It’s one thing to sell out your first European shows when you only stop in moderately sized clubs. However, it’s another to raise the temperature in those clubs to 40°C and have the whole room sing along virtually every lyric. On one of those typical grey Berlin evenings, Abra does exactly that in Berghain’s Kantine, and is even cheered at for dancing along to someone else’s song for about four minutes mid-concert. She doesn’t even need to sing to sing to keep her audience captivated. Abra’s success is tightly connected to that of Atlanta’s Awful label, a posse of »art kids who like to turn up«, as she says. But it certainly can’t be reduced to that. With two albums under her belt and numerous collaborations with other Awful members, she has become one of the most interesting artists to emerge from a scene which defies both the logic of the music industry and having its sound neatly pigeonholed. From energetic House beats to what she refers to as »Fairy Trap«, Abra seamlessly blends genres that usually only exist in isolation from one another. We got together with her before her outstanding gig to talk her growing up as an outcast whose parents did not allow her to listen to Rap music and that other family she found in her last years of college: Awful.
What I would like to know first is how someone who was raised with Christian and Folk music –
You done your research! That’s tight! (laughs)
Wait for it! How does someone who was raised on Christian and Folk music start playing Trap covers on acoustic guitar?
(laughs) I felt largely excluded from my peers when I was younger. I learnt to talk, walk and sing in London. Then I came to the states and everyone was on a different wave and it was cool, but they didn’t really accept me. I don’t want to say »accept«, because that seems so calculated, but they just didn’t really receive me. I felt misunderstood. They made fun of me because I didn’t know things like Outkast and Ludacris. I was in Atlanta, which is kind of like the epicentre of Rap and Hip Hop – although not the epicentre, but one of them – and so everyone was on that wave, Rap and stuff, that I wasn’t allowed to listen to.
You weren’t allowed to do that?
My parents wouldn’t let me watch MTV or BET. I was largely excommunicated from pop culture and people who were involved in pop culture. I remember the first song I heard was »Saturday« by Ludacris. I was like »this is so much fun, I wanna listen to this all the time!«. I won this little radio and I would take it to bed with me and when my parents were asleep I would listen to it on my headphones all night. It became my way to meet these people who didn’t understand me, we got to meet in the middle. It was like a social currency. I became really obsessed with it. »No shame on Christianity, but it’s really whack music.« I love bass music, I love drums, I love the way it makes you feel, it makes you wanna dance. It’s energetic, I’m very energetic, so I dove into it. When I started playing guitar, I learnt how to play guitar by playing other people’s music. But I would find myself listening to Rap songs thinking the there are a lot of nice melodies in there, but they’re just rapped. So I did a cover of Ludacris’ »You’s A Hoe« and stuff like that. I started getting a lot of positive feedback and it helped me build confidence that I had lost. It started to make me a part of something.
What music in particular was important for you? What does it mean that your parents were into Christian music – are we talking about Gospel, about traditional European songbook music…?
We didn’t listen to Gospel. They listen to contemporary Christian music, praise and worship stuff. Honestly, no shame on Christianity, but it’s really whack music. It was kinda like Alternative Rock, but not really Rock. I wasn’t into it, but that’s where I learnt to harmonize. My mum was really into Folk music, she listened to the Mamas & The Papas and The Beatles, and stuff like that. Before my dad was married, he was a wild boy and then he got saved and turned his life around and now only listens to Smooth Jazz. Sade would come on the radio and Kenny G, Kenny Loggins and that kind of stuff. I got my taste from my dad and I got my skill set from my mum and I guess that’s where my sound comes from.
Are you interested in House music? The first time I heard »Roses« I was thinking that you sound like Robert Owens.
I really like that old stuff, like Shannon’s »Let The Music Play«. (sings) 90s freestyle House. (sings Nocera’s »Summertime, Summertime«) I fall in love with that sort of music.
But you only discovered that when you were already back in Atlanta. For how long have you been living in the UK?
I really don’t remember, but I was back in the states when I was 8 or 9.
How was your experience coming back to Atlanta?
I didn’t like it at all, because people were really mean to me and were making fun of everything that I was all about. My parents are not from here, and my mom let me go to school with my hair like crazy. Fashion and looking cool isn’t important to my parents, so they weren’t trying to buy me cool clothes. I had high-water jeans! I would say things like »cardigan« and I pronounced things weirdly and the other kids made fun of me for that. I was left out of everything. It made me really resentful to people being so close-minded to someone new, because I was never that way. I know they’re kids and kids are mean, and I know it wasn’t malicious, but it really left a bad taste in my mouth.
