There is something about A K U A. And that something is getting big time noticed.
Days after A K U A’s far too short NXNE performance in June (NOW magazine named her one of the top 10 must see acts of the festival), A K U A (pronounced “A-koo-ah”), and I met at a Bloor and Bathurst restaurant for a Winehouse mag chat.
Check out a glimpse of A K U A during NXNE:
As the petite newly blond singer-songwriter strode into the restaurant, her entrance summoned appreciative stares from four baseball hat wearing lads who swiveled around in unison to grin and admire, twisting brazenly to match her stride. All the while, A K U A maintained the straightest of faces. Once we moved to a table in the corner, I asked her if she had noticed their unflinching attention. “Yes,” she responded, sounding neither flattered or offended by it.
Interesting. Was this smugness or simply disinterest? As I wobbled around with my recorder, pondering the question, I made an off-handed remark about not being particularly tech savvy, A K U A picked up her cell and immediately started tapping away. She let me know that she was forwarding me a feminist zine she subscribes to that offers classes to help tech-less ladies like myself. Wow, I thought, how considerate.
Later, as we wrapped up our interview, which had transitioned into an engaging off-the record chat, our startlingly chirpy – to the point of being unsettling – waitress seized the opportunity to ask A K U A her own questions. “Are you a singer?” she inquired intently.
“Yes,” replied A K U A in that even-keeled manner that I now understood was neither conceit nor disinterest but just her straight-forward style. “And she’s a writer,” added A K U A. [She being moi].
I smiled, appreciating A K U A’s generous attempt to spread the attention. How cool. But I also recognized that our wild eye waitress didn’t give a damn.
“What kind of music?” continued the woman confirming my assumption?
So yes, there is something about A K U A that makes people wonder, “Who’s that girl?” And her “it” factor is intertwined with an earnest thoughtful humility that makes her fascinating and likeable beyond the major talent and enviable style choices.
Since releasing her “remote soul” EP, One’s Company, A K U A appears to be on her way to big things, and baseball boys and manic waitress aren’t the only ones to have taken notice. Recently, after opening for Solange in Montreal, A K U A was snagged by Beyonce’s sister to sing backup on her North American leg of the tour.
Here A K U A discusses moving from the background to the spotlight, finding one’s voice and an odd Middle-Eastern hotel. ChakaV.
TWM: When did you decide to go from backup singer to solo artist?
A K U A: I graduated from university in Montreal and I left for about 4 months. When I came back nobody needed me to sing backup. All the projects that I had been part of either fell apart or they found someone to replace me. So it was the first time in my life when I realized I actually really like this singing thing but nobody needs me so I have to find something else. So I started to develop it on my own. I definitely didn’t feel the confidence to do anything solo so I just sort of secretly and privately started to just play around and experiment. And then it also came out of a breakup, of course. Usually some sort of powerful emotional experience will push you.
TWM: When did you get the courage to start putting your music out there?
A K U A: I think it was just sharing it with peers. I had a few close friends that I felt like I trusted, and I’m a pretty proud person so it was a lot for me to put something out there that was obviously very imperfect. Most of my reinforcement to continue what I’ve been doing has been external more than interior. I really, really doubted a lot. I questioned it. I was embarrassed. I was shy. It was hearing from other people responding well to it that gave me the courage to move forward. It’s really been people around me that supported it that made me feel like I should continue. If I hadn’t felt that energy from people I would have thought, A K U A you’re right. You’re crazy, this is a stupid idea. You’re not cut out for this. Go back to trying to be a journalist. Or something out of the list of million things I was thinking of.
I think where a lot of people are like, “This is me. I’m going to show them all. I’m going to do it.” I didn’t feel that bold confidence. I was very, very shy. I definitely needed the support of others to reinforce that I should move forward and keep developing.
TWM: What’s up with the strange Middle Eastern hotel hinted about in your bio?
A K U A: [Chuckling at the mention of it.]
Through a friend I was offered to come sing in a soul cover band ─ she wasn’t really a friend, a peer. She was like, “I sing in a soul cover band. We need someone new.” So I joined. I was probably in it for all of two months. This was in Montreal. There was some older musicians and we played soul covers at corporate events. Very Pop Star not much soul to it, just sort of corporate. Which to me was really weird. I had only ever sang in the indie student type band. So it was definitely like, “What the hell is this?” But I treated it like school. For the first time I got a lot more time singing solo, which was a huge deal for me as a backup singer. That’s what kind of got me doing it. I needed to challenge myself. A, musically do I have the voice? B, emotionally do I have the courage to do it?
Part of me was like, I’m not a good enough singer for that. And another part of me was, can you actually stand up in that room full of people and command that sort of energy?
