Lafwandah Lo

In Conversation with Lafawndah

By Jesse Cao

Jun 26, 2019

Lafawndah is a pop artist whose influences, approaches, and ideologies intentionally and self-proclaimedly defy categorizations of geography and genre. Her first full-length album, ANCESTOR BOY, came out earlier this year. In anticipation of Lafawndah’s June 29 performance at The Kitchen as part of the ASSEMBLY series, we spoke to her about her approach to live performance, her relationship to the labels of “pop” and “global pop,” the dichotomy between “colonial” and “local” music, and more.

We're very excited to see your June 29 performance at The Kitchen. How would you say that your work interacts with ASSEMBLY's theme of "thinking about access, collective thought, and recognizing how sound/music and the structure of certain spaces lend themselves to a nuanced and rich cultural exchange"? How are you planning to shape your performance to the specific context of the event and the space?

I think that the questions I'm asking myself might be quite similar to the themes of the exhibition, so [ASSEMBLY is] a way for me to experiment in a more open way. In general, I think that I've been questioning the relationships that we have with live shows today. Very often, I just don't find them all the way fruitful, or I think that that relationship is very often governed, like everything else, by capitalism.

A lot of the ways that people experience even the architecture of a space are related, for example, the consumption of alcohol: the bar always plays a very central role in the way that people interact with the space when they come to listen to the music. There is also a kind of unilateral way of using a space, which is having the stage (most of the time) be above the audience, and forcing everyone to use the space in this one way. People never get to look at who they're standing next to or behind. There's a very monolithic way of interacting with the space, I would say.

I think that the social function that music still has in many places of the world has to do in lot of cases with being used as a cathartic experience, in a Greek way. In my world, and in the western world of today, I find that that experience is for many other reasons cut under its feet by the relationship to the consumption of alcohol, by the relationship of architecture of music venues, the way people use lighting, and many other ways. I think that there is also an assumption from the audience that because they bought a ticket, this thing's going to go on no matter what—it's kind of demanding. [Audiences] don't really have the tradition of coming, using this as a 'container;” bringing something in energetically. [These are all things that] I think about because I'm primarily trying [through my music] to create a relationship with as many people as possible, and I'm noticing that it's rarely possible. Because of that I'm trying to, as much as I can, depending on the context, always think about these things and how I can close that gap. [However], I think that in a context like [that of] the ASSEMBLY show, that [type of thinking is] actually encouraged. The way that I'm thinking about it is to have [my performance] be much more freeform than what I do usually, which is a bit more set—freeform musically and freeform between music, theatre, and a one-woman show.

Your live performances can be both expansively dynamic and hauntingly minimalistic. How would you describe your relationship to performing live? What do you hope to evoke or instill in audiences through your performances? Furthermore, considering the wide range of spaces and types of events in which you perform, how do the goals of or approaches to each performance differ depending on the situation?

I think that the most important thing for me is those relationships. That goes without saying. It's this ceremony that everybody kind of follows. I come on stage, you clap, I do my song, you clap, etc. It's this routine that we're all performing, that I'm performing and that you’re performing in the audience. The most important thing for me is that something else happens in moments of performance. Whatever that routine is needs to be disturbed. I don't always succeed—sometimes I don't have the strength. It requires an alignment of many things for that to be possible, but it's an intention and it's my ideal. I think dynamism is extremely important for me. I just headlined a show in Berlin and I know, for a fact, that we all laughed a lot, we cried a lot, we felt very big, intimate, and heroic emotions. I think that that's what I mean by being moved. The fullness of it. The tears that come from being moved, the vulnerability. I also want laughs; I want irony. I think that the more dynamic [a show] is the more cathartic it is, and the closer it is to humanity.

While your vocals phase between delicately airy and intensely punchy, the beats and basslines underlying them generally feel urgently danceable. In what environments, moods, or situations do you imagine or hope your music (is) being listening to by non-live audiences? Does it matter to you?

I've thought about this a lot after the record came out, not really while I was [making it]. I've been told many times that my music is a record that involves movement, but I don't think that those people meant dancing— I relate to that and I think that actually was quite intentional. By movement, I think they mean going from a place to another place. Waking up in the morning on your way to getting a raise, or some other kind of physical (or even psychological or emotional) movement. We're not talking about dance here, but I think it's a record that you listen to when you need courage and strength to understand that whatever it is that you need is possible. It's not one of those records you listen to in your house when you're cooking—those songs are more about stillness. A lot of people listen to [ANCESTOR BOY] when they're walking, when they're going to work in the morning, when they're in their car going somewhere.

