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Catching Vibes with the Darkwave Duchess :: A Conversation with Abra

Catching Vibes with the Darkwave Duchess :: A Conversation with Abra

By Tom Winslade

You know what the biggest problem with the Internet is? Oversaturation. Whether it’s music, fashion, art or otherwise; we’re constantly being exposed to the same old ideas—regurgitated and repackaged, but ultimately the same. More specifically with music, young artists come equipped with the accessibility and means to study their idols’ moves so closely that they blindly attempt to recreate their successes and retrace their steps. It’s the same lackluster formula that sits behind the many confused people claiming to be “creative,” without truly creating anything new. Furthermore, everyone has the same points of reference.

Given that this non-stop wave of emerging artists claiming to be 'next up’ has recently become such a clusterfuck of uninspired trash, it makes it easier than ever to spot the real ones. The one’s doing something new and creating their own lane. You know, like you’re supposed to. The artists with a unique perspective or approach to expressing themselves and their vision are the ones I fuck with heavily, and Abra is one of those individuals.

As if by fate, I ended up being in LA at the same time as the Darkwave Duchess last month. Naturally, I reached out real quick to make sure we linked up and caught some vibes, and below is what went down when our paths crossed.

TOM WINSLADE: What’s extra nice about your music is that considering you’re still in the early stages of your career, your sound is already so self-realized. I was wondering how you set out to find your sound, or if it just came naturally over time?
ABRA: It was a very natural progression. I started off writing a lot of poetry, I’ve been writing poetry all my life, and then I started playing guitar when I was 14. I wrote a lot of folk music and then I went through this phase when I was heavily into Aaliyah and Timbaland and all the drum stuff—so I guess, when I learned to produce, that all came together pretty naturally. I was just fortunate that it worked out, because I thought my sound was rough as hell. Like, there’s a lot of things that you haven’t heard from before my actual projects came out that sound loose.

So you basically refined your sound as much as possible before putting anything out? That makes sense. You can hear that there’s an eclectic range of influences behind your sound—from ’80s electro and house through to ’90s pop and R&B. Besides Aaliyah, what other music did you listen to growing up?
Neither of my parents are from the States, so I didn’t really grow up on a lot of the classics that most people in my age group or racial demographic may have. My parents didn’t let me listen to secular music, so I had to listen to a lot church music, and I feel like that has affected my music in a big way because I use a lot of layering of vocals—like how multiple harmonies work within choirs. Then, my mom listened to a lot of folk music and old stuff, like, The Beatles, The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel—so I feel like that, mixed with me hiding from them and listening to the radio, kind of meshed to make my sound.

Yeah, like that immediately takes you away from the same influences that the majority of people were growing up on, which in turn means that you’re creating music that’s a little more unique—and that’s nothing but positive.

So, Rose is an entirely self-produced body of work, which I feel is half the beauty of it. How did the writing process play out? Did you run ideas past other people, or was it all quite self-contained?
A few of the songs I wrote a long time ago as poems or songs that didn’t work out, but the majority of it came after I put out BLQ Velvet. It’s weird to say, but after I put that out, I went through this kind of postpartum depression where I hated it. I didn’t feel proud of it, and I wanted to work on my production to make it fit. So I started focusing on my productions, and then when I started really liking them, I developed them into songs. I’d usually run all of my stuff before people, but Rose was the first project I made in its entirety before I shared it. I was just like, “This is it.” and I got it mixed and mastered before I showed it to anyone.

That’s real. So you just locked yourself away and smashed it?
Yeah, because I’d usually let other people affect the process by asking their opinion, and then if they don’t like it, I don’t put it out or whatever. I just wanted a project that I could stand behind and be proud of without having anyone else’s co-sign.

It’s easier that way too, because then you’re not gonna start questioning your own judgement—you can just trust your gut.
Right, right. Because I don’t make music for just one person, so why should I let one person affect me putting something out that I like, you know?

I feel like the whole lo-fi, DIY aesthetic plays into the personal experiences and perspective that you’re trying to convey on the record. Was that a conscious decision you made whilst bringing it to life in order to keep it raw and honest?
It definitely wasn’t a conscious thing, but it was the first thing that worked for me. I’ve always wanted to produce, but I didn’t know how. So I started off on GarageBand, and the first songs I put out that worked for me were Needsumbody and Diamonds & Gold—both of which came from me wanting to create music really bad, around that time that whole dubstep movement picked up. I just wanted to make people dance like that. So, I started trying to get into the process of electronic production, but I didn’t know what I was doing. So I actually sang the bassline for Needsumbody and pitched it down and just experimented with producing without really knowing how to produce. Naturally it came it out lo-fi, but people really fucked with it, so I just went with it.

It seems like Rose plays out as a sonic therapy for you—a cathartic means of getting some things off your chest and airing out some demons. Would you say that’s your typical relationship with music, or just where you were at that point in time?
I feel like I’m generally a confused person and that I don’t know how I feel about a lot of things until I get it off my chest, but I also feel very insecure about weighing other people down with my issues or unloading on someone emotionally. I hold my tongue a lot, but I can never really get to the root of the issue until I talk about it. So yeah, in that sense, writing music is really therapeutic for me. A lot of things I’ll write and I won’t know what it means at first, and then all of a sudden I’ll be like, “Oh damn!” and find a song that it fits with perfectly.

