Women in Music 2016

Mizan K Talks 'Dark Blue' EP, Directing Her Own Videos & Making Music that Uplifts

Courtesy of Terrible Records
Mizan K

"I don't really make music to entertain people," Mizan K told Billboard in a recent interview. The Ethiopia-bred, New York-based singer-songwriter takes a singular approach when it comes to her craft, looking to minimalism and relatability as her music's primary goals. 

Her six-track Dark Blue EP -- out now through Terrible Records -- captures the hermetic mood of its title, with Mizan K's voice standing as its glowing centerpiece. A refreshing take on the human experience, the EP discusses everything from anxiety as an inherent part of urban living to waking up to one's surroundings. Sparking a conversation, Dark Blue looks at life from a new angle -- pragmatic but hopeful, pensive but lighthearted.

Mizan K has proven herself to be a different sort of breed, one whose mission is to create for the sake of something bigger, something true to her story. In a conversation with Billboard, she shares why this is so important to her, how her DIY mentality wove its way through the process of Dark Blue, and the impact of growing up in Ethiopia.

I read that you feel a bit more distanced from your EP now. Where were you at in your life when you were making Dark Blue and how do your relate to it now?

I have a love-hate relationship with it as most people do with their work, but how I feel about it now is I feel like it documented a certain part of my life and each song was very true in the moment, but now I've been sitting on this EP for the last two years. so I've moved on, but I don't hate it. It's not like I'm detached from it. I'm moving on, but I love it. I love the songs on it, and when I listen to them, they are truly something that I've worked hard on but it's not something that's new right now for me.  

Do you have anything in the works at the moment?

Yeah, I do. I'm working on a new album. I've been working on it for the past two months or so, and it's basically just me and the piano and maybe some light touches, some slight drums or something but nothing really production based. It's going to be a completely different phase.  

Where do your lyrics come from? Where do you look for inspiration?

 It depends on what song, but generally I'm not that interested in discussing romantic love. Basically in pop music today and even in the past, romantic love has basically defined music. It's sort of like sanitized romance; not even lust or anything sexual, really. It's like this certain flowy and longing. They're only limited aspects of romance that you can discuss in music, and it doesn't interest me. I was interested in writing about anxiety and making it kind of shimmery and dancey. I was writing about a longing and searching in "Looking For." What are we all looking for? But still making it a spacey thing that's not intimidating or daunting or heavy, but something that still allows somebody to listen to it and experience their negative feeling as something that's acceptable, something that's normal, so that was my interest in all of the songs and with my song "Awe," I'm talking about remembering to be in awe of nature as a solution for life and that whole thought was basically talking to and about a friend that was not really looking around and was sort of stuck in the city life so to speak and how nature can be a great thing, just remembering to be happy about that at least, so it's very different subject matter than what's been discussed in music. So, I try to approach things like that. That's what interests me anyways. That's what comes out naturally.

What part do you play in directing your videos?  

I was interested in…I didn't have much. When I was doing this, I was basically living life in New York in my apartment with a few friends that are also artists, kind of isolated with my work. So, I wasn't really reaching out to other people, producers or filmmakers or anything like that to help me with this project because I was really interested in what I would be able to do with the limited means and skills that I have. So, what is my point of view and what can I do? So, all of my videos and even the production to some extent came out feeling very DIY but still good, but very DIY. It feels like, if you watched some of the videos, maybe some people may not be able to tell, but they're just all about…it's just kind of me and the camera. There's nothing more to it, it was just trying to capture a mood. I was very concerned with the medium of the film we were using. I bought a 16 mm film camera so that it has a certain texture and I was thinking about lighting and thinking about all these subtle things rather than thinking about big things and even if I had big ideas I wouldn't really be able to do them. So, that's set a ceiling for what I would be able to do with my videos and even my music because I didn't really have access to a studio until very recently, but I would rather do it from my point of view -- me doing the editing and me doing the directing rather than being washed over by somebody else's idea of what I should be doing. I think it's better to establish what I like first and then collaborate with somebody else that is attracted to working with me because of what they've seen already and has a better idea of who I am. So, yeah, everything was made by me. Everything. The shots that I wasn't in, I filmed myself, and the shots that I was in, I worked with my friends to figure out the angles and everything. And I'm happy with it for a first project.  

Why is it important for you to make music that, in your words, "uplifts people  and lets them know they are not alone"?

It's the most important thing. That's why I make music. I think it's important to do that. Maybe I empathize with people a lot and so I feel the need to do that. That's what drives my music. I don't really make music to entertain people. I make music to maybe do the opposite which is not so great, but I think it's something that we need in our culture of giving music to a kind of…not that celebration is a bad thing and not that escape is a bad thing, but I think there needs to be an alternative as well in which you can sit down and be honest with what's going on and that doesn't have to be so bad. That doesn't have to be such a heavy thing for people. I don't know why it's avoided like the plague, so for me, I find joy in confronting people with that, but also I find joy in…I don't know. It depends on how people interpret my music I guess, but I hope that it inspires and I try my best that it does inspire and that it does uplift, but I'm not really going for that when I'm writing music itself. I'm not calculating, ok, let me insert this word here and let me insert the piano here. It's not really like that. It's just more…I hope that's the byproduct. 

Does your upbringing, having lived in Ethiopia, and now living in New York, influence your approach as an artist?

Yeah. That's why music is so serious for me. Growing up in Ethiopia, you see a lot of impoverishment, you see a lot of poverty and being a first-hand witness to that at a young age and growing up in that environment really makes everything serious. Everything becomes a matter of responsibility and so, I'm not a doctor or somebody that directly affects people. I don't face people int that way and those are the kind of professions that are valued in my culture where I come from. So, I always think about things as, ok, I have to be responsible and playful but also responsible when I'm making work. Something that's worthy of being out in the world and something that's different, something that's profound.

I noticed the Weldon Irvine "Morning Sunrise" chord progression in your song "Awe." Can you tell me a little bit about why you used that?

It's basically me discussing the same thing that I want to discuss within the same vain and basically, exactly the same emotion, because he's talking about it stopping for a second and looking at the morning sunshine and how beautiful it is and all these things, and so I listened to that, and it's been one of my favorite songs for a long time, so when I decided to write a song like "Awe," this was like a part two to that song.