The PWR Of FLWR Compels You: HNRY FLWR And The Infinite Void
For HNRY FLWR, music is a religion, literally. Born into a cult in Iowa, the Brooklyn-based artist's faithful flock has been growing in numbers thanks to his powerful live show, televangelist-style streaming performances, and the recent release of his song and music video "Waiting Room". Cell Vision correspondent Darren O'Brien explores the world of the charismatic crooner—both his music and his burgeoning secular spiritual religion, The Infinite Void.
A swelling synth wash. A big open guitar chord. A gentle croon.
“It’s been a while, so I think I’ll write a song that I can sing to myself. While writing this down I did not expect it to be played for you right here in this room that we’re all gathered in now. But now that we’re here and I have all your ears, I gotta sing something that makes me likable fast, something to soothe you or move you to tears. I gotta make you stand up and dance.”
Then the band kicks in and you’re a believer.
So begins the HNRY FLWR live experience as I witnessed it twice this winter in Brooklyn: in November at The Broadway and again—bigger, badder—in January at the Sultan Room. The song, “Stranger (When I’m Done)” from 2017’s Flowerama EP, does inspire dancing, a loose hippy shoulder sway to its slow, bouncy groove. It’s not the last time the audience succumbs to the power of suggestion, nor is it the last time in the song or in the set that HNRY FLWR directly addresses the audience and his relationship to them. “It’s just me up here now and you down below. It’s a strange relationship to have,” he sings, “even stranger when I’m done,” anticipating the awkwardness of fans approaching him after the set, wondering what kind of guy he might turn out to be.
“What kind of guy might he turn out to be?” is a more relevant question for HNRY FLWR than it is for many other artists, because the HNRY FLWR show asks more of its audience than just that they be entertained to the point of dancing. It asks them to be kind, loving—vulnerable. It asks them to think about death, infinity—uncertainty. It asks them to believe in something called The Infinite Void.
Strength through surrender is not, of course, a usual theme for a rock show—at least not so explicitly. It’s more the domain of the religious ceremony.
As proof of the power of The Void we are given HNRY FLWR himself—a man so humble it’s insulting, so vulnerable you feel he must be showing off. Early press bios explained that HNRY FLWR’s music was laboratory-created to be “100% earnest,” and that all previous music was an “insincere endeavor solely energized by a pure form of propulsion known as Narcissism.” Unlike your average musician, who tries like hell to be noticed only to then hide behind enigma, HNRY FLWR gleefully, almost cockily, bares the whole of his soul and encourages you to do the same. Confidence through the destruction of ego, but hey, with maybe just a healthy dose of ego thrown in, too.
Strength through surrender is not, of course, a usual theme for a rock show—at least not so explicitly. It’s more the domain of the religious ceremony. So HNRY FLWR is the Antinarcissist, if you will, here to lead us away from self-obsessed materialism and self-righteous religiosity. Now, hosting twice-weekly livestreams in lieu of live concerts, he has found a perfect role for the times as the online existentialist televangelist for a secular spiritual prosperity gospel of his own design.
Thankfully, the concept never threatens to overshadow the performance. Persona aside, HNRY FLWR is a remarkably assured performer with a crack band playing rock-solid arrangements, with guitar, sax, and keys sometimes hammering home the same hooks in unison. The songs are not didactic or trying to convey some grand cosmology—on-theme more in attitude than specifics. And it helps that David Van Witt, the singer/songwriter who “plays” HNRY FLWR, is himself an especially nice guy, free of his alter ego’s self-absorption.
Tall, thin but broad, with sleepy eyes, an aquiline nose, and strong, dimpled chin, Van Witt could be cast to play English nobility if he could be believably smug. Instead he quickly communicates a lack of pretension—an apparent guilelessness even—with a boldly sheepish grin, one tooth capped in gold. He looks happy to be here, genuinely enthusiastic about life, like David Byrne’s eager observer in True Stories. And he’s quick to blur the line between performer and role. “It’s all just a part of my persona or history that I’m magnifying,” he says. “I’m not a good actor. I just like creating a world.”