After one of those shows somebody wrote me and said, “I have a band and we’re going to go somewhere in Asia or the Middle East. We’ll pay for your flight there and back. You’ll have all your food and accommodations paid for. You’ll sing six nights a week. All covers. You have no expenses. It’ll be somewhere warm for three months.” I thought it was spam or something. I was like, this sounds crazy. And so in the end I ended up joining this band. We prepared all the material in Montreal and did the rehearsals and then we got a gig in Oman which is a country in the Middle East. We were hired as a really cheesy cover band to perform. I kind of got cold feet and I wasn’t going to go for a million different reasons, one of them was that I was kind of in love at the time. But then I just sort of decided that it was a story to tell your grandkids. And it was kind of me being up for an adventure, so I decided to go. It was really weird.
TWM: Why was it weird?
A K U A: I studied International Development so I essentially studied poverty and countries that are trying to get themselves to a healthier state economically and socially. So to all of a sudden be thrust into the Middle East, and essentially I was performing for some of the richest percentile of people in the world. We’re talking about like 5 star hotel, Michael Jackson stayed there when he went to the country. It’s that kind of place. So you have people rolling up in limos. Wealth that I have never ever seen as someone from the middle-class. This was like next level wealth and influence and essentially the exact opposite of the people I had been studying and been interested in. So right away, as soon as I got there, it was like a conflict of values.
I didn’t really like the music I was singing, which I already knew. It was a means to an end. A job. The reason why I really wanted to go too was to make money. So I got there and I’m like performing in this air conditioned… chain smoking, people chain smoking in my face kind of thing. The only other women were myself, the other singer, three Chinese prostitutes. They worked there every night, these three women. And one bartender. Everyone else in the bar would be male. So it was very male dominated. Driven by money. At times it was sort of being a showgirl and I’m like a self-proclaimed feminist here, so I put myself in a very weird and uncomfortable situation.
TWM: I imagine that you didn’t have to dig too deep musically to please them?
A K U A: Hell no! Those guys would listen to “Hotel California” every night if they could. It was stuff that I would never ever want to sing. There are so many artists that would never do something like that because it would just challenge their musical integrity. But for me, at that time, it was very much like an important step. It basically helped me define exactly what I wanted to do. It gave me money to invest in how I wanted to do it. Then I could come home and afford a loop pedal and a sound card and a microphone.
Vocally I ended up loving it. I used to dance and be on stage with a group of people at recitals. I forgot that I really do like to perform. The thing about the backup singing thing is you are always in the background and it’s not about you. It [the cover band gig] kind of reminded me that I did have that inner performer in me.
And really, whether I liked it or not I had to do my job and they assumed that we knew what we were doing and we were professional. I went from not speaking on stage and being a backup singer to trying to interact with the audience and calling people out and talking and hosting. A lot of it was hosting and putting on an evening of entertainment. I think in many ways at that time I needed to remember that I had that side of me and also that that was exactly not the type of music I was trying to make or be a part of. That was a one shot thing.
TWM: So you returned home and began writing your own music. Do you write music regularly? Do you find that you write better in the mornings, the evenings?
A K U A: The more intentionally I try to write a song, the worst it is. Really. I think that anything I’ve created that I really really like, has come out of a very honest and almost unconscious state, a vulnerable unconscious state. And every time I sit down and I think, I really need to write more music, the stuff doesn’t really stick. Everything about it feels contrived. So that’s a tricky thing to do when you’re trying actually to produce more. It’s a tricky place because you can’t just sit down and wait for something bad to happen or something emotional in order to create.
My process is that I create enough space to just play and create without thinking too much about it. My songs have all sort of grown with me. A lot of the stuff has been with me for a long time but how it first sounded has morphed with me and the more that I work with it and play with it, it becomes real. But it’s very rare that I just sit down and I’m like, “There’s my song. Next!” There are a lot of people that just pump that out. “Look I wrote eight songs this week.” It blows my mind. That’s not me.
TWM: One picture of you after another is amazing. How involved are you in the images we see of you?
A K U A: I’m very involved in that element because it is my image. I worked with a graphic designer formally for the first time on the record and on the website, and she did a lot of work on that element. In terms of the website that was her concept. I let her use her creative freedom and I happened to really like it. But with the album artwork I was very, very involved in curating it, and I would say that most of the stuff on the internet I have photoshopped. I have worked with another artist. For instance there’s one where I’m sort of in a room and it’s busy and there’s all sorts of photos on the wall…
TWM: I know the one you’re talking about. It’s a fantastic photo.
A K U A: Thank you. Stacy [Stacy Lee] took that photo but I curated the room. So that was something for me where I really understood what kind of final image that I wanted. The aesthetic. Then I created it and she came over and took photos. I am pretty involved on that side of things. I’ve done the odd photo shoot where it’s sort of like anything goes but…I actually used to be very interested in photography and there are many times when I wish I was taking photos. Not of myself. I would so much rather be taking the photos rather than being in the photos, which I think a lot of people feel. But I have that desire to be tangibly involved in the creating of it, which sometimes is funny.
