Coming off of a major collaboration with Fleet Foxes on their new album 'Shore', 'The Cultural Reset' is pleased to feature UWADE as the third installment of our 'Artist Interview' series. A Nigerian-born folk-singer making waves in the industry, Nick Lee and Shannon Ervin sat down with UWADE to discuss her opinions about the music industry, her newfound popularity, and the next steps in her career path.
Nick Lee: Well hello and welcome to 'The Cultural Reset' and to another entry in our Artists Interview series. I’m Nick Lee, Creator and Editor-Chief, and I'm here with TCR’s Assistant Director, Shannon Ervin!
Shannon Ervin: Hello!
N: And it is a pleasure sitting down with you. You are one of the best new artists I have heard, UWADE. Really your work is spectacular.
UWADE: Good evening! Thank you for having me!
N: Well, let's get into it! We wanted to start off by asking you the same question we ask all our artists: Where and when did your creative journey begin?
U: Hmm, there are several timelines. I think generally my creative journey began around fourth/fifth grade with, you know, choirs—but then ultimately my big break in, you know, elementary school was the fifth-grade talent show. Where I sang natural woman by miss Aretha Franklin, backed by my two best friends at the time: Zoe and Cameron. They were dancing along with me. I was wearing my beautiful red dress and it was a whole choreographed routine. And that was kind of when I realized that I could sing—at least in the capacity that I could in fifth grade. And other people realized that too. So I sort of started, to be known for singing things. But then when I started kind of writing? Fast forward to college, I started writing music around my sophomore year of college. Cause I was inspired by one of my friends who had been writing her own music. I've always been a fan of music obviously, but I never knew how musicians did it—like how they just like wrote things that they liked and that they released to the world until I saw my friend do it. And she was making all of these beautiful songs. And I was like, “Oh my gosh; how do you do this Heidi?” And she would give me lessons and she would be like: “just write. Just write something and just play around and experiment”. And I had my little fun garage band recordings. So yeah, it really started off like fall of my sophomore year that I started writing seriously with the intent of other people hearing what I'd written.
N: Incredible. Having known you personally for such a long time, I remember you singing all the time and you could sing like nobody's business. I don't know if you remember this, but at that camp that you and I went to? Everybody was talking about you—about “the girl” that could sing! I love the fact that you took this hobby that you had and turned it into something purposeful—something that focuses on artistry. What, would you say, is your artistry about and what do you feel like is your mission with your art?
U: I would say that my artistry, as I'm starting out now and starting to record my songs, is about occupying spaces and genres that feel comfortable to me that black people usually aren't represented in. And that's a very, very big part of why I like to write what I do and listen to what I do. Like I don't listen to, you know, one of my favorite bands is the strokes. And people are always like “Oh my gosh, she listens to white music”—whatever, whatever. And I'm like “okay”. People saying that just makes me not care and I just want to listen to them more. Cause I really do love Julian’s [their lead singer’s] songwriting and the variety of their music. But more than anything, since I was sort of so influenced by his songwriting—and the way that I write in the genres that I like to write in are, supposedly, historically white—I’m very adamant on pushing back against that and saying “no”. As much as people draw historical boundaries—like this is black music and this is white music—I don't think that that distinction should exist anymore—apart from acknowledging and appreciating the contributions of historically underrepresented and historically marginalized groups. Apart from that, I don't think that there's a need to push black artists out of these spaces. so that's part of my focus right now is just making sure that there's a space for black people in indie and alternative and rock. And while I know there always has been, I would like to contribute to that. Oh my gosh, that was a long answer! Sorry, you're asking some good questions.
N: You’re giving great answers! Honestly, I completely agree with that. Especially since a lot of black music and black artists have created the genres that we know as they are today. Country came from Blues, for example, it came from the innovation of black artists. So I think that personally, when it comes to black artists going back in and making space for themselves in those genres, I think that that's just really cool.
S: I think that's the magic of music, though, is that you can't keep anybody out and everybody's welcome. You can fill them. There's nothing you can do. So that's amazing. So how does your music and activism cross over and like what emotion for you kind of fuels that within you?
