“Can I fold my clothes?”, she asks. “Sure, whatever makes you comfortable”, I respond. It’s 5pm on a wintry Saturday evening and I’ve just gotten on a FaceTime call with 21 year old singer-songwriter Turunesh. Her warm, naturally lit bright room is in sharp contrast to my gloomy Syracuse surroundings. Despite juggling a full-time international relations major and a budding music career, Turunesh is the picture of ease in a multi-coloured dera and long box braids. Her carefree and electric energy radiates through the phone as she enthusiastically engages me in small talk whilst folding laundry before we begin the interview. Her persona and eclectic sound are reminiscent of Erykah Badu, a fact I mention later on in our conversation to which she replies, “People compare me to Erykah Badu all the time but I don’t feel like I’m as smooth. I’m quirky and stumbly. I’m the quirky Erykah.”
‘Arewa’, the first of two recent releases, was my introduction to Turunesh. I was transfixed by her hypnotic voice floating through the ambient, minimalistic track which features lo-fi synth sounds, humming bass pads and afro-percussive influences. This song is the first indication of the music she is currently working on, music that is meant to be sonically awakening more than anything else. “The importance of the energy and the sound, that’s what I want people to feel when they listen to my music. I don’t want them to hear that I write really well or that I sound really impressive or insanely unique. Because to a certain extent even uniqueness is mundane. So many artists are unique. I’m not trying to sell it to you. I sometimes feel like there’s this capitalist approach to music, like how can I stand out the most. What I want people to feel is my presence and my energy.”
How did you fall into music?
I’ve been doing music for a while now which is kind of crazy because I’m only 21. I’ve been songwriting since I was in 9th, 10 gradish. I’ve always liked writing poetry And then when I was in grade 9 and grade 10 I was like oh, I like to sing. I got tired of doing covers you know. I was like I’m a musician, it doesn’t feel right, I want to be doing my own things, and creating my own content. So I started to write. I made my first EP which was just a SoundCloud release, self-titled, after high school graduation. Then after first year, I went back home for the summer and made another smaller EP, also self-titled. I’ve been working on some stuff, some singles and hopefully an upcoming album.
What have been/are your musical influences? What did you grow up listening to and how has that played into your artistry?
I grew up listening to a lot of folk music. So when I did start to write music it was to the likes of Damien Rice, Damien Jurado, Elliot Smith, those kind of guys, very singer/songwriter - and Florence and the Machine. Those are the kinds of artists I used to listen to.
I have always been a fan of world music as well. I like music that stems from different cultures and how you can hear traditional instruments and how they take old school sounds and make them funky. I really like that. I’m currently really interested in West African music - I’ve always been a fan of Malian music, like old school Malian music from the 70’s - 80’s. Musicians like Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Salif Keita, all those guys. And the likes of Fela Kuti. I’ve been inspired by that sound and I’ve been doing my best to draw from it. And then I’m also currently interested in South African house. I just love African music. The kind of African music I listen to 24/7 is African fusion, I like it when we take that old stuff and play with it.
You’re of Ethiopian and Tanzanian heritage. Have your cultures influenced your music?
Initially, I just have to be honest and say no. My first two EP’s were very much inspired by what I was listening to which was that indie-folk type of music. I also feel that as much as I listen to songs that inspire me, when it comes to creating I don’t really think about that. I feel that it can sound very pretentious when you say, “Oh, I don’t have any influences” because I do have musicians that I listen to, and I am in complete awe of, but I sometimes feel as though when I sit and I songwrite, I’m drawing from my own personal experience. Hardly ever can I look at a song and say yeah, you can very much hear that I’m interested in this kind of music because it’s just whatever comes out of me in that moment. Sometimes I can place maybe a genre. Sometimes I can’t even do that. So I listen to a lot of music that I love but I feel that when it comes to my own art, it’s whatever organically comes out of me in that moment.
I love that. Personally, I sometimes love when artists are essentially genreless and don’t try to box themselves into a particular sound.
Just make sounds!
It’s like someone that paints, you just give them a paintbrush and they just release you know! And I have nothing against people who draw from their inspirations. There are incredibly talented musicians out there and for all I know, if every once in a while, if I would put effort into drawing inspiration from the musicians I like I would grow as an artist but for now it’s just whatever I’m feeling.
Oh wait! I lie. ‘Midnight’. ‘Midnight’ from my second EP. I definitely channeled Ella Fitzgerald for that one.
What kinds of stuff are you writing about? What are the specific scenarios that have led to specific songs?
My very first EP, that was very much so about the songwriting. I would sit and try and create stories. It was very fictitious writing. My second EP was the same. Just songwriting. Just listening to melodies, or coming up with my own and letting the words flow out. Sometimes it was a story I had never experienced myself, or something that I’d thought about, or seen in other people’s lives. On my second EP there’s a song called ‘Concert’ that I wrote about my cousin. It’s basically about going to a concert and everyone is having a good time but you’re dying inside. That happened to my cousin. It was two summers ago and we went to the Jidenna concert in Nairobi. We all went, he’s extremely introverted, and we were like, “Okay Malik, let’s do this” and he was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna do this, I’m coming.” Then he went and the life left his body. And he just had an awful time. So I decided to write a song about that.
