Abra has her rent paid for the rest of the year. She just moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Midtown, Atlanta. The place looks like one of her music videos. Dim, coloured mood lighting paints the walls in every room with a blend of muted blues, reds, and purples. Skylight trickles down from a ceiling window. Her kitchen is a child’s paradise, populated primarily by popsicles and cookies. Cartoons are on in the living room.
Needless to say, Abra likes to maintain a relationship with her childhood self, who she describes as curious, eager to please, and intense. “I would have ideas and get so excited about them and just try to project them on everyone else,” she recalls. “Not like bossy, just very passionate… I spent so much time fantasising or plotting. I liked to plan a lot. I was just very excitable. Everything was a new frontier, I felt like there was so much at my fingertips.”
I ask if she ever stopped feeling that way. “No,” she responds, flatly. “Everything is still always at my fingertips. I have so much under my sleeves. It never stops,” she insists. “I’m always fantasising and plotting like… I could shake shit up.”
For Abra, these new digs represent a landmark sigh of relief. And after years of struggle and self-discovery, she finally has something concrete to show for it.
Abra belongs to Awful Records, the label and diverse collective of artists that has also spawned the music careers of Father, iLoveMakonnen, Playboi Carti and Tommy Genesis. But in their hometown, Atlanta, Awful is outcast. They participate only peripherally in the ever popular trap sound that characterises the region. They are the weirdos in the city, and their weirdness allowed for the UK-born Abra to feel at home with them. Inspired in equal parts by Gucci Mane and Phil Collins, no one in Atlanta is making music like her.
Not too much longer than a year ago, Abra was still working part-time at Department Store, a rowdy Atlanta bar known for cocaine usage. She had gone through the motions of college, but had all the while been showcasing her musical inclinations. As Hurricane Gabrielle, she recorded acoustic covers of rap songs like Gucci Mane’s Beat it Up and Ludacris’ Youz a Ho, uploading them to her own YouTube account. Such kinds of acts, of course, have proven to be both common and popular on the internet because a dulcet, melodic take on a given song strikes a contrast with the explicit nature of its lyrical content. This often results in not much more than a laugh. In Hurricane Gabrielle’s case, yes it was funny, but it almost always carried a beauty that transcended the gimmick.
"I'm always fantasising and plotting, like I could shake shit up"
The covers took place in modest, domestic settings such as her bathroom, and she maintained an intimate back and forth with her small-scale audience. That type of artist-fan relationship is something she holds dear to this day – she often stays later than necessary at shows to take every last picture, while half of her Twitter timeline shows her interacting with fans. She did, however, have to curtail her own part in enabling it at a certain point. One time, she gave her iMessage account out on Twitter so her fans could FaceTime her, only to be barraged by anonymous naked men on the other end.
When I ask her to describe the quintessential Abra fan, she begins by saying “someone who’s lonely but loves people.” After thinking about it for another moment, she continues, “someone who used to do too much and has been hurt, so they back off but they have a lot of love to give.” This sounds very specific. I ask if, perhaps, she’s projecting. “Maybe a little bit,” she laughs. “Yeah, well, that is me, I guess.”
What was evident from those early YouTube covers was that she had a voice that could hold its own, an ear for sparse instrumentation (in this case, her guitar), and she was decidedly not ugly. After a series of on and off interactions with Father, Awful Records’ de facto leader, she became threaded into the the collectives’ quickly weaving, miscellaneous quilt just before their steady rise began. Living with her parents, quite a drive north of Atlanta proper, Abra wasn’t always around for the we all-sleep-on-the-floor collaboration approach of Awful’s headquarters at the time: an apartment set up called, by its inhabitants, ‘The Barrio’ – the Spanish equivalent of the ‘hood’ – in East Atlanta.
Those dingy floors provided the space for a barebones studio set-up and not much else. At one point, potential operation of the only toilet in the place required manually filling it up with a bucket of water from the sink. Abra’s visits were often single day affairs, always with purpose. She would come, make music, hang out for a bit, and go home.
At the same time, the Awful diaspora was happening. Some members started to have money and could afford to travel around the country, trying to live off of what other cities could provide. KeithCharles Spacebar had moved to New York. Father was touring regularly. Other members focused on jobs to supplement the unpredictable flow of music checks. Meanwhile, everyone is on drugs, falling in and out with each other, but holding on desperately to the idea that the group had something to offer as a whole – that Awful as a team was or could be greater than the sum of its parts.
