Okayafrica’s Kate Bomz chopped it up with Tanzanian-Canadian singer/songwriter Alysha Brilla about her connections to Tanzania and the importance of identity, as well as Amy Winehouse‘s wit, and using Swahili in her songs.
Okayafrica: It seems to be that it is very important you are identified as a “Tanzanian- Canadian” can you tell us a little bit about your connection to Tanzania and how it shapes your craft?
Alysha Brilla:I am very proud of my heritage and my connection to Tanzania is through my father, who was born in Mwanza and raised in Dar Es Salaam. Growing up in Toronto, I would hear stories about Tanzania and my father’s childhood and it seemed fascinating and far away. As I’ve got older, however, I realized how impactful my father’s birthplace and upbringing have been on myself and my values. My sense of self and musical sensibilities have definitely been shaped by it. I’ve been exposed to such a multitude of beautiful music and that has influenced my songwriting and performance style. My father actually grew up playing in a couple of bands in Dar Es Salaam and his love for Afro/world/jazz opened my eyes in many ways.
OKA: What was the main inspiration for this album? Listening to it I sensed heartbreak, remorse and then it took a wild turn and ended on high notes on “Mark on Me” getting “lifted” and you not needing the stars.
AB: Yes…you’ve pretty much explained the album’s trajectory to a T. It’s sort of like this: I was about to record an album and I had eleven pretty upbeat songs in the vein of my jazzy/pop style, when in the middle of production, I went through a really devastating breakup and had my heart broken. I was pretty torn apart, but like most artists, I ended up writing about it. Suddenly I had all of these new songs about the breakup. I had to honour where I was in that moment, so I decided to pick a couple of songs I had planned for the original record and all of these new songs I really felt and loved and put them into a record. That’s why the heartache was sort of sandwiched in the middle of happy Alysha before and happy Alysha now. I feel like most of us live our lives in cycles and this album represents that.
OKA: I love how you incorporated swahili in your album. Additionally, you wrote, performed and produced the record. Can you tell us a bit about your process and how you cope mastering all three?
AB: Thank you! I love the language. I think it sounds and sings beautiful. My father helped me write some of it, as I am always trying to learn more Swahili. Nimeshika ulimwengu katika mikono yangu. Although my lyrics may not sound political, I am a big believer in the power of the individual and to me, “Nobody” is a chant to that sentiment. I have been writing and performing since I was 14 and even producing demos in my bedroom here and there. I absolutely love composing, arranging and weaving sounds together. I had been in and out of a major record deal and had lived in Los Angeles for about two years. I am fortunate enough to have worked beside some amazing producers and every time, I would be taking notes. When it came time to make this record independently, I knew I wanted to produce because there was a unique sound I wanted to preserve and a process by which I knew how to get it. I had no idea how much work it was going to be until I began the process. I had so much fun making it, though, that despite the fact that upon completion I felt like I’d lost a limb, I started thinking about my next record. I would love to produce for others one day, too. There aren’t many female producers in the business and I would love to be one of them.
OKA: Who is your favorite African artist and why?
AB: That’s a tough one! I am going to have to choose two! Miriam Makeba because she is a queen and as a huge jazz fan of the 40’s and 50’s, I just love her voice, attitude and repertoire. The second would have to be my friend Tichaona from Zimbabwe. He has an afro-beat band called Ekhaya and he is so talented.
OKA: 3 artists you’d have no qualms being compared to?
AB: Amy Winehouse– I absolutely love that woman. When I like an artist, I tend to like them for their music, but also their intellect and the way they present themselves in interviews. Amy had such a wit about her and that really translated well in her songwriting.
Ella Fitzgerald– Perhaps it’s because I cover so many songs she made famous, but I think it’s maybe the lightness/positivity in her voice that people hear.
Nelly Furtado– People compare me to Nelly Furtado all the time. I think she’s awesome. Her music is eclectic and beat-driven.
OKA: What advice would you give to an upcoming independent artist?
AB: Maya Angelou once said “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Every time I think about that quote, I am reminded of why I am an independent artist. Being true to oneself is a matter of spiritual life or death for an artist. If you want to preserve that magical thing that god gave you- whether it’s the talent itself, or the impetus to create and share it, then you must respect yourself. I think every artist I know, including me, work their butt off because they have to. They have to perform, or write, or paint. So if you really love what you do, and you know what you want to achieve, nothing can stop you. Believe in yourself and don’t let anyone’s expectations or prejudice get in the way. The things that I was told, when I was with a major label, that would never sell and I should hide, are the things that, as an independent artist, connect me to my fans the most. So let your individuality shine through; you have it for a reason, and dream big.
Alysha’s new record In My Head premieres July 11th. Find more on her sounds here: