In Conversation: Miles From Kinshasa

In Conversation: Miles From Kinshasa

The London artist ends a three-year break with a startling new EP...

Arriving three years after the release of his propulsive debut project ‘LIMBO’, Miles from Kinshasa returns with a sun-kissed soundtrack to the summer we never had in the form of ‘Beloved’.

Moody melancholia remains Miles from Kinshasa’s architype but this time he’s governed less by an instinct for nebulousness and more by a desire to live life in the open expanse of confessional vulnerability. Miles has steadily risen through the ranks, deviating from an industry blueprint that risks short-loved overexposure. In 2016, the release of his debut single ‘IVRY’ signalled his first era - the mini-album ‘LIMBO’ - a downbeat detour into a dystopic sonic terrain awash with synths and snares, presenting Miles from Kinshasa as a distant, diffident enigma.

On ‘Beloved’, diary-like admissions strip away the pretence, revealing a more pervious side to the South London singer-songwriter. “Don’t let the past get the best of you,” is the kind of whimsical musing he rouses the listener with; the track ‘Let Me Down’ recalling a tryst and all its sticky, residual after-effects. Playing out watercolour vignettes extracted from real-life experiences, ‘Beloved’ ebbs and flows with the murky currents of modern-day love, painting a tremendously authentic and visceral picture of young love.

Merging the 80s sophisti-pop, quiet storm shimmer of Sade’s ‘Diamond Life’ with ‘Teen Dream’ anthemics and the carnival sway of Rumba/Son Cubano, ‘Beloved’ is a reined-in, sexier, more languorous auditory experience - mood music for paramours and dreamers. It proffers a bold evolution in sound, putting Miles from Kinshasa definitively on the map as one of the UK’s most promising auteurs.

Clash spoke to Miles from Kinshasa on the eve of his new release. ‘Beloved’ is out today on all platforms.

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It’s been three years since the release of your last project, that’s some time away from the game. Describe your inner reverie.

 I’m feeling nervous. This nervousness isn’t to do with how the music will be received, it’s just that I haven’t released a body of work in three years. The feeling of putting out something I’ve worked so hard on, is strange and surreal. I feel new again.

The last time I spoke to you for Clash, you’d just released the single ‘Maybe’ which teased the new era. That was a year and a half ago. You’re not the kind of artist that has to release something to remind the world they’re still here. What have you been up to since? Was it a case of having to take some time way to restart?

Life happens. Honestly, sometimes you don’t get to make music because life is intervening. I moved place in that time, I was sorting out living situations – basically being an adult. For me, this time away has been about growth and really coming to grips with what artist I want to be and what I want to say.

My message this time round is much clearer. I did that thing that artists do at the beginning of their careers, make music that’s super ambiguous. Now, the message is clearer, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

That’s interesting, because I think a defining characteristic of your music is this ambiguity; mixed messages and conflict when navigating your twenties. There is more transparency on ‘Beloved’ but there’s still a sense of mystery and sense of unknowing in your lyricism.

This is true. I’m not going to give something up so easily in my music, even as a person, it’s not a straightforward thing with me. But what I’m doing with ‘Beloved’ is inviting people into my world bit by bit, peeling off the layers gradually.

I think what it does is leave room for interpretation and people derive what they want from the words. The best art is where you fill in the gaps with your own history – it becomes this universal experience.

I agree. That mystery comes from my love of film. I’ve always been a fan of films where there’s not a quick resolution, films that demand the viewer figure out what’s going on. That’s how I approach my songwriting.

When you look back retrospectively to your debut project ‘LIMBO’, what does it mean to you now?

‘LIMBO’ felt like a future-facing release then, and it still does now. It still sounds fresh. That’s the one thing I’m happy about when I think about ‘LIMBO’. I tried new things, I experimented. I gave myself a chance to do that because I may never have that sense of creative abandon again.

I’m always going to experiment and push the limits of my creativity, but there was a freedom to ‘LIMBO’ that comes with being wide-eyed and new in the game. With ‘Beloved’, I’m building on the experience of recording my debut, but now it’s defined by my maturity as a person and artist.

