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What Is Real: An Interview with Trevor Lee

The rapper Trevor Lee rose to fame as an early American adopter of TikTok with viral hit “Barbershop Freestyle” in 2018. He got his professional start as a creative director after moving to Houston in his senior year of high school but soon found his way to the stage and has since performed at festivals such as Boomin’ by the Bay and SXSW. His debut album Struggle Ain’t New was released by Rapture Records in 2017, followed by “Barbershop Freestyle”, the first in a chain of hit singles such as “Twenny Pho”, “Perspectiv”, and “Worth It” among many others. The newest, “Contagious Views”, is an addictively energetic and strikingly vulnerable exploration of how his own mental health trials associated with overwhelming anxiety and extreme weight loss relate to each listener’s individual experience of 2020.

Amelia Spalter: Your new single “Contagious Views” is actually about general mental health and self-care just as much as the pandemic. Which of those themes came first as you were writing it?

Trevor Lee: Honestly, this was written to help myself. I was experiencing what I hadn’t realized was increasing general anxiety for years now. Some impactful things happened in my life that affected my mental health and broke the seal for anxiety to really run my life for a little bit. I was on some ADHD medicine, and I knew there were concerns about it increasing my OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]. The last year has been the most mentally overwhelming year I’ve ever experienced, but not because of what I was going through. In fact, honestly, what I was going through wasn’t anywhere near some of the things I’ve already overcome. It was the medication that was making my anxiety and OCD so easily triggered.

With things shutting down this year, all I was left with was what triggered me, because I couldn’t move forward. At least, that’s what it felt like and what it sometimes still feels like. It’s hard to move forward. So I decided that I was no longer going to be a victim of what now had turned from general anxiety to anxiety attacks that would plague me throughout the night. I’ve never been tortured before, but I feel as though that’s the closest [comparison I can probably draw]. It was to the point where the pain was so mentally and physically relentless that it seemed the only way out would be to end it. Not because I felt like, “Woe is me,” but because in that moment, the agony is so overwhelming that you’re like, “I just want it to stop.” From my very limited understanding, I think that’s probably what people who are tortured feel. I no longer wanted to feel that, so I started to go into the woods and get back to moving, being outside, and getting endorphins running. And when I started those times in the woods, I wrote “Contagious Views”.

AS: What would you most like “Contagious Views” to accomplish?

TE: “Contagious Views” is literally just a reminder to myself of what is real and that the anxiety is a lie. Yes, you can really be stressed about something, but anxiety that moves you in a way that is irrational is not real. The team heard “Contagious Views”, and what we noticed is the more we listened to it, the more it applied to this year. We also realized how helpful it could be to people by reminding them what really matters the most, which is critical thinking, a balanced understanding, and holding a resolve that surpasses any given emotion or passion that seems out of hand.

AS: You have a cult following on social media and were an early adopter of TikTok in the U.S. How do you navigate that constant digital engagement alongside your strong mental health focus?

TE: There are pros and cons to living in a technologically advanced world and the freedom to be connected at all times that comes with it. As it applies to mental health, do not forget to protect your own connection with yourself. Just because you can be connected all the time doesn’t mean you have to be connected all the time. They say—I don’t know who “they” are, this is just something I read somewhere—but they say that the first and last thirty minutes of your day are when your mental state is the most vulnerable. So, whatever you do in the first thirty minutes is going to decide your day. And whatever you [habitually] do in the first thirty minutes of your days is going to decide how your life plays out. So, unplug for that first thirty minutes of the day. Like, I put on some music. I have a playlist called “Productive Morning Playlist” that really just gives me the right mindset. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s a simple thing that anyone can apply.

AS: You’ve lost around 100 pounds. What role did being a public figure in such a body conscious industry play in the initial decision, intermediate process, and overall reception of your weight loss? 

TE: I started my body transition seven years ago, before this version of Trevor Lee was ever available to be experienced. As somebody who is very entrepreneurial and just knows themselves, I knew that I did not have the capacity to drop a hundred pounds for health in like just one sitting. So, I started learning and changing my habits slowly, dropping a portion of weight every year. Yes, people responded to the weight loss. But the benefit is that I feel better in this form. Not because of what anyone else says, but because when I look in the mirror, I feel like I look like how I’m supposed to. It’s really being able to do a backflip on stage when I want to. Those are just my personal goals. Everyone, no matter where they’re at, should not feel pressured to be any way other than what they want to be. If you want to be different, move forward and take the steps to be different. If you are comfortable with who you are and think that’s where you are happiest, then be there.

AS: How do you remain connected to your existing fans while continuing to expand to larger audiences?

TE: I treasure every single person that gets caught up and inspired by the music or vibes. I am so appreciative of whatever version of connection they have with my content. I decided a long time ago that I’ll take a thousand diehard engagers over a million people who may or may not truly care. I think you can attribute that to the fact that I was an only child growing up, and maybe I’ve got some “daddy issues” too, so that underlying place of needing approval when I was younger may still drive me a little today. I enjoy the approval that comes from someone really jamming with my music. I don’t need it, but I definitely enjoy it.

