The timing was less than ideal for Hold Space for Me, the debut album by Orion Sun, the Philadelphia songwriter born Tiffany Majette.
The long-in-the-works calling card that was supposed to introduce her to the world was released on the Mom + Pop record label on March 27.
Thanks to the coronavirus lockdown, Majette’s plans to promote the album have been put off. The pandemic is preventing an April 25 hometown release party that was planned at Johnny Brenda’s. A new date is yet to be scheduled.
“I was super bummed, just because I was gearing up for a tour, rehearsing every day,” Majette said, speaking from her home in South Philadelphia.
“I looked at the calendar in my kitchen the other day, and I was like, ‘Wow, what an alternative reality. Look at all these places I would have been.’ ”
But in another sense, the timing of the Hold Space for Me release seems ideal.
That’s because the music Majette makes as Orion Sun is beautifully becalmed, with a fetching, feathery alt-R&B sound that soothes jangled nerves at a time of unprecedented anxiety.
It did occur to Majette, she says, that the album could be pushed back until after the pandemic passed. But then she thought again: “Just with the nature of my music, I realized that maybe this is an OK time. I’m just hoping that the music can speak for itself, and help people.
“It’s funny because I wrote this album going through my own isolation, and now it seems like the whole world is going through it.”
The aloneness that courses though Hold Space is partly a product of how Majette creates.
The 24-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist grew up in Mount Laurel in South Jersey with a conservative Christian upbringing, first falling in love with music at Bethany Baptist Church.
“Just seeing how songs can move people, women and men, crying and singing and jumping up and down — it used to frighten me,” she says with a laugh.
By high school, she was being exposed to secular sounds. She played two songs on repeat on a friend’s iPod shuffle: Kanye West’s “Street Lights” and Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.”
She remembers seeing a picture of Brian McKnight and thinking, “Wow, black people play guitar?”
She started using her stage name in her teens. “I was watching Men In Black, and the cat’s name is Orion. I liked the ring of that. And it reminded me of the constellation which we can see here, which I’m really grateful for.”
Then as now, she was a loner: “I always went to mostly white schools, so that was part of it,” she says. She dreamed of floating in space like Space Shuttle Endeavour mission specialist Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut.
As she began to pick up the guitar, she set her poetry to music. In 2013 she posted a tender love song, “Voicemail,” to YouTube.
Majette now plays guitar, ukulele, and piano, plus enough bass and harmonica to get by. She’s also a self-taught electronic producer and beatmaker. “From a musical standpoint, I don’t really work with anyone else.”
With production assistance from Jake Aron, she recorded Hold Space alone in South Philly, where she lives with her romantic and musical partner Zubeyda Muzeyyen, who performs as DJ Haram.
Hold Space is ultimately an album of love songs about being welcomed into a nurturing environment. But it also chronicles a long personal struggle that began in 2015.
That year, her mother fell behind on rent, and the family lost the home that Majette and her two brothers had grown up in. They lived in a hotel in Cherry Hill for a time, before Majette went out on her own. She lived on the streets for a few weeks, she says, before reaching out to a friend whose family took her in.
Majette writes about the experience in songs like “Lightning,” from the new album, which begins “Lightning struck the house that we used to live in / It ain’t a home no more, just a property building.”
Being homeless “was hard, physically. Like really hard,” Majette says. She got on her feet, and worked a string of jobs to help her family, who have since relocated to Georgia. Her resume includes stints at ShopRite, CVS, Urban Outfitters, Chipotle, and the Cheesecake Factory.
“It felt so isolating. I was just so embarrassed to talk about it. My friends were going off to college, and expecting me to do 19- or 20-year-old things, and I’m super stressed trying to work multiple jobs and also trying to make music.”
In 2018 she recorded a captivating 11-song set called (a collection of fleeting moments and daydreams). It shows the influence of artists like Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, and Henry Mancini, whose movie scores she fell for when her mother brought home a copy of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Majette doesn’t consider daydreams her debut album, because it wasn’t conceived as a unified whole. And while it makes her love of rap apparent — she played the Made in America festival that same year — “I didn’t really feel like it was hip-hop enough to be called a mixtape,” she says.
Videos for two of the new album’s songs came out before the Hold Space for Me release, and there’s an eerie, empty quality to them.
In “Coffee for Dinner,” Majette wears a space suit, like her hero Jemison, and roams abandoned streets in a world without people. In the clip for “Lightning,” she performs in an empty club, before a nonexistent audience, as if foretelling social-distancing live streams.
The idea, however, was based on her paying dues in the Philly scene, doing shows like one at the Fire “where the only people in the crowd were the sound people and the ones running the event. That definitely built a lot of character for me.”
Hold Space also makes ample room for joy. Majette wrote “Ne Me Quitte Pas” after Muzeyyen took her on a surprise trip to Paris. It repurposes the sorrowful title from the classic written by Jacques Brel and sung by Nina Simone for a new song that celebrates an out-of-this-world love that “came down like a comet.”
The album’s title is inspired by the friend’s family who took her in, and also by Muzeyyen. “I realized that space was being held for me, and I was not feeling like a burden ... . It just felt so beautiful.”
Majette and Muzeyyen created a three-song set for this past week’s Digital Fort festival presented by lifestyle magazine The Fader. But she’s not joining the rush to broadcast live streamed performances from her living room.
Instead, she’d rather use the unexpected isolation time to create music.
“I’m really down to work on content outside of performing," Majette says. "Because I do believe that I will get a chance to tour. And I really want to take the time to work on making sure that that show is worth the wait.”