Beyoncé, Kanye West, John Legend… songwriting sensation KIRBY has penned tunes with some of music’s all-time greats. But now she’s paused her songwriting career to focus on her own artistry and things are going from strength to strength.
Born and raised in the southern states of America, KIRBY was a student at Stax Music Academy in Memphis where music lessons with the likes of Bootsy Collins were commonplace. Soul music is ingrained in every inch of KIRBY’s DNA, but rather than awe at the sounds of the genre’s past, she is aiming to bring soul music into the 21st century.
KIRBY’s debut EP ‘Sis’ earned her coveted NPR Tiny Desk and Spotify COLORS sessions upon its release last year. Her latest record, ‘Sis. He Wasn’t the One’ closes a chapter in KIRBY’s life around tumultuous relationship experiences and her therapeutic openness around sharing them in her music. Musically, Childish Gambino-vibes echo throughout KIRBY’s melting pot of soul, funk, R&B and experimental influences – which range as far out as Tame Impala – to create a soul sound that’s fit for the future.
Currently on a US tour supporting Mr Legend himself, we caught up with KIRBY midway on her next gig stop at Detroit to talk about soul, Nando’s and her envy of twerking connoisseurs.
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In what ways did your church upbringing draw you to music growing up?
The church was my first stage. I have a moment on this tour with John Legend at the moment where we strip everything back to just the vocal and it’s those moments where I’m grateful for my church upbringing. My cousin was in the church choir, I’d play piano, my grandmother was a singer in church, so a lot of my family members were musical in some way which definitely influenced me.
I grew up around them singing. Sometimes, you’d just have a tambourine with people clapping and singing. It was amazing to see how such a minimal musical arrangement could be so impactful. It really made people feel something that they couldn’t put a name to.
When did you write your first song?
I actually don’t remember writing my first song! But I think my love for words came out of me getting in trouble and trying to find a way to get my mom to warm back up to me. I’d write this beautiful poem like, ‘Dear Mom, I’m so sorry…’ you know? I think somewhere in between writing in my journals and learning how to play piano was where my songwriting began to emerge. But it really wasn’t until I went to college where I found out that songwriting and being an artist was something that was tangible and not just some childhood dream.
I know that you studied at Berklee College of Music but you were also part of the Stax Music Academy in Memphis. Can you tell me a little about some of your experiences there?
Man, Stax Music Academy, let me tell you. That was a game changer for me. It was the first time I was around a group of black students who were all lovers of music. We got to go around the city performing Sammy Davis Jr., Booker T & the M.G.’s. They teach you the foundations of soul music. We went there to learn from the greats and the people from the city who had built that sound. For me, I can’t escape soul being in my music. Soul music is something I’ve been bred for and it’s something that I love.
As a songwriter, you’ve worked with giants like Beyonce and Kanye West. What made you want to focus on being an artist in your own right? Have you enjoyed this shift so far?
Three years ago, when I decided a take a break from songwriting to focus on my artistry, where I am now has confirmed that I made the right decision. I love being on tour, I love being able to connect with people on stage and for me, the big difference between being a songwriter and an artist is that.
As a songwriter, a lot of the time the connection comes either when you’re in the process of writing the song or connecting with a song when it’s out in the world. But for me, performing is the reward for my songwriting right now. There’s nothing like the authenticity of singing something that you’ve directly went through. I’ve been blessed on this tour because I wrote on John Legend’s ‘Bigger Love’ album, so on one hand I get to hear how people experience the song that we wrote together and I also get to look people in the eye with the songs that I wrote myself as well. It’s the best of both worlds.
I know that you love embracing your natural hair as well as bold colours in your music videos and on stage. How important is it for you to showcase the visual side to your identity as an artist?
It’s incredibly important for independent artists to have the resources to express their creativity at a level that matches another artist who may have major label backing. It’s really cool to be able to have a vision in our minds and to be able to execute that to the best of our abilities. We live in such a visual time that people don’t just want to hear a song, they want to see it, they want to taste it, they want to feel it in as many visual forms as possible. I’m always trying to challenge myself and figure out how I can visually express what I’m already putting across in my music. Sometimes the best way to do that is through a home video on your phone…
Speaking of home videos, can you tell me more about your viral Teach Me How to Twerk TikTok video?