One part of Van Witt’s story that looms especially large in the HNRY FLWR world is that he was “born into a cult in Iowa.” As the first line of an artist bio this smacks of apocrypha, but it turns out to be more or less true, as long as you fudge some dates. If you know much about Iowa beyond corn dogs and pig shit you may know the cult in question, but Van Witt prefers not to mention it by name. “I don’t want to throw them under the bus, because it’s good for a lot of people, and it was even good for me,” he says. “It felt normal to me. My mom was doing psychic readings, so all that shit was magic, and magic existed as far as I was aware.”
That period lasted only a few years, and as his family made multiple moves across the country, Van Witt drifted from faith, but not before a teenage detour through a different kind of cult ritual: praise and worship Christian stadium rock concerts. “They used all these amazing musical and public speaking techniques to make you fall to your knees and be like, ‘God, Jesus, save me!’ It was amazing. And I would just weep.”
Moved but not converted, by 16 his attitude had become “fuck church” when he had what he calls a “secular spiritual awakening” attending punk shows—an epiphanic experience that was even more powerful than the others because it was the first he had sought out on his own terms. “The community of being knocked around in the pit and getting picked back up was super profound to me at that age. And they were singing about stuff that I cared about, it wasn’t like I was being tricked into loving Jesus.” Around the same time, he decided to live on his own rather than follow his family on another move back into the Bible Belt, finishing high school and college and touring with a band before moving to New York in 2012 to figure out the project that became HNRY FLWR.
I pictured a busker gradually joined by volunteer accompanists until he finds himself backed by a full band, but Van Witt says he felt like an outcast in the intimidating New York music scene, and at first moved in more New Age spheres: “Weird Tumblr art, erotic artists, trippers, and strange shit like that. I was reading Terence McKenna, taking psychedelics, and living in a psychedelic yoga studio. I was searching. And then I got sick of it and felt it was a dead-end.” He and a friend that had preceded him to New York opened a recording studio largely as a way to build a network of musicians. One of the studio’s neighbors was Jared Walker, who had just finished a tour with Foxygen’s Star Power band, and he became one of several well-pedigreed contributors to Flowerama.
A collection of melancholy-adjacent but somehow optimistic synth-songwriter ballads, like bedroom pop meditations on the Flaming Lips’ “In the Morning of the Magicians”, Flowerama established Van Witt’s disarmingly direct songwriting voice, and the videos and press materials showed a keen eye for art direction. Even his starchild look—bleach blonde hair over his ears, black quasar makeup around his eyes, white tunics and yellow sweaters—conformed to a consistent yellow and gold motif inspired by alchemy and the sun worship central to so many religions. “Every color has a power to it, a weight,” he said in a recent livestream.
Blue, which Van Witt says represents “the fluidity of love,” is the dominant color of “Waiting Room”, the single released at the end of January. This time the surrounding imagery finds HNRY FLWR looking not so much like the savior himself as his well-compensated earthly spokesperson, with a gold watch and suits—a dark suit over a white shirt and bolo tie for a traveling preacher vibe, or a light suit over a black t-shirt and gold pendants for an ‘80s sporty “wellness executive” look. A little bit country, a little bit new wave fits “Waiting Room”. It’s a heartland rock song with post punk atmospherics that answers the question, “What if Tom Petty had become the new singer of INXS?” The self-production is powerfully simple and unfussy, with Van Witt delivering off-the-cuff hooks like “time comes, that’s what time does” in voice that moves from a warbling but tuneful talk-sing—like a less reedy Lawrence Hayward (aka Felt)—to a Jarvis Cocker-toned spoken word, to a big passionate belted chorus in which he implores the listener to “feel the love” that he felt while watching clowns entertain children in the waiting room of a pediatric cancer ward, a bandmate’s life and a hard breakup weighing on his mind.
“I’m not a huge fan of the ‘you need to suffer to make good art’ trope,” Van Witt says, “but I do think that suffering is a gateway to transcendence and I was happy to represent that in my video. And it was fun, to be that cold, and to feel brave, and strong. I hope people feel that from the video and the song.”
