KENNA: AHEAD OF THE GAME
With his music described as “a fusion of moody rock, electro-pop and tortured soul”, Ethiopia-born, Virginia Beach, USA-raised singer/songwriter/producer Kenna Zemedkun certainly represents one of spring 2008`s most unique and experimental rising stars.
A protege of his two long-time friends The Neptunes (he`s signed to Pharrell Williams` Star Trak Records and produced by Chad Hugo), Kenna this month releases his highly-touted left-field sophomore album 'Make Sure They See My Face'.
Having first gained a cult following with his 2005 debut LP 'Sacred Cow', Kenna has additionally since recorded and toured with Grammy-winning producer-of-the-hour Mark Ronson (he features on Ronson`s chart-topping 'Version' album). Meanwhile, perched on the end of his bed at West London`s K-West Hotel (!), he also proves a softly-spoken, intelligent and interesting 'B&S' first-time interviewee. As he discusses the eclectic, off-kilter musical moods of his aforementioned new LP. Which range from the explosive, pounding offshoot single 'Out Of Control' and on-the-edge vocals of the crashing 'Say Goodbye To Love', to the philosophical, stomping 'Daylight'.
What did you want to achieve with your new album?
“I actually went in to make an album that unifies all walks. As a person I`ve always been between worlds. I`ve always had to be somone who adapts, someone who`s a chameleon of sorts. So vocally, musically, spiritually, and in my life, I`ve constantly tended to approach things with idea of just bringing things together and not limiting myself whatsoever. So musically that`s what this record is to me - a fusion of all worlds and a unifier. And lyrically, while I`m not attempting to be profound, I am however telling my story in a way where I believe that people can grasp their OWN stories within it. So, because I want people to take the words and apply them to their own lives, I just tend to write things loosely, in the hope of allowing everyone to join me on a journey.”
How did recently climbing Ethiopia`s Mount Kilimanjaro provide you with inspiration?
“I went to Kilimanjaro to start writing my album as a kind of search-for-myself trip. Because I felt I hadn`t reached the top of my LIFE`s mountain, I thought climbing an ACTUAL mountain might help. And on the trip there was a woman climbing the mountain as well, but the difference was she was climbing it for her daughter, who`d been diagnosed with some very rare disease. So, after she told me her story, I realised I was actually climbing the mountain for selfish reasons. And the (album`s opening) song 'Daylight' was actually born out of that part of my life. Where I found myself asking questions like `Are you being selfish about what you`re creating? Are you doing this music for yourself or for the world? And how do you get the balance between the two right?`... So I basically ended up writing a helpful lyric for the woman`s daughter, hoping that she`d be healed. While at the same time I was also healing myself, trying to find a way to see past my greed and my ego.”
How has your background impacted on your music?
“I originally came from a Third World country before I moved to a First World country, where I at first lived in what`s considered to be lower-income housing - a one-bedroom apartment, where my bedroom was a closet. Then, when my family inevitably moved to the suburbs and I was around people who have everything they needed, I realised you learn different things from different worlds. I`d walk into my house and it`s Ethiopia, where we have a culture, mindset and history that`s based on not having ANYTHING and having to work for EVERYTHING. Then I`d go from my house into America - a country where you see a little bit of EACH happening. Some people have nothing and ASPIRE for nothing; some people have nothing but aspire to do well; some people have a lot and still aspire for more… and so on. And, because I`d lived in a lot of worlds where I saw a little bit of everybody, I`ve ended up with a little bit of all those people`s mindsets in me. Which is definitely reflected in the music I make and explains why, through my songs, I do want to be a unifier.”
How did you first hook up with your producer - Chad Hugo of the Neptunes?
“The great thing about growing up in Virginia is, if you`re a creator of music, there`s nothing to do BUT create music! There`s no global club scene; there`s no nightlife; there`s no lifestyle stuff going on... You know, there`s nothing to keep you distracted. And I was blessed to live in the same town as, and go to High School with, Chad. As time passed we ended up working in the same studio, though at first with different people. Then, when he decided he wanted to make something unique and new away from his work as The Neptunes with Pharrell, I asked him if he`d work with ME. We wrote a song the first day we hung out together in the studio, and we haven`t stopped since!”
The album 'Make Sure They See My Face' and single 'Out Of Control (State Of Emotion)' are both out now through Star Trak/Interscope Records
Words PETE LEWIS