afropunk exclusive: kenzie may talks culture, travelling and sneaking into the zoo

November 7, 2014

There are things from our past that stick with us like an unwavering and committed parent – some of them we wish to erase from our memories, while others are kind reminders of what use to be. Nicknames for instance, are typically given as a sign of affection, however flattering or unflattering the title may be. In the case of Kenzie May, the pop singer with the soulful sensibility, her stage name is one she’s had since childhood. “It came the same way a lot of nicknames come: I think kind of randomly. My first name, MacKenzie sounds like Kenzie May in Pig Latin, the chosen dialect of me, my siblings and cousins growing up. Before thinking it through, I started putting up songs under that moniker.” The talented singer with the unique voice sure has a way with words, writing most of her songs on her impressive first EP, which came out back in April. The catalogue of her songs ranges from vibrant sounds you can get down to at a club, to powerful acoustic renditions of the very same electronic laden tracks. She recently dropped her latest video with L.A. based beatmakers Vindata, and the very same song has already amassed a million hits on SoundCloud. The witty twenty-two year old was battling a case of strep throat when we chatted on the phone but that didn’t prevent her upbeat personality from shining through. Kenzie spoke with me about a variety of subjects including the cultural differences between the U.S. and England, all while letting her more silly side show through, divulging tasty tid-bits like the time she snuck into the Zoo.

By Andrea Dwyer, AFROPUNK Contributor

Andrea: So the video for “All I Really Need,” that you’re featured in with electro duo Vindata just dropped. The song has reached a million hits on Soundcloud. You guys have made a special track together. How did the collaboration come about?

Kenzie May: It’s actually crazy because I hadn’t even met them until I was in Los Angeles like a month ago. The connection basically came through a friend that I have in L.A. who’s a part of managing the guys. My friend was sending over tracks to me; some of them I wasn’t feeling and then he sent over the Vindata track and I was like, “Yo, don’t give this to anyone else. I want this!” I wrote to the track and recorded it on my iPhone headphones and sent it over. They were feeling it so we just continued to send stuff back and forth online. This has been one of the most natural collaborations I’ve ever done as far as aligning musically, but also one of the weirdest virtual collaborations.

Andrea: Speaking of collaborations. What other artist(s) would you like to get creative with musically?

KM: There are so many amazing artists out there right now. I’m a big fan of the whole Chicago rap movement.

Andrea: Chance, Tink, all those artists.

KM: Yeah. Fucking amazing, I love them. My mom’s really into rock and roll; that’s her thing so I grew up listening to a lot of The Stones, Hendrix and Pink Floyd as well as strong female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Erykah Badu. In general I would love to work with some people who are outside of my niche and comfort zone–I think that’s where there’s a possibility for some really weird and wonderful collaborations — things outside the typical “urban” scene in the UK and the States. I think because I’m a black female artist, a lot of people don’t think to recommend me new stuff that isn’t so much part of that genre. I also really love stuff like Blood Orange, Solange, Kindness, all that modern throwback kind of music that gives a little 80’s/early 90’s feel.

Andrea: You’ve been in the studio quite a bit lately. You released your first EP back in April. Is it safe to assume that you’re working toward putting out an LP?

KM: That’s definitely a goal. It’s in the pipeline. I think at the moment it’s really about getting the singles out there to as many platforms as possible. But yeah at some point an LP will be coming out.

Andrea: Fans are no doubt important but how did your family and close friends react to your EP?

KM: They were really supportive, which is awesome. Part of my creative process while doing the EP involved bringing my songs to my parents to get feedback because their opinions matter a lot. There was a time when I was first starting to write and finding my feet as an artist I had to censor myself, like, shit I don’t want my parents to see this. Things like cussing and talking about sex but you get to a certain age and they start to understand what you’re about, and at the end of the day, I think a lot of the time music exists to lay down the things that might be hard to say. There’s a song on the EP that’s about sex and it’s quite graphic. It’s been good though, having conversations and opening dialogue about some of those types of things.

