Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Asa: Quietly confident

Asa Asa Asa Asa

Renowned for fusing her Nigerian roots with contemporary soulful pop, Paris-based singer/songwriter Asa earned international acclaim as an intelligent and socially-conscious new talent following the 2008 arrival of her self-titled debut album. All of which has now paved the way for this month’s release of her new, eagerly-anticipated sophomore set ‘Beautiful Imperfection’. Which - currently and prestigiously featuring as Album Of The Week on the UK’s BBC Radio 2 - is already being pioneered by its infectious offshoot single ‘Be My Man’. Whose upbeat, soul-snapping retro groove is ear-catchingly injected with a familiar rock tinge inspired by British punk band The Clash.

Born Bukola Elemide in Paris in 1982, at two years old Asa moved to her family’s home in Lagos, Nigeria. Where, as the only girl in a family of four in an African city that was simultaneously vibrant and turbulent, she grew up frequently finding solace in her father’s fine record-collection of classic soul and Nigerian music - including such iconic artists as Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade.

All of which ultimately led to an 18-year-old Asa (meaning ‘Hawk’ in Yoruba) signing herself up to a music school, where the ambitious and tenacious teenager quickly learned to play guitar, and was before long shaping her own, distinctive sound. A sound which, boasting songs delivered in both English and Yoruba, would ultimately lead to the winning fusion of contemporary soul, pop, reggae and funk - complete with emotive vocals and soul-stirring melodies - that can today be heard throughout her first two albums.

Meanwhile, upon returning to France in 2004, an ever-evolving Asa soon began cutting her teeth alongside artists like Manu Dibango and Tony Allen on the Parisian music scene. A grounding which would eventually lead to the 2007 release of her aforementioned debut LP ‘Asa’. Which - spawning the hit singles ‘Fire On The Mountain’ and ‘Jailer’ - would go on to attain Gold-selling/Top 15 status in France as well as widespread international recognition. In turn resulting in an extended transcontinental tour taking in Europe, North America, Africa and Japan, with Asa also gaining the public support of globally-acclaimed music greats Lenny Kravitz and Angelique Kidjo along the way…

… Fast-forward to April 2011, meanwhile, and with the UK release of her aforementioned second album ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ coinciding with a co-headlining date at London’s Barbican Hall (alongside fellow contemporary West African musician Tiken Jah Fakoly), a chilled-out Asa - whose talents have been favourably compared with Bob Marley, Macy Gray and Nina Simone - reacquaints herself with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis, to discuss her new set’s musical and lyrical direction while also explaining her ongoing love for the culturally- differing cities of Lagos and Paris.

The title of her new album, ‘Beautiful Imperfection’

“’Beautiful Imperfection’ basically represents the way I see life. The name actually came about from an interview I did about a year ago. I was asked to describe my life. And my reply was ‘Well. it’s really beautiful - but at the same time it’s IMPERFECT!’… And what I realised from that, is that I actually LIKE the imperfection! I like the little surprises that life gives you, because I feel it HUMBLES you and makes you THINK! You know. I’m always on a journey. I’m always moving, I’m always thinking, I’m always wanting, always finding… I’m always looking for something, and searching for something better every day. So, when I started to compose the songs for this album, I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose that Asa ELEMENT! You know, I wanted to really be MYSELF! Which, as I say, is where ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ COMES from.”

What Asa wanted achieve musically on ‘Beautiful Imperfection’

“I wanted to go back to the music I was listening to when I was a kid - from soul and funk to hi-life, Afro-beat… You know, because I LOVED them all, I wanted to MIX them all! And vibe-wise the main purpose for me with this second album was to be HAPPY! Because last year, around December/January, I had a life-changing experience which made me see everything differently. And because of that, I felt I needed to choose whether to do the same things people might expect Asa to do, or to try OTHER things. So I eventually opted to try different things. And as I say, my main aim was to be happy, and for the people LISTENING to the record to feel good TOO!”

How Asa feels ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ differs lyrically from her self-titled 2008 debut LP

“Well, I’m not the person I was three years ago. You know, going on the road around the first album meant I was seeing a lot of different places and experiencing a lot of different cultures I’d never seen or experienced BEFORE. So in that way it taught me a lot about the world and - while overall it was definitely a beautiful experience - it also TOUGHENED me, to where I now understand a lot better what I WANT! Plus it also meant I began to see life ITSELF differently. So that this time around, because I was thinking differently, I had different topics to TALK about. And like I just said, I was definitely in the mood to be colourful, to be happy and - as you can see from the video to (the album’s first single) ‘Be My Man’ - to DANCE! Because, though I do dance a lot, I didn’t really get a chance to SHOW that on my first record, because of the kind of subjects I was writing about.”

Briefly breaking down some of the album’s key songs

“Every track on the album stands on its own, and has a meaning and a feeling that I want to portray. But, while they all have interesting things to say, at the same time they’re all DIFFERENT! Like on ‘Dreamer Girl’, because I’m a dreamer myself, I’m saying that it’s not stupid and it’s not naïve to DREAM! And that people shouldn’t lose their dreams and lose their hopes, because a lot of great things we’ve heard about have been born out of dreams before becoming REALITY!.. So yeah, I am talking about a lot of varied topics that in turn each reflect the different parts of Asa. Like on ‘Preacher Man’ I’m talking about my RELIGIOUS side, while with ‘Why Can’t We’ I’m asking the basic question ‘Why can’t we be HAPPY?’… Which was inspired by the experience I had in December/January last year. Because, with me just wanting to get out of the sad mood I was in, l needed a song with lyrics that would inspire me to DO that - and they CAME!”

Asa’s friendships with her superstar supporters, US black rock icon Lenny Kravitz and Beninoise singer/songwriter/activist Angelique Kidjo

“With Lenny Kravitz I was opening for him in Nice. And, because I love his records, I was hoping to get a glimpse of him in person - but his bodyguard wouldn’t let me THROUGH!... Anyway, later that same day he was coming out of a room somewhere backstage, saw me, called my name - and started singing ‘Jailer’! Which of course really SURPRISED me - and from that I was suddenly able to get past this huge bodyguard in front of me and SPEAK to him! So he told me a story about how, when he was 15 years old, he’d worked in Nigeria as a stage-boy for one of the big promoters there. And from there we became friends, to where we actually went on to do a couple of duets together in his LIVE shows!... Then Angelique Kidjo I met in Malawi, and was so pleased to discover that not only is she a great ARTIST, but she’s a also a really great human BEING! I mean, there aren’t many people high up there who are willing to be nice to people that are just starting out. But she WAS! She was motherly, she was caring... And so, as with Lenny, from there we started an ongoing FRIENDSHIP!... So yeah, I’ve had really good experiences with them BOTH!”

Asa’s feelings about the two very different cities she calls home - Lagos, Nigeria and Paris, France

“To be honest, I can’t really live without EITHER of them! I can’t stay away from Lagos for too long because Lagos gives me my inspiration and my spirit. But then, on the other hand, Paris is where I like to work and RECORD! Plus I love the FREEDOM I get there! I love the fact that in Paris I meet so many different people from so many different backgrounds, countries and cultures who can all live together and share MUSIC! So, while my family and cultural origins may be in Lagos, Paris is the city that helps me create and write, and enables me to reach out to the rest of the WORLD!”

The album ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ and single ‘Be My Man’ are both out now through Dramatico/Naïve

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