Singer and producer Lafawndah. Photo by Jason Rodgers.
"I like to decontextualize sounds and rhythms—that's really important to me," Lafawndah said to me, as we sat in a Williamsburg park looking out onto the Manhattan skyline. "It's one of my favorite games in the world. I don't like when a sound is pinpoint-able."
Like her music, Lafawndah doesn't like to be easily traced. Though she's lived and traveled all over the world, the singer and producer prefers not to reveal her true identity, or talk in too much detail about her past lives. For the character she's chosen to share with the world on her recent self-titled debut, she's chosen Lafawndah as a pseudonym.
It was the name of a drag queen she met at the club one night and "had a really nice experience with." In Arabic, without the "N," it means cacophony. It also happens to be the name of Kip's Internet girlfriend in Napoleon Dynamite. Yesterday she unveiled her EP, and if listeners thought Kelela's Cut 4 Me was a far-off escape from today's musical landscape, Lafawndah is otherworldly.
The turning point in her career as a solo artist came four years ago, when she was living in Mexico City. After an eight-month stint in a girl group she founded, she broke off to develop a solo set that saw her singing over an eclectic mix of 80s industrial music and instrumentals from producers like Kingdom and Hudson Mohawke—without their permission. "I like elaborate productions. Every time I would start my own track it would sound so basic that it didn't make me want to sing over it."
Searching around for a co-producer and collaborator, Lafawndah connected online with a mutual friend, Emily King AKA Garagem Banda, whom she had met years earlier in New York City, and was also just learning how to produce. King, meanwhile, was living in a small village on the French-Carribbean island of Guadalupe with her boyfriend, who knew the legendary zouk producer Jean Claude Bachara.
When they first met, King and Bachara hit it off and Bachara invited her to spend an afternoon working the buttons in his studio, where she came up with the instrumental "Jungle Exit"—then sent it to Lafawndah in Mexico. Within an hour, Lafawndah had recorded her verses and their first official track was finished.
They knew that "Jungle Exit" was only the beginning, so when Bachara offered to produce their record in his studio, Lafawndah flew straight to Guadalupe—no questions asked. They now had a 70-year-old zouk legend working on their debut record, free room and board only 15 minutes north of the island's capital, and a month of studio time free of charge.
"I'm attracted by music that is made on islands in general," Lafawndah says before rattling off a list of genres. "The landscape was important to us—what we were interested in musically needed that type of space. Plus, the idea of being out of context, locked in and away from social obligations and the usual comfort zone."
When they arrived at the studio near Basse-Terre they discovered a problematic generational gap: Bachara couldn't understand the importance of spending hours on meticulous sound design and sampling. "He'd come in the studio like, 'You guys have spent nine hours on this frog sound! Can we move on?'" Lafawndah recounts. "We were like, Yeah but this frog sound is so generic. Do we want it to sound like every frog?"
Lafawndah and King kicked Bachara out and used the rest of their rented studio time to produce the record themselves. "It was like we gave birth that month," Lafawndah said. Having little previous experience, they learned all of the equipment together, building an EP from scratch.
Without a crate full of musical references, the two "baby producers," as Lafawndah describes herself and her partner, based their songs of off feelings. They always started from a specific emotion or image, and then found sounds to express it. "We'd be like, 'This song is about a swamp and it's hot and it's summer and everyone's sweating and it's muddy,'" she said of the process. "Then inside the track it's like, OK this frog is talking to that bird." Her self-titled debut is a record that only two brand new producers could have come up with.
Lafawndah is all tribal sounds mixed with moombahton, interrupted by machinery and industrialism; an acid frog meets a dancehall beat while a trashy techno hook finds its place in zouk. It's that very tension between the natural and industrial that makes the record resonate so well in 2014, when those distinctions have begun to crumble thanks to blowjob machines and RFID chip implants.
Lafawndah is no stranger to jumping head first into new places and odd pairings. She's been a jet-setter since birth, and by the age of six, had already moved from Paris to Tehran and back. Since then, she's also lived in New York and Mexico, where she first moved to work as a curator and art director in various galleries. She speaks English, French, Persian and Spanish.
On "Jungle Exit," she actually sings in Swahili, with lyrics written through Google Translate. "It's a really cool game," she says. For "Jungle Exit," which she wanted to be a naïve representation of her experience in Mexico, she wrote the song in Spanish, translated it to English, and then Swahili.
After that, she deleted all of the earlier versions, only saving the Swahili translation, which she can translate back to nonsensical English, further decontextualizing herself and her own vision amongst the music. Even with the lyrics, it is not about Lafawndah herself, but the emotions she evokes—it is those feelings that are universal.
But Lafawndah finds the power to create the universal by isolating herself. "I decided as of now I will only produce on islands—it's a fucking lock up," she said. It makes sense. The self-sustaining solitary state of island life is exactly like Lafawndah's vision of the music itself. She produces it on her own, and it doesn't easily fit into any of the boxes provided in today's electronic music landscape—it is a world within itself. "You can't do that in your normal life. I can't say 'fuck off' to everyone for a month," she insists. "In New York? FOMO would eat my brain every half-a-second."