For a digital cover, Clara reflects on her career so far, taking the mic, and our collaborative artists to watch list: 'Co-Signed by Clara Amfo'.
Earlier this year, Clara Amfo shared a post on Instagram commemorating the 20th anniversary of BBC 1Xtra, impressing on her followers how joining the station in 2013 had well and truly ‘changed her life’. She’d risen through the ranks at her first radio job at Kiss FM, from marketing intern to drive-time presenter, ready for the opportunity of a new slot on the 1Xtra weekend breakfast show. Little did young Clara know the move would spark a chain of events culminating in almost a decade working at the BBC, where she’s established herself as an undeniable dynamic force and award-winning broadcaster, podcaster, tastemaker and television presenter, as well as a passionate advocate for new and rising artists.
Speaking from her home office before she travels to Boston to present the The Earthshot Prize awards, it’s surreal hearing one of radio’s most loved and recognisable voices coming through laptop speakers. I want to start by reflecting on Clara’s 2022, but embarking on a summary of her recent achievements is no mean feat. In the last two months alone, Clara’s re-launched her star-studded ‘This City’ podcast, fronted a brand-new astrological dating format, hosted a live music event with her ambassador-charity Bloody Good Period, presented numerous awards, interviewed the likes of Stormzy and been interviewed herself by Lorraine Kelly.
Perhaps best known for hosting the official chart and Live Lounge shows, as well as sitting down with world-famous musicians, Clara’s past interviewees could easily fill a Glastonbury line-up. The headliners? Billie Eilish, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Sir Elton John to name a few – Billie’s interview was recorded as an hour long special for BBC One. Currently hosting the prestigious Future Sounds show, it’s also not just the big names that Clara champions. There’s a sense that Clara’s experiences have given her a true understanding of the challenges involved in embarking on a music industry career. She often thanks those who guided her when she started out, and considers how rising talent might best be equally supported from the outset.
Curating of our ‘Co-Signed by Clara Amfo’ list feels like a natural extension of a career-long dedication to championing the best of new talent. Putting together a roster of artists from various genres, Clara is tipping these selections as set for a big 2023: FLO, DellaXOZ, MetteNarrative, Connie Constance, LF System, Finn Foxell, Dylan Fraser and Leo Kalyan. We caught up with Clara to reflect on how far she’s come, what she looks for in fresh talent, and why ultimately, you always have to back yourself.
It’s hard to know where to start considering the huge span of your work over the last few years as a presenter, podcaster, radio host, charity ambassador, Drag Race judge, and even being made into a Barbie. How do you reflect on where your career’s taken you in 2022?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’ve got a folder on my phone called 2022 highlights and I keep it there to stay focused. At the risk of sounding terribly cheesy, I’ve got my little gratitude folder of my yearly highlights. The past couple of days, I’ve really clocked it and I feel very grateful and happy with how this year has gone. I think one thing I’ve learned is that you can plan and you never know what’s going to happen.
It’s a privilege and joy to really know what your portion is and to be comfortable with that. Particularly this year, I’ve said yes to projects, and I’ve said no to others. I think there’s a comfort and privilege in knowing that about myself.
Taking it back, I know you started at Kiss – what was your dream job when you started working in the industry? Did you always know being on radio was the goal?
It’s interesting because I think I was in denial for a bit and I thought that I was happy being behind the scenes. Those early days, when I started at 1Xtra, the training, and the work ethic it gives you, I wouldn’t take it back for anything. I’ve worked across all departments of a radio station, whether it’s making someone’s tea, or looking after someone’s diary, I’ve done everything. Once you’ve done those jobs, it’d be hard to have a sense of entitlement because when you see what everyone has to do for you to have your moment in front of the mic, you can’t unsee it.
And for a minute, I was happy ordering merchandise. But why always do that? I love podcasts, I love conversation, I love all sorts of culture: art, music, fashion, politics, all of it. I suppressed it for as long as I could. Then I thought, actually, give me the mic.
Is there anything you’ve learned over the last decade you wish you’d known when you were starting out? Or any advice you’d give to young people in similar positions?
I’ve always had a level of self-belief. I’m only human, of course, and self-belief can waver because there are so many different components that can make you not back yourself, whether it’s race, class, or gender. It can sometimes take one comment, or one bad experience, professionally or socially to make you think, ‘oh, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.’ I think my only regret is that I wish I’d consistently and unwaveringly backed myself.
Would that be your advice to people coming up?
