With radical, poetic lyrics, godly musical knowledge, social awareness and a wealth of experience, Leila Adu is definitely one to pay attention to. She is in no way a novice, having been actively producing, composing and performing music since the early 2000s. She was also featured as MTV’s Iggy Artist of the week, and has toured and performed in Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Leila was in Ghana last August, researching international trends in electronic music and hip-hop as part of her current exploits as a Doctoral Fellow at Princeton University. We had the chance to have a conversation recently and she shared many insights on music, education and some collaborative projects, which are yet to be released.
Circumspecte: Which piece of art, other than music, best describes you and why?
—Leila Adu: I am not sure which describes me best but something that I seek is in Rothko’s paintings, or Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.” Simplicity, spaciousness, depth. I am not sure if that describes me, is the antidote to my usual state of mind, or a bit of both!
Circumspecte: When did your attachment to music begin and how did it grow?
—Leila Adu: I played piano growing up, not very seriously. I think when I began to write music as a teenager, was when it moved more deeply for me.
Circumspecte: Do you believe that music has power in the world and how have you been harnessing or utilizing that supposed power?
—Leila Adu: I believe that music has the power of community and beauty. This is illustrated in the prison teaching that I am doing right now, for Musicambia program, run in upstate New York. You can really see even the beginner’s stages of learning and playing music, how positive it can be as an experience and how it can build friendships between the players.
Circumspecte: Some artists tend to place some things such as money or fame before their art. Do you think that is possible and what is your reaction to it?
—Leila Adu: I wonder if that is true. Of course it must be but in my experience, even with musicians whose art I do not like, when you speak to them, they often really believe in it (at least in the beginning.) I am not one to be down on other musicians, now that I know what hard work it is to make music out in the world right now.
Circumspecte: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your journey as an artist?
— Leila Adu: My own expectations of myself. After a while, you realize that no one else really cares.
Circumspecte: Is your art only limited to music? There seems to be a bit of poetics in the lyrics of your songs Negative Space (below) and Hellfire.
—Leila Adu: Ha, well, I write poems but I do not show them to people. Either I make them into a song, or they stay in the book. Most songs, I come up with the lyrics and the music at the same time though.
Circumspecte: Is there any demographic you try to appeal to? Your music does not seem to target mainstream radio. Do you agree?
— Leila Adu: No, I do not think about demographics. I go with what moves me and what sounds new. I am not trying to avoid the mainstream; my taste is just a bit weird. Having said that, a lot of mainstream music is pretty appalling right now (insert any club power ballad name here).
Circumspecte: We heard about your performance in Ghana last year during the Chale Wote street arts festival. How was the experience and reception?
— Leila Adu: It was great to be part of Chale Wote – an amazing festival – and meet some of the artists around that time. As for my audience, it was kind of an outdoor, walking past me in the middle of the day kind of vibe. Interesting, as I have not done that before. Some people were transfixed, some moved on.
Circumspecte: Your website speaks of your African roots. Do you feel the need to bring some “africanness” into your music? Tell us about the song titled “Bokoo” on your Cherry Pie Album.
—Leila Adu: I am such a mixture of things, having been born in London and growing up in New Zealand, without my Ghanaian father. I am influenced by the beauty of African music and when I wrote “Bokoo,” the nice feeling of the meaning of that Asante Twi word. I guess the translation of ‘soft’ does not go to English so well, as it is a positive response to, “how are you?” It is nice to think about words that just do not translate into English.
My latest string quartet, “if the stars align…” [below] also has a Ghanaian Highlife style section. I suppose as musicians we are magpies, attracted to the shininess of beautiful things. It feels less dangerous waters, of cultural appropriation, if you have roots in a place. I also use Balinese influence as I studied gamelan for such a long time, I feel ok using that music as an influence. Using music from different cultures must be a self-critical process though.
Circumspecte: How important do you think musical education is, specifically to the artist? Do you think the audience cares much about all the scales and chords in the music or just the finished product?
