For many artists, the coronavirus pandemic – and the ensuing lockdown – proved itself to be a tough hurdle to clear. Live shows were put on hold, fan interactions were limited to comment sections and live streams, and any other chance of intimate, real-life human connection was shut down completely.
But for British pop-R&B hybrid, kamal., the pandemic would provide the perfect backdrop for his arrival. His breakout single “homebody” became an anthem for teens everywhere choked by the isolation of the lockdown period. War Outside, kamal,’s debut EP, captured the rollercoaster of teenage love through raw vignettes while speaking to Gen Z’s delicate mental health issues.
Almost two years later, Kamal. returns with his sophomore project so here you are, drowning. Inspired by Caleb Azumah Nelson’s novel Open Water, so here you are drowning, is a further exploration of self, seeing him navigate the joys and perils of young romance and the complexities of his mental health while delivering moments of pure light-hearted fun.
Kamal. caught up with GRM Daily ahead the release of so here you are, drowning to discuss his upbringing, the pandemic and his new project.
What artists moulded you as an artist? Do you remember the first CD you bought?
“I don’t remember the first CD, but like the sorts of things that were laying around the house were like Erykah Badu, even like early 50 Cent stuff. And another artist that sticks out to me a lot from my childhood is a band called Cake, which I feel like hasn’t really influenced my sound as such, but in the in terms of lyrics, it’s allowed me to have a bit more humour with the way that I write my lyrics. Sometimes I take myself a little less seriously in some of my some of my work.”
So, how did you arrive at making pop songs?
“Um, honestly, I feel like I haven’t ever thought too much about like, genre and where I want to go, so I feel like it sort of naturally sort of ended up here and followed its course. I feel like I like pop because it’s refined. I like pop because you can pull from any genre you want and keep it sort of feeling cohesive. And yeah, like to be honest, I don’t I still don’t think of myself as a pop artist through and through. I think of myself as someone who can, sort of shape shift. But I definitely feel like pop is where you can sort of like make a refined song and a polished piece of work and put it out there and have people receive it properly. But yeah, like I feel like genre wise, I tried not to think and not to get locked in on one thing specifically because that’s when I feel like I get stagnant or I forget the reasons that I’m making the music.
“I would say definitely early on, like, I was definitely like making lots of shit freestyles. If I did the rapping thing I don’t think it would have done as well, I’ll be honest. it’s still fun, though.”
Your music has been labelled as bedroom pop in the past. Not that it’s a particularly misleading term, but how you describe it?
“Well, when people ask I say its a mix of indie, a mix of pop, a a mix of r&b, a dash of rap influence, you know because I like so many different genres myself. Like there’s tiny elements of a lot of them in my music and some of them may be more subtle than others. So you might not realise the impact that that genre has had on the song but like, I feel like there are lots of little genres in there. And what’s coming out is like the cleanest combination I can get off them all.”
Random, but what are you listening to now?
“Recently, it’s been a lot UK underground shit like LEN, Pierre, Jim Legxacy… I also love the new Slowthai album. Coults as well, actually.”
It’s public knowledge that your journey began during the lockdown period. Since everything opened back up, what has it been like writing and song building in a completely different context?
“I felt like coming out of it has been great, because it’s almost been like, suddenly, there’s this mad pool of material in my experience of life. Like, because I’m doing more stuff, there’s more stuff to write about naturally. I think it’s meant that some of my materials slightly drifted away from that sort of introspective stuff like, like “homebody”. But there’s still that part of myself. There’s still some music I’m making that is like that. So it’s not it’s not gone completely. But I feel like I’ve just been able to broaden my horizons and broaden the sort of sounds that I’m that I’m experimenting with. And I feel like that’s very obvious in the new tape.”
It’s must have been so strange to blow up during lockdown because there wasn’t really any way to feel the dent of your impact. What was your first live performance like?
“Yeah, it felt very fake up until then. And to be honest, I feel like it might have even permanently affected the way that I viewed it, because I feel like there’s almost like, two sides to me in a way. For example, I’ll see videos of me performing and I’d be like that doesn’t even feel like it’s even me that I’m watching. I already have that sort of dissonance with my image of self anyway, like, I have a sort of weird thing where I don’t always feel as connected to myself as I feel like I should. And then sometimes I have phases where it feels better. But like, that’s definitely like, tied into my artist thing as well. Like, sometimes I feel disconnected from it. And it means that sometimes I won’t even, like, really feel achievements as much as I should have. Because I don’t even feel like it’s genuinely me.
“Yeah, but what I don’t lose the connection with is the actual meaning of the music. The actual writing process, like that’s never been affected. Obviously, I’ve have had moments of writer’s block. But I’ve always found that I can go back to the roots of the writing and, and sort of reconnect myself with my love for music and even my own identity. So that’s, that’s really probably the only reason that I’ve kept it going as long as I have and will continue to do so.”
What is your general approach to building songs? Interested to know what your processes are?
“Well, usually it’s chords first, then melody, then lyric on top of melody. And really, it’s like if you find a good chord progression and go around it and sort of feel out the melodies like and sort of speak gibberish words and phrases, to try and find the shapes of the words that I like.
“And then from there, I sort of just go based on, like, if the chords are making me feel a certain way, they could be making me feel like proper upset, or if they could be making me feel a little bit gassed and I’ll go with that energy and take that and blow it up like so I’m describing the feeling in an intense way that people can easily latch on to and relate to. Sometimes I will have a specific thing that I want to write about. But most of the time I start more free than that. And I just sort of see wherever my mind naturally takes me to write about.”
