Kopano is 19 years old and won’t let you forget it. On a frigid Chicago weekend earlier this month, the singer/songwriter mentioned their age multiple times from the stage at Catalyst Ranch in the West Loop. Each reminder came with a mix of boastful pride and incredulity at the unspoken rarity that their talent and attention could coincide so soon. It was a very 19 year old thing to do.
The well-deserved attention stems from Just In Time For Love, their EP released this time last year. The South Shore native born Kopano Muhammad has since risen up and out of the local scene, performing with acts like Malcolm London, Jamila Woods, and Moonchild, and earning a scholarship to Oberlin College and Conservatory, where they just finished their first semester studying Economics and Vocal Jazz.
Just In Time For Love is an excellent collection of neo-soul songs from someone who was just born when the genre was given a name. With five songs speeding by in 12 minutes, it feels like ordering a flight of beers and knocking them back in quick succession, each track a small sample of a distinct flavor on the menu. “Holding Ya Wrists” is a tender expression of devotion over muted guitar strums that blooms into four-part vocals for the bridge. On “Feel Good,” Kopano plays the self-assured flirt against guest Omar Apollo’s earnest falsetto, coyly repeating “I just came to say hello” over laid-back drums. By “Is It (The Way?),” Kopano is monologuing about the frustration of infatuation like a kid from the Miseducation classroom back home from their first college semester.
Kopano took the stage with just a classical guitar, perching upon a stool and beaming down at the the seated crowd of forty people sipping at their BYOB. The show felt like an open mic night in a comfortable dorm, and Kopano left the songs of Just In Time For Love behind as decisively as high school. They played four songs: three originals and a cover of “American Boy” where they were equally equipped for Estelle’s peaks and Kanye’s flow.
Kopano’s smiling stream-of-conscious speech added to the intimacy. They introduced one song as the result of the end of a really long relationship. “A year and a half.” A scoff passed through the older parts of the crowd, but no one could tell if Kopano was joking. The sardonic tone reached its climax when Kopano finished a devastating, dramatic descending run and muttered “Relationships are hell, bro.” Some people laughed, and some cheered. The melody and harmony of set closer “Swing Low” chased each other and darted amongst the ambiguous chords. Kopano poured all their emotion into their vocals. Aggression and regret and pride and lust and fear and longing each floated to the surface. It felt like being 19.
I spoke to Kopano backstage before the show. As we talked, they stretched in front of a mirror, admiring their ersatz pipe-cleaner belt twisted together minutes before. We talked about Chicago, love songs, and what makes a professional singer. —Jack Riedy
I want to talk about your writing process. Do you start with just your voice and a guitar or work from a beat?
Kopano:I actually have a lot of different writing processes. I don’t start in one place per se. Sometimes people will just send me a beat, and if I have any ideas, I’ll just sing along with it on a voice memo. Whatever’s the first thing that pops into my head because I usually end up going with the first idea.
One thing I’m really bad at in my writing process is editing because I just take an idea and think “I love this idea, I’m gonna stick with this idea, there’s no problem with it.” If I’m writing with somebody, sometimes I might bring them chords and they add to it. Sometimes I’ll be singing in the shower and I’ll come up with melody and lyrics and I’ll write chords to that. I’m always taking different directions.
That’s interesting that you say you’re not good at editing because some of your songs are very short. Do your songs get whittled down in the edit or is it that if a songs turns out a minute and a half, it is what it is?
Kopano:For Just In Time For Love specifically, those beats were produced by friends and then given to me. I would just write it and then, it’s a minute and a half, okay! If I don’t see the need to add anything else, I don’t want to add anything else. With the stuff I’m working on now, I am more cognizant of time. After I put out Just In Time For Love, I realized what a short project it was. I want to do longer songs, and I want to do more storytelling in my upcoming project.
What is your next project? Is it an EP or an album?
Kopano:Right now I’m focusing on singles and features. I’m not trying to release a project this year. I want the next one to sound exactly the way I want it, and I’m going to put in as much time as I need to. That could be a year, two years, I have no idea what the future holds for me. I’ve just been writing on guitar. If I end up coming up with a project and it sounds good I’ll release it, but for now it’s just singles and features.
