Juju. Piano Voodoo. Whatever kind of music Klein is making, we’re brainwashed.
“When I was seven and a half I moved to Nigeria for a bit because my gran was ill. My mum said we were going on holiday and then I stayed there for four and a half years. I was like: ‘This is not a holiday!’ It was really peak coming back for year seven with a stronger Nigerian accent, everyone was like: ‘Oh were you born in Nigeria?’ I was like: ‘No! I’m from London, I’ve just been tricked into this fake holiday!’” 19-year-old rapper/singer/producer Klein is telling me her life story from a scabby sofa in the depths of Bethnal Green. While she frenetically runs through anecdote after anecdote, her wild cackles reverberate around the empty studio as she loads up tinny YouTube tabs on my laptop to soundtrack every tale. I’m just enjoying the ride.
What she’s most eager to share shows nothing of her own musical prowess, she opens with Arabic electronic tracks made by her father’s pals in Nigeria that she found the other day. She blasts a song and our conversation descends into fits of laughter. “They’re like: ‘OK, so we’re Muslim, but can we make some club music, that we can also, like, pray to?’” The songs all shout-out to Klein as a baby. “The Nigerian music scene is crazy…You put money in [the artist’s] hands and they big you up on their albums.”
After scatting some of our own self-promotional jingles for a few minutes, I show Klein the windows of Calvin Klein pages I’ve found trying to research her, and explain she’s going to have to tell me everything herself, all I have to go on is her moodily hyperactive self-released Bandcamp album, Only. “I went to uni and left halfway through,” she smiles bashfully, as if I’m about to scold her for being a dropout. “I was doing English, it was really horrible… When I was 14 I used to download Drake-type beats and then rap over it really badly or do really shitty spoken word. Where I went to uni was in the countryside, the internet connection was really bad and I was like: ‘Oh, crap. I actually have to make something.’” Taking advantage of the grand pianos and other musical “random crap” at her campus, Klein began to piece together her debut LP instead of writing essays.
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“I was like: ‘OK, I’m going to do this album,’ because I had loads of things compiled for months and things on my mind. I was like: ‘Who’s even going to listen to it?’ When I put it out in February, I did a load of small gigs and built things up supporting other artists, I’ve been doing it for quite a few years actually, since I was in school and didn’t tell my parents. They still don’t know!”
Only Klein’s cousins know she’s a musician, after featuring in her music video for “Marks Of Worship”. Apparently they’re a “mixture of confused and also gassed” about the revelation. The decision to keep her album on the down-low makes sense when Klein explains: “My influences are like the worst influences you can have if your parents are born-again Christians… Basically anything Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, just drama, drama-filled things!” Her mother, on the other hand, likes Coldplay, “because they mentioned Jesus once”.
Klein fires up my computer to show me her melodrama in action. Her music flows from spacey soundscapes before crashing into clipped, warped vocals via Skepta samples on “Gaz City” and a “bait” cover of Adele’s “Hello” using “literally all her lyrics.” Only finishes with a 50 second track of pure shoutouts where NTS Radio and Rita Ora get name-checked. If you download the album on Bandcamp you’ll also receive a selfie clip of Klein singing Mario’s “You Should Let Me LoveYou” while wearing ear muffs and a thank you letter which reads: “Thank you soo much for actually buying my record, this means a lot because I’m fucking broke as fuck” and asks you to send her pictures of Zayn Malik. Eccentric doesn’t even begin to cover it, it’s no wonder queen of quirk Björk included her in her pick of groundbreaking new artists in the Guardian this month.
“Someone said to me the other day: ‘Who’s the boy you’re talking about on the album?’” Klein shouts over herself singing. “It’s weird. It does sound like it’s about a boy, but I’m using it to talk about myself. As a girl, we doubt ourselves. There’s a song, ‘Pretty Black’… I sang this song to myself. I think you need to reassure yourself sometimes that you are OK.”
Jacob Samuel, “a nerdy Lancashire guy” and one of Klein’s best friends, helped her to produce the LP and his vocals make an appearance on “Hello”. But it’s hard to tell who’s who, with her tendency to pitch her own voice either helium-high or distortedly low. “Only in the past three months I’ve gotten more confident with singing,” she explains. “I started watching YouTube tutorials — not even tutorials — there’s one lady I really love called Kim Burrell, she’s a gospel singer but also a pastor so she preaches… Adele cites her as an inspiration.”
“Then this other girl, who I absolutely love… Deanna Dixon. She’s fucking amazing, she was in a reality show called Sunday Best. My aim in life is to get big enough so I can just message her and say, ‘Yo! Collab?’” Dixon reminds Klein of Brandy, her favourite artist, “because she doesn’t take herself that seriously. You can slay and still have fun!”
Klein is an antidote to a dry (*ahem* male-dominated) electronic scene. “I didn’t even realise until the other day that I was in the electronic field,” she starts cracking up. “Every time I gig, it’s just men! As soon as people add this [electronic] tag to their music, they start taking themselves seriously. Even in the ‘Marks Of Worship’ video, I was like: ‘Hello? Did anyone notice I dabbed? Is no-one gonna mention the dabbing?! I put dabbing into soundscape electronica!”
Originally an interlude that wasn’t even set to make the record, it took a friend of Klein’s to convince her to include “Marks Of Worship” — a five minute spoken word piece — on the record. “We were talking about the video and the themes of the songs are me trying to get out of secular ways and this pastor preaching to me,” she begins. “Halfway through the song, there’s a fight, representing all the shit in my life. We wanted to translate it into a video, but I said: ‘The only way we’re going to be able to do it is the subversion of me and family and friends just having a fucking party and being pure and elegant and happy.’ Contradicting with the song, it being quite hectic and direct.”
Spoken word poet James Massiah makes a cameo as a pastor in full regalia, baptising Klein in a bath. As if that sentiment wasn’t intense enough, it turns out Klein is terrified of water. “Parts of that video were just me taking myself out of my comfort zone,” she smiles. “I didn’t realise until recently the subversion of the song being really tense, and just a bunch of Nigerians having a great time made it really eery. There’s even a scene where we’re having a family portrait and everyone’s smiling but for way too long… I like that with my music as well, elements that you should hate, you like.”
You might think you like her music, but it might be Klein controlling your mind. Bucking against her religiously-inclined parents as a kid — spending a lot of time in Catholic and Pentecostal churches — she says she “kind of figured out how [religious music] works. I spent a few days researching it, like, what the fuck? How can you control someone’s mind through a few keys? I played around with that on ‘Marks Of Worship’, at certain points as a viewer or listener, you feel something – but it’s just chords! So weird. Juju! Piano Voodoo!”
I’m certain Klein is going to use her newfound powers for good, though. Her mission is to coax more girls into getting into electronic music production. “Where are the girls at?!” She exclaims, exasperated. “I’m screaming! I can’t deal in London. I’m always surrounded by men, all the time… I just want girls and ladies to know, making music is not that hard at all. I said to someone ages ago: ‘Listen, if we can go through our periods and shit like that, I’m sure we can learn how to make some mystical beats!’ Literally, like mate, there’s a lot we can do. 2016: more cool things, more inclusive stuff. I want to do more STUFF.”