Interview: Bongeziwe Mabandla's New Album Is a Calm Meditation On Relationships
We speak with the South African artist about his captivating new album, iimini, love cycles, and the unexpected influence of Bon Iver.
"I've been playing at home for so many years and pretending to be having shows in my living room, and today it's actually happening," Bongeziwe Mabandla says, smiling out at me from my cellphone as I watch him play songs on Instagram Live, guitar close to his chest.
Two weekends ago, Mabandla was meant to be celebrating the release of his third album, iimini, at the Untitled Basement in Braamfontein in Joburg, which would no doubt have been packed with some of the many fans the musician has made since his debut release, Umlilo, in 2012. With South Africa joining many other parts of the world in a lockdown, those dates were cancelled and Mabandla, like many other artists, took to social media to still play some tracks from the album. The songs on iimini are about the life and death of a relationship—songs that are finding their way into the hearts of fans around the world, some of whom, now stuck in isolation, may be having to confront the ups and downs of love, with nowhere to hide.
The day before his Instagram Live mini-show, Mabandla spoke to OkayAfrica on lockdown from his home in Newtown about the lessons he's learned from making the album, his new-found love for Bon Iver, and how he's going to be spending his time over the next few weeks.
Bongeziwe Mabandla - Zange (Lyric Video) www.youtube.com
iimini (days) is about the cycle of love. How did you decide this was going to be the theme of your next album?
Decide is a good word, because I did decide it. After my second album, I got excited about making a one-theme record, and I think it's a way for an artist to kind of dictate what is important to them at certain points in their life. I really started to notice every time me and my friends would meet up, we'd be talking about the same thing. We wouldn't see each other for a while and then we'd meet up two weeks later and we'd talk about the same thing. There was this repetitiveness about finding the one; about trying to make a relationship work. It was just this topic we were all very invested in.
You worked again with Tiago Correia-Paul, who also produced your second album, the SAMA-winning Mangaliso. How did you find your groove working with him and what made you want to work with him again?
I'd always known him and then we became good friends. He's someone I really look up to and admire, we started touring together because he plays in my band and started spending a lot of time together. He would say, 'on your next album you should do something like this…' and I'd be like, 'yeah, maybe.' We started having conversations a lot about Kanye West and Drake and Frank Ocean and Solange, Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai, Son Little, who's on the album, Erykah Badu. We always have musical conversations, like, 'what is it that makes the song so nice, why is this artist so relevant and what does this mean.'
And sometimes he'd introduce stuff to me. He introduced a lot of new music to me lately that I'd never known about. Listening to it really made for us to be on one kind of thought pattern. The one artist he introduced me to was Bon Iver. His sound is folky but very current and electro and sort of now. I really started to love his music and also it allowed me to see how I could remain a storytelling artist but still make current music. When you listen to Bon Iver, his style is not really modern but it's the decisions he makes in production that make it modern. But it's got a Dolly Parton/Tracy Chapman feeling to it.
Bongeziwe Mabandla.Justice Mukheli. Courtesy of Black Major/Bongeziwe Mabandla.
The album ends with the sound of a door shutting and opens with a door opening. Why did you want to include those elements like that and other snippets of conversations?
We love those things. It's like when Frank Ocean does the "don't use that cocaine or marijuana because that stuff is highly addictive" part [in "Be Yourself"]. We always wanted that. I've been talking about how me understanding Tiago helps this album but it's also vice versa. It's easier for a producer to work with an artist when he knows the artist a little bit more. I think Tiago got to know me more—what I love in music and my style. When a producer works with an artist that he knows, he's able to address his concerns and make him feel comfortable and know his flaws and his stresses and navigate them. He's amazing. He really put his heart and soul into this album.
Were you writing through the relationship—when did you know you were going to make this subject the theme of your next album?
I started some of the ideas within the relationship. They were just sketches. I would write, not really songs, but just documentation of how I feel. That's how the songs started coming up, but I think the idea of turning this into an album started coming towards the end.
How has working on it healed you? Has it?
