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Sudan Archives Talks Mystery, Representation & Embracing Duality On 'Athena'

Sudan Archives 

Photo: Alex Black 

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Sudan Archives Talks Mystery, Representation & Embracing Duality On 'Athena'

The Los Angeles-based experimental violinist and vocalist shares the roots of her African influences and the stories behind her debut album, 'Athena'

GRAMMYs/Nov 2, 2019 - 02:49 am

Singer/violinist Brittney Denise Parks, better known as Sudan Archives, is re-imagining the perception of ancient godesses on her debut album, Athena.

"I was looking at a sculpture of Athena, the Greek goddess, and I thought to myself, "Why can’t she look like me?" Parks asks. There's a complexity to the simple question—there are worlds and centuries apart, but when one rises to a place of pure expression, everything else falls away. Parks isn't settling for reflections of whiteness; she wants to see herself. On her album cover she brings her own vision to life; displayed like an ancient European statue, she stands powerfully wearing only her skin and holding a violin high like as if on a silver platter.

"I would see a lot of sculptures while travelling, but I would never see people that look like me," she says."I knew I wanted to make a point about the lack of representation."  

The Los Angeles-based artist also reaches back through time with her music, tapping into a deep vein of emotion that ties together myriad traditions and histories. A trained violinist, Parks pays tribute to Sudanese fiddlers and fuses traditional strings with electronic beats, tight R&B harmonies and dozens of other signposts—but somehow the final blend shines with an aura far more than the sum of its parts. Using Greek mythology to make a statement about representation, Athena fits alongside her musical experimentation, interweaving flashes of classical violin and West African string traditions. Athena further mines the mystic depth of her first EPs, expanding the sense of archetype. 

From the mesmeric opener "Did You Know?" Parks unfurls a silvery memoir of sorts. The album is full of duality; lyrically, she gives intimate detail, but sometimes they're sketching iridescent clouds. The compositions are intensely evocative, but there’s a constant drive to seek out the new, to explore every corner. 

Parks spoke with the Recording Academy about growing her own musical voice out of roots in the church ensemble and an ill-fated pop duo with her twin sister, how her pet snake exemplifies her mysterious persona and learning to lead in the studio to complete her thrilling debut.

The album immediately makes a powerful statement from the cover. You look mighty and powerful, despite being naked and seemingly vulnerable. You're this art object taken in by the viewer, but also commanding and dominating the frame, in control. Tell me about the concept behind the album and how that relates to the concept of the album.

Before the album was done, I knew that I wanted to be a statue. I had a mood board with a lot of statues, specifically these green statues, and they all had the same background. We even decided not to use text on the cover to make it feel like you’re walking past it in a museum. I wanted to have this Baroque feeling. I would see a lot of sculptures while travelling, but I would never see people that look like me. I knew I wanted to make a point about the lack of representation. Also, I was looking at this album cover right now by Francis Bebey. There's this naked lady on the cover, and she's holding a lot of stuff on her head. It has a very similar pose, and I'm just now connecting the two.

Yes, African Electronic Music 1975-1982. She just looks so happy.

Yes, she looks really happy.

I know that Bebey is a big influence on you musically, as well as Ghanaian one-string fiddling. Looking at yourself in that context, as an artwork that can be also judged—were you prepared for that?

A lot of the album has this sense of confrontation and the way I tell stories is a little more upfront. The idea of being a statue and naked and in a museum, it sets up almost that same way.

It made me think of the song on Athena called "Green Eyes", where you sing, "Just feel it, don't fight it." A lot of artists struggle with putting themselves out there while simultaneously keeping a little bit for themselves. Do you feel like this album has allowed you to look at what you've done and really see how you've grown?

Definitely. The EPs before this are bodies of work, but there's something about a first album—it gets more reviews and more critique. You're taken a little more seriously, and maybe even judged a little more.

How have you evolved as a songwriter, singer, and violinist? 

I’m not a hermit anymore. I can go into a studio with ideas and build those ideas with other people. Things just never turned out the way I wanted them to. But now my collaborators can help me get there faster because I'm just a better communicator.

