Exclusives Interviews 30 November 2021

GRM Exclusive: Venna talks ‘Venology’, winning a Grammy, and working with Wiz Kid & Burna Boy

30 November 2021
Venna Architects GRM

“I’m just trying to bring some goodness to the world,” Venna says to me. It’s a sentiment filled with nearly as much purity and warmth as him. A kind of purity that just feels absent in the world today. It makes you wonder – with every new political scandal, every failure of our justice system, why there aren’t more people just trying to bring some goodness to the world. 

But now isn’t really the time to dwell on everything that’s wrong with the world, it’s about something, or rather someone, that we should probably be celebrating a little bit more. That something is south London producer, Venna, and that something is his magical sonic sugar. 

Lodged somewhere in between sweet sax-driven melodies and hypnotically cool basslines, his music has this very organic, rich quality about it that can really mesmerize you on your first listen. 

After years of behind-the-scenes work with the likes of Snoh Aalegra, Wizkid and ensuing Grammy success with Burna Boy, Venna wanted to put out some of his own music. Our first lingering taste of that came in the form of “Standard”, a cleverly crafted single with friend and frequent collaborator, Knucks. Unbeknownst to us then, it was also our first glimpse of Venology – his debut project. It features six songs, spread across 21 minutes with help from Knucks, Emil, Jvck James, Jada and Marco Bernadis, his grasp of his own musicality and maturity is truly splendid. 

The twenty-two years young musical maestro connected with GRM Daily over Zoom to discuss everything until now. 

So, where did it all start for you? 

“My mum started putting me in music lessons when I was like six. So I’d say it’s been with me all my life. I started sax when I was twelve, but when it came to me creating my own music and just trying to create music from scratch, I’d say maybe like four years ago. It took me a while to be able to like gauge what components I needed to piece a record together.” 

So at age twelve, you couldn’t possibly have felt cool playing the sax. 

“I didn’t you know. But you know what, the school I went to was alright. People didn’t shun you for wanting to play music or do drama, or any of those things. ‘Cos you know at some places, people will try and make fun of you, then in ten years they end up wishing that they did it. I wouldn’t have cared anyway. It’s something I’ve always had and enjoyed in my life. Whether it’s playing the piano or the sax, or making beats, I’ve always had some sort of music to pass time I guess.”  

When did you realise that you wanted to do it seriously? Like as a career?

“You know what, when I used to go Brit [school], I used to run around with my bredrin and he always had a lot of sessions and he’d let me come. Those were the first times I went to the studio. I was like “rah, this is lit fam. So, you just come to the studio all the time and make music?” and he was like “yeah, fam!”. We were only like fourteen, but he was very advanced for his age. I was just getting a feel for it all, trying to meet as many people as possible. 

“But when I actually sat down and made the conscious decision, I was probably like sixteen.” 

Who were the defining artists and producers of your childhood? 

“It depends where I answer this question ‘cos when I was younger, the music that I listened to as a kid was the same as everyone else.  Like everyone used to listen to N’Dubz and that. But I wouldn’t say that’s what defined me. Most of the music I listened to back then was different because that was just a different time and like no one really makes music like that anymore.

“The people that I listen to – and am inspired by now – are not necessarily the same people I listened to growing up. But it’s people like D’Angelo, Terrace Martin, 9th Wonder, J Dilla, Slum Village (Obviously, that’s Dilla as well). But yeah, those kinds of people. People who make MUSIC. Proper music. People who like to go crate digging, looking for samples to find things that can push the boundaries.” 

So, were you even conscious of the pivot that had happened in terms of your music consumption, or did it just kind of… happen? 

“Yeah. When I was younger, I didn’t understand certain things about jazz. I couldn’t comprehend it. Like I remember first time I listened To Pimp a Butterfly, I didn’t get it. But that album came out in 2015. Then I went back to it a couple years ago, I even remember the day I went back to it. I was in the ends, walking back from the station – Forest Hill station – and I put it on. Bro, it blew my mind. I can’t put my finger on when the change happened, but I was thinking, “WOAH. I need to start making proper music, fam”.

Then I went and discovered the producers behind all of it; Sounwave, Terrace Martin, Thundercat, bare man. After seeing how many people and what people made a classic like that made me think “How can I bring that over here and try and build something like that here?”

Your sound captures such a wonderful feeling. It’s gorgeous. I’d love to know you’d describe it. How does it make you feel? 

“Because I’ve listened to the songs so many times, it’s not what it felt like when I first made it. I made so many of these songs a long time ago, but now that it’s refined and polished, I’m just happy that people can enjoy it and make their own memories with it. I’ve lived with these songs for so long and made so many memories.  