[Chuckles] It's still something I'm processing. When I wrote the album, I thought at the end it would definitely allow me to maybe find love easier, and it hasn't really been like that. But this album has also made me think a lot about my own self love. My own relationship with myself. While the album is really about somebody else, it's also made me fix some of the wounds that love has left. It's made me have more of a relationship with myself and understand myself more.
Bongeziwe Mabandla - Jikeleza (Audio) www.youtube.com
Was there a track that was particularly hard for you to write?
Yeah, lots! The most difficult writing was "Jikeleza." I didn't write the guitar for that, Tiago did. I was just sitting with this beat and this track, and sitting with thousands of ideas and not sure which way to go. I felt this pressure to make it really good. I struggled a lot. I struggled with "Zange" too. I recorded it so many different times. It's a very difficult song to sing but I learned a lot, like, for the first time what it is to sing from your stomach, sourcing the notes. That was the kind of precision for the song. But I really also didn't want that awkwardness or hardness to come across so even though it was a really difficult song to sing, I wanted to find and keep the fun and the carefreeness of it.
You recorded the album across Maputo and Joburg, what did being in Mozambique add to the experience for you?
I'd never really recorded vocals in another country so it was really nice. Part of the vocals were recorded there. Tiago [who lives in Mozambique] is very spontaneous, not just creative in the work but creative in his way of thinking. He was like, 'why don't you book a studio in Maputo, you rent a place and we sit and chill out and record the album.' I'm so glad it happened like that. I escaped my own world. I was in Maputo for almost 2 weeks, just seeing things in such a different way, such a new and beautiful way. I love Maputo and I think I love it because of this experience that I had. I would walk to the studio every day and imagine myself as if I was Mozambican. Everything was new and fascinating to me. I had a really good time.
How did Son Little come to feature on the album, on "Ukwahlukana(#27)"?
We met in Canada. They have these weird workshops where they take different musicians and put them on a stage and everyone jams together and plays each other's songs. We did that together and after I was like, 'this guy is amazing,' I really liked his vibe. We took each other's numbers, and he sent me his album while I was in Canada—I spent a whole month there touring. It's crazy, when you listen to somebody's album you just met and got along with, and he's so dope. We were talking about working together over the years, that we should do an album together sometime, but it didn't really work out. So we were thinking of him for this album, and he sent back this verse and it came in exactly for what we were doing.
Bongeziwe Mabandla - Khangela www.youtube.com
You perform to audiences around the world — what does it do for you to be able to perform for people, especially thinking about the fact that many musicians can't perform live right now?
I have a lot of anxiety around performing. It's not always easy. Technically, it's such a mathematic and scientific thing to get the sound right. I think I'm more of a studio artist but there's nothing like being in an audience, especially some of the gigs I've played here in South Africa. Hearing people sing every lyric in your song, that's really when you see the magnitude of songs that started in your room and how it moves people. It's really fascinating. And you never know which show is going to give you that thing. Sometimes the show is 25 people at some coffee shop with some small crowd and then everything just comes together. You live for that moment, you never know when it's going to come. I like playing in many different places—playing in Joburg is different to Cape Town, is different to playing in France, is different to London, to Australia to Canada.
You had to cancel and postpone tour dates as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, what are you planning on doing with your time while in lockdown?
I had to postpone every gig, I had no choice. But I really appreciate being able to release an album at home and work on videos, and I'm trying to embrace this change. I was also becoming a very exhausted artist. Although I haven't timed-out at all. I've still been busy! Just from here at home. I'm so happy to get this chance to do some of the work that I hadn't done. I'm really working on myself, which I think is really important when you're a musician—making music on stage and to share with others. It's really important that you feel 'together' and to do a lot of that work. I don't think I'm going to be writing much but I am going to be practicing, so when coronavirus stops I can easily get back on the stage. I'm also going to be releasing some videos and live stream shows and other things, which I hope are going to be epic.
When you say work on yourself, what are you going to be doing?
This album has really made me realize that I have to love myself as well, and I haven't had a lot of time to maybe really do that kind of work. And I really want to do it. It's stuff I sing about on the album. Some of it is really painful stuff that I would love to work through, especially if I'm going to be singing about it and talking about it. I'd like to be at a better place about it.
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