From the first trickles of music onto the internet, there seemed to be this mystery embedded in the project, but it never felt like you were intentionally cultivating it. In fact, your voice is so open and emotionally present. What do you think creates that feeling of enigma?

People think that about me in real life, not even just listening to my music. I really am trying to figure out what makes me seem mysterious. I have this pet snake and he's kind of mysterious. I think he's just like that because of his personality. He's really just shy. That might have something to do with why people think I'm mysterious. Maybe it's just my nature. I'm kind of reserved naturally.

As a child, you and your twin sister were working for a time towards a pop duo, guided by your father⁠—but that also you would miss rehearsals and the like. Did you immediately see music an exploration of  your own identity?  

Yeah, but I had to fall in love with it in my own way. The way that my step dad thought it should be sounded crazy to me because he had a really high expectation and a certain type of musician that he wanted us to be. He used to work with musicians like Babyface back in the day, so he just had a certain way to make things happen. He would say things like, "Yeah, you guys are gonna be as big as Justin Bieber." And when he'd say stuff like that to me, I would be like, "That's not true. Why are you lying?" I didn’t want to be as big as Justin Bieber. I just don't see my career being that big. I saw my career being something that's more of a hobby even. I just didn't like all the pressure at the time. I don't think I knew what I wanted to do yet, but I knew what I didn't like. So just imagine someone trying to help you and putting all this effort in, but you're being hard to work with, you're being rebellious and ungrateful. I had to fall in love with music in my own way. Sometimes I would pretend that I was working at McDonald's on night shift just so I could be out later, past curfew. But I would actually go out to electronic shows, multi-instrumentalist producers and artists. And that's where I started learning about the electronic music scene.

The album opens with pizzicato picking and what could be a statement of strength, but has this past tense twist: "When I was a little girl, I thought I could rule the world." That realization that life wasn't perfect. How did you get the confidence to find out what you wanted to do?

I was always playing violin in the church choir. That gave me a lot of confidence and the skill to play by ear. Once you figure out how to play by ear, you can do anything because you can just pick up any instrument. It may take you hours, but you basically can figure out the exact pattern and notes that you want. So I started to just mess around with iPad apps, GarageBand and stuff, where you're able to record your voice and the violin and add drums and piano. Being able to do that all on my own, it made me feel like that's the route I wanted to take.

What has been the biggest shift in your process for this album?

I wanted to work with other people and to have a clear theme, like the rap albums that I listened to when I was younger. I remember listening to lots of Outkast and Kanye West, and they always had strong themes and interludes that would weave in and out of the album. I just knew that I wanted my album to have that kind of theatrics.

You worked with a rather interesting trio of producers: Washed Out, Paul White, Rodaidh McDonald. While they're not from completely different worlds, each has their own style. How did you so successfully bring these disparate ideas together?

Some people already had a production beat and then on top of that I added more production, more of my style, more violin. And then some of the tracks we started together, putting the idea together from scratch. Some ideas were demos that were already simmering for a long time but just needed lyrics. I worked on storytelling with this writer, James McCall. It was cool to write with someone like that, someone who has a history with the LA beat scene. In San Diego, this producer, Andre Elias, he wrote "Green Eyes" with me. That got revamped probably 10 times. I sent this one idea to Los Retros, this young artist on Stones Throw, and he revamped it and made it sound more jazzier—and that became the interlude and outro of "Limitless". He gave it this old soul feel, this Erykah Badu feel.

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The album is so driven on duality. When did you first really feel that complexity?

When I was listening back to songs, some of them started to feel like younger versions of me. Some of them really were, because they were demos that I decided to actually finish. For example, "Pelicans in the Summer," the verses come from a demo that was made years ago, but then the hook is a new addition to that. I made the song “Did You Know” when I was 15 or 16. Since the album is supposed to be like a biography, it probably should start at that time.

I was trying to figure out why they sound so different from each other, and that's when it clicked that the album is driven by duality. Maybe it's a battle between a younger version of me and a more mature version of me, confronting issues between.

