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Tawiah: We Were Born Queens

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When the phone started ringing, I wondered what tone I would be greeted with when Tawiah answered. I'd spent the last hour re-listening to her music and had quickly become a hardcore fan of the singer-songwriter. Her music is so empowering, with many of her songs speaking directly to my Black British and African identity. Her gem-packed album Start Again was released in November 2019 and she's coming to perform in Sheffield this month for the Festival of Debate.

Tawiah, whose music sits within the British alternative and neo-soul genres, will perform at the Abbeydale Picture House as part of a trio of female singers coming to Sheffield this spring. In 2017 Tawiah released 'Queens', a resistance song tackling societal expectations of what a beautiful woman is. The song's strapline, 'We Were Born Queens', perfectly describes the series that Tawiah, Aadae and Fehdah will be part of in Sheffield.

Tawiah first came to Sheffield when she toured as lead vocalist for Mark Ronson and is looking forward to returning. This time around will be even more special because she'll be performing as an artist in her own right and singing her own songs.

How would you describe the process of putting out your new album?

I've had quite the journey. My friends and I shared a studio space and released an EP in 2017 with the collective label Lima Limo, then I did the post-production work of the album in that studio. The first EP that we put out, Recreate, we did ourselves and then the album was put out on First Word Records.

I put the intro, Recreate, out first on the EP because I loved the live recording of the album and we had so many versions of all the songs. I love the intro which is captured in the video. I actually shaved my head on camera - the locks used to reach all the way down to my back. This is the new chapter - the rebirth.

Who do you consider to be your musical influences?

Growing up in a Pentecostal household we mostly had gospel in the house, but when we'd go to my uncle's house he would play me and my older brother secular music. He introduced me to R&B, hip-hop and songs that weren't gospel from notables like Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Wu-Tang Clan.

Then I went to the Brit School and mixed with different kinds of people that were into metal and rock, and I discovered Björk. Goodness, I adore Björk!

From an early age I listened to R&B and hip-hop but as I grew up I gravitated towards jazz and soul, discovered Ella Fitzgerald, and just realised that music is such a beautiful thing, regardless of genre. You just have to connect with it.

'Queens' is such a powerful song. How did it come about?

I wrote 'Queens' by myself and it was co-produced by Sam Best who did the album and wrote a few songs with me alongside Jodie Milliner.

'Mother's Prayer' was an emotional roller coaster. What's the story behind it?

That's a deep one for me. I grew up in a strict Pentecostal household and prayer was part of my upbringing. As I've grown older and discovered things for myself, my mum finds it difficult because I'm no longer in the church and she deems me to be a sinner. Her prayer is that she wants to see me in heaven and I say that that's wonderful, but I want you to see me now. It's a very deep song.

The vocal you hear at the beginning is my great-grandmother who lived to be 103 years old. When she turned 100, we all went to Ghana and I took my dictaphone. All the interludes on my album are from my trip to Ghana. I sat down with her and asked her loads of questions.

I asked her what her favourite song was and that's the song she sang me, the one at the very beginning of 'Mother's Prayer'.

Queens, come wearing your crowns with your heads held up high

Speaking of Ghana, is the video for 'Good' filmed there?

It was filmed during the same trip. There's a lot I touch on during the album around family, identity, religion and spirituality and wanting to do good - good for your family, your elders, also good for yourself. That song is about me trying my best and that's all I can do. We are all trying our best. Everybody has got things going on and whenever we come into contact with people, we have to have that in mind.

As an artist of African heritage, like a lot of young people who will be interested in coming to your performance in Sheffield, how do you straddle that identity with being Black British?

It's tough. I didn't really have a strong connection to my Ghanaian roots when I was young - or I didn't recognize it. I understand my mother-tongue Ga because my mother speaks it to me, but in primary school people would laugh if they heard my mum speaking and it was really difficult. I would be embarrassed and say. 'don't speak to me in Ga', which is so sad. I wish I could go back to my younger self and be proud because it's amazing to know and understand another language and to connect with the language that your mother speaks.

I'm glad that in this day and age there is a lot more conversation around that, with a lot more people born and raised in the UK who are tapping into their heritage and ancestry and figuring out how to marry the two. We are both African and British - not just the one identity.

What's the highlight song of your performances?

For me, I always love performing 'Mother's Prayer' because I get to hear my great-grandmother's voice and it feels like she is with me in every show. That's really special. I performed it the other day in Leuven and my uncle flew out - hearing her voice brought him to tears. She is getting to tour the world and she didn't even know that her voice would be heard by people all over Europe.

What are your favourite and least favourite things about the music industry?

My favourite thing is meeting like-minded musicians and creating. I love creativity and freedom and expression. I love performing and sharing. I don't know what I would do without it. That is my expression and that's what I love about it.

My least favourite - I guess the industry part is really hard. You essentially become a product for sale and then it becomes a hard task of looking outward and seeing what's hot, what you need to be like. That isn't helpful for anybody's creative expression of staying true to themselves because it becomes about other things like how many hits or views you have.

I think it's very important for artists to stay true, but it's hard because there's a lot of music out there and a lot of opinions but we have to keep moving and keep evolving. We should believe that if we are able to maintain our integrity, the right audiences will gravitate towards you and you will grow - there's no way you won't grow.

I am really intrigued by how truthful this is for many of us. Do you think you have had to compromise on this at any point in your career?

I have definitely had an experience where I had to compromise and be on a track that I didn't like, but that was really hard. It's the hardest thing to do - putting something out that you don't fully believe in because it doesn't make you feel good. It hasn't happened again since. I was quite young.

When you're proud of something and you have done something that is true to you, for the most part if you get negative feedback it doesn't affect you because you understand that that's fine. The person doesn't get it. It gives you more peace. Not everybody is going to like your stuff, but when you put something out that's not true to you and you hear the negative, then it hurts you because they are trashing a version of you that isn't you.

So, I'd say to artists - keep working on your craft. Be the best that you can be in your instrument - your voice, guitar, drums or whatever it may be.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I'm touring. I'll be supporting Jamie Cullum this month on his UK tour and the last day of that is the Sheffield performance which I'm super excited about because it will be ending the tour on a high! Then I'm playing lots of festivals over the summer and working on some new music.

Any words for the people of Sheffield and why they should come to you show?

Please come through! I want to create an environment of love and strength and sharing. Sharing is caring and this is going to be an experience. Life is full of experiences and I would really love to see you. Let's have fun. Queens, come wearing your crowns with your heads held up high.

Tchiyiwe Chihana

Tawiah will perform & speak about her music at the Abbeydale Picture House on Friday 27 March. Tickets on sale now.

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