Just after he got out of a mental hospital, Norvis Junior had an epiphany. Checked in against his will, he spent weeks under surveillance after suffering a nervous breakdown. He turned to music to help him heal, and in the process he struck on a captivating sound that was all his own. Junior calls it space gospel, and it's been getting him a surprising amount of attention.
“I think it’s completely healthy to have a panic attack, go crazy, feel like you want to kill yourself, and go to a place where someone speaks to you to find out who you are," he says. “I think it’s wrong to look down on people who have these breakdowns. Everyone is unhealthy sometimes.”
He was in the hospital for weeks, but believes it was a positive experience. He was encouraged to be creative. “The thing they taught me most in terms of healing is that you have to create something,” Junior says. “The process of creating is the process of healing because it is one where you make the connection within parts of your brain and body. A melody starts in your brain and you process it with your body.”
When Junior left the hospital he started making beats on his laptop. He moved to New York City and continued to develop his music, eventually referring to it as space gospel, albeit by accident. A friend referred to someone as a “space goddess” and he heard “space gospel.”
But Junior recognized it as a good way to describe his sound. “We’re in outer space and anything that’s honest and true is gospel,” he says.
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From his latest EP, Pyrric Victory Disc 03, the song “Kissing On Your Back” has a beat that sounds similar to the hand claps of old gospel songs, or even spirituals. But the overall sound is electronic and futuristic. It also gets experimental enough to be best described as kaleidoscopic. “I’m spiritual, I’m present, I’m me” Junior says. “But I don’t think you have to be religious to be spiritual, or spiritual to be religious.” He also has a vocal style that is difficult to describe; Junior isn’t so much rapping or singing but making a beat.
Having studied music as a jazz vocalist at Booker T, he is a beat maker no matter what he is doing. Some of his first beats came from beatboxing. Regardless of whether he's working on music or vocals, Junior is creating a repetitive beat that fits. But his vocals frequently resemble chants, nodding again to spirituals. What makes this music so interesting is that it sounds like some of America’s oldest music mixed with some of its newest.
And his music has been getting a lot of attention in the past few months.
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JT Donaldson from Josey Records met Junior in New York City a few months ago and immediately decided he wanted to release Pyrric Victory Disc 03 on vinyl via his label, New Math Records. “One of the things that attracted me is that I haven’t heard anything quite like it,” Donaldson says. “It’s hard to put my finger on it. It definitely has some Madlib and Flying Lotus influences. But I don’t think it’s something blueprinted by other artists. He does his own thing and just has great energy. He captivates an audience.”
Initially interested in making a music video for one of Junior’s songs, filmmaker Terence Nance wrote and directed Swimming in Your Skin Again, a 20-minute experimental film featuring Junior and his music. The film was shown at a few festivals, including Sundance in January, where Junior performed live.
He has now played shows in several major cities across the country and just made several appearances at South by Southwest. Last week he was in Los Angeles doing interviews with KCRW and Dublab, who have his songs in rotation. In the U.K., his music has started appearing on BBC radio stations.
“The process of creating music keeps me sane to a certain extent,” Junior says. “It drives me to heal. The idea of it catching on is so weird to me. I don’t think it’s got to the point of telepathy. I can’t expect how it will affect different people. But it’s about everybody being well.”