By Jules Muir
In February of 2014, a singer named Kwamie Liv uploaded a song called “5 AM” on SoundCloud. In the section meant for a description, it read: “Lyrics Kwamie Liv. Music/Production Baby Duka & Kwamie Liv. Artwork Baby Duka.” Below that, there were lyrics to the song, along with the only other piece of information she would give us: her hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark.
In the roughly six months following “5 AM,” Kwamie Liv has unwittingly cultivated an air of mystery, both through her music and her avoidance of online media. We found that James Poyser of The Roots tweeted about her, and that Capital Radio 91.6, Sudan’s only all-English radio station, had “5AM” in rotation. Other than that, there was nothing.
Even in today’s world of music, where mysterious new artists pop up on the internet every day, there’s something intriguing about Kwamie Liv. Much of that can be attributed to the music itself—“5AM” made its impact with sparse electronic backing and vivid imagery. It was followed by the haunting seduction of “Follow You.” And throughout it all, there is that voice. It’s not a commanding voice, but there’s power in her understated confidence.
There are no other interviews out there with Kwamie Liv, so we had to find out more. We spoke with her over Skype while she was in Copenhagen. The video call cut right through the cloud of secrecy as soon as the walls of our bedrooms were exposed. She spoke calmly, but often lit up with a flash of animation. To celebrate the release of her debut EP Lost in the Girl, get to know a little bit about who Kwamie Liv really is, where she’s been, and why she’s not trying to be as mysterious as we thought.
So you’re living in Copenhagen now?
Yes, right now I’m in Copenhagen. But I travel sometimes.
What’s life in Copenhagen like?
Good! It’s a really beautiful city in the summertime, and it’s not a very big city so its easy to get around. There’s nothing that’s so far away that you can’t bike—especially on a summer day. Just a very beautiful city, I have to represent, you know? I can’t say anything bad about it. [Laughs]
When you uploaded “5 AM” six months ago, what did you expect?
I didn’t expect anything. I think expecting things is very dangerous. I didn’t put out this song because I expected anything, I put out this song because I wanted to. It’s a really beautiful experience when people enjoy it but I don’t expect anybody to do anything, ever. I just appreciate the fact it’s done well, and you guys at Pigeons and Planes have been such early supporters, which makes it really cool for me to do my first online interview with you. But I never expected that, and I can only hope that you will keep supporting but I know how it goes, one bad song and you’ll be like, “Uh uh, you’ve changed!”
Is that the impression you have of the media?
No, I don’t have any impressions. Honestly, I take it how it comes. So far, people have been really good to me and I don’t take it for granted. The only thing I expect is to create freely. Everything else… it is what it is.
I know what it’s like to listen to a song and be like, ‘Oh my god.’ The fact that even one person feels like that about what we’ve created is really humbling.
“5 AM” is almost at 60,000 plays now.
That’s incredible because for me music has always been so useful, to be able to—even in a small way—join that wave is something that I’m very grateful for. I know what it’s like to listen to a song and be like, “Oh my god.” The fact that even one person feels like that about what we’ve created is really humbling.
You say “we.” I’ve seen a lot of mentions of somebody named Baby Duka.
He’s a producer, he’s an artist, he does electronic music. He’s an old friend of mine and he’s an incredible multi-talent. For this EP I’ve worked with him and one other producer for one song—but its been mostly with Baby Duka. It’s super organic, I’ve known him for some years and I remember years ago him saying that we should definitely work together. I’m not very easy to convince. I really don’t do much unless I want to so I had to come around.
Even with interviews, I can’t be forced. One day it just happened and it felt natural, so we ended up creating something we found inspiring and beautiful. It’s awesome because this project has been very DIY. We do everything ourselves. We make the music ourselves, and he actually did the artwork for “comin THRU.” I was like, “You know you’re going to have to do one for every single song now right…?” It’s just really nice to do things ourselves, and if we can, then why not? I’m clear with the things I want, and the closer I am with the people I work with, the more sure I am that we will execute the vision.
Zambia, Turkey, Sweden, South Africa, Kenya, Ireland, and Bangladesh… is it true you lived in all of those places?
Was there a reason for that?
Well a girl’s gotta keep some secrets, but the nomadic lifestyle has definitely ingrained itself in me and it’s something I want to continue. Even though I’m living in Copenhagen, I’m always drawn to travel. I never know where I’m going to end up next. For me it’s very important to go out and see whatever I can, whenever I can—which is definitely a result of my upbringing.
How was life always on the move?
The main thing I appreciate from that lifestyle is that I had access to so many different cultures and types of people. That was a very rich experience and it meant a lot of good exposure. It fueled my storytelling and songwriting even more.
How did those countries inform you musically while you were growing up?
One of the main elements of music I’m drawn to is the songwriting process. Traveling and hearing so many different stories and being naturally exposed to them was very fruitful for me. Even though my music is rooted in me, I use my own platform as a springboard, and I draw from different stories and different people and different moods I experience. The more I travel and meet people, the more it widens my palette.
When did music first begin to take root in your life?
I feel like music has always been an integral part of my life and my expression, more concretely when I was eight and I started writing songs. From a very early age it’s something that I’ve done, making up songs and singing. I would sing the stories in my head and then once I started playing guitar I was able to write more structured songs.
What inspired you at such a young age?
It was very organic, I grew up in a home where my mother would play guitar for me. None of my family members were professionals but I was always in a very music-friendly environment. I don’t know why songwriting ended up being my thing, but I do remember from a very early age I always liked to imagine myself in different scenarios. I was making up plays with my friends and dressing them up.
