Kadhja Bonet interview: "These are journal entries for me, these are really personal chapters of my life."
This past Friday, Fat Possum Records released Childqueen, the second album from rising LA artist Kadhja Bonet. It's a piece that has its roots in neo-soul thanks to Bonet's heavenly vocal abilities and amorous lyricism, but the instrumentation (featuring plenty of flutes and other brass) shifts it more towards jazz. These two guiding forces are then blended with Bonet's modern musical voraciousness, making Childqueen presently spiritual and psychedelic.
Due to the sheer artistry on display in the complex arrangements, I wasn't surprising for me to find out that Bonet is a driven and hard-to-impress artist. However, I was shocked to discover just how hard she could be on herself, and how devastatingly low she had reached in her moods around her life. After having spoken to her, Childqueen's themes stood out even more clearly and felicitously - which I hope will be the same for other listeners after reading our chat below.
Firstly, tell me about the titular Childqueen - is that you?
I meant Childqueen more as a perspective and a destination, rather than a person. I feel like it's something that I'm trying to return to; it's maybe a piece of my identity that I've lost, and that I'm trying to get closer to achieving. On The Visitor I kind of hinted at that, the idea of ‘The Visitor’ and the concept of that song and therefore that body was being visited by your true self and being like "oh fuck! I'm really far away from what I intended to be, and who I know myself to be, and the potential that I have." So then this next body was about how do I get there? What are the steps? How do I do the hard work to get a little closer to this original person that we all are at birth; this more honest version of ourselves.
Do you feel you're getting there?
Uhhhh. I mean it goes like a rollercoaster. There's times when I feel like "yeah! I'm feeling like myself," and then there's times when I get really lost and fall off and have to dig again. Sometimes I feel like I've gotten further away, but it's almost like a muscle memory thing where the more you're working on it the quicker it can come back.
Cool. What else has changed for you between albums?
I tried to live abroad, that didn't work, so I came back to LA. I tried to live in Berlin. I think I just wasn't quite ready for it, but it was a good test, and now I feel like next time I move out of California I'll be like "OK I know what to expect more."
Why did you choose Berlin?
It's a common destination for struggling artists.
It's drastically different from LA though.
That's why I chose it, I was looking for something really different. Maybe it was a little too different.
Let's talk about Childqueen. There's a lot of instrumentation on this album, and your voice is one of the most powerful of them, it seems like the melody is primary and words secondary.
I don't know if I would agree with that. I think that I put a lot of care into the words. But, sometimes words are inappropriate, sometimes you want to get a feeling across without it being confined to the limits of language.
What are all the instruments you played on this album?
Strings, some flute, some guitar, some keys, some bass and some drums.
You start with words?
No, that's pretty hard to do. You have to let them inform each other. I think most people do this, like "what does it sound like I'm saying." But I'm definitely trying to start with another idea.
In the press release for this album you said making this album "crushed your ego," what did you mean by that?
I meant that I was constantly reminded of my shortcomings, and by the end of it I felt completely incompetent, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing but it hurt, and it takes a lot of humility to be able to move forward past so many failings, so I had to accept all the ways that I can improve. I almost quit! I almost was like "OK, I'll get a job, be a real member of society now. Stop fucking around, this isn't for you, music doesn't love you." [Laughs]
Wow, this was after recording the album? How could you feel that after making something so great?
Because, you know, when you're in it it doesn't feel amazing to you. I'm proud of the work that I've put in, but I'm not proud of the result, and that's something I'm going to have to deal with - that's mine.
Obviously I want people to experience it without knowing necessarily the emotional pain that it caused me to try and make it, because I want the pieces of work to stand on their own. All I can really think about and worry about is improving. So when I hear it I think of all the things I want to improve, and all of the ways I want the next one to be stronger. Like I said, it goes on these roller coasters of being able to catch the moments when you feel like yourself and having these out of body "what the fuck, who are you?" experiences, where you're not sure what you're doing and who you are, and that's how I felt when I finished it, like "did I get there?" And no I didn't - and I accepted that I didn't, and that acceptance was hard.
