It’s been a big year for music. From the feminist triumph that was Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the unfortunate passing of two of the biggest musical icons who ever lived—rest in peace, Prince and Bowie—to the release of Solange’s poignant “A Seat at the Table” and Frank Ocean’s quietly brilliant resurrection, 2016 was essentially one big, harmonious tune interspersed with various highs and lows. Most importantly, the music-scape was entirely reflective of the times, which are, to quote musician and recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, very much a-changin’. The common thread that connects this year’s dynamic musical feats? An impenetrable rawness and a pervading sense of self-expression, something to which budding New York-based singer-songwriter Julia Kwamya is no stranger. Through GERMANS, her one-woman musical project, the 31-year-old Baltimore native is steadily making her presence known within the musical sphere. Her unique sound—an ethereal mix of moody disco and synth-y sadcore—stems from the most vulnerable of places: heartbreak, which is the running theme behind two of her biggest tracks, “Wonderhow” and “Cruel,” both of which have garnered her a massive following on Soundcloud. (Her third track, “Dead Bird,” received critical praise from Billboard last April.) Conjuring the new wave movement of the ’80s with a sprinkle of dreamy tempo beats, Kwamya’s music is poetic and reflective of the human condition. On the heels of the news that she’ll be touring worldwide alongside Swedish dream-pop band The Radio Dept. come January (stops include La Maroquinerie in Paris, Berghain in Berlin, and Bowery Ballroom right here in the Big Apple) we sat down with the burgeoning songstress to talk her very first album, why fantasy in fashion still matters, and how “feeling bad” makes for such damn good music.
Hilary Shepherd: You’re releasing your first full-length album next month. Why is it the right time?
Julia Kwamya: I was producing an event for my friend at SXSW in 2013 and I got asked to do a show in Williamsburg. I was like, Oh, shit. I can’t say no. I didn’t have anything to my name. I just was like, Uh, okay, fine. So I quickly wrote a bunch of sketchy songs and then compiled a really sketchy band. I was just like, Alright, cool. This is something I say I want to do. Let me do it.
HS: You write what you call “pop breakup songs.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?
JK: It’s moody disco. And it makes me so happy! Since I’ve released these last three tracks, people from all over the world have really connected with me, whether they’re quoting my own lyrics at me or sending me videos of them singing the songs. I think this record that I’m writing and that I’ve been working on is more about self-awareness and self-reflection—not in a way to make you more upset about yourself, but to make you see that you can be more than what your perceptions of yourself are. Hopefully, that’s why the music resonates with people, because I really am just talking about things that have personally hurt my feelings or personally are affecting me, whether it’s depression or alcoholism or even just going through relationships where you’re like, Why am I dealing with the same kind of person every single time?
HS: Much of your inspiration comes from heartbreak and depression—these rather unpleasant experiences.
JK: Yeah, feeling good about feeling bad. It’s been so hard for me to even come to terms with the fact that I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to be this construct—whatever it is—this idea of myself. I don’t have to be that all the time. There are days when I will fall and falter and be a complete mess. The whole point is not to demoralize anybody, but to say, Hey, we all deal with this shit.
HS: How did you come up with the name GERMANS?
JK: Oh my God. [laughs] When I started this project a few years ago, I was in such denial. I didn’t want to use my name, and I didn’t really even want it to be tied to me in a certain way because I was talking about really personal things that were already sort of embarrassing for me to admit. So I thought if I have this innocuous name, hopefully it’ll be more about the music and not so much about who I am as a person. Anyway, I was just writing things down on a piece of paper and I saw the word “Germans.” I wrote it in all capital letters and I liked the look. It was bold, it was big, it was something that I aspired to be at the time, and it’s something I think I’m growing into at this point in my life. I was like, Let’s do it. Let’s have a Ghanaian-Ugandan woman talking about being called “Germans.”
HS: So, no relation to Germany, technically.
JK: No, just all irony—all fun and games, really. I find that band name origin stories are the most boring things. I really just liked the way it looked on paper. Graphically, it’s a great name.
HS: What’s your album going to be called?
JK: I’m still working on it. I have a bunch of different ideas. I’ve been obsessed lately with the idea of spirals. I was talking to my friend and producer, Miles [Anthony Benjamin] Robinson, and I was like, “Do you know the sound a spiral makes?” And he looked at me and was like, “What?” I was like, “I know it sounds crazy, but the sound that it makes: du du du du du. That’s what I want.” And he was like, “That should be the title of your record.” So, something in that vein.
HS: Are there any specific tracks you’re planning to do visuals for?
JK: It’s a grandiose idea, but I want the eight tracks to be a movie. Some sort of compilation.
HS: Like a Frank Ocean “Endless” situation?
JK: No. I haven’t really thought it through, but I don’t want it to be the obvious narrative. The most fun thing about GERMANS and this project is that I’m able to collaborate with my friends who are all artistic, and sometimes don’t have that outlet. We live in New York, we have to pay our rent, and we have to eat when we can. Our jobs probably consume most of our lives in a way that we don’t really want them to if you’re creative and you’re not making money as a creative [person]. I think the most exciting part for me right now is just getting my network of friends [together] and saying, Hey, guys, let’s make something cool.