—Leila Adu: That is a tricky one. I personally care about the scales and the chords but not from an analytical perspective, it is more an ears thing. I like music that moves in interesting ways.
Circumspecte: Can you share with us what the focus of your research in Ghana was and any insights you gained?
—Leila Adu: I learnt a lot about the process the producers that I was lucky enough to interview there, including DJ Breezy and Appietus, as well as more informally, Bonny Djibril and Diverse Najia. I also could see where they feel they sit in the world right now. Working informally with producers around the world and recording with them, musical ways of learning and issues are similar. I suppose some of the difficulties are specific to Ghana, like buying instruments imported from overseas with local Cedi, or creating music in “lights off” (power outage).
Circumspecte: Your lyrics are philosophical and radical, almost rebellious; Che Guevara with a keyboard. When writing, is it fueled by the need to address some injustice you notice in society or correct some misconceptions? Alternatively, do you feel the need to preach through the platform music gives you?
—Leila Adu: I suppose it would be nice to think one could ceate a greater feeling of connectedness. That is what I am going for. In reality, the music that has political content is not so conscious… I mean, it is a reaction to what is going on in the world, which is usually in one part beautiful and in the other part, horrific. I think it would be crazy to miss out on the reality of what is happening and just sing about interpersonal love, though that is also a theme that seems unavoidable for me too.
Circumspecte: Considering the knowledge you have garnered in music over the years, aside Princeton University, is there any way you feel you can share your music or the hearts you inspire is enough?
—Leila Adu: Well, for now I teach at prison. I would also like to teach music to dedicated music students. Right now, I am not sure how that will look. Making music reminds you to be in the moment, I wish more people would play music as an activity of joy, in itself. Sometimes, as musicians, we forget this ourselves!
Circumspecte: What are your plans for the future?
—Leila Adu: Being a musician, my plans are both filled with set dates far ahead and factors that are unstable. This year I have some exciting performances: with Useful Chamber, singing some large chamber ensemble pieces that we recorded last year. Also, with Orchestra Wellington, I will sing a piece I wrote for them as there Emerging-Composer-In-Residence. I am also going to Sri Lanka for the first time, to play in the Music Matters Festival. I hope to keep teaching in the future…, perform, and compose more too! Right now I am in several bands and have my own music projects, so I would like to continue being as musically useful as possible.
—Leila Adu: I actually collaborate with artists quite a lot. It’s just that some of them take a long time to release. Look out for songs over the next year with Riki Gooch (NZ), MDF (Berlin), Stefan Scott Nelson and Micah Gaugh (US)… In Ghana, I did an alternative chorus vocal for Breezy and a couple of tunes with Kwame Write. I also have a track to put some vox on by Ghana based Nigerian producer, Diverse Naija. I am doing the recording and I am totally open to doing vocals with people. All that to say, these things take time!
Circumspecte: Has music brought you the fulfillment we all seek out of life?
—Leila Adu: That is a big question. To me fulfillment has to do with living in the moment, which is something that is easy to speak about and sometimes difficult to do. I think that playing music, whether composing at the piano, producing music in a computer, playing on stage or improvising with friends – is a way of being completely in the present moment. Rather than thinking of ‘fulfillment’ as a goal, we can think of it in the present moment and think: “yes, I am fulfilled in the moment and what is more, I am playing beautiful music!” If we think about ‘fulfillment,’ as a set of goals and attainments, then I think that even the most successful people may always feel that yearning for something, a sense of lack, needing more.
“So I think we are all lucky that we can bring creativity into our lives and be fulfilled in the moment, whether that is music, cooking a meal, even just taking a walk and seeing what is really there.”
Interview conducted and written by Hakeem Adam, a creative, blogger and Sub-Editor and Administrative Assistant at Circumspecte.
Photo Credit: Leon Dale, Dania Gennai, Alister Parker, Melissa Cowan Photography