“Aroma” was the first song I made for the tape, and I made that at the end of 2019. But that one was important to me because I felt like I mashed down a door with that. I felt like I unlocked something, I was gassed. 

“Music is like therapy, man, ‘cos I was making all of this stuff in weird times. Somebody messaged me the other day and told me that my music helps them so much every morning when they’re on the bus. Stuff like that warms me. You know, I make music for myself. I enjoy making music – good music, good music I’ve created with my friends. But hearing how it influences other people, and how it can brighten their days up just makes me feel good, man. Really warms my heart, bro. 

“But this project is golden to me, and I’m really glad people can appreciate it for what it is.” 

How much of your job do you see as a technical job, related to the process of recording, and how much is in the realm of emotions, or psyche?

“You know what, it’s balance. It’s a job that actually requires you to draw from your emotions. Women are slightly better than men at it, but it’s not an easy thing to do. I was raised by a woman, so I feel like I’m a bit more emotionally inclined. If I’m sad, I’m sad. And if I’m happy, I’m happy. I don’t really sugar coat my emotions. 

“With certain records that I’ve made, I could tell you how I was feeling that day. “Sun, Moon and Herbs’” I can tell you how I was feeling that day – I was feeling down. That was during that SARS situation last year. After I made that beat I felt happy, I was cool. By the end of that day, we’d made “June’s Cry” and that makes sense. “Sun, Moon and Herbs” was like the tension of a day, and “June’s Cry” was like the release. I feel like it’s a balance between both.

“You need some level of understanding in terms of recording so that it actually sounds good, but at the same time, it’s about how you feel. There’s no right or wrong way to do any of this. If you think the vocals sound hard distorted, then f*ck it, distort the vocals. It’s all subjective. Tapping into your emotions is far more important when you’re a writer. I think it was Nina Simone that once said that “Artists have a duty to reflect the times”. So, I bare that in mind when I’m making music.” 

With the way the British music landscape is set up, did you ever doubt that this sound would work for you? 

“I really try hard to keep things that can be detrimental towards how I feel about myself or the music locked away. I don’t doubt myself – your thoughts can transpire in real life. I feel like you’re asking this question because you know the UK has a thing for letting good talent waste away. I hear all of that, but whether it’s the UK or Europe or anywhere, I know there are going to be people that can embrace and love this stuff. That’s all that I care about. It’s hard to stay in good spirits all the time, but you’ve got to try your best.” 

With your new project, which is absolutely gorgeous, there aren’t a lot lyrics or vocals over it. So it’s hard for me to understand what it really means. I like the idea of everybody being able to interact with it in their own way and to interpret it as they please, but what did it mean to you?  

“Let me explain why there wasn’t a lot of words on there. Me, I listen to a lot of instrumentals. A lot of the music I listen to has no words. Jazz is its own language itself. I kind of want to keep the interpretation for this tape open but I’m going break it down a little bit for you.

“I treat the sax like vocals. One thing I learnt growing up as a sax player was not to play over the vocalist, because it’s like two people singing against each other. It’s all about space, you’ve got to find the pocket. This project I treated the sax like it was a vocal. Me and Marco played the sax over the project – they’re our voices, init. The meaning behind the project for me didn’t necessarily correlate with the words because everyone wrote from different perspectives. I didn’t give anybody a brief about how I wanted them to approach it, I just wanted everyone to feel free. 

“But for me, the project was about me turning from boy to man, in a way. I feel like I grew up a lot throughout the project. And making the project taught me maturity and helped to gain clarity on a lot of things, even outside of music. It was so therapeutic for me, you know growing up ain’t easy, bro.

“We’re at a weird age. We’re not old, and we’re not really young. We want our own responsibilities, to live our own lives. Trying to figure out life at this age is a weird one. I’m very glad I have music because it’s given me something to focus on in my life, but I always think about the people who might not have found their thing yet. It’s a tricky world that we live in. I just want everyone to be cool, man.” 

That thing you said about using the sax as another voice is really sinking in now. There’s a Knucks song (I couldn’t remember – it’s the second part of the Daily Duppy, though) that immediately makes more sense to me now. 

“It’s probably “Home”. In fact, let me tell you something about “Home”.  He sent me the song and I was in my bedroom, I record a lot of my stuff from there. I don’t really like taking my sax out of the house, unless it’s for rehearsals or something. I actually recorded Wizkid’s intro from there. Anyways, Knucks sent me the song and before that, I’d usually play everywhere and let someone chop me up or mute me.

“But I was listening to that song, proper feeling out his lyrics. I was feeling the tension rise, and I just knew where to come in. I didn’t want to do too much. I remember playing it for a few people and them telling me to do more. But I said “nah, that’s just right fam. That’s perfect”. I knew it was going to be incredible, I remember telling him that this was going to be the one, I was so sure.” 

