If you’re a Powfu fan, maybe you’ve occasionally thought, “I wonder what an actually happy Powfu song would sound like.”
Wonder no more. The insanely prolific Canadian artist has such a talent for sad-sack, lo-fi hip-hop odes to solitude, post-adolescent doubts and romantic frustrations that a year ago he earned the New York Times headline, “The Universal Loneliness of Powfu.” And yet the musician has never sounded happier and more at peace than on “a castle by the sea,” the most minimal track on his new EP tell me your feelings and i won’t tell you mine. (Like a good lo-fi adherent, Powfu uses all lower-case titles.) On the song, an acoustic guitar is all Powfu (real name Isaiah Faber) needs to offer a sweet paean to a special person who has changed his outlook on life: “Fall in love in our brand new home / vows are written to make it known / nothing feels like how you treat me / rather die than watch you leaving.”
Faber is now, at 22, a married man. His life profoundly changed in 2020 thanks to the viral hit “death bed (coffee for your head)” — currently at more than two and a half billion streams and counting — but the summer of 2021 brought Powfu a whole new level of bliss.
“Yeah, a lot has been happening,” he says via Zoom from Abbotsford, British Columbia, not far from Mission, BC, the town in which he grew up. “It’s a whole new world. I got married a couple of months ago, which was the best day of my life. I moved out of my parents’ house, so I don’t live with my siblings anymore.” (He and his wife Natasha are currently renting a basement apartment while saving up to buy property.)
In conversation, as in his music, Faber is refreshingly warm, unaffected and humble. With a giant teddy bear over his shoulder – a gift to his wife which they don’t really have a place for at the moment – he touches on a range of topics. The blow-up of “death bed,” he admits, he never saw coming. In 2019, Powfu had already spent the better part of two years amassing a devoted following on SoundCloud when he added an irresistible deadpan rap to an uncleared sample from Filipino-British singer Beabadoobee’s “Coffee” and included it on his self-released EP some boring, love stories, pt.2. But it wasn’t until a year later, with his new label Columbia Records having done the paperwork on the sample, that the song went to DSPs – and on to TikTok-fueled world domination.
The song, and the label deal, was a game changer for Isaiah and his family. “None of us really expected it,” he explains. “When I was younger, I always thought that I would be a rapper or a singer or a producer or something. But then as high school went on it was like… I was in grade 12 [in 2017] when I started posting music on SoundCloud. So I was really late, and even after I graduated, I was just working part-time at construction – I had like four different jobs. And I feel like my family and me weren’t really expecting much. But then, slowly but surely, my music just started doing better and better. Eventually I started to make a living from it, and I was able to quit my part-time job. They were just really proud and happy with all of the hard work I was putting into it. Growing up, that was my dad’s biggest thing — productivity. He would make me practice the drums every day when I was younger. I hated it, but I feel like it trained me to stay in a mindset that you’ve got to work to live. They were really proud, and everything has been a blessing from God, and I was able to help them buy a house. It’s been really cool.”
Those drums – which Faber began playing at age two – didn’t happen by accident. His dad, Dave Faber, is the frontman of the melodic punk band Faber Drive, though these days much of his time is spent managing his son’s burgeoning career, including planning for the first-ever Powfu tour, hopefully happening in 2022. Isaiah picked up guitar by the time he was 11, but by high school he had gravitated inexorably to hip-hop. “It was just the coolest, for me,” he says. “When I started on SoundCloud, I knew hip-hop was what I wanted to do.”
With a slacker-styled flow, Powfu laid out clever bars that were melancholy and vulnerable but never corny. Gradually, he met a community of like-minded lo-fi’ers on the platform, including his most frequent collaborator, the Florida rapper Rxseboy (Anthony Tubbs). “I just bumped into his music, DM’d him, and then we FaceTimed one day,” he recalls. “We started playing Rocket League on PlayStation, talked for hours. I feel like out of everybody I’ve worked with, Rxseboy and I are just very similar. We both get inspired by romantic stuff, we flow well together, and I enjoy working with him.”
Other Powfu musical partners have included another Floridian, his friend Jomie (Joseph Garcell), Sarcastic Sounds (Jeremy Fedryk), and his sister Patience, who records as sleep.ing. Faber generally prefers sticking to collabs with those up-and-comers rather than big names. Apart from rapper-actor Jaden on “snowflake” (“It’s still so cool that he’s on it — I feel like he’s pretty hard to connect with,” Powfu says of the feature), the only A-listers in his catalog are blink-182 (on a remix of “death bed”) and the ubiquitous Travis Barker, who drums on “mario kart” — though his label has suggested other star pairings.
