INTERVIEW: KAWALA

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

This time one year ago, I had just moved into the top room of a sweaty, run-down hostel on a grim main road in St Kilda, Melbourne. Every morning, I'd either be woken up by my alarm - the rhythmic acoustic opening of London duo KAWALA's Small Death - or the noise of my fellow backpackers returning from a drunken night out. KAWALA's music had all the potential of that time of my life, featuring rugged but intricate acoustic guitars that drew comparisons to Bombay Bicycle Club and Half Moon Run.

KAWALA's impeccably crafted fusion of influences - afrobeat's contagious rhythm, pop's accessibility, the rough-yet-polished production of indie-folk - comes together seamlessly on their most recent single. Play It Right, engineered by Henri Davies (Miloco Studios), is the band's best and most complete song yet - an infectious, vibrant, and incredibly enjoyable ode to the difficulties of songwriting. With this in view, Play It Right - the band's first single with Virgin / EMI - is a perfect encapsulation of the potential I saw in KAWALA back in Melbourne. 

Ahead of the band's headline show at The Joiners, I spoke with Jim Higson (singer) and Dan McCarthy (guitarist and singer) so they could tell me about their influences and how their current UK tour is going...

Thank you very much for talking with me. First of all, how did your show in Edinburgh go?

JIM: It was so mad. During the first couple of nights of this tour, we were a little out of practice and we were finetuning our set. But, last night the Scottish crowd was incredible. The crowd was proper jumping.

DAN: It is a venue that is a bit of a club as well, so the floors are really bouncy. Honestly, the whole place was moving. I remember someone told us before we came on stage: 'if the doors aren't flapping, the show ain't happening!'


JIM: To be honest, it is something that I don't think we will ever get used to. Having people sing back all the lyrics to us... It is quite a surreal thing, really. For people to respond like that, to songs that aren't even out yet is amazing. It is just crazy.


That is really interesting. Sounds like you are going to bring that energy to your Southampton show as well!


DAN: Yeah, we have never played Southampton before and we can't wait. I have heard of The Joiners before and when we got booked to play it I was very excited to see what it is like.


This year you played the main stage at Reading Festival, overall what was that experience like?


JIM: It was absolutely surreal...


DAN: It was so weird. It is so hard to describe. We went up there, did our thing and then left... We just couldn't believe it.


JIM: It was insane. It is hard to describe because, where the barrier started on the main stage is usually where our crowd has ended... If you know what I mean? So, the setup was ridiculous and it was such an incredible experience.

DAN: We were completely blessed. The weather was insane and everyone was out. It was Friday morning and we were first on. But, people were up and about and we got an insane crowd.

JIM: We had low expectations to be honest with you. We didn't know if it was going to be a big turn out. But actually, we had a great crowd and we couldn't ask for more. There are millions of bands out there that could get that slot at the festival and for us to get it is amazing.


Given that you now have experience playing at some huge venues and festivals, do you enjoy playing at much more 'personal' locations such as The Joiners?

DAN: Honestly, it is something that will never get old. We have done some amazing huge-scale shows. For example, we played in Ireland in front of 20,000 people and it is a lot of fun. However, I remember that next time we returned to Ireland we played a 100 capacity venue in Dublin.


JIM: Which is one of our favourite cities to play...

DAN: Yeah, it is. And that venue in Dublin was just jumping. That intimacy with the crowd is amazing and it is something that is hard to replicate in huge venues. Although, I do think it [playing at large venues] is something that we will get more used to. We are still so early in our career as a band.


Your sound has developed over the years. Is this development influenced by the type of songwriters that you admire now, or perhaps the music that you grew up listening to?


JIM: Our influences come from everywhere. And when we started writing together we were obsessed with certain genres that maybe we aren't that interested in now. We started off listening to a lot of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and a lot of that close harmony kind of music. As we have progressed we started listening to artists like Bombay Bicycle Club and particularly focussing on their production. We kind of decided that we wanted to expand our sound into something bigger.