What was the single most challenging aspect of making the project?

“The whole visual aspect of it, like deciding how I wanted it to look. I mean, I know how I want to look. I am who I am, I like vintage shit. All my pictures that I post or I want that’s related to me, I want it in film. I like nostalgic things; I like things that look a bit dusty. I don’t want it to look prim and proper. I’ve never had to do the rollout thing before. Never had to worry about artwork, or making a video, any of that stuff. So yeah, that was the hardest part for me.

“Especially the videos. It’s so mad because you can easily think that everything’s done once you wrapped up shooting but then it can come back sometimes and look nothing like how you wanted it to. That’s why it’s so important to build a team that understands your vision, that can just kind of understand what it is that you want without you having to be so vocal about it. But it’s a process init.” 

Did you enjoy being in front of the camera? 

“Nah, not really. Actually, I don’t mind if it’s just me and the homies just running around taking videos and pictures but when there’s a crew, it feels like I’m working. But I’m cool.” 

Nowadays producers are stars just like the artists. It has begun to feel like the producer/ the beat of a track, is more important to a song than the lyrics. What do you think?

“People love songs for different reasons. Personally, I love listening to the instrumentals, but I listen to the record, too. There have been so many times when a beat is too good for someone. That’s just how it goes. But a good producer will guide a record in the right way and if you’re not feeling something, be vocal. Making music with someone is a conversation. It’s like a story.

“At the beginning of a session you might get all of the pleasantries out of the way, then maybe talk about life’s going, then you’ve got you really got to gauge who they are and what they like, which is pretty hard to figure out after your first few times talking. But to answer your question – sometimes, init. There are some whack beats, with some great vocals and vice versa. Then there are some songs that great on both levels. So yeah, sometimes.” 

MY GUY YOU ARE A GRAMMY AWARD WINNER! What sticks out to you as the most memorable parts of the experience (meeting the other artists involved, creating the songs, winning the award)?

“It’s mad ‘cos I haven’t met Burna yet. I did that with P2J, we were at his studio in Brixton. This is for “Alarm Clock” on Twice as Tall. He had the beat ready, but there were no vocals on it. So, I just laid some sax over it. That was the same day I played “Blessed” by Wizkid, actually. I told Pro that Burna would sound crazy over it. He said he was going to send it to him and when Pro talks, you believe him. Next thing I know, my bredrin calls me asking if I have a song on Burna Boy’s album, called “Alarm Clock”. I was like “I mean, I don’t know what the song is called, but maybe – I haven’t been told anything”. Then I heard the song through Burna’s promo for the album, that’s when I found out I was on the album. There was a video going around during the campaign where Burna, Diddy and Anderson .Paak are talking, and Diddy’s just talking over my sax. I felt too blessed, bro. 

“The Grammy day now. African Giant was nominated the year before, and it didn’t win so I just had a feeling this was going to be his year. As soon as the nominations had been decided I knew we were going to win – I even told my manager, I was so sure.

“When the actual day came around, I didn’t realise that that day was the day. I wasn’t even watching it. Then Jvck James rang me and told me “Yo bro, you just won a Grammy… Burna Boy, Twice as Tall – YOU JUST WON A GRAMMY”. I won’t lie to you, I shed a tear. After that, I kept it moving. I’m really bad at taking in my accomplishments, it’s a bad trait of mine. I try not to dwell on things, I don’t want to be that guy in ten years saying “I won a Grammy ten years ago”. I want to keep moving and evolving.”

Winning a Grammy is such an enormous accolade. But with all of the scrutiny the academy has received over the past few years / and some of their erroneous decisions in the past, did it taint how you felt about the award?

“Nah, that ain’t got anything to do with me bro. I mean I get it, but that ain’t my battle. I’m not saying anything before they come and gun me down. Me, I got my Grammy init. In the nicest way possible.”

What is your favourite Venna track?

“June’s Cry” and “Sun, Moon & Herbs”. When I made “Sun, Moon and Herbs” I thought I was the GUY. Then we made “June’s Cry” boy I went to bed HAPPY that night. I wish everyone could’ve seen that day. That was most ultimate energy. There were five to seven of us in the studio that day. Afterwards we were sat in silence with the songs looping, in awe of the record. You just had to be there.

“Usually I’m quite good with content, but I was so immersed in making those songs that day. I only got like one video. “The Last Poet’s” has grown to become one of my favourites, too. We added some live drums quite late into the mixing process and some vocals, too. That’s probably the freshest one, in terms of newness. We made the original version of it over a drum loop. We got the new drums like 2 weeks before it had to be ready. That was a process, boy.” 

Take in the debut project from Venna, Venology below. If you missed the last instalment of the Architects be sure to check out our conversation with Da Beatfreakz right here.