My Last Ten Years Through Music
Updated: May 31
Hi reader! My name is Khiyon Hursey and I’m a writer/composer. Like many, the quarantine period has led to much reflection and Adin has given me the platform to further that reflection through this playlist. It follows my life through music over the past decade which has been rather exciting. I’ve shared the stage with Jazz legends, performed for thousands, worked on broadway, written for television, and composed for television. While I won’t go into the nitty gritty of it all, I’ll breakdown some of the turning points through music while giving you some background on how it all began.
Embraceable You - Charlie Parker And Miles Davis
At the root of my artistry is Jazz music. I started playing the alto saxophone when I was 10 and have never looked back. But what a lot of people don’t know is that I started off as a Jazz musician. It was the beginning of my musical career and continues to be a big part of me. This song by Charlie Parker is one of the corner stones of that period of my life. Charlie Parker, to me, is one of the greatest musicians to ever live and the greatest saxophonists to ever play the instrument. And this song really blows my mind ever time I listen. He completely abandons the melody of the song and simply improvises over the chord changes. The entire thing is a brilliant improvisation full of heart, love and story. My teachers always said that stories could be told in jazz solos and I didn’t really understand that until this solo. Plus, his style, note choices, and harmonic navigation is so forward thinking. What a gift to have walked on the same planet as Charlie Parker.
**Embraceable You is from the musical “Girl Crazy” and written by George and Ira Gershwin. I would later become a musical theater composer. Fascinating to think about how the past, present and future speak to each other in unexpected way.
All The Things You Are/ 52nd Street Theme - Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach
This is a song that just about every young kid studying jazz learns. Written by Jerome Robbins and Oscar Hammerstein, it uses the circle of fifths in its’ chorus making the chord changes particularly tricky to navigate as an improviser. But if you could, you were a master. This recording featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is arguably the greatest recording of the song and features the masters at the top of their form. I listened to it obsessively.
**This one is from the musical “Very Warm for May”.
Bad Romance - Lady Gaga
This was my reintroduction to pop music. As a devolved into my obsession with Jazz, I had missed a lot of the popular music of the time, but this song sparked something in me. I was enamored by the melodies, the chords and the progression, and its’ attitude. I’d really never heard anything like it. This was the beginning of my fascination with Pop music, which would ultimately lead me away from my dreams of becoming a world-renowned jazz musician.
Footprints - Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis. Miles Fucking Davis. One of the greatest musicians to ever live and in many ways, an architect of popular musical. He arguably changed the direction of popular music five times (read his autobiography...he really did). This recording is with his second great quintet, featuring a young Herbie Hancock. It really informed how I think of harmony, time, and how a band works together. Miles was always someone pushing himself musically and this sort of style was such a radical departure for someone who created “cool” jazz. He notoriously never repeated himself and that is something that’s always stuck with me. I hope to always keep pushing myself and never repeat myself.
Round Midnight - Miles Davis Quintet
Written by Thelonius Monk, this is one of the most revered jazz standards of all time. And this recording really flips the song on its head. It’s rather remarkable. Miles was always incredible at flipping something. And doing the unexpected. I continue to learn from him.
Born This Way - Lady Gaga
This song taught me so much about love, life, and people. It taught me a lot about who I am, who I was, and who I would become. Seeing her live at the Monster Ball Tour was truly my first experience with theater and I was forever changed. I admire Lady Gaga’s fearlessness so much. I stan her. Stream Chromatica, her sixth album, for a happy life.
We Are Young - fun.
This song reminds me so much of my freshman year of college. My friends and I used to scream this song at the top of our lungs in our dorm rooms. I love how this song makes me feel. The chords, the progression, the melody. There’s something “invincible” about it. By this time in my life, I had begun my foray into pop songwriting and this record was the type of stuff I wanted to write.
