It looks like it’s been a busy year for you! You’re based in Los Angeles now – how’s that been?
It’s been pretty consistent. Obviously a lot of people come through LA, and there’s a certain culture here where people are down to work and experiment in a really fluid way. There’s a lot of energy for making new music. I’ve actually gotten into doing a few Zoom sessions, which is funny as I normally wouldn’t have ever considered that. But the pandemic forced me to, and then I realized this actually works quite nicely for certain things, like songwriting. ‘Forget About Me’, which I released in January with Diplo, I wrote with Kelli-Leigh on Zoom. Same with the current single – being in LA with a producer, but then working with a writer in the UK is really good fun.
It’s interesting to see how the pandemic has opened up new ways of collaborating while we’ve been apart. As gigs regain their momentum, what’s changed?
It’s interesting seeing the live circuit come slowly back to life – it’s different. I just did a show in Denver which was so different to any festival I’ve played before. The vibe was very chilled, and I’m feeling that there’s a growing desire for that across the board. After nearly three years, being indoors has worn us down in a way where we seek out a different experience when we’re outside – something that is slightly closer to what we’re now used to, like being at home and dancing in our bedrooms . I’m curious as to how I can accommodate that in a rave setting, and I feel like amapiano is the perfect antidote for feeling like you’re out clubbing, but also like you’re relaxing.
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Absolutely – that hypnotic amapiano sound is really prevalent in the mix, which also features your recent track ‘Nowhere To Hide’. What’s drawn you towards the genre?
I would describe amapiano as quite a minimal form of music – often you can hear that there are few instruments, but they’re used in a very particular way. It feels like the producers who make it are almost in this meditative state: it’s got an enormous amount of energy in it, but it’s really simple. I wrote ‘Nowhere to Hide’ in London with Higo and Prettyboy [D-O] and that was a very different experience. I’ve kind of had to rework my methodology – instead of aiming directly for the end result, I take a different route, and let the arrival be something that I can’t necessarily plan. It was really nice being able to send Kooldrink a vocal over a beat that was very, very different, and have him sort of rework it. Kooldrink has a really broad production background, but is one of the pioneers of the genre in South Africa, so he’s able to include the traditional sounds and marry that with vocals, which is a very particular art form. That kind of nailed it for me.
Amapiano seems to be having a ‘moment’ in electronic music. It’s refreshing to see a Black electronic genre gain so much traction as it moves out of South Africa across the world.
Yes, and initially, when exploring genres from the African diaspora, certainly afrobeat was a go-to. I always love to mix afrobeats with house and techno – I think they go really well together, and they create this bridge between African and European/American dance music. It was interesting with amapiano, because it’s really far away from fast afrobeats, or techno – it’s usually around 110 to 114 BPM – it’s a completely different sound. But when I started to test out ‘Nowhere to Hide’ before we released it, I was like, wow, people are getting this! We’re all ready for amapiano, and I can see that it’s going to go global, very, very fast. With that we’re going to have people who weren’t involved in creating the genre taking the sound and basically crossing it over. So it’s really important for me to celebrate the people who created the genre, as early and as consistently as possible. When I was making the track, I wanted to go straight to the source, and I think that people should be doing that whenever they discover a new genre: working with the producers that created the sound and including them in the globalization and celebration of it .
Absolutely, and particularly within dance music, pioneering Black artists haven’t always been given the credit. How was it emerging onto the scene at a time when we weren’t all that recognized?
I kind of saw the process of getting into the music industry as something that would have to be a creative exploration before committing myself to any particular lane. One of the things I did know is that as a Black woman in the UK, I certainly didn’t fit any of the boxes that I saw us in. Generally, I only saw Black women in R&B, and maybe some soul, or if you were like, a super genius you might be able to be a grime rapper or something… there wasn’t much else going on at the time. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to first of all explore all of the music that I love, even though I know that as a Black girl I will, one-hundred-percent note make it in that genre.’ Early on I was in guitar bands, indie bands making all kinds of noise, fully in the knowledge that no one would ever sign me as a Black female indie rock artist. But I just wanted to do that for myself. Then I started to explore some very avant-garde electronica in a duo called My Toys Like Me, and that’s where I started to develop my voice. When I was first introduced to George [of AlunaGeorge] we really hit it off. Our studio process was very intertwined, and although I was mainly on vocals and songwriting with George on production, we would discuss our ideas intimately: down to this kick drum, that space sound.
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What did that ‘exploration’ phase teach you?
Well by the time I decided to go solo I had a really well-rounded skill set that I could take into the studio, mixing the different dance music genres that I’d always been interested in. But although I had achieved the goal of making great music, I had not achieved being visible. There’s a difference between the profile of AlunaGeorge and the features that we were known for in a more commercial sense, and in those features I was disembodied from my Blackness – my identity. Coming into the industry I’d already felt the pressure to erase my Blackness. I’d grown up in a town where I was the only Black person; I’d have my hair natural but I got bullied for it, and so the shame of being Black was a constant thing. When I started to make music, I started to straighten my hair, which was a big thing; and so the next erasure of my Blackness was to literally not even be visible. I think I was so well trained to be in the background, and to not take up space, that it wasn’t something I pushed against