The video, directed by Van Witt’s younger brother and frequent collaborator Kevin, is similarly simple yet elegant, with HNRY FLWR in a cool blue room voguing and mouthing the lyrics earnestly, a pained face reflecting the workout that real singing demands rather than the flat affect so many artists think looks cooler, then emerging from the Atlantic fully dressed in his suit. Shot in New York in January, Van Witt is sometimes visibly suffering the cold, which he used to good effect. “I’m not a huge fan of the ‘you need to suffer to make good art’ trope,” Van Witt says, “but I do think that suffering is a gateway to transcendence and I was happy to represent that in my video. And it was fun, to be that cold, and to feel brave, and strong. I hope people feel that from the video and the song.”
HNRY FLWR celebrated the digital release of “Waiting Room” with the Sultan Room performance, headlining a bill curated by We Color Live, a brand and artist development agency run by Jocelyn Simone and Chelsea Pickthorn. Simone and Pickthorn befriended Van Witt after he played their Color Me Bushwick festival in 2017, and last year they asked HNRY FLWR to be the first artist on their management roster. Alongside pamphlets articulating The Infinite Void, the merch selection included multiple signed 8x10 glossy photos of Van Witt’s face, a bold flex from an up-and-coming artist. “Jocelyn loves fanfare. And I love playing with the ridiculousness of celebrity. But I do believe in the power of repetition, in the way that Andy Warhol would repeat an image and all of a sudden it had more meaning. So I think there’s something to be said about mass producing images of my face, and then making a music video and it’s my face, and then all our Instagram posts are my face. It’s just black magic.”
It seemed to be working. The Sultan Room show was sold out, and after spending February in Los Angeles networking and playing a show at the Moroccan Lounge, they were a few dates into a joint tour with fellow rising Brooklyn band Cindy Cane that was to have included almost a dozen SXSW shows... Then the pandemic happened.
HNRY FLWR turned out to be better prepared for coronavirus than our government. On March 22nd, still relatively early into New York’s taking COVID-19 seriously (Bill de Blasio had squeezed in one last workout at the Park Slope YMCA just six days earlier), HNRY FLWR headlined a We Color Live showcase for Left Bank Magazine’s livestream festival. The set was the debut of an already-planned livestream show called Temple of the V01D. Throughout April, Temple of the V01D aired twice-weekly, Wednesdays on Instagram and Sundays on Twitch.
Sporting the “business guru” look and a wireless “Madonna microphone” headset, sitting in front of a black backdrop and flanked by chyrons, Van Witt sings and strums an acoustic guitar over pre-recorded instrumental tracks of HNRY FLWR originals. He plays covers of songs requested by viewers, for which—when not teaching himself hypnotism—he spends the week between shows crafting backing tracks, including Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and a take on Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” that brought out its inner “Running to Stand Still” by U2. He responds to audience chat questions, sings auto-tuned ragas over synth drones, and deploys retro-VHS motion graphics like a cable access Christian ministry show. And, of course, he talks about The Void.
“The Void giveth and The Void taketh.”
“The Void is real, don’t try to hide from it.”
“The Void lives within you and you gotta face it. It’s the only way.”
“Dig deep. Put something out that you made. Sometimes you just gotta call a friend and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ The Void is scary like that.”
He avoids making these proclamations sound smarmy partly by being so forthcoming with appreciation and encouragement—he even specifically thanked the one person who disliked the “Waiting Room” video on YouTube—but also because he allows himself to be amused by their ridiculousness. In response to one viewer comment he said, “I’m not God, just for the record. I’m just a mere mortal…who has access to God,” and cracked up at the addendum.
"The Void represents all the things that are inexplicable. I think those things are not any less present than they ever were, but they’re less paid attention to unless you’re a kooky woo woo person, and that’s not who I am... I don’t want to be New Age, but I want to be in conversation with the infinite, cosmic void of things we don’t understand.”
“People assume it’s a joke—and it is,” he said of The Void on another livestream. “But it’s also real. It’s really real to me.” This sounds like hedging, but “it’s a joke but it’s real” is actually one of the most “Void” things a person could say. “It’s just the word that represents all the things that are not things,” he told me in a video conference interview. “We live in the information age and I think we’ve put too much emphasis on the facts, or the things that are more concrete. All the ‘things’ are at our fingertips. I think that’s awesome, but there’s an imbalance right now. I think people are too interested in what the facts are, on both sides of whatever spectrum. So to me, the Void represents all the things that are inexplicable. I think those things are not any less present than they ever were, but they’re less paid attention to unless you’re a kooky woo woo person, and that’s not who I am, that’s not what I identify as. I don’t want to be New Age, but I want to be in conversation with the infinite, cosmic void of things we don’t understand.” In that sense, The Void is real.
