Zimbabwean born, London-lived and Melbourne-based, KYE grew up with the idea that she would one day stand in the spotlight. But when powerhouse Sampa the Great actively sought her out with an offer to be her backing vocalist, it was obvious she couldn’t refuse. To date, KYE has had a long peep behind the curtains of showbiz, singing in shows for the likes of Genesis Owusu, Jessica Mauboy, BROCKHAMPTON, and teenage heartthrob, Ruel, and through countless flights, long hours and many performances has gained insight into a world many musicians could only dream of.
However, after years of singing in the background, and with a frontwoman role still in mind, she needed a little push, “Sampa said to me before COVID, this is our last year together because after that I’m kicking you out of the band so that you have to go and make your own music,” says KYE. And with that the turning point, in 2019, she launched her own career with her debut single ‘Good Company’.
Now, after a messy 2020 for all, KYE has reappeared after the madness of Melbourne’s covid-isolation with her latest track ‘Sometimes’, a bittersweet taste off of her conceptual upcoming EP, which according to her, saunters across a broad set of genres, a diversity that she likens to the influence of her own broad upbringing across three continents. With great things on the cards this year, including a performance in ACCLAIM’s Square up show, we chat to the accomplished artist about life as a backing vocalist, solo careers and her upcoming EP.
So maybe I’ll start by asking where your love for music came from, and how you got involved?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve always loved music, since I was a baby. My parents say I was singing before I was talking, so it’s just something I’ve kind of always done, but I think it’s something that’s heavily ingrained into my culture. Being Zimbabwean, music is a huge part of our culture and a huge part of our DNA, so it’s something that you always grow up around and always grow up hearing. So I think that my parents’ inherent love for music and their own personal music taste as well, is really what got me into it.
What kind of music were you listening to growing up, or what were those foundational songs or artists that inspired you?
It was probably a mix between Whitney Housten or Michael Jackson, cause they were probably the top two artists my parents were blasting at the time. And then heaps of gospel stuff, heaps of 80’s/ 90’s hillsong, like CeCe Winans. Just a mix of big gospel icons mixed with massive pop icons.
Did they inspire the music that you’re looking to write now? Can you see a bit of Michael or Whitney in your own music?
Yeah, definitely. I would say that I kind of feel like I make pop that has gospel leanings, or R&B leanings because of those musicians. I think Whitney and Michael did a very similar thing, they were King and Queen of pop. You can hear that in the chords and in the grooves. A lot of those melodies are pop melodies so I think I’ve kind of drawn on that myself when I make music.
So I know that you were born in Zimbabwe, and then you lived in London and now you live in Australia. How do you think bouncing around from those three different cultures influenced you, and even your music?
I think for me personally, aside from music, I think having experienced culture shock more than once and having to assimilate into different cultures multiple times, has kind of just taught me to be a bit broader, and I think that’s maybe how I approach music as well. I don’t want to make one genre, or I don’t want to make music for one type of audience. I approach things in a bit more of a broad way, so I think culturally you’ll find that I can be a bit English about things or I can be very Australian about other things, and then I’ll be super Zimbabwean about other things. So it’s really interesting how it’s influenced the way that I live and the way that my family is as well, we’re all a bit like that. We’ve taken little bits from each culture and kind of become our own little culture, our own little mini culture, and that’s how I feel about my music. It’s become its own little genre, or own little hybrid genre when I’m making music.
You started out as a backing singer for Genesis Owusu, Sampa the Great, Jessica Mauboy, all of these big names. What did being a backing singer teach you for your own performance, and what’s it been like moving from more of a background role into the spotlight?
Yeah, being a backing vocalist taught me probably the majority of what I know about performance, cause I think previous to that I’d been playing acoustic gigs and been on the cover scene, but watching the mechanics of how a show comes together and how an artist puts themselves together, was super, super insightful. Especially with Sampa, because we spent so much time together, in such close proximity when touring, that I kind of got to see what her every waking day as an artist was like before she even got onto the stage and it taught me about how much preparation goes into that one performance and how much your mindset is super important, and your attitude and your readiness, and energy. So I think I’ve learned a lot about how to maintain myself as an artist in my day to day even before I go onstage. But I think performance-wise, every artist I’ve worked with their biggest thing has been making sure that they connect every time, even if you’re not singing your best or performing your best you’re always connecting with your audience, so that’s the most important thing.
Is it strange seeing someone as an artist but then being able — because obviously, you’re with them a lot — but seeing behind that facade of the artist and seeing the real person?
