The release show for Ant The Symbol’s new album, “I Know Who I Am,” was a sight to behold.
“There were people throughout the whole room — to the front, to the side and everything,” says Ant, whose full name is Anthony Gillison, and who produced the album being performed and celebrated that early June night at Gallery5. “It was just a beautiful thing to see.”
It wasn’t just the crowd; the assemblage onstage was its own spectacle — a collection of Richmond-based ringers, from Butcher Brown guitarist Morgan Burrs and 2022 Newlin Music Prize winner Ali Thibodeau of Deau Eyes to a pair of recent Brown’s Island performers: jazz vocalist Kenneka Cook and No BS! Brass Band lead singer Sam Reed. And that’s not even half of who joined in.
The role of producer is especially fluid in music. It might mean you oversaw a recording session, made a beat for someone to rap over, made your bedroom into a studio and tracked an album by yourself, or simply footed the bill. The meanings are many, but one of the highest callings a producer can aspire to — the one Gillison answers with a deeply held sense of purpose — is setting the stage for artists to come together and be their best.
“If two people I highly respect are in the same room, I make sure that they know each other or I feel like I’m failing as a friend,” he says. “I just want to see good people with good people doing good things.”
The 13 tracks that comprise “I Know Who I Am” move from genre to genre and voice to voice like a thoughtfully curated compilation drawing from the depths of Richmond’s musical talent pool, with Gillison’s deft beat-making as a common thread. He calls it “the album that I’ve been dying to make my entire career.”
The LP is a step forward in terms of stylistic diversity, given that it strings together velvety R&B, inspiring soul, four-on-the-floor house and vividly descriptive hip-hop. But it’s not the first time he’s brought a sampling of the city’s strongest performers together. His previous releases have attracted a who’s who of Richmond-based emcees, including Michael Millions and Chance Fischer, who returned for “I Know Who I Am.” The 2021 Ant The Symbol outing, “Ant Hasn’t Heard Of You, Either,” even earned Gillison a place on the shortlist of the Newlin Music Prize, which he now helps steer as member of the shortlist committee.
There’s no small degree of overlap with the inaugural Newlin nominees and the liner notes of “I Know Who I Am.” Fellow shortlisters Abby Huston, Angélica Garcia, Illa Styles and Matthew E. White all lent vocals — the latter to the hook of “Fine,” a song with elevated importance both because of its status as the track most aligned with prior Ant productions and because of the feeling Gillison hoped to capture. “It had to be something that you’re saying something very heartfelt over,” he says.
Michael Millions and Chance Fischer rose to the occasion with verses illustrating how relationships change over time, with White’s words of reassurance — “I’ll never leave you behind” — as poignant punctuation. “There were a couple of artists that I had worked with before and that I knew I would click with,” Gillison notes, “and there were a couple others who I’d heard do a certain thing, [and] I had ideas in my head of what else they could do with their voice and gave them a little challenge … A lot of the time it was something new for me too, like a sound that I had never tapped into before.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Ant the Symbol began talks to partner with Shockoe Records in 2022.
He had help from yet another name on the 2022 Newlin shortlist: Devonne Harris. The Butcher Brown keyboardist is credited under his DJ Harrison alias as co-executive producer, and Harris’ home studio, Jellowstone, hosted the album’s four in-person sessions, which were spread out over the course of late 2021 and the second half of 2022. “He was like a guide,” Gillison says of Harris. “If I was doing something wrong, I needed somebody that I trust to be like, ‘Hey, instead of this, try doing this.’”
While several guest vocal parts were written and recorded remotely, the Jellowstone sessions yielded some of the album’s most memorable moments. “Silver, Gold & Cream,” which features Erin & The Wildfire lead singer, Erin Lunsford, is a standout example. The song’s gravity-defying chorus gave Lunsford room to climb the heights of her range, a performance Gillison describes as “mind-blowing.”
He doubled down on that magic by commissioning a live version of the song for NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, filming at the Camel with Ali Thibodeau and Sam Reed at Lunsford’s side. “She was just belting it,” Gillison remembers of Lunsford’s conclusion of the rendition. “It changed the way that I heard that part of the song again. There’s always something that she does at the end of that song that is like, ‘Oh my god, you did something different here, and I’m blown away again.’”
“She doesn’t know how to stop giving me goosebumps,” he adds.
Returning to stagecraft
An earlier creative outlet for Gillison was theater; the Richmond native was involved in setting the stage while a student at St. Christopher’s School, and he stuck with it for a year at Virginia Wesleyan College before returning to Richmond and facing a music-versus-theater fork in the road. He chose music and was sought out by rappers looking for beats as early as 2007. “If I’m going to exchange out one thing that was important,” he remembers thinking, “I might as well exchange it with something that’s equally important.”
The Shockoe Sessions performance he logged in March at In Your Ear Studios marked a significant milestone: his first time leading a full band in front of a crowd. Sitting behind a sticker-strewn Mac laptop, flanked by gifted vocalists and instrumentalists, Gillison chose to let the crowd in on the vulnerability he felt. “I was a little nervous until I actually put it out there to everybody that ‘This is something new for me. We’re going to do this the best we can.’ As soon as I put that out there, I was loose. I was able to be myself.”
Maintaining that looseness amid preparations required to perform “I Know Who I Am” is quite a feat. Traditional bands have it easy in comparison; weekly practices, lineup consistency, a stable repertoire — there are so many built-in ways to find a groove. But Gillison's project-based modus operandi means he’s bringing together a rotating cast of collaborators, with plenty of organizing left to do. “Wrangling eight people and considering my own schedule is very difficult,” he says. “One of the things that I do before every show that I’ve had is make a whole outline for the band, and a whole outline for the singers, and that’s worked very well.”
He’s also learned to anticipate changes to the outline. Contingency planning helped him weather last-minute lineup substitutions ahead of the Gallery5 release show, and he never lost sight of his goal to create a joyful atmosphere. “There’s no reason to stress out about all of this,” he notes. “That’s kind of how I approach life, too. Don’t stress yourself. If something goes wrong, pivot and keep a positive mind-state about it. Everything that’s supposed to happen will happen … That was a big thing that I carried from the Shockoe Session.”
Another thing he carried forward from that performance was a new alliance with Shockoe Records. Gillison had been in talks with the well-resourced new label since late 2022, but the two parties decided to make it official in the wake of the streaming session. It’s been a harmonious partnership. “They’ve been providing opportunity after opportunity for me without really forcing my hand,” he says, “I’m a very stubborn person in that I want to do things the way that I want to do them, and they let me do that.”
Any label would be wise to lean into the way Gillison does things. “I Know Who I Am” shows how Gillison, just by being himself, helps the people around him share the best in themselves, as well. And, by extension, the best a city’s music scene has to offer.
To hear and purchase “I Know Who I Am,” visit linktr.ee/antthesymbol.