KAWALA: “In the industry, you never really get a chance to catch your breath”

Posted on 6 March 2022
By Shannon Garner
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With afrobeat and rhythmic percussion at the heart of all their music, KAWALA are a band that are not trying to be anything new, but instead, reflects on the music that they want to make for themselves. Centred around the core duo of singer Jim Higson and guitarist and singer Daniel McCarthy, the North London five-piece have patiently been honing their craft since forming during a brief stint at Leeds College of Music in 2014.

Inflected with sounds from genres beyond the one they inhabit, the complexity of their inspirations can be credited to McCarthy, whose unique and intricate finger-style guitar playing had to embody a wide range of instrumentation. “I think we felt like we had hit a bit of a ceiling in terms of just doing it acoustically,” says McCarthy. “We built on it, put the band around it and haven’t really looked back,” he continues. “We still have the core of what we do at the centre of all of it but, now, it’s great to balance things with the band,” adds Higson. “Our acoustic element will always be integral to our sound but now we can play big shows and have fun.”

Like many artists in the last couple of years, their trajectory has been slowed by the events of the global pandemic forcing them to cancel many shows in 2020 just as they were beginning to build momentum. Using that enforced downtime positively, the band revised and refined the songs that would feature on their emotionally resplendent debut album ‘Better With You’ which marks the culmination of years of work that has seen the band grow from humble beginnings to the world-class act they are today. “The list we have now is entirely different to the one we had before we went into lockdown,” says McCarthy. “It’s because we suddenly had all this time to write and thought we can do better. We can definitely up our game,” he proclaims. “In the industry, you never really get a chance to catch your breath. It’s so full-on,” Higson takes over. “The lockdown situation is probably something, fingers crossed anyway, that artists won’t experience again for a long time so, in many ways, it was a silver lining. We were fortunate to have that time,” he says. “The main positive is that we had all this time to focus on our writing,” McCarthy adds. “There were no deadlines, no pressure and we ended up writing what I think is our best music yet.”

Their signature trademarks have enabled KAWALA to stand out from the crowd and establish a place for themselves within the music industry. Their consistent and fluid harmonies alongside golden melodies have allowed something so simple to sound so perfectly crafted and delicately written that it creates a truly encompassing atmosphere. Confident in their artistic instincts, KAWALA were happy to draw on multiple producers’ unique artistic perspectives as they formulated a debut that lives up to their own vision. “We were always a bit scared of having multiple producers because we wanted consistency,” comments McCarthy. “We wanted a consistent sound that makes the album feel like a complete body of work,” he says. “It actually took us finishing the album to realise that as long as the voices and acoustic elements are there, it’s always going to sound like a KAWALA song so now we’re not scared about experimenting with different producers or sounds,” adds Higson.

“Look at it this way,” McCarthy tells me. “If you got five different artists to paint one object, they’d all come out differently,” he begins. “They would all have their own personal inflections but ultimately, at its core, it’s still the same object. That’s how we knew that as long as we’re in the centre of making our music, no matter what producer jumps on it, it’s still going to be us,” he confidently finishes.

Fittingly, their debut album is a celebration of communities, with a lyrical thread running through its songs charting the band’s growth as people and as artists. It follows a series of acclaimed EPs and live shows from the band over the last two years which have not just seen them establish a fanbase, but forge a living, breathing community of like-minded individuals. “We always want to showcase a good range of our styles as we don’t limit ourselves to just one thing,” McCarthy begins. “With it being our debut album, obviously it’s super important for us to do that because, for many people, this is the first time they’re going to hear us,” he says. “You want to hear a mix of everything we’re capable of,” adds Higson. “You need the traditional and the new to engage as many people as possible.”

Recorded over the year, KAWALA have emphasised how much this project was birthed out of a sense of community and how this is an ethos that the band holds close to their heart when it comes to creative independence. “The thing with debut albums is, they’re usually very personal to the artist. Like this is my journey, this is what I have to say,” Higson states. “But what we’ve done, which most other artists don’t do, is rather than celebrating ourselves, we’re celebrating everybody who makes this possible. As this is such a big moment for us, we just wanted to share that with the team who made everything possible and the community we came from.”

KAWALA’s debut album ‘Better With You’ is out now.