Welcome to Astral Realm, where Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in music. Each month’s roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight and a breakdown of noteworthy songs and projects.
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Focus Artist: Dawuna
Two records released last year explored in fragrantly evocative ways, the dissonance between personal devastation and existential dread: ‘Glass Lit Dream’ by Dawuna and ‘Vulture Prince’ by Arooj Aftab. The former, is one of the most immersive albums I’ve ever experienced; soaked in the milieu of its maker Ian Mugerwa, who weaves a kind of devotional Dionysia verging on the hypnagogic.
A sleeper hit launched into the ether in 2020 but only officially released at the tail end of last year, ‘Glass Lit Dream’ introduces a fresh and exciting narratorial voice. A Ugandan-American, Dawuna was born in Maryland, US, spending formative years in Kenya before settling in Brooklyn; part autobiography, part allegory, part winding fantasy, the imprints of Dawuna’s lineage seep into vivid characters on 'Glass Lit Dream', veering from the profane to the divine.
The mysticism of the Motherland meets smouldering digital soul on ‘Glass Lit Dream’, a musical touchstone I foresee being explored, scrutinized and replicated this year and beyond.
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You were born in the US but spent some early years in Kenya. Tell me about that musical fusion; music passed down from your parents but also what you were drawn to as a susceptible teenager living between cultures.
My parents weren’t musicians but they played a lot of music. A lot of classical music was played by My Mum and that informed my classical training at about nine when I learnt to play the cello. But my Dad was the main influence in terms of music; he’s Ugandan and covered the whole diaspora in terms of sounds and genres. Anything that reminded him of home - of Africa, he’d play. He had thousands of tapes, his very own archive. That was pretty influential to me. When I was a teenager, I guess the serious music listening and consumption started. Discovering D’Angelo was like a musical epiphany, that was it for me!
‘Glass Lit Dream’ has been this underground, word-of-mouth success story. Talk me through the making of this album which didn’t have a conventional rollout.
I was about 23 when I started to record this album and it took a few years to materialise. I’d dabbled in music before but this felt like a turning point; like this could be a career for me. I needed to start strong and felt I had something to prove. I was aware of the underground experimental scene, and didn’t feel like I wanted to tread that path but then I realised that I wanted to create something that spoke to the times.
I recorded a whole “practice album’ before ‘Glass Lit Dream’ to become a more proficient producer. I took elements of that album and built on it. I finished recording and producing ‘Glass Lit Dream’ in January 2020 and then Covid happened. In November 2020, my mental health was quite poor and I was acting impulsively. I was like “fuck it” so I self-released the album. The music speaks for itself and I’m proud of what I’ve created, seemingly it’s done well and I am genuinely touched by the reaction.
‘Glass Lit Dream’ came after the trauma of a past relationship; it explores the aftermath. Was the experience of producing it cathartic or confronting?
Most of the recording came after the relationship when I had put some space between me and this relationship. This is an album about a free man coming out of a really horrible situation. It was nice that I didn’t feel the need to make an album associated with that and it felt like I was reclaiming my life and artistry back. This wasn’t an exorcism of something from my past, it didn’t have to be that.
But also, making this album did make me repress some of the damage that had been done. When I finished making the album I was extremely burnt out and then the pandemic hit; I developed PTSD relating to that whole situation. The album, however, was independent from that experience. I’d call it a reclamation.
‘Glass Lit Dream’ is a uniform experience at just ten tracks. But these tracks are dense, baroque and unpredictable. What went into creating a body of work committed to narrative and experimentation in equal measure.
I wanted to emulate the experience of ‘What’s Going On?’ by Marvin Gaye; this constantly flowing, uninterrupted experience. I love the idea of having more direct pop songwriting juxtaposed against these dense, abstract sounds. I’m a huge fan of Coil because they popularised this idea of creating “solar music” and I wanted to bring that nocturnal vibe to my own. I wanted it to be a lunar album, so I recorded at night.
The framing of the story is in first song ‘The Ape Prince’ and the last, ‘The Lethe, The Sea’; the beginning and end of the story. ‘The Lethe, The Sea’ is one of the first songs I recorded for this project: I remember thinking this is the cornerstone of this record.
The vocal production verges on ASMR; you bend and morph the voice as an instrument in really innovative ways…
I wanted it to be densely layered but in a very subtle way. It involved a lot of layering and it does have a lullaby vibe. The whole recording experience meant that I took a more delicate approach to vocals. For me, it’s always been important to follow this canon of Black American diasporic music. You have to pay homage to the voices that came before like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and Nina Simone, artists like Prince and D’Angelo. The latter is someone who I’m hugely influenced by vocally but also Russell Elevado, who produced this choral, multi-tracked vocal effect – like 40 layers under the main vocal track!
The album is steeped in folklore and mysticism; stories that trickle down from generation to generation. Can you share some of the specific spiritual references you pulled from?