"Glorious" is a standout track towards the end of the album, which would make it closer to today biographically. It’s a great example of seamlessly fusing a simple but affecting string pattern with a tight beat and harmonies, almost distilling your aesthetic into bite-sized chunk.

I made that song with Wilma Archer and James McCall. It it was a last-minute session, since James lives in London and he was in town. And I think that's toward the end of the album because it was made most recently and after all of the conflict, it's a reminder to just focus on your family and your loved ones.

We talked about Francis Bebey earlier and getting inspiration from African artists. What did those artists unlock in your story?

One of the issues I'm talking about on the album is colorism and how sometimes you're judged by just the color of your skin. Those artists inspired me so much because growing up I was always the only black violinist at school or in a music program. I felt like a black sheep. When I discovered all of the African artists and people around the world playing the violin in their own way—it just does something to you when you're little and you see people that look more like you. Erykah Badu, Brandy, dark-skinned beautiful black women—they did a lot for me too, even though they weren't violin players. People that look like you when you're younger is really needed because it pushes you to keep doing what you're doing.

It doesn't really make sense not to have meaning for your work. That's probably why I didn't want to do the pop duo thing: it didn't have meaning. But once I found meaning and purpose, I was able to go in and focus.

What were the things that really surprised you about this album and going through the process of an autobiographical story about your life?

I learned that it's okay to just embrace all the sides of you. Sometimes things aren't really going to make sense at a certain time, but it doesn't mean you're going the wrong way. You might just have to go through some times that don't make sense at all until you get to the finish line.

Tyga Talks Inspiration Behind "Go Loko" & Collaborating With L.A. Rappers Like YG

Tyga 

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Tyga Talks Inspiration Behind "Go Loko" & Collaborating With L.A. Rappers Like YG

"Growing up in L.A., it's a really big culture here, Mexican culture," the rapper said. "So we really wanted to do something to give back to the culture."

GRAMMYs/Jun 8, 2019 - 04:16 am

Tyga's latest collab has him paying tribute to Los Angeles' large Mexican community. The rapper is featured on fellow L.A. rapper YG's  leading single, "Go Loko" off his latest album 4REAL 4REAL and when asked about his take on the song, he says much of it was inspired by Mexico's cultural impact. 

"Growing up in L.A., it's a really big culture here," he said. "Even YG could tell you, he grew up around all Mexicans, so we really wanted to do something to give back to the culture."

The video features visuals and symbolisms inpired by the Mexican community, including mariachi, but also by the Puerto Rican community (you'll easily spot the boricua flag). The song also features Puerto Rican rapper Jon Z. Tyga mentioned the diversity of Latinos on the different coasts and wanted to make a song that also celebrates the different Latin cultures in the country. "We wanted to do something different to kinda try to bring all Latins together," he said. 

Watch the video above to hear more about the song and the vibe when he joins forces with other L.A. rapppers. 

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Quarantine Diaries: ARI Is Cuddling With Her Cat, Making Her Own Tea & Preparing For Her Debut 'IDIOT GRL' EP Release

ARI

Photo: Nicole Davis

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Quarantine Diaries: ARI Is Cuddling With Her Cat, Making Her Own Tea & Preparing For Her Debut 'IDIOT GRL' EP Release

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Aug 12, 2020 - 02:59 am

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, rising singer/songwriter ARI shares her quarantine diary. ARI's debut IDIOT GRL EP is out Aug. 14.

[9:40 a.m.] A late start to the day. I just woke up to my cat Malakai licking my face and snuggling under my chin, desperate for cuddles. I reluctantly gave in before diving into my morning routine, which starts by going through all of the daily news on my Snapchat feed to see what’s going on in the world.

[11 a.m.] Just out of the shower and into the kitchen for the usual: tea and avocado toast. I don’t typically like tea or coffee, but I had this amazing tea from Starbucks once and fell in love with it. I ended up finding the recipe and making it myself, and to be honest, I like my version better. Once I boil the kettle, I start part two of my morning “meditation”: watching one of my favourite shows while I respond to emails. With the IDIOT GRL EP coming out next week, I can tell you there are a TON of emails. I turned on "Gilmore Girls" (my guilty pleasure) and opened up my laptop to go through my calendar.