HS: Talk to me about the tour you’re embarking on next month.
JK: It’s with The Radio Dept.—they’re a Swedish band and they just released a record. Really, really good. And they’ve been in the game for over 12 years. I guess through the grapevine they heard my music and [they] asked me [to tour with them] a few weeks ago. Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brighton, London—everywhere that as a new band you could hope and imagine to go.
HS: You must be beside yourself.
JK: Beaming. Beaming. It’s kind of like a frantic beaming because I’m like, Oh, Shit, I have a lot of work to do, but it’s so exciting and so gratifying because I have worked really hard, but sometimes I’m not able to give myself the credit for the work that I’ve really done, and to get that affirmation and that love from people, I’m like, oh, cool.
HS: Let’s talk about fashion. Are you already thinking of what you’re going to wear on tour? What’s your dream performance ensemble?
JK: This is the thing: I love collaborating with my friends, and I have quite a few friends that work in fashion. Ultimately, what I want is to be comfortable on stage— comfortable enough to move around, because that’s huge for me, especially if it’s just going to be, like, me and one other guy. But my real dream, if I have to talk about dreams here, is for Spring 2007, Hussein Chalayan came up with this [collection] with the mechanical dresses, and they all transformed into something different, and the lights…I need to find this man and I need those dresses. I want the lights and the music and the clothes to all go together. I’m not a designer, I don’t know how to do that, but if I can figure out how to be like, Hey, Hussein…. Give me a few months to scramble and see what I can come up with. [laughs]
HS: Who are some of your favorite designers?
JK: It’s all changed. I think it’s so cool that Rei Kawakubo is going to be at the Met. I’m like, a living designer doing the Met? It’s fucking phenomenal. I think she definitely draws outside the box. And I think, in the last ten years that I’ve lived here, fashion’s changed for me a little bit. I never thought I would see a sweatshirt on the runway and it not be an exploratory thing—not that that’s a problem, I just grew up looking at vintage Balenciaga from the ‘60s and the ‘50s, kind of idealizing and romanticizing how people would get dressed to do things. That’s what I miss about fashion. Maybe I’m just getting older, but that level of fantasy that I used to have with it, I don’t have it anymore. It’s cool for me to see the Hood by Air kids and all of that stuff, but I just don’t think it’s what I would really be doing. I’m glad that there’s a space and that they are doing that, but I’m also…I’m a little bit more lavish. I like big, fluffy, frilly things. We’re all pretty casual these days, and I miss [the extravagance]. I love the show. I love fashion. I love the presentation of one’s self. You’re actually speaking about yourself as an individual. I try to do that as much as I can. Life gets in the way sometimes, but when I can, I try to wear the things that really speak to me. My grandmother was a seamstress in Ghana, so I have a lot of [pieces] from her outfits that were made with specific Ghanaian cloth. And colors—colors, colors, colors. And knowing how to pair my colors. Red is my favorite color.
HS: Speaking of red, what kind of lipstick are you wearing?
HS: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
JK: This is where the list gets super long, but I’m trying to consolidate. Obviously it’s so sad he passed, but David Bowie’s always been one. Tears for Fears—and specifically the album “The Hurting”—like, I could live, breathe, and die by that record. It’s so good, especially with all the synth sounds. When we were living in Sweden, my dad listened to a lot of Tears for Fears, a lot of David Bowie, a lot of things I probably listen to now. I love a British band called Metronomy. They’re weird and they’re quirky and they’ve gotten a little bit more commercial as time has gone on, but also a little more crafted as musicians. It’s cool to see them from the beginning to now. I love a lot of cheesy ’70s music—I’m not going to lie. I like all the smooth-jazzy synth-y sounds.
HS: I know you’re not done with the album yet, but can you tell us what some of the new tracks are about?
JK: A friend of mine had just gotten back from Italy—he was in Venice—and I saw one his pictures on Instagram, and it was basically this wall that said, “Katie loves Henry,” and “Alice and Kate”…everything was in hearts. And then, on the left-hand side of the wall, I saw something written: “Anne and cats forever.” I died! I was like, this is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. What person went to this wall and wrote themselves and cats forever? So I wrote a song imagining what this person was like. It’s this really fun disco song—it’s kind of jarring in a way because if you listen to the lyrics, you’re like, oh wow. She seems really depressed. But the music is so fun and dance-y. Anytime I play it at shows, it’s always the very last song.
HS: How do you hope people feel after listening to your music?
JK: Oh, that’s huge. I hope everyone feels that I’m being as honest with them as I can. Hopefully, the music is relaying how candid I want to be with people. Vulnerability is really hard for me, but I’m getting better at it, and I think as a result, the songs are getting better. They say more with less. And it’s fun. With “Cruel,” people will literally forward themselves singing that song to me. I’m like, Who are all these people? It’s touched a nerve. I’m saying the same lines twice—first verse and second verse. It’s literally the same thing. But I needed that wave. I needed that crescendo. I needed that emotion. And I didn’t need too many words to do it. Not with that one. So hopefully they get some sort of cathartic experience, but isn’t that every artist’s dream?