“She’s brilliant,” Kwes says of the younger Knowles sister. “The fact that she called me to come out… it’s mad”
London producer/singer Kwes has a voice to soothe the restless and the pensive disposition of a painter or philosopher, which is fitting for someone who studied Schopenhauer in college and frequently takes inspiration from visual artists. His music is unfailingly warm and enveloping, as on breakthrough 2012 single “Bashful,” which gently builds to a head nodding pace as the singer, born Kwesi Sey, questions whether he can get out of his own way and talk to the girl across the room.
Lately, Kwes has plenty of reasons to be feeling a boost of confidence. His debut full length, "ilp," was released last week by Warp to critical acclaim, and his epic 2012 love song, “lgoyh,” was just flipped by G.O.O.D. Music flame carriers Pusha T and Big Sean, along with 2 Chainz. When we spoke to the 26-year-old about the near half-decade he spent perfecting “ilp,” whether or not the album qualifies as pop music, and what his Ghanaian-born parents think of his career, he was on his way to New Orleans to help produce Solange’s next album.
“She’s brilliant,” Kwes says of the younger Knowles sister. “The fact that she called me to come out… it’s mad.”
Read our conversation below:
Billboard: Has this album been a long time coming? Have you always had it in the back of your mind?
Kwes: Yeah, the album has been through quite a long process. I started writing toward it maybe four or five years ago and it really came together in the last year-and-a-half I’d say. A lot of that time was spent not actually making music but listening back to it and deliberating over it.
So when you put out last year’s “Meantime” EP, you were already working on the album?
Yeah. Warp really wanted to put out an EP. I’m not naturally a fan of the EP format. Not that I don’t like listening to them; I love listening to music in any format. But I really love the album format. But I was aware that Warp wanted to put something out and I hadn’t finished my album. So I said, “Let me work on an EP as well.”
Did you feel any pressure because it was your first full-length album?
Oh not at all. If there was any pressure, I created it. Or maybe my manager (laughs). But no, no, no. Warp and everyone around me was very patient and knew I was gonna take my time with it. And of course Warp is the best label because they just let you do whatever you want to do and kind of really find where you want to go. I think with each artist they’ve signed they’ve always been aware that the music isn’t going to be the same each time around. So I couldn’t have asked for a better home, really.
Well Boards of Canada did take eight years making its most recent album, so I guess they are pretty understanding.
Yeah, yeah, yeah (laughs).
Your album is really interesting because it’s filled with these beautiful, warm melodies and yet I wouldn’t really call it a pop album.
You wouldn’t? Oh, OK.
Is that a disappointment?
No, no, no not at all. It’s interesting. I think it’s a pop record, but it does straddle that line. What would you call it?
I don’t know, there are certainly pop vocals but the production is moody and cerebral, almost. A lot of the songs are kind of unhurried and winding.
Well thank you. I think you’re the first person that’s said to me that it isn’t a pop record, which is great.
When you write, do you start with lyrical ideas like that or does the beat come to you first?
With this record there wasn’t really a set process. I did a lot of field recording and a lot of songs came from that. Sometimes I’ll have entire songs in my head with the instrumentation and everything and then I’ll just go into the studio and lay it down. And sometimes I’d write lyrics and they wouldn’t have melody at all. And then I’d go to the studio or I’d be in my bedroom at home or I’d go to my grandparents’ and I’d just start humming while reading the lyrics and the melody would just come together. There really isn’t a set process.
Did you grow up in London?
Yeah I’ve lived in London all my life. I love it.
And your parents were born in Ghana? Have you ever been?
Yeah, they’re from Ghana and I was born here. I’ve yet to go back to Ghana, actually. I’ve been to the Congo and I think I’m about to go to Mali as well. But hopefully I’ll rectify that soon. I’d love to go (to Ghana). I think once I do I’ll be in and out of there all the time.
Was your family musical growing up? How did you get into it?
I think I was a rogue. My family really wasn’t musically-inclined. My grandparents had an organ but my mum nor any of her siblings ever learned how to play. Then I came a long and I learned.
And you fell in love with it.
Yeah. I think I just always had an affinity for it. My mum always says that when I was a toddler I used to try to eat the radio. So I think she knew in the back of her mind that that’s where I could be going. But, you know, like any loving parent you just let your kid kind of feel around and figure out where they want to go.
Musically, what’s grabbed your attention this year?
I’ve really been into the new Oneohtrix (Point Never) record, “R Plus Seven.” And I liked his old one as well, “Replica.” I’ve been listening to a lot of old stuff: Neil Young, the Beach Boys. I keep coming back to the Beatles. I also love Actress, Andy Stott, there’s this Swedish producer called 1991 whose record I just got the other day and it’s lovely. There’s another producer called Patten who’s really great and Sampha, as well. It’s been great to see his journey.
Besides Solange, who have you been working with, production wise?
I’ve recently been working on Dels’ second record. Dels is a rapper from Ipswich who lives in London and is signed to Ninja Tune. I’m working on his record and I’m deeply excited about it. I’m gonna stick my neck out here and say it could be a game changer. I just think there isn’t anyone else in the UK doing what he’s doing as far as hip-hop music. So if the project management is spot on a lot of people will get to hear what whe’s doing. I’m also working on this project from Elan Tamara.
How do you balance working on your own music and working for other people?
Now that I’m finished with the record I haven’t really been thinking about my music at all, I’ve just been working on other people’s music. But I guess it’s just spreadsheets and Google calendar, really. I didn’t used to do it that way, but spreadsheets have been so useful.
Going forward do you see yourself doing more solo albums or focusing on production work?
I definitely think I’m going to do a lot more production and writing because that’s what I came into music to do, really. I’m not gonna force another album out. If I feel compelled to do it, I’ll do it and if it takes me another eight years like Boards of Canada, then so be it. That said I’m heavily inspired at the moment now that I’ve got this studio space, so it may not be so long.