Kwaku Asante is a storyteller, vividly narrating his journey of self-discovery through music that draws inspiration from neo-soul, R&B, and hip hop. Maria Hanlon caught up with Kwaku for a deep dive into the process behind his songwriting...
MH: The first thing I want to know is, what shaped your sound growing up?
KA: I was definitely influenced by what was around me. My Mum was Christian and when I was younger, on the weekends, she’d clean the house and put on these cassette tapes of big congregational churches from choir directors like Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Hezekiah Walker and Marvin Sapp. I would be a sponge, just sitting in front of the TV mimicking what they were doing.
I also played piano and violin from a young age, I stopped playing it but now I’m relearning it. I used to sing notes to help me learn songs as well. Also my older brother, he’s like six years older than me, introduced me to Robin Thicke, Usher, Chris Brown, Brandy & Monica. Actually the first musical memory I have is my mum playing Bobby Brown, that’s the first song I ever heard. Those are the three main things and then maybe like friends and going to church as well.
MH: What are the qualities of a good storyteller in music?
KA: Somebody put into words ‘the universal lies in the specifics’. I feel like the best stories are ones that are the most vivid and the most singular. You’d be surprised how people can relate to your story, but the singular nature of the story you’re telling is what will make people gravitate towards it. Although there might be similarities with what you experienced, it’s still a different take on it.
For example if you fell in love, a lyric could be ‘I fell in love in the third period on an autumn day’ Something simple like that, if it’s as singular and vivid as that it’s going to be sincere, because you’re talking from your truth, you’re talking from a page in your diary. We’ve all watched rom-coms, we’ve all watched action films. We all know that the bad guys are going to lose at the end of the day. We know it from when we watched Taken 1, 2 and 3 but people still watch them because it’s a different take. I think just being as vivid and singular as possible, but don’t make it too cryptic, I absolutely love Frank Ocean but sometimes I’m like you’re overdoing it (laughs).
MH: What’s the process behind your own songwriting?
KA: For me, it starts with the subject matter. I’ll have an idea or think of a line, or read something. I’ll have a subject matter and then I’ll go into the studio, maybe with a reference, or a mood I want to emulate or I feel will be fitting for this song.
I don’t really like to pre-write songs because there were a lot of times when I was starting out that I would be in my room for an hour writing lyrics and then I’ll go to the session with the lyrics and I’ll try and make the lyrics fit. Sometimes I feel like that could be at the cost of the quality of the song, as opposed to maybe thinking of something that I’m not as emotionally attached to that would make a better melody.
I use an essay format. So for me, the only way I know how to write or get my point across is an essay. You have a subject, a beginning, a middle and an ending. Then you have a mark scheme, which is like melody, rhyming, pop cultural references and you weave in between them. My process is quite formulaic. It allows me to keep up my productivity because I don’t really believe in writer’s block, sounds weird, but just so I can keep some kind of routine so songs get done. I think this helps alleviate pressure too.
MH: Would you say that your process has changed over the years? Does it vary from song to song or do you always apply this approach?
KA: It’s definitely changed. To be fair it changed quite quickly, I had to find a process that worked for me quickly because I had to get better quickly. So I found this technique over the first year or so and then it worked so I stuck with it.
MH: You supported Samm Henshaw recently & sold out Jazz Cafe – how do you prepare yourself before a big performance?
Green tea. I’m quite calm. If I’m prepared, I’m not nervous at all. My band is also crazy and they make me sound better than I actually am (laughs). Maybe a vocal warm up here and there and I try not to talk too much or I’ll put The Office or something on. Nothing crazy, I’m low-maintenance.
MH: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt on your journey as an artist so far?
KA: Control what you can control because there are so many variables that may provide problems and prevent you from getting from A to B, but just do the best that you can do. Make sure you’re on time to things, be present, be prepared and practice. I make sure that I can develop as much as possible so that when opportunities come along, I can make the most out of them. But I feel that the main thing is pushing yourself and just wanting to maximise your potential. Oh and also just be a joy to work with, just don’t be an idiot, don’t be rude. Don’t only treat people with respect because they can do something for you.
MH: You’re hosting a masterclass at UD’s brand new Talent House soon. What can we expect from that?
KA: In this masterclass the formulaic structure of writing will help quieten down the noise and allow you to focus and zoom in on the story that wants to be told. I feel like the way I write hopefully allows you to streamline your thoughts and make sense of what you want to get across to the listener. So a lot of that, a lot of activities, 10 minute songs, different types of writing and streamlining how you songwrite.
Creativity flows through you but it doesn’t come from you, it’s OK to start a song off with something you listened to and be inspired. Nothing is 100% truly original. I’m the biggest fan of D’Angelo. ‘Voodoo’ is one of my favourite records ever but I watched an interview and the way they started the album was they just jammed over a Prince record. They played over Prince for hours for each song and then it manifested into another thing. That’s why I don’t really believe in writer’s block, go outside, read a menu, read a book, have a conversation, think of it from a different angle.
MH: So what is next for you this year? Do you have any exciting plans for summer 2022?
I’ve got an 11 track EP coming out, it’s mad! I’ve also got a feature coming out in three weeks with an artist called Santino Le Saint, he’s on Cloud X. Then after that momentum we’ll start the roll out for mine. I’ve also got a lot of cool shows and I may be doing a residency!
Words by Maria Hanlon @mariahanlon
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