In Conversation: keshi

In Conversation: keshi

Finding balance within viral fame...

Long-time fans will know keshi as the fledgling lo-fi hip-hop artist that stirred SoundCloud into a frenzy in late 2017, with the alluring ‘just friends’, ‘2 soon’ and ‘over u’ (all now sitting at around 40 million listens on Spotify). But this is a far cry from the keshi that sits in front of Clash today, an artist on the brink of global-breakout, acutely aware of his own fame and not long ago working full-time as an oncology nurse in the US medical system.

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keshi’s enigmatic rise to fame on the lo-fi hip-hop scene resulted this year in his first full-length album ‘GABRIEL’, a poignant and sprawling record that pays homage to his lo-fi beats legacy whilst dipping his toes in trap, new-wave R&B and Latin pop. We chat ahead of his second (of three) London shows, where fans are gathered in restless bunches outside the venue, nearly six hours before he is due to perform.

“I had this weird moment in the grocery store. I was like ‘whoa’, I'm not going to be home for a really really long time. I had to call my brother there to hold me down for a bit. I said ‘I don't know what's wrong with me right now.’ It was intense.” Having sprung to fame off the back of his early soundcloud demos in 2017, keshi is not your typical popstar. Despite cutting his teeth in his bedroom making beats at the early stages of his career, when it comes to performing, sold out venues and enraptured crowds are all he knows.

“I feel like I am constantly kind of put into situations where most people would say: ‘that doesn't happen to people’ or ‘that's not normal.’ But I only have my experiences to go off, and every single time I've gone to a show, it's been like this,” keshi reflects. His fame is not surprising, considering the accessibility of his music and his ability to share intimate stories on stage that fans can’t help but relate with. The release of his first full-length project was a huge learning curve for the artist, used to writing tracks for immediate release, a larger project allowed time for reflection on his position as an artist.

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When questioned about why now feels like the perfect opportunity to create an LP, instead of earlier in his career, keshi reveals: “It was my inability to create something big and cohesive at the time. That's all it was. But right when I met Elie (Rizk, Executive Producer), I knew he was the person to handle the project for me.” From here their partnership blossomed, with Rizk and keshi now embracing the highs and lows of producing an album, and overcoming speed bumps in the process as friends, not just co-workers.

“I sat down with Elie in one of our sessions,” keshi reveals, “and the first couple of weeks were pretty fruitless. Even though we make things in the same way, and we're very compatible, I wasn't writing anything. So I remember this night, and I said ‘Elie, making music is not fun anymore, it's kind of joyless.’ So he said let's make it fun again. Then we put all the guitars down and just talked about it. I said ‘I kind of feel lost at the moment’ and he said ‘Dude! Then why are you trying to make a love song right now?’ That was the most impactful moment for me. That helped with my fear and my writer's block at that point.” Rizk helped keshi see the light when he was in a dark place, and this symbiosis is the key to GABRIEL’s virtuosity.

Born Casey Luong, keshi adopted the stage moniker as both a shield and a sword. Partly to protect his identity but also to allow him to wield a different persona via his songs. But as he grew into his fame, and his circles grew larger, keshi no longer belongs to just Luong, in fact it is the collectivist mindset behind this project that is the basis for its longevity.

“I've always had this vision of what keshi would be like when I first started it. Of course, I couldn’t imagine it being this grand, but all the pieces to make me a legitimate artist started falling into place right when I needed them. Like the style, like the hair and makeup, like things that can elevate it in a direction that makes sense. I think the key point is finding people who understand that vision, and then they propel you forward.” With his long black hair shaping his defined face and his oversized modish wardrobe, keshi’s look is both fresh and importantly, instantly recognisable.

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Taking to the stage tonight, keshi will pepper his set with deep cuts from his SoundCloud days, but the main exhibition will be GABRIEL’s footprint, notably the BROCKHAMPTON-praising earworm ‘GET IT’. “I know which songs resonate with people more off the record than others, but I love that they get a mix of new and old ones, and they know exactly which one it is when they hear the intro. 'GET IT’ is gonna just wake everyone up.”

Intent on creating the best show possible every night, keshi was sat on the fence when it came to playing with a band (his newer songs are instrumentally expansive) or taking to the stage solo. A moment of clarity came when he was touring in his home state Texas. “We went to Nashville, which is famous for bands. They like to listen to bands. There's a street in Nashville where every club has live music at all times, and it's not just on the first floor. They are competing volume-wise with the band upstairs, and there are people on the streets standing there, looking up to listen to those bands. They are serious about live music over there. So I played there with a track show and they were not having it. That was probably one of the worst shows reception-wise that I had. And then I started to understand that for your own show, the fans might be happy just to see you. But you are also trying to present your music in a new context. You know, they're paying to see a live performance. So I want to give them that. For Europe, we made it work.”

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With keshi it is important to note the difference between ‘virality’ and what he has experienced. An artist since 2017, this slow build has allowed him to experience every shade of fame, and his success is a combination of his adoring fan’s support, plus his genuine and progressive music. Virality often fails to translate to chart success, but 'GABRIEL' recently debuted at #16 in the Billboard Top 200 and he currently holds the trophy for the best selling debut album in 2022 so far. A statistic that catches keshi himself off-guard. “It is crazy and a dream come true. But when you think about how much love and care came from everyone involved in it — not just me — it was the designers, the creative directors, my management, my videographer, my tour manager, my stylist, my hair and makeup artists. They all gave everything for this project. And it shows. It shines and I'm so immensely proud of it.”

Despite the runaway success that keshi has achieved, his humility is noteworthy. “Numbers are nice but they're not everything by any means. After 'GABRIEL' was finished, I kept on listening to it on repeat for the next six months until it was released. I was like ‘wow’ this is actually objectively good. And it's not because I made it, it does have somebody else's DNA, so I can be a little bit less personal about it.”

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Soaking up praise for GABRIEL from publications, enamoured fans and house-name artists, keshi is evidently incredibly proud of his creation, and how far he has come. His presence in an increasingly saturated industry is an example of hard-work over virality, and musicianship over likes. This attitude is neatly encapsulated in the hard drive filled with demos he gets out his bag to present at the end of the interview, waving it readily but clutching it tightly. “I always keep it on me. Because if I die in some freak accident, I want this to die with me.”

With GABRIEL finished and out in the world, keshi prepares himself to embark on a US tour that terminates in his hometown of Houston. Harking back to his earlier grocery store realisation that he won’t be home anytime soon, he isn’t fretting, only reflecting, “I am a little sad that I won't see home until the very end, but I'm handling this one a lot better. Considering it's for a longer run, I've now digested it as a part of my life that I have to accept, you know? For 'GABRIEL', it is a trade that I have to make”. Armed with his luscious, oozing voice, an international team of creatives and his spellbound fanbase, keshi is raring himself to ascend to heights that even he has yet to comprehend. But as he sips his green tea in the meantime, the only thing on the 27 year old songwriter’s mind is ensuring every fan experiences the performance of a lifetime.

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'GABRIEL' is out now.

Words: Alisdair Grice

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