Daniel Caesar (Digital Cover Story)

Words by Erika Ramirez. Photography by Ysa Pérez. Styling by Sean Brown.

This is the story of a boy who doesn’t believe in love.

Ashton Simmonds, better known as Daniel Caesar, was born in Scarborough, but grew up in the suburbs of Oshawa in Ontario, Canada, seeing his parents, Hollace and Norwill Simmonds, devote themselves unwaveringly in the name of faith—faith in God as Seventh Day Adventists and, through way of God, faith in love for their family of six, including Daniel and his brothers Aaron,  Zachary and Kevin Simmonds.

His parents taught him, he says, that “love is possible, but you gotta love God first and partner second. Whoever or whatever takes the place of God in your life, you and your spouse both have to make that the most important thing or being in your lives, and through that bond, love will grow.”

The ones who taught us—and Caesar—about love were those who raised us through our knee-high years. What we learned about love shapes and influences us. It’s what we seek or run from when in the throe of intimacy. Whether or not we witnessed the toll of their efforts to maintain a “healthy” relationship (between them and with us), they offered us a script and that script shaped our expectations of romance.

“Your version of love is based off how your parents showed love to you; that’s your reference point, your basis,” Caesar says. “You have your version, your understanding of it and then you grow up and come in contact with other people and your concept of love is challenged because everyone has a different concept.”

What Caesar learned from his parents informs his definition of love, but it’s not what guides him; it’s mind over heart. As he’s experienced the feeling himself and endured anguish—the emotion that fueled his album Freudian—his ideology of those four letters has been tested and in turn shifted. Love, to him, is attraction and compatibility based off physical behavior and social constructs and signifiers. The heart wants what society tells the heart to want.

Love is subjective, which means that the only objective thing about it is the fact that it’s chemicals. Love is a chemical reaction.

“If you ask a hundred people what love is, you’ll get a hundred different answers. Love is subjective, which means that the only objective thing about it is the fact that it’s chemicals. Love is a chemical reaction,” says Caesar. “It’s a chemical, hormonal reaction that we feel. It’s a desire to procreate. It’s about making more of you so that you can live forever. Along with the fact that all we wanna do is procreate, we’re social species. Romance is the social aspect of love.”

What you define love as is subjective. We pull from past experiences, both joyous and heartbreaking (mostly heartbreaking, it feels like) and other branches of faith or science–either or, self-altering to the degree that our devotion to the concept changes, for the pure or evil. Freedom comes when we realize that we don’t have to experience life as we’ve been told to, or have seen lived, and then adjust our expectations and behavior. Or, we find comfort in the familiar, if not (re)create it, when we find someone new.

“It’s ironic how you don’t believe in love,” I tell him. “Isn’t it?” he replies. He’s told me before that he doesn’t believe in love, in the love that society feeds him. Perhaps what’s ironic isn’t that he doesn’t believe in love, but how I subconsciously want him to. I want him to believe in butterflies, magic, and fate. I want him to have faith in love, and as with faith, believe in what he can’t see. Ultimately, I want him to pacify a heavy heart, as he does with his music. For God’s sake, there’s wedding proposals popping up, left to right, at his shows; I even had the privilege of helping facilitate a proposal for a friend of mine at one of Caesar’s New York City concerts in October 2017.

Magic is what gets us out of bed in the morning. So much of what we see is impure and causes suffering. Love is hope.

“Magic is what gets us out of bed in the morning. So much of what we see is impure and causes suffering. Love is hope.” … “But, it’s empty,” I jadedly reply. Caesar laughs, “Yes, but it promises fulfillment. I think the good feeling is in the promise, and in the satisfaction of the flesh.”

You can live alone in a fantasy you built for two and believe, or be made to believe by your own self, that it’s reality, but then again, it’s the fantasy–this magic–that keeps us going. “We can have 100 bad experiences, but we’ll keep pursuing this magic, and then eventually you settle. You become bitter because you bought into the dream and came out short. We do it even with the small things. We’re just rationalizing suffering,” he reasons.

You’re sold what you believe. What’s of interest to Caesar is how society’s views on love have evolved. What’s of interest to Caesar is Yuval’s Harari’s Sapiens.

“The book has changed my perspective on many things. He (Harari) doesn’t present any theories. He breaks down the history of humanity and what we’ve done from the beginning until now. He points out patterns, and one of the patterns is the way love has changed throughout different societies. [A] society will come up and love is one thing and then it falls. Then another society comes up. In old societies there was no marriage. Love changes with every civilization which means it’s not a thing; it’s only a thing if there’s a God, and if he or she says it’s love. We interpret the meaning of love.”

We tend to gravitate towards someone who innately understands us, sometimes are like us, in order to feel a sense of belonging. According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), there’s a “neural link between affective understanding and interpersonal attraction.” “Being able to comprehend another person’s intentions and emotions is essential for successful social interaction,” Silke Anders, a professor of Social and Affective Neuroscience at the University of Lübeck and one of the author’s of the study, tells TIME. “To accomplish a common goal, partners must understand and continuously update information about their partner’s current intentions and motivation, anticipate the other’s behavior, and adapt their own behavior accordingly.”

“When you realize we’re social beings and recognize in yourself that sometimes you’re in instances where you act differently because you want people to like you, and that’s corny as fuck but you accept and notice that in yourself, then you realize how important social dynamics are to social species,” he says. “You then find someone that you gel with socially; it’s comforting because there’s a disconnect. Sometimes you go to places and you don’t gel socially with others. You get anxiety. You don’t wanna be there. You’re not happy. You then find someone…My favorite thing is when I find a girl and we can both be alone, while in the same room. We don’t have to talk. We can just do our own thing; it’s like we’re both there together because we care and respect each other.”

