A Butler Alum’s Music Production Journey

Thulani Smith. Amelia Kramer photo.

by Katie Freeman

On some late nights in Historic Meridian Park, there is a dance party of one tucked away within Thulani Smith’s home studio. The infectious sounds of his ever-expanding library of music projects boom through the speakers as he becomes lost in his own creative world.

Thulani is authentically expressive, pouring his entire self into his music for hours on end. It’s how the Butler University alum and Indy native wrote his sophomore album, “Better Days,” which was released under his artist name, Thushall. After finishing his 9-5 job, he would work on his music from 6 p.m. until the late hours of the night – but to him, it didn’t feel like work at all. “It’s fun,” he said. “There are some days where I’ve not gone outside – which is not good – but I force myself out for a minute just to feel something and come back in because I just can’t get away from it. I choose to stay with it because I know that it’s so much fun.”

Released Sept. 24, 2021, “Better Days,” tells the story of a breakup, showcasing the concept of healing and coming out of the darkness like a phoenix. The album begins with the song “Messages,” which features voicemails Thulani received around February of 2020. Throughout the track, various messages overlap one another, making them nearly unintelligible — but the song ends with a clear message that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

“It’s not worth dwelling in the sadness that you feel.
It’s much better to just walk through it.
Walk through it with open arms and say this does hurt, but it is not forever.”

The album is packed with intricate details, showcasing a story told in chronological order through the tracks. Thulani’s father, Rod Smith, said he gets the most out of “Better Days” when he listens to it in its entirety, as he can more deeply understand its meaning. “You sell yourself short if you listen to it for one cut — you have to put all the cuts into a context,” Smith said. “They make a lot more pleasurable sense if you listen to them one following the other. It’s like a musical. You know, the individual songs may be great, but together they make a musical … I know what he’s saying in his music.”

While this album isn’t Thulani’s first release, it is markedly different from his freshman album, “T,” or any of his previous singles; it is his first project in which his vocals can be heard throughout. Thulani said that early-on in his music-making process, his voice was a point of frustration for him.

“I got really annoyed with my sound,” Thulani said. “Then, I started to realize you have to use what you got, you know? Don’t say ‘I hate this, but I’m gonna keep doing it,’ because then it’s so detrimental.”

Towards the tail end of Thulani’s song “Demonstrate,” which serves as the outro of “Better Days,” his father reminds him of this fact and offers encouragement.

“Don’t be afraid of your own voice,” Smith said. “You’re not afraid of your shadow, are you? Don’t be afraid of your own voice; it’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.

Above all, it is Thulani’s vulnerability and raw authenticity that make his music truly his own.

“Creative and goofy”

Eric Anderson, one of Thulani’s friends from Butler, has watched him consistently produce new content for years. Anderson said Thulani is always striving to express himself through creative outlets. “[Thulani is] the most constantly ‘on’ person I know, creatively,” Anderson said. “I swear, every time I see him … he tells me he’s written, like, 10 more new songs, or he did something at work that’s super weird and pretty on-brand for Thulani. [He is] just a really creative and goofy person.”

What does he do for a living? Before he started producing songs, he was known for his videography skills, something that helped him transition more easily into the music-editing process.

“As much as I love being behind the camera … I really take to heart and I love the editing process,” Thulani said. “Kind of transitioning the mindset of going from a video-editing software to a music-editing software, it was like I had been there before and it wasn’t that hard … It’s just changing senses, but at the same time it’s tougher because you’re trying to evoke an emotion with no visual and just doing it with sound.”

Thulani’s deep dive back into the world of music was sparked by the need for artistic expression. Since graduating and starting his career, he felt as though creating videos for his job involved too much oversight; he wanted to make something wherein he had full agency over his creative decisions.

Ellen Rispoli, a friend of Thulani’s and fellow Indianapolis-based artist, collaborated with him during the production of “Better Days” and is featured on the album as LN. Rispoli said she thinks music became the creative outlet Thulani needed. “Music became the way for him to say, ‘This is me in this broad scope, this is my story. I want people to understand me because this is gonna help me feel seen,’” Rispoli said. “I wasn’t super surprised when he started making music. I think what surprised me was how committed to it he became.”

The hours Thulani spent on late nights alone producing songs and dreaming up new projects haven’t gone unnoticed. In fact, his dedication and passion are some of his most notable traits. Amelia Kramer, Thulani’s photographer for “Better Days,” saw these traits firsthand as the two collaborated to produce art for the album. “He is one of the most prolific and energetic and creative people that I know,” Kramer said. “Just the amount of willpower that he has to continue to create, I think is very inspiring. He’s always doing something — like, always — and always making new music, so it’s like a never-ending flow of energy and creativity.”

Amelia Kramer photo

Thulani’s creative process is constant. Whenever inspiration strikes during his day-to-day life, he’ll record a voice memo so that he can pursue his ideas later. His desktop computer is full of countless folders chock-full of demos, projects and experimental sounds. Music? Always on.

For many, his dedication is impressive — but his father anticipates nothing less from the creative powerhouse. Smith said he has known the significance of music in his son’s life since he was less than a year old. “I don’t remember a time when Thulani didn’t want music on in the background of his life,” Smith said. “I can’t think of a time where Thulani wasn’t motivated, interested, and driven by music, especially when he was in a car seat as a young boy … He would tell me what must be playing on the CD player. While we’re driving all the time, ‘Dad, could you change it to this?’ ‘Could you put on number six?’ ‘Could you switch CDs now?’”

Growing up, Thulani demonstrated interest in a variety of creative outlets ranging from videography to playing instruments. When he was around 10 years old, his father surprised him with a set of drums on his birthday, encouraging him to develop a skill that would follow him throughout his life. During high school, Thulani played the drums in his high school’s jazz band, which was quite competitive. He said he anxiously awaited his turn to prove himself, consistently trying to put in the work to play impressively well. His opportunity came during his sophomore year when he was invited by his jazz teacher to perform at a cocktail hour alongside several seniors. “I felt very privileged to be selected to play something tough where the teacher thought I could do it,” Thulani said. “[It] made me realize how much other people believed in my ability. I felt so good about the fact I was performing well enough.”

Of course, being in a jazz band wasn’t quite enough for Thulani. His musical spark extended outside the classroom and into the bathroom, where he created “Brush N Jam,” a vlog series that showcased daily dance parties as he listened to new music and brushed his teeth. “I did a couple days in a row, and eventually some of my friends at school took notice,” Thulani said. “I was like, ‘This is kind of interesting,’ so … I literally did it for so many years. I did it for like five years in a row. I maybe missed five or six of them.”

This dedication towards even the smallest of passion projects illustrates just how deeply impactful music is to Thulani. For him, doing things halfway has never been an option. Thulani’s creations never come from a place of obligation — they are unabashedly loud, expressive and vibrant, no-holds-barred. “There’s no division between Thulani’s love of music and Thulani’s expression of being,” Smith said. “It’s just always been part of who he is.”

So, what’s next for Thulani? If you ask his father, the sky’s the limit. “I think Thulani is set on a trajectory of making his mark on the music and film world,” Smith said. “I think he’s going to continue to surprise me and his audience because I think he’s really good at it, and I’d hate for him to give that up.”

Katie Freeman is a Butler University student enrolled in JR411, Multimedia Newsroom whose reporting is part of a partnership between the magazine and Butler University.

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