Stratospheric Ascent: HAAi Interviewed

"I was reaching out for a bit of creative togetherness..."

Less than a minute into our conversation and Teneil Throssell, better known as HAAi, is already eyeing up a bunch of vinyl. “On the other side of the computer, you can just see boxes of what looks like records and I’m like, ‘what can I take from it?’” she grins. It’s this inquisitive approach that has made ‘Baby, We’re Ascending’, her debut album, into one of the year’s most rewarding releases, as hard techno, ambient, breaks and soul crash in one glorious rush. If you were lucky enough to catch one of HAAi’s marathon sets during her Phonox days, it resembles something similarly chaotic, akin to the sharp changes of “really old MTV”, flitting from one turbo-charged skit to a psychedelic cartoon in one glorious swoop.

Few have made residencies quite their own in recent memory like HAAi, who took control of the Brixton club for two years and, after bowing out, found herself in high demand and catapulted into a punishing tour schedule.

Following a handful of EPs, crafted “on an airplane or in a hotel lobby” which showcased her ear for warped melody, she began to ponder a release not entirely club-focused. Then the pandemic hit and she found the forced isolation unexpectedly invigorating, prompting her to approach songwriting in completely novel ways.

“The album felt like something that I could really dive into and make it more self-reflective and be more of something to be played than just to be danced to. And also because, you know, there was no dance for us at that point,” she grimaces. “And we didn’t really know when they were going to come back. And I felt like, as much as it was a shitty time for so many people, having the luxury of being able to be in a studio and make a full studio record and have guests and use real instruments and music hardware, I felt really privileged to be able to get to do that.”

Newfound studio time wasn’t the only thing that informed ‘Baby, We’re Ascending’ in unanticipated ways. By her own admission, Teneil had always been reluctant to work collaboratively. However, through gradual input by close friend Jon Hopkins, who requested to contribute after hearing snippets of early tracks, she began to ease into the process. Teneil recalls, firmly tongue-in-cheek: “He called up straight away and was like, ‘can I be a part of this? Or can I collaborate? Or can I help in any way?’ And I was obviously like, ‘absolutely not.’” After stem sharing and studio time with Hopkins, collaborations with Alexis Taylor, Obi Franky and Kai-Isaiah Jamal materialised, which gave the group an optimistic purpose that has only dawned on Teneil in recent times.

Stratospheric Ascent: HAAi Interviewed

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“…Because we couldn’t see anyone, and I’m so used to doing everything in such solitude, I think I was reaching out for a bit of creative togetherness,” HAAi says, “to open up and feel like you have this creative family that you could work with. And it was certainly not the same as being on the road and seeing your friends, but it felt like we were all connected in some way.”

“I felt like we’d lost the thing that everyone was really craving,” she continues, “this togetherness that we used to have, like in a club or at a festival, so to be able to have that in the form of a musical stem was really special. It felt kind of hopeful in a way because we were all just creating something together.”

If a collaborative approach felt alien, experimenting with her voice on tracks such as the hypnotic ‘Bodies Of Water’, made her feel even more vulnerable. After initially sending ‘Tardigrade’ to Mute for feedback, she received no immediate response and started questioning stepping outside of her comfort zone. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God. Why did you sing on a track? You should have just made techno!’ Sat in my flat like: you idiot…”

Stratospheric Ascent: HAAi Interviewed

Thankfully, the positive response finally came and Teneil felt encouraged to underpin the chaos of ‘Baby, We’re Ascending’ with her vocals, which allowed her to “pump the brakes a little bit in parts of the album.”

It’s this approach, knowing when to launch dancers into eye-rolling euphoria or deep introspection, that informs both Teneil’s songwriting and DJing. “I feel fortunate to understand what can make people move on the dancefloor, or what can make people feel something. And that’s something I care about so much when I’m playing,” HAAi emphasises.

Like her DJ sets, much of the album feels like a voyage of discovery. ‘Channels’ kicks off the record with the familiar crunch of a cassette being placed in a tape deck, the resounding thud of the play button being pressed and the comforting hum as it begins to whirr, as if Teneil is melding the wonder of the past with her own futuristic sound. Near the album’s midpoint, ‘AM’ flickers between channels, moving from glacial pace to breakneck speed in less than a minute, before ushering in ‘FM’. “The idea was that you’re flicking through the radio, trying to find the right station or the track that you want to hear. And you listen to something like, ‘yeah, next one, next one.’ Finally, you fall on the one that you’re like, ‘Oh, this is the one’, which was ‘FM’ for me.”

Stratospheric Ascent: HAAi Interviewed

And what about the origins of that perfect album name? Inspired by meme page Do You Ever Just Fucking Ascend, Teneil concluded “it might be easier to sell a record that didn’t have the word ‘fucking’ in it.” The eventual title, ‘Baby, We’re Ascending’, fits perfectly, not only symbolising a transcendental experience on the dancefloor, but the stratospheric trajectory Teneil finds herself on in music right now.

With fresh releases to follow on own label Radical New Theory, tantalising sequels promised to fleeting track ‘AM’ and the box of records capturing her imagination just out of shot, HAAi, the great inquisitor, shows no sign of losing her curiosity.

Words: Lee Wakefield
Photography: Imogene Barron

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