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How long did the recording of ‘Beloved’ take? When did the shape of a body of work start to emerge?

Honestly, I had a lot of stop-start moments. It could have taken on a different form altogether, quite a few songs didn’t make the cut. The moment ‘Beloved’ really started taking shape was when I recorded ‘Best Of You’ in February, which was inspired by Rema, particularly his track ‘Iron Man’ which just struck a chord. It inspired me to create a song with a similar energy, atmosphere and vibe. When I made ‘Best Of You’, I knew I was onto something. From that same period, I recorded ‘Lookin’ 4 U’, ‘Testing’ with Kadiata, everything organically occurred from then.

‘Let Me Down’ came right at the end. At this point, I’d finished the EP. I was playing about one day, and previewed the track on Instagram. I was getting so many responses wondering if it was going to be on the EP, so I had to honour that, finish the song and put it on the EP as the closer.

Right now, ‘Let Me Down’ is my favourite track from the EP – it feels and sounds like the end of a summer romance. The tempo’s reined in, it’s a little bit mournful but feels like a conclusion of sorts to the experience of ‘Beloved’. What’s your favourite track?

This week’s it’s ‘Best Of You’. It makes you want to dance, but it has this melancholic feel to it. It’s the perfect end of summer vibe. I’ve got the summer blues as well. I’m the same. We’re soundtracking our year. Right now, the year that we’re having is dark and gloomy, I wanted to make music that attempts to make sense of what is happening, but keep things light and airy.

As a project, I want people to experience this in the autumn, going into winter. I wanted to create a project that’s timeless, that you can put on all year long as you think back to relationships you’ve had in the past. This is my first project that has replay value.

Tell me a bit about the title ‘Beloved’ and the significance of it? Had you considered any other title?

Initially the EP was called ‘Dear Beloved’, as if I was writing letters to myself, but it wasn’t what I was trying to convey, I don’t think it honoured the direction I was going in. With ‘Beloved’, it was more of an internal conversation I was having with myself, me telling myself “you’re beloved”, “you matter to your loved ones, your family and your friends”. I wanted to remind myself that whilst I’m going through all of these experiences that I delve into on this EP, I am worthy of love. That affirmation is what I wanted to convey to the listeners.

‘Beloved’ is very much about hypermillenial relationships. Digital disconnect and mixed signals are conveyed through this gauzy atmosphere you conjure through sound. Were you navigating those feelings in real-time with your own relationships - are these songs autobiographical or were you observing the relationships of others?

I tend to write retrospectively, as if I’m revisiting a period in time but seeing those experiences in a new light. On this project, there was no fantasy. These were things happening to me. ‘Let Me Down’ was written as soon as I got off the phone with a girl I was speaking to. 

Is the voice note recording featured in ‘Let Me Down’ from that conversation?

Yes, that’s real! Also, these were anecdotes taken from conversations happening in WhatsApp group chats. The nuances of dating were happening in these chats, and I wanted to capture those as a millennial. There are so many things we’re afraid to talk about, that are literally happening to us all the time. The goal was always to create something relatable and universal.

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‘Beloved’ is a cohesive project. Was that something you were conscious of? Wanting to make a filler-free streamlined project? There’s such an emphasis in this streaming era on hits and singles, and not a body of work.

At the beginning, I didn’t care about creating a cohesive body of work. I just wanted to make undeniable songs, songs that would stand the test of time. But then, very naturally, because I worked very closely with Kadiata, we couldn’t allow the project to just be a collection of songs without a narrative. It then needed to be a project that flowed from start to finish.

On ‘Extra’, we added an interlude that wasn’t there at the beginning: ‘Dice Games’ was a longer song, so we shortened it to fit in with the rest: the outro on ‘Let Me Down’ was added to conclude the project. I didn’t want to look back at ‘Beloved’ and have any regrets.

‘Beloved’, actually has a distinct pop feel throughout, this infectious 80s feel to it. It has that quintessential pop feel that is hard to manufacture.