Wow. It's an acceptance and a promise to try again. The first song is 'Procession', where you repeat "every morning is a chance to renew" - was that your mantra in making this album?
Yeah. I'm really clearing the space, so you can give yourself the time and space for the reminders you can set. I thought it was thematically appropriate.
And it's a nice way of welcoming people into this album.
Yeah, and welcoming people into themselves.
You want listeners to feel more themselves as they listen to this album.
Yeah, but I'm gonna be real with you, I'm a very selfish person. I made this album for myself. I made it for what I needed, but the hope is that by doing things that I know that I need, that someone will relate to it and be able to get something out of it for themselves. But, I'm selfish as fuck, I made it for myself.
But then you're also quite self-critical on this title track when you say "don't you got a man to tell you what you're worth to him?"
It's kind of like sarcasm. For me that lyric was about kind of making fun of my younger self, making fun of maybe 23-24 year old me, that was so desperate for validation. I think a lot of people, especially women, we have this idea that we're not complete without a partner, so it was me poking fun at the time when I'd get lonely and feel down on myself, as a reminder "you don't need anybody to validate you. It's a broken way of thinking." Sometimes tough love is what I need from myself [Laughs].
So the idea on 'Another Time Lover' is a star-crossed love story that coan't quite get it together.
Yeah I think everybody has those people that come in and out of your life, that you know there's some magical chemistry that you're never able to explore; I'm in a relationship, then you're in a relationship, then we're both in a relationship - you know what I mean. So all you have of it is your imagination, which to be honest is usually better than the real thing anyway, so it's not so bad.
And it feels like being "on the floor of the Atlantic ocean."
The idea was that you're trying to bridge the gap of the ocean floor, you know what I mean? It's just a vast space between two people, it's not a vacuum, there's tons of weight between you that you have to be pushing through if you want to try and make anything connect.
OK, so let's talk about 'Delphine', which is one of my favourites. It's an interesting narrative about reading letters from a friend - is Delphine a real person?
Delphine is a real person but her name is not Delphine.
Did you pick the name Delphine for any reason?
Because it rhymes with "what's it mean" [Laughs].
Tell me about the letter in the song.
The idea is that you receive this uncomfortable letter from someone that you care about. Maybe that person has grown out of you, and you're a bit in denial about that, you want them to try again and make it work, but you kind of have already known that they're growing out of you and you don't want to accept it.
There's a lot of distance between you and others on this album.
I feel distant from everybody, yeah [Laughs].
'Thoughts Around Tea' comes next, which makes a nice pair with 'Delphine', where you're also drinking tea as you read the letter. Let’s have some thoughts around tea: what's your favourite kind of tea?
Earl Grey, my grandma's tea. It's really comforting for me because it's what she always had. She was a milk and honey person.
Do you still drink tea regularly?
Yeah, I do, I drink a lot of tea, but more than tea now I'm addicted to hot chocolate. It's actually maybe a clinical problem, my mugs are huge because I'm super American and our mugs are like this, and I drink like 4 or 5 of those a day.
Is it possible that on the next album there'll be a song called 'Thoughts Around Hot Chocolate'?
It's possible, I'm not gonna rule it out [Laughs].
This is another one where you're feeling distance from someone.
Yeah, it's definitely a theme of the album. This one is about how people are not good at compromise - and maybe they shouldn't be good at compromise, maybe it's OK that it doesn't work out. You don't always have to compromise, it's OK to do your own shit.
Is that a lesson you've learned in your own life?
Oh yeah, I think I've over compromised so much in my life with previous partners, that I'm in a place in my life now where I'm like "I'm not changing shit, take it or leave it."
And that ties in to the theme of the album of being more yourself.
You know what I'm saying? Themes [Laughs].
