Taken from Viper Magazine’s SS16 issue. Shout out to Dhamirah Coombes for the photography.
You can take the kid out of London, but you can’t take London out of the kid and the first lady of Awful Records, ABRA, is living proof. Even as the London-born, Atlanta-repping singer/songwriter/producer poses for the camera, draped in a Billionaire Boys Club jacket, projecting an effortless cool girl swag, you get the feel of an individual who knows she is back home after a long absence.
Her ultra-confident yet playful and serene persona rubs off almost immediately while making a remark about her pose – “I’ve got such a bitch face” – a hint of humour that ingratiates her to the sensibilities of London. “I do still feel like a London kid,” she says in contemplation. “But I kind of feel like a fraud for saying that because I’m not really. But I kind of feel like I am, with the sensibilities of people here, the music and everything else.
But just how much has London affected her young life thus far? “I still feel a lot of London is still in me and my first memories are from London. Atlanta hasn’t stolen my heart at all, but I’d say I’m a very good blend of both.
Indeed, ABRA was born and raised in Tooting, south London until the age of eight, when her family moved to Atlanta for a new life and, while she identifies with the UK capital, she doesn’t necessarily feel all the way at home. “I was still young when I was here and I didn’t get to embrace what was going on.
“But I do feel like when I was making music, a lot of people from the UK were fucking with it way more than people from the States anyway. That was really cool and affirming, and now I feel I’m coming to an audience now where I won’t have to sell myself as much as I did in the States.
It is a tricky balance to maintain, but the songstress withholds the London connection almost effortlessly, and it shines through her music, in a way which brings out the best of both London and rap music’s new epicentre, Atlanta.
In fact, she attributes much of her sound to the city of her birth: “My music is a great mix of the electronic music you hear in the UK and the drum and bass of Atlanta. Sonically, the bass is very Atlanta but the melodies and vocals are very much UK. It wasn’t my intention to mix the two but a lot of people started bringing to my attention that I sounded that way though it was a totally organic evolution.
Organic it certainly has been, as ABRA has created a lane all for herself from the comfort of her own bedroom, where she has produced ethereal love songs with a side of seduction. This includes her latest project ‘Rose’ released last year, a delicate tale of love, temptation and vulnerability. All over the most atmospheric and alluring production coming out of Atlanta at the moment. While sparse and airy, her instrumentals contain a bounciness that is addictive and engaging, and complement her voice perfectly.
But why did she start producing, rather than working with other people? “I love to sing, but my love for singing isn’t what made me want to make music – it was more of how music makes me feel when I listen to it and I really like being the architect of a mood. I like to be able to create a mood; when you play music in a room it really sets the mood and when I was just singing on other people’s tracks I didn’t really get the feeling that I wanted to.
“So I decided to take it into my own hands and be more involved in the music I’m trying to create, something I was able to do by myself more than I was with someone producing for me. It’s hard to artistically describe what you’re going for to somebody else – like I would want something dark and moody, but also kind of happy and dancey. That’s very ambiguous so it’s better to do it yourself, and I hate waiting on other people – I’m really impatient! So I don’t like waiting on other people to get things done for me, I would just rather get it done myself.”
Though relatively easy on the ear, the amount of work ABRA puts in when creating soundscapes shouldn’t be underestimated – she stays working – and she even cites a certain classic 1980s movie as a prime factor behind her sound. “When I create projects I like to think in colour palettes, and I was just thinking of a lot of pastels and a lot of the fashion from the eighties. I would watch a lot of movies from the eighties on mute and try to create the soundtrack behind them.
“I watched Coming To America eight times back to back, especially that scene when they were presenting the queen and all the girls were dancing and that just seemed like what needed to be in the background; a primitive bassline, some sparse drums, hella high-hats and accented drums.” Eddie Murphy basically shaped her whole sound by the sounds of it!
With a robust DIY attitude in place when it comes to her artistry, its clear ABRA is not one to rest on her laurels and always strives to push herself musically. Her influences also give a great clue as to how she cultivates her sound. “Vocally I would say Mariah Carey influences me the most. I don’t sing like her at all, but I used to listen to her a lot when I was young. She inspired me a lot, and then I started listening to artists from Atlanta, and a lot of rap.
“Everyone at Awful [Records] makes rap and they continue to inspire me; like Keith Charles, Father and the rest really influence my production style. Also Art of Noise and other bands from the eighties.
“I’m definitely growing into my own sound, but it’s still a process. Even if it sounds like this now, I’m not going in any particular direction or having the intention to sound a certain way.
The growth of her sound has been boosted by her prowess with instruments, which has made her think more methodically about the music she wants to create. But how much has playing an instrument helped her on her journey so far?
“Playing an instrument myself definitely helped the creative process. I play the guitar and I wrote a lot of folk music so those melodies really helped with bridging the aggressive drums and makes it more melodic and, I think, pretty. It adds more layers to the music and in my music I use a lot of harmonies and background vocals, which I don’t think I’d be able to do if I didn’t know how to play the guitar and if I didn’t practice singing with it.
“When you play a guitar you’re playing five notes in time that make a chord so I got to learn what notes go into making what sound and that really helped with the production aspect because if I want to sing a really stacked harmony background I now know what notes need to be there and what can sound good and what other instruments I can afford to lay on it without making it sound claustrophobic.
ABRA’s head is certainly screwed on with what she wants to cultivate musically, and she is undoubtedly in a great place at Awful Records in which she continues her growth as an artist. While being one of the few at the label to go against the grain of the sharp and hard-hitting hip-hop of the majority of its artists, ABRA loves every minute of being part of the burgeoning crew, boasting the likes of label head Father, Ethereal, Archibald Slim and Playboi Carti.
“I was always a fan of the people who were in Awful Records but I can’t say I really acknowledged it as a movement at the time. I knew that they were always working hard to bring something new to Atlanta.
“I know Father was on Edgwood before – that’s a street in Atlanta that’s a real cultural hotspot and a lot of things happen there; it’s pretty much the epicentre of Atlanta right now. I know that he was on the street making flyers for other people’s events and he’s been out there for a long time pushing the culture, and I really admire that about him, so when he asked me to join Awful I was like “hell yeah”.
“Awful literally started from the bottom, and I’ve never seen anybody work like that other than Awful, so I’ve always really respected that about them because their hustle is really genuine.”
Much like the Wu-Tang Clan and various other movements before them, Awful Records very much ride with each other always, and ABRA loves the family-oriented and tight-knit nature of the crew. “Yeah and its really genuine. I know there are a lot of people in collectives and they present themselves as really close and I can’t really say that I know what it’s like to be part of it but they make it seem closer than it is.
“But a lot of good and bad things happen at Awful and everyone always comes in to help pick up the pieces or celebrate with you. No matter what happens, we’re still a family – I don’t care if you don’t fuck with this person, we’re still a unit, and there is no leaving Awful.
“Even if I wanted to leave I couldn’t leave – its almost like a cult!
With her cult behind her, a world tour on the way and new music to come – she mentions an upcoming EP but little else – ABRA is set for a big year 2016, one with places beyond both London and Atlanta on the horizon.