For me, music is an inherently spiritual experience; an experience that helps me explore my own religion or spirituality. I was listening to ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ whilst I was recording and what I liked about the album was the timeless feel of it; the questions it asked of humanity, the themes it interrogated which are still applicable today.
Growing up, I did lean into spiritual texts - I pulled from Buddhism, for example. I tried to invoke that in the album. I wanted it to not be a completely secular album but also wanted to strike the right balance and not inundate the listener with scripture and religious quotes.
What’s the story behind the song ‘The General’? You grapple with institutionalised power and subordination across this album. Is some of that explored here?
Absolutely. I’ve always had issues with institutions that wield power and authority; my family’s from Uganda and I had the benefit of being able to see what’s going on in the US and draw parallels. I was thinking a lot about aggressors within these institutions: What happens when you go against or resist the state? It’s a song about politicians, ultimately.
You mentioned reclamation and the restorative impact of art. Is ‘Glass Lit Dream’ a recuperation of your heritage?
Whether I intended it or not, my heritage and identity filtered into this album. It is a document of my identity at the time of recording it. I was heavily influenced by my African side, my African-American influences but also the religious influences – it’s all there.
What’s next for Dawuna? Are you building on the ‘Glass Lit Dream’ era or are you in the throes of creating something new?
I give myself space and time to live my life, which in turn informs the art. Touring would be nice, I have some shows planned that I hope will come to fruition. I have a bunch of demos for a follow up to ‘Glass Lit Dream’ that I’m working on. I can tell you it’s going to be a funk album.
Listening to your music, I experienced a sound that beautifully bridges the past, present and future. What do you want to remain in the mind of a listener as they experience your music?
That this is a proposition for where black music can go. This is my take on the canon and I would hope that people read a review or this interview, revisit the record and appreciate my take on the vast continuum of black innovation.
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Next Wave Recommendation: Sola
There’s a disorienting but seductive quality to Sola’s self-described brand of “warped soul”; making her debut in 2018 with the ode to deliverance ‘Sacrifice Me’, the South Londoner synthesised hymn-like vocals over sparse programmed beats. Current EP ‘Feels Like A War’, invokes the mystic sensuality of 2020’s ‘Mami Wata’, but is in itself a darker incarnation, confronting themes of bodily autonomy, trauma and sexual violence head on.
Over four tracks, Sola is an omnipresent force soaring to new cinematic heights: a one-woman show, she embraces the rhapsody of transformation. Charting her evolution, Sola shares the genesis of her project from influences to iconography through a track-by-track breakdown.
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‘Feels Like A War’
“I’ve always been a big lover of doo-wop and have wanted to incorporate those sounds. What I love about doo-wop is how the vocal becomes the bed of the music. I later had Ife Ogunjobi add some trumpet which really tied the song together. Lyrically, I’m singing to myself about reclaiming my mind from anxiety and depression. I find it easy to be held captive by my thoughts and learning to love my flaws can feel like a constant battle or war. This song is about overcoming, but also embracing them.
This song has a really nostalgic feel to it, so I wanted to make sure it was captured throughout the video. When looking at the work of the Nigerian photographer Samuel Fosso, I felt similar feelings and really drew upon his art for inspiration on this video. The video feels both old timey and futuristic, which really captures the essence of the song to me. I collaborated with the director Destine Paige, who really helped bring everything to life.
‘You Don’t Have To Say’
I wrote this song with the singer Tora-i last year. I remember wanting everything to sound really underwater and dreamy, but also be something you could nod your head and groove to. The juxtaposition between the throbbing bassline and the intricate synths and guitars really helped achieve that for me. It also creates a nice tension and makes you feel a little uncomfortable, which is something I love to capture in my music.
Lyrically, the song is exploring how to move forward from the past, and it reflects on the bittersweet feelings that memories can provide. I made the video with Nicolee Tsin; it features me being stuck inside a bubble, which represents the song's lyrical themes of being trapped inside my past but being able to clearly see what’s ahead of me.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’
“Sonically, this song is influenced by the Timberland/Missy Elliott school of songwriting and production. This song originated as the piano sample you hear in the outro but ended up turning into something completely different once I added drums and other instruments. I didn’t want to lose the piano bit, so I pitched it down a bit and kept it at the end.
I wrote this song after re-watching the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name; it’s a haunting film, but also incredibly tone deaf and archaic in its depiction of women’s bodies and sex. The song is about circumventing that and using the feminine gaze to escape unrealistic ideals of what pleasure really is.”
I wrote this on the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death in 2018. The lyrics stemmed from a burning anger about how little had changed since. I had also recently been sexually assaulted and reflected on this while writing the song, so some lines also have a double meaning. Lyrics like “are my body and heartbeat your pawns” refer to the fragility of life, brutality against black people and the violation of women’s bodies. There’s a repeating line about “violent men” and the effect they have on society. Essentially, it’s about revenge but also recovering from trauma, and learning to live with pain. Classical music is one of my biggest inspirations and the piano is really influenced by the work of Ravel. I did a session with Moses Boyd where he added drums and we had Raven Bush play some beautiful strings which are now my favourite part of the song.”