I remember waking up from a dream as a child and having dreamt this song… That was the first song that I actually wrote. I remember saving it on this little recorder and that’s kind of where it all started.
I had a friend who I used to dress up and I’d be like, “Okay, now we’re THIS!” Luckily he would go along with it, poor thing. [Laughs] I think it’s just a natural desire to create things. I remember waking up from a dream as a child and having dreamt this song… That was the first song that I actually wrote. I remember saving it on this little recorder and that’s kind of where it all started. Whether it’s writing a song, making a poem, or playing dress up, the creative field is my natural release.
Well thats how children are.
But you’ve been able to keep it, that will to create.
I guess thats the difference for me—that feeling never died, it’s always been like that.
[Ed. note: At this point in the interview, a loud bus drives by and the sound rushes in through my open window.]
What’s that noise?
[Laughs] I’m in New York there’s always some weird vehicle rolling by.
New York? Your Skype says Seattle?
I moved out here for school and work a little big ago. Seattle is home, I can’t say anything bad about it.
I have to ask because I’m curious about you too you know. I always feel like—because I don’t talk with that many people—so if I do talk to people I want to know: Who are they? Where are they from? You know? I always find it so bizarre to have a one-way conversation and not get to learn anything from the person that I’m talking to. [Laughs] So sorry if I ask too many questions, I can’t help it!
Maybe I can use it for my music. My next song I’ll sing, “There was a blonde haired man…”
That would be a nice milestone for me.
Stranger things have happened.
You only have four tracks on your Soundcloud so far including a cover, what can we expect from the EP?
Yeah, it’s not a lot. The EP is kind of an extension of what’s already online. We’ve been dropping this since February and I think there are four songs out now, there will be three more on the EP.
How have you seen your music evolve over the last 4-5 years?
Interesting question, I don’t know. I started playing guitar very early on and my music has definitely become more electronic. Also from me sitting very much alone with my music, music has always been my release. It’s never been, “Oh people should hear this.” Everyone has something they do to escape and for me that’s always been music—and now I’m producing with different people.
As far as the sound goes, I’m not very good with boxes. I never tie myself down. That may be because the way I grew up but I just naturally like to keep things open and free. I honestly don’t know what the next thing is going to sound like. I don’t like to let anything besides what I’m feeling decide what I create.
You’ve gotten a lot of comparisons, Lana Del Rey being a primary one. How do you feel about that?
Yeah a lot of people have compared me, or the music to Lana Del Rey, FKA Twigs, M.I.A., Santigold, and to be honest I think it’s a very strong line of women to be compared to. If people want to put me next to those women—who are all doing their own thing and seem to have a clear vision of what they’re trying to create—then more power to that. I think it’s important as artists, and as female artists, to not compete but try to support. It’s a wave we all ride together, some of us may be more popular than others but I can only say positive things about the other artists. It’s a natural thing, people understand the world through comparison. That’s just how it goes.
“Follow You” and “5 AM” were both fairly haunting. “comin THRU” takes on a much different tone—more upbeat, and danceable.
I don’t necessarily think so much about switching it up, I just do what I please. I try not get stuck in the idea that I have to be one thing. With the music I put out I try to keep the core of it: me. Everything else can be whatever. “comin THRU” was made differently. All the other songs on the EP have been built from scratch, but one day I walked into the studio and Baby Duka told me to listen to this track he produced. I heard it and I was like, “Oh my goodness.” I was so in love with the beat that I wrote on it straight away.
The title Lost in the Girl—the first thing I think of is Kanye West’s song “Lost In The World.” What does it mean to you?
Imagine if I had a Kanye feature! [Laughs] You’d be like, “What? Who is this girl?!” The reason it’s called Lost in the Girl is because one of the tracks that’s unreleased is called “Lost in the Girl.” Title-wise it just made sense, it sums up the whole EP best… Kwamie featuring Kanye! [Laughs]
What is your impression of Kanye in the last year?
My impression of Kanye in the last year is that he’s just doing whatever the hell he wants and most importantly, he’s putting out good music. He delivers consistently and he delivers uncompromisingly.
If I could sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow with a new voice I’d want it to be Tom Waits’. I’ve written so many songs that I wish I could sing in his voice.
What other artists do you listen to?
I’m a huge Tom Waits fan. I have a lot of respect for his songwriting, I think it’s incredible. I really love his voice actually. If I could sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow with a new voice I’d want it to be Tom Waits’. I’ve written so many songs that I wish I could sing in his voice. Also if we’re talking about contemporaries, I think Kendrick Lamar. The songwriting on good kid m.A.A.d city is really solid.
Do you listen to your own music?
Well, I mean… I listen to it a lot when I’m creating it through the writing and production process. That way I can see how I want it to develop or change. But do I listen to my own music for fun? I probably don’t go out all the time listening to my own music, but sure, it happens.
You seem to be ready for the future but like you’re not necessarily planning it, do you any have plans moving forward?
It’s a good question. If I knew it I would tell you. [Laughs] I definitely want to get back in the studio as soon as possible. You’re not going to have to wait a year for new music. I think I’m going to drop some new music fairly soon actually.
This is your first online interview, is there anything you want people to know about you?
To be honest I kind of like to let the music do the talking. The most private part of me is already out there—the most I can give you is through my music. You’ve met me now and we’ve had a conversation and you’ll make of me whatever you like—I’m totally okay with that.