Dabbling in poetry, music and game design, Norman Wilkerson makes himself a triple threat. With his bold new release Illusions of Grandeur, he returns to the indie scene diving headfirst into the darker side of the genre. Check out what he had to say about this newest passion project:
Before we dive into the album, let’s talk about you as a musician. Introduce yourself. Where are you from? When and how did you get your start in music?
Hey McKayla! First, I’d like to thank you for listening and the opportunity to talk about my album with you, it means a great deal to me. So, my name is Norman Wilkerson. I’m a musician, artist, writer, and game designer. I’m originally from Houston, Texas, though I’m currently residing in the natural state of Arkansas.
I feel I owe my true start in music to Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust.
It was an early birthday gift, a chance to see one of my favorite bands, Sevendust, with Red, Diecast, and Invitro on March 2, 2007. The gift included not only watching them live but their new CD Alpha, an Alpha graphic tee and a pass to go backstage to meet Sevendust for a signing.
All I could think was, “Norman, whatever you do, be cool. This is your chance to speak to a group of men you have looked up to since their first album, don’t f@#$ this up.”
I’m talking with Morgan about his amazing ability to drum and sing at the same time and Lajon overhears my line of questioning. He stands ups, jumps in the conversation, and sticks his hand out for me to shake it, pulls me over the table for a half-hug and then asks: “Hey man, what’s your name?”
He thanks me for being a loyal fan, but then asks, “So what do you do, you play any?”
I’m freaking out in my mind, you know, so I pull myself together real fast and tell him I used to sing and play bass but I kind of gave it up, it seemed to never work out for me. He gives me this kind of “What?” look, then tells me something to the degree of, “Hey man no, no, you need to keep playing. don’t give up, never give up, don’t do that to yourself. Keep playing, it will work out, trust me.”
I left thinking, Lajon Witherspoon just told me to go back and play music, never give up,… Lajon “mutherfreakin” Witherspoon just told me to go pick music back up! So I’m thinking at this point, how was I going to disobey a rock god like Lajon Witherspoon?
So after a little over a year of writing new lyrics and creating a band logo and merchandise designs, the band I created in April of 2008, Black Suit Karma, with newfound friends grows quickly from an idea to touring for over a year, opening for bands like Straight Line Stitch, making a music video, playing SXSW in 2009, and having hundreds of fans scream my words back at me as I sang to them. It worked I thought, just as Lajon Witherspoon stated, “keep playing, it will work out, trust me.” So honestly, that is the real, “When and how I got my start in music.”
How has music impacted you personally? What role has it played in your personal development?
Crazy to think about now, but there was a time I was shy, really shy. I think maybe that guy is still there a bit time to time, but when I took the step to stand before a crowd on stage and sing, that shell cracked, fell to the ground and a more social guy emerged. Music is such a grand magical thing, it can unite people in a way that I don’t really think anything else on Earth can do. So to be able to be a part of that magic in a way where I’ve crossed the line from crowd to performer and given back with my music and/or lyrics in a way someone is moved emotionally, perhaps help someone deal with something going on in their life, or simply bring strangers together in a crowd or conversation, I feel like I’ve developed as a human, I’ve given back a piece of what I’ve taken in a sense.
Which artists do you look up to in the industry? Do you model your sound after anyone in particular?
Obviously, Lajon Witherspoon as I mentioned previously. My view of his words of wisdom help define my music career. Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Trent Reznor hit home as well. These guys are multi-talented, they go way beyond just music, which I know many do out there, but these guys just really set the bar for me as I look at them and I’m like okay you can do music, you can be a father, you can write a book, be an actor, make soundtracks, do a talk show, and on and on. They show you’re not nailed down to one idea; you can evolve, grow and do so much more. They show lives lived full of journeys and adventures with numerous different types of reward. I admire that and I push myself to follow that standard, to challenge myself every day to make something honest and real, whether it’s ugly or beautiful.
As far as my sound it comes from a lifetime of influences, hard for me to say one over another, but I’ve always enjoyed the hypnotic music that Mazzy Star, She Wants Revenge, and The Cure has always produced. I love the long intros to their songs. They set up a stage before the words come down to tell the story. The same with vocal sounds such as David Bowie, Meat Loaf, and Linda Perry, just to name a small few. It’s not long intros but with the swells of the emotions, you’re not listening to just someone sing, you’re listening to a soul playing out scenes of life, albeit raging highs or calming lows. You’re in it, living it, and you can’t get out until they let you. That’s real moving power.
What inspired your album Illusions of Grandeur?
Age and those defining moments mostly. I had a moment where I’m standing looking at myself in the mirror, and I looked beyond my own surface and really saw my life to that point in time. So posing the question “What do you have to say for yourself?” The answer lied in a box of pages and pages of poems, lyrics, and thoughts. I knew that I could either let them stay there, quiet like the dead with a story to tell to no audience, or I could go through them and build a book to share with the world. This was the journey that would one day become Illusions of Grandeur, a companion album to a book of poetry.