But it’s also a joke. Van Witt acknowledges Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey as influences, and in earlier days of HNRY FLWR he even had his own Tony Clifton in Blaze Boylan, the manipulative Svengali of HNRY FLWR’s cosmic Prince Myshkin, who would give his business card to bands after their sets and tell them he was going to make them rich. (Both names come from James Joyce’s Ulysses.) Unlike Andy Kaufman, however—who thrived off audience hostility and was willing to have even his “real” public persona be reviled— Van Witt decided to pull the act after some bands got their feelings hurt, worried that what he was doing was unnecessarily cruel. It also divided his focus, so he incorporated Boylan’s dark side—and suit—into the new, more balanced HNRY FLWR. The reconciliation of opposed dual natures is, of course, a common theme throughout myth and religion.
“Comedy in general is just a really dark place,” he says when we discuss the medical and political applications of clowning. “It’s the scariest art form to me. I guess with being a clown you’re more explicitly putting on a mask to show people their own humanity by being an extreme version of some sort of humanity. In a lot of ways that’s braver than Dave Matthews singing about whatever the fuck he sings about. It takes a lot more guts. The only way we can talk about the most uncomfortable, strange parts of humanity that we all keep hidden inside, the only way to unlock that, is to make it funny.” Which sounds a bit like what HNRY FLWR is doing. So it is a joke.
“I’m trying to turn the idea of the cult on its head, because I think cults are incredible places that create new ideas."
But it’s also real, in the way that satirists can have better ideologies than the figures they’re skewering. Van Witt is explicit about the televangelism angle even as he subverts his own ministry, telling viewers who donate that they are “part of the building of this pseudo-religion.” And you can tell that The Void really does mean something to him. HNRY FLWR, then, is less a cynical satire of cults, their charismatic leaders, or their followers, than a recognition that their confidence-winning techniques can be used to inspire positivity even in an indie pop context, The Void functioning almost as a MacGuffin.
“I’m trying to turn the idea of the cult on its head, because I think cults are incredible places that create new ideas,” Van Witt tells me. “I’m trying to help people look within. I’m just making public my own searching. People can take what they want from it. I would never consider myself [a guru], but I do believe in the power of preaching, or somebody leading somebody towards these thoughts.” I bring up Kumare, the 2012 documentary in which the filmmaker sets out to pose as a guru and worries that he’s gotten too wrapped up in the role when his message of platitudes accumulates a large following. And while Van Witt admits to a fear that he could fall into his own traps, he understands that projecting utmost confidence is important not just to the role, but to the mission of making people feel good. “We sort of criticize self-improvement to the point where people feel confidence is not a good look, or it’s easy for confidence to become, ‘Oh, he’s egotistical.’ But in the journey of not hating yourself, which feels so common with everyone I know, everyone’s trying to learn how to love themselves and self-improve. So it’s just a fine line. People want to see people believe in themselves. It makes you just feel better. It gives you permission to get out of your own head and not feel sorry for yourself. It’s not about me thinking I’m better than anyone.”
He also worries that telling you all this might break the spell. I don’t. The placebo effect works even when you know it’s a placebo. You laugh hardest at the punchline you know is coming. When Vikram Gandhi, the filmmaker playing the guru Kumare, revealed the ruse to his followers, they felt betrayed but appreciated what he had done for them nonetheless. Seeing an emerging artist sell 8x10 headshots is impressive even if you know it’s mostly aspirational. HNRY FLWR is the giant face on the screen, but he’s made sure there is no curtain to peek behind. So if you take The Void at face value, there is something worthwhile in appreciating the mystery that exists between certainties, whether scientific or religious. And if you take it as a joke, it’s well-executed and entertaining. All parties win either way. It might make you want to become a better person. It might make you stand up dance. It will at least make you smile. And that’s real, with no ambiguity.
The video for HNRY FLWR's "Waiting Room" is on VEVO, and you can follow his exploits on Instagram via the links below.