TWM: There is a very oceanic aquatic vibe to some of your pictures and you were a mermaid in “Gravity.” Are you a pisces? You seem drawn to water type images?
A K U A: No, an Aries [laughs]. I think it’s just a natural affinity towards it. I wouldn’t say it’s intentional. It’s funny a few people have mentioned, “That there’s water and you’ve done a lighthouse…” That has been largely unconscious. I’m not a very well thought out person. I kind of act a lot out of impulse and little bit randomly but obviously there have been patterns that have emerged. I’m a very visual person. I’m almost more visual than I am oral. And actually that’s something in my songwriting. I find a lot of the time it’ll be like an image or a texture or a pattern or something that I feel like I’m trying to translate to music. It’s more unconscious than that but that’s maybe more of where some of the cinematic or landscapey influences comes from, its that I’m visualizing a lot when I’m creating.
TWM: Why did it take two years for One’s Company to come out after “Push?”
A K U A: It took two years for a few reasons. The first thing is that I didn’t really know what I wanted. I had a lot of different influences and I didn’t understand a lot about production. So I just kind of said, “Oh, I have these self-produced tracks.” Like “Push,” did you ever see the video of it?
TWM: Yes. Its fun.
A K U A: So we did that but that version of the song is mine. I produced it at home in my room but there’s no bass line. It’s just sort of like a loop. Very, very stripped down, which I think is nice because it allows the song within itself to really be featured. But on the flip side I always felt that it wasn’t finished or complete. I think my brother and I just found ourselves in a place where we thought it would be fun to do a video and we both really needed to take things to that level. It was almost like a demo. That’s it.
In terms of the EP, the two people that I approached were a production duo [Andy Bauer & Martin Rodriguez. ] and just as they were agreeing to do the EP with me, one of them went on tour with Twin Shadow [Bauer]. Logistically it became very, very tricky. Now a days you can do anything by correspondence, through file sharing and stuff like that, but we really needed the time to be in the room together and create in a room in an organic way and those times were few and far between. We’d all just like jump and meet in New York for three days, really condense, but then not touch it for another six months because we couldn’t get in the same room. So a lot of it was just circumstance. What we were trying to create was not defined enough for us do it by correspondence. We had to literally make it up as we went along.
If I knew I wanted to do this indie pop record, “These are my references and the sound I want. Go!” I could just send them stuff and let them work on it but instead we really needed to hash it out together and now that it’s done I also feel like it was worth the wait and it also allowed us to actually engage in like an organic creative process versus just hiring some guys to produce my stuff. I got to be very involved. I learned a lot along the way.
Also, part of why it took so long was that my creative influences, my external influences were changing. I started listening to music differently and understanding more about production but that meant that when I humbly came into the room and was like, “This is a little beat I put together,” a year later I was like, “That’s not the little beat I want. I want this.” It’s a lesson I learned too. You can’t leave projects that open ended because you can just keep working on them forever. At a certain point they were sort of scratching their heads like, “She said she wanted this and now it seems like she knows what she wants and it’s not this, it’s something else.”
TWM: So you changed a great deal during that time period?
A K U A: Yeah… it just morphed with time. Money was another issue and also I would say a final issue was my father’s health.
For instance last summer if I had really been available, I could have said, “Look guys it’s gotta be done and da da da.” But I was finding it very, very hard to get focused or get that momentum because every time things were happening I would just get up and go home. My dad’s health was very, very up and down. So essentially last summer I didn’t push the project. I let it just kind of sit. They had things to do. I had things to do. I went to weddings. Saw my dad. A lot of it was because my focus was on family.
[A K U A’s father passed away last fall. A K U A and her brother are planning a trip to Ghana to honour his passing.]
TWM: You’re being compared to unique performers like CocoRosie and Lykke Li. I love them all but I personally think, just like them, you’re sound is very unique to you. What do you think about the comparisons?
A K U A: I think the idea is that we all want to think that what we’re doing is authentic to ourselves. No one wants to feel like, or have someone feel like, they’re doing something that’s already been done before or emulate somebody else. So far there’s never been a comparison that I was offended by. In the earlier stages before my stuff was produced people likened me to CocoRosie which is very like an eccentric duo and I was thrilled because they’re out there. They’re weird and that’s cool if you think that somehow my music strikes a chord that’s similar. You know, nothing anyone has said has offended me.
