Published Oct 12, 2011After a long, winding road paved with an expansive collection of introspective musings, reflective observations and ever-developing melodies spread over the three mixtapes that have surfaced since its inception, Toronto, ON poet/MC Ian Kamau's long-building One Day Soon is finally ready to taste daylight. Distilling the many elements laid out in those previous efforts, the new long-player finds the gifted wordsmith varying his ever-present, analytical diatribes that in the past were notably held at arm's length with a series of more personal tales, balancing his expressions of the world's struggles with those of his, to welcome effect. The album's often-weighty lyricism is also helped along by Kamau's inspired and largely unassisted musical backdrops, a shimmering array of dynamic synth moods, exotic instrumental touches, vibrant baselines and surefooted rhythm tracks. Plush offerings like the spacious "Yesterdays" and more anxious "Traffic" display an impressive sense of range, while his growth as a vocalist receives prime showing on the emotive "Maybe." Where the record slips a bit, however, is in the relentless stream of questioning, uncertainty and expressions of both internal and external conflicts it presents. It's a lengthy emotional discussion that while possibly therapeutic in small chunks becomes a tad tedious by the record's hour-and-15-minute endpoint.
I heard you mention recently that you played the majority of the album's instruments yourself?
There are no samples on the record, so I played anything. I mean, I wouldn't do a recital or anything, but I sat down with Ableton Live and electric guitars, acoustic guitars, bass guitars, keyboards, and all sorts of stuff and I produced the whole record. I didn't play music growing up; I mean, I played the violin for three years and played the trumpet for two, but I only have a very basic understanding of music and music theory. But it was fun. It meant that I could be in the shower or just sitting down and have an idea that popped into my head and try to bang it out on the keyboard and see where it goes.
How did that process affect the types of things that you were writing, lyrically?
Well, I think I made a conscious decision at a certain point to try to tell more stories and to try to be more honest, as opposed to speaking about themes or concepts, and to speak about my life. Because I find people can relate more to a person than they can to an idea, and those ideas can be inside of your story and, if it's honest, people will recognize the nuances of it as truth. There's a bunch of songs on [the mixtape] Love and Other Struggles that you can't listen to and be like, "this is generally about immigration" or something. There are some songs where it's like, "this is about a guy and I think Kamau knows this guy" and it just makes it more personal. I remember seeing or hearing someone saying that the more personal you get, the more universal you get, because your experience is not necessarily that special ― the specifics of it might be, but many other people have had those experiences in different ways. There are songs that I wrote where I felt like I might have been the only person going through it and when I played it for people, a bunch of people were like, "yeah, I went through that," which was surprising to me in certain circumstances, but isn't surprising to me anymore, because there are six billion of us on the planet. So why would I think that no one's ever gone through that?
What was the influence like growing up around your parents, who were also artists?
My mom dropped out of high school and I knew that growing up, but it didn't necessarily compute in my mind. It's not that she didn't think education was important, she just thought school was bullshit! She went about getting a degree and then she came here and went to Ryerson and got a degree in another way. But my parents are different. They left a lot that was traditional and went their own way, and they didn't necessarily get rich doing it, but they were pioneers. My father is an artist; he liked to draw, wrote poetry, wrote plays, he directed films, took photographs. He did all this sort of stuff in the '70s, as a black person in the '70s, in Toronto, Canada. I grew up around a lot of books, and they were always kinda just left-of-centre, so I felt like I didn't have a choice. It's like what I think is normal isn't normal to a lot of people or is normal to a lot of people, but they're too scared to approach it. I remember I would go to the art gallery at least once a year when I was a kid and I remember being in protests around Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. My mother started this thing called the Black Film & Video Network, and a lot of people came out of that, like David Sutherland, Clement Virgo and Karen King, and all these other people who were doing film and media in all sorts of different ways that black people were doing film and media. And I used to just be there as a ten- or 12-year-old or whatever, sitting in meetings listening to people talk about organizing things or what they needed to do to influence the wider industry and make it change and all that sort of stuff, and what they were going to do on their own. You know, I don't even know what the influence is, because it was just my life and my reality, and I only really felt that it might be something different or maybe a little bit unique when some of my other friends were struggling with their parents about some of the things that they wanted to do, but that they couldn't do because their mother or father wanted them to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. (Creation)