Kenna has just been on a whirlwind trip to the UK, gearing up for the release of his second album ‘Make Sure They See My Face’. The Ethopian born and US raised singer has had a more interesting musical career than most, with author Malcolm Gladwell devoting a whole chapter to ‘Kenna’s Dilemma’ in his 2005 book ‘Blink’; the trials of a US artist who produced a New Wave debut album ‘New Sacred Cow‘ in 2003, and whose electronica-infused pop music left the industry unsure of how to deal with him. Kenna returns in 2008, once more collaborating with producer Chad Hugo of The Neptunes and signed to Pharrell Williams’ label Star Trak.
‘Make Sure They See My Face’ is out on 5th May, and will be preceded by Kenna’s debut UK single ‘Out Of Control (State Of Emotion)’ on 28th April (you may have already heard it on Sony PSP adverts). We caught up with Kenna before his gig at London’s Water Rats to talk about the infamous book, the difference between the US and UK music industry, and just why he is finally appearing in his videos.
What was your state of mind when you came to write ‘Make Sure They See My Face’?
To begin with, I had no idea what I was going to create, and I was really stressed out about it, because when you’re making a record, you want to feel like you’re saying something important, or you’re going down a path you can lead people down. I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. Inevitably it became an album about searching for your identity, and realising that you’re constantly under construction, and have to be willing to open up to the things that are happening to you, as opposed to making things happen. So that’s what the record ended up having as the spirit overall.
How did it feel to have a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’?
I didn’t know it was going to be that big of a chapter, and Malcolm didn’t tell me that it was going to be any more than a paragraph. When we did the interview – he was doing it as an interview for the New Yorker, and he tends to take his articles and make them into chapters for his books. He asked me to do some fact checking and it ended up being 45 pages long! It made me a case study for the music industry as a whole, which is both fortunate and unfortunate, because he painted a picture of me being the artist’s artist. At the same time he also said that’s not a successful place to be in. But I tend to believe that all good things rise to the top inevitably. It’s just whether or not the artist who’s having to be diligent about it stays focused and endures the process. So the book has been great for me, because I feel like it gave these people who are critically minded a chance to see the difficulties of something truly original, or at least attempt to make something original.
How do you find the record industry reacted to the book? Did you feel any pressure because of it?
I think to some degree it added some pressure in the press maybe. They really heralded me and gave me an opportunity to stand out because they heard that what I was doing was the future of the future, and then for it to be not terribly successful when they had poured into me, then made it difficult for them to reinvest when the new record came out. At least in the States it was something like that. The music industry as a whole didn’t react whatsoever, because the music industry is a lazy industry, to be frank. They made so much money in the early years, and they were so excited about how much money they had made, they just hired their cousins and their uncles and their brothers’ accountants to run the companies, and inevitably these accountants have no idea about what art is, so they focus on things they think will make money, instead of things that are creative and will spawn financial successes. So it kind of killed music.
That chapter wasn’t going to affect them because they’re dinosaurs in the way that they do things. It’s different in America than it is here though. It’s interesting as in the UK it’s still really cool to be in a record company, and it’s still very cool to pursue music here. It’s because the people are avid about all kinds of music, and all kinds of cultures because they’re surrounded by it. It’s not like that in the States, this big gigantic place. It’s such an expanse of country, with thousands of cities, so to get to those media outlets and be a part of the do-it-yourself mindset is really daunting – for anyone, indie artists and pop artists. I happen to make pop music, and I work with pop producers, and that makes it an incredibly expensive endeavour to pursue it on a very significant level.
How do you define success then?
I have my own personal idea of what success is. I make music to do something significant, to be significant for others, where I could get a stage where I could do something significant for the world. I never made music so that I would then be validated in the sense of fame or awareness of who I am. Some people confuse the title of the album, ‘Make Sure They See My Face’, for that kind of mindset, but that’s not who I am. It’s actually taking the piss out of the fact that I have to do that for anyone to promote my record nowadays.
Is this why you are now appearing in your videos finally?
To some degree it is. It’s also something that Pharrell said to me, and it was annoying when he said it at first, but then I understood – people need to be able to identify with the person that they are listening to. They wanna know that you are real, that you exist, and that they can believe in you and what it is that you’ve created. Identifying with you is one thing, but I really won’t do things because people make me do something, it’s not like that. It’s important for people to see my face, know my history and know my inheritance.
How do you and Chad work as a team?
Chad bites me, and steals all my shit… just kidding. Chad and I are a really great collaboration, like, I consider him my band. I can come up with a guitar or a piano line, or a melody or a lyric or a beatbox, and he’ll make it come alive. At times he will completely transform the things I’ve created and make it something better than I could’ve imagined. And then at times I take the things that he starts and pull them into a world in which he would never have gone. Same thing with Pharrell when we get together. Actually the reason Chad and I work together a lot and Pharrell and I don’t is because I kind of am Pharrell, in a writing and melodic sense. What’s interesting that in the last part of making the record we did some things together, and I realised we work really well in tandem – we think about things the same way, so I can throw something out and he will actually grasp it and take it someplace I would never have. So that’s also a really great collaboration.
How did you find your sound – how did you go down the pop route?
I listen to everything, from one extreme to the other, from Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, The Gap Band and Earth, Wind and Fire to Talking Heads, The Cars, early Genesis, The Police and U2 mainly. U2 have been my main influence. It ended up being a part of me. Not excluding the fact that I was born in a third world country, and raised in the hood of Cincinatti, then brought up in my high school years in the suburb – to have all those cultural influences as well, it makes a sound of its own. I’m lucky as Chad also has those influences, being Filipino living in America, living in the hood, and then the suburbs. Virginia Beach is also a big melting pot, because we have a Navy town with people from all over the world. We’ve experienced a great deal, so it’s natural for N.E.R.D. to sound like it does, for example, and for mine to sound like it does, separate from N.E.R.D., but they have similar sonics to some degree, because we were around the same kind of music growing up.
Have you had the chance to return to Ethiopa?
I have, and I’m continuing to go back. My dad and I are starting a non-profit [organisation] to dig for water. My dad was the minister of agriculture for the southern half of Ethiopa before I was born, so he has a really big heart for clean water. He almost died as a child from water-borne disease – it occupies 70% of the reasons why people go to the doctor in third world countries. It’s our way of hanging out together, as we don’t see each other as much. So we can go back and forth and plot all the things we want to accomplish, and we’ll be going back to Ethiopa a lot.
How’s your time in the UK been this time around?
I’ve been here for about four or five days. I’ve been back and forth between Paris and Germany. Oh, that’s like a bad SAT question – Paris and Berlin. I love London – more than I love the city and its architecture, I just really love the people. They’re just really straightforward, and as much as people think they’re very cynical here, it’s only the kind of cynicism that brings about the truth – they just want to get to the point. That’s what I’m about, I just want to get to the point.
Finally, what’s been your favourite gig that you’ve ever played?
It’s really hard to say for me, because every time I perform it’s a meaningful thing for me, but I have to say, last year I did some shows with Justin Timberlake, and the first show was in Manchester. I had never been on such a massive stage in my life. I’ve played in front of thousands of people, sometimes 20,000 people, but in this case to do it in front of 20,000 people in the middle of the arena, in the round, and to know that at any one moment, someone is looking at my ass, made it a really nerve-wracking experience! But it was so beautiful at the same time, because in Manchester they kind of gave me a big hug from their seats – they screamed and were very open. They knew that if Justin had me, it would be somebody worth watching, so they gave me a chance. That made it the best show, but at the same time it was crazy, because there were all these flashing cameras – I felt like a Timberlake-like megastar!