Welcome to the first Astral Realm roundup of 2023, where Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in music. Each roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, and a breakdown of noteworthy releases.
Focus Artist: Liv.e
On second album ‘Girl’ In A Half Pearl’, Liv.e surrenders to the maelstrom of her romantic attachments. A loose companion piece to 2020’s ‘Couldn’t Wait To Tell Ya…’, ‘Girl In The Half Pearl’ preserves the heritage of the black musical continuum, whilst pushing Liv.e’s brand of skittering soul into avant-garde territory.
Throughout, Liv.e manufactures distance and discord in songs that takes the listener deep into her unravelling psyche. Detuned in and out of frequency, ‘Pearl’ is an acid-dipped crusade from an evolved artist eager to breach convention: the album times out at 41 minutes – sprawling yet brisk, interspersed with interludes and motifs, ‘Pearl’ is frenetic and deceptive, gliding between references yet somehow all threaded together into a sweeping woozy ambiance.
Mirroring the discursive nature of her work, in conversation Liv.e is just as unfiltered and abrasive. The Texan shares how ‘Girl In The Half Pearl’ documents the disordered nature of her twenties, and why now was an opportune time to draw out the chaos within to make light of the world around her.
Congratulations on the release of ‘Girl In The Half Pearl’! Describe how it feels as an artist to give a piece of yourself and your consciousness to the world?
I want it to be out. If I had to describe the way I’m feeling, it’s like edging but I’m feeling euphoric. Also, I’m numb, if that makes sense? I can’t feel anything, I can’t see anything. My aura is charged right now. It’s exciting to have it out in the world, but I’m scared about people hearing my thoughts.
Your music has this cosmic, wayfaring drifter feel which I’ve been drawn to since you debuted. It’s zany, kaleidoscopic and hard to pin down…
Honestly, that’s how I feel right now. I feel loopy. I’m actually hungover; I’ve got a Gatorade in my hand but I’m ready to follow your lead.
Stay hydrated, you need those electrolytes! Actually, this album references that feeling of chemical imbalance – in romantic terms and in terms of psychedelic feelings…
I think drugs in moderation are awesome. I like the fact that it affects the brain and we become different things from these substances but gosh does it make you feel crazy afterwards!
What were you doing last night? What was the occasion?
I was on a date which is crazy for me! I have zero capacity for people right now, so it’s funny that I’m consciously entering those circles knowing I have nothing to give to anybody. It was fun and I got so hammered, which was not the goal. That was all we were doing for four hours.
Will there be another date?
I wouldn’t even call them dates because I’m not about to do that right now! I just want to become friends and hang. Maybe I need to be clearer.
You grew up in a musical, church-going family. Did you chafe against organised faith? And what did gospel give you in a creative sense? There’s echoes and allusions of it in your work…
I was raised in a Baptist household In Texas and I attended church all the time until I didn’t. Black Christians in Baptist churches have a really keen ear for music – it’s an intense spiritual experience for them. Take the Clark Sisters, who’ve been a massive influence in my work.
Southern experimental rap features in your work as well. I hear the duality of OutKast in your songs…
My shit was ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’. The dual sides weren’t a new thing in music but they made it innovative and unified. André’s side is crazy and that’s because he’s a Gemini. OutKast was a big influence in terms of the secular music I listened to because my Dad wouldn’t let me.
Speaking of this brush with secular music, what else were you drawn to musically in your formative years?
The first CD I ever bought was Kanye’s ‘Late Registration’ and it changed my life! I realised that I vibe with Gemini men: they just get me. I would never date them, but I admire their ingenuity. Kanye’s raps were unconventional and a little bit corny. I prefer to listen to Kanye than Common, you know? He was riding the beats in ways I hadn’t heard before.
Later, my brother put me on N.E.R.D. and their album ‘Seeing Sounds’. This is black people making this shit! I remember hearing the drum and bass in their sound and it was so absorbing. The last time I’d heard drum and bass was on The Powerpuff Girls!