Talk me through the new project. How did you arrive at the project’s theme?
“Um, so I think the first song must have been made a little over a year ago. So it’s taken about a year and a half. I’ve worked with like a few different producers – J Moon is on it, obviously, he’s like the person I’ve collaborated with most. There’s a guy called Sam Tang on it, who’s really sick; he also goes by the name of Congee. There’s Jonny Coffer who’s helped me write some bits on it, and they’re all people I’ve gotten to know through a few sessions and I think that’s where I felt comfortable enough to make something that I identify with, and I like enough to put out.
But yeah, we got to the theme. Through just naturally in my writing, there are a lot of themes of water, and it felt like something that I could connect the dots with for a lot of the stuff. And then I read Caleb Azumah Nelson’s book, Open Water. I really just related to the sort of the themes of it, it’s like a sort of London love story. And I thought it related a lot to my work and to the project I was putting together. And so because we saw the parallels, we took a section of it. And so here you are drowning, and we titled The EP. that’s sort of where we started to exaggerate the sort of themes and sort of tie them in as the water being a sort of metaphor for for life. And you’re sort of like drowning in this relationship with someone else. Or you’re sort of like trying to tread water with them. Which was another sort of potential title we had was ‘treading water with you’. But yeah, that’s basically the groundwork.
That’s Caleb speaking on outro too, which was actually a mad moment for me because having read and connected with the book so much, it was such an honour that he would also connect with my art enough to sort of be down to do something like that.”
I’m sure everyones asked you about this but ‘sex on you’. I have this idea in my head that everyone perceives you as a little boy – how did everyone take that?!
“My manager was like, I don’t know about this. I played it to my friends stream and all my friends are like, yeah, like, like, this is hard. And also because it’s a bit raunchy. It’s like it’s like that’s part of the appeal you know, it’s cheeky. But honestly, if I felt like I couldn’t like put that out then I felt like I couldn’t be myself because that’s a part of myself and my life experiences.
“I wrote it because I was genuinely feeling it at the time. I was in a relationship having sex and I was like, well that’s that’s the way it is. But honestly, yeah, like I felt like I’m glad that it’s going to be out because this almost just like makes me feel free as an artist to do the things that I want, like I know it’s not like a mad boundary to bring it down, but like for me it’s a representation of me.”
The new record has far bigger, more expansive production than the minimalist approach on your first EP, what drove that?
“Like that’s what we’re experimenting with on this, different synth sounds on it and even a change of pace. I think there’s still songs like “so so close on it”, like “white wine” on it that are very reminiscent of my last EP and more subdued and more sort of soft boy vibes. But yeah, it’s been fun to sort of like, test myself out, test my pen out and sort of show people that I can branch out to some other sounds as well.
“I don’t think it was conscious in the terms of the project. But it was definitely conscious in terms of just me and Jay. We were like, speaking about doing stuff that’s more experimental and not wanting to feel like we were too locked in on this on making the sort of same sounding stuff. We’ve had demos that are this experimental, from early on really, but it was more like trying to make new ones that felt like up to date, and that we could actually release, because I’m so careful about sort of curating what to put out. It’s like, it’s easy for the audience to think that I’m only making like, these mellow r&b pop songs, whereas actually, I’ve had like, range from before and I thought let’s show let’s show the people that.
“I think in the future, I might want to sort of choose a project to focus on one sound or one one sonic theme more than I have on this one. But for me this sort of just showing people like, cool, this is what I can do.”
Thematically, is there anything you’re interested in writing about other than relationships?
“Yeah, so I think I’ve got songs like “autopilot” and “about the party” already are which are more sort of like about like socialising and about sort of being a being a teenager and sort of going out, London nightlife more that sort of stuff. And sort of like introverts and an introverts’ perspective of that. I think on the tape, there’s songs like “crowded places”, which speak to themes of social anxiety again, and sort of like alienation in society. I feel like I write pretty honestly, and I try not to force myself to talk about things that I don’t feel like come naturally for me. So when I talk about relationships/girls it’s cause that’s happening in 90% of my life, so I write about them.”
What’s your favourite Kamal. track?
Right now, it’s “white wine”. Just because like lyrically, for me, it hits home the most. And I feel like it’s the most personal. I’d be interested to see how other people feel about it. Because I feel like it’s almost so personal that other people might not get what I’m even talking about or relate to it much. But I’m hoping like just the sort of imagery in it is enough for people to like form some sort of affinity with it.”
Looking forward. What is your overarching aim here?
“I’m really I wanted to see how many people I can reach in this and see how many people can form an honest connection with my music. Obviously, I want to play the big crazy shows and win the big awards. But for me, the core of everything is to try and feel like I’ve spread it to as many people because , for me, it’s a mad therapeutic thing to have people relate to these things that feel like so personal to me. I get messages from people like that, that sound like they’re genuinely positively affected by the music and that shit is like crazy to even consider that I’ve helped one person.
“Not to get too cheesy or cliche, but like it definitely is a big driver for me. I try not to get too bogged down by like specific monetary or like, like tangible goals like that. But I definitely have my fantasies of like of like winning the Grammys and that but like, really and truly I want to just focus on that trying to grow it naturally as as much as I can. And for as long as I can.”