Do you think about the sequencing of the album, in terms of Side A and Side B?
I didn't think about it as I was recording the songs, which actually made it more difficult at the end. I went back and forth, that was one of the hardest parts. I tried dozens and dozens of formulations - however many songs, factorial, is what I did [Laughs]. I tried it all. But I actually feel like I got there, I got to the order that made sense, but it took so long.
'Joy' starts the second side, and this is one of the ones I was thinking about when I said the words are secondary to the voice, as it's more just a feeling than a story. And, conversely to the title 'Joy', it's a song written in a dark place.
Exactly, it was a long slump. I was frustrated with myself because I do so much work and I try so hard to get to these strong, happy places, and then when they disappear I'm like "why? How can I sustain it? Why isn't it sustainable? What am I doing wrong?" So this song was just about the frustration of trying to grasp at sustained happiness, and wondering if that's even possible.
'Wings' has a lot of fantastical images, and is almost like a fable.
I was feeling a bit incompetent as a human in terms of not being able to always know what's best for other people, and not being able to always control when I'm hurting others. (I mean, not like stabbing others, I think we can all agree we should be able to control that part.) More like the emotional damage that I do to others sometimes feels so out of my own control because of whatever it is I'm going through. So the song's about that, but I didn't want to be so literal about it.
'Mother Maybe' was the first single, why did you choose it?
I didn't. When I turned my album over to my label I was like "do what you will." And they picked the singles. I think it's the one that people say is the most radio-able, so I think that's why they picked it for that.
But that's not something you were thinking about.
Oh absolutely not.
Do you ever listen to the radio?
Only accidentally, when I'm in Ubers. Actually half the time when I'm in Ubers I'll get the balls to tell them to turn it off, but the other half the time I just feel rude and I'm like "oooooh goooood." I absolutely prefer silence, 100% prefer silence. When you're making music and everywhere you go, every cafe you sit in, every grocery store, every Uber, literally everywhere you go there's music playing, and then when you get home and you have silence it's strange and comforting. Someone’s bad taste isn't being imposed on you anymore. Especially if you've been in headphones mixing all day, the last thing you wanna do is listen to the radio [Laughs]. "I just want quiet, give me some air please."
It would be cool to hear 'Mother Maybe' on the radio though, wouldn't it?
Yes, it is cool. I think the first couple of times I ever heard anything of mine on the radio it was exciting. But, like I said, it's kind of different when you're the person that makes it, because it's a representation of you, and so sometimes I have a hard time getting over what I've released of myself, because I feel like I can do better now [Laughs]. And the other thing is, these are journal entries for me, these are really personal chapters of my life. So you hear something that you went through two years ago, and it's on the radio, you have a whole different array of feelings to it than people who didn't go through it [Laughs]. So it's kind of a complicated response to being on the radio, there's the technical "what did I want to accomplish with this?" and the emotional "oh shit this is my real life torn open and on the radio for people to digest."
And then it gets even worse when people like me come along and try and make you talk some more about it.
So 'Mother Maybe' is about a potential child.
The song is about conception, it's about the moment of conception and sort of how fucking crazy it is. It's about how crazy it is that the female body can create a soul. That's nutty. Maybe not create, that's too generous, but channel one - I can channel a spirit into my frickin torso and grow it into a breathing, giving person.
That is like the true super power that humans have.
Isn't it nutty? I was just taken by the magic of that, and I was like "how do I express my celebration of this?" Whether or not I choose to have kids, I have this super power. I was like "hey, I kind of wanna show off my super power a little bit."
Wow. I'm kind of jealous that I can't have one now.
[Laughs] Well, it's teamwork. We're not white sharks. White sharks are crazy, they can self-fertilise if they have to. If they're in captivity and there's no other sharks, they can spontaneously become pregnant sometimes. Isn't that crazy? Can you imagine if I became spontaneously pregnant? I'd be so pissed. At least give me the fun part of it, y'know?