That’s crazy, it’s almost like a subconscious process. Would you say you’re in a happier place now, coming off the back of the record?
Every time I put a project out, I kind of hate it afterwards and I won’t listen to it until someones forces me to, or when I perform it. But over time I’ll be like, '“Damn, I snapped. That was actually really good.” It doesn’t really make me feel better to release it, like, it’s not a cathartic experience in that sense, but the acknowledgement I get from it kind of heals the pain that made the music. If someone hits me up like, Damn, your album helped me get through my break up—just to know that I can help someone else through my music is really affirming.

You dropped the video for U KNO in collaboration with UNIF recently. Can you describe the concept behind the visual?
UNIF actually came with the majority of it, like my only additional idea was the bathtub scene. Christine really wanted it to be glitched out and I guess we connect really well artistically and personally anyway. I’ve got to spend some time with her and she’s really dope, so she just picked up on my vibe. Like, she never really explained where she was coming from with the treatment of the video, but I’ve always fucked with UNIF, even before she hit me up, and I’ve always trusted her aesthetic, so I just let her run with it. She was going for something glitchy and dark that fits in with my other title, “Darkwave Duchess”—that was it.

Gotta talk about your Awful Records family real quick. How did you guys link up?
I was friends with a few of them earlier on through college and stuff, and I had a digital relationship with Father for a while where he would send me beats and I’d try and work it out, but it never really came to pass until I got out of one of my relationships and I started to take music seriously. Father was one person that would always fuck with me, always trying to get me to come out and do music, so I recognised that [he] would be a good person to surround myself with. I started going over to his house and making music and then I realized how well we worked together artistically, so we started hanging more and more until all of a sudden Wrist went up, and he was was like, Listen, I’m about to close off Awful Records and not let any more people on the roster. Do you wanna join? and I was like, Hell yeah!It just made so much sense.

I was describing your music to a friend before, in relation to the rest of the Awful roster, and the best comparison I could come up with was if the label was a tornado of impossibly turnt humans, your music kind of sits in the eye of the storm, as a calming presence. How do you view your place within the squad?
I’m very tumultuous in real life, and I feel like they can calm me down—so it’s actually more the opposite on that level. It’s also that I don’t feel judged by them because they’re also tumultuous, but they’ll usually bring me back down and make me feel validated when I’m very turnt up or angry or whatever. They help me embrace the parts of me that I’m embarrassed of, the parts I always try and hide, and they’re always like, Nah, do what you’ve gotta do.” And I appreciate that, because that’s me.

I caught your debut LA show last week and I thought it was super dope how you bodied it solo. No DJ—just you, your MacBook, a mic and a rug on the floor. It was almost voyeuristic, like watching you vibe out in your bedroom or something—in the least creepy way possible. Was that the effect you were going for?
It was the first time I actually performed like that and it was because I have a lot of anxiety before I perform, to the point that I don’t perform well and lose my breath and tighten up. So, I was playing with the idea of making the atmosphere more like home, and just get into it on the floor like I do at my house, and it worked. I was able to get in the zone and not worry about who was watching me or if they think I’m good or not. I could just focus on what I was doing and it helped me out a lot.

So what music are you listening to yourself right now? Apart from your Awful crew, of course. If the homie pulls up and immediately passes you the AUX, what’s the first thing you’re playing out?
Dirty Sprite 2! What else?

It’s all anyone is listening to. My Uber driver pulled up the other day and he was already playing it, before I even had to ask. It was honestly the dopest thing.
If you think that’s tight, you should come to Atlanta. You can drive down the street and it’s Future, Future, Future, Future, Future playing everywhere.

I heard this ill remix of I Guess from your BLQ Velvet EP recently, masterminded by PRMD outta London. Are you scheming on visiting the UK soon?
I used to live in London when I was younger, like that’s where my first memories come from and I feel like it’s home to me in a musical sense. It seems like people really fuck with me over there too and I just really want to go over as soon as I can. But yeah, PRMD sent that remix to me and it was the perfect vibe, like; grimey, house, dark, bass-heavy, and I was just like Man, I fuck wit y’all!They just got it without me telling them anything. It was on point and I couldn’t ask for a better remix.

What’s the plan for the rest of the year? I assume you’ll be touring the record, but are you working on new music too?
I feel like I want to put out another project soon, maybe in the fall. I’m really excited about that. I might go on tour too, but I don’t know, I have no idea—like everyday I wake up to some new shit. I’m open to whatever, I’m just really excited about the future and seeing what tomorrow holds.

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Catch a vibe over on Abra’s Soundcloud. You can also witness the litness on Twitter & Instagram.

Words & Art Direction by Tom Winslade
Photography by Jordan Green
Styled by Abra

*drops mic*

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