Oh man, it’s just real life! When I was in quarantine, I was working out a lot with my best friend and she’s literally a twerk connoisseur. She can do all these moves and I was like, ‘where was I when you learned all this stuff? Why did you guys leave me out!?’
So, the video came from a really genuine place. We had the song ready for like a year before it came out, but I’d started dating this guy and I wasn’t sure if he got my sense of humour yet (laughs). But eventually, I was like f*** it, let’s just put it out and it’s just me having fun, being real and being honest. It was so funny to see how many other women related to it as well.
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You describe yourself as making “soul music for the future,” can you tell me more about the concept behind that?
I’m always thinking what would Aretha, Otis Redding or B.B. King sound like today? It’s very easy to make a soul record and for it to sound like a tribute record. But I think we have a responsibility as black artists to push soul music forward. I’m always trying to figure out ways to expand the genre and not just rely on what the ancestors and greats before me did. I try to build off of that and hope that they could think of me like, ‘wow, now that’s cool’.
What they were doing in their time was the future; Aretha’s arrangements, Otis’ vocals, it wasn’t classic at the time, they felt like the future. There was once upon a time where the sound of soul music felt like something that we’d never heard before and I challenge myself and the producers I work with to try and bring back that element to soul music. It feels familiar, but it also feels new and fresh.
How does your new EP, ‘Sis. He Wasn’t the One’, compare to your 2020 predecessor, ‘Sis’?
I think the truth of last year’s EP lies in my latest one. When I wrote ‘Sis’ last year, I was writing from a point in my life where my heart had recently experienced a lot of different feelings with love, but the outcome of those feelings lies in this second record.
I read a comment from someone the other day which mentioned that, ‘I love where the album takes me, even though it doesn’t take me to the happiest place’. I think that’s so honest because it is a break-up record, it is a harsh reality check about the people you love not being there forever, per se. I just wanted to close that chapter and hope that you could listen to both the EPs back to back to hear their journeys and see how things have changed and how I’ve progressed as a woman.
Does writing songs from a personal perspective on relationships feel therapeutic in any sense?
If I’m singing about heartbreak, I’m usually singing myself out of it, you know? I rarely write about something that I’m already healed from, it’s usually things I’m dealing with in the process of writing about them.
Did this make for a difficult writing and recording process at all?
This one was a little different as a lot of it was recorded during quarantine. Some of the songs, I’m not even in the same room with the producer, so parts of it felt like an isolated experience. But I’m so grateful for this record because I needed something to keep me going during quarantine and it really did.
How does John Legend feel to be touring with you?
Man, I don’t know! If anything, I hope that he knows just how much he saved my life. When you think about music and doing it right, you can’t have any conversation about that without having John Legend involved. Seeing how he and his team operates has really just inspired me to become a better businesswoman, to be strategic and to make sure I have a great team around me. His vocal stamina is incredible, the way he interacts with the crowd, I’ve just learned so much by being around him. I can’t thank him enough for him allowing me to just sit at the table. It’s been a lifesaving experience.
What are some aspirations you have as an artist as opposed to a songwriter?
I just want to put out more music more consistently. I’m so precious with my songs, but I also have a responsibility to put music out to people. Going to Berklee College of Music, they taught us that you should have emotional attachment to your music, but you also have to think about effective strategies of releasing it too. I feel like I have a renewed purpose on wanting to create music that touches the world. On the ground level, it really can change lives. On this tour, we’ve been able to employ so many young African Americans.
My whole team is made up of Black women and it’s been awesome to see doors open for them. I just want to write more music and have a huge hit record that can allow me to employ more Black designers, more Black stylists, videographers and things which is really important to me. This has given me a bigger purpose around wanting to write a hit record. It’s not really even about me, but the bigger the record the more impact it can have on people creating their own versions of generational love.
Can we expect to see you in the UK any time soon? What would you like to do most while you’re here?
I tell you, man, I’m a vegetarian but I can’t wait to get over there and get me some fries from Nando’s. As soon as they give me the green light, I’m gonna be there. God willing, 2022, I’ll be over there and dropping in that first Nando’s to get some fries.
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‘Sis. He Wasn’t the One’ is out now.
Words: Jamie Wilde / @jamiewilde__