Kindness in London, September 2014. All photos by Rebecca Miller. There aren’t many people who can wear a wide-brimmed blue hat without looking like a total dickhead, but alt.pop producer Kindness pulls it off like it's no big deal. He positions his gangly limbs gracefully, tips the cobalt felt towards the camera, and looks into the lens with dutiful intensity—tired, perhaps, of the many photoshoots, the many interviews and the many excitable comments about what crowns his long tousled hair. It’s not quite Pharrell’s Mountain hat but it is intimidating, a volume of Dostoyevsky short stories strapped to the head of a spindly gazelle. It says: I’m different. It says: I’m self-assured. It says: don’t ask me stupid questions. So, of course, I do. “Can I try it on?” I put the hat on my head. I look like a dickhead. “It's just confidence,” he says. But I’m not wearing the matching cornflower socks peeking between white pants and all-white leather Converse requisite to really make this look work. It’s this rudeboy attention to detail, whether sartorial or in the studio, that makes Kindness an artist whose surface you want to scratch beneath. His 2012 debut, World, You Need A Change Of Mind, was packed with almost scholarly nods to Prince, Arthur Russell, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Chic, 80s boyband soul, and Washington go-go troupe Trouble Funk, collaged together, with the help of Cassius's Philippe Zdar, to create damn funky lo-fi disco-house. It was the product, Kindness says, of being a massive music nerd-fan and it established him as an unlikely pop provocateur—the kind who thought nothing of covering the theme tune to EastEnders and including it on his debut long player. Then again, you get the idea that Kindness has always danced to his own peculiar beat. Born Adam Bainbridge, a mixed race kid growing up in a small town, his mother's family, Indian political exiles from South Africa; his father, if Kindness's Instagram is anything to go by, the hottest dad ever. He left home at 18 and, at various points, has lived among east London's indie-noise bands, in Pennsylvania, where he was an artist in residence for the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study, and in Berlin, where he shared a flat with his childhood friend, the house producer Heatsick. He's never really associated himself with a particular sound or a scene—until, perhaps, the one he's helped cultivate since World…—a bunch of “freaks” and future-pop enthusiasts that stretches from Sean Nicholas Savage to Sampha. These days, Kindness is as likely to shoot music videos for Luaka Bop’s William Onyeabor project, and record and perform with his best mate Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), as he is to clock studio time with Solange or make music documentaries with his girlfriend, artist Pauline Beaudemont (they currently reside together in Geneva). Today we’re in London, sat in one of the last surviving Soho members’ clubs, where books written by its eccentric members are stacked haphazardly on a mantelpiece and silver-topped men and women are immersed in fiery human rights discussions around cramped tables. But even here, Kindness emits an overwhelming sense of “other.” Despite the artistic community he's become part of, he still feels like an outsider within the wider music and art worlds.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like an insider, anyway,” he says nonchalantly. “Consider for a moment that I just don’t look right in many environments; the ideal place for me would probably be playing in an indie guitar band. So when I move in and out of other fields—especially with pop music—you have this semi-androgynous, Todd Rundgren character who gangles around the studio. And often that confuses the hell out of people.” Even if Kindness sees himself as a pop producer first and foremost, others do not. He talks about some sessions he did with [insert big rap artists here] after being hooked up by their engineer. “I promise you, simply my appearance and the way I dress, even if I had the best ideas in the world, confused them so much that they never asked me to come back. It sounds a bit ‘world’s smallest violin,’ but I really wanted those sessions to work and to not be invited back is crushing. But, at the same time, I’m not going to be held back by the way I look, or the artwork or the videos that I choose to make. I’m not going to cut my hair or start wearing foot-to-toe Rocawear if it makes my relationship with hip-hop or funk or R&B more understandable.” It makes sense, then, that he's called his new album Otherness. It touches on soul, jazz, R&B, electronics, and even African folk (“For the Young,” which builds on a gorgeous sample from Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso’s Gambian folk ditty “Moon/Light”). Yet it's filtered through Kindness's ear for musical otherness—a pop palette that swirls muted influences from the past, stretching from Prince's 70s to Timbaland's 2000s, while managing to sound like it's fully footed in the future at the same time.
He’s described the writing and making of World… as a lonely experience, while Otherness was the total opposite. It’s a collaborative record, self-produced by Kindness but made with friends and like-minded artists, such as Hynes, Robyn, Kelela, Tawiah, and Ghanaian rapper M.anifest. On engineering duties veteran R&B studio dude Jimmy Douglass, the man who perfected Timbaland’s genre-defining Aaliyah and Missy Elliott songs. Their encouragement helped him become “even more at ease with what I do,” and going into the studio with them every day was an enjoyable, even joyous, experience. Perhaps he's reluctant to talk about it because, in a way, the album's freedom makes it more personal. “There’s no protective gauze; it’s sort of bare,” he says, for a moment letting his guard drop.