DAN: Also, I think the big thing with our sound is that its origin is with me and Jim writing songs together with an acoustic guitar. So, when we first started off we wanted to just make acoustic music and our sound was based around that. But, it came to a point when we realised that we could be a bit more expansive. We are approaching our music in such a different way from when we first started... It used to just be about the songwriting, but now we focus a lot more on the production.

JIM: It works really well. This is because; the core of everything we do is still the same as it has always been. It is still rooted in the acoustic guitars and our twin-vocals. We haven't lost what people originally found appealing in us.

With the last question in mind, as your songwriting has developed you have eventually put together a full band (with Dan Lee on electric guitar, Reeve Coulson on bass and Ben Batten on drums). How did the current line-up come together?

DAN: Well, we got incredibly lucky. With the people that are in our band, we were friends with them before they joined and they are all incredible musicians. So, it was very easy to incorporate them into KAWALA.


JIM: When we started, we were up at Leeds University. Originally we had this guy play a bit of percussion with us as well. But when we moved back to London, Ben our drummer - who is a really old friend of mine - joined us. We have always played in bands together, so it felt really natural for him to work with us. Our music is very rhythmic and Ben just has that highlighted feel and fits it perfectly. We then realised that we needed something to fill out that low-end and we met Reeve. He is just an all-around amazing musician and he can play pretty much everything. As soon as he started jamming with us, he just locked in and was a perfect fit.

DAN: We then just needed that last element and to fill the rest of the stage with an electric guitar. One of my older brothers is really good friends with Dan so he introduced us. And again, straight away in about the first twenty minutes of jamming together, we knew that he'd be a great fit. We honestly couldn't believe our luck!

That is great to hear. With that being said, was it hard to go from essentially working independently to working and writing as a full-band?


DAN: Well, we still write songs together. Just me and Jim... Our kind of mindset with it is: it isn't a KAWALA song unless it could exist in the way we would have originally written it. Jim and I do 100% of the writing and once we have finished that process we take it to the band and work on the arrangement together. It all comes quite naturally to us.

On your most recent single Play It Right, there is a recurring theme on the effects of writer’s block. Could you talk about where these themes came from? For example, was it from your own personal experience of dealing with writer’s block?

DAN: Definitely. Writing is fun. We were talking about this the other day actually... Writing is really fun and there is a great sense of achievement once you have finished a song. But, there is also that other side of it that can be frustrating. You can get bored and it can become stressful. There are times when you are feeling really creative and you come up with something really quickly. Other times, you aren't feeling as inspired but you still need to write. It can be difficult, especially when you have the pressure of having to deliver.

JIM: It is kind of a running theme throughout our songs, actually. A lot of our songs have uplifting themes in them about fighting the struggle, whatever that may be. I think it is something that a lot of people can relate to.

I read that this was your first single to be released with your new label, Virgin / EMI. Is that true?

DAN: Yeah, we sold our souls! Nah, not at all. They are great... We have been working with them for around six months now and it has been amazing. They have given us the ability to work with producers we never thought we'd be able to work with. They have helped build a creative team around what we do that would otherwise be inaccessible.


From signing to Virgin / EMI to performing on the main stage at Reading Festival; was there any other particular ‘groundbreaking’ moment where you guys couldn’t believe what was happening for the band?


JIM: Every time that we do a show and people sing along to our songs, it is amazing. It blows me away. Like, in Edinburgh we played Moonlight. It is a song that we haven't played in a while. But we did it yesterday and there was this special moment where I couldn't hear my own vocals because the crowd we so loud singing along!

DAN: Also, there was this guy who had come all the way from Cleveland to see us. As in Cleveland in America! It is mental... It is just things like that that are amazing. Perhaps not a particular standout moment, but a collection of amazing things. Every day we are shocked by things that are happening to our band. We are very grateful.


Tickets for KAWALA's headline show at The Joiners can be found at https://joiners.vticket.co.uk/product.php/1653/kawala

George Miles - Follow me on Twitter @GeorgeMiles6

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