U: That's a good question. I think a lot of what I just said about making sure that people are represented in these spaces is kind of where my music and my activism intersects. Because I feel like in my ordinary waking life as well, I sort of occupied a lot of spaces that are deemed for white people. Like I studied Classics—which is the history and literature of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. And again, when I was like pursuing that, people were like “this is such a white discipline. Why are you doing this? What interests you about these things?”. And so I've just always been adamant about the fact that we are allowed to be here. And it's not okay to suggest that because something has been supposedly occupied by white people for so long that somehow I shouldn't partake.
That just baffles me. That is where I sort of pushed back against the idea that this is not okay. And not only are black people out in these spaces, but they've also been occupying these spaces for so much longer than anyone thinks, but out of the public eye. So I think that's part of where I find the intersection. And in terms of what emotion fuels that intersection, I'd say its like a sense of rebellion is, that drives that—it’s kind of a reaction against what are viewed as societal norms. So that might be something that pushes me. And honestly, now that I think about it, this is a really good conversation. Cause I'm also realizing that ‘s actually something that like drives a lot of what I'm doing. And I didn't even realize, so thank you for that. Thank you for asking that question.
S: All it takes is talking about it with somebody else and realizing about yourself. But yeah, I definitely get that. And also we have to remember that a lot of history was written in one perspective. So even though we might say “okay, this is a white person's space, or this is a white person's activity”. According to who? You know, like there’s no barrier saying you can't do that.
U: Also the entire conversation about what exactly “whiteness” is! There’s this entire project of constructing this idea of whiteness as one entity and it’s so recent, because when you think about the history of Europe—like who in their right mind—when in the history of any European country has someone from one country been like “we are the same”! It's only when it comes to interacting with the “cultural other”, like the ‘Global South’ and ‘Africa and South America’ that, that whole identity was constructed, but it really hasn't existed. So I just don't see the point of using that as some sort of weapon against people of color and other groups entering.
N: No, absolutely not. I mean, Europe was a mess because you had so many people with different identities. We can't just lump everybody into the same category. So I think that, lumping black people in music, for example, in the same category is just as ridiculous. It just doesn't make any sense. We're all human and capable of different things. We're all unique individuals. So we're capable of different sounds. Moving on to sounds specifically…I want to talk about your first single release ‘Nostalgia’. I remember the day it came out and I was listening to it so much. I wanted to know what your process was for the song, what it was about for you and what you wanted other people to take from it?
U: I feel like when I first started writing songs, as much as it was hard to get past not liking what I was coming up with, it was also a lot easier. Cause I hadn't experimented with so many different chord progressions and you know, possible structures. So with that song, I was just playing around in my guitar. I had just managed to teach myself bar chords because I learned how to play guitar in middle school. And as soon as I got to bar chords, I was like “I'm not doing this anymore”. So I just didn't learn them. So I was just playing around in my guitar. I was like “oh, that sounds like a good little progression. And my friend, Heidi Chu, said, when I’m writing songs just as a practice, I should play some chords and just sing whatever comes out.
And she was explaining the song as if it were already a song, as if it had already been created. So I did that one day and at the time it was around February/March. I had just been accepted to study abroad for a year at Oxford. And I had been working my entire, sophomore year to get my grades up and make sure I'd be able to go. And as soon as I was presented with the fact I’d have to actually leave for a year I froze.
The idea of leaving behind the school and the friends and everything that I knew and was comfortable with to go to England. I know it's not that different, but also there's a different set of prejudices that come with being American and this is an entirely different space. So I was very sad and I was very concerned that I honestly considered like for a couple days, like maybe I just shouldn't go at all. So I was, I was reeling. I was going through it. I was like “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” I'm saying goodbye. Like this is it. This is it. So I just sat with myself. I was like, how are you feeling right now? And I was feeling a lot. So really the lyrics as they are now is pretty close to how they came.
