Kindness: Lean on me
Kindness is a shoulder to cry on. Since they were young, death has surrounded them and shaped them. “As I get older, part of me wants to gently manoeuvre [those around me] into a position of readiness for the inevitable,” the artist, real name Adam Bainbridge, tells me, glassy-eyed and gazing out the window of a photography studio in east London. “Some of my friends are in their 40s now and it’s like, something very shit is going to happen very soon, and you’re not going to be ready for this. It’s going to change your life completely.”
Bainbridge has always been a complex character. Throughout their 11-year career, they’ve earned a reputation for anatomising pop’s most obscure characteristics, and creating grumbling, groove-laced magic from it. Born in Peterborough, but musically raised in the same DIY east London scene that birthed Dev Hynes, they’ve experienced the alt-pop label machine (they were, once upon a time, signed to Polydor) and have since learned how to make do without it. Now independent – and you get the impression that’s where they’re most content – Bainbridge is hardly short of experience when it comes to the way music makes and breaks you.
On the day we meet, a week has passed since news broke of the death of Cassius co-founder and electronic music legend Philippe Zdar, a close friend and collaborator of Bainbridge’s. The pair had known each other for the best part of a decade. When it came to the making of Kindness’ debut album, World, You Need a Change of Mind, they waited nine months to start work on production and mastering, just so Zdar’s schedule would allow him to work on it with them. “In talking with [Philippe’s] friends and family, I realised that it wasn’t the music that was the most important thing,” Bainbridge reflects, “it was the fact that the music brought us together. After that, it was friendship, process and discovering things about yourself. In the end, the music is all quite ephemeral.”
Still, that “ephemeral” work Bainbridge speaks of is wonderful. Despite the sullen circumstances, we’re here to discuss their third solo album Something Like a War. It’s the first time in five years they’ve released a record with their name at the fore. The time in between has been spent doing other things, namely producing and writing with artists like Robyn, Solange and Hynes under his Blood Orange moniker. “I have to make sure I don’t get sued, but the music business is messy and complicated,” they admit, when I ask what caused the prolonged solo pause. It was a necessary step back, and a fruitful one; their clouded vision cleared again.
It was, it turns out, a brutal combination of complex label politics, money problems and a lack of self-belief that led Bainbridge to step out of the limelight as an artist in the first place. “It was easier to go into a removed place and work in a focused way for other people, who had specific things in mind,” they explain, their glossy long hair framing their face. “That’s what’s been wonderful about working with Solange [on A Seat at the Table] and Robyn [on Honey] especially, because there’s no lack of direction. They know exactly what they want. They have visions, masterplans.”
Leaving those sessions with brilliant bodies of work – both of which went on to be critically acclaimed – convinced Bainbridge that maybe they didn’t have to go back to making music under their own moniker after all. It took time to reverse that way of thinking. It took a deep dive into DJing, surrounding themself with other artists, as well as “listening to music and feeling pure pleasure and exhilaration from it” to assure them it was time to make a modest comeback. They visibly cringe a little when I call it that in air quotes. “Where have I been?!” Bainbridge retorts.
© Scott Gallagher
Top jacket: YSL
Under jacket: Armani
And so, Something Like a War was born. A 13-track body of work rooted in self-discovery, openness and escapism that flits from soulful electrofunk to heart-swelling pop ballads in one fell swoop. It’s disorienting and, considering the rigidity of its meticulous sonic craftsmanship, feels loose-limbed and loved on first play. Raise Up is a disco dance number that will burrow itself into your brain. The strings of No New Lies, layered in between south London singer Cosima’s vocals and sparse drum beats, are so incongruous and sad they could belong to Ryuichi Sakamoto. The whole thing unfurls with such grace, it’s no surprise Bainbridge was mainly responsible for mixing and mastering it themself.
To record it, Bainbridge left London for New York City. “Part of the reason a lot of people choose to live overseas is because it’s like hitting reset,” they say of upping sticks and trying out a life someplace new. “New York has no choice but to be on the cutting edge of a lot of different dialogues about race, gender and sexuality. It was an encouraging place to be because someone was always ahead of the curve. All new friends. All new environment. You can reinvent yourself if you choose to.”
What Bainbridge went through there – both as a person and as Kindness – feels like less of a reinvention and more like a discovery of a self that was always inside of them. They now identify as gender non-conforming, and prefers they/them pronouns. “The first page of Google results is enough to make me go ‘Oh, I’ve lived a multiplicity of lives already,’” they tell me. This one feels like a person they’re far more content with.
I wondered if there was any influence, beyond the personal, that led Bainbridge to make their identity public knowledge. “Maybe just because the more gender non-conforming people there will be in the public eye, the more straightforward or normal it’ll be,” they shrug. “The less complicated it is to say, ‘OK, that sounds very familiar, I’d like to use that as a way of describing myself as well.’”
If Something Like War feels like a jubilant record in celebration of that freedom, there are flecks of agony in its plume too. The Warning, one of two tracks featuring Robyn, is one of its more sombre moments. “So will you tell me/ Did you ever care?” Robyn begs in her signature urging register. I wonder what the most agonising feeling is to Bainbridge, and how that translates into song. “Grief,” they respond. Death has “happened far too often in my relatively short life already.”
© Scott Gallagher
Top: JW Anderson
Bottom & boots: Loewe
“That was the motivation to do something called Kindness in the first place, something rooted more in melancholy and sensitivity and less in brashness and Technicolor,” they say. “Some of this was a response to a lurid, nu-rave, neon pop moment in the underground, which I felt was exhilarating, but was not the place to unload my feelings or baggage.”
That’s what they’re doing with the new album: exploring that suspended moment between grief and catharsis, whether that’s of another person or your old self. It’s something, I tell them, that I understand, having lost my mother as a child. Being exposed to it in its most traumatic form made me emotionless for a while. “It’s not that you’re emotionless,” Bainbridge reassures. “It’s just that you’re not phased by what terrifies other people.”
Bainbridge is mourning the passing of their friend in their own way: by returning to the music. They compiled a mix for BBC Radio 1 in memory of Zdar that personifies sadness. They’ve been confronting it head on: discussing their friendship in interviews despite its rawness, and listening to that mix ceaselessly in the back of taxis, going about their life, for days on end. It takes time and strength to reach a place where sadness doesn’t scare you. Slowly, it seems, Kindness has found it.
Photography: Scott Gallagher
Photography Assistant: Joe Wiles
Styling: Ade Udoma
Makeup: Roberta Kearsey
Hair: Shaun Macintosh
Something Like a War is due 6 September on Female Energy