Storytelling With Khazali

“There could be a first kiss happening to ‘You’ll Be The One’. It’s more about those moments than the music.” We chat with musician and producer, Khazali about creating musical moments and enjoying achievements.

For a 23-year-old with a graphic design degree, acting experience and DJ skills, it’s almost a fluke that Khazali is who we see today. Using his surname, Salem Khazali grew up in Queens Park, North West London with his Moroccan mother. She always encouraged his creativity, meaning Salem was classically trained in violin and choral singing, before discovering DJing as a teenager under the name Internet Hacker. However, Salem’s Slow Dance Collective peers encouraged him to use his voice and true identity, and so Khazali was born, “I was covering up with layers of other stuff, and now, I’ve got to this point that’s completely stripped bare.”

 

Khazali uses graphic design to be creative “day to day”. His studying led him to understand how to narrate what’s in his head, “What is the story, what are the components, what is the grid…it’s about spending a week looking at the puzzle pieces.” These ‘puzzle pieces’ are his teenage dream journals, which offer a poetic basis and lyrical inspiration for his musical vision. 

 

A member of the trio VRWRK since 2017 (currently on hiatus) Khazali has since released a handful of singles as a solo artist. However, when creating his own music, he is not thinking about the type of sound, only what occasion it might be soundtracking. 

 

With a naturally sunny disposition, Khazali is keen to spread this light to others, amplifying moments with friends or lovers with his upbeat music. His new single, “You’ll Be The One” on Kitsunė Musique has a distinct summer sound – it’s impossible not to move to.

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What was it like growing up at home, just you and your mum?

We’re best friends, we have a really nice relationship. Because of the way that qualifications are recognised, when she moved to England [from Morocco], I just remember most of my childhood she was a cleaner, mostly a hotel maid. She worked super, super hard, definitely sacrificed a lot so I could be interested in the arts, and I always feel the most gratitude towards her. Now she lives in Paris with my stepdad — they run an off-licence and Moroccan furniture shop together. My stepdad is her teenage sweetheart, it’s way too Disney for words. I’m glad that the woman who showed me so much love, so much sacrifice, believed in whatever I wanted to do, now gets to be with her true love.

You’ve been compared to great artists like Sampha and Blood Orange, especially in your tone. Is that a lot to live up to?

 

It is definitely a lot to live up to, I take it as a compliment. Sampha is a god basically. That first SBTRKT album unlocked something in me, ‘music can be like this?’ Up until that point, it would have been the music I heard on my mum’s cassette player, which was French-influenced Moroccan music, a lot of old Spanish tunes, and traditional Moroccan music. I’d been gifted a few albums that still stick with me to this day like Amy Winehouse Back to Black on my 11th birthday. My mum gave me a tonne of CDs because she was cleaning in HMV so she’d get a good discount. I had loads of good songwriters actually I hadn’t considered to this point, so maybe that had an influence. Just the forming of abstract thoughts into a coherent story. 

 

Sampha’s definitely been a huge influence to me and probably the way I use my vocal cords. He’s a fellow Sierra Leonean, I’m half from Sierra Leone, so there’s this pride, but it’s a lot to live up to. I’m very flattered and like to think that I bring some kind of ‘Khazaliness’. 

The Slow Dance Collective is a very apt name. How did that come about, and why is it worthwhile being a solo artist as part of a collective?

We were all in sixth form together, me, Marco, Darius, Isobel, and a few others, we started a zine called Zeena Zine. We put on a party in a boat… but because it’s already associated with the school, Marco had a brainwave, “We’re calling it Slow Dance.” It just went on from there, party after party. Everyone got to experiment, there wasn’t this notion of the music industry or egos. When I moved away to uni, I felt this real separation anxiety from the collective, because it had become a family at that point. 

Do you still write dream journals, or do you only use your teenage ones?

My teenage ones are quite interesting to me looking back. I do write them now, but I don’t think I’d look at them for creative inspo because they haven’t marinated for too long. I don’t feel like it would be reflective enough, I don’t think I would actually understand them. 

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Your voice is very versatile, you could sing over many beats. So far, you’ve chosen to match it with dance style music. Why that sound, and do you have plans to explore beyond it?

My aim right now in what I write and the producers I collab with is just to make songs that aren’t hyper dancey, but like those formative experiences with SBTRKT and Little Dragon. I want to create those musical moments, where you’ve got a Bluetooth speaker in the sun with your mates, and you’re just going to remember that. I think that having a little bit of a groove on the beat, and a little bit of electronic swing is just perfect because it’s that heavenly sweet spot between chill and lively. There could be a first kiss happening to ‘You’ll Be The One’. It’s more about those moments than the music.