I didn't do much to the song. And I think because it's such a brave sort of like emotional expression of a very particular state of mind that a lot of people go through, I think that might be why it resonates so profoundly because we all have these moments that we're standing on the precipice, you either stay where you are or you jump into the water. And then once you're in the water, everything changes and you're not going to be the same person. So it was that kind of experience. And it just kind of flowed naturally from a very unsettled heart at the time. But yeah, it ended up being great. I loved my year abroad and I was so sad to leave, but it was great
S: If that doesn't sound like my early twenties, I don't know what does. But also the production value of the song! I have it like on my liked songs, and when I'm going through and listening to songs and it comes up, it doesn't sound like it's your first song on there. It just, sounds like you are well-seasoned, you know?
U: That's so funny. It sounds so amateurish to me, but it was done at a really good studio in in Brooklyn. Just kind of, I really had no intention of recording or releasing anything at the time. Because I had just made my little music Instagram and my friends were following me. I had my little hundred followers and it was just me and my girls. I would post something and be like, yes, you sound so good. And I'm like, thank you guys. And then I posted a cover of a Vulfpeck song and they like re-posted it and all of these people started following me and they're like “when's your music coming? Any new music, any plans?” I was like. Oh, okay. I want to do something. So it was a very impromptu four hours in the studio, like two session musicians. I was like playing the guitar that you hear. And I was trying my best to sound as professional as I could. But yeah, I'm glad that you liked the production value.
N: Yeah. I think that makes a huge difference. I'm glad you did it in a studio! Could you talk really quickly though, about certain lyrics in the song? So I remember off the top of my head “it's time to say goodbye to what you thought you'd be / maybe one day you'll remember this feeling.” What do you mean when you say “maybe one day you remember this feeling”?
U: There’s this one line in the Iliad that's very often quoted. It's when like the Trojans are sailing and then there's the shipwreck and they're all flailing around in the water and there's a storm and they're all lost and whatever. And Aeneas is trying to get their hopes up and get their spirits back up. And so he says “maybe one day it will help you to remember even these things” like “it will like delight you to remember these things” And I'm not sure that I was thinking about it at the time—maybe I was subconsciously because it's kind of mirrors the lyrics. But yeah, just the idea that even painful, even difficult, even confusing, even anxiety-inducing times of life, as much as it's difficult in the time and also difficult for weeks, days, months, and years afterwards. There's something kind of sweet about remembering that you once felt this way and that this was a time in your life and you're no longer there anymore. There’s something nice about memories and you know, the fact that I can look back on that now and be like, wow, I was really feeling something that maybe I'll feel it again in the future. And I'll be able to kind of identify those situations and help myself out. You can recall in your future to help yourself get through stuff.
S: So your most recent feature on Fleet Foxes new album, Shore---that must've been fun! Can you tell us about how that came to be?
U: Sure. I've been doing these covers and I did a cover of Mykonos, which is by Fleet Foxes. And one of my friends sent it to Robin Pecknold and Robin commented and then he DM’d me, saying they were recording this album and if I’d like to sing some stuff on it? And I said, absolutely. But we were trying to figure out when and where we'd be able to meet. And I was going to be abroad and I wasn't going to be in New York anymore. And I think he thought I was in New York, but it just so happened that he was recording in Paris at a certain time that I was in England.
So I took a train to Paris and recorded for a day and it was a lovely time and I returned back to Oxford. And that's how it came to be.
S: Nice. Have you talked to them since?
U: I have! I mean, we didn't really talk for like the couple of months that he was working on the album. It was more like, we kept in touch on the front end of when I recorded last year. And then once everything was kind of coming together, he started sending me rough mixes of the songs. And I had the album several weeks before everyone else which was wonderful.
I’m sure other people had it way before me, but I was so happy he trusted me that much. And since then, we've just kind of been keeping in touch. Like I've been congratulating him cause it is a great album.
N: What was the recording process for that album? Did you go into a full on studio and how long did it take for you to sing your part?
U: So I went to, yes. And I was there for about six or seven hours, I think. And I did a lot of singing because I'm singing like one full song on it. And so I had to do a couple takes of that just to get different emotional states conveyed through my performance. And then I sing some background stuff on a couple of other songs. And then actually some of the stuff that's on the album now was actually recorded this past summer. Cause he asked me to adjust some things, but yeah, it was exciting. I wasn't, for some reason I wasn't really nervous. I was excited. I was very anxious, but I like recording in studios. So yeah I was looking forward to it and he's so kind and so gentle.