Angeles - Elliott Smith
My friend Rebecca introduced me to Elliott Smith and my life was never the same. His lyrics just knock you out. His harmonic progressions are unmatched. Truly one of the greatest songwriters to ever live. The way his harmony and lyrics meet have inspired my songwriting greatly. He was my first songwriter that I was OBSESSED with. And this is one of his best songs.
So Real - Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley. I’ve never really heard such beautiful expression in music like Jeff. He could say so much with just one note or one word or one percussive sound. He changed the way I think about expression and sound as it relates to music. His music and voice reminded me of the jazz musicians I listened to yet he was writing pop music. I was enamored and still am.
The Bitch of Living - The Cast of Spring Awakening
And here’s where things get different. I signed up to take a class called Musical Theater Writing in the fall of 2012, so in preparation for it, I started to consume a great deal of musical theater. When I heard Spring Awakening, suddenly my life made sense. It was pop music but it was telling a story. It was pushing the form, structurally and musically. It was everything I loved about music. Upon hearing this album, I decided I wanted to be Duncan Sheik. I wanted to write both pop songs and musicals. But I wanted to write cool musicals, musicals that didn’t sound like “musicals”. As a young jazz musician, I had dream of writing jazz that didn’t sound like jazz and this was similar to that. I had finally found the thing I wanted.
On The Steps of The Palace - The Cast of Into The Woods (Kim Crosby)
I came to Sondheim in college and this was really the first song that floored me of his. The melodies...the lyrics...so beautiful. If you haven’t noticed, I love melody and lyric. The intelligence of this song is so striking and haunting. It was the first time I ever thought of a song as “smart” and “intelligent”. I’d never really heard anything like it and I was obsessed.
Some People - The Cast of Gypsy 2008 version (Patti Lupone)
The beginning of my love of Patti Lupone. Her interpretation of this song is just so great. Her phrasing and expression...again, a lot of the things I loved about jazz but here, she’s doing with it her voice. And it’s a musical theater song. Everything that I loved in one place. This was also my introduction to “Classic Broadway” and older musicals.
Role Of A Lifetime - The Cast of Bare 2007 version (Matt Doyle)
“Everything’s an act when you’re pleasing everyone”. These lyrics ripped through 18yr old me SO HARD!!!! I don’t even know what the fuck I was going through but damn!! This is such a great song that I listened to obsessively. It was refreshing to listen to a song from a queer perspective. I’d never heard a musical take that on so directly. In a lot of ways, this song showed me that musicals could be about queer people, their problems and lives, and that anything was fair game for a musical.
Run Away With Me - Michael Arden
The phrase “Contemporary Musical Theater” was rampant during my time in college. Among those “CMT” composers were Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan. I listened to their music religiously. They are so wildly singular and have such a unique sound. And they’re songs hit me right in the feels in a pop way while still working in musicals.
Albuquerque Anyway - Lance Rubin
This was really the song that changed everything for me. I’d never heard character written so well in a pop vernacular that was so clearly musical theater. It was the perfect marriage of pop melodies in music but wildly specific theater lyrics but the music was telling story and so appropriate for the character. I’d never really heard anything like it in “CMT” but I knew I wanted to write like this. Joe Iconis has been a wildly big influence on my life and writing.
I Was Born This Morning (The Cicada Anthem) - Cast of Things to Ruin
Around this time, I was super into writing musical theater that sounded like rock, so this was super up my alley. It was amazing to listen to music that I was exactly like the stuff I wanted to write.
Don’t Let Me Know - Katherine McPhee Foster
SMASH! changed my life. For some reason, I didn’t know musicals were written by people...I just thought they just came out of nowhere. So to see a show that followed musical theater writers was not only eye opening but provided me with visibility of a career that I would ultimately end up pursuing. This song by Lucie Silvas & Jamie Hartman is one of my favorites in the show. I loved how s2 of SMASH! had mostly a contemporary pop/rock score. Like I said, I was really into writing that way and this song along with other songs in s2 were really informative in guiding me to the style that I’d adapt for my own writing.
