When Klein answers an afternoon Skype call on a Thursday in late August, she’s still rolling out of bed. Her bright pink comforter and long strawberry blonde hair — a freshly laid look after a trip to the hairdresser the day before — overwhelm the screen. As she combs her hair, she excitedly recounts the reason for her late rise: a night spent dancing at a monthly Hyperdub party with her pals, including Steve, a.k.a. Kode9, the founder of the London electronic label. This month, Hyperdub will release Klein’s new EP, Tommy, an entrancing collection of piercing, multidimensional tracks.
Her previous works — the eerie and shrill Only, and the noisy, choppy, more experimental Lagata, both released 2016 — showcased her childlike curiosity and bubbly sense of humor. The close listener will pick up on Easter eggs hidden throughout all her projects, like samples of reality TV scenes and references to her favorite singer, Brandy. Klein finds inspiration in an almost absurdist range of cultural products: Irish folktales, Love & Hip Hop, and the Foo Fighters are just a few of the elements woven into the fabric of her emotional yet sonically jarring, layered electronic music experiments.
“I just want people to take their time,” she tells me. “I like that more than people immediately getting it.” And, for those who do get it? "It’s lit." Her eclectic taste and cinematic, moody projects have attracted the likes of Arca, an early fan, and Björk.
Raised in South London, with a brief stint in Nigeria, Klein was an only child with a passion for musical theater. Gospel powerhouses like Kim Burrell and Fred Hammond soundtracked her childhood and nurtured her growth as a singer, something she's had a difficult time calling herself until recently. Klein has jokes for days, but Tommy is the most earnest she’s been on record. For instance, she spends two tracks (“Act One” and “Cry Theme”) layering and manipulating her own vocals, repeating the phrase “I never cried” on a melancholic loop. She ends the EP with “Farewell Sorry,” a breathy, riff-laced outro she describes to me as lighthearted: “It’s like I’m drowning, but I’m happy.”
What she accomplishes with her sonic molding — her way of “placing” sounds and melodies together that would be traditionally incompatible — is to express a multitude of emotions simultaneously. The EP is sad, creepy, dreamy, happy, and hopeful all at once. According to Klein, Tommy is an exploration of what it means to channel strength, be completely honest, and allow oneself to be vulnerable. People are complex; we regularly feel multiple emotions at once, and for Klein, channeling that multitude might be her at her most honest.
We're both in PJs in our respective bedrooms for the hour we spend discussing the record’s comical riffs, unexpected loops, and odd tonalities. We also talk about the musical she wrote and performed over the summer, what it’s like to be a black woman in the electronic music world, and what it means to take yourself seriously as a musician in 2017.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m Klein. I’m very clumsy. I’m really bad at everyday stuff. But, for some reason — my cousin said this to me the other day — I’ve turned into such a tech wiz in the past three months.
I make music. It wasn’t until three or four months ago that I was like, Okay, I’m a proper musician. It’s really such a psychotic thing, but I would never admit to myself that I actually liked making music or that it was something I could see as a career.
You were doing writing before music, right?
Like, really shitty poetry. I enjoyed writing. [But] thinking back, it was so terrible. I used to do this thing where I’d do spoken word but then I’d download a Drake-type beat, or an A$AP Rocky-type beat [to put under it]. And I was like, Yay I’m a musician. At this point, I had no idea about producing. I just had a bunch of stuff that’s written.
I was always writing [to] take myself out of myself. All of those songs [on the Hyperdub EP] are really weird for me to listen to because they’re completely honest.
At the beginning of the year, you said your family didn’t really have any idea of what you’re doing. Are they more aware now?
I wish I could be like, “Yes, they do.” They don’t really know because I don’t really talk to them like that. It’s really removed from their world. I was talking to my friend about it, and we just were like how the hell will a Nigerian mom come across i-D or Dazed or FADER? They’d be like, “Eh! What is that? For what?” If it’s not Nairaland.com or a really insane situation where I have stuff that went super viral, there’s absolutely no way. I’m sure they’d like it. My friend showed my music and videos to his aunties, and they were like “This. Is. Art.” But [they were] also side eye-ing me as well. And, I was like, Okay, that’s why I’m not showing my music to anyone to my family.
I’m actually really bad like that. I don’t really tell my friends shit. They were like, “You need to stop that. If you want to see black girls at your show, you fucking need to tell us.” I don’t know, I just never think people care. That’s why I just keep it completely separate from everyday functioning.
It’s hard to maneuver both doing your art and surviving.