The album track with Robyn titled “Who Do You Love?” has also led to a separate project with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production pair behind Janet Jackson’s biggest hits. It was too late to work on Otherness together, says Kindness, but, if Terry’s thoughts on “Who Do You Love?” are anything to go by, you can expect their forthcoming collaboration to be less, well, weird.
“Robyn and I played it to them, and Terry just laughed about the drum arrangement”—an obscure Bob and Lola Blank-produced break from LaChanrdra’s “Shy Girl” that yo-yos in and out—“because he just thought it was unhinged.” Is that a fair description? “I’d say chaotic,” he offers.
An overriding criticism of World… was that it was hyper-referential but, despite this apparent chaos, Otherness seems less eager to overtly show off. There's no equivalent of “Anyone Can Fall In Love” this time around, at least. Brit synthpop outfit Art Of Noise’s 1985 track “Moments In Love”—a “ten-minute instrumental ode to sensuality,” proclaims the band’s Wikipedia page—makes an appearance on “With You,” which casts Kelela on lead vocals over a slinky downtempo jam. But other than these few, and a cowbell that sounds almost exactly like the one in Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy,” which he won't talk about either, the album isn't cluttered with historical footnotes. “I think I’m probably less of a brat this time around,” Kindness admits. “I love the idea of challenging people with bringing a subversive element into pop, but I think the songs were already complex enough as it was—there didn’t need to be another layer of distraction. I just want people to appreciate that pop can be warm and friendly even if it doesn’t sound like what they’re used to. So I know those hundreds of nods and references are in there, but it doesn’t smack you in the face.” Not that he's up for discussing the specifics of his music much. In fact, he’s happier talking about traditional Jewish clothing, his snapback collection, and a long list of things that he confides like an old friend but, he says in a sweetly threatening manner, are strictly “off the record.” Musical themes and ideas and all the things he's already said in countless other interviews that week, which he refers to numerous times, are not on his agenda.
He does, however, want to talk about the generalizations that others make about him and his music. He’s especially riled by a UK music magazine that recently described him as the “white Prince.”
“I’m a mixed-race guy living somewhat at ease in a British society, so simplifying things incorrectly makes me really uncomfortable. It continues this whole chain of kneejerk reactions, where people base everything about my music on what I look like.” Likewise, he’s perplexed by a recent New Yorker article by Sasha Frere-Jones about Kelela, FKA Twigs, and the so-called new wave of alternative R&B. “I remember with Kelela’s first press release for ‘Cut 4 Me,’ it was going to omit the term R&B entirely,” he says, a line drawing of the singer’s face adorning his t-shirt, which he smooths down proudly. “Those two women are more like Björk than any mainstream R&B singer, so why aren’t they seen like Björk? Why can’t they just be experimental electronic musicians? It’s a dangerous oversimplification to use genre names to help fit artists into your narrative—that’s what I disagreed with. Writing an article that unites those two women based on part of their racial identity above anything else just seemed like lazy journalism to me. Sorry Sasha.”
At times, Kindness can come off as so obtuse that I want take his blue hat and stamp on it. But he counters this aloof air with an endearing goofiness. The video to one of first singles, “House,” didn't even feature the full song, but instead showed Kindness teaching a young boy how to play piano. And in the video for his latest single, “This Is Not About Us,” he awkwardly performs a dance sequence next to a glamorous voguer, his limbs looking as if they could endlessly wrap round each other like cheese strings. It's not knowing peacockery, but a performer who wants to fuck with the norm. “The thing I keep coming back to is how otherness is considered a negative thing to some people,” he explains. “And my intention was to say: Maybe it’s not for everyone, but that it's something that should be prized. It just takes a different way of looking at things. And that’s an approach to my life and also what I do in music.” I should probably ask you something else about your album. “You don’t have to.” I pour over my list of questions he's been asked a thousand times, but I'm still looking at that frigging hat. Who wears hats better? You or Dev? “Dev. He has a lot more variety of hats.” He gets up to go, sweeping it off the chair and onto his head. “This is the last shoot I ever do in this one.”
Kate Hutchinson is a London-based writer and editor and all around diamond. She also wears hats rather fabulously. Follow her on Twitter.