Your debut album, ‘Couldn’t Wait To Tell You…” was a refreshing addition to the future soul tradition. What did that project represent in terms of your journey?
I was documenting my teenage years and honestly, I didn’t feel freedom in my personal life so I was searching for it sonically. I was about 20 when I made that shit. I was living with my Mum in St. Louis, Missouri, feeling that I wanted to be somewhere else. I was also coming down off this high of being at college. I was on some regular life shit to be honest. Knowing where I’m at right now, I didn’t feel free then. It’s predictive programming and that album was a launch pad for what would come. I wish I’d wrote journals and documented that period more because it does feel distant and murky. Musically speaking, Mejiwahn produced the whole album. He sent me a batch of wonky beats and I immediately felt a kinship with him. That’s my dawg!
Speaking of Mejiwahn, let’s talk about ‘Heart String Special’ from his album ‘Beanna’. It’s one of my favourite releases from last year…
When I heard that instrumental! He has an insane amount of talent. He’s a musician’s musician. That song made me feel medieval! I felt pippitty poppity! I knew exactly what to write over it. The thing about me is, I can’t write about something I’m not genuinely experiencing. I was going through a cycle in a relationship, catching onto the patterns and I didn’t feel this relationship was reciprocal. I couldn’t voice it so I had to write it. That track and what it represents was some of the only comfort I was receiving at that time.
From where does the album title ‘Girl With The Half Pearl’ derive?
I listened to the whole body of work and it felt right. I couldn’t have a title like ‘Girl With The Pregnant Belly’, you know what I mean? I don’t know why I made it sound like some historical shit. I was going through a stint of time where I was playing around with perspectives of the world we live in, and I think ‘Girl With The Half Pearl’ represents my place in the world today.
What are you wading through on this record? Is this album about purging relationship trauma?
It’s mostly relationship shit. It’s the growing pains of life, learning about the different archetypes of the people who orbit you; having to navigate that and maintain some purity about yourself. That shit changes you. It’s an album about growing up. I’m one of those people that has to learn the hard way. I need to see and do things for myself, and if someone tells me shouldn’t I’ll do it anyway.
This is a dark and cerebral album, particularly on tracks like ‘Ghost’. I love the jungle influence here!
Listen, that was unintentional. I didn’t recognise the UK jungle influence until I came to the UK and experienced it. Here in America, all I had was the TV and some Microsoft shit. I was born in 1998! That sound system vibe was what I heard in video games and cartoons growing up. I watched a lot of MTV, I consumed it all! Honestly, I don’t know too much about the UK besides the fact that Sade is from there…
She’s a UK queen but her success is transatlantic. She’s as lowkey as they come…
I fuck with her because she’s a Capricorn. Me and Sade are both Capricorns. I love that we don’t know shit about her. Capricorns endure a lot and we’re grateful to be alive.
You’re very zoned into astrology. What’s your take on Sagittarians?
I’m sorry for you. I don’t know Sagittarian men personally, but I’ve heard stories about them. Sagittarius women are beautiful but kudos to whoever is in a relationship with a Sagi man! The thing about me is I have placements that are so fucked up, so I fuck with everyone. I’m crazy though, we’re good.
Let’s talk ‘Wild Animals’, where you juxtapose chirpy jazz chords with acerbic lyricism. Is ‘Wild Animals’ a response to modern-day dating culture?
‘Wild Animals’ is from a time I’d met this person…actually let me not be specific! It’s about coming into yourself. It’s me saying, if these people show you who they are and what they mean, they’ll show you what they’re going to do. Give it some time and people will reveal who they really are. It is about the dating culture in LA; people are in relationships but still messing around, and people get a rush from knowing that.
One of my favourite tracks on the album is ‘Underground’. It reminds me of Kelis’s ‘Wondaland’, a kind of sci-fi synthesised piece. What’s the story behind it?