I think part of it too is that music has developed so much and is so genre bending that we just need some sort of oral reference point. People will say, “Oh it sounds like this.” And I’m like, “Really? Really? Does it though? Does it actually? I don’t think it actually sounds like that.” But I understand that that’s going to give someone an oral reference point, an idea. Because music is so developed and it’s just a web now where everything is blending with everything else. When I ask people what genre of music they play they don’t know at this point. Even instruments that were primarily constrained to one particular genre or sound are now being used in a totally different contexts to create new things, so even just our musical references do not necessarily make sense anymore. And if you were a musician I would ask, “Who do you sound like?”
But I would also say that at a certain point I don’t think what I’m doing is particular out there. It’s not crazy or experimental but at the same time I’ve noticed that I haven’t been able to define it very well – it’s starting to define itself – but neither have my friends. Even applying to the festivals I was like, “Which genre am I?” And I’d ask my friends and they’d say, “I don’t know.” So finally I named my website Sounds like A K U A because people say, “You sound like this. You sound like that.” But I sound like me at this point. I’m really working on my own sound and it’s not an intentional, I don’t want to sound like anybody else, but I would like to carve out my own school.
TWM: Your brother [Kofi Carson] directed your video “Gravity.” Was it fun working together or challenging being siblings and all?
A K U A: Yeah. It can be tricky. I think the biggest advantage of us working together is that there’s an element of comfort and a sense of trust. And he’s also, I would say, my best friend and so as much as we can bicker, he really knows me and I really know him so there’s nothing left to sort of speculate. You really lay it all out on the table. Some of the shots we had to do were dangerous, so there was that idea that, I know my brother. I’m his baby sister. He’s not going to let me drown. He’s going to look after me. And, I would say, I’m allowed to be a lot more vocal when I’m working with him. He has let me be involved in that way. But if I was hiring someone I would essentially have to say, “This is your work and I will just have to be the subject.”
But within the first day of that video shoot I felt us bickering, and I just had a personal check in. We were with three other people, friends of ours that were helping us out, and I had this personal check in like, this will not work. We cannot spend 5 days in Florida if we’re going to bicker like this. So I, the little sibling, really bit my lip because I do trust him and he’s really talented. And I have also started to realize that he’s always right [Laughs]. I finally just said, “Listen! Be professional about it. Pretend he’s not your brother and that this person, this director, is working with you.”
TWM: What made you decide to name the EP, One’s Company?
A K U A: [Laughs] This is a big question. No one’s asked me this yet. This is tricky. Basically, that was one song that I wrote coming out of a breakup.
I have always kind of been a pretty malleable person. I really have like an ebb and flow personality, at least I felt this way a lot in my early 20’s. But for instance, it’s natural that when you’re dating somebody that you would always be influencing each other but I did feel that I was very easily influenced by the people I was dating at this particular time. It wasn’t my first love but it was my first intense relationship and living with somebody and sharing a space and a mindset. I basically found myself –it’s the same person that “Push” is about if you can see where that was going- it was very intense and passionate but it wasn’t going well and I’m writing this song saying, “Are we about to break up?” Which is “Push” and One’s Company came after that when we finally were apart. I was just trying to define myself through music, and a career was important, and I wasn’t sure about what I was doing. I didn’t feel like I had that time after school to define who I was and what I was trying to do, and I felt like a tension there, in that relationship, that he didn’t really understand that I was trying to grow into being this artist because I didn’t understand it either.
One’s Company just sort of came to me one day on the subway and I scrawled it down and it stayed on my wall for a very long time. I ended up writing a song about that and it’s just about living in your skin and feeling content in your own company, and not relying on someone else and their influences. And really, if you can’t be alone with yourself, you’re in trouble. So that, I would say, had to do with growing out of childhood and personal insecurities and finally saying, “I’m A K U A. This is who I am! This is what I’m trying to do. These are my flaws.” And loving that person.
TWM: Side question: Do you know what A K U A means?
A K U A: It’s essentially a name given to a girl born on a Wednesday in Ghana. It’s not super glamorous.
TWM: OK. You have this cool look and image, and sexy is being thrown around left and right to describe you. Are you comfortable with the labels?
A K U A: Oh, cool. It’s funny because in so many ways I find that I’m just a songwriter, writing songs. It’s not like its very avant-garde or this or that. But at the same time there’s some sort of …I don’t know what it is, X factor. When I think about it, I can also be a girl just up there singing her songs on a guitar but I’ve chosen to present it in a bit more of a contemporary eclectic way.
TWM: So what’s next?
A K U A: I would love to go to Europe, the UK, that kind of thing. It’s just a matter of trying to make that a reality. It’s not like being a dentist where you know, I’ll just go to dentistry school. If that’s what I want that’s what I have to do to get it.
I could want to do a world tour but there’s nothing I can actively do to make that reality until circumstances reveal that. It’s funny that way, you can want anything in this industry. I can say, “I want my song to be in a Hollywood movie!” But you can’t do anything about it but try.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.