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Hamzaa Turned Being "Sad as Fuck" into Rich Soul-R&B

We meet the 20-year-old singer and songwriter, who landed her first TV spot as an unsigned teen last autumn. She's just getting started.

by Grace Shutti
26 April 2019, 9:45am

(Photo via PR)

It’s just after 11AM on a dreary Wednesday and a slightly hungover Hamzaa has ambled down to Dalston Kingsland station, a five-minute walk from her house, to meet me. She’s wearing giant shades that obscure her face and a black hoodie (AKA a strong day-after-the-night-before outfit). We’re about to dig into our interview – and the pancakes she ordered – in the whitewashed courtyard of a suitably trendy cafe, but more exciting news threatens to derail it all: Hamzaa has been verified on Instagram. The 20-year-old gasps and squeals in celebration, but it’s a relatively minor milestone considering the year she’s had.

After experiencing her first ever heartbreak, Hamzaa did what any good singer-songwriter should: she wrote an EP about it. On her debut single “You,” Hamzaa wrapped the reality of a doomed relationship in the sweetness of her raw-edged vocals, winding around an acoustic guitar. It was enough to earn her a televised spot on Later… with Jools Holland (while unsigned) and she’s since caught the attention of BBC Introducing, 1Xtra and Capital Xtra. She tells me she sees the people she calls collaborators – most notably Wretch 32 and Ghetts, both on the remix for her life-affirming anthem “Breathing” – more as friends. And in fairness, her list of fans, from Ray BLK to Stormzy and Jorja Smith, is growing. This summer, her slot at Glastonbury is due to mark a year since “You” dropped. But how did Hamzaa get here? It all started at piano with a little help from her mum.

Noisey: What were you like growing up?
Hamzaa: A very creative child. Weekends I was at little kiddy dance sessions, Stagecoach. I got piano lessons from the age of four. I was really bad at learning because I would learn the music by ear and then pretend I was reading from the sheet music. I would always get in trouble so I just started writing songs from the age of six.

Really? What did you write about?
I dunno, love. I didn’t grow up with my dad, so I used to write songs like ‘Why don’t you come back’, ‘Oh I miss you’. Daddy issues stuff [rolls eyes].

It seems like your mum raised you well, though.
I didn’t turn out too bad. I wasn’t one of those kids that my mum told couldn’t do music. But she did want me to go to school and have a proper career. We got a bursary and a scholarship, so she wasn’t paying full fees but it was expensive and stressful.

So she sent you to private school, but you dropped out. How did you figure out what you were going to do?
She had a vision of me going to school, going to uni, getting a degree. [Imitates her mum] “Academia, academia”. I was always pretty good with school, so when I told her: “I wanna leave school” because I wasn’t feeling it... [laughs] – it wasn’t it! – she said “OK, come home then.” So I got a job at Brixton Academy. I also auditioned for The Voice. I got through to all the early stages, and they were gonna send me all the details for Manchester cause they film it there. They sent me all the details, regulations, the itinerary and I said, “Do you know what? I’m not going.”

I feel like this is the bit where you say: that’s when you met [insert famous person here] and it all happened from there.
No, it wasn’t like that at all. I’d been recording and writing music and putting stuff up on Soundcloud. Ella [her now manager] said, “look, Zeon [her other manager], I’ve just seen this girl singing on Twitter. I’ve heard her stuff it’s sick.” And he was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the girl from the video tape”, ‘cause he’d seen my audition tape for The Voice. So it was fate.

I watched your Jools Holland performance and others – you carry yourself like you’ve been doing this for about ten years. What’s your first memory of performing?
I was dancing from the age of three, right from when I could manoeuvre myself. I’ve been on stage and performing in front of people since the age of seven. That’s something that I’ve never been scared of. If anything it’s my element. I’m at my best. My friends say when they see me on stage, they know I’m good. I’m getting emotional, ew.

Awww, why are you emotional?
For my friends, it’s crazy for them to see me and be a part of this. Everyone used to tell me ‘you’re gonna be a singer.’ I was like no, I wanna go and study international business in Canada. Like...? That’s what I was on. I’m now a singer, I’m working with some of my friends’ favourite artists.