This is one of those moments where I was predictive programming. I wanted to build a world where I’m at the club dancing with the dark side of my personality. We’re having a moment. The line between light and dark is thin though. Honestly, I’m buck wild inside, I can’t fake or hide it at all. I’m going to slip this in but I feel I have to thank my ex for this one. He was very dark; he had a dark energy. He was dark but so nice. Everyone is a mirror, and he was a mirror to me. It was after that relationship I came to the realisation that I have this side of me. I’m visiting my darkness underground. It’s me. I’m right there on this track.
Do you mean possessing darkness and it manifesting through unhealthy habits? Is it an energy?
It’s about energy. It’s not negative per se, but it can be indulgent and intoxicating. It leaves you open. Self-realisation is key here. I don’t remember the last time I actually felt the way I did when I wrote ‘Underground’ but I do love this song and I still relate to it.
You’re singer in every sense of the word on tracks like ‘Find Out’. That’s an emotional core and you hear the expression of romantic scarring in your voice…
It’s so sad. I’m like girl, really? I’m having a conversation with myself and him. I’m saying I love this guy but why are you doing this to me? Now we’re found, but we’re still going in circles.
Talk me through the overarching sound design you built with your collaborators, Mndsgn being one them? What did they bring to the process?
I’ve known Mndsgn for a whole, he’s my G and it’s very natural with us. I do be having to know people personally and be comfortable with them before we create together. Justin (Raisen) was cool as fuck, he’s an older brother type and a cool ass white guy. It’s important to foster relationships with them, we have to have some commonalities. When you have those, you grow together when you create.
What two songs represent the dual sides of Liv.e on this album?
The left brain of the album is ‘Heart Break Escape’ and the right brain is ‘Snowing!’.
Final words on the ways you want this album to resonate with the world?
It’s an album that will make you feel like you’re on drugs. I want to take your body and release it. I want you to confront yourself and love yourself. This is body music: ecstasy, shroom, acid and anime music.
Next Wave Recommendation: Nate Brazier
A new Prince of the underground has arrived.
On debut EP ‘YSK’, South London’s Nate Brazier destabilises dance conventions through rich, redolent tales of Suburbia. The EP showcases the beauty in urban decay, refracting light from the metallic shards of metropolitan mundanity. Lyrically Brazier amplifies quiet, lived-in moments, and that interior world with his friends is made vital, almost apocalyptic. On ‘YSK’, Brazier charts conversations had in the safety of these cultivated spaces, to the bittersweet moment when loyalties begin to shift and relationships begin to fray.
Merging turn-of-the-millennia rap and RnB tropes with the disrupted groove of after-hours electronics, the EP introduces Brazier as a fresh alternative in the commodified sea of sameness emerging in the Tik Tok era.
Here he shares his origin story.
You’ve been on mine and Clash’s radar since you dropped your debut single ‘Patterns’ last year. You have the shiny Ones to Watch 2023 co-sign as well! How does early career buzz make you feel?
It’s so nice when you recognise a name sharing your work. I’m at the very beginning of my career, and I do get nervous before interviews because I’ve not had many. When I read your Ones to Watch blurb, I thought he gets it – he gets my music completely.
You’re juggling being an artist with your studies at uni. What do you study and how does the university experience inform the music side of things and vice versa?
I’m in my second year at Bristol studying English. I’ve always hated the prospect of getting older and I’ve placed a lot of pressure on myself to get shit done and achieve a lot, but I don’t have the same anxiety I do now that things are ramping up with music. I love my degree. English is an interesting one because you’re often left on your own to write an essay every few weeks, but I like the balance between making music and sitting in a seminar where your mind is stretched. It feeds nicely into my music.
Tell me about your origins. Was music embedded in you from a young age?
