“Strong & calm. That’s what Obenewa means,” says a composed west London beauty sitting across from me in a busy Starbucks in Hammersmith. Inner peace is often required when waiting in line to order a coffee but more importantly it’s a requirement for any up and coming singer trying to make a name for themselves in the thriving UK Soul scene. But in the short space of time, Obenewa has proven to have the fortitude, knowledge and most importantly, the gift to achieve such success.
Born of Jamaican and Ghanaian heritage, the west London vocalist is owner to not just a traditional Ghanaian name, but also a dreamy and sultry voice which has captivated her many followers, not to mention being an accomplished pianist and avid guitar player. Whilst the likes of Bob Marley, Raphael Saadiq and Stevie Wonder were influential in her musical upbringing, Obenewa also cites also some of the greatest classical composers in history as an influence. “Since the age of four I’ve been playing the piano,” she recalls. “My Mum gave me extra curricular lessons, so I’ve always been into classical music – the romantic period like Chopin and Debussey. So you can just imagine how many different types of music I was influenced by growing up.”
Touting many open mic nights and showcases, including the invigorating I Luv Live event, Obenewa has racked up numerous plaudits across the city with her intimate and upbeat live performances. But it was the release of her impressive mixtape, Therapy, which has elevated her into the status of potential superstar. Containing ten aromatic songs of love, heartbreak and triumph all to a soothing score by the Truth Movement, the thought process behind the mixtape was simply providing something for all of her faithful followers.
“I’ve been writing and performing for some time now, and my friend just encouraged me to put something out. This was down to people coming up to me after shows asking where they could get my stuff and I didn’t have anything to give to them. The mixtape was a way of both giving something to my existing fanbase as well as offering some material to people who may have hear of me but hadn’t managed to go to any of my gigs.”
Receiving the commendable ‘thumbs up’ from figures such as TY and DJs Ras Kwame and MistaJam, 2010 looks to be shaping up nicely for Obenewa. Plans to release an EP and an album are in the pipeline not to mention more mixtapes in between the anticipated wait for both projects. “I’ll continue to produce mixtapes as well as work on an album for the latter end of 2010. I also hope to write for other artists and to also increase my fanbase, not just in the UK but overseas as well. I’ll continue to perform at gigs and just hope to stay healthy for the remainder of the year.”
You’ve performed at numerous live venues, notably the I Luv Live showcases in Camden. Is there a particular event or stage you’d eventually like to perform at?
Obenewa: Everywhere! I want to perform everywhere. Specifically, I’d love to perform on Later … with Jools Holland. I guess it’s because my Dad used to love watching it and it would be nice performing somewhere with such an emotional attachment. I’d also love to do the festivals like Glastonbury etc, as well as the Shepherds Bush Empire – I’d love to do a few sold out gigs there!
Your Therapy mixtape gained much attention even though it’s a Soul project and mixtapes are commonly associated with Hip Hop. Do you feel more UK soul artists should embrace the mixtape format or are live performances still mandatory?
Obenewa: I think it’s more a case of finding the right balance between the two. If you can perform night after night and also produce a mixtape then definitely do it. You don’t choose one or the other, you go with whatever route you are able to undertake. They both have different outcomes; live performances increase your fanbase and also help your fitness in terms of stamina. But recording a mixtape can be done without the hassle of going out night after night, although I feel live performances are necessary as it builds more confidence. When you sing in front of a live audience there’s no autotune or effects to hide behind!
With the success of UK black music in the charts last year, could artists from the Soul genre benefit from this mainstream ‘acceptance’ of UK black music?
Obenewa: I definitely think that it’s possible and there’s even a lot of Soul in many of today’s pop music. If you look at an artist like James Morrison, he has a soulful voice even though he’s mainly seen as a pop artist. If you have a good song whether Soul, Pop or Rock and it has a good hook, it doesn’t matter what genre it is, it will cross over. Some songs just work and I truly believe that if your music is coming from the heart and what you’re doing is real, people will buy into it.
You’re at a stage now of being touted for much success. What advice would you give to someone who’s maybe just decided they want to become a singer?
Obenewa: I’d say listen to different types of music firstly to get an idea of what goes into making a good song. Also get people to listen to your music, not just friends. Perform in front of different crowds not just at the same venues, from doing this you can gage what people outside think of your music and they can tell you which songs were strong enough and what you can work on. It’s also important to try and enjoy the journey as there will be ups and downs but it will be all worth it in the end if you believe in yourself. And of course you always have to practice, practice, practice!
DOWNLOAD: Obenewa’s Therapy mixtape