- Words Aimee Phillips
- Photography Lillie Eiger
Jim and Dan from the genre-bending band KAWALA chat to Notion about the year they've had, always working towards an album, and trying to "bring a bit of light" into people's lives with their music.
Safe to say, 2020 has been a rough old ride. In a year of such darkness, music has been a sanctuary, providing a beam of light to guide us through tough times. It’s thanks to bands like KAWALA that music lovers around the world have been able to keep the flicker of hope going, that one day, things will get better.
Now, KAWALA may not have invented the vaccine, but they have continued to lift our spirits this year with their rhythmic, acoustic guitar-led melodies and close vocal harmonies. Whilst they can’t be pinned to any one genre, the band – which started off with Daniel and Jim (vocals and guitar) and later grew to include Reeve (bass), Ben (drums) and Dan (electric guitar) – can always be relied on for earworm tracks and messages of hope and purpose.
Releasing their eponymous debut EP early this year, the band then shared “Ticket To Ride” in the summer (which landed a spot on the FIFA 21 tracklist) and finally, the double A-side singles “Pure Desire” / “Loosen Up” at the end of October. On top of dropping music, KAWALA have been working their socks off throughout the pandemic by doing everything they can to keep in touch with their fans. From online guitar lessons and a livestreamed gig to real-life gigs in parks around the UK, if there was an accolade for Hardest Working Band, KAWALA would certainly be nominated.
Speaking to Jim and Daniel over Zoom (because where else right now?), it’s clear to see why KAWALA have built such a loyal fanbase. Their warmth and chemistry is infectious. Like their harmonies, they balance each other out perfectly. From Daniel’s warm, excitable chatter to Jim’s careful musings, KAWALA are more than just a band – they’re their own community, and in these uncertain times, that’s exactly what we all need.
How have these past few months been for you? How has it affected your creativity as a band and as individuals going from lockdown to semi-freedom and then back into lockdown again?
Daniel: It’s been a rough old year. But in terms of how it has affected us creatively, it’s weird. We’re lucky in the sense that this time around they’re not restricting work and stuff. So we’re still able to go to the studio and write. As much as it’s been so difficult creatively, I do feel like we’ve actually come a long way – I think our songwriting has doubled in quality. Our creativity has massively improved. We’ve had to be inventive in terms of ways to go around the normal structure of just doing a gig, touring, and releasing music. I think this will be actually quite positive.
Jim: Yes, because it’s pretty much all that we could do in lockdown, just write music. We’ve got no other real distractions.
Daniel: In lockdown, we were just trying to Zoom each other and sing harmonies which was the worst thing you’ve ever heard. Absolutely awful! [they both laugh]
Jim: Well it was awful so we stopped that after about 20 minutes.
Daniel: And then as soon as they were like, slowly easing, I was like, right, Jim, I’m sitting in your garden like 10 metres apart and we’re just going to try and hear each other sing.
Jim: It’s much easier now since we can book a studio so we can actually meet up in the same room and write together.
You’ve been very proactive digitally this year, doing a Zoom single launch party, a livestreamed gig, hosted pub quizzes, and gave guitar lessons to fans. What has the whole experience been like, moving all your fan engagement online?
Daniel: You name it, we did it! [laughs]
Jim: We’re trying our absolute best to stay relevant in any kind of way.
Daniel: We ticked off everything you could possibly do. I think it’s been an incredibly daunting time for bands of our level because we were just hitting our stride, and we were just about to tour like crazy. We’d only had one real year of proper touring. We were only just starting to develop a really, really amazing fan base. I think it was quite scary for artists of our stage. Luckily, we know a lot of other artists who are on the same level. We’re not huge worldwide artists that are going to have our fan base waiting for us on the other side. We have to do everything we can to try and keep them engaged.
Jim: Also because we want to. It’s difficult for musicians but it’s difficult for music lovers who would go to shows all the time. So we try and do our absolute best to keep people entertained because everyone deserves and needs a little bit of entertainment in these pretty horrible times. So if we can bring a bit of light into somebody’s life, then we will absolutely try.
You got out on the road this summer with your ‘KAWALA car boot tour’. That must have been so great to perform live again!
Jim: That was after the first lockdown eased off. We took the rules and we made the most out of it. We were the first to do it as well – as far as I know.
Daniel: We were in this kind of weird, limbo period where we came up with ideas. We saw people busking in parks and stuff and thought, could we do this? Could we pull this off? The next thing you know, we did a full UK tour in like four days. There was lots of lovely young people come to see us with little mini amps playing acoustic music.
Jim: It was really nice though. It was so wholesome. I think people were just desperate to not only get out of the house, but also to just do something that kind of makes you feel a bit normal again, for the first time in so long. So everyone who came had such a nice time. A lot of people said it was the first time they heard live music in a long time.
Speaking about achievements, your summer track “Ticket To Ride” was featured on FIFA 21. How did you feel when you heard that news?
Daniel: [Chuckles] I’m a massive football fan. Big West Ham fan. [He points to a framed piece of West Ham memorabilia hanging above him]. I’ve actually got it right up there, but it’s quite embarrassing ‘cos it’s like, ‘FA Cup Winners 1964’. What a great year.