[1:45 p.m.] Recording session time. Zoom calls have become my everyday life. It’s crazy to think that this time last year, you could actually be in a room with people. Now the most social interaction I get is virtually. On the positive side, I get to set up my little home studio from the comfort of my own bed and I find the sessions to be really productive with no outside distractions.

[3:30 p.m.] Malakai is meowing at my door. As I try to sing over him, eventually I can’t ignore his cute little voice. We take a quick break and I have a little playtime with him. I can hear my song playing in the living room—it still weirds me out hearing myself. My guess is my roommate aka my manager is sending off final approval for the “IDIOT GRL” music video, which comes out the same day as the EP. Super excited for everyone to finally see it!

[6:00 p.m.] Time for dinner. It may just be my favourite part of the day. During my session, my roommate cooked us some delicious pasta. We eat dinner together every night, which is really nice. Usually, after dinner, we wind down and watch TV, but we decided to try doing an arts and crafts project tonight. I watched this TikTok video of a DIY way to make music plaques. You take a screenshot of a song on Spotify and use a marker to trace out the name of the song, artist, play button, etc. Once that’s done, you simply add the album artwork of your choice, frame it, and voila! I thought it would be a cool idea to make a wall of each of the songs off of my EP.

[9:00 p.m.] After an eventful day, I decided to go watch a drive-in Maple Leafs game (wearing a mask, of course). My sister works for the TSN network and started hosting drive-in game nights to promote the network and social distancing events. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest hockey fan, but I’ll never pass up an opportunity to spend time with my family.

[11:30 p.m.] I finally get home and hop straight into bed. I feel like I haven’t spent much time on Instagram today, so figured I’d open it up before getting some shuteye. I launched the pre-save link for the EP today and told my followers that I would DM anyone who pre-saved it and sent me a screenshot. I always love getting to interact with my fans and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to see how excited people are for my debut EP. It’s a great feeling to end the day with.

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EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE: Mexican Institute Of Sound Takes Gaby Moreno Into New Musical Territory With Mystifying "Yemayá"

Gaby Moreno 

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EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE: Mexican Institute Of Sound Takes Gaby Moreno Into New Musical Territory With Mystifying "Yemayá"

Listen to the synth-infused track blending pop and Latin sounds that's named after the Afro-Carribean goddess who represents fertility, water and self-love

GRAMMYs/Jun 25, 2020 - 08:56 pm

Anything Mexican Institute Of Sound (MIS), a.k.a Camilo Lara, touches turns into musical gold. The Mexican producer and artist proves that with celebrated GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Gaby Moreno in "Yemayá."

Moreno, whose soothing voice we have heard magically adapt to a range of genres including Americana, Latin folk and R&B, continues exploring her creative range this time with GRAMMY-nominated Lara in the synth-infused, mystifying track blending pop and Latin sounds. The catchy song about the overpowering feeling of love is named after the Afro-Carribean goddess who represents fertility, water and self-love.

Moreno told the Recording Academy she and Lara wanted to capture the deity's essence in their collaboration:

"She's a powerful woman of color taking all forms. It's a universal theme and we wanted to incorporate this mysterious and mystic figure into the song, since it's part of the folklore of many different cultures." 

The song, which Lara brought to Moreno and was written in one day in 2019 at Red Bull Studios, takes Moreno into new territory. 

"I’ve been a big admirer of [Lara's] work and esthetic and the way he blends Latin folk music with electronic and hip hop. I come from a fairly different musical background, having very rarely experimented with synths and those kinds of sounds, so this was a really fun and different collaboration for me," she said. "I got to step out of my comfort zone and bring forth something a bit unusual but very much enjoyable, nonetheless."

