Daniel Caesar: Behind the genre-defying sound and soul

By Will Lofsky

Photo courtesy Sean Brown and Keavan Yazdani via danielcaesar on Instagram

Toronto’s music scene has drastically changed over the decade from Drake-inspired moody R&B to auto-tuned trap that very few musicians have failed to stand out, with the exception of Daniel Caesar, also known as Canada’s Frank Ocean.

Ashton Simmonds, better known as Daniel Caesar, is the 23-year-old Grammy Award winning songwriter, musician, and incredible vocalist from Oshawa, Ont. He first made his way to Toronto after getting expelled from his Christian high-school and kicked out of the house by his father for selling a small amount of weed to another student.

Times were not easy for Caesar. He worked dead-end jobs and once slept on a park bench in Trinity Bellwoods Park between couch surfing at friend’s homes. “There were low points,” Caesar told Exclaim! “And I know that I could go back home, if it really came down to that.”

Growing up in a religious household that did not support secular music influenced Caesar’s gospel-infused, genre-defying blend of soul, rock, pop, and jazz. Through deep, reflective tracks about sex, love, money, spirituality and longing, Caesar connects to his audience in a way that so many artists cannot.

Caesar first built momentum off of his independently-released EPs Birds of Paradise, Praise Break, and Pilgrim’s Paradise, which featured a collaboration with long-term friend and co-founder of the IXXI Initiative, Sean Leon, and BADBADNOTGOOD, a world-renowned Jazz band formed by Humber College students in 2010.

After connecting with Kali Uchis for his Grammy nominated hit, “Get You,” which now has 75 million views on YouTube and 200 million streams on Spotify, Caesar began performing more regularly and putting together his debut album, Freudian.

Following the success of “Get You,” Caesar prepared for his take-over, “It was kind of like this is our moment,” said Caesar to Exclaim! “We knew that if we put out a subpar project, we could lose all the momentum.”

Once released, Freudian blew up and landed the #1 on iTunes top charts with “Get You” and “Best Part” featuring H.E.R going platinum in Canada and the US. In 2017, Freudian won a Juno for R&B/ Soul recording of the year, and earned two Grammy nominations; one for Best R&B Album and one for Best R&B Performance of “Get You.”

As Freudian continued to take over 2018, Caesar became the first male in history to land his first two commercial singles “Get You” and “Best Part” on the #1 spot of Billboard’s Adult R&B chart. Caesar closed off the year with a surprise single called “Who Hurt You?” a beautiful slow jam with rich harmonies, psychedelic, phased-out guitar riffs, and smooth, raw vocals that sound like you’re in the studio with him.

Now internationally recognized, Caesar’s “Best Part” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance on stage of the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in 2019.  

While still early on his career, it’s safe to say that Caesar has made a lasting impact on Toronto and will continue to inspire the next generation of singers in the city and GTA.