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Escape Velocity

Underwater Intensity: Klein Interviewed
Zahra Dalilah , September 26th, 2017 09:45

Ahead of the release of her first EP with Hyperdub this Friday, Klein speaks to Zahra Dalilah about finding herself in the alternative music scene, the intensity of her music and R&B boy band B2K

Photo courtesy of Joyce NG

"OMG, so this guy I like, right…" are the unexpected first words that fall out of Klein’s mouth as we sit down at Lewisham Wetherspoon's, lunchtime bevvies in hand, to discuss her new EP, Tommy. Grinning from ear to ear as she sips her pint through a straw while gushing over beautiful men, her friend who has come to crash with her for a few weeks (NON collective member Embaci – "she’s on the EP actually") and her soon-to-arrive steak and chips, Klein’s gleeful tones are unrecognisable from the deep throaty vocals that lace some of the most moving and arresting tracks that Tommy has to offer.

Tommy is the third of Klein’s EPs to date ("it’s low-key an album to be honest, I can’t just do like four tracks") and the first to be released on Hyperdub after signing with the UK label earlier this year. It carries the same raw energy as her previous work, with an added layer of honesty and intimacy which shines through on tracks like 'Farewell Sorry' and 'Cry Theme'. Alongside this refreshing vulnerability, the sounds and realities of life for a Nigerian British south Londoner filter through once again, her personal story leaking through the distortion, riffs and runs that fill the record. The sounds of beef on the bus and aunty’s prayers, ones which characterised her 2016 self-released EP Lagata, find their counterpart on Tommy in the noise of household arguments and friends taking the piss out of each other.

Klein’s commitment to taking little seriously but her craft has clearly been upheld throughout her career as she explains the inspiration for teaser track 'Runs Reprise', a one-minute blast of pitch-shifted vocal samples and heavily warped breaks that plays on the vocal technique of runs, by which a series of notes ascend or descend, in quick succession. "'Runs Reprise' is me taking the piss out of myself, because… the runs… and also because of the oversaturation of runs on chart songs, almost to the point that it’s actually lost its meaning," she tells me.

With Tommy, Klein continues to push the boundaries of what should and could work to produce a body of work which she describes as like being "underwater". Drawing on the sounds of her surroundings and collaborating with close friends to create an introspective but playful EP, Klein’s dedication as a student to the science of music has clearly paid off once again, and the resulting record is her boldest yet.

Why do you describe Tommy as ‘low-key an album’? What can listeners expect from the record?

Klein: I can’t just do four tracks, I’ll just be adding more and more until it feels full. Even for 'Cry Theme', the song before that, 'Act One', wasn’t supposed to be on the record. It was like an interlude because it still has the same lyrics as 'Cry Theme', but features me singing it in a more kind of 1950s style. With Embaci and my other best friend Jacob Samuel, I was like 'OK, I just want my brother and my sister on this record' and it felt right having actual mates [on it]. To put out a project that feels full to me, I’ll always have bits to fill it in so you can get a full picture of what the record's about.

'Prologue' is so intense. I was listening to that the other day and I was so triggered, it’s so intense! If you get through those first five minutes, the record’s pretty much a wrap, it’s kind of a tester. For 'Prologue', everything felt very underwater, like the whole record, and I remember writing stuff about drowning, sailing, being underwater. So I kind of played around with that drowning feeling but also kind of with warmth too.

'Farewell Sorry' for me was the most honest I’ve ever been on a song, just in my bed, emo, doing like some really confusing riffs and runs by myself. It’s a weird song for me to play because it means so much for me. And also, 'Tommy', the song, for me, that was venting, wilding out.

This record feels a bit darker than some past work, maybe a little more sombre than previous ones as well?

K: [Laughs] The other day I had to listen to the record and I was like 'OK, maybe it is a little bit intense'. It is probably darker than stuff I’ve put out before, but in a way it is softer and very honest too. 'Act One' is about friendship. At the time I was watching The Sound of Music loads and I love musicals and the drama and exaggeration of saying things you want to say to your friend but just stretched out. Playing around with that and the tonalities of how something is supposed to sound, and then placing it a certain way, I guess that is why certain things do sound dark. But even if I’m feeling sad or whatever, I’ll make stuff from my own head and for me it feels warm because I’ll add in certain, softer chords, obviously forgetting that the person listening is shook, like 'OK, this is too much'.

One of the tracks on the album is called 'B2k'? Is that because B2K are the greatest R&B group of all time or…?

K: OMG, they’re sick! The past few months my appreciation for them has just… I’ve lost it, I’ve literally lost it. Songs like 'Hood', 'Sprung', 'The Other Guy'. When I came up with 'B2k' the first 10 seconds felt like it could be part of that era. I made it live and I was a bit waved and then the next day I listened back and was like 'Woah, What was that?' My machine jam sequencer had all the bits, so I recreated it.

I feel like that one is me in a whole song: dramatic as hell, trying to say something but going so many ways but still coming back to like… alright I’m listening to the song and I can tell what Klein’s into, you can see she likes R&B.

