switched on pop

The Secret to Silk Sonic’s Sauce

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Singer-songwriter Tayla Parx has written hits for the biggest acts in pop, from Ariana Grande (“thank u, next”) to Panic! at the Disco (“High Hopes”) to Khalid (“Love Lies”). The Dallas-born 27-year-old’s prolific résumé also includes a collaboration with Anderson .Paak on his track “Tints,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, and two solo albums in the past two years. In demand thanks to her knack for crafting the perfect topline and her encyclopedic knowledge of music history, she has had her finger on the pulse of the industry for years. So much so that Switched on Pop co-host Charlie Harding was inclined to call Parx to get her expertise on a burning question: Why can’t he (and everyone) get the retro sounds of “Leave the Door Open,” .Paak’s new song with Bruno Mars (their debut as the duo Silk Sonic), out of his head?

Parx immediately noted that Silk Sonic didn’t come up with the slinky soul jam in a vacuum. In her songwriting sessions, she has been observing a trend. “I think every year there’s at least one moment of nostalgia. We went through a phase in which everything was ’90s, when Bruno and Cardi B did the ‘Finesse (Remix)’ together,” she says. “Well, right now, we’re kind of in the loop of the late ’70s, early ’80s.” To Parx’s ears, acts like Silk Sonic aren’t just aping the sounds of pop-music history — they’re adapting them with contemporary vocal cadences and hip-hop-originated flows that collapse past and present into one.

In this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, Harding and Nate Sloan break down the Philly soul and Quiet Storm references that undergird Silk Sonic’s throwback hit. Parx drops by to school the guys on writing a retro-soul jam for the ages and why listeners may be ready for a blast from the past.

Charlie Harding: “Leave the Door Open” is just like 1970s Philadelphia soul. And it’s a very winking song; it’s taking itself extremely serious musically and it’s very lighthearted, lyrically.

It feels so nostalgic because it feels like it’s recorded to tape. I don’t even know if it has a click [track]. It feels like just live musicians. There’s no samples on here that I can identify. And yet, it still sounds really contemporary. And the thing for me that was doing that was Anderson’s vocal; he has a certain flow, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

Having worked with him on his record Oxnard, I was wondering if you could walk me through his parts on this song. Is there anything you immediately identify that feels like what’s happening now as opposed to what would have been happening in like the ’70s?

Tayla Parx: It doesn’t sound like people trying to do music back then. It sounds like his own interpretation, which he’s very good for because he’s a musician. And when you’re a student of music, you can say, “What is it specifically that I liked about that, that I’m trying to capture now?” Because Bruno is also a musician, they’re able to really play “shuffle.”

I can’t imagine how many changes the song probably went though, in drum patterns, or in melodic or rhythmic or cadences. What makes it feel so today is, lyrically, it’s so conversational. And of course his personality is shining through. You can tell that this is just somebody who’s a little bit silly.

There’s this line in particular that, for me, was like a giveaway to the modernity. At the end of the first verse, Paak goes: “My house, cleaned / My pool, warm / Just shaved, smooth like a newborn / We should be dancing, romancin’ / In the East Wing and the West Wing of this mansion, what’s happening?”

That is very, very good. It has that thing where it’s like, “Mmm!” You can hear [the early influences] in his voice, but those cadences are still very contemporary. [There’s a similar sound on] the verse on “Dance Alone” [Parx’s 2020 single], too.

But it’s only when you get to the section where .Paak sings “kissing, cuddling” [in a more classic style] that it’s like, “Oh, okay. I see what you’re doing,” Everything else is just new and very him, because he always had that way of genuinely saying, “I know you can hear those influences. Look how I made them my own.”

It gets jazzy here, and it doesn’t get jazzy just for the sake of pleasing, you know, jazz nerds like yourself, Nate.

Nate Sloan: Right. The harmony snobs.

They are using harmony to take us on a real journey because this song is about leaving the door open, and Bruno and Anderson are waiting for the object of their affection to walk right through. But they’re not going to give that away right from the start. They’re going to make us work for it. And the way that they do this is they start with this non-resolving chord progression, which never lands in the home key but uses these really luscious chords.

These chords could go anywhere. It’s open, ethereal, smoky. You can see the choreography just from them: We’ve got Anderson setting the scene, sipping wine, and hanging out in his mansion, hoping for the love of his life to walk on through that door. But Anderson’s dreams in the verse are not going to be immediately fulfilled. Instead, we have to go to stage left, pull in Bruno Mars, and Bruno takes our chords into a whole new territory; he modulates into this very strange place, a whole new key. The energy continues to build, all this tension growing. He sets up this big cadence, and you think it’s going to land us into this final resolution, and … no.

We land back in the chorus, back into our non-resolving chord progression, moving around feeling really unsure what’s going to happen. They’re saying, “I’m gonna leave the door open,” and it’s not until the very end of the chorus, a minute into the song, that we finally get that resolution. We land on our nice, big, cozy, C major chord. It’s our home key. We’ve arrived. And, of course, what happens right here? They sing, “Baby, tell me that you’re coming through.” Someone’s going to walk through that door, and we finally know where we are. We have a sense of being at ease.

Nate: Deeply. I am digging this harmonic adventure.

Tayla, what is 2021 sounding like so far from inside the rooms where the sausage gets made? You’re in these songwriting camps and sessions writing lots of songs. What’s the feeling?

I think we’re in a very interesting phase over the next two or three months. People were going to disco it on out, but we’re coming to the end of that. I think we’re still going to be in this nostalgic vibe, but exploring different parts of those things that we enjoy about the ’70s; we might even go further back Every genre is doing a different thing. When I was in Nashville, every artist was very much in their crossover-country record phase. One session I did something that had an old kind of Willie Nelson vibe. My hope is that [artists] will take advantage of the fact that people just want to hear something real right now.

I’ve been seeing the reaction to “POV” on the charts [by Ariana Grande, co-written by Parx], and it’s a ballad. People love a bop, but I think we’re going to have a lot more ballads [like those]. In the ’60s and ’70s, they had artists that were making songs that had to do with the climate of the world. We don’t have that type of [motivation] anymore, but I think that artists are understanding how important it is to be talking about what is going on now. Not in a preachy, obvious way, but something. The artists that I’ve been working with, that my friends are working with, they want to talk about real stuff. Real things that are real to them. Not that having fun is not real. But there’s an evolution happening, subject-wise.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The Secret to Silk Sonic’s Sauce