17 On the Frontline: Kadhja Bonet

“I think you decide everyday if today you will let yourself be inspired”

After listening to ‘The Visitor’, you might be forgiven for asking the question – Who is Kadhja Bonet? Ask Kadhja directly and speaking in the third person she’ll tell you straight – “Kadhja is someone who refuses to be defined for the convenience of others. Someone who puts personal evolution ahead of appeasement.”

Evolution can be a difficult journey, one that’s often wrought with doubt and steeped in a fear of the unknown but as Kadhja sings on ‘The Visitor’, ‘The power lies in that you get just what you give’. When it comes to the question of our life choices, evolution despite our very public lives in this digital age, is a life long process, one that exists in uncertainty. The evolution of an artist is constantly lived in the shadow of the greats, a quest that can often feel intimidating when comparisons are constantly drawn and measured against those with a lasting legacy. But greatness can also be cyclical, emerging at a particular moment in time, rising up in a particular place. It can be channeled through a single generation or in and of itself, become a marker of our state of mind and a sign of our times.

So why at the start of 2017, are we looking so wantonly at music as the antidote to the times we’re in? Expressed most poignantly in Donald Glover’s recent speech after his win at Golden Globe, his sentiment shared by many almost became this years call to action,“It’s our responsibility to make magic again, because a lot of the shit that’s happening now is bullshit”. Closing out 2016 as we mourned the passing of some of the music greats, it became apparent that while a generation of greatness had been lost, we’d been left with a sense that nurturing the next generation of artists means more now than ever before.

So if we speak now of making magic, it should be with no sense of urgency. Magic is the illusion of supernatural powers, it gathers together our collective sensibilities, enchanting us into a state of awe. Music is like a sixth sense, it gives us a different perception of time. Entering the magical world of Kadhja Bonet’s ‘The Visitor’ is to take a journey outside of our time. Kadhja’s own story is a reminder that art, music and culture are often like the honey we savour after the patient process of waiting for bees to take nectar to the honeycomb.

LA’s thriving beat scene has witnessed the rise of a stellar cast of new musicians, from Moses Sumney to Kelela, to Anderson .Paak and Kamasi Washington. It’s probably safe to say that something in LA has provided the time and space, to this tightly knit but musically loose community of musicians, to create their distinct sounds. And it is by way of LA, where Kadhja Bonet currently resides, that her music has made it’s way across the channel. Appearing in her first headline UK shows later in March this year, Kadhja is no stranger to London having performed previously at the ‘Unwritten Sessions’ for NTS radio back in 2015. “I’ve been to the UK before”, she tells us “and it was hard to leave! London has a great buzzing atmosphere, akin to New York. I felt right at home. I’m really looking forward to going back and seeing more cities.”

It makes sense that it should be that way, her music although made in LA, doesn’t sounds like it derives from one source, but out of a pool of inspiration. Yet, inspiration comes in many forms while true evolution takes on inspiration to innovate beyond duplication to a place of distinction. Inspired by many sounds, from classical to gypsy folk and even R&B greats like Patrice Ruschen, when specifically asked about where her source lies, Kadhja is elemental, “Inspiration is just tapping into a channel of personal experiences. Connecting dots. There’s no one source for it. The way I write and compose is embedded in me. Triggers for inspiration are everywhere. I think you decide everyday if today you will let yourself be inspired, just like you make decisions like if today you will let yourself love, share, grow, etc.” 

Kadhja (pronounced “kod-ya”) a multi-instrumentalist singer, started out playing violin and viola at 5 years old, entering a world of musicianship early on in her own home in the East Bay of San Francisco. Schooled by her parents in amongst six siblings and the students who visited her father, an opera singer and her mother, a cellist, Kadhja was proficient in the works of Shostakovich, Debussy and Ravel. Mastering her string instruments through childhood and into her teens, a rebel instinct soon set in, prompting her to drop the instruments altogether and leave home to go to USC Cinematic Arts school.

