In the summer of 2016, a little-known singer named Berhana released his self-titled debut EP. It was six eclectic R&B-ish tracks that, if listened to consecutively, lovingly painted a portrait of a creative twenty-something's daily routine. “Brooklyn Drugs,” with its tweeting birds and montage of voices, is like the morning wake-up, a rush of thoughts to the head. The meandering flow of “80s” channels a commute to work.
But I actually found my way to the EP by way of the third track, “Janet,” which, in the flow of the album, could be something like a mid-day television break. The song pays homage to the original Aunt Vivian from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, reflecting on her contentious replacement by a more light-skinned actress. The jumpy, bright-sounding beat cheekily interpolates little snippets of the show’s dialogue, but it’s Berhana’s poetic, sing-songy flow that lingers in your head. Alliteration and assonance heavy, the 25-year-old’s bars sound like they’re tripping over each other in a clumsy, lovely dance: “Aye Mrs. Hubert / You think that they should hang with us / Can't feel my music we used to dance so Thelonious / Monk from my monastery.”
After Berhana released the EP, he sort of disappeared — but then his name started popping up in different corners of the internet. Janet Hubert, the actress who played Aunt Vivian, shared “Janet” on her social media. His songs got more plays online, and “Grey Luh,” the EP’s dancehall-ish summer jam about pursuing love while drunk, was featured in a recent episode of the meticulously music supervised Atlanta.
A few days before the release of “Whole Wide World,” a loosie that's also his first new music since 2016, Berhana and I chatted briefly over the phone about his breakout EP, his last day job, and his new retro-sounding song.
What’s your real name?
My name’s Amain Berhane. Berhane is pronounced “Berhana,” so essentially I go by my last name.
What are you doing right now?
I'm in L.A. packing for London to do my first show overseas. It's not my first time [there], but the first time I went to London I got food poisoning pretty quick so this is basically my first London trip. I’m getting ready to realize I lost something because I always forget something.
You released your debut EP in 2016. What were you doing before then?
Before [the EP] came out, I was working a lot in a Japanese restaurant. I quit that a while back. I liked it — I learned a lot about the language and the culture. I was there for about three years, from server to chef. The restaurant was a robatayaki which are traditionally pretty performative. They would make us speak Japanese as soon as we clocked in. I didn’t know anything coming in so I had to learn on the job. I’m not fluent or anything but I got pretty OK by the end.
When you made your EP, was there a message behind it? How did this group of songs come together?
I guess for me, it's kind of a project about growth. I wanted to make something that almost felt like a documentary. That's how it started. I wanted it to sound like my living room, because it was important when I was growing up. I wanted to tell the story of where I was [before], to where I was when I finished the record. That was my first body of work. I was cool to see it through to the end.
“Janet” alludes to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. What inspires you other than TV?
I think inspiration can be found from anything. I pull from everything that I see, that's my main inspiration, what's around me. I been watching a lot of [Yasujiro Ozu] lately, his things are really tight to me. All of his frames are super clean, nothing’s wasted. His movies are from a while ago, but they’re still relatable. Whenever anyone asks me for recommendations, Good Morning is always at the top of the list
What are you listening to now?
A lot of Japanese disco funk from the ’80s. A few old records.
That’s interesting because your new cover song, "Whole Wide World," sounds like a Tony Bennett take or something. It's really romantic and dreamy.
Tony Bennett, tight. That song is actually one of my favorite love songs by Wreckless Eric. I always wanted to do a cover. If you heard the song, it's kinda like garage from the ’70s. It's so good. I wanted to put a different spin on the same words. I wanted it to have an old-timey, surf rock feel. Steel guitar and slides.
How did you get into music?
When I was growing up I wrote songs but I always wrote them for myself. I didn't really think of it as a career. I sang in church a little bit as well, and I actually moved up to New York to study film. When I was in New York I kept making music and then after I did a song with one of my friends I was like, "Alright, maybe this is something I should pursue a little bit more seriously."
I was kind of brought up [listening to] everything. My family's Ethiopian, I'm first generation. So there's a lot of music that they grew up listening to that I grew up listening to. We also listened to a lot of Sam Cooke, Erykah Badu, Stevie [Wonder.]
Do you have any specific memories of hearing a song and thinking, "Wow, I really want to make music.”
I don't know if I heard a song but I remember when I watched Moonwalker, that long-ass Michael Jackson music video. I remember seeing that outfit as a kid, the leather jacket, and was like, "Oh woah. I'm tryna be like that." And I remember the "Rock With You" video. I thought that was the greatest thing of all time.