Powfu admits to some initial reluctance about signing with a major, having heard cautionary tales of other young artists who lived to regret making such a move early on. But, he says, for the most part Columbia lets him do his thing, which includes a distinct preference for EPs over albums. Powfu’s thinking is that when you fire hose people with too much music at once, some songs inevitably get lost in the shuffle. feelings is his seventh EP — his second this year — and he’s got another nearly ready to go, which may wait until 2022 for release.
“That’s actually one thing I brought up as I was signing,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I only like doing EPs.’ And they were completely fine with that. As far as the label, there’s a lot of stuff behind-the-scenes where we argue quite a lot with each other, but it’s definitely a lot better than some of the stories I’ve heard from other artists. I have video directors that are my friends that they still let me work with. And my music – they don’t really budge in on my music.”
That music has expanded over time, as well. If hip-hop and beat-based music is still Powfu’s go-to, it’s well blended these days with those early punk vibes instilled by his dad. Last year’s “17 again” was an alt-rock ballad that could hold its own next to blink or Green Day. “Once my voice started developing, I started listening to punk music again,” he explains. “And then it started coming back, and now I feel like I mix the two together.”
The new EP also showcases atmospheric pop, such as on “tinted green,” on which Faber takes on a character that declares himself a “piece of shit” who’ll “probably dip on you.” On “ice heart,” over a music-box tinkle and a trap beat, he confesses to forgetting birthdays, “messing up in the worst ways” and “failing every way.” Neither song, he says, should be taken as autobiographical. “With ‘tinted green’ I just thought it was cool to write from the standpoint of where I’m the bad person,” he says. “And I’m warning this girl to stay away. So that one wasn’t really too much about my life at the time.”
One of Powfu’s most affecting tracks, “soda stream sky,” is a gorgeous rap-sung collaboration with a fellow Mission musician, KNOWN (Cody Henn), that offers up poetic bars about moving past anger. “Time is telling me my only remedy is love,” Powfu sings in a high register that tugs at the heart. Love has been, and will continue to be, the remedy for Isaiah Faber – or maybe it’s just his “kryptonite,” as he suggested in 2018’s “i could never be loved.” He readily admits to being a rookie when it comes to relationships – he’d only had one other, in high school, and went on one date before meeting his wife, but he is a hopeless romantic. Of the approximately 130 songs Powfu’s released over the past four years (his estimate), you’d probably need only one hand to count the ones that are not about love – more often than not, the tortured, unrequited or busted kind. There’s “scars on my heart,” “i know you’re not happy,” “i can’t sleep,” and scores of others.
Refreshingly, Isaiah owns his influences – not least the romantic dramas of Nicholas Sparks. “I remember I watched The Notebook with my grandma,” he explains. “And for like a month after I just kept thinking about it like, ‘Dang, that was a pretty good movie!’ you know? And then I just started watching them all, and they definitely had a big impact on my music as well.” In early songs, he sampled lovelorn snippets of Channing Tatum from The Vow and Natalie Portman in Closer, while the torturous 2019 teen moper Five Feet Apart inspired last year’s song and video “when the hospital was my home.”
Mortality and love frequently exist side by side in Powfu’s work. “I do feel like love is the most important thing in the world,” he says. “At least, if I love somebody, I would want to die for them. I do feel like it’s more powerful than death.” That mentality exists on two of his collaborations with Rxseboy: the 2020 fan favorite “Laying on my porch while we watch the world end,” which declares, “we can fall in love with our final breath,” and on the pair’s inspired reimagining of XXXTentacion’s melancholy “what are you so afraid of?” from July. “I remember when I first heard that song, I just loved the melody of it. It was so short, though. I love X’s music but I was just picturing him rapping a verse on it, making it a full song. Ever since I heard it I was like, ‘Man I want to just rap on this.’ Make it a bit longer. And then I thought Rxseboy would be a good fit on it as well.” The two rappers’ new verses merge beautifully with X’s original, offering words of support to those who are struggling.