Yeah, it’s crazy. Especially with artists like Ruel who have a gigantic fanbase, and everywhere we go it’s screaming girls, every airport, every hotel, it’s screaming girls. So it’s always really interesting to see the flipside of the coin, and just see them as a person and see how they navigate that. It’s almost always vastly different, like completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
What was the moment that you kind of realized that you wanted to move from backing vocals to a solo career?
I think the main goal since I was a kid was always to be an artist and to always be front and centre, but [becoming a backing vocalist] was something that happened without me expecting it to. It just kind of happened off the back of starting my artist project and being found by Sampa. So it was always the main goal. I think the thing that kind of pushed me over was maybe the artists that I worked with, because they would be like ‘Hey, what are you making at the moment? What’s your music sounding like?’, and I’d play them demos backstage or in hotel rooms and they’d be like, ‘You need to go and put this out’. And Sampa said to me before COVID, ‘This is our last year together because after that I’m kicking you out of the band so that you have to go and make your own music’. So yeah, that was kind of the turning point, hearing the response from people that I really looked up to, and sang backing for, saying you need to go out there and do this.
‘Sometimes’ is your newest single, it revolves around heartbreak, or ending a relationship or not being able to make it work. What does that single mean to you?
It takes on so many forms of meaning for me. I guess at the time I’d written about a relationship of mine that was falling apart and we just couldn’t quite pinpoint what was going wrong, we just knew it was going wrong. I also thought it was a really accurate reflection of what was happening in the world when covid did hit because nobody really knew what was going on, we didn’t really know what this virus was, what it was going to do or how long we’d be locked down. All we knew was that it just was, that was it, so I think for me it just means relinquishing control and just being like, ‘I’m probably never going to have the answers to how anything works, but I’m gonna learn to be okay with that and learn to be okay with uncertainty.’
‘Sometimes’ is off your upcoming EP, what can we expect from that EP or what kind of story is it going to tell?
So the EP is actually a song by song about a relationship, and it’s about a relationship with each other as people. So it starts off with ‘Finest Quality’ which talks about feeling yourself, you’re in your zone, you’ve kind of stepped out on your own for the first time and you feel amazing. ‘Good Company’ is about falling in love. ‘Ouch’ is about when that love begins to turn a little bit toxic. ‘Sometimes’ is about the end of that relationship and falling apart. ‘Tuesday’ is about longing for reconciliation, and ‘Gold’ is the reconciliation track. So it kind of journey’s through my own personal relationship like any story; beginning, middle, end, you know, origin, struggle, reconciliation. So that’s what the EP’s about. Sonically, it really represents me and that kind of feeling of wanting to be broad and wanting to make music that isn’t specific to one genre.
Would you ever try and integrate more traditional Zimbabwean sounds?
Definitely. That’s definitely the next thing that I want to do. There are a few little samples in there that are quietly hiding from home, little voice recordings from my grandparents talking and stuff like that. But I think yeah, as I delve into the next project and album, I would love to see some really heavy Zimbabwean influenced sounds. So I’m really excited to do that.
It would sound amazing! So you’re part of the upcoming Square Up show by The Operatives and ACCLAIM on May 14. It involves a multilayered performance space where artists collaborate, and you all perform together. How is that working, have you been rehearsing?
I have. It’s a really interesting kind of set-up actually cause I think it’s such a cool representation of Melbourne. The collaborations are almost really random, I think people are gonna be watching this and go ‘I never knew that those people even worked together or have ever done a song together’, so I think it’s really interesting cause there are no set times, you don’t know when or which artist is gonna be on the stage at which point, or which artist they’re swapping over with or who they’re collaborating with. So, I think it’s gonna be a bit of a surprise, they haven’t given away too much so that people come in there and really experience it and what it’s like, really, to be an artist in Melbourne.
Is it going to be your first live show since COVID?
Not my first, but probably my first major show since Covid, especially The Forum. So it’s exciting!
Obviously, you’re working with some great Australian talent. Could you name some other artists at the moment that are really impressing you from Australia?
Jerome Farrah. I think he’s doing something really cool within the hip hop, R&B kinda scene. Becca Hatch, another amazing R&B artist. Madame Empress, Maina Doe — these are a lot of Sydney artists doing R&B stuff. Melbourne also – Cookie, Denzel M, ThatKidMaz, Yung Shōgun. A lot, a lot of amazing artists.
So last question, what can we expect from you in the future, what’s kind of on the cards for you?
On the cards for me…I think over COVID I’ve just been developing some really interesting concepts for some shows because at the time we didn’t really know how shows were going to be when they came back. Really excited to put on some really immersive and left-of-field kind of shows, concept shows just to connect with people on a more personal and intimate level as an artist and as a performer. So that’s next for me, just some really interesting spaces and interesting sounds and some interesting experiences.