And I felt like he was the one that was coming to sing for my album. He was just so accommodating and so I loved it. I loved it.
S: Did you write your, your part prior to showing up to recording?
U: No, no, no. I just sang his written song. He had a demo of it from singing on it, but he didn't like the way he sounded, so he wanted me to sing it. So it was all his writing and everything. So I just used my instrument.
N: Which is Incredible by the way. How does it feel walking into the studio to record with someone that legendary? Fleet Foxes are not a small act! They’re huge and influential in their genre. So how did you process that? How did you feel?
U: I was shocked. I was excited. I didn't want to think about it too much. The problem is I was listening to a bunch of Fleet Foxes on the way to the studio. So it was like in big like fan girl mode. I had to just silence her. I had to, and I had to be professional and I had to keep my excitement from getting in the way of what I was like. And it's funny because at the end of the day, when I was like walking to my hotel, he was like, Oh yeah, thank you so much. And I said “Can I just be a fan girl for like two seconds to get a picture?”
S: I love that. Don't get that scatterbrained fan girl I've had that happen and that’s embarrassing!
U: No, no, no. He's, he's amazing. But I kept remembering “I'm here for a reason. I'm here to do a job and I can't be that way.”
N: And a job you did! I've had friends just randomly send me the first song on the album. And they say “It sounds so soothing. It's the best song on the album. It sounds so refreshing.” People really love it as a debut/intro to the album.
S: It really matched their vibe you know, it's a gradual and smooth transition. So I liked that. Has your life changed at all since then?
U: I mean we're on basically and locked down in quarantine. So not much. Since then things have happened. I've gotten a lot of exposure because of it which is exciting. I'm trying to think of anything else, but it's funny because I turned off Instagram. I put my phone away and then I sit in my house and it feels like things are pretty much the same, but then I opened that world and I look at the articles, like Pitchfork’s! It feels completely different on the internet. And as if that space is not real life sometimes!
S: Quarantine has kind of separated us from our own reality to the reality going around in the rest of the world, just because we are so isolated. But, I have this feeling that after COVID, we're all going to have like a sensory overload of actually being able to like interact and have socialization outside of social media.
N: I guess when we get out of quarantine, you know, I guess we’ll have to adjust to a lot of things. Life decisions in particular. Uwade, having known you, you seem to be so multi-faceted and have so many genuine interests—is music and being an artist what you want to dedicate your life to?
U: I think that I've thought long and hard about this and I've had many, many courses about this very question and I've come to the conclusion that I want to dedicate my life to music, but I also don't want to lose my passion for learning and for my academic side, because that's something that I've grown to love a lot in the past few years. And it informs a lot of what I write about and a lot of my capacity to write. And I know it doesn't for everyone, but for me the relationship I have to what I read and what I study and what I write is very strong. So I think…I hope that one can have it all.
So I do want to dedicate my life to music because I love it and I love performing and I love writing and, and discovering treasures that have always sort of been there in my own songs and just kind of that process of feeling like I've written something that is both familiar and new and then performing that and sharing with other artists and learning from other artists. That's just the entire scope of what I love about music. I feel like I can't really part with it; my life would be very sad without performance and music.
But then also I feel like I need something stimulating this brain. Otherwise if I'm just left to my own devices, I very easily could spend years just scrolling through Twitter, which is not good. So I feel like the structure that academia has given me in terms of forcing me to engage with these things that I would sort of forget to engage with or be too lazy to engage with is also super crucial. So yeah, I do want to dedicate my life to that.
S: I think that's very wise of you because having knowledge makes your music even more powerful and relevant, and you can portray your message even better having that wisdom. And like you said, I'm sure that any of us, if we were just stopped, we could spend the rest of our existence, just scrolling through things.