One thing that I found interesting about “Stranded Love,” your first single, was that it didn’t sound like a heartbreak song.
Girl. I was sad as fuck.

The song is super painful but the music doesn’t feel like that.
I wanted it to feel like you could listen to it and go, “Yeah! Ain’t no way around it, the love I have is stranded here.” Like “I hate you so much right now.” Phwoar, Kelis. You did that honey. Or [sings] “Get out / right now”. Cause even though it’s sound sad, it’s still quite upbeat.

When did you first get feedback from other people that made you think, ‘I know what I’m doing is good’?
“Breathing.” That’s one of the first songs that I ever went to the studio to sit and write and record.

Yeah, that one’s had a big response.
Everyone’s been through feeling like giving up, feeling like you haven't had a moment of reflection to look at how far you’ve come. You might have all your friends around you, saying “I know it’s hard but you’ve come a long way.” You can hear that everyday, but when someone you don’t know is singing that in your ear, it’s like, ‘woah.’ That’s special.

Do you feel that way when you listen to yourself singing it?
Not anymore. [laughs] When I was in the studio and I first listened back to it I cried, right there. If I heard this song a couple months before, I don't think I would have been as sad and depressed as I was. I know a song can’t take you out of depression but sometimes a song is all you need to get the thought process and conversations rolling.

You’ve said that talking about your experiences in songs doesn’t scare you. Why not?
Because it's already happened. I only fear things that haven’t happened. Sometimes people understand my music differently to how I do and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What does scare you?
[Long pause] I’m not really scared of much. I mean I have a phobia of vomit...

Tell me about making “Breathing Pt. 2” with Wretch 32 and Ghetts. Had you met them before?
Wretch and I have the same manager so I’d met him at a few events. My manager played him “Breathing” and Wretch was like, ‘This song made me emotional, it’s really special.’ And then my other manager said Wretch wanted to be on it. I thought, ‘Let’s put out Part 1, then if we feel like it needs a remix, we’ll do a remix.’ Cool, done, ready to go. We put the snippet video up and Ghetts messaged my management and was like, ‘Bro I need to be a part of it’. He comes to the studio and he kills it. Yeah it was so organic. The song spoke to both of them and I think it was perfect.

How naturally do collaborations come for you? Or do they feel like something you need to go after for a co-sign, at this point in your career?
I’m not really one for ‘let’s hook up and collab.’ I sometimes come across as a bitch, but I know my sound and what I wanna do. I’m all down for a jam session but I don’t wanna an organised jam session. If I’m in a room and you’re in a room and there’s a mic and a piano, we can jam. But if you’re telling me we have to meet up, I’m like, ‘no’.

What’s coming up in the future? Can you tell me anything about your next single?
Yeah, it’s different. It’s a stamp to say here’s Hamzaa. This is where we’re going. This is the level we’re tryna set. This is what team can do.

You’ve already achieved a lot, so how do you set goals for yourself when you’ve done so much?
[Grimaces]

Do you think you’ve achieved a lot already?
Errrrr yeah?

You sound unconvinced.
I’m super excited for the things that are happening and this is what I’ve wanted for myself, but put it this way: You know when you go to school and you get an A? Your parents might say well done but they aren’t gonna congratulate you and jump and scream and shout. It’s like clapping at a fish for swimming. I’m humbled by it cause not everybody gets to do some of the things that I’ve done early on in their career, but I’m really, really early on it my career. I released my first single in June.

It’s massively early days, but the nature of ‘virality’ in music makes that hard to grasp sometimes.
It’s intense, but I also feel like it’s not just about me. There’s a whole team involved. Everyone, if you read this interview, I wanna say thank you and I’m proud of you. In the music industry, once you sign a record deal, there’s a force behind the artist. It’s not like they wake up one day and they’re on Glastonbury. [Pauses to decide whether she can tell me] I got confirmed for Glastonbury.

That’s amazing. How do you feel about it?
It speaks for itself. It’s Glastonbury. Janet Jackson. Kylie Minogue. Lizzo [sighs in awe]. Stormz. The big man Stormz. And Hamzaa is also on the bill. Hahahahahaaa!

This article was updated on Friday 26 April to reflect that Hamzaa had been verified on Instagram.

You can find Grace on Twitter.