I’ve grown a special relationship with my Tree Gang [Trevor Lee, Tree.] There are times when you’re not posting as much on purpose, because you don’t want to burn anybody out, so people engage at different times throughout the year, but they never leave. They are always back for more Tree Gang moments, and that’s very special to me. We try to stay thick, like, we try to stay connected. I’m always reachable for my fans. And who knows if I’ll always be able to be this reachable, you know? I’ll always be this person, but I’m just really grateful to have this time where I can respond to the gang and know they feel like they can be heard. 

AS: There is an elite core of the Tree Gang called the Inner Circle, and—

TE: Whoa, you did your research, because the Inner Circle is never spoken about. If you think you belong in the Inner Circle, you’re just going to have to apply and find out.

AS: Do you want to expand on that, or …?

TE: That’s all I got for you. The Inner Circle is not spoken about.

AS: As a touring musician whose life previously consisted primarily of, literally, traveling and socializing, how have the stay-at-home/social-distancing orders impacted the way you spend your time and who you see yourself as? 

TE: I’ve definitely struggled with my own identity in this crisis, so to speak. It’s left me alone to reflect on where I really find my source of value or my source of light. I’ve learned a couple things about myself and I’m really grateful for that, because I think that the challenge is turning what feels like a negative into an opportunity. Different times, just like different opinions, are opportunities to grow, to rise to the challenge and be more open-minded and understanding rather than withdrawing and disconnecting.

It’s funny how we can be so connected, and yet strive for so much disconnection. We disconnect at the drop of a hat when things get uncomfortable. It can make us angry that another person won’t immediately connect or disconnect. This cultural thing stemmed from the digital world, but now we’re starting to see it in our relationships in the [physical] world. Being so connected on digital platforms has allowed for self to become greater than the commonwealth or the common health. But I think they’re equal, I don’t think one is supposed to be greater than the other.

Travel, although very beneficial and an extremely good source of endorphins and fulfillment, also takes time—time that I now have to develop skills and habits and things like that. I built a home studio from scratch with my hands. So I’ve spent a lot of time at Lowe’s, I’ve been woodworking. I’m not a master woodworker at all, real woodworkers would look at my accomplishments and scoff. But I made a shoe rack, I made a desk, I did the sound design for the whole studio custom-fitted to the room, so I felt pretty accomplished. I’m also doing some other things in music that we’ll find out about.

AS: What’s something you’ve been listening to recently that you recommend everyone add to their playlist right now?

TE: I would listen to Druzu, “The Race.”

AS: You’re never rapping about being posted up on the corner waiting for the next big score, or buying a matching Rolex for your other arm, or anything like that. Do you intentionally avoid those things, or are existential crises and ex-girlfriends just more inspiring to you?

TE: That’s not my culture. When I was younger, I had friends that dealt drugs and did illegal activities, but I pretty much just didn’t. I talk about what is most important to me, and I present the music in a way that is meaningful. For example, if you go to “Worth It,” it’s a record about someone who cheated on you. But in the record, I don’t give an answer to what you’re supposed to do. It’s played as a reflection. It’s like, “It used to be you, me and Moscato. We were all good-looking like models. And you played me. While I was in warming up the sheets waiting for you, you were out doing this.” Instead of approaching that topic like, “Oh, shame on you, I’m over you,” or “Why did you have to do that?” or whatever, it’s more like, “Hey, now that we know what all happened, was it really worth it? Because I know what you took for granted.” But it doesn’t say what actions you’re supposed to take. It just gives you a balanced way to process it. Just like how “Pause” is a balanced way to process a love that you feel is forever. It’s me taking a moment, a feeling, and making it into an actual song. Taking the complex emotions that you felt in just a split second and really diving into the layers of them. That is what “Contagious Views” is. That’s what all my music does. It’s a breakdown of a singular moment so that you can remember what’s real and what’s not.

AS: Your songs deal with distinctly adult topics but are reasonably family-friendly. Is that a deliberate expression of your faith or an organic facet of your personality?

TE: That doesn’t contribute to my faith, that contributes to the fact that I’ve got a mother I care about. I refuse to make her feel embarrassed and I need her to be proud of her son. I’ve also got family, friends, and significant others who I want to be proud to call me whatever I am to them. Maybe not all of them would care if I said a curse word or anything like that. But if Will Smith made hit records, man, I can do it too. To quote 2 Chainz, “I’m trying to make my mama proud.”

AS: Your music has indirectly referenced “self-care” in the context of everything from fostering meaningful relationships to eating phở. It’s a term that’s always been used loosely but has taken on a renewed importance in 2020. Now, having just made a song about mental health in modern times, how exactly do you define self-care?

TE: I love how you just brought phở into the equation. Phở is my self-care. In fact, after this, forget whatever else I have planned, I’m going and getting me some phở. You’re going to make me cry. I need to go eat some phở… However, self-care is not a selfish desire to separate your needs from other people’s needs. That is not what it is, I know that. Self-care is taking care of the things and people that you feel contribute to who you are and make your life how you want it to be. It is not, “Forget everybody else, I need some phở.” It’s, “Forget whatever I had planned. I need some phở and I’m going to invite a couple of friends that I care about to go, because they might need some phở too.”

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.