by Chaya Wilkins
While many artists adopt an alter ego to define or redefine their image, synth popster Gordon Voidwell may be one of the few artists whose alter ego chose him. A self-proclaimed music nerd, Will Johnson was seemingly born to become Gordon Voidwell. “Gordon is my birth middle name, but at age ten, I changed it to Shawn. My mother wanted to name me Shawn originally, but my deadbeat dad decided upon Gordon,” he explains. “I wanted to honor my mother, so we had a laugh and went down to city hall. It was a ‘fuck you’ to my father and a rebirth for me.” But as an adult, his reclaiming of the name Gordon represents yet another rebirth.
A love for music seems to have trickled down to just about everyone in this South Bronx–born artist’s family, inevitably striking him. His father was a jazz guitarist in the ’70s and ’80s, and although the two didn’t meet until Gordon was older, he embraces the fact that he is his father’s son. “As I got older, and we finally met as men, he did hip me to a couple ideas, musically and otherwise,” he says. “We don’t really speak anymore, but I feel peaceful with the idea of Gordon being my own name, independent of him naming me that.”
Yet it wasn’t until he enrolled in a course at NYU—where he met his mentor, and later band mate, jazz drummer Guillermo E. Brown—that the artist Gordon Voidwell emerged. “A lot of the songs from this project are the result of [Brown] asking me to open for him at the Apollo. That was the birth of Gordon Voidwell—the first time I ever used that moniker professionally,” recalls Gordon, who had previously gone by the handle Void as a producer.
Pulling inspiration from the old and the new—and creating music that has value beyond a genre—is what makes Voidwell’s sound his own. He has been compared to artists like Prince and George Clinton, yet his music is often categorized as hip-hop. “We’ve compartmentalized musical genres where things must be so clearly defined in order to succeed. I think my music has the ability to unsettle that a bit,” insists Voidwell, who also admits that he is filling a void in his own life when making music.
“I don’t know how my music will fill any market voids in that sense,” he says. “I mean, it’s ‘urban’ and it’s ‘pop,’ and it’s ‘indie’ and it’s ‘hip,’ but that’s for the marketing people to figure out. My parents dig it, old funk heads dig it, old R&B heads dig it, new hip-hop lovers dig it. I think Gordon Voidwell’s audience will be a scattered bunch. I certainly don’t just want one type of person feeling it. If that’s the case, I missed the point.”