The Fathers Ran Away - Rebecca Naomi Jones
The rap in this song! Even though it’s for literally four bars, it just WORKS!!! I’d never really heard a song that combined rap and rock/pop musical theater in this way. Of course, I’d listened to Lin Manuel Miranda, but this felt different. Plus Rebecca Naomi Jones! She’s absolutely amazing and this was my first introduction to her. I love the beat of this song, the groove, the percussiveness of the melodies. It felt really different than anything I’d heard from Brian and Kait. I would later use some of the styles used in this song for my own music.
Quiet - Natalie Weiss
Like many younger folks who grew up with Youtube and Contemporary Musical Theater, I was also obsessed with this incredible song by Jonathan Reid Gealt. I loved how it feels like a pop song at first and then transforms. The music is really telling a story here. How it builds to the final chorus is really stunning. It reminded of, like, a Mariah Carey song. This one taught me a lot about how songs need to build and go somewhere. This was also my first introduction to Natalie Weiss, who I loved and continue to love!
**I used to do masterclasses with Jonathan and he’d give me feedback on my songs!
Last Man - Leslie Odom Jr.
A lot of people don’t know about this show! The Summer of 2013, I saw Venice at the Public Theater. It was a show using rap, pop and R&B music featuring Leslie Odom Jr. and Jenn Damiano. The show was written by Matt Sax, who was also in the show as the narrator. He is incredible and this show blew my 20 year old mind. I’d never seen a show that used this sort of contemporary music. It felt very very modern, specifically the types of melodies and rhythms that were used. I’d never heard rap like this in a musical. It really opened my mind to the possibilities of the genre.
**Little did I know that , a year later, I’d be working on a musical that would push rap in musical theater even further than this one. And with the same star too!
No One Else - Phillipa Soo
Dave Malloy!!! I’d never heard anything quite like his music before. It was SO smart and contemporary in an unprecedented way but so committed to story. I remember seeing this December 2013 and being in awe of Pippa. I knew she’d be a star. I also have a fond memory of being pulled into the action by Shaina Taub, who was playing Mary. The way this song moves is stunning to me. It really is perfect.
**Again, little did I know that, a year later, I’d be working on a musical that would be just as smart and contemporary. And with the same star too!
Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figeuroa St) - Gabriel Kahane
This song knocked me out when I first heard it. Written from the perspective of Natasha Harlins, it tells the story and the aftermath of her death after being accused of stealing a bottle of orange juice. It also references the Rodney King riots. I’d never heard ANYTHING like it. It has so many different sections...it goes so many different places...but it works so well. Also, it’s nine minutes. I’d never listened to a musical theater song this long but it felt appropriate for this story. It really showed me that you can take however long you need to tell the story. It also showed me that a musical can be about this sort of subject matter.
Gabriel Kahane is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. His album, The Ambassador, shaped me as a young musical theater songwriter. I saw the stage production twice at B.A.M.
Pendulum - FKA Twigs
The beginning of my fascination with contemporary R&B and hip hop production. Fka Twigs has such a distinct voice. I love how it soars above this ambiguous, thundering percussive track. I love how the song keeps evolving. The chorus is reinvented everytime it repeats and it builds terrifically. This song really is the basis of my tastes in drum sounds in hip hop production. I love the kicks, the snares, and all the extra percussive weirdness.
Schoolboy - Grouplove
Grouplove! By this time, I was yearning to get a harder rock sound in musical theater and Grouplove was exactly the type of sound I wanted to write. They had such a refreshing sound for rock. If you listen to my song cycle/theatrical concert, Everybody Wants To Rule The World, you can hear the influence.
**Everybody Wants to Rule The World is on Soundcloud! It premiered in 2014. We did a cast album. Check it out if you feel inclined!
You Should Be Here - Kehlani
2015 was the year I really started experimenting with fusing R&B and rap with musical theater. I started devouring contemporary R&B and rap artists in an effort to viscerally understand popular styles and language being consumed by the masses. I remember wanting to write a song like this in a musical. I love the production and Kehlani’s voice. It really takes you on a journey musically too. It builds really well.
