In this month’s cover feature, we catch up with Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers to talk touring, industry changes, and the band’s newest album, City Club. The Growlers play Roseland Theater on March 23.
The concept of pride permeates Ash, the sophomore album of the sister duo Ibeyi. Ash is a meditation on identity and the implicit pride that can be both empowering and delicate. The juxtaposition between the anecdotal “Deathless” (feat. Kamasi Washington) where Lisa-Kaindé is confronted by a policeman accusing her of being a drug dealer, and “No Man is Big Enough for My Arms,” featuring a repeated line from Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls,” provides a visceral demonstration of this balance. Sandwiched between the two tracks is “I Wanne Be Like You,” a song that Lisa-Kaindé wrote about her sister and bandmate, Naomi. Together, the three tracks outline the thesis of Ash: Together, with respect and understanding, we can empower others with the pride each individual deserves.
Through powerful, Yoruba-influenced choruses, impeccable production and Ibeyi’s signature ability to seamlessly blend genres, Ash becomes as much a collage of love, politics, identity and hope as it is a record.
Twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz come from a family of musicians, including their father, Miguel “Angá” Díaz, who was a percussionist with the Buena Vista Social Club. They credit their family’s French-Cuban ancestry with providing a rich backdrop of the musical influences, genres and instruments they mix into their own creations.
The sisters come from different musical backgrounds individually as well. Naomi spent time studying percussion, while Lisa-Kaindé focused on vocals and piano. On Ibeyi’s eponymous debut album, Lisa-Kaindé handled the majority of the songwriting and vocals, with Naomi providing backup vocals and beat production. However, for Ash, they decided to distribute the creative responsibilities evenly between them, with Naomi taking more of a presence in songwriting, along with lead vocals on the ethereal “Waves.” On both Ash and Ibeyi, the sisters were joined by Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, as both a producer and collaborator. They credit Russell’s deft touch in the studio as a key catalyst in unlocking the myriad sounds and sensibilities present on the two albums. Ash, particularly, features varied production styles, bringing in collaborators like saxophone luminary Kamasi Washington, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and hip-hop artist Mala Rodríguez, along with numerous samples, including the aforementioned Michelle Obama and excerpts from The Diary of Frida Kahlo read by the sisters’ mother, Maya Dagnino.
With these collaborators, and the duo’s strong sense of self and purpose, Ash became an organism of statement, community and pride, emanating energy and an infectious, potent sense of movement.
Following the lauded debut of Ash, Ibeyi sat down with ELEVEN to talk about their broad musical influences, the process of creating music together and the importance of staying true to themselves as musicians and humans in the tumultuous present.
Eleven: What was your musical development like? Did your development happen individually or have you always been making music together?
Lisa-Kaindé: No, we actually made music separately. Naomi was studying classical percussion, and I was studying piano, and then I went on to study vocal jazz, and then I started creating songs, and then one day Naomi said to me, “When are we going to start making music together?” So, we decided to start creating music together. Actually, everything happened–it’s really quite funny because we were not at all thinking about having a musical career or being on stage. I mean, of course we were thinking about it in our wildest dreams, but it was not, like, a choice we made. And then, when we were in the studio making the first album we were like, “Oh, yes, this is where we want to be!” And we wanted to feel like that for the second album, and want to notice that in the next one, and the eighth one and the tenth one!
11: So, given that being professional musicians wasn’t something you’d necessarily planned on, how did you even end up in the studio making your first album to begin with?
LK: We were touring already–we were opening for artists and we were enjoying opening for artists. We were doing, I think, one show per month and it was great and someone posted a video of us online. Then we met Richard [Russell] in the studio and we thought, “Oh, he is the one we want to make music with.”
11: Does he bring some kind of creative catalyst to you guys, or why do you enjoy working with him so much?
LK: We love working with him! He is a great collaborator. We have the three of us in the studio all the time, and we’ve done all the music together. We played, on the first album, everything–and in the second we played pretty much everything, too–and we are all just creating the songs together, even though we came into the studio with the songs already made, the majority of them. We knew, going into the studio for the first album that we wanted to make an album that had a specific sound, and he opened that door for us with his studio and time and helping us find what we wanted to do.
11: What was it like, on Ash, working with contributors and all of the sampling? How did you incorporate those elements into your creative process?
LK: Yes, so on Ash we played everything except the parts from the contributors like Kamasi Washington, and it was incredible to get to work with these people and let them into our world and collaborate with someone. We loved it. And using the samples, we felt like, because we were stronger, we could use samples without it taking over our sound, and it was a whole new world, this experience with that. And that’s what you want when you’re making music, to get excited and create with all of these new things–to explore.
11: Did you have some of the samples in mind, did you build around them, or were they things that you just added along the way?
LK: We added them along the way. It’s kind of funny because Richard has real knowledge about sampling and the history of sampling, and he knows so many samples, and he loves them and is obsessive about them, so each time he would say, “I think this song needs a sample,” we would get really excited. We got to look for samples together and find the right ones. It’s just really beautiful. For example, the Frida Kahlo one [Ed: “Transmission/Michaelion”], we asked our mother to find something from The Diary of Frida Kahlo that she could read and record it on her phone. And the Michelle Obama one [Ed: “No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms”], we wanted a sample from a woman’s voice, and at that time this was the speech that everyone was talking about, so we listened to it because I didn’t know it. And then hearing it, we ended up using a lot more than we were expecting to because it was so powerful and right. Really, every sample has its own special story.
