unified by Maxo’s style of thought, observation, and interpretations. He emphasized how these subjects often blend into each-other, with serious themes being embedded into the more light-hearted tracks and vice-versa.

None of this would have been possible if Tufts’ artistic community did not punch above its weight-class. Both artists are veterans of the Tufts Neo-Soul, Jazz, and Hip-Hop fusion outfit Smoking Babies, a name any upperclassperson should recognize. Though collaborators on the new project are drawn from the band, their place in the Tufts music scene goes beyond Smoking Babies. For example, Maxo cited his time with S-Factor as an influence on his originality. Both artists pointed to Tufts Professor Joel LaRue Smith in the music department as a major influence in shaping their music as well—especially when it came to Jazz and its fusion with other genres. Even the resources available for recording, producing, and rehearsing at Tufts filled the gaps to allow them to create Boundaries in the DIY style that they wanted. When they eventually took the EP to a professional studio, they had finished everything but the mixing. Once there, they learned a lot and hope to do their own mixing in the future.

I was particularly struck by the story of how the two artists met, as it is an inspiration for aspiring musicians at Tufts. Maxo first encountered Bryan (before he was WeightedKeys) as a member of the Jazz Ensemble. Unlike the other musicians, Bryan had a clear Blues background when performing. “He wails,” Maxo recalled through laughter, “slams his feet… really feel yourself, I love that shit.” Following this the two started working together and, more importantly, supporting and encouraging each other through their developments as songwriters. “It all starts with finding friends through playing, whether that’s just finding a friend in the practice rooms or freestyle rapping in Dewick,” Maxo advises. After you have that baseline, Maxo advocates for getting involved with the classes and ensembles available at Tufts to hone your skills and get involved in the community.  

For listeners interested in seeing how Maxo and WeightedKeys challenge our musical and thematic definitions, Boundaries can be found on most platforms—SoundCloud, Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, and YouTube. Maxo Pardo also has a social media presence on Instagram (@Maxooph) and Facebook. The full interview transcript can also be found on melismamagazine.com for a deeper insight into how the EP was made.  

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