The only reason I know the word “serendipity” is because of that ridiculous 2001 rom com starring Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack of the same name. I don’t recall the plot, but at the very beginning, Beckinsale says in a really clipped English accent, “Serendipity. It’s one of my favourite words. It’s just such a nice sound for what it means: a fortunate accident. Except I don’t really believe in accidents. I think fate sends us little signs and it’s how we read the signs that determines whether we’re happy or not.”
It’s also a word that keeps coming up during my conversation with Kwaye, a 23-year-old singer songwriter from the UK who has made some of the freshest, most exciting pop music of 2017. If you’re a cynic, you might think words like “serendipity” and “fate” are just flowery terms to dress up the many ways in which humans try to ascribe meaning to a string of inconsequential events in order to give their lives some semblance of purpose. If you’re more of an idealist – like I am, and I get the feeling Kwaye is too – you might look at good things that have happened and marvel at the tiny moments that led up to them, and how they very nearly didn’t happen at all.
When I meet Kwaye in a North London cafe on a frosty December afternoon – both of us drinking steamy lemon teas, cross legged on cushions, his hair piled into a bun – he tells me about some recent serendipitous events that led to where he is right now. In 2014, he secured a place at UCLA for a year as part of his American Studies degree in Sussex, even though there were only three spots, one of which went to his best mate. While he was out in LA, he became friends with a producer who showed him an instrumental he hadn’t yet found use for. “We’d always show each other music we’d been working on,” Kwaye explains, his eyes wide, voice lowered. The instrumental was a sweeping, synthy thing, full of funk squelches and 1980s drum sounds, and Kwaye thought he could make it shine by adding lyrics. “So I went home and recorded some vocals over it and the next day I gave him a ring like ‘bro, you have to hear this’. Then that was the demo for my first track “Cool Kids”’.
And “Cool Kids” is good; it’s really good. Kwaye’s voice – which sounds like a polished mixture of Prince and Toni Braxton – glides over the breezy electronics like peaches and cream and the result is vibrant, colourful, catchy. One of the most beautiful things about this track, Kwaye tells me, are the juxtaposing emotions it was born from. “The producer actually made the track at a low point in his life, to do with a relationship,” he explains. “But he didn’t tell me that at the time, he just told me in hindsight. But when I heard the song the feeling I got was almost completely contrasting; full of hope and wonder. And the song I wrote was inspired by my friends from home and being comfortable in your own skin. So when the two came hand in hand it made a song that we thought was so cohesive and beautiful. And then he told me that he couldn’t believe I found that message in the song because it came from a certain dark place, but I found the light in it.”
“Cool Kids” is definitely the sort of track you couldn’t put on in the background without somebody noticing. Which is why, when Kwaye put the demo on shuffle in an Uber a few weeks later, he didn’t think it strange that the driver started firing out questions. “At the end of the trip, he asked if there was a way he could contact me on email to hear the song. And then a few days afterward he got in touch,” Kwaye recounts now. “The driver of the Uber happened to be a former music exec, but I didn’t know this at the time.” He also happened to know the head of independent label Mind of a Genius, and after being invited to a few studio sessions to practice and record with the producer of “Cool Kids”, Kwaye was swiftly signed.
Kwaye was born in Zimbabwe and then moved to London with his parents and older sisters when he was three, finally ending up in Kent. By the sounds of it, he had quite an idyllic childhood, spending most nights riding around the grassy suburban neighbourhood on his bike and hanging out with friends after school. His family home was always full of music and instruments. “I feel very blessed having grown up in this world of music,” he says with a smile. “My household was full of everything from guitars to piano to drums to hosho – which are Zimbabwean shakers. My mum spearheaded the music inspirations in my family as well, and we’d listen to Queen, Prince and Bob Marley as these are her favourites. With my older sisters, they were in their teens when it was the height of R&B in the late 90s and early 00s, so it was all about TLC, Destiny’s Child, Toni Braxton, Aaliyah, Ashanti. Out of that world, I really gravitated towards the neo-soul side of it. People like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Sade, Maxwell. Then later Tracy Chapman.”
Kwaye hasn’t just spent his whole life wrapped up in these classic R&B, soul and pop sounds. He’s also got a natural affinity to dance and the physical body. To him, that’s always meant just as much as the music itself. “I grew up dancing. But it’s not like I took it seriously like I wanted to go to dance class,” he says. “I was just always moving to music, it was something that was very natural to me.” When he was ten or eleven, his older sister took him along to watch a national dance competition and it made a real impact. “I saw a dance group there called Ricochet and they were so seamless and on point – they’re legendary in the dance world, they’re insane – and I remember that being the first time I’d been properly blown away by dance.”
When you listen to Kwaye’s output so far – comprised of three-song EP Solar, and two standalone tracks, all with music videos – these formative influences are so integral they’re practically screaming at you. “Little Ones”, his second release, sounds like a 1980s pop classic you might stumble across on Top of the Pops 2, but with the alt sheen of 2017, occupying a space somewhere between Blood Orange and Prince. The video, which is just as impactful as the track, shows Kwaye and a group of dancers moving effortlessly within the shadowy recesses of a church, their bodies moving like the different muscles of a singular creature. “Put me in a box, I don't wanna / Limit myself to these four lines,” he sings in a graceful, almost aggressive way, not dissimilar to Michael Jackson on Bad. “I wrote and made the whole of the Solar EP during that same year [I was in LA],” Kwaye tells me. “I think that’s why the sound of it is so cohesive and uplifting, including the visuals. They all came from the same place at the same time with the same producer. That year was monumental for me for so many different reasons.”
So what happened after that monumental year? “I just went back to uni!” he says, laughing. “Can you imagine? It was crazy. I just left LA and found myself back in Brighton, writing dissertations upon dissertations upon dissertations. But I was also trying to be in the studio over here as much as possible and thinking about my music. During that time I was finding out in my own way how difficult juggling all these commitments really was. But then again I wouldn’t change it; it was valuable and exciting and I got my degree, so…”
Two weeks later and Kwaye is dragging a giant luggage bag through a gaggle of startled geese beneath the cold white sun. We’ve arranged to meet again in a West London rose garden – although all the flowers have shrivelled among the ice – to take some pics and have a catch up by the lake. When we see each other at the gates he greets me like an old friend and proceeds to show me all the clothes in his carry case: a brown vintage jacket, a full maroon suit, crisp white shirts and various pieces of beaded jewellry. These are outfits he’s brought to change into over the course of the afternoon, and while he’s talking, it strikes me that he possesses the same staunch perfectionist bent present in a lot of our most successful pop stars. When I ask him if he’ll be performing any shows soon, for instance, he dives into a detailed account of all the choreography he has planned for it, partly inspired by Solange’s recent performance of A Seat At the Table at AfroPunk, in which everybody on stage was in synch. “My first live shows will be at the beginning of next year,” he adds, “and you know I’m putting in 100 percent when it comes to the rehearsals for sure”.
The afternoon passes by in a haze and soon the sun is setting, making the sky turn a weird light strawberry colour. I keep worrying that Kwaye might be getting cold, but he seems so focussed on the matter at hand, and generally gracious as a person, that he doesn’t seem to notice. While our photographer snaps away, I think to myself that it’s this mixture of poise, positivity and talent that will surely make 2018 bloom for Kwaye. I feel genuinely excited about what he’s going to create. The songs he will release. The shows he will come up with. About the ripples he will make. On our walk back to through the rose garden, I ask whether he has something big planned, like an album, or a film. “I’m building up to a full body of work that’s expressing the story I’ve got so far,” he tells me. “You can be sure that everything I’m working on now is leading up to that.”