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One of the most enjoyable mornings in FACT HQ was last year was when we discovered The Very Best. A collaboration between London clubbing institutions Radioclit and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, they put out a free mixtape that featured Esau singing over the ‘Clit’s edits of Vampire Weekend, MIA, the True Romance theme and more.

A 7” on environmentally-focused New York label Green Owl followed, along with a series of live dates and leaked collaborations with MIA and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. And now there’s an album. Due to be released on Green Owl (Moshi Moshi in the UK), it features Esau applying his sunshine vocals to original Radioclit material, with session musicans that include his brother from Malawi.

Let’s face it, these three are the good guys, and even if their LP was rubbish (it’s not), you’d still say it’s great like it’s your kid’s potato painting. Let’s see how they’re doing.

So tell us about how you met. Like properly. ‘Cause I’ve heard a few different stories…

Johan: “[laughs] Which ones?”

Well it revolves around the second hand furniture shop, obviously. But someone told me Esau was fixing your bike, someone told me you were buying your girlfriend a bike…

J: “What happened was that I was living in Clapton, and there was this one road, Glenhouse Road, it goes from my house to Etienne’s house, basically. There was a little street off that road where Esau had his junk shop, selling everything from er, second hand furniture, to just junk basically. And Etienne used to go in there quite a lot, checking it out, seeing if he could find something cool, basically. And one day he went in to buy a bike for his girlfriend, and he’d just moved, so he invited Esau to his flat warming party. That’s where I first met him, and Esau told me he was a drummer; I was looking for a percussionist, like an African percussionist. Anyway, in the studio it emerged that he was more a traditional drummer; it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but I played him some other bits and he started singing over them. I thought it sounded really cool, so we recorded a track, and that track became ‘Chalo’ which is on the album.”

Esau: “Etienne was one of my usual customers; when I got new stuff he was one of the first people where I was like ‘hey, look what I have.’ We were talking about music, I told him I was a drummer in a local band, and he was like ‘well, Radioclit, we’re looking for some African percussionists.’ I said ‘okay, that’s cool man’, and he invited me to the studio to do some percussion. We’d been at this housewarming, and he invited me to go to his house right then, which was where I met Johan. After that we went to Johan’s house, where the studio was. Before we did anything else, I listened to some of his tracks, and I was singing, and they were like ‘hey, you’re a good singer, you know?'”

“I didn’t know anything about [Radioclit] before that. That was the first time I’d heard them.”

Were you into club music then Esau, or were your tastes more traditional?

E: “You know, it was good, because by the time I met Radioclit, I already had experience in music. I’d listened to reggae, and a lot of Western music. [club music] was new to me, but I adapted easily.”

What was the original plan Johan – to just sample his drums for something else?

J: “Yeah, I mean we work with musicians from all over the place, and we wanted to do something with an African sound to it.”

Is African music something you’ve always been interested in?

J: “African music…well, it came from an interest in ghetto music. I come from a hip-hop background, Etienne comes from kind of rock, hip-hop and dance, but we share that same interest in raw music, and sooner or later you’re gonna find your way back to Africa if you’re interested in those things. We’ve been doing The Very Best for three years now, and I’d say I’ve been really into African music for one or two now.”

When you first got Esau in then, were you gonna use his drums on the grimier type of stuff you were known for – ‘Mature Macho Machine’, ‘Divine Gossa’ etc?

J: “Well it was a little bit after that, but with dance music we could always do with more percussion. The track we actually first played to Esau was a track that 679 had given us that they wanted to be one of the singles off Kano’s album. I wasn’t 100% on what we had, so I thought Esau could shake up the percussion on it before we gave it back to them. But as far as making music in the vein that we would later, it just kind of flowed like that, like we had Esau back in the studio the next week and just kept working together. It still took probably half a year, eight months before we realised that maybe we had an album: before that we were just having fun. The chemistry was really good, his harmonies sounded great on the stuff we gave him…”

E: “Most of the time they would just give me tracks, and three quarters of the tracks, I did them you know? A few I didn’t like. But most of them I took them and would make songs out of them. It took us quite a long time to realise we could do an album, you know? It took us some time.”

Esau, what’s your background in music exactly?