U: Yeah. I'm very afraid of that. I'm not disciplined enough to not do that. I don't get how my professors do it. Cause I get that they're working and they, this is like their job. But like to some extent you have to kind of have to do this on your own and you have to be able to pursue this knowledge without anyone putting these pressures on you to do so. I admire that. And like, my Dad also was like a big, big time, big time scholar. He wrote like seven books and he was like that. I just had that drive of him always telling me to read every book I get my hands on. Sometimes I know I really need to do better, but I know that I don't want to part with that at all. So, yeah.
S: Right. That's beautiful. Given your experience, is there anything about the industry you would want to change as you progress in this career? You know we're lucky that we're catching you pretty much right at you're budding point—is there anything that so far you've had an experience with that you’d want to change?
U: Honestly, I don't know too many industry things just yet. I'm just starting to learn about what a manager does and who you need on your team. I didn't know any of these things before. Everything I've done has been sort of organic and just on my own terms. But something I would change the things that drive me that we already talked about,
S: Like injustices and insufficiencies.
N: Yes. I’d like to have a hand in deconstructing those. But besides that…I think I know that music is a business and I'm aware of that aspect of it, but I think the over commercialization scares me a lot. The idea that this medium that is so powerful and has such a profound, psychological effect on people can be manipulated for profit is really annoying. And it's sad because it just has such strong effects. If you think about the hierarchy of some of the most important things to people, it's almost always like somewhere up there, if it's not “Oh, I'm a musician and I'm dedicated to this!” It's like “Oh, this song changed my life!” or “Oh, this artist is my favorite!”. It's so, so critical. So I just I'm concerned when, there's a kind of a disregard for that, that profound, personal nature of music. And it's more about “this is what sells, I'm gonna make an artist that is exactly like this artist so that I can make money off the people who like want to hear this artist more.” Yeah that side of it, I don't love. And I think I'm always kind of hesitant to get myself too deeply involved, just because I'm not comfortable with it, but I hopefully won't have to deal with the ugly side of everything. I know I might have to, but that's kind of what I’m afraid of.
N: You mentioned about how the industry kind of creates carbon copies of another successful artists to try to sell them and pitch them as the same thing. You're very different. You mentioned this before. The fact that you're a black female in a sort of folksy genre. People don't see that often and you are different in that capacity. So I think that, I think that you're going to really be able to hold on to who you are. And because you know who you are, where you come from, and what you're about, you know, what drives you.
N: Along those lines, though, what advice would you give to young creatives that are looking to pursue a career in this industry? You know, people who are just starting out, they're thinking: “wow, what am I going to do?” I want to be featured on a Fleet Foxes album too! How did that happen?”. To the people, not just who are singers, but also songwriters, producers, musicians, what would you say?
S: I think so much of my success thus far has been entirely out of my control and out of my hands. I don't say that to say “you have no idea what's going to happen to you”, but just personally, I have been very, very blessed. I've been very, very lucky to have been given the opportunities and the platforms that I have had. But with that being said, I think a lot of it comes with just pursuing what you love to do in earnest and making sure that you're aware of who you are and not just what you want to achieve.
Like, why are you writing songs? Like, what is it all about? Make sure that, that stays at the center of your love for what you do. It needs to remain at the center of everything. I think it's very important to make sure that you don't lose what draws you to what you love to do to begin with, because I feel like that is what will carry you through all the ups and downs and the negatives and the positives of the industry and the difficulty. And, you know, I'm coming from a very lucky and very privileged position to even be saying “just keep trying and keep doing it!”. But I really do think that just being earnest about what you're doing is great and not changing what you do or molding yourself in a large way to suit the interests of other people.
S: Wow! I think that it would be interesting to check back in with you in a year from now! Do you have any upcoming projects?
U: I do. I've been telling people this, I don't know if I should be saying this but, I did record an album at some point. It's something is in the works. And it's like, not like anything is ready yet, but things are, you know, it all takes a very long time, so I'm not promising like next month or the month after, or even the month after. Cause I really don't know, but things are in the works and I'm not just sitting here, I didn't want to just post covers forever, you know?
S: Let us know because we'll be putting that on our page and giving it a good listen…five or 10 listens!
N: Absolutely! I’d love that.
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