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Kiran Kai – ‘Ultradiction’
“Ultimate syntax or the ultimate contradictions we are and that we grapple with as we make the best of what left history left…”
A veiled gem that became an end-of-year tonic, ‘Ultradiction’ by Southeast London artist Kiran Kai deserves your attention, a soundtrack for that moment before dawn when you’re on your lonesome searching for traces of intimacy and fellowship in and amongst the waning crowds.
Kai has built a reputation as a go-to conduit for the likes of Jordan Rakei, Rejjie Snow and Jesse James Solomon. On ‘Ultradiction’, he embraces that essence of collaboration, enlisting a host of underground stalwarts to bring life to his nocturnal notes; Rosie Lowe’s lilting voice on the tender ‘when’ and Shivum Sharma’s wraithlike vocal on ‘falmouthornia’ bounce off discomposed basslines and hazy synths - tonally divergent tracks that embody the boldness and breadth of Kai’s vision.
‘Ultradiction’ is a post-genre melange that succeeds in fostering a heady interiority.
Shenie Fogo – ‘Meet Me In My Dreams’
The Swedes are unrivalled when it comes to connecting the transatlantic accessibility of contemporary R&B with moody introspectiveness. That tempered balance comes through on ‘Meet Me In My Dreams’, Shenie Fogo’s debut full-length - the Stockhold-based singer floating between forsaken love and pleasure-seeking sensuality.
The production courtesy of iSHi whose past credits are a commercial for noughties pop dynamite, opts for rose-hued, saturnine soundscapes here, a base for Fogo to weave her understated vocals. The slow dance shimmer of ‘Explain’, with its cosmic guitar solo and live drums is a highlight, as is the twilight interlude ‘Ain’t The Same’, the pivot point where Fogo emerges from the remnants of a past relationship defiant and on the move. If you’re looking for something new to listen to that resides between Snoh Aalegra and SZA, Fogo’s elegantly-crafted Scandinavian soul is the one for you.
MEYY – ‘Neon Angel’
‘Neon Angel’, the debut EP from the Brussels-born, London-based aesthete, is a choreographed exhibition soundtracked by four tracks coalescing to form the arc of MEYY’s synthetic ecstasy. MEYY’s background in dance informs the void of silence across these tracks; on opener ‘Orchids’, she prolongs the inevitable overflow, titillating and reeling the listener in with unbridled tension. She rewards the stealthy; beats don’t kick in until halfway through, instead MEYY’s voice melts into the atmosphere - a shadowy wall-of-sound where bodies move in syncopated rhythm.
The EP carries the hallmarks of pre-streaming releases like The Weeknd’s ‘House of Balloons’ and FKA twigs early EPs: on ‘Hyli’, MEYY manufactures a similar kind of programmed fantasy, ensnaring both listener and paramour to give into the motion.
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Azekel – ‘SOHO’
The Nigerian-born, London-bred polymath knows how to finesse creations that vacillate between the soulful and the esoteric: new single ‘SOHO’ is no different. Azekel grapples with the rush of finding home in fleeting connections. Shades of the progressive funk of Frank Ocean’s ‘Pyramids’ find its way into the spectral chords and electronic segues on ‘SOHO’. The delicate evolution from sophisti-jazz to quietly propulsive broken beat as the climax hits cleverly imitates Azekel’s sense of displacement; neither here nor there yet always reliving the electric thrill of the night before.
‘SOHO’ is taken from Azekel’s forthcoming project ‘ANALYZE LOVE’, exploring notions of Black love, kinship and community.
Theodor Black – ‘LOOP’
“It’s like being in purgatory, it’s not quite hell but it isn’t quite heaven either…”
Previous project ‘Garçon’ introduced Theodor Black’s vapourwave musings through soft focus jazz, placing him firmly on the new frontier of lo-fi rap. His surreptitious demeanour may be suffused within the make up of current single ‘LOOP’ but his lyrical intent is patently clear. The pursuit of happiness drives this particular contemplation; a sonic sedative where a looped instrumental and a slurred, almost inaudible delivery plays out the effects of monotony and stifled ambition.
‘LOOP’ is the first single from new project ‘PARADISE FM’, due later this year.
Coby Sey – ‘Kiss From A Rose’
Seal’s ‘Kiss From A Rose’ has been a thorny riddle since it rode a renascent wave scoring the credits of 1995’s Batman Forever; the song was hailed in its day as an ornate but illusive power ballad. London auteur Coby Sey amplifies the “love as an intoxicant” feel of the original, giving it a haunting makeover - scaling back the excess and leaving nothing but a stark multi-tracked acapella. Ultimately, this does what all good covers should do; extracting the elegiac beauty of the source material and repurposing it for a new age.
We know Coby Sey recently for his work as a triumvirate with Tirzah and Mica Levi and for his gossamer interplay with Cosha on last year’s ‘Tighter’, but with ‘Kiss From A Rose’, we hear with resounding clarity the quiet virtuosity of one of our underrated greats.
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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