I’ve been doing music full-time since last year, off two self-released records. No label. [Doing this release with] Hyperdub was the first time that everyone was like, “Alright, let’s do this properly.” I’d [usually] just drop shit late night. It’ll be there for like six months until I’ve told someone. The reason why I’m doing all of these things is because of visibility. If I had my way, I’d be chilling. I wouldn’t even do an interviews. It makes me proper anxious.
[With] ‘Marks of Worship,’ I didn’t even want to do the video. The benefits of just being visible as a black girl outweigh the negatives. It’s more just for other people to see that it’s not that deep, you know. This industry and this electronic world is not even that hard. These guys make it seem like it is. I was on Ableton the other day, and I was like, “This thing is not even that hard.” And even these guys, they have presets. Everyone’s using presets. My spirit just won’t let me use a preset chord. Nah, I can’t do it. For me, it defeats the whole purpose. It’s too easy. It’s like, can you just sit down and just play this chord on the piano? Even if it’s bad, you can make it into something.
Is there anyone who stands out in particular as influential or important to your journey with music?
I’ll say three people. Two of [them are] my best friends, Embaci — who’s on the record — and Jacob Samuel. Because they’ve always just been real to me. They’re like, “Okay, listen girl. No one’s gonna like your stuff immediately, and that’s actually fine. It’s literally okay, because music doesn’t need to be nonlinear.” They’ve always said that to me. They’ve always been there for me, and just been like, “You’re doing good.”
One other person I’d say is Arca. When I first met him, it was really weird. I’d seen him around over the years. He was always like, “Keep going in. You’re lit.” I had this really shitty hospitality job, and I took his advice and when I made the Lagata record, I literally had no money. [I was] working as a waitress and loads of other bad, intense jobs. He was always there. Even if I never saw him, he was always showing love. And it was really weird because looking back, [I had] barely any views. No one had written about me. I guess he randomly came across me and always was proper supporting.
“The thing with music is like, anyone can do pop, innit? What sonically I want to hear for myself is stories.” —Klein
How do you create that space for yourself to make something and not worry about how people are going to react?
I think partially it’s me being the only child. I used to spend a lot time [alone]. I live in South London and most of my friends live in East [London]. Or, [they] work — they’ve actually got careers and uni and stuff like that. So I have a lot of time that I spend on my own just hanging out with myself. I watch a lot of this website called MrWorldPremiere.tv. I watch Love & Hip Hop and basically any Atlanta-based shows. I always watch loads of shows that are about making music. It’s a lot of me watching TV and getting gassed by scenes.
[In Love & Hip Hop,] there is a scene where Waka Flocka tells Tammy that she can have all his passwords. He’s like, “You can have the password to my Instagram account because I’m not cheating on you.” I ended up sampling a 0.1 second of that bit, and I built it into a classical song. It ended up getting it played on [BBC] Radio 3, which is hilarious.
When I was doing early [music], I used to place myself in the characters. I had like one song on Only called “Babyfather Chill,” that was literally about loads of baby father/baby momma drama on ‘Love & Hip Hop.
I just like the idea of making folklore out of reality TV.
What do you mean by folklore?
Stuff like The Wicker Man and loads of really old songs of the sea. Old Irish tales. And then, rephrasing them. It’s a lot of me just not putting pressure on myself. If I thought about what other people were doing, I wouldn’t be doing this. I’m so in my own head.
The thing with music is like, anyone can do pop, innit? What sonically I want to hear for myself is stories. I think it’s just years of me watching musicals and theater. It’s a weird thing to have that mentality. I’m literally just this girl from South London, but I’m like, “Tony Awards!”
Where did you record Tommy?
Funny enough, we recorded “Prologue” at Abbey Road Studios. Everything else was essentially made in my room. Went a few places, borrowed a few pianos here and there. But, yeah I just did it in this room here.
Is Tommy a person? Who is Tommy?
Tommy is symbolism for a person who is really going through a lot of shit. Low-key, [it’s] inspired by Tommie from Love & Hip Hop. I just find her so incredible — her fucking strength. I became really obsessed with her at the beginning of the year. I just started thinking about myself and how I never allow myself to be like that. Like, you always have to be strong as a woman, [especially] as a black woman. She’s allowed herself to be completely herself, whether it’s her hair not always done... It’s not every day your nails need to be done. It’s not everyday you need to be happy. Tommie will just be like, “I’m fucking broke today, man. Shit,” like crying. “But, I still look good.” And that in itself, that whole embodiment of her was something I channeled into the record, where I was like, Okay I’m going to be completely honest with myself.