You’ve garnered attention before from previous releases “Ode” to “Mark” and “Face It”, but “You’ll Be The One” is getting a lot of heat. It’s already on multiple playlists and the listening count is rapidly increasing. How does this release feel different from the others?

From when I heard Brian’s first demo of the instrumental, until the point of release, there was no self-doubt. That was huge for me because I’m an anxious wreck. There was one thing tying together my days, and it was “You’ll Be The One”, or ‘Untitled Track No.2’. From the other tracks, it came with an expectation of, I really hope it gets this many plays, and I think because of time, I got to the point where I realised that it’s the track that has to do it for you. It’s not anything else. Happiness was getting the master, like, ‘my baby’s going to nursery!’

Can you tell me a little bit about what the track is about, and your writing mindset when developing it?

It was a split writing process between my journals, which are always the starting point, and the situation I was going through. I was really, really into someone, and I had to process unrequited love at a substantial level. I had the chords Brian [Njuguna] sent over, it sort of became about that feeling that I think everyone’s felt at some point — we could be perfect together, but maybe they don’t see that, and maybe that’s fine, so I’ll hold onto those feelings and won’t lie to myself. But I know deep down that we will end up together, kind of like my mum and stepdad. 

 

It’s so nice that other people are having that experience that I’ve had for a year and a half. I  was just so excited to release it and then at the right time, Kitsunė got in touch after hearing the last Slow Dance compilation track, and said, ‘we want to get on board and do your debut’, and it feels so warm. I just feel so grateful. 

Are you still in touch with the person that it’s about?

Well, she’s my girlfriend so…! I sent a message not too soon after finishing the track, ‘look, you mean to much to me, but it’s got to the point where I don’t want to be a false friend who’s hanging around and has feelings for you, because I think that’s really toxic and it’s not fair on you, it’s not fair on me. So I think we shouldn’t contact each other for the time being’. Eventually, we poured our hearts out at each other, and we just had our one year anniversary. 

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Given your Moroccan and Sierra Leonean heritage, and the current climate and support around BLM, how are you feeling?

That happening during the pandemic was a lot. First of all, I think it’s quite a shame that we had to realise that we’re still in this spot, but I think it was a very good time for us to reflect because our lives had slowed down. I also felt a lot of guilt, because as a Black person in the UK, it felt like it was happening to you, it was like you were seeing your siblings across the pond suffering. For me, that translated into silence. I felt guilty because I couldn’t bring myself to get involved in the online conversation in any way. It’s turned into positivity because I genuinely feel like the message is being listened to, and all these things that have been repeated for a while. 

 

I love the genuine allyship that I’m seeing, it’s beautiful. But I also want to line that statement by saying I think it’s totally okay for people not to be saying anything. Everyone can see that it’s a horrible situation that’s escalated, and as long as people are having these internal conversations with themselves, then I’m happy. Be vocal out loud, or be vocal to yourself — the world is going to heal that way. 

What do you have planned for the rest of the year? Can we expect more new music?

I definitely want to write in a slightly new direction. I want to always be on a mission to improve my songwriting, so that’s one of my main focuses. I am really, really excited about things that are dropping next because it fits into this “You’ll Be The One” universe. I’ve had a bit of time to find that graphic design style again, so I want to release a poster series I’ve been working on. 

Who’s been your best lockdown find?

A recent one actually, “Monty Python” by Connie Constance. It’s the chaos of lockdown sonically.

What’s the most recent dream you can remember?

I had a dream that I was inside the train of Snowpiercer, but instead of going through the world, it was going through the different sections of Ikea. 

What was the first live show you ever went to?

Crystal Castles at Brixton Academy in 2012. Definitely had whiskey spat in my face by Alex Glass.

Describe your sound in three words.

Colour, sunshine, silky.

Who is your internet crush?

I’d have to be honest and say Mabel.

What is success to you?

Actually being able to enjoy your achievements, however small or big they are, on other people’s litmus tests. I think success would feel like there isn’t a next thing… It’s driven a lot by, ‘what are you going to do next?’ which is healthy, and it’s all about progress, but I think I’ll feel successful when I’m able to take a deep breath and be like, ‘this is a good moment’. 

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Listen to Khazali's latest tune "You'll Be The One" below:

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