Tell Your Friends - The Weeknd
The Weeknd! One of my favorite artists ever. I love his flow on the verses. Love the melodies. I love how much character this song has. I just get him right away. The melodies and lyrics just go so well together. SWAG!!! I had a desire to do this in musical theater.
Sober - Childish Gambino
Again, the melodies. So great. I remember listening to the bridge for the first time and I loved how it had this gnarly half-time breakdown and then modulated. It felt like story. He captures joy in music really well and that something I’ve held with me ever since hearing this song for the first time. Besides that, Donald Glover is such a chameleon. I saw myself in him as a young 21 year old. His chillness, his awkwardness, his self assured-ness (is that a word??). This was the first song of his I really loved and since then, he’s been a role model. I aspire to do as many things as he’s done.
The Room Where It Happens - Leslie Odom Jr.
I worked on Hamilton: An American Musical as a music assistant from October 2014- August 2015. I had graduated from Berklee College of Music the summer prior and moved to NYC shortly after. I remember a lot of people talking about the workshop of HAM that happened that summer. The hype was through the roof and I couldn’t wait to see it. A few months later, I somehow weaseled my way into “the room where it happens”. I have a vivid memory of my first day. I believe we had two weeks of pre-pro with Andy and the ensemble and this was one of the first songs that we rehearsed. I will NEVERRRRRR forget the moment I first heard that bass line and the chord progression. Like...i was SHOOK. LMM is truly something...There’s something so vicious about the progression that felt so fresh and dark. I had no idea what the song was about but I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of it. Leslie’s performance of this number is one of the most legendary moments in musical theater history and I can’t wait for everyone to see it on July 3rd on Disney+!
Invisible Thread - Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews
Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews are some of the most inspiring, influential artists I’ve ever met. I worked on their documentary musical, Witness Uganda (fka Invisible Thread) for about three years and they showed me that it was possible to create work with a deep, relevant message, that is was possible to talk about things that are happening in our world NOW in musical theatre, and to always lead with your heart and tell the truth. Nkwagala Nyo.
Never Ending - Rihanna
I relocated to LA at the top of 2016 and I used to listen to this song as I explored the city. It was really refreshing to hear Rih do a record like this. I love the reinvention and unexpectedness. It was really inspiring to see and hear. Also, I love how the song just repeats...a ballsy choice, but...I feel like Rihanna is one of the few pop artists who can get away with it.
Pray You Catch Me - Beyoncé
Beyoncé is someone who always surprises me...she never quite does something twice and this record is proof. The first few notes really leave you wondering where she’s gonna go, then come these INSANE harmonies. I’d never heard her like this before. And even the engineering...it was so raw and real. Feels like there’s barely anything on her voice. The chord progression...the vocals...the melodies...the outro (shoutout Jon Brion). The perfect set up to the beginning of her story.
White Ferrari - Frank Ocean
I’ve listened to BLOND hundreds of time and this songs thousands maybe? Frank Ocean is in my blood. He is maybe my biggest influence as a songwriter...I used to resent that but I’ve accepted it. I love how this song kind of has no form...one could argue that it’s AABA...but I don’t know if I see it. I love how he’s just telling his story the way he wants and needs. It reminds me of the Sondheim rule...content dictates form.
Feel No Ways - Drake
This is where my love of Drake began. This song is incredible. I love how the melody just floats above the beat. It’s in a really specific pocket (shoutout Future). I love how the concept and melodies work together. Feels very character driven. It was around this time where I started to think about the balance of theater lyrics and pop lyrics. To me, this song could easily work in a musical...but it’s also a pop song. I desired to write like this. Also, love this outro.
Only U - PartyNextDoor
PartyNextDoor is arguably the most prolific writer of my generation. Often imitated, never duplicated. I love the syncopation of his melodies. I love his note choices. His production choices. The song builds in the most amazing way even though a lot of it is repeated. Around this time, I started to become fond of repetition, which is reviled in musical theater. But I wondered if there was a way to use repetition in an effective musical theater way.
