"We’ve always been slightly wary of the word ‘pop’, but I think now we’ve realised that it’s not a taboo..." - hmv.com talks to Kawala
Formed by Jim Higson and Daniel McCarthy while pair were studying at university together in Leeds, the London-born duo returned to their hometown and began crafting songs together as a duo before greadually recruiting new band members to fill out their sound - a unique blend of folky guitars and African rhythms that has earned the band a legion of fans and a reputation as an impressive live act.
Like many artists in the last couple years, their trajectory has been slowed somewhat by the events of the global pandemic, forcing the band to cancel many shows in 2020 just as they were beginning to build momentum.
The band used that enforced downtime to revise and refine the songs that would feature on their debut album, Better With You, which finally makes its arrival in stores this Friday (March 4).
Ahead of its release we spoke to Daniel and Jim about how their sound developed and why their romantic ideas about recording a debut album didn't quite pan out they way they imagined...
Debut albums are always a big moment, how are you all feeling about it now it’s nearly here?
Jim: “It’s been a bit hectic, we’re still trying to readjust from not doing anything for two years to being busy every day. It’s quite nice but it’s a bit of a shock to the system.”
Daniel: “We’re definitely nervous, and excited. It’s like a 50/50 split between those two emotions."
Jim: “I think you kind of nurture this child for so long and then you just have to let it run free…"
Daniel: “…and hope it doesn’t get bullied.”
Jim: “It still feels quite new and exciting, I’ve personally tried not to listen to it too much, and then I’ll probably listen to it like crazy once it’s actually out, but a debut album is always a massive deal for a band and we have been working on it behind the scenes for a very long time at this point.”
Daniel: “That’s exactly it, it’s how it’s perceived is the scary thing about it and we feel like hopefully people will like it. But I like it. Jim, I’m not so sure…”
You’ve been described as ‘folk meets indie meets afrobeat’ – that’s a heady mix, what kind of music did you bond over when you started out?
Daniel: “It’s an aggressive combination of sonics you’ve just described there!”
Jim: “I think when me and Daniel first started writing together we were listening to a lot of folk pop like Fleet Foxes, the Staves, Bombay Bicycle Club and stuff like that. But I think as a band we all have quite different tastes in music, it’s quite eclectic. Reeve [Coulson, bassist] really likes drum and bass, and he makes drum and bass, Dan [McCarthy, Guitar / Vocals] loves afrobeat and old 70s disco and stuff, Ben [Batten, drums] is heavily into R&B, so I think that definitely comes through in the music. It’s not conventional, but it just seems to work.”
Daniel: “Also when me and Jim started the band, I play acoustic, and at the time it was basically just the two of us and I found myself playing a lot of finger-style acoustic guitars, weird tunings and strange techniques that I wanted to apply to pp music, basically. So it became this mixture of lead lines, chorus bits and basslines, and with some of our music we found ourselves even in two-piece slipping into a more folky side, or a more of a straight indie side, or something like an almost calypso-type guitar part, but when Ben started playing with us he really mirrored those guitar rhythms and everything just sort of fell into place. He grew up listening to a lot of black and African music, he’s Ghanaian and his mum is a percussionist, so I think he’s really brought out more of an afrobeat feel to our music. But then there’s a sort of indie, driving bass that highlights the electric parts, which makes for quite a weird combo of stuff!”
They say you have your whole life to write a debut album, how far back do these songs go?
Jim: “Well, before lockdown we had an album list, from which I think maybe one song is now on the actual album.”
Daniel: “Yeah. Two songs, max, made the list, we did do a lot of rewriting.”
Jim: “Being in lockdown, all we could do was write.”
Daniel: “The second we were able to meet up, because we always write together, we’d gone off and come up with all these wild ideas and then when we came together we had this new energy and vision for what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to slightly expand our horizons. I think we’ve always been slightly wary of the word ‘pop’, but I think now we’ve realised that it’s not a taboo word any more, and actually what we want to do is channel our inner pop kings and balance that with the style that we play. We started being less precious and I think the writing improved massively, starting to speak about real topics rather than being broad and ambiguous.”
Jim: “One thing that has remained consistent is that we’ve always wanted our personality and our voice to be recognisable on the album. We didn’t want to lose sight of who we were, or how we began.”
Daniel: “We were almost scared of change, and then all of a sudden we weren’t. We worked with quite a few producers on the album, which I think has ended up being really important to the sonic flow of the record, but I feel like we benefitted greatly from trying new things and I think we know that as long as the core of its is there, with the acoustic guitars and the two vocals in the middle of it, no matter which angle we go it’ll always be a consistent sound.”
Is it usually the two of you writing together and then bringing those ideas to the rest of the band?