Also, angler fish are crazy. The male angler fish attaches to the female's body and I think they drink their blood, basically. They're being kept alive through being attached to the female's body, and the female can use the gonads to fertilise themselves if they want. They'll be like "I think I want a batch of babies." And they can use multiple, so they can be like "I think I'll use this guy's gonads this time." Super weird.
You're a bit of a nature buff...?
[Laughs] I watch my share of nature docs. It's fascinating.
Is that what you watch most of the time?
I wish I was that nerdy. I've watched so much random shit on Netflix. I don't have a Netflix subscription anymore and I watch much less shit as a circumstance.
'Second Wind' has a bit of a nature thing: "I am the oyster/ I am small organic magic."
Yeah man, you write how you write.
That was the feeling you had when you got a second wind?
Yeah. This was on one of my downs, when I needed to climb up. So I wrote it for myself to try to help me climb up - and it really worked for me, actually. It kind of became my personal anthem.
Do you hope it can become an anthem for others?
Absolutely, it would be really awesome if even one person got a lift.
What is your hope that people take away from Childqueen when they finish?
OK, I have to tie this back into my selfishness, because any hopes that I have now are after-the-fact hopes. Because, as I said, I make these songs as self-therapy, so I guess the hope is that my therapy process is somehow opening up for someone else. But I didn't do it for them. I don't honestly care if anybody ever listens to the record. It's something that I do because I have to do it, I do it because I need it from myself. But, if somebody else can get any kind of relief, any kind of opening, that's fucking rad.
And it's been announced that Anderson .Paak is getting involved in releasing this album. How do you know him?
We're good friends. The LA connects. He's been such a supportive big brother figure for me, and it's been really cool to have somebody who I believe in so much believe back in me. It's been maybe one of the most fulfilling friendships that I have.
Have you ever considered collaborating?
We do consider collaborating.
So there might be something on the horizon?
I don't know if I'm allowed to say anything. I really don't know. I actually should ask him what's allowed to talk about.
Have you figured out how you'll be playing these songs live yet?
The dream for playing it live is to have the same instrumentation that's on the record. I don't make that kind of money, so it's a little further away. So for now the setup for live is kind of like a pretty standard band setup, guitar, bass, keys, drums and me. No flute this time. I have played with flutes before, usually when I'm in LA and it's not a travel thing - it's a whole budget thing when you go international. But that's the hope, that eventually that I can have it all.
How many people would you need on stage to fully realise it?
Probably 12. It would be amazing. It'd feel really good.
Are you selfish when playing live, is it for you?
No, it's totally the opposite. Performing is for the audience, always.
How do you feel about touring?
In the past I've always had to do too much of it myself; I've always had to manage myself, tour manage myself, be performing, band leading - it's exhausting. Without the proper resources it's really hard. So I think a lot of the times it's ended up feeling like I'm not able to give the audience what I want to give them, so I have this fear of disappointing people that's really hard to stomach; I want you to be satisfied, I wanna give you everything, I wanna give you the record how you hear the record, but I can't do that right now. That's been a hard thing to reconcile, so that's why I'm hoping eventually I can bring more people in, spend a teenie bit more so we can share it how it's intended to be shared, and I don't feel like maybe I'm disappointing people because I'm playing this song with just a guitar and they're used to hearing it with a whole orchestra. It's something that is hard for me to accept. Fear of disappointing people is very strong.
Are there any books or writers or other kind of art forms that you want to shout out that you want to recommend personally?
I've really been digging AP's other project NxWorries, I've been listening a lot to that. I wish I was a more read person, but I'm gonna level with you, I don't read shit [Laughs]. Part of the reason I don't read is because I'm nearly legally blind, and it's exhausting for my eyes. But I should get Audible. Shout out to Audible.
What's on your list of what you would listen to on Audible?
I wanna read Trevor Noah's autobiography.
Kadhja Bonet's new album Childqueen is out now on Fat Possum.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 11th June 2018.