Powfu’s vibe is forever down-to-earth honest, even self-deprecating. On part two of his video a day in the life of powfu, he shared with fans his love of peanut butter, celery and basketball; though instead of demonstrating mad court skills, he cut together a montage of his misses. He will definitely bend your ear about the shitty jobs he’s had in the past. But he doesn’t seem to be the loner beset by feelings of inadequacy that he once was. “I used to think about that a lot, actually,” he says. “I feel like I used to be more insecure than I am now.” Career success helps with confidence, as does his marriage. Isaiah and Natasha met at their church, through her brother, two and a half years ago. “He introduced me to her,” he recalls. “And then, she DM’d me on Valentine’s Day, and she was like, ‘Hey, I’ll shoot my shot, if you want to hang out?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’” Finally, there’s another source of peace: “I’ve been reading the Bible a lot, and trying to go closer to God, and I feel like the closer I have been going in that relationship, the more secure I have been feeling on earth. If that makes sense.”
A casual listener wouldn’t necessarily pick up on it in his music, but Christianity is central to Powfu’s life. He grew up in an observant family, prays daily, offers “Jesus loves you” to fans, says it’s fair to describe him as “morally conservative,” and tries for the most part to avoid swearing in his songs. “I feel like there’s a lot of young kids listening to my music and it’s like, especially in the hip-hop community, almost every artist is dropping f-bombs, talking about hoes and drugs all the time,” he explains. “And I picture my songs playing in a household, with like, kids. And so, I don’t wanna be like dropping f-bombs and stuff. That’s kind of the reason I don’t do it.”
His faith also accounts for the fact that radical empathy for those with less imbues much of Powfu’s work and words. How many 22-year-old hip-hop artists would take time to address their fans – as he does in a day in the life of powfu pt. 2 – to tell them that hoarding money, much less dropping a million dollars on a chain, is a bad thing, and encourage them to give of themselves to others less fortunate. Two years ago, Faber went with his mom and sister on a mission trip to Zambia to work with Seeds of Hope Children’s Ministry, a Christian organization that assists kids infected with or affected by HIV. “We went to help take care of the kids, and feed the kids and stuff,” he explains, and encourages his followers to support the group.
Why doesn’t he make more explicitly Christian music? There are a couple of reasons. “One is that if I was to label myself a ‘Christian artist,’ then I might only be played on Christian radio, you know?” he says. “So that’s one thing, ’cause I want everyone to listen to my music. And second of all, I’ve tried writing Christian music before – like worship music or whatever, and for me it was kinda hard. I just naturally gravitate to more romantic stuff. So, I kind of stay with what I’m comfortable with.”
He knows religion can be divisive. In recent years only two major stars – Kanye West and Justin Bieber – have made conspicuous turns toward spiritual music, to mixed reactions. But while Powfu is not a proselytizer, he doesn’t plan to back off on talking about his beliefs. “Especially in North America, I feel like a lot of people look down on Christianity. And look at it with a negative view or whatever,” he says. “But I don’t know, I don’t really care about how people look at me if they find out I believe in God or whatever. I just want to stay true to what I believe in, and be loving, and hopefully if they meet me, or if they see love in me then maybe their perspective on it will change.”
A big part of Powfu’s takeaway from scripture is non-judgmental love, as evidenced by two Bible verses he’s shared on social media. On Instagram, he posted, from Matthew, “You hypocrites. You must remove the beam from your own eye before you can remove the speck from your brothers.” And in June, on YouTube, he read from John the well-known story of Jesus telling men who sought to condemn a woman accused of adultery, “Let whoever among you is without sin cast the first stone.” “Yeah, for sure,” Faber admits. “Jesus is a great example of that. You know, He used to hang out with tax collectors – who were the bad people back then – and [prostitutes] who would sell their bodies and stuff. People would be like, ‘What are you doing?’ But He was just showing love to everybody.”
Powfu’s music can at times evoke many touchstones — Mac Miller’s empathy, Lil Peep’s angst, the flattened delivery of Moldy Peaches, a dash of G-Eazy, even the phrasings of Conor Oberst — but is instantly recognizable as his own. That’s no small feat. But equally remarkable and rare is the basic decency and humanity that seems to emanate from Powfu as a person. To that, he attributes one thing above all else: “Jesus. I’ve tried to keep Him at the center of my life,” he explains. “His whole life was just giving to other people. He never put himself first. And I just feel like that’s what love is – when you hold other people before you. And so I just try to do that with every part of my life as well. A lot of people, they hear that, and they go, ‘Oh, that sounds hard,’ or ‘That would make me sad’ or something. But it’s like, once you actually do it, when you give? It actually fills you with joy, you know?”