11: It’s cool that you got your mother to read on the record! What is the influence of family on your music in general? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
LK: Oh, family is everything. It has influenced everything. My father was an incredible musician, and I think he passed on to us a love for enjoying music–every type of music. And then my mother was the one who took us to hear our first Yeruba choir to hear the songs we heard growing up in our household. And I think our father gave us the love of mixing different music without being afraid and finding what is your music and going for it. Really, family is everything. That first album, we really wanted to make an homage to our father and sister who passed away, and we feel like when we sing these songs, we are connected with them.
11: When you listen to music and then create your own, do you mix instruments and genres intentionally, or is it just something that happens through osmosis as part of your creative process?
Naomi: No, it just happens organically, through the process–it’s natural. We love mixing like that, it adds new flavors and energy.
LK: Yes, it’s really a reflection of us: we are mixed with music. We grew up with so many different kinds of music, they naturally mix together and come out like that. Ibeyi is a mix between Naomi and I. Naomi, she loves hip-hop, she loves funk, soul, reggaeton–anything that has a rhythm–and I love jazz and vocals and electronic music and downtempo. I think that’s what makes Ibeyi: mixing Naomi and I together.
11: On Ash, Naomi, I was reading that you wanted to sing a little bit more than you did on that first album. Why was that something that you wanted to do consciously?
Naomi: I wanted to be more involved in this album in that way. For the first album, Lisa kind of started the album and I finished it, and I knew that I wanted this one to be more equal, more organic, more visceral. So you know, I wanted to do more, and that’s what I did!
11: There are a lot of really joyful, inspirational and empowering elements in the album. Is that the kind of record you set out to make?
LK: Actually, we wanted to make that kind of album, but we wanted to make it because we needed it. And I think that listening to people’s stories and the whole world we live in–this is what is happening and this is what we needed to talk about, this is what we needed to sing, and that’s why it happened like that. Thank you so much for saying that there is joy in the album. We thought there was a lot of that as well. And there were definitely songs like “Deathless,” “No Man is Big Enough for My Arms,” and even “Ash” that we felt like we needed to sing. And we wrote those songs imagining ourselves on stage sharing them with people.
11: You can tell that many of the choruses–many moments with large groups of people singing together–it feels kind of communal, that element of sharing something together. Do you feel like you have a responsibility as musicians and people with a healthy consciousness to try to unite people or do you mainly just want to put positive messages out there?
LK: I think the most important thing is to be truthful and talk about things that really touch you, and to deliver it in a way that you are 100 percent proud of and that you feel deeply. It can be about anything. It can be about love, it can be about politics, it can be about an issue, it can be personal, it can be global, but it has to be truthful and that’s what we’re trying to do. Actually, it’s quite hard because it makes you have to think, but it’s also fascinating and really fun.
11: So, this album feels like art in movement. It has movement. It feels like it’s art in motion. Was that intentional? I think it’s fascinating when artists can capture that element in their work.
LK: Wow, that is the most beautiful thing someone has said about our work, thank you so much. I don’t really know what I can say about that; it’s just something that happens, I think?
11: When you guys are making the music, is it something you can feel, like forward movement, or is it a function of the themes you’re trying to capture–love, community, politics–going so many different directions that it happens out of necessity?
LK: I think it’s a lot of work, and it’s challenging, but I think it’s so important to us. When Naomi and I are making music is also when we are connecting the most. So, it’s always special and intimate, and I don’t really know how to express it or how to explain it, but there’s nothing like doing a song and finishing it in the studio and realizing that it was something that you needed to say and being proud of it for three seconds. Usually, after that, an hour after, you think, ‘Oh no, I can do better than that.” But for those three seconds, it’s a feeling like nothing else.
11: What was the most challenging thing about making Ash?
LK: Oh wow, I think it’s always going to be the same answer, staying true to yourself and at the same time trying to explore something else. I think that’s the most challenging. We really wanted to deliver something that we would feel proud of, and yet still be able to discover ourselves and other genres and discover other types of music and go search for meaning.
11: It sounds like it comes more from a perspective rather than technical challenges–like trying to incorporate instruments and collaborators; is that accurate?
LK: Sort of, I mean, there are always going to be those elements, but again, I think the most challenging thing is figuring out what you want to sing, and to make it 100 percent yourself and to make it truthful. Then the technical elements are not really that difficult at all. You can always find someone to help you with that. Actually, we were quite lucky with that. It felt quite natural working with Naomi and Richard and I in the studio. So, yeah, I think the most difficult thing is finding what you want to say and saying it loud and being proud of what you do.
11: Moving forward for you now, you’re currently touring in support of the new album–do you find that your music changes when you perform it live, based on things you might be thinking about or what you’re listening to?
LK: Um, I think it’s changing a little every night. I think it depends on who is in front of us and how the audience reacts to it. We definitely are constantly thinking about what’s next, what the next album is going to be, that’s what excites us, thinking about what we’re going to do. And sometimes there will be moments where something will happen live and we’ll think, “This is incredible, maybe we should do something like that on the next album.” That’s what’s fun. It’s all about discovering more and more, and learning more and more.
11: Are there any artists that you’d love to work with in the future?
LK: Ohhh so many. Thousands. Almost all of them, really! Because that’s what we think is one of the best things, now that we’ve tasted it in this album for the first time: “that was fun; we need to do that again!” And I also think that the artists on this album are so dear to our hearts, and it was incredible to meet them and to work with them. We had dreams of working with them, and it made it 100 percent more special, so we hope it will happen again!
Live in Portland November 16 | Revolution Hall