“The Challenge Is To Say The Least, But The Most”: An Interview with Kweku Collins

Donna-Claire speaks with Kweku Collins about growing up outside of Chicago, his 'grey' EP, and tackling tough topics through music.
By    May 15, 2017

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‘I’m smoking weed in a foreign place, let me sit down and take a picture,’ Kweku Collins explains triumphantly. His latest EP, grey, was born after sparking up a joint and taking a nighttime walk last winter in Copenhagen. Not even 21, the Evanston artist was on the last leg of his first European tour when he walked passed a staircase leading up to a towering set of double doors. His own version of the Rocky Steps, Kweku ran up to the doors, snapped a picture, and it was ‘damn near the cover’ of the project.

Not even a year removed from his genre-blending debut LP Nat Love—which mixed psychedelic rock influences with spoken word raps—Kweku had been fiending to put together a new EP. In the spirit of some of his favorite concept albums—Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks—Collins took a literary approach to grey, structuring it as if it were a screenplay. Broken up into three distinct acts with two storylines, the EP zooms in on the complications that came once ‘music and [his] personal life got intermingled.’ The tender acoustic ballad “Youaintshit (Shine On)” acts as a final apology, while “Dec. 25th” eulogizes two loved ones: an old friend and his great grandmother.

Though the project tackles loss, grey manages to stay afloat with sharp accents, bright piano lines, and sunny breakdowns. “Lucky Ones” is as bouncy as it melodic and “The Continuation” is an optimistic look at days to come. In that same breath, Kweku Collins keeps his head above water by giving himself over to his music. Though he hates cliches, he attests that music is his therapy. When Kweku Collins and I spoke on the phone, we discussed his musical influences, how his music keeps his head above water, a track by track breakdown of grey, and the days leading up to its recording. —Donna-Claire


In terms of background, you come from a very supportive and creative family: music, language, dancing. What was the pivotal moment where you all saw that music was the definite path for you instead of college?


Kweku Collins: It was different for my parents. For my dad, he was more supportive early on. He saw that music was something I wanted to pursue—he saw the drive. He saw that I was finding my voice, and he’s always been about following your passions. You know: if it becomes something that you can do and you can make a career out of it, then go for it. My mom took a little bit longer; she took the more scholastic path. She’s well over college educated and she’s a teacher, but it was right before 2015 started, when blogs started listening and picking up my music. She saw that things started to happen, so she got behind it after that.


In an older interview you mentioned that you don’t see yourself as a Chicago artist just because you live close to the city. So if it’s more than location, what makes a “Chicago artist?”


Kweku Collins: Really, it is location. Evanston isn’t Chicago and that’s just how it is. I feel like when you live in Chicago or live near Chicago, you understand. I’m sure it’s the same thing for a lot of cities that have suburbs. When you’re from Chicago and there’s me coming from Evanston, if somebody was to ask me where I’m from I’d tell them I’m from Chicago. Then they’d ask, ‘Oh, what part?’ Then I’d tell them that I’m actually from Evanston, so it’s like ‘Well, you’re not really from Chicago.’ It’s like a Chicago pride; people from Chicago are proud to say that they’re from Chicago. For me, it’s like, why would I want to say that if I’m not really from there? It seems like a front to say I’m from Chicago and I don’t like to front. Fronting is stressful, and I’m not with that.


What makes an “Evanston artist?”


Kweku Collins: Where I come from influences my music the same way where anyone comes from influences their music. The people that I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had, and the place that I come from and the people that I live with, and all that has been affected by where I live. I would not have experienced these things had I not lived here, and that is true for literally anyone.


In another interview you mention that you see your race as “operating fluidly.” In terms of the new EP, grey, that’s a very fluid color. So are there any moments where you have a fluid identity on the project?


Kweku Collins: As far as artistically, I think my identity is fluid, but I also think that makes it kind of the same. In my music I feel like I take on just one big identity, and I’m just trying to get to the farthest corners of my imagination and bringing back whatever I can. I don’t think there’s a massive identity shift between me as a person and me as an artist. They’re pretty much the same thing.


In an interview with Interview, you described the project as several acts of a screenplay. Can you breakdown each act for me?


Kweku Collins: It’s all of the same story, but I break up the storylines. The storylines shift between a sonic storyline and an actual plot. So the first three songs, sonically, those go together really well. We’ve got “Lucky Ones,” “Aya,” “Jump.i,” and I think those songs flow into each other really, really nicely. “Lucky Ones” has multiple layers, but it’s really about checking your privilege. For me, personally, about being a male, being a black male, being a white male, being biracial, coming from where I do, living where I do, and things like that. It’s also about being an artist and how there are millions of artists that want to do even what I get to do, on the small scale I get to do it at, and they don’t get the opportunity. Or they’ll miss the opportunity, or they won’t capitalize on it like they should have. So I do feel lucky in that way. I am one of the few artists that has gotten to do what I’ve done.