I’m from Wimbledon, which is its own enclave. I didn’t have a musical background which I feel is a blessing for me. I never had external influences, so it was up to me to seek out and find the music I liked the most. I grew up one of three boys in a close-knit family but none of them are in the music sphere – I’m the classic creative middle child.
I spent my teenage years in a suburb in Kingston. I knew then that I’d be immersed in music. I started learning how to produce to facilitate the writing. I got myself a laptop, and cut my teeth on Logic. After that it was about honing my sound, so I got into the world of experimental producers like Arca and AG Cook. I’m also a hip-hop head, so Mike Dean, Kenny Beats and DJ Dahi were also influences.
Did the use of your voice and singing come after the production component?
I’ve always been a singer, and I love singers like The Weeknd, who could merge the two in innovative ways; ‘Inertia’ is inspired by early The Weeknd, the way he would draw out his verses felt so unique at the time. My manager is always telling me to strip the vocals back. I love singing, I grew up playing sax and piano. I love the raw musical side of things just as much.
Name three artists and albums that typify your sound and your approach to song craft?
The first one that comes to mind would be ‘Pure Heroine’ by Lorde. This was the first album that captivated me start to finish. This inspired me to get to work, because she was only a few years older. She was writing about her real life that was relatable to me; her and her friends out in the suburbs killing time, capturing the mundanity and boredom of it all. Every so often I’ll revisit it, and remember why I love music.
‘1992’ by Princess Nokia had similar themes to the Lorde one. It’s about that New York experience, and growing up the shadow of a city. This was a special time capsule. It’s always a reference for me.
The third would be ‘Yeezus’ by Kanye. A controversial one but it’s so special.
‘Yeezus’ was a turning point. Fearless, intrepid but the beginning of an unravelling…
It was so experimental and sonically abrasive. Everything was in-your-face. I’ve read about Rick Rubin’s reduction-rather-than-production method, where he stripped everything back to its core, primal elements. Before Ye opens his mouth, his album is already fascinating. It’s pixelated and noisy. This one reminds me not to be too safe or too predictable which is always a danger because I love pop and a good hook more than anyone.
Talk me through the process of recording this EP and the chapter of your life it documents?
This EP is mostly self-produced. I would produce a half-finished demo and some producers would add to it, I’d then add and change things around. The songs were written over the last 4-5 years, the oldest being ‘YSK’; ‘Untold’ and ‘Patterns’ were more recent. A lot of these songs in some form existed years ago, and it feels nice because it’s an accurate representation of the last three years, rather than something I’ve created in a more reactive way. It’s true to me.
This EP hones in on shared experiences with friends and foes. That’s how growing up feels – climatic and angsty…
Exactly. Lyrically it’s similar to the Nokia and Lorde album, in that it charts the teenage years and this unique period of life where you’re in a bubble with your friends. It’s a web of friendships; school, college and uni. Every decision you make is monumental. Everyone is watching. It’s talking about mundanity and boredom, but also finding your chosen family.
How has it been reconciling this life before with your friends to your public-facing self, and the circles that world affords you. Is there a divide or are they one?
It’s a process and maybe that’s why I’m adamant of staying at university whilst this music thing really kicks off. It keeps my feet on the friends. The good thing is I have friends involved in music in that scene who are honest with me. I’ll never be doing something that is entitled because they’ll check me. I’m not self-congratulatory…I just don’t want to rest on my laurels. It’s not too much of departure at the moment, I’m still under-the-radar.
You’ve already finessed this downbeat sound design. This is dance music for night time dwellers. What does that nocturnal realm evoke in you?
I’ve always been drawn to sounds that are dusty, unpolished and lo-fi. I like that patchwork feel. I’m drawn to beat switches and tempo shifts. I came to Bristol not being the biggest dance head. Then my eyes were opened about how primal dance music can be and how it brings people together. I wanted to instil that vibe in my music. When I realised the power of dance music, I wanted to keep that running throughout the EP as well. Artists like Burial are big influences; the way he creates dance music that’s glitchy, spacious and the antithesis to EDM. It’s club-adjacent but it’s not defined by the middle of the club with sweaty bodies but in the pockets at the back of club or outside.
