The Cambridge singer-songwriter brings retro futuristic-soul to new heights.
For many new artists, it’s common for there to be a break-in period. An awkward teenager phase. You know, where they’re fine-tuning their sound, finessing their image, or just getting settled into the rhythm of it.
But for Cambridge singer-songwriter Kyan, his hazy self-assured sound and dreamy accompanying visuals come in a powerful ready-made R&B-meets-soul package – a result of producing his own music since his pre-teens.
And whether he’s playing a white piano on a deserted beach, traversing California’s Death Valley, or – for the mesmerising visuals for his latest release, “Like Summer – floating through the misty ancient canals of Mexico City, you better believe that everything has been carefully orchestrated.
We chat to the Brit singer on his early influences, collaborating with Nile Rogers and what’s next…
How did you start out making music?
I taught myself to play piano from about eleven years old, and then got a Yamaha DJX2 keyboard for my fourteenth Christmas, and became obsessed with it. It allowed me to layer sounds and create my own little demos which spawned my interest in production. I dabbled with rap as a kid, but that quickly changed to singing as I found it the best way to express myself. I spent every waking moment writing songs and singing – it must’ve driven my mum mad.
Who did you grow up listening to?
I was really into hip hop when I was kid: Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Arrested Development, early Kanye. Due to the heavy sampling, those hip hop records were kind of a gateway into the Stevie, Roberta Flack, Ray Charles and the Motown that I grew to love. And alongside that I fell in love with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and The Beatles.
What inspires your songwriting?
Music for me, at it’s core, is cathartic. Truth inspires my songwriting. It’s that search for the words and the sonic landscape that sums up exactly how you feel and how other people feel but can’t articulate themselves. When I listen to a great song by another artist, that’s how I feel. Like they’ve put words or a soundtrack to something that I always felt but didn’t know how to say.
“Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song” – That’s how I want people to feel when they listen to my music, and that thought inspires me.
Your music’s definitely a hybrid of different things – how would you describe it?
Retro-futuristic-soul, honest, explorative.
The visuals for your new video ‘Like Summer’ are absolutely incredible – can you tell us the story behind it?
It has been a two year journey through depression, self-doubt and the lack of identity after a traumatic experience. The video observes my rite of passage back to self-acceptance, through accepting my fragility and embracing my differences.
What do the other people symbolise in the video?
The characters on the river banks represent people before this self acceptance – those who shy away from their problems and choose to bury their head in the sand. They represent society as a whole that shuns mental illness, they represent conformism and the destruction or fear of anything other, they represent the societal pressure of gender roles, of men needing to be strong men and the affect that can have on a person. They ignore me and even cover their eyes as I float down the river collecting flowers, adorned in a flower crown, until a kid I pass notices me.
He’s the only one to open his eyes and dare look at me as I pass, and he breaks the spell the others have on him as soon as he does so.
How do you go about choosing the incredible locations of your music videos?
Any pain we feel always feels so personal, as if we are the only person who’s ever felt that way, therefore [for “Like Summer”] I wanted to choose a location that was beautifully unfamiliar to create a surreal world that would honour the specificity and individuality of my experience. I believe art should be transportive, in that it removes you from whatever you’re doing and plunges you into a totally different emotion, feeling or headspace.
How was it working with Nile Rogers?
It’s been amazing working with someone who’s sold 500 million records and still manages to have that burning passion to be creative. He does what a lot of the artists I admire do, he injects real musicality into something that still feels accessible. That’s what I loved about Stevie or The Beatles, that’s real music to me. I’ve mostly been playing him songs from the upcoming album, and he’s really excited about what I’ve created, so that’s been inspiring.
Who else would you love to collaborate with?
James Blake, Eric Whitacre (incredible classical composer), Donald Glover (would love to direct a video or a series with him), Quincy Jones, Tyler the Creator.
What’s next for you?
I’m so excited to release the rest of the music and video from this project. It’s been such a labour of love. Aside from that, playing live is where my heart is so I’m looking forward to playing a lot more shows. Also, unlike my current project that I wrote and produced, I’m collaborating with a lot of incredible musicians, artists and producers on another one. Watch this space.