Andrea: What song is that?

KM: It’s called “Skeleton Key.”

Andrea: Tell us more about that song and its meaning.

KM: There’s this line from the movie, “Kids,” and it says, “there’s a difference between making love, having sex, and fucking,” and that’s a big part of the song. In the context of the song, sex is a consensual thing but sometimes your mind isn’t in it. That’s the gist of the song. When I say, “I won’t tremble; I won’t make a sound. I am all yours from the collarbone down.” I’m all about being honest in a song and speaking about what I know. If I think to write about it, I’m definitely going to.

Andrea: What’s your creative process like when you write?

KM: It’s different every time I go to write a song. It depends who I’m working with or if I’m writing alone. It’s really just about going in and writing something that I wanna hear that day. Putting something together that I wanna listen to even if no one else wants to [laughs].

Andrea: Your Mahogany Sessions performances really showcase the depth of your voice. When did you discover you had a knack for singing?

KM: I hate to be that cheesy, whatever, but singing has just been one of those things I’ve always done. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t doing it. I took vocal lessons growing up with these girls who had these super soulful, ripping all over the place type voices. I had a different voice but I honed it on a style. Like I said, I was very into rock n roll when I was younger. In rock, it’s much more about that raspiness and the feeling that’s behind the music. Once I realized that it was more about the feeling than I guess the technical prowess, I was able to find my voice.

Andrea: You were born in the States (outside Boston) but grew up in England. Surprisingly you don’t have a British accent.

KM: Yeah my whole family is American. I spend a lot of time with people from all over the world; London is such a mixing pot. It also depends on who I’m around and how many drinks I’ve had [laughs].

Andrea: What was life like growing up in England?

KM: So I grew up just outside of London in a smaller town called Kingston. Honestly it was boring. Around the age of thirteen, fourteen, we would always venture out to London as much as we could. Going out and getting into trouble and stuff but yeah England for me is home. But it’s a weird thing being an American and growing up in London with an American accent, you get the question, “so when did you arrive,” and I’m like, “well I’ve been here for sixteen years.” Then I go to the States and they are like I can hear the English accent in your voice and it’s like really you’re just saying that because I told you I was from England.

Andrea: What are some of your favorite spots in London?

KM: I live in Shoreditch in East London. I kinda just hang around this area mostly but there are so many amazing places and new places pop up everyday. There are loads of cool clubs-Birthdays in Dalston, Oslo in Hackney, to name a few.

Andrea: Being that you’ve bounced around from the U.S to England, how would you compare the two culturally?

KM: That’s hard because when I go back to the States, I feel a bit like a tourist. Growing up though, there are some things I’ve noticed. One of the bigger things is the separation of cultures. Here in England, there’s more of a socio-economic emphasis. It’s more about your class. Whereas in the States, it’s more about race. One of the first questions I get a lot whether it has to do with my music or not is, “what are you mixed with?” And for a Black American girl, that’s not something you can always answer. In England you might say, I’m third generation Nigerian or my parents are Ghanaian but here, [England] it’s definitely more about where you’re from or how much money you make.

Andrea: You’ve been traveling a lot lately.

KM: Yeah. I’m having so much fun! At the beginning of the summer, I went to Berlin a few times just working and meeting new people, which was rad. I went to Croatia recently with my friend who was involved with putting on a festival, so we went out there and went crazy. Then I came back and went to L.A. That last L.A trip was the first time I went there and was actually feeling it. I’m normally out of my comfort zone there but this time I spent three weeks and I fell in love with it. I’d like to go back.

Andrea: What’s something amazingly odd and fun you recently did?

KM: I have to think about that. Odd and fun. I snuck into the zoo. I hope I don’t get in trouble for that but yeah I snuck into the zoo. Does that count?

Andrea: Ohh yeah!

KM: I’m not gonna specify which zoo [all around laughter].

Andrea: What does 2015 look like for Kenzie May?

KM: More releases and not a lot of time in between each one. I’m excited about new visuals and creative aesthetics.