Let’s talk about the title track ‘YSK’. This is how you open an EP!
It stands out from the other tracks of the EP and that’s intentional. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what I’m all about immediately. Lyrically it sums up every theme; it’s about living in this web of what you should and shouldn’t know. It’s about rumours and friendships at school, it’s about cliques and the people existing on the fringes. I was massively hip-hop inspired when I wrote this, so you’ll hear the ‘Yeezus’ influence with the vocoder and the pumping beat. JPEGMAFIA inspired the glitchy verses. It felt like the right opener because it’s bold, steady and sturdy. It makes you feel cold.
What’s your view of the cross-pollination of dance music today. The lines are blurring; TikTok has made these worlds accessible. It’s not in the hand of gatekeepers anymore…
I think when TikTok came along artists like PinkPantheress blew the doors open on dance music for a whole new generation. You have these artists reinventing the wheel but also appealing to nostalgia heads. These sounds are now trendy. Comments sections can get heated when you start talking about originators and genre, which is understandable because they have their own memories attached to it. It’s a good thing sounds are blurring. It’s entry level to music criticism, people are wading in and it’s fun.
I’m excited about the trajectory of dance music. I always admired James Blake, Jamie xx and the 2010s electronic movement. Now, you have Piri & Tommy merging pop and dance, and crossing over. It’s nice that there are less gatekeepers.
Do you have an affirmation or guiding principle you live by as an artist?
The Kenny Beats one: Don’t overthink shit. I try to adhere to it because if I overthink an interaction it always spirals into something negative in my mind. If I overthink something that I have to do, I’ll stress myself out. That extends to music, overbaking music is one of the worse things I can do because I’m indecisive.
Looking to the future, what can we expect? Sonically, where do you want to go?
I have a massive bank of music. I have an idea of what a next EP will look like – a bit more RnB and hip-hop leaning which I’m excited about. The next EP is leaning more into vocals and beats. It’s mostly done and will come out around the summer.
Final words on your hopes for this EP?
I want whoever’s listening to feel nostalgia if they’re older than me; if they’re younger than I am, I want them to feel a sense of anticipation about what’s to come. Sonically, I want to get people moving and to get an image of night spaces in their minds. This is music that exists in night time settings, in places that aren’t super sterile; I’m thinking in basement raves, warehouses and late night drives.
Jouska – ‘Suddenly My Mind Is Blank’
“I’m liquid when it comes to music. My mind is set on making something emotional and refreshing…”
Oslo-based Marit Othilie Thorvik aka Jouska goes solo on new album ‘Suddenly My Mind Is Blank’. A creative breakaway from their work with Hans Olva Settem, Jouska fashions a melange of cybernetic post-pop and shoegaze, spectral RnB and wonky electronica, all nimbly distilled into an inviting frolic through metagalactic space.
One foot in the underground, another in the mainstream, Jouska’s assemblage of moods and textures elevates this release beyond the overwrought dream pop label prescribed to their early work. Yes, songs like ‘Fragrance’ abound in airy, dreamlike ecstasy, but the final 40 seconds turn it from an ineffable pop tune to one beamed in from the future. That same futurity is embraced on penultimate track ‘Blue Like The Sun’, a scratchy, clattering amalgam of mechanised aloofness. Throughout, Jouska’s synthetic heart searches for the comfort of humanity. At least for now, this alternate pop universe of their making is a temporary haven to find refuge in.
‘Suddenly My Mind Is Blank’ is out this Friday.
Wesley Joseph – ‘GLOW’
On the title track and opener ‘GLOW’, Midlands talent Wesley Joseph – now signed to Secretly Canadian – modulates his voice from a Imogen Heap digital wail to a Steve Lacy-esque vocal refrain basking in the afterglow of youth. Only one track in and Joseph has released his version of a blues song – the most inventive of his young career.
