With a stage name that evokes the sound of a spell, it’s no surprise that Atlantan singer and producer Abra likens music to magic: “I create what I speak,” she affirms. She hasn’t revealed her real name to the world – she sometimes calls herself The Darkwave Duchess – but her DIY R&B and anxious, passionate songs speak for themselves. To date, she’s released two EPs, last year’s Blq Velvet and July’s Princess; and, in between, a debut album of singular assuredness, Rose, whose title she has explained with the succinct phrase: “Everything dies”. Abra may have gothic leanings, but unlike the rote mopery of so much indie-R&B of recent years, her music is notable for its ambiguity. She’s not afraid of heavy bass, but her self-produced beats are also full of light, space and dappled piano, more reminiscent of 80s boogie or freestyle than trip-hoppy gloom. Songs such as Fruit and Crybaby shift and mutate in unexpected directions; meanwhile, Abra’s laconic vocal delivery belies the yearning feeling of her words.
She describes herself both as someone who feels things deeply but is “a little emotionally detached”, the latter partly due to her religious upbringing. Her parents were missionaries whose calling brought them, for a period in Abra’s childhood, to Tooting in south-west London. “I don’t want to get too attached to something, because I was raised in the mindset that I’d be taken away from it or that I’m not supposed to be into it, I’m supposed to be in to God,” Abra explains. An anthropology degree at Georgia State University ”made me more compassionate, gave me a lot more empathy”, and provided a route into a musical career: it’s where she first met Father, the rapper who signed her to his Awful Records label.
Abra describes Awful, which also includes rappers Stalin Majesty and Tommy Genesis and singer Alexandria, as a collective of artists who pool their resources: “If I have something someone else doesn’t have, I share it with them, they share things with me.” Abra says that she’s been “fiddling with music and technology” for 10 years, and is entirely self-taught: “I hate having to sit down and learn, I don’t like working at other people’s speeds. Being self-taught means you end up with a very specific style because you don’t know what you’re doing.”
It’s a process that took another twist on Princess, a project that began less with an EP in mind than with the intention of occupying Abra’s time following the release of Rose by improving her production skills. “I didn’t have the intention of putting it out, so I was a lot more free with what I was saying, I didn’t censor myself,” she explains; it was also the first time Abra made her beats before her words rather than fitting music around pre-existing poetry, which was a perfect fit for her love of ambiguity. “It’s harder to find what I’m talking about,” she says with some satisfaction.She explains that a negative experience involving mushrooms and Radiohead (“I was doing fine until my boyfriend put on really sad Radiohead, and my emotions just spiralled out of control into a really dark place”) led to a desire to balance light and shade in her music. “It can be emotionally heavy sonically or in the lyrics, but I can’t be talking about sad shit and have it sound sad too,” she says. The result is music attuned sharply to human vulnerability – the “greatest common denominator”, she says – and the vast range of feeling therein. Abra prefers not to pin it down: “The thing about art is that you don’t have to have things that are 100% defined; after you put it out to the world it comes back and redefines itself to you.”