Jim: “We usually write together, we’ve always worked that way, we were writing a lot of songs that way even before we started the band, but the then in terms of production and arrangement we’ll bring it to the band and bring it to life. Our ethos is that if we have a song that we can play just between ourselves then that’s the test of it, rather than relying on all the bells and whistles.”
You mentioned working with different producers, has the album been put together in bits and pieces?
Jim: “Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of crazy, I think we had this quite romantic idea of what recording our debut album would be like and it was definitely going off to some scenic studio in the middle of nowhere, working with one producer and just churning out this masterpiece. The reality is that we weren’t quite lucky enough to work that quickly. But it worked well. In a way it reflects the concept of the album, which is that it takes a lot of people to bring these things to life. This whole album is a celebration of everybody is involved, so I think conceptually working with lots of different producers ties into that theme quite nicely."
Daniel: “Yeah, it ties into the theme and, more than anything, again I had this romantic view of what it should be like, but when it didn’t work out like that it took me a minute to realise that actually this is way better and more exciting in a way, because what you essentially have is five different producers’ vision of what your sound is. And in a way it almost feels like a compliment to us that we can take such different routes and still end up with something good. It’s like five different artists drawing the same painting. You’re going to get five different outcomes, but each one stands in its own right, and it still the same image. But you are right in that at the end of the day, it wasn’t until the last minute that he album really formed as a body of work, and it wasn’t until about a month before we finalised everything that we realised ‘Oh my god, this really flows!’ It’s quite a nerve-wracking way to work, but it keeps you on your toes.”
Has all of that also limited your ability to play live as much as you’d like and road test some of this material?
Daniel: “Oh, for sure, I think we’re a live band first and a recorded band second, that’s always been our angle, we showcase the best of us at our shows. So being in a scenario where you can’t try out new material on a crowd and all these things, 98 percent of the album is new, so nit being able to get the best gauge of what people think is tough."
Jim: “But we’ve grown our fan base. We did the traditional thing of getting signed off the back of a show and all of our fan base came of the back of them coming to see us play live, we’ve had to reimagine ourselves a little bit, I think in that first year we must’ve lost about 60 shows, which was a bit of a blow since playing live is where we shine the best. But coming back to live shows it almost feel like its better than ever. We’ll be playing songs that we released a year ago, that nobody has even heard live yet, and it feels good again."
Daniel: “We’ve definitely gone through the phase of feeling a bit ‘woe is me’ about the whole thing, because 2020 was supposed to be a significant year for us, but I think what we’ve essentially done is picked ourselves and said: ‘Well, how can we make sure that when we come back the shows are ten times better?’ So that’s the the ethos.”
Do you think you’ve made a better record as a result of all this, though?
Daniel: “In a way the one benefit of lockdown was that we were able to just solely focus on the writing. It’s weird, when things are flowing in the music industry, none of it exists without songs, and yet songs somehow seem to be the lowest priority. In just the last few of weeks we’ve had to cancel a couple of days where Jim and me were just going to be in a room focussing on writing, and it ended up being doing this promo and planning that music video, getting ready to go on tour, social stuff. There’s always stuff to do. So in a way it was quite refreshing, albeit in a very weird and horrible way, of suddenly just going ‘Stop’. And the pressure was slightly off, because it’s not like there was anyone going ‘OK we need to get this out in two days because there’s a deadline.’”
You mentioned a theme to the album about people coming together, have any other lyrical ideas or themes emerged on this album? Do you share the lyric-writing between you?
Daniel: “Yeah, on this album more than ever, because the two of us sing, Jim leads, but we both sing and I think we’ve never really broached topics that feel very personal, because it always feels a bit weird singing about each other’s hardships and stuff like that.”
Jim: “If Daniel goes through a break-up, he writes a song about it, and then I have to sing about his ex-missus.”
Daniel: “That’s exactly it. I think we’ve always shied away from that and gone for broader topics, whereas this time we suddenly ended up in incredibly similar situations where we’d both gone through bi break-ups. And this isn’t a break-up album, but there are a few nods to that and the process od dating and self-discovery. We found ourselves in the same situation and it was actually quite useful because we were able to write about that together.”
Jim: “It’s the first time we’ve really allowed ourselves to be vulnerable in our writing and talk about our own experiences rather than somebody else’s.”
You have some tour dates coming up, is this going to be the first time you’ve been able to perform a lot of the album?
Daniel: "Most of the album hasn’t been played live, but we have played the two singles, one of which wasn’t out yet on our November / December, but it was amazing, people were singing along to the first one, and were singing along to the one we hadn’t released yet by the end of it!”
Jim: “If you can play a new song that people haven’t heard live and by the end of it have them all dancing, that’s a real testament that we’re onto something.”
Kawala's debut album Better With You is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.