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‘If Hans Zimmer released this, it’d be game over’: Klein is warping the classical music crown

Our favourite South London experimentalist is back, but this time she’s releasing an album on a renowned classical music label. Klein talks hymns, The Sims and doing what you want.

19 Nov

Klein self-portraits

Klein is an artist that, simply put, does things differently. The first time we met was at the listening party for her 2019 album Lifetime; an event which involved meeting at an arcade in South London, being whisked onto a party bus with a small group of strangers, drinking champagne and watching the album’s accompanying short film before concluding with karaoke at the renowned Peckham pool club, Canavans. 

It’s clear Klein is particularly interested in creating meaningful moments surrounding her music – and having fun. From her archive of deeply intimate yet playful albums on labels like Hyperdub and her own ijn inc., to performances inspired by Nollywood films and pop culture at institutions like The Serpentine and ICA, Klein’s commitment to authenticity has led to her steadily becoming one of the most fascinating figures in electronic music.

“I wanted to make a classical record, but that shit is done. When I hear the record, I hear R&B, I hear grime, I hear noise – I don’t hear classical. The idea of that whole word is so warped”

Despite the ‘seriousness’ that often surrounds experimental and electronic music, Klein remains enthusiastic and light-hearted. Throughout our Zoom interview, she hugs her plush toys, interjects to send me a link to her favourite Sims YouTube channel (“It’s this girl called Khalia and she plays The Sims. People just watch her play and she makes characters and they’re baddies.”) and goes in-depth as to why Omarion’s ‘O’ and Ray J’s ‘One Wish’ deserve more praise for their compositions, which she feels connect to the classical genre. 

Klein has been ruminating about society’s rigid understanding of what constitutes classical music whilst working on her upcoming album Harmattan, to be released through Netherlands-based label Pentatone. “I wanted to make a classical record, but that shit is done,” she explains. “When I hear the record, I hear R&B, I hear grime, I hear noise – I don’t hear classical. The idea of that whole word is so warped.”

Named after the dry and dusty West African weather season, Harmattan explores a range of themes, including belonging, dreams and religion (and, incidentally, features guest vocals from Charlotte Church) and is perhaps Klein’s most intentional release yet. “There were moments on the record where I was consciously thinking about family, and thinking about my family friends and my cousins and how this can make them feel. This was the first time in a while that I was more aware.”

I spoke to Klein to find out more about Harmattan, inspirations and finding a home in a legacy classical label.

gal-dem: Harmattan is coming out soon, how are you feeling?

Klein: I felt excited, but now I feel nervous. I just like the idea of this record coming out and my friends hearing it and being like ‘Wow, all this time this is what you’ve been up to?’ Because I feel like my friends think I just watch people playing video games – which I do, but I think at this point they’ll be like ‘okay you do more [than that].’

Yeah, they can see the final outcome. How does the title Harmattan relate to you and the album’s concept?

The first time I went to Nigeria was in Harmattan period. You know when people talk about your earliest childhood memories? It felt like one of those moments. I felt at ease, everything felt surreal but I also felt alone. And that was what represented that period.

“Some of it is about Ray J and that’s it, there’s no further meaning. This track called ‘Ray’ is a drone track and I was thinking of Ray J”

So that’s why the album has been described as a personal journey from childhood until now?

There’s elements of personal journey – but a lot of the themes are bigger than me as an individual. Some of it is [about] Ray J and that’s it, there’s no further meaning. This track called ‘Ray’ is a drone track and I was thinking of Ray J. 

How would you best describe the album?

It’s a mixture of things. There’s songs like ‘Roc’ – growing up, I loved Roc Nation and had this affinity and obsession with Jay Z, Kareen Biggs and Dame Dash. I’ve always wanted to be at the Roc Nation Brunches. When making that track, I just kept thinking about this idea of being somewhere that I maybe don’t feel like in my essence I belong, but it’s something I crave because my everyday life really isn’t that. 

I literally live in a broken down house, and growing up in South London you have these experiences of wishing you were somewhere else. When I was making that track, it was one of the first times in a long time where I was making something so purposefully: ‘I want to make a song about the feeling of walking into a Roc Nation Brunch in a Spike Lee top hat’. It was how I’d envisioned I’d feel if I was finally at the Roc Nation brunch. So I think a lot of the songs on the album have meanings […] that could be something for someone else. 

Can you tell me more about individual tracks?

Songs like ‘Haunting of Grace’, I started thinking about the song ‘Amazing Grace’ and how it has been such a ‘yay’ moment for the Black community, but also a ‘nay’ – because even the guy who created that song was an opp. I just thought, wow: the haunting of this song, the haunting of grace, the haunting of this guy, the haunting of our shackles to these weird moments in religion. It kind of sounds like Ben-Hur and I was excited about that. 

