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Escape Velocity

On The Frontier: AGAAMA Interviewed
Joey Levenson , October 10th, 2022 10:01

Maximalist experimental artist AGAAMA speaks to Joey Levenson about how everything from Tool to Bjork via digital mystics and Stevie Nicks informed her future-facing new EP ‘Wandering Worlds’

Photos by Lucy Feng

On AGAAMA’s second EP, Wandering Worlds, the mystique of an unknown future is drawn closer to the horizon. Each track is layered in organic and artificial elements, layers that eventually peel back to guide the listener through a disorientating flurry of emotional lyrics and heavy bass lines. It is a natural culmination of everything the Birmingham-born, London-based artist (real name Cassandra Gurling) has come from.

From an early age, music has always been woven into AGAAMA’s life. In her household, she was privy to the musical tastes of her parents, from classical compositions on vinyl to the sultry sounds of Sarah Vaughan and Quincy Jones. Then, she pivoted into becoming a bonafide metalhead, raging hard for the likes of Tool. It produced an interesting amalgam in AGAAMA’s sound today: jazzy, soothing vocal ranges mixed with a cacophony of hard-edged and unnerving instrumentals. “I think the sound of an artist is just a combination of everything that they've ever listened to, and everything that they've ever loved,” AGAAMA tells me as we chat on the day of Wandering Worlds’ release.

The record has a rich, thought-provoking and immersive ecosystem. ‘Blackbox Oracle’ is a particular standout, fusing AGAAMA’s uncanny eye for the future possibility of AI technology with her romantic streak. “I think advancements happening in technology are really exciting, but I also naively believe that there is something special about humans,” she says. “I don't think we are just animals, I think there is a divinity within us.”

AGAAMA keeps this kind of open-ended spirituality close to her heart, almost as seriously as she takes her music. Yet, more noticeably, she carries an unwavering cool demeanor about life itself. Perhaps that’s why she’s an artist entirely in control of herself, from the production to the visual roll-out of Wandering Worlds. It’s refreshing to find an artist such as AGAAMA who holds so strong in who she is, and where she’s going.

The title Wandering Worlds has a lot of double-meanings and layers baked into it. Why did you choose that for the EP?

AGAAMA: The title comes from ‘Samsara’, a song on my last EP. At the end of the song I say “wandering world, wandering world, how I gaze with eyes ablaze, I hope for brighter days, I hope to feel the rays of freedom’s burning sun and see beyond what we've become.” 'Samsara' is about the cycle of birth and death in Buddhism. I got the phrase “wandering world” from the idea that within samsara the world is wandering, we're all kind of lost within this wheel. So, it was kind of a bridge from that record into this record. And, as I was making it, I found myself outside a lot in different spaces in different worlds, from Birmingham to London. I was just collecting sounds to try and ground myself, because the world felt like it was wandering and chaotic at the time. On the other hand, I feel like I'm constantly on this journey of trying to heal and breakthrough pain, emotion, darkness, stress, fucking up and doing bad things and just trying to be better and trying to grow. And so, I felt like I was wandering through the world. It just felt right to call it that for those different reasons.

What’s your star sign?

A: Pisces.

I’m fascinated by the blend of machinery and humans in this EP, as if the album itself is a cyborg. What research and inspiration went into building this narrative and soundscape?

A: It kind of just happened unintentionally. I almost see the music as I make is a reflection of what's happening around at the time, but one of the things that is important to my practice, and to this record in particular, is just talking about different subjects that we're on the frontier of as a species. With the record 'Blackbox Oracle', I just found myself getting more and more freaked out and intrigued about where we sit currently in terms of technology and technological advancement. I think we're probably at a pivot point right now. Like, we're gonna see the singularity happen in our lifetime, and I think that is mad. So, I started researching and getting more and more into that and looking at quantum physics and quantum mechanics. Anything that's on the frontier, I'm attracted to it. I'm freaked out by it, and I'm excited by it as well.

What is it about the future that interests you more than the present or past?

A: I think that where we are right now is a really interesting space and place in our history because of access to information and access to knowledge, which gives us access to history and everything that's already been. I don't think there's ever been a time when we've had this much access to knowledge, so I think that makes us more informed to look towards the future and see what's coming. There's like a big red warning sign going off in front of us and I think we're all aware of that. So, maybe that’s why I'm interested in the future, because I can't ignore the big loud red alarm. That’s in terms of the environment and what’s happening socio-politically and the advent of technology. I can't help but look towards it, and hope that we can use our knowledge to maybe take control, take a bit of agency and make something happen rather than fall towards it.

Were you taking inspiration from other future-gazing artists during the making of this EP?

A: I was taking inspiration from the sound of a lot of artists, but they're not all current or forward-thinking artists on the frontier. I’m attracted to artists across space and time. The thing that I'm drawn to is this kind of brooding, meditative, uncomfortable, but trance-like feeling. I think whatever that feeling is, that feeling looks towards the future. So at the time, I was listening to a lot of Tool, I was listening to a lot of Björk. But, I was also listening to a lot of Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush. I was listening to a lot of digital mystics and dub music. They all have that feeling in common. That's the only way I can explain it to you.

You produce a lot of your own music. Was Wandering Worlds done entirely by yourself?

A: It’s actually a co-production between myself and Alex O'Donovan, who's an amazing producer based in Brixton. We just spent a lot of time together with a load of synthesisers, and just trying to realise this vision. On my previous work that I've put out, I felt that as a Black woman in music I had to produce everything and not work with anybody and do everything myself. I really needed to go through that, but now I'm at a space where I don't need to prove anything. I can produce music myself, and I enjoy collaborating. So, this was me kind of leaning into that.

And this was all within an experimental and electronic genre. Where do you think Black British women now stand in that space?

A: I think that in the music industry in general it's hard for Black women to break out of the boxes that have been imposed on them. Often, it’s that they’re a singer and they need to stay there and just sing, use their voice. And then the more and more you go into alternative genres, the more you become an anomaly in the music industry. I saw a thing the other day that said I was “R&B” but there’s nothing R&B about what I'm making. However, I am actually seeing a lot of really cool artists and voices of Black British artists rising up independently in that space right now and refining what we expect from Black British sound, so it’s an exciting time.

It's really fascinating that you bring up the idea of Black women being boxed in as ‘the singer’. How did you approach vocals in Wandering Worlds?

A: I wanted to highlight my compositional skills, like the horn arrangements that I wrote and arranged myself. I wanted to show what else I can do other than singing. So, it was definitely intentional to let instrumentals take the forefront over my vocals. I've got a voice that can do lots of different things. It's not a traditional voice, it's kind of weird because I can do deep things and be quiet, and then very loud and belt. Wandering Worlds was about just finding the gems in my voice and doing that a little bit, rather than just doing everything all the time. I’m learning to refine it with each EP.

AGAAMA's new EP Wandering Worlds is out now via state51. She will perform at a launch party for the release on October 13 at state51’s greedbag pop-up shop in East London. Tickets are £6 and can be purchased here