Kwabs: upwards and forwards (interview)

Kwabs: upwards and forwards (interview)

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It’s been a long time coming! Back in May, I was telling you how I met Kwabs on the sunny terrace of the Botanique when he performed in Brussels, in April, and how we discussed his favourite songs and artists. Now that his long-awaited album Love+War is about to get released in a few days (this Friday September 11, actually), I can finally unveil the full conversation we had that day.

After letting it sleep for almost five months on my laptop, it’s been a real pleasure to rediscover my interview with the British singer. I had forgotten how eloquent, poised and confident he was, talking not too little but not too much either and being very passionate about his music which he alluded to quite often, unconsciously or not (but it only proves how his art is a true reflection of his feelings). And this is exactly how I like my interviews.

I read a lot about Kwabs, his background and his childhood in anticipation of our encounter, and I think this is definitely why some of his answers ended up moving me even more. I love how grateful, hard-working, ambitious and strong he is, while still daring to show all his vulnerability in his work.

Never dwelling on the past, enjoying the present and always moving upwards and forwards, Kwabs surely has a bright future ahead of him.


You started your musical journey spending 3 years in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. What drew you towards jazz?
I was shown some jazz CDs when I was in high school and I really liked the singing, the style of it and the quality of the voices — you know, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald… So I wanted to try it out. And my teacher told me about the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and encouraged me to go. And I just really got under the skin of the music: I started buying more records, like Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra, I got introduced to Sarah Vaughan and big band music. I ended up really loving it and even studying it. It was cool It was like, I guess, an immersion into that field.

Did you used to have music classes at school before all that?
I did A-level Music, which is like a high school diploma in England. So I was very much about trying to learn as much about music as I could, and I did singing lessons and had very encouraging teachers at school who really wanted to help me get opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have because I wasn’t the most privileged kid at school: I didn’t have the instruments, I didn’t have the money to pay for lessons and I didn’t know about the opportunities that were out there so I was lucky enough to have people who put me in the right direction. So that was really helpful and that’s how I found out about music college and the Jazz Orchestra, how I got to learn the piano… It really helped open my eyes.

I feel like you have a lot of confidence — but in a healthy way! Where does that come from?
I feel like it’s two things. I feel like there’s a certain fight-or-flight quality to being an artist where you have so much thrown at you all the time. Like, I can be here today and in… Ukraine tomorrow. Or in France the next day, to do a gig or to shoot a video, whatever. It’s the quick paceness of that life and the fact that you kind of have to just adjust which kind of like forces you to be confident, because you just have to take whatever is thrown at you all the time, you have to not run away from opportunities when they’re thrown in front of you. If you find balance, if you don’t rise to the occasions, it’s very easy to just fall flat and feel weak. And when the world is still turning and you’re feeling kind of weak… The world is not waiting for you! Yes, you gotta keep up, basically! And for me, I’ve lived a life of varied experiences and I feel like it’s been a lot of twists and turns and I feel like, having gone through those things, kind of give you a certain level of drive, you know? And it makes you think — ultimately, I was where I was and I’m in a better place now and that means I can keep moving upwards and forwards. And that kind of constant mindset is really healthy. It’s always there because of where I’ve been and where I’m going.

I also feel like it’s really important for you to develop yourself on your own — it’s been like that all throughout your journey. What’s been the most challenging thing for you so far, in your career or creating the album?
The most challenging part of my career has been making music that I love which connects with other people, on a wide scale. Because there are several different ambitions that, ideally, I want to be able to meet and help achieve within this project — you know, this project doesn’t just revolve around me. It’s also my manager, it’s also the label, it’s also the fans and everyone involved. And some of that is about my artistic integrity and making something I really feel connected to, but it’s also making stuff that fans love and that connects with other people and can carry the weight of this music long-term. I don’t want it to just be one year: I make an album that I love and then disappear! I want it to be something that lasts and that is a challenging thing because it encourages me to have a really open mind to what other people might think, other than yourself. And that’s really hard when you’re an artist ‘cause you get so obsessed, like ‘I wanna make my stuff, I wanna make my stuff!’.

At the beginning, I read that you were indeed really just doing the music for yourself. What triggered you to share it?
‘Cause music is meant to be shared! It’s meant to be heard! And when did you realise that? I realised that more when… the more that I met people out in the streets who would say ‘Oh, I love your music!’, the more I got tweets and messages from people saying they were touched by my songs, I realised the power of the music is much more about how it affects other people than how it affects myself. And that is a really important thing because I feel like… Well, it depends on the kind of artist you are, but I think as an artist myself, I have a responsibility to come out of my own head and think about how important some of this music could be to people if it really reaches them. And so I wanted to reach them. That’s where my mind is at the moment: making music that I do genuinely, genuinely, GENUINELY love, but also rises to the challenge of helping that kind of reach to the masses. And that’s actually harder than just doing one or the other. You could just make music for the masses and hate it! Or you could just make it for yourself and maybe not have a career (laughs)! Other than within a very small scope, you know? That’s where I’m at at the moment and I’m up for that challenge.

