Free Nationals keyboard player T.nava: “We jam for hours with Anderson .Paak until we get the pocket of something”

(Image credit: T.nava)

A founding member of Anderson .Paak cohorts Free Nationals, keyboard player and vocalist T.nava (Ron Avant) has also toured with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Nas and Dr. Dre, and worked with Macy Gray and Jason Derulo.

Most recently, though, he’s broken out on his own, releasing the groove-laden Blackberry Mango EP, a three-track slice of retro synth-funk.

We quizzed Ron on not only his solo project, but also his work with Free Nationals, career beginnings and favourite gear...

The new EP, Blackberry Mango, was produced during quarantine. Did you create the bulk of it at home, and how did the collaborations with other artists work?

“The EP, Blackberry Mango, was kind of a last minute decision. Right when the lockdown started, I went to Texas to hang with my dad at his new house. Before I left, [vocalist] Polychaos asked me ‘hey, Ron, do you have a quarantina?!’ I thought that was funny and so I wrote the song at the Rhodes before I left for the airport.

“The song Con Artist I started writing in Texas as I was frustrated with a girl attempting to make me a logo. I just felt like she wasn’t trying. She wasn’t what she seemed to be, and I was feeling that way about a few people at the time.

“When I got back to LA, I finished Quarantina"and got Polychaos to sing her part. For Con Artist I had a good friend, B.K Habermehl, help write the bridge part. A good friend of mine named Ashley Jayy heard it, and wanted to get on it, so she sent it back to me within an hour.

“What was supposed to be just a two-song EP turned into three songs. I made Groupies one random night about all the groupies that would always hang around me, so I added that one last minute.”

There are strong old-school hip-hop and R&B flavours on the EP. Is this the music you grew up with?

“Most definitely. I grew up in kind of a strict household; my pops did not allow us to listen to anything that was new. He thought it was all bad, so while my friends were listening to Lil Wayne, Usher, Master P, Dru Hill, etc, I was to listen to Kirk Franklin, smooth jazz, anything on the oldies station, so I became at a young age a fan of a lot of Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Zapp, George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic, Jimmy Smith, Billy Preston... pretty much anything soulful, funky and jazzy. I never liked smooth jazz, though.

“As I got older, I did start listening to other secular music. I believe the Carl Thomas song I Wish kind of started opening my ear up to newer music. Then I started catching up on artists that I missed out on such as Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z - all the new good shit. That’s the thing about music, it never goes away and it’s never too late to educate yourself on whatever genre or whoever artist. I’m still catching up on music. I’m a student of the game.” 

Is it right that you learned to play the piano by ear rather than having formal training? Do you think this has helped or hindered you throughout your career and, if so, how?

“I started playing the piano at the age of seven. My father bought a piano for $75 from a local school. Him and a good friend of his - master piano mover in the hood, Phil Black - came and directed on how we should move the piano in because pianos are very heavy.

“Once we got it in the house, my dad immediately showed me how to play Lean On Me by the late Bill Withers, and a little later on he made up a boogie woogie and showed me how to play that. 

“For a whole year I played those two songs, participated in talent shows at school and won. So I started off playing by ear, which was a big help. It allowed me to play from the heart and from the soul by the time I reached sixth grade.

I started off playing by ear, which was a big help. It allowed me to play from the heart and from the soul by the time I reached sixth grade.

“I studied jazz and classical music under Phillip Burkhead, Rob Alygyer, and Anna Weinstine at the school for the creative and performing arts in Cincinnati, Ohio. I learned so much there. I learned more there than I did in college. 

“I learned everything from jazz, harmony, theory improvisation, chart reading, etc. That school really gave me a headstart and definitely helped my career.

“I knew when I was a student there that music is what I would be doing as a career.”

Which keyboard players influenced you when you were growing up, and how do you think that they impacted on your playing style?

“I was influenced first by my family members that played. I grew up in the church rescue Temple Church of God in Christ. My dad’s brother, Kimbaird Avant, was one of the first people I was influenced by. Reginald Johnson, my cousin, is also a phenomenal keyboard player/organist. His father, Calvin Johnson, was the organist at the church while I was playing as the church drummer. Also my cousin, Roman Johnson, who was in LA touring with everyone from En Vogue, to The Isley Brothers, to Stevie Wonder, and many more. My family was the first people that really influenced me. 

“As I began playing more, I really got into Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith, and Chick Corea. I would say those guys really inspired me to play like I wanted to play - just having those guys as musicians and idols to look up to really helped me out as a musician. Having idols allows you to see what you are capable of doing.”

We’ve seen you demoing a prototype of Expressive E’s forthcoming Osmose keyboard. What’s your view on ‘next-gen’ keyboards like this: do you think they will ever replace standard ones, or will they exist alongside them?

“I think those keyboards have a place. As far as the Osmose goes, I could see that one being used more for scoring and arranging because of the type of sounds it has and the touch. It definitely would be great for studio use, but for live, I still feel like standard boards will always be needed.

“People are going the MIDI route using programs like MainStage and choosing sounds from that, but I don’t think standard keyboards will be totally replaced any time soon. If anything, I think they should up the technology in the sounds, but standard keyboards are the way to go - they're fast and easy. I prefer that than bringing the laptop and having to deal with the MIDI stuff.” 

How did you become a member of Free Nationals, and could you tell us a little bit about the creative process when you’re working with Anderson Paak in the studio?

“I am actually a founding member of the Free Nationals. The guitarist [Jose Miguel Serrano Rios] and I were good friends first at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, CA. 

