When Terence Nicholson writes a song, he files it under one of two categories: oscar or jellyfish.
Oscars — a species of fish native to South America — can be aggressive, says the songwriter and guitarist in D.C. rock band Thaylobleu. Sea creatures wade into an oscar’s territory at their own risk. “It’s pretty straight-ahead,” says Nicholson, 47. “If an oscar’s hungry, it’s gonna bite you.”
Jellyfish, by contrast, are deceptive. “At first blush, [a jellyfish] is kinda soft and squishy,” Nicholson says. “But [if] you rub up against it, it’ll sting you.”
Nicholson says rippers like Thaylobleu’s “Locked” fall under the “oscar” category. Seemingly gentler songs, like “Amnesiah,” float along like jellyfish, sneakily dangerous. The tracks represent two poles on Thaylobleu’s debut album — called, naturally, Oscars & Jellyfish — out this week.
The record represents a turn in Nicholson’s musical career, which blossomed in the ’90s with D.C. hip-hop group Opus Akoben. The trio did well — it fetched a major-label deal in France and got love in Europe — but Opus split up, dropping its last record in 2002. Nicholson began to reevaluate himself creatively after that. He’d always loved rock music, songwriting and arranging. But he didn’t pursue them seriously until he made a key discovery: some of his hip-hop buddies were listening to rock, too.
“Back in 2010, we all found out that, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you was listening to this, I didn’t know you was into that,'” says Nicholson. He got together with hip-hop heads William “Bill” Vaughn and The Poem-Cees’ Darrell Perry and formed a rock band, rounded out by drummer Joe Hall. (Fifth member DJ Ayce International joined later on.) He called the group Thaylobleu, after Phthalocyanine Blue BN, a deep and calming shade of blue he fell in love with while attending the Corcoran School of Art.
Thaylobleu focuses on songwriting with an emphasis on lyricism — true to Nicholson’s hip-hop background. Storytelling plays a leading role, too. “Locked” tells the true tale of a nasty encounter Nicholson had with police in 2010. Another album highlight, “Too Much” describes Nicholson’s past dalliances with rowdy women. (One lyric: “When she told me that she liked it rough/Didn’t know she meant fisticuffs.”)
“I wouldn’t appreciate where I am now if it hadn’t had been for [the bad matches],” says Nicholson, who’s married these days. “So [‘Too Much’] is about acceptance, about love, and it’s also about the girl who stabbed me in the face with a spoon.” (A true story, he says. After that incident he resolved to never take a date to Ben & Jerry’s.)
The coda on Oscars & Jellyfish, “Welcome to Anacostia” references the gradually gentrifying D.C. neighborhood in which Nicholson grew up and where he still lives and works. “I call Anacostia a village, and I’m watching it get sacked,” he says. The track delivers a message to new arrivals: “Just [be] mindful that if you live next door to a person who’s lived there 30 years and they’ve been sitting on their porch and laughing with their friends for the last 30 years,” he says, “don’t f***ing call the police on them.”
Nicholson, who spends his days working at the Anacostia Arts Center and teaching martial arts, says he doesn’t like to squander his time behind the mic. He considers it a blessing. That’s what hard-driving cut “Rose in the Briars” — definitely an oscar, not a jellyfish — is about.
Some of his neighbors in Anacostia “don’t have the privilege to be able to be on the microphone and speak their truth,” Nicholson says. “So when I say [on “Rose in the Briars”] ‘I’m the village crier, I’ll make your ears ring’… it’s about how I’m in a position where I can say something and I don’t take it lightly. There was a time that I did — when I was gigging and traveling and hip-hopping and groupies and all that stuff. And I said to myself, ‘If I ever get back to this thing again,’ after Opus broke up, ‘I’m gonna try to use it.'”