In the middle of all this, Abra was able to capitalise on the group’s attention. As iLoveMakonnen had helped shed light on Father as a solo artist in the summer of 2014, Father used his platform to trickle down his shine on Awful. Once the light hit Abra, she was able to flourish. She was producing, writing, and performing all of her own music, and it was time to strike while the proverbial iron was hot, utilising the battery Father had put in everyone’s back.
At the top of 2015, Abra released the Blq Velvet EP, her first effort as an all- in-one recording machine. In retrospect, it fits right into her progress as an artist, a prototype for the kind of homemade, synth-heavy bounce sound that has come to be her signature – this nostalgic ethos that, in general, permeates both the sonic palette and thematic content of her music. On a later song called Pride, she sings: “I lost all the pride that I thought I could keep / can you see me? / say you feel me,” gasping over drums that seem to echo from far away. Listening to her songs can sometimes feel like watching someone desperately try to hold onto the hand of their former self as it slips away and disintegrates.
A few months after the release of Blq Velvet, Abra went to New York to perform in an Awful Records show and shoot a music video. Her career was still in shaky territory, and she was still, in her own terms, fucking up. She ended up accidentally sleeping through that New York show. She calls those days, appropriately, “the Xan era,” describing the time as a trial for a lot of people in Awful, and the root of a lot of mistakes.
"Creativity's like a possession, like a conviction I couldn't stop if I wanted to"
As the year went on, she admits to having gotten her act together as the stakes began to increase. She had appeared by herself on Father’s breakthrough LP Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First?, with quick-tongued, bubble gum-chewing, schoolyard sass—rapping on a petty anthem called Gurl. Leveraging this, but withholding the raps, she released her full-length debut, Rose, in June 2015.
Abra describes all of her work as catharsis. She recalls recording the track Roses – one of her most popular songs to date – after her grandmother passed away.
In a quick fit of desperation, she found herself “word vomiting into the computer” in a dramatic purge of emotional and psychological build-up. “I made Roses in ten minutes, and that’s all I remember. I remember laying down the bass line and then all of a sudden this poem I wrote like a year and a half back hit me in the head.” She doesn’t attribute her creativity to some greater power within herself, rather to something she’s channeling through herself: “It’s almost like a possession, like a conviction that’s so overwhelming that I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to,” she explains. “Sometimes it scares me.”
It’s becoming harder to believe, but there was a point last year when Abra was a nervous wreck. She couldn’t get on stage sober, and relied on an MPC controller that she brought out as a performance crutch, something to help her divert from pure contact with her audience. But after much practice, she now considers performance to be the core aspect of her life as a musician, as well as the most rewarding. “It’s like the one thing that’s still sacred to me now,” she tells me. Today, she’s strictly sober on stage. It takes a lot out of her, she says, but it is important to her that she’s “fully present” at her shows, if at no other time.
In person, Abra isn’t always fully present, at least ostensibly. She carries a sort of a unearthly disposition, an air about her that suggests that her mind is elsewhere, or only partially in the room with her given interlocutor. She’s quick to admit having had trouble focusing. When it’s time to actually sit down and make music, she enlists the help of attention aids like Vyvanse. Most of her work comes from binges with these substances, sleepless nights dedicated to the song-making process. “I lock myself away and lose weight and don’t sleep and don’t see my friends and my friends don’t fuck with me because I don’t see them,” she starts, catching her breath. “I make all these sacrifices so I can make music the way I do.”
Now, Abra is releasing her third solo project, an EP entitled Princess, to be released in a limited distribution deal with boutique label True Panther. It’s the culmination of the sound she’s been perfecting with her first two releases, with danceable jams and tear-worthy emotional ballads in a concise, six-song package. Princess opens with a one-minute track called Come 4 Me, which bears some resemblance to the ways rappers flex their own confidence. It’s a “You can’t fuck with me, I’m bulletproof” introduction, a shield in front of what is otherwise an exhibition of her inescapable flaws and vulnerability.
Last month, Abra shot Come 4 Me’s music video in a well-equipped, well-staffed studio in Brooklyn. This type of situation is still virgin soil for Abra: that is, when everyone in the room is designated with a specific purpose that befits her needs – kind of like an actual princess. Her manager, the video’s director, the lighting guy, the stylists and makeup people – they were all there because of Abra. They were at her disposal, down to whoever was going to fetch her a bagel from the corner store.
More and more, such situations characterise Abra’s day-to-day activity. She is the director of her surroundings, engineering her life with the people and environments available to her. As she said, since childhood, she has always felt the power in her fingertips. The same way she turned her apartment into a softly-lit sanctuary, Abra will remain in charge of her career as it continues to blossom. She will be the one to curate her own stardom.
Words: Alex Russell
Photography: Tyler Mitchell
Styling: Christine Toso