Is that related to the title of your album, Love+War?
I suppose it is in a way because I feel like Love+War described the inner battles and the different sides of oneself that one needs to get through to be happy. You know, light, dark, happy sides, being discontent and content… Those things all have a place in our journey and in our minds. And with all of one and none of the other, you can’t really be human, I don’t think you can have perspective. And I’m kind of comfortable with that, and that’s what the album is about: it’s about being comfortable with your full spectrum of emotions.

I really feel all these contrasts in your music, like in the Perfect Ruin video!
That was the idea, cool!

I was wondering how much do the visual aspect influence you when you’re writing your music?
When I’m writing the music, I always have a picture in my head. Not necessarily the picture that ends up being the video but I always have an idea. It could be something as simple as, ‘I think it’s gonna be outside. This song feels like it’s outside’. And so, for Perfect Ruin, it was like ‘In this song, I can feel there’s a huge expansive space and there’s a feeling of being swallowed up by the surroundings’. So I guess that’s what that video came about, it all made sense. So I always have a picture in my mind. And I think it’s really important because I think, as an artist, it sets you up… it sets up people’s mind to how they see your entire project, like the aesthetics of your project: whether that’s an urban thing or whether there’s an epic scene or whether it’s a super artsy thing, like FKA twigs. And also, it can be really, really fun. I remember when I was growing up, watching music videos and with certain artists – let’s take Michael Jackson – you were watching the videos and you were like ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder what he’s going to do next’. I think it can really help the fans going on a journey with you. Music is meant to be enjoyed, visually as well as audibly.

You’ve collaborated with many great people for this album. Can you tell us more about them?
The main contributors on this album are Felix Joseph — who produced Perfect Ruin, SOHN — who produced Wrong or Right and we’ve got another two tracks, Cass Lowe — whom people haven’t heard so much about yet. And they are all people I met along the way! I mean, I met Felix and Cass a little bit later. Felix is from London. I’ve sort of met him through my manager and he’s just as much a friend as he is a collaborative partner, which I’ve found is actually very useful for me. The people I really work well with are people I have that sort of relationship as humans as well as writers. Because the music is very human; in its nature, it’s personal. So Felix has written music for me but he also took the photo that’s on the album cover. So everyone who’s involved is involved in quite a deep way. I’ve known Cass for a year now. We’ve written a bunch of songs together before we ended up writing what is ultimately the title track on the album, Love+War, which people will hear very soon. And then there’s SOHN, whom I’ve known for like two years now. I went back to write with him early last year, in January, to contribute another track for the album and he produced another track on the album as well. And again, he’s a dude — he’s a friend. That kind of contributes to the main body of work for the album; I feel like those are probably the most notable partnerships I have, as well as Royce Wood Junior and… I’m going through the tracks in my mind…

Who produced My Own and Cheating On Me? I LOVE those songs!
My Own is SOHN, actually. Really? Yeah! It’s so surprising; it doesn’t sound like what he does usually! Yeah but, you know, he’s got an R&B head on his shoulders! Yeah, it sounds like a Destiny’s Child track! Love it! Good, good, good, good! And Cheating On Me is Felix Joseph. Great songs! Thank you very much, I love them as well! I mean, you know, I can’t wait for people to hear them because you spend so much time making an album and then you’re like ‘OK right, it’s time to go! Come on!’ (laughs). So I just hope people will love it as much as I do.

What’s the most precious song in your eyes from this album?
Oh my gosh! I feel like the most precious song is Perfect Ruin. Because it was the one that stuck around for the longest — or one of the ones that stuck around for the longest! I wrote it when I was still at university and I remember it was written on one of the few days off I had from classes. I wrote it with Royce Wood Junior and my keyboard player George Moore — who’s a friend of mine, I’ve known him for like, many years now. And it was just the most natural process; it was the easiest song I’ve ever written, really. Is everything always that organic? No, it’s not. And that’s what made it so special! There was nothing formulaic about it. There was nothing… pre-planned. There was no overthinking required. We just sort of made it. We made the melody, we made the chords… and then I went home and wrote the lyrics. And then it was just sort of done. And I feel like that we made something that was simultaneously universal and interesting like, it had a bit of an edge to it, I guess… That’s kind of what I really wanna do: to make something that is distinctive while also having a quality to it that feels like it’s meant for everyone, or has something in it that can be understood by everyone.

You went to Ghana (ed.: where his family comes from, but he’s actually born in London and spent part of his childhood in the foster care system) for the first time a few years ago and back then, when you were still posting diary entries on Tumblr, you said that you would probably write a song about it. So did it happen for this album?
That’s a very good point, actually. I haven’t, you know. But if I was to write a song about it, I guess I would write it about new beginnings because that connects with my life as much as anything else. There are certain experiences in life that open up new chapters but maybe that’s for the next album. Maybe the next album will include new chapters. You know, everything from here is only a new chapter, I guess! Yeah, we’ll see (laughs)!

Check out the first part of our interview!


If you live in Belgium, you can already stream Love+War via Deezer.
Love+War will be released on September 11. Pre-order it on iTunes.
See Kwabs perform live at the Vooruit, in Ghent, on November 5.

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