That was the first track I made off the album that got me really gassed, but then as it progressed, none of the themes really addressed religion at all because it went into ‘Trappin in C Major’, which is quite a funny song. I wanted to make a drum track that you could mosh to, a lot of the drums were made running down the stairs. But a lot of the record for me was more meditative and something for when you listen alone. I’ve always made stuff without thinking of anyone else and I think that’s really important. I can also recognise it’s important to make stuff where I don’t know what it means.

“In the same way if you read a book or look at a painting, with songs over time the meaning can change. That’s something that I’m more intrigued about with the stuff I make”

Can you expand on that?

Simon Reynolds [wrote] this thing about ‘Conceptronica’ and he was kinda being shady but also being a vibe. I got what he meant – not everything has a concept, and that’s something I’m starting to realise. In the same way if you read a book or look at a painting, with songs over time the meaning can change. That’s something that I’m more intrigued about with the stuff I make. There’s stuff on Harmattan that I know what the title means, but I don’t know why I made the song because I’m not someone who’s from this world. I was a transcriber before quitting my job to open up for Dev Hynes and releasing an EP with Hyperdub. I’ve never had time to think about what I’m doing or what this means. I see things [people write] and I’ll be like ‘Oh okay, ‘sound collagist’. That’s what we’re calling it? What the hell is a sound collagist? That shit’s racist!’

Did you have people in mind when making some tracks?

I wanted to make a song dedicated to the people who kept me going when I was a kid – that’s why I mentioned Darren Platt, Channel U and Malorie Blackman. Without them, I don’t think I would have had the courage to think I can do anything I want to do. There was a lot of thought behind the album before the record was made, but then when I started making it I had to let go and [say] what you’re gonna do is allow yourself to feel, and if you don’t know what it means, that’s ok because I think things should be open to interpretation. By people interpreting stuff I’ve done in the past, it’s made me see more meaning or made me look at my approach differently. Like you know when we did the listening party for Lifetime?

Yeah.

I didn’t even process that. It wasn’t a thing where I had this plan. I just thought it made sense – you gotta do a listening party because everyone does a listening party. Aaliyah had a listening party, Beyoncé had a listening party. Even doing it at Canavans, that’s kind of my approach to things – slightly taking this formulaic approach, but then not. I didn’t realise how funny and weird it was until my housemate a few months later was like ‘what the heck, you even filmed it and documented it?’

How did you end up working with Pentatone on this one? 

For the past three years I’ve had this mission: Hans Zimmer, your time is up bruv! And that’s actually the honest truth, it’s gonna be truth o’clock. I wanted to release with the biggest classical label. So there was one label I sent a message to – I can’t remember their name – I messaged them like a SoundCloud rapper and they aired me. Then I saw Pentatone and when I went on their page, I swear to god everyone was like, the head of the Russian Opera. I said yes Jesus! They’re in for a massive shock. So I sent Kate the A&R an email and she didn’t respond…then I sent her an email with one of the tracks off Lifetime called ‘Protect My Blood’ because walahi yeah, it’s probably not one of the most listened to tracks – but in my spirit I was like, if Hans Zimmer released this, it’d be game over. So I attached that into the email. A week later, she got back and said ‘hey, this is sick’ or something and I was like, PERIOD I TOLD YOU!

“I wanted to show people that you really can do anything you want. Because four years ago, I was DJing and just singing about cheese on toast and now this is happening”

She had your back.

Yeah, she had my back. All of a sudden it happened and the main thing in the contract was like ‘as long as we can have our logo on the vinyl’ – I was like, have your logo on the vinyl, my G! I was genuinely so gassed because I failed music, I failed school and I really was just the most unlikely person in school and university to be in a situation like this. I wanted to show people that you really can do anything you want. Because four years ago, I was DJing and just singing about cheese on toast and now this is happening.

I’m excited to see how you transform Harmattan into a live show. I never know what to expect with your performances – what are you planning for this one?

I’ve got some really fun stuff and some instruments, which is cool. I think I’ll have some special appearances here and there, but I get really shy performing and I haven’t done it in a while so I think it’ll be a solo show. I want to test myself and be confident being on stage as well because I actually do like playing. You know those theatre kids? I think my spirit is actually one of the theatre kids, because funnily enough when I used to go to church with my mum I was in the church drama groups and I feel like that’s kind of shaped into what my shows are. My shows are never that linear. I think it’s me putting out what I’m thinking in my head at that time. But I do know that it will be funny, it will be fun, it will be litty, face will be beat, hair will be laid, instruments will be instrument-ing and people will be living – oh, why does that sound like a bar?

Harmattan is out today on Pentatone. Klein will be performing at the Barbican on January 30