Muhsinah: I’m Stronger Now

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Since her introduction in 2007 with the album day.break 2.0, Muhsinah has been highlighted by many as a stand out artist among a generation of contemporary artists breaking the moulds of soul music. The Washington Post describes her as “part of a new breed of young soul rebels who seamlessly meld electronic beats with layers of jazzy arrangements and unorthodox song structure.”

From the balcony of a fly North London pad overlooking the Arsenal Emirates stadium, Muhsinah talks to SoulCulture about her DC roots, the experience of touring with Common and her musical transition away from samples and speeding towards vulnerability, from day.break 2.0 to The Oscillations and beyond.

What’s the music scene like in DC?

I think the DC scene is… coming together nicely. It hasn’t always been there; I grew up in DC, there was no scene – like this at least. We have our regional music Go-Go and it’s pretty much 10 to 15 different drummers lined up with somebody in the front singing songs or rapping or something with all the drums in the back and there will be maybe a bass or keys or something. It’s our own regional music, but as far as soul or jazz or hip hop artists this is the first time that I’ve been able to experience so many different artists at one time in DC.

Have you worked with many other DC artists?

Yeah, I’ve probably worked with them all at some point – Bilal Saalam, Kev Brown, W Ellington Felton, Oddisee, there’s so many. DC is so small it’s like one degree of separation. So we’re all so close anyway – it’s probably hard to not know these people as people first, and then as musicians.

How did you end up on tour with Common?

His A&R found me on MySpace just randomly, like “I really love your music, it’s fantastic.” Really excited about it. I was in Canada at the Redbull Music Academy the same week he called me up and I was in Canada. I didn’t really know him very well, I’d just met him and I didn’t know he was an A&R, and he was like ‘I’m an A&R at Geffen and Common heard your music, he wants you to come to New York to see him play.’ So I fly back, I get there and I go to their concert and I meet him backstage and he’s like, “Yo, your music is fresh, we gotta work on something!” – and when artists say that sometimes I take it with a grain of salt because you never know if they have time, especially someone as busy as Common, he’s doing movies. But he actually kept his word.

They called me up, they asked me to write some songs, do some demos for them, and they actually picked one that I did for the album [“Changes” on Universal Mind Control] and they called me into Electric Lady studios in New York and we recorded. He was like, ‘I really want you to come on the road with me’. Just from me being in the studio and being around. A couple of weeks after that I did my first tour in Europe with him and his band.

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What did you learn from being around and working with Common?

Music has no territorial boundary. There’s no geographical cut-off for how far the music can go. We’ve been so many different places and there are people that don’t speak English that know his words and can sing along that are bigger fans than people in his block in Chicago. I think that’s probably the biggest lesson.

Also just to not really focus on so many little things and just look at the big picture, because there is a bigger message and a bigger purpose that we should have when we travel around the world and make music. It’s pretty humbling. It’s amazing… Every time you get off the plane you’re in another climate, you’re in another time zone even. It’s just teaching me how to be really strong and independent and I’m so inspired.

The greater purpose…?

I think everybody has a message to portray in what they do, and how they present themselves. I never knew exactly what I was here to do until I’m out in the world and I’m good at music and people know me as a musician, that I’m like, well shoot, I’m here to do music. Sometimes it takes leaving your environment to have something be solidified for you.

When did that sense of purpose kick in for you?

I’ve been writing a new collection of songs about my life and just doing a lot of soul searching, and I think all of that at one time, between recording those songs and travelling around the world with Common and his band, all at once, there’s no way you can’t learn something from that.

There wasn’t an “A-Ha!” moment, like this is it. Maybe there was…. We did a few shows out here and it was my first time performing for an audience bigger than 2000 people, there were like nine to ten thousand people at a festival. I don’t know if you understand how much people that is! [gesticulates widely] All those people knowing all the words and jumping up and down and hitting each other and throwing water… that’s amazing to me. And if I can make music that makes people do that, that’s what I wanna do.

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When you put together day.break, was it a vulnerable experience working completely by yourself?

I always work by myself. day.break wasn’t an intentional album, I wanna make that clear. day.break was pretty much a collection of experiments I did in the studio, it wasn’t some deliberate attempt by me to try to take over the world or something crazy like that. I wanted to put together a project together at least to show people where I’m starting from. I definitely can say that working with other people is nice – all the work that I’ve done with other people has been over the internet, I think I’ve only done two things where I’ve actually been in the room with the artist – so it’s kinda the same either way. You’re still there by yourself recording!

Why was Alice Coltrane a huge influence on your earlier music?

Well, has been. Alice Coltrane was a big influence because of the fact that she was so connected to what it’s like to be whole and pure and… she was really spiritually connected to her music, and at that time in my life I was just learning about how that’s important when you make music. I was in India and just having all these big epiphanies, I combed my locks out into an afro and a lot of big transitions she helped me through, audibly. I think she spoke to me in a lot of ways, I know it’s trippy or whatever. A lot of things I can’t really explain because it was organic. I was listening to it and it made me feel nice, and that’s it.

You’ve been rumoured to have multiple music personalities kicking about… how many would you say you have right now?

Right now I think I have four. They’re not named – two or three of them are Muhsinah – there’s the soulful Muhsinah, the electric Muhsinah and the rock Muhsinah…that’s so stupid for me to say! But whatever. And the fourth one in Boozina, and she’s crazy, she travels around the world and she makes beats and she’s really weird, sometimes I don’t like her but whatever… Sometimes she has a bad attitude, she’s really weird…

Does handling the business side of things conflict with your state of mind as an artist?

I feel like the more that I focus on the music and being committed to showing people my music, the better it is. If I have to worry about contracts and what’s on the rider and all that little stuff… Uh-uh. No, no, no. I just say “Heyyyy… can you help? I’ll pay you.” I think all the best musical projects that were worked on had like a billion people involved, and always came out really, really good. So, just following on in tradition…!

What ideas did you pick up to make your independent journey smoother?

At least from Common, his biggest advice to me has to be true to who I am. And finding that out over the months has been amazing, I definitely feel more comfortable in my solo journey having been with him on his. It’s amazing when you can step outside of yourself and be in someone else’s band and hype them up and when you go back to your room and you go back to your own gigs it’s like, “I’m stronger in this now,” because I know what it’s like to support someone else. My music is totally different now, my music is totally me – emotional and quirky and shy and nerdy but all of those things, I had to find out from all the travelling and just going through the motions.

What makes th more you now than before?

Before, a lot of it was sample-based and I think when you sample your art it’s like setting a template for yourself, to a certain point. Now I play everything from scratch and when you play piano it’s a TOTALLY different vibe to a sample. It’s just a different kind of music. And then it’s more myself because I’ve been at home, I’ve been in the neighbourhood I grew up in and there’s a different atmosphere.

I’m a suburban girl so my music is really kitchie and really weird. It’s cool to find out how much we change in such little time and how much we find out about ourselves. When you guys hear it you’ll know it’s me. Daybreak definitely was an experiment I just kinda threw together on a whim, but I think this music is very deliberate and it’s very contrived to fit me and to tell my story.

Visit myspace.com/Muhsinah for dates and details.

Muhsinah.com

Marsha Gosho Oakes | Photography by Tamar Nussbacher

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