Kopano:Yes! I have two songs finished, in the mixing phase right now. I’m really excited about that. Someone told me that each project I release has its own sound, and I never paid attention to that. If I hear something and I like it, I just write. These new songs sound different, in a good way, in a self-growth way.
Is that something you do consciously when you’re working? Do you tell yourself that this one is going to be different? Or do you think that happens naturally?
Kopano:I think that happens naturally, but I’m definitely hyper-aware of how similar my songs are. Mostly, I don’t want to be reproducing content, which is really easy to get into when you’re making a lot of songs. I draw from my influences, but it wasn’t until recently that I feel like I’m listening to what artists are doing. “Oh, this is this little nuance they put in there that completely changes the song.” I want to have those nuances, and because I’ve been looking for them they’ve been coming up in my own music, and I’m really happy to hear that.
So who are your influences?
Kopano:I listen to a lot of Snoh Aalegra. She’s super, super dope. Listening to her gives me significant confidence. The way she executes it, it doesn’t sound like she’s hanging back at all vocally. And I love Daniel Caesar. He’s an artist that I read about, and I don’t do that with everyone I listen to, but I wanted to know about his background. His ideas are just dope. The songs are about love and sex but very complex and classy. He talks about it in such a different way. Sometimes, he’s just singing a scale but he takes these simple ideas and makes them sound so beautiful, but that makes them complex and you’re just like, “What am I listening to? It’s like heaven!”
You wrote that Just In Time For Love is about “every love I’ve experienced.” Are you still exploring that theme or do you feel like you’ve said all you need to say?
Kopano:I mean, you can always talk about love. Love makes the world go round. It never escapes you. People are still writing about it today, and no one’s tired of it yet. You could be like “I’m tired of love songs!” but you’re still bumping Ne-Yo, come on. [laughs] I’ll always be singing about love because love is infinite. Even this conversation we’re having is love. We’re talking about this love for music.
But I’m definitely talking about different kinds of love. This one song I’m working on, the hook is, “Every little secret boy you know I know, always tryna keep your loving on the low, said that I could be just what you’re looking for, but I’m not. See, I could die for you, and I could never ride for you, and everything you ask for, is way too much.” It’s literally talking about my experiences in college, watching hook-up culture. It’s like, you’re trying to act like you’re not hooking up with more people because you want to make me feel special, even though I’m not special, and I’m fine with it.
That’s why I’ve entered into this partnership. because I don’t want to feel special. But you’re seeking these things with different people but you’re unfulfilled because they’re not me. I don’t want a relationship with you! I don’t want that! I want you to love me, but I don’t want to love you back. That’s not a nice thing to think [laughs]. But it’s something I did a lot. I’m 19, but I learned the power of love very quickly. Having all these flirtationships-
Did you use the word “flirtationships?” Is that the title?
Kopano:A lot of my friendships are actually flirtationships [laughs]. Right now, I’m just trying to feel myself. If I want to enter into some kind of partnership, I can do that, but life is just a bunch of plot twists.
Do you perform at school?
Kopano:Oberlin is a music school, so there’s a huge music scene. I’ve been performing quite a bit. Sometimes I feel like I’m performing more than I want to, but I love making music so much that it’s hard for me to turn down performances. I’m a student with a dual-degree major, so now music is my academia as well. I have to be very careful where I’m putting my energy, into what performances.
Is it tough to separate schoolwork from personal creative work?
Kopano:It’s always been blended. People always called music a hobby when I was growing up. Even when I started performing, people would say, “Oh, so you wanna be a professional singer.” I’m thinking, “I just got paid $300 to sing two songs. I am a professional singer!” [laughs] Any service you get paid for, you’re a professional at it. It took me a while to get out of that mindset. “Wow, this is no longer a hobby. You’re investing your time, money, and career into this.”
I don’t wanna separate my studies from making music because I feel like when I approach studying music, I’ll get anxious and stressed out. That’s not how I want to feel about something I love.
How does the scene in Chicago compare to the one at school?
Kopano:Chicago’s different. At Oberlin, I’m a student who is performing, but in Chicago, I’m an artist who is performing.
Do you have a preference?