That’s because I was more open to listening to recommendations this time, stepping out of my comfort zone musically. You’re right this is my most pop-sounding project. I think if you had to categorise ‘Beloved’ as anything, I wouldn’t mind the pop label. I get why it would be categorised as an R&B release, but because my influences are so far-reaching, pop seems to fit better. Pop music gets a bad rep, when it’s done badly, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing better than a good pop song.

‘Blinding Lights’ by the weekend won a VMA on the weekend for Best R&B song, when it’s actually a synth-pop creation. Black artists don’t get to exist beyond the boundaries of R&B and hip-hop, “these racialized categories”, even when historically they’ve birthed every genre root and stem.

Yes! The Weeknd is an established artist and it’s happening to him. You don’t get more popular than The Weeknd. If it’s happening to him, then us indie musicians don’t stand a chance (laughs).

I think for people that come from an estate like me, I’ve always wanted to present an alternative to what’s out there. Something that isn’t drill: something that’s different, another avenue for me to present myself. I’ve been that kid that listened to George Michael in Year 9, and other kids were baffled by that. I want to be the artist that shows another way to do things, which is your own way.

I used to work in Gap years back, and they’d play shoegaze and dream pop all the time. They played ‘Better Times’ by Beach House and I remember thinking this is a truly amazing song, it had this inescapable mood, so soothing and dream-like. I was into the Cocteau Twins, and Beach House were the 2010 version of them for me. I’ve always been draw to guitar-led indie and pop, and you can hear those influences in ‘Beloved’.

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Your songs explore the notion of ‘masculinity’, going against this perception that black men struggle to tap into their emotions and feelings. On songs like ‘Wearing Smiles’ you’re quite bruised and confessional. Is ‘Beloved’ the liberating form of self-expression you were seeking?

Tapping into emotions isn’t a difficult thing for me, music has always been outlet for that. Being able to communicate those feelings to a point where people feel and understand what I’m going through has been the challenging aspect for me. I started doing that with ‘Can We Just Talk Instead’, and it really resonated and connected with people. It’s one of my most vulnerable songs and a fan favourite.

With ‘Wearing Smiles’, I felt this need to convey what I was feeling at the time and not hide from the immensity of emotion I was feeling. When you go inside of yourself and convey your truth, you’ll always connect with someone.

You’ve had a nomadic life. Born in Congo, you’ve lived in Paris and London – the transience has seeped into your work. There’s this sense of feeling displaced and disconnected with the world around you that I find relatable. Where is home to you?

I don’t know yet. I think with the turbulence of the time we’re living in, and the unrest, it’s not the safest place for a Black man to exist, let alone thrive.

It’s very difficult for any immigrant, any minority, to call the UK home. Every day they tell us we’re not important or we’re not wanted here. By that same token, if I was to go back to Africa, it might feel momentarily amazing, but you’ll still stand out, because you’re not one of them either. It’s a precarious place to reside.

How do you cope then, how do you find any measure of peace and stillness?

Music is healing; I have a place to channel the turbulence. It’s made me think about where I fit in, what I want to say, because words matter. I’m happy we’re talking. Black men, black women are being vocal now. Our fears, our views, our lives are valid, and they matter. Now, I’m not afraid of speaking my truth, and this mentality has seeped into my music, my art. This sense of urgency hasn’t been there before.

As an independent musician, it’s a perilous time to be navigating the industry, especially when touring and performing to crowds is out of the question. Personally, what’s been the most challenging aspect of going at it alone?

People don’t realise what it takes to do this at a high level, when you have to fund projects yourself and call on favours. These are things you learn as you go along. I’ve had my fair share of challenges, but I’m wiser as a result of them.

This year exacerbates it even more. This year feels like that meme of the dog saying “I’m fine” whilst a fire rages on behind it. That’s exactly what it feels like to release music in this climate. Every indie artist is feeling it though, we’re all in the same boat, and I derive some comfort from that.

What advice would you give to your 20-year self, starting out in the music business?

Focus. It’s so important to have a vision of what you want to achieve. Get some rest as well. Balance is key when making the correct decisions. When you’re restless or desperate, it’s easy to go down the path of saying yes to things that won’t benefit you in the long run.

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Miles From Kinshasa's new project 'Beloved' is out now.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photo Credit: Elena Cremona

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