“Aya,” content wise is different from “Lucky Ones,” but the sound really links up. “Aya” is about finding later in your life that there was something missing, like you feel like there was something missing when you were growing up. You feel like there was something that you needed. That takes us to “Jump.i,” which is more about being here and ready, and how I’m going to try to—it’s cliche as hell—take life by the horns. I’m gonna fight for this shit and I’m gonna fight to the death. Then take that into “International Business Trip,” which is a celebration of hard work and perseverance. Also, it’s kind of a flex.

So all of that tracks me through a little bit of personal life, and then it gets into more career type shit. In “Jump.i” there’s a couple mentions of cracks forming in a relationship. Then you fast forward to “International Business Trip,” and the machine is turning and things are going. That falls into “Youaintshit (Shine On)” where things are going really well, but then there’s this parallel story of this relationship that is falling apart. A lot of that is due to what’s going on up here with the music. So that moment tracks the falling apart of this relationship, then you go into “Oasis.” That, to me, is like the last moment the couple has before they really say goodbye. Then “Oasis” goes into “Things I Know,” which sonically matches up. The topic changes, because “Things I Know” is really my take on death and what I was thinking when I thought of death at the time. What links those two songs together is the piano lines. I think they go together really smoothly, especially with that rustling in the beginning of the song.

Then we go into “Dec. 25th,” which also deals with death in a more personal way, but the piano is in there, too. So that links up. Then we have “The Continuation,” which is a summary of the whole project. It’s a restorative message, and a message of hope. It’s like a period, but it’s also a comma. It’s a dot dot dot, essentially. We’re not done here, we’re still moving, but also we’ve been through shit and moved on.


Where does such a literary approach come from and does it change the way you put together a project?


Kweku Collins: All of my favorite albums are all albums with concepts and plot lines. My favorite albums are albums you listen to front-to-back, because they’re meant to be listened to front-to-back, like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. That’s like one of the first concept albums. Then we’ve got the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s and Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks. Then fast forward to Kendrick Lamar, with every album he’s ever made, damn near. There’s Tame Impala, same thing. Those albums you can really dissect. Literarily, it’s a very important thing, especially when you get down to Kendrick and Bob Dylan, and Tame Impala and their last album Currents. When you listen to the story and the lyrics, it actually paints a picture and it’s like a screenplay.

So those are the albums that resonate with me, and because I’m an artist my thought is, ‘Why would I not do the same thing?’ If this is what my idols are doing, why should I not strive to be on that level? Oh, Frank Ocean! I completely forgot Frank Ocean: Blonde, Channel Orange, Nostalgia, Ultra. All the way through, the songwriting is on point and so is the story.


“Aya” sounds the most like a theme from Nat Love that’s been evolved for this EP. Do you ever look back into your catalog when you make new music?


Kweku Collins: I definitely do, but not consciously. When I was making “Aya,” I could hear other songs in it, but I don’t ever go back and listen to older tracks and think, ‘I should make songs like this.’ All of that stuff is just still inside of me, so each song I make is an evolved version of something I’ve already made. Or it’s something completely new, but I still think artists are always building on themselves. So there’s always hints of the previous work, even if it’s not completely obvious, because that’s just the nature of the person. My personality is always going to be in my music; therefore, you’re always going to be able to trace any element of my music back to another piece of music that I’ve made.


I hear that in “Youaintshit,” which sounds like the spiritual successor of “The Rain Won’t Save.” On that song, you’re singing about promises and broken promises, and I’m wondering who is the “you?”


Kweku Collins: The ‘You’ in “Youaintshit” is directed at me. I wasn’t talking to another person like, ‘You did all this fucked up shit, but you ain’t shit.’ That’s directed at me.


It sounds like you’re really frustrated with yourself on that song, so can you give me some insight into how it feels to take such a deep look into yourself and maybe not like what you’re seeing?


Kweku Collins: With that song and writing that, I had come to a point where I felt like whatever happened, happened. I just had to come to terms with that. The other person involved in that situation, we didn’t end things badly. We ended things understanding where the other was at. You know, we ended things very respectfully and amicably. I don’t really feel any way about myself other than ‘Oh, I did that. I gotta watch myself in the future and look out for next time.’


You’ve got a cover of “Maps” on the project, so let’s talk about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Are there any other places where they or another indie-punk group influence your music directly?