The Guatemalan singer/songwriter will also soon be releasing "Fire Inside," a song she wrote with Andrew Bissell. The song has already been featured on ABC’s "Station 19", TLC’s promo "I Am Jazz," UK’s "Free Rein," NBC’s "American Ninja Warrior" and recently on YouTube’s "Dear Class of 2020."

Moreno is also working on an upcoming album she will produce herself and is also producing other artists. 

Listen to "Yemayá" in full above. 

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5 Texas Artists Who Rocked Austin City Limits 2019

Alesia Lani at ACL 2019

Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images

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5 Texas Artists Who Rocked Austin City Limits 2019

From Kacey Musgraves to Gary Clark Jr., a sonically and racially diverse array of artists put their best notes forward at ACL 2019

GRAMMYs/Oct 14, 2019 - 03:14 am

There’s no place like home, and, over the last two weekends, several Texan artists represented their hometowns at Austin City Limits Festival 2019.

Reflective of the state itself, a sonically and racially diverse array of artists put their best notes forward, even if the weather, which began in the upper 40s on Friday and warmed to a high of 79 on Sunday, was a little moody. With the exception of Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who missed her allotted set time, each artist proved to be a standout act in one of the country's greatest music hubs. Some would say it was all “a big dream,” as R&B artist Alesia Lani describes it. 

Here are a few names, both familiar and on the rise, who rocked the stages at Zilker Park.

PNTHN
 

Hometown: All over Texas

Following in the prevalent trend of doing away with vowels, this eight-man rap collective’s name is pronounced “pantheon.” Earlier this year they told Complex they’re “a group of gods coming together.” Amongst them is a graphic designer, a photographer and several producers. This year at ACL gives the Texas-based group a chance to let the audience decide for themselves. 

Kacey Musgraves
 

Hometown: Golden

"The sky is finally open, the rain and wind start blowin'… You hold tight to your umbrella, darlin’ I’m just tryna tell ya/That there’s always been a rainbow hanging over your head." Is that a Kacey Musgraves song, or a description of this crisp year at ACL? Let’s say both. The country-pop singer's show, lacking in neither hand clapping nor yee-haws, was one of the festival’s most awaited acts. The 2019 Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner dazzled and serenaded the audience in her golden-hour slot.

Alesia Lani
 

Photo: Daniel Mendoza The Recording Academy

Hometown: Austin

This year marked Alesia Lani’s first time performing at ACL. The Missouori-born R&B loyal who grew up in Austin, Texas took a moment to chat with the Recording Academy, telling us of the city's artistic nature, “With Austin, there's so much room for opportunity... There's so much room to grab your goals and get out there and talk to people." Beloved by locals, the soul singer hopes being in Austin will shed light on the authentic work she’s doing. In 2015, she, along with GRAMMY winner Gary Clark Jr., earned a spot of The Austin Chronicle’s list of top 10s. Her upcoming work, she shares, will differ from her prior two albums. As she sings on "Along the Way,” from 2017’s Resilient, she’s figuring it out as she goes.  

Dayglow
 

Photo: Kahlil Levy

Hometown: Aledo

19-year-old Dayglow (Sloan Struble) is so good at making dreamy bedroom pop he’s reportedly decided to take a bet on it, leaving college in Austin behind to pursue a more long-term musical career in Nashville, Tenn. This will perhaps be the first time the Texan ops to live outside the state, and this year will forever live on as his first festival performance. The entirety of his debut self-produced and the self-released album was recorded in the bedroom he grew up in. 

Gary Clark Jr.
 

Hometown: Austin

Gary Clark Jr., signed to Warner Bros Records, is ahead of his time. In 2014, he won a GRAMMY for Best Traditional R&B Performance and was nominated for Best Rock Song. At 35, he’s shared the stage with the likes of Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones. His latest LP, This Land, is already a conversation-starter, with fans taking the liberty to nominate him for awards that won’t have a list of potential claimants for months to come. In the meantime, Clark tells KVUE his only plans on the horizon at the moment are to "ride off into the sunset with my family and go hide out for a second." Needless to say, those who got to see his nine-song set over these last two weekends were in for a treat.

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