It’s kind of quite funny because [FIFA] isn’t guaranteed to boost your career because it doesn’t affect your streaming necessarily or affect your following or even financially impact you all that much. But what it does do is it makes your friends really proud of you [laughs]. So it was a really special moment when both me and Jim and all the other boys were just getting messages. Obviously growing up, everyone plays FIFA. And suddenly like, people recognise us, no matter what we’ve achieved to this point. I don’t think anyone’s really cared that much out of our friends [they both laugh].
Jim: That’s probably the first time that my brother’s acknowledged that I’m in a band [laughs].
Daniel: For me, it’s the nostalgia element. I remember being a kid playing FIFA, going around to friends houses to play FIFA and the iconic tracks on the soundtrack.
Jim: I think we massively benefited from it. There’s not as much music like similar talk to our genre on the game as there is other other kinds of music. So I don’t know if that helps our track stand out or…
Daniel: I think it’s because famously it has an indie tracklist in the game… whereas there’s a lot less indie this time around. And we just happen to be one of about two or three on there.
And then regarding recent releases, in October you shared your first double A-Side 7” single, “Pure Desire”/”Loosen Up”. What made you pick these two tracks?
Jim: I would say that the tracks are fairly contrasting. That’s something that we’ve always prided ourselves on in our music – that we don’t have a set way that all of our songs sound. At our shows, we’ll have moments where it’s just me and Dan doing close harmony, kind of folk stuff. And then on the flipside, we do slightly more upbeat and summery stuff. So I think that was quite important to have on there. “Loosen Up” being a little bit more chilled out and stuff and “Pure Desire”, just a straight, relentless banger?
Daniel: We’ve always wanted to do that. With all of our releases, we’ve only ever released EPs or individual singles, but with EPs, we’ve always wanted them to be like micro-albums, trying to showcase everything we try and do – whether it be kind of folky, more straight indie, or more Afrobeat driven.
When you’re writing, how much of your work is autobiographical, and how much is drawn from fantasy?
Daniel: There’ll be things that we’ll go through but it’s kind of difficult because we both sing, it’s hard to get really personal. So we end up writing a collected point of view about journey… We also write about growth and progression.
Jim: It can feel quite difficult, coming up with things to sing about when I say no, sometimes I feel like I don’t really have anything to say. We actually tell a lot of other people’s stories in our music. But like Daniel said, usually, when we’re writing from our own points of view, we use a lot of a lot of imagery to tell the story. So it’s a little bit more broad, and it gives you a feeling rather than a narrative. I think that’s more important for us – for the lyrics to kind of gauge a feeling rather than it to be telling a story that means something to us.
All of our music generally tells the same story, which is about achieving and overcoming something. “Loosen Up” on the B-side is about getting to this happy place that you dream of. “Pure Desire” is pretty much the same thing – like nothing is going to stop you from getting there.
I’ve got to ask – what’s the story behind the moniker KAWALA?
Daniel: When we had our first ever gig, we really needed a name. I’d seen Jim had written down the word ‘koala’ as in the animal.
Jim: And Dan was like “oh, koala but spelled wrong! That’s cool”.
Daniel: And I was like, “what do you mean spelled wrong?” So the band name was born out of my severe dyslexia.
If you could pick just one of your songs to play to a person, which would have the strongest chance of making them a lifetime KAWALA stan?
Daniel: Oh that is an incredible question! I think it’s hard because… I’m gonna go full politics and just skirt around the question here [chuckles], but I do think it’s difficult because we always try to do such different things. It’s hard because I could pick one song for each style. But then to pick one song overall…
Jim: You might listen to the one song that we choose, and then hear another one and be like, wait, so is that the same band?
I’m gonna say “Moonlight”.
Daniel: I was gonna say “Moonlight” too! [Everyone laughs].
The reason why I was gonna say “Moonlight” but then I stopped myself from saying that is because it’s one of my favourite of our songs, and it’s one of our better streamed and it’s one that everyone sings at gigs. But at the same time, if you then heard some of our other songs, unless you understood that it was going to go a different way… I’d choose something like “Run Away” because it offers a range in the actual track. It’s not all upbeat but has upbeat elements. Or maybe even controversial “Kept in the Dark”, which is the first-ever song we wrote. It’s such a chilled song – it’s got a really upbeat chorus and it showcases harmonies.
Jim: I would go with “Run Away” too actually.
So “Runaway” – is that your final answer?
Both: Oooooooh! Erm…. “Run Away”!
We’ve not got an album from you guys yet. Is this something you’re working on?
Jim: I think we’re always working towards an album because we’ll do one eventually. If we have a career in music, we’re always going to be working towards that album. Yeah, every time we write another new song, we think about where it can live within the album. It’s something that we’re always looking at. Absolutely.
And lastly, we’re a bit early to be making resolutions yet, but have you set yourselves any specific intentions as a band for the forthcoming year?
Daniel: Gigs, please! Gigs! World domination? I’m joking.
Jim: Yeah, that sounds alright.
Daniel: Just to try and consistently grow as much as we can. I feel very proud of what our team has achieved in the last year, knowing how dependent on gigs we are and how many we lost. Who knows where we’d be right now had we done all 50 shows? I guess it’s just to keep pushing ourselves to overcome more stuff. And then hopefully be on Jools Holland. But I don’t wanna do lockdown Jools Holland, I wanna do it for real.
Jim: Continue to grow. That’s gonna be our intention every year.