How does the name of the album tie all the tracks together?
The word “grandeur” is defined as, splendor, a sense of notion of importance.
As I’ve travelled through my own life, I’ve had these moments of thinking what I said or did at the time was of this superior importance, even more, material things I had or wanted or vices that controlled me were of this ideal importance, that they made me. However, they were only illusions, tricks I played on myself or tricks someone played on me. So some tracks reflect these moments in my life where I believed that idea. Others reflect the aftermath of the illusion fading away.
It’s no secret that this album has a dark side. Does this give us a look at the real you and your personal experience or is it more a persona you’ve adopted in songwriting?
Yeah, no secret there; I have a dark side and it’s a true look at me, but all pages have two sides. I just seem to write the best from this side of me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great times in my life: love, friends, family, and I hope for more. However, I’ve had a lot of heartache, sorrow, and loss. More bad than good, so the dark side of the soul and mind is something I know well and it’s easy to express musically for me.
Explain the album artwork. Did you design it yourself? What does it represent?
I design comics. It’s something I did before music found its way into my life and I’m revisiting it more these days as a great vessel for storytelling. So when I designed the album cover, I wanted this image to have a familiar invite of comic book art. I also wanted it to reflect that idea of illusions that I’ve dealt with, such as vices and how I could come to see myself as a negative from those things.
Prophet, which is the character’s name, when you look at him you can see how illusions manifest, such as smoking looks cool but it’s a killer, wearing a mask to hide the real you only leads to a new type of monster emerging, and the black wings to the side in the background are a shadow of their former self, because every devil wants to be an angel again after the fall is done with them. The cover image as a whole is a reflection of vices and what they become, illusions that only scar you in the end.
Which song on the album is your favorite and why?
“I Am Samurai” is my favorite by far; it was probably the easiest to write as well. Coming in later during the album creation process, it’s a great summary of my feelings. It’s this poem about times gone, great tales that are over, my honor and loyalty is done, I’ve served my heart well.
I’m telling myself “I am Samurai and I’ve fought the day and conquered the night. Go rest samurai. Go rest knowing you’re done.”
Which song was the most difficult to write?
“Fossil” was the most difficult, due to the subject matter. I had to stop and do a few retakes because of crying and losing myself in the work. The song is about me being here after my heroes have all gone. For me, Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence, Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and the list goes on. These guys fought with mental illness and in the end, lost the fight. I don’t hide; I know this struggle. I’ve battled it now over many years, but my fight and victory of being alive today I think sometimes can maybe help someone else fight and survive like me. That being said, writing “Fossil” and singing it was the most difficult work of art I’ve ever made.
How long did it take you to write Illusions of Grandeur in its entirety?
What would become Illusions of Grandeur started in late 2010 and due to life and other events such as going to college for four years to get my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design, I didn’t finish the album until the end of 2018 first half of this year 2019 so about ten years too long.
Have you performed the album live yet? Do you enjoy performing?
I would like to perform the album live and I’m currently looking into building a tour for this project with even a few coffee shop poetry reads from the book I released titled Wolves Among Me, a collection of poems included. I’d like to do something personal, get involved with the crowd on this project. I love performing. When I toured as Black Suit Karma and then as Between Crows & Thieves, the interaction with the crowds was the best feeling in the world. People singing along, meeting so many different walks of life, and listening to others share their stories and lives with me was great — a real honor.
What is your favorite part of being a musician (writing, performing, mixing, etc.)?
Always a mix of everything honestly. But I do love starting with this raw, bare bones idea and as I build on it, to hear it become something sharable with the world that once was just a little noise or a line of words in my head. Another part of that is the studio experience. I’ve recorded every album in my career at Blue Chair Recording Studio with Darian Stribling. I would take those ideas into the studio, play them for Darian, and he would direct me to finding my best “me” for each track by challenging me to sing deeper, go louder, hold a note longer or add another guitar here or there. When you’re creating art or music, having someone that sees your vision and helps you shape the best version of you inside it, that’s a rush honestly.
Can we expect more from you in the near future? What’s next on your agenda?
Yes, and I can say this time it will not take another ten years! I can’t believe it took me that long. But seriously, as I was finishing up this album, I managed to write something different that I’m looking forward to sharing next year. Also, I’m working on a series of comics for next year and a 2D pixel video game adventure for home consoles that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. So you can expect much more in the coming years from different directions.
And my final question that I always have to ask… What is your favorite dipping sauce?
So many good dipping sauces out there that’s hard to give a favorite, but I’d say a good ranch dipping sauce like the one from Chili’s is at the top. It kind of goes with a little bit of everything. Texas cheese fries to pizza crust. But that’s just me.
Find Norman Wilkerson on social media and Spotify for personal updates and new music.