Finding purity with Aussie singer Mwansa Msapenda

Perth based singer-songwriter Mwansa Msapenda is breaking barriers, inducing elements of electronic, soul and indie pop sounds in his new track, ‘The Kid has Issues.’ Having started out recording with only some old recording gear at his house, he teamed up with Grammy nominated, multi-platinum producer Ariel Chobaz for the track. Growing up in Zambia, Mwansa began listening to 90’s hip hop music as well as being vocally influenced by soul singers such as Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.

We chat to Mwansa about how the death of his brother inspired his previous track, ‘Burn this House,’ his recording process and how he felt when CeeLo tweeted him. Adam Lunn writes.

‘Burn this House’ is so emotionally powerful. What’s your story and inspiration behind the track?

First of all, thanks, I really appreciate that. I didn’t know when I wrote it but I was in a pretty dark place. My brother died, I was facing a redundancy from work, it was pretty messy; so I turned to music as a form of escapism.

The video is also beautifully mesmerising. How did it come about?

I wish I could take credit for the video, but it’s all Andrea (Tya Petrovic). She’s this amazing artist from Serbia. She’s become my Mona Lisa.

I was looking around for someone to make the video. All I knew was I wanted it to be artistic and that was it. Because it’s such a deeply personal song I was reluctant to have a video at all – but if I was going to have one it wasn’t going to be your usual thing. And I’m not the type of guy who lip syncs in front of a camera.

Andrea pitched this vague idea about some sort of dance form that is formless. And then I didn’t hear from her for months. We had just met and at that point I was pretty sure I had been scammed. In fact I actually forgot about it. And honest to God one day out of the blue, she sends me an email saying ‘here’s the video hope you like it’. I had just got back from India, I had no input, gave virtually no direction, no correspondence, nothing. And it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. She’s like lightning in a bottle; it’s hard to explain. I’ve never met anyone like that. She just gets it. We’ve got a few other things in the works.

Your vocals in your latest track, ‘The Kid has Issues’ is so distinctive, what are some of the artists that have influenced you musically?

I’ve always really favoured storytellers and artists with a unique voice over technicality. I think that’s what we lose a bit in reality music shows. There’s more to singing than pitch and runs, though they are both really important.

For me growing up, you couldn’t go past guys like Ray Charles, Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye; Michael Jackson was huge in our household. James Brown actually came to Zambia (where I was born), so that was massive. But I also really love guys like Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Thom Yorke. And then of course I grew up listening to 90’s hip-hop and Nirvana. I think a lot of their music has shaped what I do.In fact if it wasn’t for Bob Dylan I probably never would have sang at all. I still don’t really think I’m a singer, but hearing him was like ‘hey this guy is different’. As far as contemporary artists go, Frank Ocean…. Genius.

What are your earliest memories of music?

My earliest memory of music is getting annoyed that my aunt would watch MTV while we wanted to watch Ninja Turtles. She was glued to it and I remember thinking how enigmatic these characters in this box were. She was probably in her early 20’s. I was really impacted by the affect these characters had on her. They walked funny, they dressed funny, all they did was sing and people loved them. In a way that superhero larger than life thing was appealing to me.

Until this day my aunt reminds me that I went through a phase when I was about 5 where I told everyone someday I would be a famous musician, and that they should start calling me George Michael (oddly enough my dad and my uncles first names put together). She also says during that phase I promised everyone I’d buy them a house when I was rich and famous!

How is it working with The A&R Department? How did they discover your music?

The A&R Department are amazing. I don’t think there is anyone even close to what they’re doing in Australia. And this probably sounds biased but I feel honoured to be part of their roster. It feels like we’re making history. I mean I don’t know if it’s going to be Motown but there is definitely something massive going on there. They put Safia on (they just went on tour with Lorde) and Harts who just got back from jamming with Prince in the US (on Prince’s request – he just said I love your stuff come to my house!) and they’ve also got this new young girl Ayla who’s going to be massive. It’s just a really great place to be right now.

I’m not sure how they discovered the music. We worked through some development stuff really early on last year. Matt is a freak of nature, and again it’s one of those relationships that just work. And from an artists point of view its great to work with people who believe in your music, and not just how much money you can make them.

What usually inspires you to write a song?

I write based on feeling. So my process isn’t all that structured. I’m one of those guys that loves love, you know. The idea of it, the thought of it, the act of it. When I’m moved I write. Which is why I always do the music first. I write lyrics like poetry, so I’m constantly writing lyrics down on my phone or on napkins, pieces of paper. They’re never structured in a song, it’s usually just a line here or there. Once the music has communicated the feeling I have inside of me, I then usually ad-lib the lyrics or turn to what I’ve written.

That’s the reason ‘Burn this House’ is so hard to explain. I literally sang it on the fly and it was only after Matt asked me what the song was about that I realised I had just laid my whole soul and the grief and the hurt I was experiencing out in the open. For me this is the purest way I know how to write. I’ve tried to sit down and plan a song and use clever words or sounds, but it never feels right.

Do you have any pre-studio/recording rituals?

This will probably be strange but I always have a shower before I record anything. And no…. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s cleansing, maybe it’s the thinking time, maybe the steam opens up the vocal chords…I have no idea. But it’s become a bit of a thing.

CeeLo just recently tweeted you. How was that?

Unreal! I just cracked up laughing because it was like….here I am in my house in Perth, just chatting away to CeeLo Green. CeeLo Green!!! It was so surreal I couldn’t help but laugh.

What’s next for you? An EP in the works maybe?

I would really love to put an EP out. I think it’s ready but it depends on the label, I trust their judgment. It’ll definitely be another single before the end of the year, if not an EP. And I’m working on a comic book believe it or not.

What stimulates your soul?

Again, I default to love and the beauty in little things. I have a friend that always stands on their tiptoes when they order a drink at a bar, or the way the barista at my favorite coffee place always swirls the cup in the same counter clockwise direction. I don’t know, I find something special about these I guess seemingly irrelevant actions. But to me its like, we’re all here together.

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