The music I’m writing right now is very much like...I think people of my generation who grew up back home, if you’re Swahili speaking and you grew up in Africa, I feel as if there are references that you’ll just get. It’s more about everyday life, and I’m trying to deliver a more genuine energy. The songs aren’t meant to necessarily impress you lyrically, or impress you vocally but they’re meant to guide you to a place of feeling.
The first song of yours that I heard was ‘Arewa’. What was the process behind putting that song together?
When I say that I’m trying to deliver energy and feelings, I’m trying to make music that’s just sonically very pleasing if that makes sense. You hear it and without even understanding the lyrics you have an emotional experience. Arewa is an indication, or my first attempt at that. Arewa means beautiful and towards the end of the song, in Yoruba actually because the song is very afrobeats and it’s my way of appreciating their culture, I say “Iwoni arewa/ bogbo enko” which means I am all around beautiful, a very holistic form of beauty. Other than that I’m not really saying much. There’s, “Twende chini gizani” which means, “Let’s go down to a dark place” but that could mean anything for anyone. I say, “Haraka ya nini” which is, “Why are you rushing”, just stay, just be here. A big chunk of the song isn’t in english or swahili or Yoruba, it’s just vocables. There’s a part where I’m saying, “fela me ko dive” which doesn’t mean anything. I was in the studio and I loved the instrumentation. I had the melodies but didn’t necessarily have full on words. I was just like, I don’t need to put words to this, I can just put down sounds, not every song has to be a story. A song can be a sound, just 3 minutes of sounds. I can listen to Spanish music or Malian music and I don’t know what they’re saying but I sing along. So I’m just now trying to focus on experiences and sound.
African music is just music made by Africans. There are so many different sounds and fusions. What are your thoughts on people boiling African music down to just being tribal?
The word tribal in itself has so many problematic connotations but for the sake of us moving forwards with this conversation let’s just act like its acceptable. When people say that African music is tribal I feel like there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t like it when people bring up things from back home that are traditional and almost have this tone where we take offense when people mention those things. Woah, huts, Africa! And we’re like “Oh my goodness, the audacity!” But we have huts in Africa, it’s not a lie and it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.
It definitely is too narrowing to think that it begins and ends there. Music is international. There’s people in Africa who grew up listening to P Diddy. When they decide they want to make music, what do you think their music is going to sound like? No matter where you’re from, you’re music can sound like you’re from a whole different place and that’s allowed. As long as you appreciate the culture that you’re drawing from. It can be traditional and contemporary and I believe that is the new sound that is coming out of Africa right now. I feel that if you listen to underground African music your seeing two things, for me that is. You hear a lot of music coming from the continent that is very foreign (western) - the accent, the types of lyrics, the references. You also find this sort of contemporary African music. Something that I’ve been listening to a lot is Palm Wine Music by show Dem Camp which is a Nigerian collective that make afrobeat, high-life, alternative music that is so fucking amazing. African music is old and it’s new, it can be futuristic and it can be contemporary. Music is a full on discipline and we’re exploring it to the full extent that people from all walks of this earth are exploring it.
Of the songs you’ve put out so far, which has been your favourite and why?
I think ‘Midnight’ is a classic because it’s short and it’s simple. Also ‘Arewa’ because I just love the sound of it and as much as the lyrics are simple, as a listener I go to deeper places listening to Arewa. It’s the same way you can be brought to tears by a song in a language you don’t know. The way the sound is put together, it does something to your heart. That’s ‘Arewa’ for me. It’s a song where I was able to put forth a lot of feeling with very few words.
What’s been your most memorable performance?
For a long while it was a performance I did at a concert for a live music club at my school called the Blank Vinyl Project. They hold this end of year concert called “Goosehunt”. That was a lot of fun. I sung Etta James “I’d Rather Go Blind” and till today I’ve never delivered vocals like that. When I came back to school this year, I played a gig at this club called Fortune in Chinatown and THAT was an amazing set. That I think has taken the crown as my best performance so far. I danced the entire time which I never do. I performed ‘Eti’ and two other songs that are yet to be released. Those are all songs where you have to move. And I moved a lot! Three songs back to back dancing on stage, I’ve never had to deal with that level of breath control. There were times when I was completely finished from that little dance I did for the first verse and now the chorus is here and I have to hit some high or loud notes. I’m panting, my voice is dry, and I fell flat on some notes because I was in out of my depth - I was feeling like Beyonce when really I don’t have the cardio. I’m usually so particular. It doesn’t matter how good the set is, if I mess up I’m like I fucked up, I’m useless, I’m awful. But for this set, it didn’t really matter because I was having so much fun and people were enjoying. That’s when I knew it was genuinely a good moment for me. That was definitely my best performance despite all the flaws. I felt as though energy wise I was so present - I became my songs reincarnated.
What 5 artists you currently listening to?
Burna Boy - Gbona
Palm Wine Music - Vol. 1 and 2
The Beatles - Revolver and Rubber Soul
What’s your dream collaboration? The person could be dead or alive.
Right now, Wizkid.