Getting acquainted with the globe-trotting singer garbling zouk and dancehall to concoct fresh, placeless pop.
Self-released early last month, I still can’t quite get my head round LAFAWNDAH’s debut EP only being four tracks in length: the ideas and textures it crams in could comfortably fill a record double that. Across the pitter-patter of Jungle Exit and the menace of Chili she travels the world and back – garbling zouk and dancehall to concoct fresh, placeless pop. It’s still morning in New York when we speak on Skype, but LAFAWNDAH is full of energy, her knees propped up, showing off long nails that look recently manicured. As we talk about her experience of recording in Guadeloupe, I put a face to the mind responsible for the smart, twisted tones of Butter, with lyrics that push the heat of the dancefloor to gloriously visceral, teeth-gnashing extremes.
LAFAWNDAH grew up in Paris with English, Iranian and Egyptian heritage, and spent time in the art world in Mexico. Alongside classical music, she’s a believer in the often-demonised best-of album, and name checks Tracy Chapman, Ella Fitgerald and the mantra-like quality of Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged album as base points that compelled her own music. She loves Tom Waits’ “theatrical, operatic, playful” voice: “I started drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes at a very young age to be close to that one day” – and as a teenager in Mexico, her band NIDADA covered Ice Cream Van, from Waits' debut. In the Myspace days of artist top friends and the glorious lucky dip of page links, she made one her proudest discoveries: “I was really moved by Planningtorock: the possibility to sing like that for a girl, these melodies and harmonies she was doing, her persona”.
Not long after first moving to New York, it was the mad exuberance and “fucked-up Disney sounds” of the LuckyMe/Numbers Glasgow clique that would eventually inspire her own creativity. “LuckyMe blew my fucking mind! I think it’s so playful. I live for rhythm, that’s been a constant in my life: to be driven by weird, broken beats. It was the first time I was like, OK, I’m going to sing over this thing and write my first song ever". What made working over the likes of Hudson Mohawke’s Cbat or Rustie so enticing was the possibility of mangling expectations of the gendered voice/production dynamic. “With the music I was listening to, whenever a female singer would enter, the instrumental would bend over, it would just be about that voice”. LAFAWNDAH was drawn to sing over something “really complex, masculine, heavy”, to place her own “interventions on top”.
She’s quick to observe that it's the Night Slugs/Fade To Mind affiliate Kelela who is now "that voice", but LAFAWNDAH is taking her own challenging, playful approaches. Take EP opener Jungle Exit, which originated as an instrumental by her friend, and later producer Garagem Banda, written in the aftermath of an MDMA-fuelled boat trip, surrounded by close friends and dolphins lapping at the water (it’s still sitting on Soundcloud, along with a load of her other lightly structured but wickedly weird jams). LAFAWNDAH had wanted to incorporate Swahili, with its blend of Arabic, African and English tones collating a fair reflection of her own heritage; what ends up on the EP is LAFAWNDAH singing in broken Swahili (via Spanish and English through Google Translate) about the traumatic experience of getting stuck in the thick forests of Chiapas in the midst of a hurricane.
Jungle Exit would come to kick-start her and Garagem Banda’s recording in Guadeloupe, in the studio of veteran zouk producer Jean-Claude Bichara. The way LAFAWNDAH describes working with Bichara sounds both amusing and clearly a frequent struggle. She’s points out that as zouk bass (a sound currently being pushed by many experimental club producers) is mostly Brazilian, it differs from the French zouk dominant on Guadeloupe. From the ‘70s and through to the ‘90s this sound was consistently being pushed forward, in terms of textures and production, but also in it explicitness: by the time LAFAWNDAH was a kid in Paris, zouk featured “full-on, banging, lyrics. It was really fearless, super-politically incorrect”. What's replaced this is a watered down, radio-friendly sound known as zouk love, with a slower BPM, and a focus on the courtly suggestiveness of the Guadeloupean notion of “caresse”. Bichara - around 70 years old and with the face of someone who’s done “all the drugs of the world” - can’t stand zouk love: he now spends his days banging out techno on iPad apps. He was less than impressed when the pair turned up at his studio hoping to mess about with zouk sounds.
Left mostly to their own devices, the results are something that LAFAWNDAH sharply refers to as “paranoid zouk”, which is apparent in Chili, where her hot, sexual lyrics, bounce back off those gloopy, syncopated rhythms. Prior to the trip, the pair had talked in loose terms about creating “an EP about parallel, existing entities – ghosts, insects, things that we don’t take into account every day”. Recording on a Caribbean island may sound heavenly, but in reality, the three spent the majority of the time locked away in Bichara’s studio, not interacting with any other humans. In an age of remote creativity and the non-space dominance of the laptop screen, it’s thrilling to hear a debut EP that plays on such a stuffy, cooped-up vibe. In the vein of the sticky atavism of novels like The Drowned World, there’s a Ballardian quality to LAFAWNDAH’s description of obsessively watching lizards and insects flitting out on to the swimming pool outside, capturing a mini-island narrative to peer in on and later weave into her lyrics.
Her current plan is to only ever produce on islands. While “not as exotic”, she’s been recording with Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy on Fire Island, famed as one of the birthplaces of the Hi-NRG, post-disco sound: “we want to make it a gay, summer, world dance EP’. There’s also the small matter of working with L-Vis 1990, producing what she describes as a “song for a failed revolution. It’s my moment in Iran when it was the Arab Spring. Iranian people were like, we’ve been out on the street for entire year, why is it not happening for us? That track for me is about understanding that it didn’t work, and things going back to dictatorship”. LAFAWNDAH’s island sounds are travelling places, and fast.
LAFAWNDAH self-released her debut EP on May 6th 2014 (download)