Meet Kasai, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter who is completely in control of her artistic future.
Raised in West London by two Anglo-Indian parents in a household full of musicians, Kasai has spent much of her adult life working towards creating the music you hear today, and that love for music started young. While her mother blasted gospel through the house, it was Kasai’s father who introduced her to the artists she still considers significant in her soundscape today. Everything from jazz to electronic to R&B; artists like Sade, Erykah Badu, J Dilla, and Bjork soon became the foundation for her musical world. As Kasai became a little older, these influences melded with her own discoveries, as she found Andre 3000, Frank Ocean, and always have an ear out for the freshest new sounds.
A stint at a performing arts college coincided with her parent’s divorce. Working through the financial struggles and motivated by creative people online, Kasai searched for beats and wound up making the song that got her noticed, “Don’t Mind”. Despite Kasai’s own personal dissatisfactions, the track experienced a brief foray into the world of chart-leaning R&B with 2018’s “Pretty Boys”, a Joey Bada$$ collaboration that Nike selected to score adverts. This provided Kasai with an insight into what it’s like to bridge the gap between conceptual storytelling and life as a pop star. But it also gave her perspective. After its release, she stepped back and took time to find herself a little.
Searching for what she wanted her new music to sound like, Kasai simultaneously tried to find a management company best fitted with the right balance of guidance and freedom. After The 1975’s Matty Healy commented on an Instagram video of her singing on a beat on Frooty Loops, they struck up a conversation. Through that conversation, she learned of Jamie Oborne and the team at Dirty Hit. She’d found her match.
Kasai was left to her own devices to create music that mattered to her, in its most organic form. Unwittingly, her debut EP ‘Not That Normal’ was born from it. A languorous, sensitive soul and R&B record that exists in a similar vein to SZA and Kelela, it’s inspired by a relationship that fell apart, and the endless push-and-pull of a post-breakup mindset. On the five-track project, she excavates messed up romance with the confidence of musical greats, creating a sound few British artists have managed to pin down.
It has been a complex journey for Kasai, hampered by self-doubts and false starts, but the time spent considering exactly what her creative legacy may be, has now become a debut body of work that bears her bruises and vulnerabilities.
Notion caught up with Kasai to discuss what we can expect from ‘Not That Normal’ part two, why it’s important for emerging artists to have a voice in each part of the musical process, and how she upholds her honest storytelling.
First of all, how are you doing? How has the past year been for you?
It’s been positive so far, bright and exciting.
Tell us about your next project that’s coming out and what we can expect from you?
I’m dropping a Part Two of the first EP. It’s basically similar concepts musically but with more emotions and honesty, it’s definitely a bit more on the sad side, when I was a little bit more in my feelings when I was making the songs. Some live shows, more music. Anything else that comes, I’m ready.
So what can we expect from a Kasai gig?
For the first one, it’s going to be more intimate and stripped back. Just me and a piano player or guitarist, maybe a backing singer because I love to put loads of harmonies and backing vocals in my music when I’m writing. One day, I want to be coming out with the backup dancers and the whole situation on the stage.
Your career journey has been hampered by false starts and self-doubt. Through all of this, what kept you going?
Just my love for doing this. I just love music and creating so so so, so, so much. It’s almost like nothing could stop me from loving this. Also, before I started doing music properly as a career in 2018, I was working a 9-5 job. I know what those experiences are like and don’t want to go back to doing that again [laughs]. So that has already shown me that this is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I just love expressing myself. Since I was younger, if it wasn’t music, I loved drawing, I loved writing, journaling or graffiti or doing art, it was always from an expressive point of view. I felt like I always loved to vent and music is that place for me to do so. It’s fulfilling.
That’s amazing. It’s so rare in life that people get to pursue something that makes them feel fulfilled.
Exactly. My mum would always tell me that career satisfaction is very important, not just money. I could do anything because it makes me happy and feel fulfilled, but it doesn’t necessarily make me a rich person. The fulfilment of things is enough for me. When I was doubting myself about starting a career in music and doing 9-5 jobs, my mum would always be like, ‘You think you’re doing this because you need money and you need to get by, but you’re not happy doing this. Even if you don’t think you could be successful in music, or make money from it, at least you have career satisfaction’. So that’s another thing that anchors me.
