Discover Gingerly: Genesis Owusu’s infinitely dynamic and eclectic world
For fans of Prince, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West.
A few weeks ago, while keeping track of the usual countless new weekly releases, I got completely struck by a song and its corresponding artwork. The song was titled Gold Chains and the artwork portrayed a black man with a bandaged face and a narrowly visible smile of shining golden teeth. The meaningful lyrics “when it looks so gold, but it feels so cold inside these chains” were only the beginning of an astonishing journey through the fifteen captivating chapters constituting Genesis Owusu’s debut album, Smiling With No Teeth.
Kofi Owusu-Ansah — that’s his real name — is a 23-years-old passionate and many-sided musician born in Ghana and raised in Canberra, Australia. He grew up in a family of music enthusiasts, having a mother who’s leader of a church gospel choir, a father who’s an eager listener with an eclectic music taste, and a talented older brother, Kojo, better known as Citizen Kay. One day, while making a beat in the communal family study soon converted into a home studio, Kojo dragged Kofi in and asked him to write a verse. Lucky for us, that verse eventually became the first of many others, which tell the story of a young man facing racism and depression. But let it be him to explain everything better.
As always, before diving into the interview, I invite you to listen gingerly!
— Let me start by saying I’m extremely thankful you granted me this interview, as your album is truly my favourite of 2021 so far! It’s profound, multi-layered, amazingly written and produced, the first official chapter of a career I’m sure will be in constant evolution.
Much appreciated, glad you resonate with my work!
- First of all, how are you doing and how have you coped with this pandemic emergency?
I made an album! Just like everyone else, the pandemic shut down a lot of opportunities for me last year, but the silver lining was that it gave me enough time and space to really self-reflect and make this album. And now we’re speaking because of it. Australia is handling the pandemic pretty well and a lot of things have opened back up, so I’m actually on tour right now, playing shows around Australia.
- When and how did you start playing music?
I started making music as a little hobby around 2012 with my older brother. He had been making music for a while and had taken our family home study as his personal studio.
- Which instruments do you play and how do you usually write your songs?
I don’t play any instruments very well, so my music is always a collaborative process. I like working with lots of different people and delving into new worlds and sonic spaces that I’ve never been exposed to, and seeing what comes out of it.
- I read that you moved from Ghana to Australia when you were a child. How did this change make you feel and which were the first cultural differences that struck you?
The first difference was that I was black and everybody else was white. Like everybody else. The people around me didn’t know how to react and often I was either seen as a novelty or a threat. But it taught me how to be myself to the fullest extent.
- You said that you used to write short stories as a kid. Did any of them become a song later?
One did, it was called Grime Squad. It was pretty shit haha. I’m pretty sure I’ve deleted it from everything. After writing short stories and before writing music, I wrote poetry, and a lot of my poems have become songs. The album title, Smiling With No Teeth, came from a poem I wrote years ago.
- Do you remember which were the very first records you loved as a listener and the ones that inspired you to become a musician? How did they do so?
I loved all the Kanye and Lupe Fiasco albums. Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis too. My brother inspired me to be a musician, but all of these artists inspired what kind of musician I wanted to be. Diverse, eclectic, uncategorisable.
- Your brother is also a great musician! If I’m not mistaken, he also produced your EP. How do you work together and influence each other?
My brother and I inspire each other to be the best versions of ourselves. We made a lot of music together when I was younger, and every time we’d get on a song together, we’d both try to have the better verse. The healthy competition really sharpened our craft.
- Regarding your EP, I reckoned the influence of To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar in the song Tremendous: The Devil’s Soliloquy. How did you write those lyrics?
I actually wrote that track before To Pimp A Butterfly came out. That was one of the poems I had written earlier in my life that had become a track.
- Why do you feel your previous songs are somewhat disingenuous compared to Smiling With No Teeth?
I feel like I’m an artist with a lot to share. Every time I release something, I want it to be a good representation of me, but it’s really hard to fit everything that I want to convey into a single. All I had made before Smiling With No Teeth were singles and short EPs. The songs themselves weren’t necessarily disingenuous, but I just needed the album format to really express myself to the fullest capacity, which is something that I didn’t have before SWNT.
- How did you start working on Smiling With No Teeth? Can you describe the process behind it, in general, and how you built the sonic atmosphere and the concept of it?
Instrumentally, we had roughly created the album in 6 days. My manager, Andrew Klippel, had organised this band of amazing musicians (Kirin J Callinan on guitar, Touch Sensitive on bass, Julian Sudek on drums, and my manager, Andrew, on keys) and we got into a small, cramped studio and jammed for 10 hours a day, for 6 days. Every song on the album apart from Black Dogs! and Easy were created in these jam sessions. We then took it to another studio and arranged it properly, added production flourishes and proper vocals with my friend Dave Hammer. The whole process from start to finish went for about a year.
Conceptually speaking, I wanted the album to serve as catharsis for me. I wanted to express everything that I couldn’t express in singles. I started venting about depression and racism; I had heard of the term “black dog” as a euphemism for depression, but I had also been called a black dog as a racial slur, so I thought it was interesting that this phrase encompassed both of the things that I wanted to talk about. The more I wrote, the more the concept became clearer to me, and the more these Black Dog characters gained a life on the album.
- How did you meet Andrew Klippel and Dave Hammer?
I met Dave through Andrew and he was a huge asset on the album, really giving it the energy that it needed via mixing and co-production. I met Andrew years ago in 2016. His wife found me on Instagram, and he emailed me about his record label. I’m not very good at checking my emails so I essentially ghosted him for ages. A few months later, I had the opening slot for this local festival called Groovin’ The Moo. The festival was sold out, but I had the early morning slot that no one really goes to. Just as I was about to go on stage, this man and his family had come out to me backstage with VIP passes; it turned out to be Andrew. He had gotten VIP passes for his family and driven down from Sydney to Canberra (3-and-a-half-hour drive) just to watch my 11am set, then drove straight home afterwards, not even watching anyone else at the festival. After that, I started replying to his emails and we’ve been working together since.
- You cunningly talked about racism and depression by personifying them into Black dogs. How did you deal with them in your life and accomplish the freedom to finally be proud of your identity and your feelings?
I’ve always been proud of who I am. It’s been very helpful to acknowledge that these things are issues that are separate from my identity, and they are not me.
- What was the most difficult song to write and what was the simplest?
None of the songs that were hard for me to write ended up on the album. I always feel like the songs that come immediately are my best ones. I had written No Looking Back so fast, and then we worked on it for days and days, but then we just ended up reverting it to how I originally wrote it, because what comes naturally always ends up being the best version.
- Is there a little quote to 6 Summers by Anderson Paak in I Don’t See Colour? :)
Yeah! I was waiting for someone to notice.
- When did you write A Song About Fishing?
It was freestyled in the jam sessions with the band. We had made so much music, in so many different genres, that Kirin (the guitarist) joked, saying “sing a song about fishing”. You can hear him say it at the start of the track. I freestyled this track, but later on I tweaked a few lyrics here and there, and it turned from this jokey freestyle into a parable about perseverance in dire circumstances.
- Who’s the “you” you’re “crawling back to” in Bye Bye?
The Black Dog. It was important to acknowledge to that the journey is a non-linear cycle, and not just a story that goes from A to B with a Hollywood ending.
- Last question, can you suggest three emerging artists that you reckon worthy of being listened gingerly?
That’s it! I’m looking forward to having the chance to see you live in Milan someday, hopefully sooner than later!
Much love. Hopefully see you soon!
Interview with Jen Malone, the music supervisor of Euphoria and Atlanta
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