Kopano:A student. Because I’m 19, but I feel like I’m 12 years old. I’m still trying to figure out what I really want for myself. My friend was talking about how in Chicago, there’s this pressure to get famous when you’re really young. Or, the younger you are when you get famous, the better you are. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I want to take my time, get my degree, and then go down whichever path feels most comfortable for me. Being an artist and a performer stresses me out a lot when I’m coming home.
I was in the car with my friend yesterday listening to music on Soundcloud, and one of my songs came up after somebody else’s song. I was like, “Oh my god, no.” I dropped it two or three years ago, so I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. I get uncomfortable listening to my music around other people sometimes. I said, “I don’t want to listen to this song I wrote when I was super vulnerable.” My friend was like “Kopano, you’re an artist. You have to realize other people listen to your music and enjoy it. Just take that and live with it. Now let me listen to the damn song!” [laughs]
How do you select your collaborators? Are they someone you can sit with and listen to music comfortably?
Kopano:No, not necessarily. I used to be really picky. Now whenever people tell me, “I wanna produce for you,” I say send me something. I’ll listen to anything anybody sends me. I don’t have a problem doing that. Whether or not I do it is based off who they are as a person. Like, if I’m morally okay with my name being associated with their name. I’m really big on morals. I don’t play [laughs]. People who know me know that you can’t do disrespectful or problematic shit around me because I won’t stand for that.
I’m not gonna sit here and be like, “Oh, even though you have a song with somebody else that includes that language, it doesn’t have to do with me.” That’s still a part of your image, and that’s not a part of who I am. I look at the person’s social media. I listen to their music, I listen to more than one song. And then it matters if I vibe with it, if I can hear my voice on it. There’s a difference between good music you really rock with, and good music that you feel you can produce.
What music do you love but you know you couldn’t do?
Kopano:I love Triathlon. I used to be really into Weezer and The Strokes. I tried to do that, but every time I’d sing, they’d say “Woah, you made Rock ‘N’ Roll into R&B!” I was just trying to sing the damn song, but I just don’t have that voice.
You were in a band before, right? Is your process now a lot different than it was when you worked with a group?
Kopano:90%, yeah. The one song we recorded, “Red Wine,” I brought the chords to the group. Four chords, eight chords, something like that. Sometimes they would make music for me to write to. Not completely different, but it feels different. I’ve been writing a lot more by myself and with myself, whereas when I was with them, I would be in the room creating with them, feeling a lot more collaborative. Now I know I wrote and produced the vocals by myself, this person did drums.
As far as your majors are concerned, does the economics part of your brain ever come into play when you’re making music?
Kopano:Definitely. Time is a cost, you know, time is expensive. I factor that in when I’m giving people quotes for how much it would cost to book me. I study econ because I’m a very critical thinking person, I can be aloof. Music feels very interpretive to me, but econ is math. “If you do this, this happens.” It grounds me, as opposed to always being in my head. It feels more systematic.
Do you think that after graduating you will be able to run music as a business yourself? Is that your end goal, music as a career?
Kopano:No, they’re two separate entities to me. My brain thinks very economically. I want to go into strategic consulting or urban planning. I keep my options open because I love music, but even with the little bit of attention I have, I still get really stressed out. I love sharing it and I love performing, but I don’t know if that’s 100% where I want to go.
The stress of something like urban planning would be a different kind of stress?
Kopano:Yeah, because you’re benefiting other people. There’s a different type of power. When I’m singing, I feel like there are expectations out there for me and I’m not going to meet them. In urban planning, there’s numbers. I know if I can meet my goal or not.
You have the secret show tonight. A couple months ago you did a Planned Parenthood benefit, next weekend you’re playing a party for queer women of color. What goes into your process of choosing gigs?
Kopano:It depends on the event. How many gigs I’m doing, how much I’m getting paid or not getting paid, why I’m not getting paid. If I have one gig that pays a lot of money, then I have more opportunity to take on gigs that don’t pay. It subsidizes free gigs. If I’m not getting paid a lot that month, then I don’t have the opportunity because time is expensive. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to decline because the benefits do not exceed the costs.” [laughs] I use that all the time. “The party’s on North Campus? The benefits do not exceed the costs. That just seems far.”