Behind the scenes of ‘CLOSER’, Msaki, Karun, NNAVY, and Hendrick Sam’s soulful new EP


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Behind the scenes of ‘CLOSER’, Msaki, Karun, NNAVY, and Hendrick Sam’s soulful new EP

In line with the release of ‘CLOSER’, a new soulful EP by South African singer Msaki and COLORS alums NNAVY and Karun, we sat down with the latter two artists as well as their Nairobi-based producer Hendrick Sam to find out more about the creative process behind the project.

‘CLOSER’ was developed during the Tantalizers Sessions writing camp, a key element of Spotify and COLORS 2023 partnership that sought to spotlight African R&B talent under the umbrella of Spotify Africa’s flagship R&B playlist, ‘Tantalizers’.

How did you end up working in a group together at COLORS and Spotify’s writing camp in Nairobi? 

NNAVY: There were a few artists that already knew each other. The COLORS and Spotify team didn’t want all the friends to stay together and not mix with everyone else, so they chose the groups for us for the first day.

Karun: When I went around all of the different groups, it was clear each one had its own specific vibe. We were in our own little soulful bubble, which was really nice.

N: We had so much fun that we wanted to stay together for the rest of the week.

How did you start exploring ideas?

N: We went into our room and then just started listening to music. We wanted to share our inspirations, moods of the moment, and see if we could find a common vocabulary for the music we were about to make. After than, Hendrick is a genius, so went behind the keys and came up with songs just like that.

K: Hendrick really listened to what we were saying and how we were feeling and transformed that into songs. Before I’ve worked with producers who prepare beats to bring in the studio, but Hendrick was really in the moment.

Hendrick Sam: When I had NNAVY, Karun, and Msaki in the same room, I felt like their voices were different gradients of color that were available to me to mix together. The possibilities were so endless. I’m usually quite reserved when I work with artists who don’t know what they want. It helped that NNAVY, Karun, and Msaki have all been creating music for a while, so they really know their sounds, what they like, and what they can fit into.

NNAVY, this was your first time in Kenya. How did being in a new country influence you creatively?

N: It was my first time on the African continent full stop!

K: That’s such a big deal NNAVY!

N: It was a big thing for me. Traveling so far away from home is not really something I do very often. Being in Nairobi, I felt very close to my home country of Burundi. It was like I was there, but not really. It felt like a first step towards going there eventually.

What similarities did you notice between each other as artists during the writing camp?

K: A really random thing that I remember is that NNAVY was always burping at the mic. Msaki told us that in her culture in South Africa, people burp before they’re about to spiritually download something. I found that so deep. I think something that connected us was that we’re all very introspective and connected spiritually.

N: Musically, we lay in the same zone. We listen to the same people, or at least we have a lot of crossovers. I talked a lot about Daniel Cesar, and Jacob Collier too.

K: Also there’s something similar in all of our voices and yet so distinctly different. Msaki’s voice has a very soulful, grounded energy. I think my voice kind of floats above hers. I like to layer it so it feels kind of ethereal…

HS: …and then NNAVY was all in with the raspy, midtone vibes! Sometimes she decided to soften it out and it was like butter. They all have range. That made it so interesting to see them access different sides of themselves whenever they needed to.

“We’re all very introspective and connected spiritually.”

What were some of the biggest challenges during the music making process?

N: Sometimes you just don’t know what to write. The worst experience for an artist is having the structure of a song and a blank sheet of paper, and then no clue whatsoever what to put on it.

K: That’s why the last day was so intense, because we were trying to fill in all the blank spaces we’d left. It was crunch time!

HS: For me, my biggest challenge was to do with the fact that Msaki didn’t join us until day two. I remember leaving at the end of the first day worrying that it might be an uphill struggle to get her to the point we’d already reached. But within an hour of her being with us, all my fears were gone.

How did you identify the themes and topics you wanted to explore in ‘CLOSER’—your recently released EP that features the three songs you produced during the writing camp? 

HS: Every writing session started with the question “what are we feeling today?”

N: That was really important to me, especially as I came into the songwriting camp not knowing anyone. It helped us to be in tune with each other and meant that we could have a common understanding of our physical and emotional experiences. There are only a few different topics we write about in music—love, closeness, proximity, the fact we want to celebrate together and so on. Those are the main themes we worked with for ‘CLOSER’.

K: Yeah we spoke a lot about love… and partying! Love is an easy topic for us to write about. It mainly informed the first track on the project, ‘Let Me’. We’re all at very different places in our love lives, so at first we ended up writing in different directions, but it all came together and clicked in the end.

‘RAISE YOUR GLASS’ is the lead track on ‘CLOSER’. Can you tell me a bit more about the inspirations behind it?

HS: We made a lot of soulful, lush music throughout the writing camp. Then, on day three I distinctly remember saying “I feel like switching gears.” I wanted to make something that just felt good. I started writing the music for ‘RAISE YOUR GLASS’ in response to that, played it, and then the three artists started working on top of it.

K: It was a vibe! By that day, we were so used to each other pulling ideas out of nowhere. That said, I was still shocked by what came up. NNAVY started singing in a completely different way to anything she’d done until that point.

N: It’s more emphasized on ‘RAISE YOUR GLASS’, but all three songs in the EP symbolize an alignment of people, moments, energies… it all felt so good. We chose it as the lead track because it’s the most open and accessible one of the three. You can’t help but bop your head when you listen to it!

“We spoke a lot about love… and partying!”

While the EP’s now out for everyone to listen to, the first time you shared it was as part of a listening session with the other writing camp groups. Tell us about that experience. 

HS: It was such a highlight! We got to hang out with the other artists, talk with them, and see their facial expressions when they listened to our music for the first time in its rawest form.

N: It was one thing when it was just us four in a room clicking along to our music, but another when twenty people came together to click along too. It was powerful.

K: It reminded me of how when people watch sports, the spectators direct all of their energy towards one player when they score a goal. That’s how it felt. We were all so supportive of each other and told each other that our songs were amazing.

Do you have any other plans around the release of ‘CLOSER’ that you’d like to share with us?

HS: We’re all based in different countries and have different schedules, so it would be hard for us to perform all together. Due to COVID, our minds have been opened up to the possibilities of virtual shows, so maybe that could be in the works. One thing that’s certain for me though is that I want to do another EP with these people. You don’t have a choice! I’m strong arming y’all! I’m already trying to build a big catalog of beats that we could use. I’m constantly thinking, “ooh what would NNAVY like? What would Karun like? What would Msaki like? What would all three of them like?”

N: I really want to perform these songs, I’m just so proud of them. Fingers crossed that one day we can be all in the same room and have the opportunity to play them together. As we say in French that’s, musique pour l’avenir (we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!)

Karun, NNAVY, Msaki, and Hendrick Sam’s new EP ‘CLOSER’ is out now. Listen to it on all streaming platforms. If you can’t get enough of their music, make sure to revisit Karun and NNAVY’s A COLORS SHOWs on our YouTube channel. Or, to find out more about COLORS and Spotify’s 2023 partnership celebrating Kenyan R&B, click here.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Tinseh


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