Farai’s debut album (a collaborative project between London based vocalist Farai and artist, musician & producer TONE) documents a process of recovery. For the eponymous vocalist of the project, Farai, music has always been personal. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in London, her lyrics are coloured by the different cities she’s lived in, and how that series of different homes has shaped her perspective. ‘Rebirth’ weaves together South East London landmarks, the bare-bones ethos of post-punk, and the experience of being part of the African diaspora. The record is the biggest stepping stone yet in a journey which Farai started in 2012. She hit a period of feeling burnt out, and started attending weekly music therapy classes, where she started writing poetry and music for the first time. It charted a new direction, one that’s brought her to the exciting point where she now stands.
The album follows their debut EP, ‘Kisswell’, released through NON Worldwide in 2017, the label-cum-collective co-founded by Chino Amobi, Angel-Ho and Nkisi. It attracted support from Dazed, CRACK, The Fader and Pitchfork, the latter praising their “rethinking of post-punk and new wave.” Additional support has come from Annie Mac on Radio 1 and a variety of shows on NTS. They’ve performed on Boiler Room and at the Tate, the latter as part of a special one-off connected to their 2017 Soul of a Nation exhibition.
Farai’s partner in creating both ‘Kisswell’ and ‘Rebirth’ has been TONE, a producer she’s worked with from the early on. They’ve carved out an alternative vision of pop together, distinctive and many-sided at once, poised between punk directness and flourishes of soulful warmth. TONE’s heritage is Afro-Guyanese and Welsh, and their shared pan-African heritage was one of the things which drew them together. He spent part of his childhood in Germany before moving to the UK when he was nine. He visited the Caribbean growing up, where he was introduced to his grandmother’s roots as a performer, hearing soca, dancehall and dub.
The album’s opener sets the tone with a short news snippet, situating the album in London: the pair’s common ground and the city where the album was born. ‘Punk Champagne’ nods to a homemade cocktail TONE mentioned to Farai, made of buckfast and prosecco, and is characteristically stripped back, composed of simply drums, vocals and synths. On ‘This Is England’, they adopt a looser structure still, an ominous synth line framing Farai’s reflections on work and hardship in contemporary Britain.
Farai was born in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, where she lived until she was 12. (Her name means “joy” in Shona, the most widely spoken of Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages.) She grew up listening to TLC, Mase and Notorious B.I.G., and at one time aspired to enter into Zimbabwe’s version of The X Factor. Her mother moved to the UK to work as a nurse, and when political unrest struck Zimbabwe around 2002, Farai followed, moving to live with her in Bermondsey. At school she studied art, including a three year stint at a college in Kentish Town, where one of her teachers had worked for John Galliano. She moved to Manchester to study fashion at university, but dropped out, finding the course overly business-focused. Instead, she moved to China for a year, and when she returned to London, became immersed in fashion and art circles, spending a lot of her time at socialite-heavy parties.
After a couple of years, this lifestyle caught up with her and she hit a wall. Feeling exhausted and with her mental health in a bad state, she started attending music therapy classes, where she began writing lyrics and ideas. She took a new direction: she moved to Lewisham, in South East London, and started promoting music shows. She became a regular at the Shop Floor Sessions, a series of open jam nights in Elephant & Castle, started in a shop that had been squatted, and which grew into a collective of like-minded musicians.
It was those sessions that led to her connection with TONE, who discovered a video Farai had posted of one of her appearances there. He got in touch, and they met in Gillett Square, in Dalston, where TONE found Farai dressed in a fur coat and sunglasses, playing a game of giant chess with the locals. They quickly struck up a creative dynamic, where Farai would read a poem, and TONE would work out hip-hop drum chops to accompany it. The first track they recorded, that same day five years ago, was ‘Love Disease,’ where police sirens can be heard outside TONE’s house. “I set the mic up and a guitar,” TONE recalls, “and we did it first go with the windows open.”
It was a shared learning experience: for Farai, learning how to adapt her spoken word poems into verse-and-chorus structures, and for TONE, learning how to arrange her poetry into song structures from a new vantage point. Later on, TONE having learnt his production skills from years of playing in bands, session playing for numerous artists and working on his own productions eventually took the raw sessions which were recorded with just guitar and drum loops and re-recorded all the drum parts for ‘Rebirth’ with Marc Pell from Micachu & The Shapes, who is currently Mount Kimbie's live drummer and performs under the alias Suitman Jungle. He also applied his love of electronic instruments into the recordings with his collection of 80s and early 90s analogue synthesisers in a studio he shares with Mica Levi aka Micachu. Much of the album was made with a sense of urgency, like ‘National Gangsters’, which was recorded in TONE's DIY studio, with neighbours in close vicinity, where they were conscious of the noise. They finished it after the second take, receiving angry complaints right afterwards. The track has a raw feel, where Farai reflects on heroin in London’s streets, and drums crash into tinny arpeggios, undergirded by a bloated synth bassline. It’s in the spirit of the album as a whole; for Farai, it’s about the act of musical expression as much as it’s about the music itself.