You identify your music as "pop," a genre which spans a wide spectrum—from Miley Cyrus to SOPHIE and even further in each direction. How do you define the genre label of "pop," and how do you view your music as interacting with it?

For me, pop music means that the songs [focus on] storytelling, can be reproduced and sung along to, and [have] quality songwriting at their heart. The other thing is the way that it's presented and packaged. My intention is to reach out and talk to as many people as possible; that is also something that makes pop music pop music. If your intention were to do something secretive, even if you sounded the most polished, I still think that it wouldn't be pop music. Pop music is part of a larger landscape. I don't want to be exclusive. I don't want to be special or secret.It's not about how sugary or easy the music is. I think it's very important for me to be part of that lineage of being able to make music that has the intention of reaching out and connecting with as many people as possible, while trying shit out.

What would you say is the artist's place in a society?

When I take space, which is what I do as an artist (being able to be on websites and magazines and radio and [in] physical spaces), I feel a need [to communicate]. The nature of me even beginning to make music had to do with communication, and [with] getting out of a highly isolated social life and the desire to find "all the others." Connection has so much power and so much strength [in helping us] understand that we are not alone and that the ideas we have about the world have some kind of echo elsewhere, in places we could have never imagined. That's one of the most powerful tools for change. I don't think there is any [particular] role [for the artist]. I think that [we] can do exactly what [we] want.

I'd love to hear about the production process for ANCESTOR BOY. Where and how did you draw sounds, lyrics, and ideas for these new songs? Was the process different from those of your previous releases?

I [don’t] really know where it came from, other than that it was necessary to get out of me. It's not an album that was made with a mood-board, and it's not a concept album. I just knew that an album [offered] a more stretched context [within which] to say more things and to tell more stories. I had just made two EPs and needed to stretch time to tell the things. So that's all.

The temporalities in which an album is made are very interesting because the timeline is completely [expanded]. You go back to your birth; at the same time you're also living life. It took me four years to make this album, so a lot was happening in my personal life. But I also [had] the temporality of looking on to the next thing, so the timeline of the album [spans] all of these [moments]. I talk about the album as being mini- cycles of life and death and rebirth, not as a total arch from the first song to the last song but within one song, within a group of 3 songs, [etc.]. The way I build [music] there's a lot of ashes and birth and comeback and ashes again. That happens in tiny little circles, in bigger circles, in overall circles. It's just made of this non-linear temporality.

You've described ANCESTOR BOY as "pop music that is neither imperial nor local, but a freedom of movement." I find this idea of engaging in energies that are not just anti-imperialist but that in fact transcend the binary dynamic of colonialism very interesting. What does it mean, to you, for an artwork to be "neither imperial nor local"? What do you see as laying beyond or between the imperial-local binary?

I was thinking about pop music in the way that we experience it, and I was thinking that on one side you have America—that's exporting to some extent (for sure in the western world) its culture—and then you have all these [other] phenomena. When I toured in India, for example, it was one of those life-changing experiences. I definitely grew up without a center, or not really believing in [one], but I am still the product of someone who did grow up in a place that considers itself the center, so going and touring as a musician in India was a really important experience because they don't give a fuck, you know? Pitchfork is not a thing there. There is an entire economy that has to do with a different center there. People come from South Asian scenes that we've never heard of and they have entire tours but they never come to Europe. They have a bazillion views on YouTube but you'll never hear of them. That's what I call "local" pop music. I feel like I'm neither-nor, really.

Your music has often been labeled "global pop," and you've spoken quite a bit about your multi-national upbringing and travels as major influences on your work. I'd love to hear about how this set of international inspirations operates in your head—when creating music, are you consciously picking influences from "experiences in this culture" and "adventures in that one" or is it more fluid and less well-defined?

I guess a bit of both. I'm just really careful and conscious about the fact that I live in a time when samples are how people make music. Everyone can download samples, which is in a way amazing but also terrifying, because it's difficult for things to sound different. Also, for me, making music is quite intentional. It's never light. There is always a critical mind that's in the room. When I take a sound that's very specific to a culture or to a musical moment that I don't have any connection to, I either scratch it or I transform it consciously. I make it my own, I run it through machines, I make it so that the origin of it is still perceptible but it's not something that's just been taken, it's also something that's been digested and transformed. For me, the questions of cultural appropriations are an ongoing conversation we can all have. I'm also really conscious [of making sure that] when I have a relationship to a sound, it's an embodied one. It's because I spent time in that place, because I have knowledge about that place because I come from there. Even then, it's never just what it is.

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