By Todd Aalgaard
Photos by Tavishe Coulson
Coming down off the high of Live Earth and a North American tour with She Wants Revenge, Universal recording artist Kenna and I took fifteen to talk about life, music, passion, the challenge of facing down the 21st century, and our culture’s deficit of intensity.
Well, after we geeked out for a minute about Halo 3. The picture of chill, he pointed to the XBox 360 resting on the couch.
Kenna: My friends from all over the world — literally all over the world — are on Halo 3. All our friends are hanging out, killing each other.
MONDO: Well, you might as well do it from the road.
K: And we were in Detroit yesterday.
MONDO: Nice, how did that gig go?
K: It was dope — Detroit people are amazing. You know what it is? Justin Warfield from She Wants Revenge said it from stage. He said that you don’t want to step out of line, but if you do a great show, they’re with you. You don’t want to step out of line, though, let me tell you.
MONDO: So is this your first time playing in Toronto, or have you played here before?
K: No, I’ve played here before. I came here with Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode. I played Koolhaus a long time ago, and then I think I came here one other time and I can’t remember where we played. It’s been a few years. Toronto, specifically, is a very musical and creative place. I would say they’re more like a New York crowd but maybe a little more varied in their interests. They’re very open, a very kind of interestingly European openness to music and to art as a whole.
MONDO: Yeah, there’s a real eclecticism around here.
K: Very eclectic, yeah.
MONDO: And I would imagine that you really speak to that crowd a lot, because that’s what I noticed when I was listening to you — and a lot of people have apparently noticed this as well — that there’s a real eclectic sound. What influenced that?
K: You know what? It’s the journey of music that interested me in the very beginning. The first record that I listened to was [U2’s] The Joshua Tree, the first full album that I listened to, and I think, as an artist, you’re always influenced by the first thing you listened to. For me it was this expansive, cinematic, you know, passionate, intense album that spoke of literally the journey — just the journey itself. It was this album of journeys: they came to America, they were pursuing the knowledge of a new place, and at the same time they were in search of themselves and stepping out of, you know, their history of sounds and things they were creating before and trying to be something new. It’s so indicative of how I feel all music should be and that’s what moves my music, and so that’s how I started; and then the DNA of who I am, and the history of my life, and the inheritance that I have as being Ethiopian, as well as being from the suburbs, as well as living in inner-city Cincinnati and having experience with all different types of people — all my life fuels the premise of everything that I write — the beats versus the rock versus the… it’s just a travelled mentality, you know?
MONDO: The lyrics, “All this pressure is building up/And there’s a chance it’s gonna explode/I can’t promise you when or where/(but) I can tell you it’ll happen for sure” really jumped out at me. What were you trying to express that way?
K: Oh man, you know, my albums, my songs usually have fifteen meanings, and what I try very hard to do is write loosely so they can breathe, all their meanings can breathe. For me that had significant personal reference but at the same time it was a very worldly statement, lyric, because I felt like, you know, we try not to acknowledge what’s happening in front of us. Maybe we’re de-sensitized, maybe it’s just happening so much that we just can’t take it on — call it post traumatic stress disorder of life, you know? But we have this trauma that keeps hitting us and so we just literally numb ourselves to it, and I felt like, “It’s cool, you can pretend it’s not happening, but it is….” For me, at the end of the album — the song “Wide Awake” — is like me trying to wake myself up. You know when someone’s pushing you, when you’re trying to wake up, someone’s like, “Wake up, wake up, we gotta go,” and you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m awake, I’m awake,” but you’re really not?
MONDO: …You’re just rolling back over.
K: That’s where I am at the end of this album, where I’m trying to wake up — I really am. I’m not trying to sleep through this, I want to sleep because it’s easier. But I’m trying to wake up.
MONDO: I guess if anybody — and like you said, there’s fifteen different meanings that you could imbue your music with — but if I were sitting down to listen to your album for the first time and you wanted me to take one thing away from what you’ve got to say, what would that be?
K: I couldn’t do one thing.
MONDO: Good answer.
K: I couldn’t — it’s not possible. I think it’s to be open, be willing, and be unabashed. I think those are the three things. You have to be open to hear this music and you have to be open to accept the things that are around you. Be willing to take it on because it’s going to be yours, and be unabashed in your response to it, because there’s going to be a lot of ridicule for you being strong about something. Be strong about something. Because without everyone being strong and being focused on things that are important, we end up being de-sensitized like I said earlier. We just end up being empty and feeling so lonely, when in actuality there are so many people who feel the same way. You know? I would say: be open, be willing, and be unabashed.
MONDO: And that’s a really valuable message to impart right now, because, like you said, things could turn in any direction at this point in history. But I think the one thing that none of us can afford is to not be passionate. Would you agree with that?
K: Yeah. What happened to intensity? What happened to being invested? What happened to that? There’s so many people now that I watch listening to things and they’re doing it with one ear, but their other ear’s someplace else. That’s because artists, number one, aren’t doing anything that matters. I mean, I’m up on stage and I do everything I possibly can. I go to the nth power and I come back and some people think that it’s disingenuous or that it’s weird, but I don’t spend a minute of my life not being genuine and not being as electric as I possibly can. And it doesn’t mean that they have to fall in love with my music or buy my CD — I could care less about that. I just want them to walk away, going, “I gotta do or be different, or better, because I felt something.” I’m here to give everything I have. The secret to life is giving, anyway.
You can check you Kenna’s website here.