Definitely, you’ve got to back yourself. But at the same time, you have to have the humility and openness to understand that you don’t know everything. There are people that are willing to take the time to properly and sincerely teach you and you have to hold on to those people. They’re going to be your lifesavers when it comes to navigating the industry. Having those people to challenge you to be your best self I think is really important.
Has there been any moment in your career your younger self would be particularly impressed by? Maybe an interview you’ve done?
There’s been a few. If someone was to say to my younger self: ‘Guess what? You’re going to fly to LA and be in a mansion, sitting down with the biggest pop star in the world’…that Billie Eilish thing was mad. I love doing long-form interviews because it gives them more time to bed in. I spent the whole day with Billie, we spent lovely, intense time with each other. The Jay-Z interview as well, Jay-Z is an icon. He’s somebody that has shaped hip-hop culture and the music industry. He was a really cool guy.
Do you still get starstruck?
Absolutely. One thing I’ve learned though is that everyone is trying to do their job. As a broadcaster, I’m there to ask questions and I think my job is to connect an audience with somebody, whether they’re a mega fan or they couldn’t care less. I think that humanises people very quickly. I think the ‘oh my gosh’ moments usually kick in a day or two after it’s happened. Sometimes it’s very much in the moment, like with Jay Z.
You’re currently hosting the Future Sounds show – which features a mixture of established and rising artists – why do you think it’s important for artists of varying reach to share a platform?
I think for new artists, everyone has to start somewhere and you need people backing you. Fans hold so much power, but I do think broadcasting platforms have a responsibility to break people and I still think that’s really important. I think celebrating artistry is investing in people and staying on the journey with them. We’ve all got this thing when someone that we love starts as underground and then they make a few hits, we’re like ‘I prefer the old stuff.’ But you also have to give somebody the space to grow artistically. I want us to stay invested in our Finn Foxells, or whoever. I think it’s a discredit to be like ‘you’ve had your moment and we’re over you now.’ I don’t think that’s really fair.
There’s so much pressure on artists for constant reinvention and sustained relevance…
Mentally, I just don’t think this is very healthy for artists because there’s so much pressure. You’d be hard-pressed to read an interview with an artist who doesn’t reference whether people still care or not because of this culture that has been created. I think we’re all obsessed with newness but we’ve got to respect artists’ journeys, from the start to wherever they may finish.
Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you were an artist instead of a radio DJ?
It’s funny because I’ve got to know so many artists over the years and I’ve seen people’s careers take so many different trajectories. I don’t think there’s one way to define success. For some people, it’s getting a platinum-selling album. For others, it’s selling out a particular venue, and for many people, it’s just getting your song on the radio. They’re all different types of success. But I wouldn’t want to be an artist. It’d be lovely to have a gift like being able to sing, but when it comes to the industry, they have my utmost respect because it’s not easy. It is really not easy to navigate your career.
Thinking about your collaboration with Notion – you’ve curated a list for us with exciting new artists set to have big years in 2023. What makes rising talent stand out to you in general, and the list specifically?
Particularly in relation to these artists, it’s people that I think are unapologetically themselves. What I love about new people is seeing how they reference what’s come before. That, to me, is really exciting. Like Connie Constance, for example, you can tell she’s influenced a lot by 80s music and punk, but her music is still so fresh.
What did you take into consideration when choosing the artists? And where do you usually come across new music?
I want to hear someone where I think ‘yeah, you know what, only you could do that.’ And I think for me, the people that I’ve chosen in this list do that. For new music, it’s such a mixture. I work with my team; we all listen to stuff together or separately and recommend stuff to each other. I come across things on TikTok – I found out about PinkPantheress, like everybody did, on TikTok.
For people who are eager to find and support new artists, what could they be doing?
I think they should be supporting small venues where these artists are playing. This is a massive conversation that we need to keep alive. With COVID, so many amazing venues struggled and a lot shut down, but these are the spaces where artists find their fanbase and perfect their craft. Find people online, seek them out and follow them, but get back to the venues because that money from tickets goes back into their production costs. It all comes from those moments.
What are you looking forward to in 2023?
I’m looking forward to people supporting live music venues again. I think that next year, there’s going to be a renaissance. We’re living in peak times and the cost-of-living crisis is very real. I’m not trying to ignore those factors. But I think because of what we’ve been through, people will seek enjoyment, and one of the best places you’re going to get escapism is at a gig. I think we’re going to get even better albums next year and I’m excited about that, for sure.