The ensuing EP is both a call back to Joseph’s moody meditations on 2021’s ‘ULTRAMARINE’, and a jumping off point to an artist-auteur in flux. Joseph continues a dialogue with his rambunctious, misguided younger self; rhapsodising on fear and the unpredictability of riding the hype train. There’s a deftness of touch and feel-good allusions present throughout; ‘SUGAR DIVE’ featuring fellow wunderkind DEAN, is irresistible twilight retro-funk capturing the frisson of anxious love. ‘GLOW’ was conceived as a panoptic multimedia experience. That just wouldn’t be possible without songs that are considered, tempered and art-directed.
‘GLOW’ is out this Friday.
Ishmael Ensemble – New Era
A charged entropy saturates Bristol-based collective Ishmael Ensemble’s new EP ‘New Era’, created in collaboration with spoken-word savant Rider Shafique. Imagining new dawns and utopias, Rider Shafique’s soothsaying is backed by haunted static, clanging percussion and extended beat-less excursions into psych-rock, dub and contemporary jazz.
‘New Era’ is enlightenment in song form: on ‘Polestar’, Shafique’s searching prayer for sustenance reverberates across barren landscapes, ‘Salm’ is a brooding plea to salvage one’s identity in the face of our contemporary miasma. ‘New Era’ could have been kitschy exotica release in the hands of lesser talents, but the interplay between Pete Cunningham’s ensemble and Shafique’s self-conscious confessionals, add a level of poignancy to messaging that will only reverberate more intensely on stage, in front of an audience.
Elijah Kessler ft. Toro y Moi – ‘ZEISS’
Signed to Toro Y Moi’s label, Company Records, prodigious young rapper-producer Elijah Kessler enlists his long-time collaborator’s services on the first taste of debut album, ‘LIGHTSPEED’. Recorded back in 2017 and co-produced with Nosaj Thing, ‘ZEISS’ is the result of years of tutelage and craftsmanship under Chaz Bear. A wavy, panoramic-trap number that chronicles the mutability of Gen Z’s exploration of sound and genre, ‘ZEISS’ exudes playfulness whilst a darker undertow seethes through the bassline. ‘ZEISS’ is a late-night studio jam made in the company of fraternal affection.
Mysie – ‘CTRL’
Mysie’s latest digital ephemera in the form of new single ‘CTRL’, is something to behold.
A post-breakup anthem, Mysie berates the try-hard platitudes of an ex-lover trying to reconnect over a jittery electronic backdrop. The accompanying visual is a DIY tour-de-force, scoring the moment when feelings of impassiveness pass and your stimuli once again prickle with verve and vitality. A family affair, the visual for ‘CTRL’ features her sister and Father’s (a Tik Tok phenomenon!) viral snake-hip dance. Clearly, there’s no better antidote to healing than the levity enjoyed with the people that know you best.
Latir – ‘E1’
On ‘E1’, poet-singer Latir paints a vivid picture of places and the people that occupy them, memorialising his current home in Bethnal Green and the surrounding area code. A song marked my topographic vignettes of sterile tower blocks and the street-level commotion of communal market areas, Latir’s sense of distant dislocation is soundtracked by a punk-infused edge, rolling drums and strings which add cinematic grandeur to this grand illusion.
Kelela – ‘Sorbet’
No one does programmed erotica better than Kelela. Positioned towards the end of her much-lauded song cycle ‘Raven’, ‘Sorbet’ is a moonlit tryst between two isolated souls. Not just another ode to the power of seduction, ‘Sorbet’ centres reciprocity and respect in private spaces. Scoring the discovery of every crack and crevice on each other’s bodies, this is a cosmic aria you almost feel you shouldn’t be voyeur to.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain // @ShazSherazi