My favorite thing is when I find a girl and we can both be alone, while in the same room.

“I’ve been told I have extroverted moments. But I don’t feel like I’m an extrovert. I’m an introvert. So I need to be able to be an introvert, but with somebody else. They don’t have to be an introvert, they just have to understand me,” Caesar continues. “You gotta respect someone enough to wanna hang around. I don’t wanna hang around people that I feel like their morals are questionable. I’ve gotta believe in you. I gotta be able to share shit with you that I wouldn’t share with anyone else and trust you won’t share with anyone else, like, ‘that’s our thing.'”

What makes him stay is the beauty in stillness–an earnest indulgence. Stillness, and the trust built when simply being, bounded Caesar and his ex-lover until they recently parted ways. “She was one of those—I could not talk to her and we could still be in the same room…We both hate each other, but when we loved each other, we loved each other more than we loved anybody else. When we missed each other, then we’d get back together and we’d spend two or three days straight together, like literally not leave each other’s side.”

There was hurt, which he seems to unravel gradually, but you get a glimpse on “Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song),” especially when the CaDaRo Tribe choir
 open the song. “There are times I think about that fateful day I threw your love away. Every time I see that look upon your face, the same one that you made when your fragile world was crashing down around you. You realized your place and the darkness that you try so hard to subdue it cause you to change.”

What happens when the lust settles? When darkness looms? Caesar nestles in the distant pockets of his brain; initially seen as shelter to escape reality, but its grown to become a safe haven from disappointment.

What if he was the bad guy? After all, don’t majority of good guys turn bad after heartache? Or is there a darkness in all of us, but it’s simply not intense enough to lure one, or another, in until it is?

“Being taken advantage of, getting played. That’s how bad guys come to exist I think,” Caesar explains. “I want to be the bad guy. I want to exist on that side. But I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

The person that cares the least always wins.

Perhaps the latter realization is what’s kept Caesar from walking further into the dark; but it’s also why he’s struggled to find balance. Instead of being consumed by one’s own hurt, that’s shielded by anger, it’s freeing to not care. The sweetest revenge is to not care. (Of course, it’s easier said than done.) “You know what it is? I care too much about what other people think about me. I care very much. I would give anything to not care. I can’t. How do you turn that off?” he asks. “It stresses me out. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but it’s selfish of me to say what they wanna hear just to avoid problems, almost conflict aversion. I’m non-confrontational to a fault.”

“There’s freedom that comes with not caring,” I tell Caesar. “The person that cares the least always wins,” he replies.

Besides Sapiens, there’s another book that Caesar also lives by, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. And there’s one law in particular that Caesar thinks of: “Disdain the things that you cannot have.”

“If I love a girl and she doesn’t love me and she makes it clear, then I gotta switch it off. You don’t have to get mad. You don’t get sad. Nothing, and that’s with anything. Any loss you take, you can’t get mad about it,” he says. “I don’t like people knowing that they got me mad because it’s power; it’s also [me] assuming. I’m assuming that they’re a bad guy that came to hurt me. Maybe they’re just doing what they feel like doing and it unintentionally hurt me.”

In our moment, he seems to reflect, maybe as a way to ease what he can’t control, which includes hurt. Similar to on Freudian, there’s moments where he lets his lover and himself be, however much it’ll hurt or however much he’s aware that it’s over in order to avoid losing her or being lonely (“Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song),” “We Find Love”). Impulses override reasoning, passion is chosen over pride, and desiring someone while learning to let them go is torturous. “Send me kisses when its grey skies. It’s been so long, look how time flies,” he sings on the album title track. “If you love me won’t you let me know. I’ve been trying to learn to let you go.”

He uses “stuck” and “hold me down”–terms normally deemed as negative–in a manner that amplifies the harsh beauty, as much as the harsh reality, of love; it’s heart wrenching to find your own truth within this honesty, especially on my favorite song off Freudian, “Blessed.” “Yes, I’m a mess but I’m blessed to be stuck with you. Sometimes it gets unhealthy. We can’t be by ourselves. We will always need each other,” he sings.

I’m very good at leaving. I can leave. It’s staying away that’s hard.

“I can tell you exactly where [that comes from]—you remember A Goofy Movie? When Goofy and his dad get mad at each other because he’s trying to…he tricks his dad into going to the Power Line concert and then they’re having a fight in the car. The car veers off the road and they go in the lake and shit. They’re floating—it’s like, ‘we’re stuck together.’ When I was writing the song, I wasn’t thinking about that, but [now] every time I think about that song, I think about that part of the movie. It’s like, you’re fucked but you’re at least together.”

“There’s also a lot of push and pull on Freudian, with yourself and with your lover.” I say. “It sounds like you stayed in a relationship longer than you should’ve.” (“You don’t love me anymore. Let’s see how you like this song. See you walking out that door. Wonder why it took you so long,” he sings on “We Find Love.”)

“I’ve left,” he says, with a definitive sense of assertiveness. “I’m very good at leaving. I can leave. It’s staying away that’s hard. Because, if I ever go back, who cares? It’s because I wanna go back. I’m never gonna force myself back. If she says don’t come over, then I won’t go over. But if I miss her and she misses me, and she says come over, I’ll probably go.”

Additional reporting by Tania Peralta.

More on Daniel Caesar coming this week. For now, check out Caesar’s full ILY photo shoot below, shot by Ysa Pérez.