DNA - Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick is violent on this record. VIOLENT IN THE BEST WAY. The marriage of Mike Will Made It and K.Dot is unmatched in contemporary rap music. The way these 808s hit. Kendrick’s flow. He’s talking shit the whole time...THEN THE BEAT SWITCHES UP. And he goes even harder. The way Kendrick and the beat are working together...pure magic. Again, another artist not afraid to abandon form to tell his story. Reminds me a lot of “content dictates form” by Sondheim. This is one of the best hip hop songs ever.
The Louvre - Lorde
My ears are grateful for the pairing of Flume, Jack Antonoff and Ella on this record. I love the specificity of her lyrics. The breakdown “underwater” part and that LONGGGG outro are my favorite. The outro is so ballsy but I love the decision to let the music tell the rest of the story. This record taught me that there’s a lot of reward in patience, silence and space.
STAR - Brockhampton
Brockhampton. This was my introduction to the self proclaimed boyband. By this time, I was mostly consuming rap music and Brockhampton was a refreshing listen. Each member has a different flow and style but it all works together. This record taught me that things that you sometimes feel might not work together could be better than you thought. Also Kevin Abstract rapping “I don’t fuck with no white boys, ‘less the nigga Shawn Mendes” really shook me to my core. The starkness and truth in it. I knew he was on a different level. I’d never heard a queer POV like this in rap music before.
Miserable America - Kevin Abstract
I’d never heard a queer POV like this in rap music before. Kevin Abstract and I share a similar background so I just get him. It was exciting to hear about his experience growing up in a white neighborhood and the conflict of being black in white spaces. I love the amalgamation of genre. I love how you don’t always know what the lyrics mean. He’s a really special artist.
APESHIT - The Carters
As I mentioned before, Beyoncé is always someone who pushes herself. On this record, she’s rapping at a breakneck pace. She’s talking shit like never before. I admire her reinvention, ambition and skill. I aspire to create in the way she does. Shoutout HOV too.
WEIGHT - Brockhampton
This song just goes places...you know? It makes you feel all of the things. I just love their honesty. Every word on this song is so honest. Also, this song has no form...I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern :) I love how they do what feels natural to them. And the key change at the end!?!? Stunning.
The Light - Common
I went back to this song for research purposes and was really blown away by it. It’s a masterclass in sampling. A masterclass in rap. A masterclass in writing a love song. RIP J Dilla.
Stressed Out - Rex Orange County
“They wanna take what’s yours, they wanna go for dinner on your name” I love how slang has worked its way into singer-songwriters vernacular. I love how simple this song is. I love the honesty of the lyric.
Malamente - ROSALÍA
She is really something. The way she’s combining flamenco, pop and hip hop is stunning and singular. It’s so inspiring.
Find Your Way Back - Beyoncé
I’ve already spoken about Beyoncé enough so I shouldn’t repeat myself.
Khiyon Hursey is a writer and composer based in Los Angeles and New York. He was a staffwriter for Netflix’s romantic musical drama, SOUNDTRACK and is currently co-writing LOVE IN AMERICA, a movie musical to be produced by Issa Rae at Universal. He is the recipient of the ASCAP Foundation’s Irving Burgie Scholarship, Bart Howard Songwriting Scholarship, a 2016 NAMT Writers Grant, a 2016 - 2017 Dramatists Guild Musical Theater Fellow, 2017 Space on Ryder Farm Residency, 2018 Johnny Mercer Songwriter’s Project residency, 2019 ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop with Stephen Schwartz, 2019 Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat, the 2020 Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals and the 2020 Stephen Schwartz Award. Khiyon got his start as the music assistant on the off-Broadway and Broadway productions and the Grammy Award Winning Cast Album of HAMILTON. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music with a degree in Songwriting.
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