“We had a gig with a guy named Nick Jackson, who actually put us together. It was me on keyboard/keybass, Jose on guitar, and he had a guy named Breezy Lovejoy on drums who also Went to MI.

“During that time, Breezy Lovejoy asked if I wanted to hear some of his music. I’m like ‘sure, whatever bro,” and when I heard it, I was so amazed. This cat was singing, rapping, and on the production it was so dope! Out of all the artists I was working with locally during that time, he was the only one I really fucked with.

“From there, José, Breezy Lovejoy and I were The Breezy Lovejoy band. We eventually added Kelsey Gonzales, who I met on a Church gig, directed by the great Joey Bumpus. A few years down the line, Breezy Lovejoy changed his name to Anderson .Paak and we made ourselves Free Nationals.

“The creative process with Anderson varies but at the same time is really simple. Anderson likes soulful and groovy stuff, so as long as you got that in the room, it’s easy.

“Sometimes the creative process could all start with ‘pressing play’. Pressing play is when you take over the aux cord plug and you play all your latest greatest beats, and from there, Anderson might say ‘I like that,’ or just start writing to it immediately. That’s one way, but also because he is a musician and a drummer, we also just jam for hours until we get the pocket of something.”

How much input into the arrangements do you have when you’re playing live with Free Nationals, and how much freedom do you have to improvise?

“I have a lot of input in the arrangements for sure. We all respect each other‘s musicality, and any input any of us have, we will try it out. If it's wack or we don’t agree on something, we don’t do it. If it works, it works. 

“A lot of our songs from the Free Nationals album have a bunch of features, and I would have to compensate for not having those artists there, so I would do that on the vocoder and talkbox. 

“Our last tour we did right before Covid, we had a good friend of ours, India Shawn, come and help out with vocals - background, and leading some. It also makes it more fun to get as creative as we want because we don’t have all these artists with us all the time. We have to make it work. Sometimes I might do a rap, or José night do a rap or play someone's part on guitar.

“Also, with our show we have a lot of freedom to improvise, and I think that’s important. Sometimes a show can feel too much like the records. I think some improvisation is what makes a live show a great live show. Even when we play with Anderson, we don’t over-rehearse. We put the show together, run it a few times, and then everything else falls into place. He might yell out ‘Nava take a solo’ or ‘Jose take a solo’ or we might groove longer on a song and he would yell ‘just Kelsey’. 

“We played together for years with no click track, so sometimes that can require a lot of improvisation.”

You’ve toured and played with some big stars down the years. What’s been the toughest gig, and which has given you the most creatively rewarding experience?

“I would say all the big gigs have been very rewarding, and I have had all the creative input I would want.

“The toughest gigs I’ve ever experienced were with a local artist or artists who thought they were bigger than they really were. They will say things like ‘don’t give me those church chords,’ or ‘don’t give me those jazz chords,’ or ‘I don’t want this neo soul shit’ and you’re clearly a neo soul artist. I just feel like having to work with people's ego is the toughest thing for me.

I think some improvisation is what makes a live show a great live show. Even when we play with Anderson, we don’t over-rehearse.

“Honestly, the Anderson .Paak gig is the most creatively rewarding experience because I’ve always fucked with his style. I have a big part in creating and writing the records. I also get to take multiple keyboard solos throughout the show, and I have a five-minute solo to do whatever with the spotlight on me! I ain’t never did that with no other artist. Actually, I did do a few shows with Terrace Martin who also allowed me to get as creative as I want. 

Which synths and keyboards (hardware and software) do you have in your live and studio setups right now, and what would you say are your all-time favourites?

“Live set up for Anderson: I use a Nord Stage, two Korg Kronos’, Roland JP-550, and Talkstar talkbox. For Free Nationals, I use a Rhodes, Korg Prologue, Roland VP-550 and Talkstar talkbox 

“In the studio, I currently have a Motif that I use as a MIDI controller, and I use VSTs such as Omnisphere,Trilian, Kontakt, Addictive Drums and Addictive Keys. I have an upright piano, 88-key Rhodes, a Moog Voyager, and a Juno-106 

“Hmm, all-time favourite?! I always love the sound of a good clean Rhodes.”

How deep do you like to go into synth programming? Do you tend to create your sounds from scratch or do you prefer to start with a preset and take it from there?

“I honestly don’t get too deep into synth programming. If I like the sound, I might tweak it a little bit to get it sounding how I like it, and then save it. 

“As far as starting from scratch goes, I’m not really that deep into building. I do love fucking with the filters and envelopes to make the sound how I want and saving that. Or even layering sounds in my Kronos. I do have friends that specialise in that - shout out to Peter Dyer, Khyrie Tyler, O’Neil Palmer, Brandon Coleman, Dominque Xavier and Manman”

What’s your next project? Touring is off the agenda at the moment, so are you focusing on songwriting and recording?

“That is correct. I’m recording new music every day. I have a lot of songs that I still want to put out that I made way before Blackberry Mango, so I’m trying to drop another two projects really soon. Also still writing, recording, and figuring out my sound while doing so.

“I just did my first solo set for AfroPunk - shout out to Tina Farris - and I’d like to build my show up more so that, by the time quarantine is over, I hope to be able to take my own solo show on the road.

“I’m also doing another Free Nationals Project. Always still creating with my bro Anderson, and collaborating with other artists as well. So be on the lookout for everything I'm doing!” 

You can follow T.nava on Instagram and Twitter.

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.