Does Atlanta feel more like a home to you now?
It does now, but that didn’t start happening until the end of college. I felt like an outcast my entire adolescence. After I graduated high school, I thought I just wouldn’t be part of anyone’s group, I would be a lone wolf. That’s when I dove into the internet. I started my own thing and that’s when people really started to fuck with me. I was doing something and I didn’t care if anyone liked it. Then I started attracting people who were like-minded, who didn’t exclude people who were different. That’s when I started to enjoy it, and now I love Atlanta. They love me for who I am, for what I’ve made myself and I love them for accepting me.
Are you talking about the Awful posse?
Yeah. I had friends when I was in college, but not many. I had maybe five and all they really wanted to do was party. There was no real substance to our stuff. I had two friends of substance in college. Then I met Awful and they gave me a context to exist in. When I joined Awful it all came together and I felt like a real person.
And what is so special about Awful as a label?
I feel like we’re just a collective of outcasts. I’m not saying that everyone had the same experience as me, but a lot of them just are on a different wave. We’re art kids who like to also turn up. We’re nerds who watch anime or read books on mythology, but we also like Future.
Where would place Awful in Atlanta’s music scene? People in Europe have this idea of a giant strip club of a city in which everyone’s high on E or codeine.
Awful is kinda the black sheep of Atlanta. We’re not black sheep in the sense that no-one likes us, but a lot of people in Atlanta had a hard time accepting us because we got so much positive feedback for what we were doing. Because we weren’t subscribing to what they said what we should do and we still got acknowledged for it. We’re the black sheep, but people still fuck with us.
Father said in an interview that Awful is »radical«. I was wondering what that means and if you would you subscribe to that?
Yeah, I definitely would. We do everything ourselves. Lord Narf can work on an entire project, Ethereal will produce it, then he’ll mix it. Or Lui Diamonds will produce a track and Archibald Slim will hop on it. »We don’t ask for money, and we’re not gonna ever ask for money.« Also, we’re a black-owned company. That’s very rare. We don’t sign to a label, we have no outside help. We don’t ask for money, and we’re not gonna ever ask for money. We do exactly what we wanna do. I think we’re radical in that way, that we don’t have any kind of structure, it just kinda vibes. It’s like: »I wanna do this now, let’s do it.«
And also aesthetically speaking, would you say that you’re radical?
Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of shock value with Awful. We’re kinda wild, we party a lot. We definitely turned down a bit, because we take it more seriously, but we do a lot of wild shit.
When I saw Father’s video for »Everybody In The Club Getting Shot«, that was pretty interesting to me, because of the juxtaposition of kawaii aesthetics which you’ll also find in your »Roses« video…
Yeah. Why is that so interesting?
I don’t know, I just think it’s like we’ve all been through a lot of things that are very hard, we’ve had a lot of hardships, but we chose not to make it serious. We chose to make it fun and not take everything too seriously. Father has this tattoo on his arm of a skeleton and he’s popping out of a coffin and he’s like this (makes a »take it easy« hand gesture) and he’s like »life is okay«. And that’s the vibe: We’re gonna go through some hardships, but it’s cool, just make the best of it, make art of it.
Where do you want to take that?
We just keep going with it. Take »Rose«, for example. A lot of those songs are about things that are really serious and heavy, but you can still dance to them. It’s about sharing your heart, but making people enjoy it.
But also on a larger scale. You’re a very tight-knit group, but now that you’re getting more and more famous, don’t you think it will become harder to maintain this?
No, because we’re not just a label, we’re a family. And I don’t mean that in a cheesy way like »we’re all best friends and hang out«. We’re a literal family. There’s no way anyone can leave Awful. There are people who beef in Awful. People have fought each other in Awful, physically fighting each other. There have been situations in which someone has done someone really, really wrong. But it doesn’t matter because just like with family it’s like, you can fight with your brother, but that’s still your brother. You cannot excommunicate him from your family, you’re not gonna disown him just because he fucked you over. And that’s the mentality you run with. No-one gets left behind. No-one is just gonna be like, »oh, you’re not popping off right now? Oh well, that’s too bad.« We’re gonna do everything we can to make sure everybody’s eating, everybody’s taken care of.