It sounds like your mum gives some great advice, and it’s all paid off in the end. You’re now signed to The 1975’s label, Dirty Hit. How did you know it was the right home for your music and for you as an artist?
I wasn’t looking for a home when I came across Dirty Hit. It was still so early in my career – this was in 2019. I was more so wanting to find a manager that could guide me but also let me be as free as I wanted to be. It was that kind of management situation that I thought I needed in a music career because it’s all fine having talent and having songs, but I think in this business, guidance is really important. It gets a bit hectic sometimes.
[At the time] I was publishing with Roc Nation and Warner Chappell but I was still completely independent. I was so unmotivated. I just wasn’t bothered anymore. And then Matty Healey commented on my video where I was just doing melodies on a beat – because that is how I normally start writing a song. He hit me up and then when I met them, I told them I was just looking for management. When I met Matty, Jamie, and Chris, they told me about the Dirty Hit label and how there’s more to it than just management, that they’re an independent company, very artistic. The one thing that really drew me to the label is just everyone on the roster is just doing their thing. I rated everyone that was on the roster as well. Their creative ideas and their way of believing in the artists and pushing creative boundaries – all the charts just seem very art-centered. I think that’s me in a nutshell.
Speaking of creative processes, you exec produced your EP ‘Not That Normal’. How important do you think it is for emerging artists to have a voice in each part of the musical process?
I personally think it’s really important. It’s the most important thing. Even just going back to the question before, that’s another thing that led me to Dirty Hit. I want to be absolutely involved in every aspect. But I also have that knowledge of knowing when I need help. I know that I’ll need certain producers, certain engineers in the room, even on things that I want to be very hands-on with, I still need some kind of guidance. But yeah, the exec production part would have been just doing the finishing touches on how each song transitions. The little spices on top. The way I work on everything is that we always just sit in the studio together, me and my main producer, and we build an idea from scratch. I’ve never really been given something to do like a beat or something. I will literally hear the whole sonics before it gets made if that makes sense. Sometimes I’ll hear the strings coming in here, the ocean waves and birds.
You’re hyperconscious about keeping your storytelling honest. How do you uphold this?
I’ve already experienced working with people but I would be very closed off. I wasn’t used to even working with a co-writer or having engineers and stuff – before it would just be me and a producer, or me on a beat that I found on YouTube or something. But in 2019 and 2020 I started to work more with people. Warner would always tell me that collaboration is good. I actually used to be very against it [laughs]. But it’s really good to learn things – like you could be next to someone and there’s a format or way they go about producing, mixing, vocal engineering or writing and you learn from them. Even when I collab with people on songwriting, it’s always gonna be honest. There’s two people that help me on songwriting but they’re friends. I know them really, really, really well and I trust them. They also have that kind of energy where they just let me get on with things. They give me my space. I used to be scared of doing songwriting sessions because I like to hold everything I’m doing. If it’s a stranger, what is the meet in the middle energy? But if it’s my friend, they’re cool to just step back and then assist me when I need assisting basically. So far so good. When I do get people who are more like strangers to collab on production and songwriting, I’m a tiny bit hesitant at first, but I go get to know them first away from the session, have a phone call, just go for a drink, or food or something that we organise, just to speak a little bit and get to know each other and keep things honest.
Have you set yourself any particular career goals or are you just going with the flow? Are there any milestones you want to hit?
There’s loads that I want to do. I want to release an amazing first album in the next few years. I want to write for and help out much bigger, iconic artists. If someone I really admired asked me to help songwrite one of their songs, that would be amazing. Features I haven’t thought about too much but SZA would be great. Doing an arena tour one day, that’d be amazing. I just want to make incredible music. I want to really be proud of all the songs I keep making over the next few years and then what happens next is what happens next. A song going number one on the radio, all these things would be amazing, but I feel like if I don’t make the music really, really fire, then none of that matters.
Lastly, where is your happy place?
Definitely in the sun by some kind of water. But we don’t always have the sun here in London so I’d say sitting by some kind of water, like the river in London. That’s my peaceful and happy place. Or on some kind of rooftop where you can see a city skyline. When I’m by a river, I just feel peaceful, happy, almost like clarity, inspired. I have a roof outside of my window right now and it’s not much to look at, but I just feel empowered.