E: “I moved to London in 1999. When I was about nine, my dad used to buy a lot of records. He was into country and western, and a lot of reggae music as well. That used to inspire me, because I was always around music. This was growing up, in the mid-80s. I joined one of the local bands, but I went there as a vocalist. They gave me a few songs, I sung for them, and they were okay with it. That’s how I started singing; that’s how I became a vocalist in the mid-90s.”

What sort of Western records did you have exposure to early on?

E: “Erm, like I say a lot of reggae, we had Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers. My father was so into country and western; he used to travel a lot to the USA and Britain, and he used to get them from there. I was brought up on that music: sometimes people ask me ‘why are you not into that sort of music?’ and that is why, because I grew out of it.”

You sing in six different languages – what sort of things are your lyrics about?

E: “I sing about love, life, I sing about nature – that kind of stuff. I sing about different things on the album…but what I will say, is that they’re mostly about my past experiences – you know, I’m from Africa, we know there are so many things going on: war, HIV, these are the sort of issues I sing about sometimes.”

Speaking of the album, was it the case that you’d already decided to do it, and then did the mixtape to pre-empt it, or that you did the mixtape and then the LP sprung from its popularity?

J: “Nah you’re right, most people think the mixtape came first and then came the album, but we’d actually finished the album like a year ago. We were waiting on finding a deal, so we figured that we’d keep recording and put out a free mixtape – get the word out, basically. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy trying to establish something with an African artist in the western world, so we wanted to gather some momentum for the LP.”

Obviously the two are quite different – the mixtape is mostly your edits of other people’s tracks. How did the original music come together for the LP?

J: “Esau would usually come in one day a week, and we’d have all these tracks we’d made, he’d pick one and come up with some sort of melody idea. Once we were all confident with that, we’d work on the hook and the bridges and stuff, then he’d go away, write the lyrics and come back a couple of days later and lay the vocals down. Sometimes he’d have ideas and we’d work around them, sometimes he’d write in the studio with us there. He constantly surprised us though; like often we’d pick a track we thought suited him and it wouldn’t work out, then he’d pick a track that we’d envisioned for another project, and he’d work perfectly on it.”

How much of the LP is sample based, and how much is organic, so to speak?

J: “It’s a really electronic and composed album – I mean we use samples, tiny little drum hits and stuff that no one will notice. There’s a lot of orchestration this time around, even if it might not be real string players, you know, it’s still an 80% programmed album. It’s all recorded in my home studio.”

So when it became apparent that you could do an album with Esau, how did you envision it sounding? Like what were your intentions for it?

J: “There weren’t any real specific aims we had in terms of style, but I think what became apparent was that Esau’s voice is such an instrument on its own, that we could almost put any sort of song underneath and his voice would carry that through. What we didn’t want to do is make a traditional African album; we wanted our worlds to collide basically, so anything we were happy with that we’d done we’d offer to him, and we used what he liked. As long as he did something good on it, which he does 99% of the time, we were good with it. Production-wise, if you listen to the LP, it’s quite simple, it’s not overproduced. There’s no extravagant things going on; we wanted to simply make a backdrop for his melodies.”

Are there plans for a follow-up album?

J: “Yeah definitely, I can’t wait to get started on some new stuff. We haven’t actually sat down in the studio for almost a year. We spent so much time on the actual album and the live show that we needed to take a break, but we’re going to start working on a follow-up album late this year.

“The second album’s gonna be different, because Esau’s in Malawi now. We recorded the last one in London, so we’ll probably record this all over the world, and a fair bit of it in Malawi. I really want to experiment recording more with nature; especially at night, you know, natural animal noises to use; take more of a field recordings approach to it. It’ll probably take a few tracks before we figure out what direction we want to go down though.”

When did you move back to Malawai, Esau?

E: “I moved back last October. I was in England for quite a long time, and Radioclit give me an option: I can live in England, or I can go back to Malawi and meet them in New York or London or wherever when we have a show. So I decided to go back to Malawi; I wanted to see my family, as I haven’t in such a long time. I don’t think it’ll affect our music too much: I have a US Visa, so I can go there whenever I want, and I want to visit England again soon also.”

So wait, what’s happened to the shop?

E: “[laughs] I was just renting the place. I think someone else is renting it now.”

Tam Gunn

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