The one instrument my music couldn’t do without is empathy

Maybe it was the time away, or the space to breathe that brought Kadhja back to music, but not long after she realised her heart was still in soundscape and eventually she dropped out of film school. The epitome of a DIY artist, Kadhja marked her return with an evolution in music and taught herself to play the guitar, flute and learn to sing. With an extensive musical breadth behind her, being a multi-instrumentalist however, hasn’t got in the way of her creative freedom. It’s apparent through the undercurrent of her soundscapes, that her process is led by emotion, “The one instrument my music couldn’t do without is empathy. Any physical instrument can be manipulated to achieve the human characteristics I’m after.” 

Bonet’s tendencies to compose cinematic soundscapes, can be visualised succinctly in the sound of her music.  Film school its seems after all, may not have been an entirely misdirected ambition. Ask Kadhja what film she would make a song for if she could, and her response in itself doesn’t come as a surprise – “I would have had a ball scoring Kubrick.”  Often known for his penchant for a dark realism and an evocative use of music, Kubrick himself was obsessed with detail, approaching his craft with an extreme sense of patience and discipline. Celebrated through groundbreaking films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to his final film the sexual odyssey, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Kadhja’s choice to have scored for Kubrick, seem’s apt.

The music of any oppressed, repressed, suppressed peoples, individual or communal, is driven by pure humanism.

Growing up around classical music, Kadja went through her own process from seeking perfection to seeking out the freedom to explore something outside of the rules. Led by a unique curiousity to unpack musical structures and structures, her instinct to listen to other musical genres, also led to an appreciation of the alternative. I love music of so many varieties, but I took to gypsy folk as a youngster because what I’m looking for when I consume art is something relatable, something honest. The music of any oppressed, repressed, suppressed peoples, individual or communal, is driven by pure humanism. Art by diasporic and persecuted peoples, typically combines the most dire and most beautiful part of human existing, subsisting. That’s why so often black music is appropriated. People would rather imitate the honesty of others than dig into themselves to recover their own sources of repression which might be buried deeper, but just as valid.”

Digging into the charge of black music, a sentiment steeped in spirituals that reflected a deeper frustration and communal pain around the legacy of slavery, the civil rights movement and today the dawning of a Trump era, our sense of pure humanism begs to be renewed. The expectation that this new age of protest will in itself lead to a renewed charge in music culture, has itself given rise to the hope that the counterpoint will come through a new generation of brave musicians. While Kadhja’s eight song collection in ‘The Visitor’ doesn’t appear to veer into social politics or protest, the sense that Kadhja herself has dug deep into herself to recover her own voice, is her magic ingredient.

Although a new-ish name to most, Kadhja began her own journey on SoundCloud as many musicians do, around 2015, and caught the attention of early heads like Gilles Peterson who struck a chord with her music. Kadhja is naturally drawn to the ‘free’ musicians, especially ones she views as stretching the musical palette. Executing the freedom to record, write and create her own compositions on ‘The Visitor EP’, only a select few collaborators added to the mix including Grammy nominated engineer and co-producer Itai Shapira. The duo had previously developed their own joint project, GENESEA “born of pure happenstance” which preceded Kadhja’s solo project with the release of their own single ‘Her: Part 1’.

Quite rightly described as a transcendent introduction, Kadhja’s effervescent voice rises above heavenly notes throughout the ‘The Visitor’. Writing and composing all but one of the 8 tracks, Kadhja’s arrangements are a milieu of majestic and magical moments, often taking us into a wistful bank of feigned memories from a golden age, we saw somewhere in a movie. Taking to the only cover of jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius’ composition, ‘Portrait of Tracy’, Kadhja does no injustice to the original. Spellbinding in her approach to lyrical stories, Kadhja creates visual pieces, transforming her melodies into complete portraits. There are many magical highlights in the music that ‘holds you through’, but the strongest hold is in the way that Kadhja uses her own voice as an instrument itself. With a versatility that reminds us of a music great like Minnie Ripperton, there’s no question – Kadhja Bonet has that otherworldly essence.

If you haven’t already made the journey, escape with ‘The Visitor’, available to stream and download now. Kadhja will make her first headline performance in Sheffield, Manchester and London as part of her European tour between the 4th-7th of March. Tickets are on sale now.