Kweku Collins: Yeah! It’s not on grey, it’s actually the other “Oasis” on Nat Love. That one, I took a lot of not so much indie punk, but moreso Tame Impala and psychedelic-rock influence. As far as indie-punk, there’s a little bit of Bon Iver on “Things I Know,” but he’s not really punk.


You address death in several places across the EP, so what obstacles came with tackling something so dark?


Kweku Collins: When it comes to death, and all my music, I try to keep it very personal. I’m not into imposing my beliefs on anybody or anything like that. I try to be aware of that with my music. The only challenge with writing about death is, it’s kind of fucked up, but cliches. When I hear cliches in songs that are supposed to be very personal, it makes it harder for me to relate, because it seems too much like ‘Oh, you’re saying this because you think it’s going to hit really hard.’ There’s just a lack of connection for me, and I think it circumvents the point. So for me, the challenge is to say the least, but the most.


“Dec. 25th” is one of those specific deep cuts, eulogizing two loved ones, but you don’t sound like you’re drowning in your emotions. How do you keep your head above water when you’re writing?


Kweku Collins: It’s like how I keep myself from drowning when I’m in real life. Yeah, things might be going on and I might be dealing with loss or a breakup, but there’s no point in wallowing. There’s no use in self pity; there’s more harm in it than good. So I have to keep going and maintaining, and I’m really lucky that I have people in my life that I can talk to if I need to. If I don’t have anyone around me to talk to, I can write the feelings down and I can go and make music. Making music for me—okay, a cliche—is like therapy. A lot of the times, I feel like I don’t need to talk to somebody, I just need to make a song. That helps me put it to bed, and put the emotion to rest.

I don’t really think getting down 24/7, not like turning up, but like, ‘This and this and everything is shit,’ is cool at all. I think that’s really corny. It’s natural to be sad, and that’s part of being human, but I think if you’re gonna put it out into the world, I feel like using sadness as a tool to help people get through theirs should be the objective. So that really keeps me from drowning and wallowing when I’m writing, because I get to release. Knowing that this is about this, and other people could be feeling this way, the song also has to be able to find hope and healing in the music as well.


Let’s talk about the picture Closed Sessions tweeted out of you in Copenhagen last year next to this huge set of doors. It was captioned as the place where grey was born. Tell me about that location and that eureka moment.


Kweku Collins: So last year I was on a tour in November, and we went through Europe. Copenhagen was the last stop on the tour. The whole tour and the few days leading up to the tour, I just had this feeling that I wanted to make an EP and I wanted to put out new music. Over the time of the tour, I started to have this idea of making an EP and calling it ‘grey,’ but I didn’t know what I wanted it to sound like. There were things going on in my life, too, where I was having some struggles. So we were walking around Copenhagen at night, and we had just sparked up a joint. So we come up to the stairset that you see in the photo, and there’s a chair at the top so I say, ‘Yo, take a picture of me up there.’ I got up, took the picture, came back down, and thought, ‘Woah! That’s damn near the cover.’ Immediately, I figured out what I wanted it to sound like. So it was all right there. The second I got home from tour, I got right to work.


In the picture, you’ve got a really confident expression on your face.


Kweku Collins: If I was looking confident at that point, it was less because of the project and more like, ‘I am on the last leg of my first European tour, I have seen more countries than I ever thought I would. I’m smoking weed in a foreign place, let me sit down and take a picture.’


On the whole the EP feels like you zoomed in on a very specific time in your life, so can you breakdown the timeline of making the project and where you were at during the recording days?


Kweku Collins: I was in an odd place recording. I technically started recording for the project before I even started the project. I had two songs done before I even knew I was going to make this project. I started “Jump.i” the summer of 2016. The recording process after that, there was a lot going on in my life career wise. The music was jumping off, but conversely there were some complicated things going on in my personal life. Music and my personal life got intermingled for a while and it kind of sucked.


I really hear that when the beat comes in on “Youaintshit,” you sound like you’re really off kilter.


Kweku Collins: Definitely, and an off kilter topic, too. It’s supposed to sound like that. That breakdown is supposed to be very sunny, but it’s also supposed to be a little melancholy. It’s a, ‘You know you fucked up with someone you cared about, and you can’t tell them you’re sorry because you said it too many times.’ That was my way of saying, ‘I know that’s where we’re at, but this is true and I just need you to know this. And this is the last shit I’m gonna say.’ That’s what the beat was supposed to say. That’s why the beat sounds all janky and a bit subdued.


The last song suggests you’ve got much more up your sleeve: “It won’t wait ‘til we older.” Is there a second album on the horizon?


Kweku Collins: I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘on the horizon,’ but I will say that there will be a second album.