In “Farewell Sorry,” which is the outro song, there’s a bit where I do a weird riff/run thing, but I was also really sleepy and I was crying about something. I can’t remember what. I was having an emo day when I recorded it. That’s me being the barest I’ve ever been. I remember I wanted to delete it. For years, I was a massive fan of Kim Burrell, who is quite problematic. But she always said that it’s okay to be off as long as you can pick it up. Like, you being the rawest.
You mentioned Kim Burrell. Did you have a lot of experience going to church and is that why gospel music is in your orbit as well?
Kim Burrell is because my family were really into her. It was really just in the background. The other day I was literally screaming because I remembered Fred Hammond and I was triggered. Triggers! Flashback to church. Basically a That’s So Raven [moment].
Some people, like journalists, always tried to like milk it. But gospel was just in the background. I was very immune to music that was being pushed, as a young person — I still am. Foo Fighters, I was obsessed with them. “Everlong” is like my Foo Fighter moment. [Feist] was my introduction to like, Oh you can sing differently. I felt like I couldn’t sing. When you’re not seeing people sing like that, you’re like “Okay, I definitely can’t be a singer.” So, I just never sang for ages. I would just make stuff, but never sing over it. Eventually, I was just like, Fuck it, why not? It doesn’t even matter.
In a way, I was just kind of listening to average shit that everyone else listened to. It wasn’t until this year, when I played more shows. I met loads of sick musicians like Yves Tumor and Chino Amobi. Mate, there’s lit people! But, I was never really exposed to that. Now, I’d say I know about mad music. [My friends] are always confused about how I make music. I come back home and tell my friends, “You guys haven’t heard of Yves Tumor? Literally everyone knows.” They were like, “Okay, you’re annoying. You’ve been playing for a year and you’re gassed.” Last year I didn’t know who anyone was. And now I’m just like, “Really, you haven’t heard of them?”
“I had a dream about Brandy. She was like, ’Klein, I think less echos.’” —Klein
There are these moments on Tommy where I wished the music would have stayed where it was going, but then when you hear a random sound or a loop that you’re not expecting, it really hits you in your core.
Yeah, completely. Live shows are definitely a thing for me, as well. Whatever I have on the record, that’s cool and everything, but for the live version I can spread that out. So for the live version of “Everlong,” I actually do a verse. In “Farewell,” the vocals are really not in the forefront. You have to really listen to hear those little notes. But then for the live version, the vocals are more in the forefront. So, what is on the record is not necessarily how it may sound live.
The Tommy record means so much to me. Check it out when you’ve got time. When you’re just chilling. Take your time with it, and just listen to it as a whole. “Run’s Reprise” is cool. That’s the middle track. But, it’s so out of context of the record as a whole. I like that more than people are immediately getting it. If you get it, it’s lit for you. One thing I always want if you listen to my stuff, you leave knowing you know me.
I can hear your personality on the record. Just talking to you now and seeing how you can be silly and you like to laugh. I can hear that in the music.
Completely. There’s so much room just to be bad and do whatever you want. Even if you listen to the noise or whatever drone fest I’m doing, you can still tell I’m obviously into R&B. Some girl was like, “Okay, you’re obviously into Brandy.” I love Brandy. I can’t talk about her in any more interviews, because I’m obsessed and I need to be cool. I had a dream about her.
What was the dream?
She was like, “Klein, I think less echos.” She was like, “Okay listen up here, I’m going to help you out. You just need to have less echos. I’ll work with you, I really will. I’m really trying to work with you.” And, I woke up sweating, like, “Oh god, I’m the worst musician.” Literally, Brandy was giving me advice in my dream.
What are you most excited about now in terms of your future?
I actually need this record to just come out already. I’ve just got some jokes, like some joke shit that I really want to do [live]. I just want to play more and just go in. Let’s get that GRAMMY. I might just become an actress and go to L.A. to be in like an HBO thing. That’s the joke I was thinking about the other day.
It’s been so sick for me to have other girls come across my music. It’s actually mad because I’m in such a male world. So when girls actually come across my music and they like it, it’s really nice. I’m going to put on more events for young people. I want to do more all-ages shows. Let’s get these 14-year-olds turnt up! Just doing more really cool stuff. Like, I did a musical.
Would you like to continue writing musicals in the future?
I’m actually in talks of doing it bigger. But I don’t know. I don’t want to be typecasted. If you do too many musicals, how are you going to do the Oscars?