It’s only through playing loads of shows that I’ve gotten to know loads of electronic artists but prior to that I was all [New York City radio station] Hot 97, [Power 105.1 radio show] Breakfast Club, [grime platform] Link Up [TV] Certain friends who like Section Boyz, GRM Daily, they’ll be telling me about 'Cry Theme' and it’s lit because I know they wouldn’t necessarily be in the electronic realm [otherwise].

With most electronic music I hear now, the things I like will be the things that have soul. It has to have a feeling in it, where it feels warm, or feels epic. I like to play with that in my music as well, there will always be a piano chord or something underneath it to make you feel at home. I always try and make sure even with vocals and layering that you still feel like you know me, no matter whether you’re into grime or hip hop. So long as you leave feeling like you know Klein, it’s a wrap.

What did you want to do with music when you first started producing?

K: [When I started] I never really counted it as producing. It wasn’t until five months ago when I sent off the EP that I was like 'oh, crap, you’re actually a musician now'. I was in such denial of how much I liked making music. It’s like when you watch a TV show and you’re like 'wait a minute, I’ve watched the whole season, I must really like this'.

Even when my microphone broke, I was like 'that’s fine, I don’t need a microphone because I don’t really like making music', so on Lagata I recorded the microphone straight to Mac, so I got really good at mastering. My approach to music was never to see it as a job. It was just like a hobby - this is fun and the minute I start to see it as a job I’ll be like 'OK, I’m gonna become an actress, move to LA and be in Insecure'.

So when did things start to change?

K: Maybe like a year and a half ago when things were getting a bit serious and I was like 'Do I have to dress in like latex or something?' [Laughs]. I remember a time that I was doing the fleece and baggy trousers lifestyle. I had short hair, I didn’t feel like I was cute. I didn’t feel like I was hot and I was like 'I can’t be in this thing, do I have to dress a certain way or look a certain way?'

Being first generation Naij [Nigerian] it was like 'of course you’re going to be a lawyer'. For years I convinced myself I wanted to be a lawyer. When it’s embedded into you that music is not a job, it's not a career… I just couldn’t envisage it being a career making stuff alongside watching movies on mute. Especially with what I was doing because it was just weird. At college me and my friends would laugh like 'this is so weird, this would be nowhere'.

The other day I looked at my desktop and wondered how it was filled with 40 songs that I made in the past week and a bit. Insane! I was like 'you’re psychotic, you actually just love making music and you’re in denial'. I’m just in my own head, I don’t make stuff to be played on the radio, I just be wilding out on songs, none of these songs are intended to be in a club or on the radio. It’s songs that I make for myself and it’ll just gas me and my cousin up.

Do you feel like live shows are a different level, where you step into your artistry differently?

K: Live shows are where I can just go off, I do the most. I can recreate songs live and take one element and build on that that for like 40 minutes and I like seeing people’s faces when I’m making something live. I like someone having an idea of how I’m gonna be live, and then not actually being that. When you’re a producer and a woman, even when I’m doing stuff live, people will be like 'so who made that?' And in my head I’m like 'who else would produce it?'

If I knew the producers I knew now when I started I probably wouldn’t produce but because I didn’t really know that many people, that would come from where I wanted to go. I didn’t even know how to explain it so, by force, I had to produce. I had to play the piano. Even if I couldn’t read notes, I had to listen. When Jacob [Samuel] was playing the piano I had to follow. I had to really listen to music and get into the nitty gritty because who else was going to?

Do you know a lot of other women who are producers?

K: Yeah, loads! Embaci, Mica Levi, Bianca Scout, Elysia Crampton, Nídia Minaj, the list goes on. It’s been crazy this year seeing all these women coming out. But with women they’re either really big or no one knows they exist. The past year there has been a lot more visibility, and they’re just like every day normal girls. That is really nice to see. Especially Nídia Minaj, she’ll just be in the green room like watching CSI Miami so unbothered and it’s nice to see that and to see the visibility of women, brown women as well, making stuff.

I remember you saying as well, something about being tired of seeing thirty-year-old white men at your shows?

K: Actually after I posted that I was like… I take it back. [When I said that] I wasn’t even annoyed. The fact is electronic music gigs are expensive and the reality is that these ‘white men that I’m tired of’ have the money that can afford to see these shows. All these outlets that I’m written about in are mainly electronic music magazines and largely have a white male audience so how the hell is a black girl gonna even come across me? So whenever a black girl finds me they’re losing their minds.

A year ago, two years ago, I was talking about doing more inclusive shows and I think through that more brown girls have found out about me. I feel like the past year has been really good in doing small small bits and bobs to change the music scene, and over the past year I have seen more diversity… northerners, nerds, black girls, Pakistani girls. And I always try and talk to everyone, get jelly shots or prosecco. My friends are really nice and will talk to people if they’re on their own. We’ve always just tried to create a space that’s really relaxed. And I would always start my shows with some Naija highlife playing with everyone just hanging out. With that, people feel this is a nice space that they want to be in. And that’s all. I’m just basically trying to make an inclusive space so people feel like they can come to the shows and just have such a good time.

Klein's Tommy is out on Hyperdub on September 29. You can see her live at TUSK Festival and Simple Things in October. For more details on TUSK Festival, click here, and for more details on Simple Things, head here