Rarelyalways and Joshua Idehen on performance, personal growth and the power of language
Words have the power to affection our emotions in mysterious ways.
They can make us laugh, cry or scream before our conscious minds have fully gleaned a deeper message from what we’re being told. Songs possess this same power. Whether it’s an ambient instrumental or a heart-rending ballad, a catchy hook or a lucid lyric, there’s a reason why we find ourselves drawn to those who choose to express their innermost feelings through music, or translate their stories into vibrant and emotive songs. By employing language in such a way – tethering it to something already so connective, even before words are brought into the fore – artists are invited us into the worlds and encouraging us to look deeper at our own, too.
Multidisciplinary artists Joshua Idehen and Rarelyalways a.k.a Ricco Komolafe, based in Stockholm and London respectively, understand this power and utilise it masterfully in their work. For spoken word artist, poet and musician Idehen, this work includes his soul-lifting solo musical project (where production comes courtesy of longtime collaborator Ludvig Parment) as well as collaborative efforts across the consistently fecund UK jazz scene, including as part of jazz crew Calabashed (alongside the likes of Alabaster DePlume) and the three-piece Benin City.
For Komolafe, it’s also a solo endeavour – Rarelyalways, as which he released a vital debut full-length, Work, earlier this year – that’s given the producer, instrumentalist and rapper the most space, of late, to flex his creative muscles. Though, as the album’s title suggests, work is always a focus for Komolafe – whose daily schedule could consist of everything from carving out a potent slice of hard-to-pin-down hip-hop to embarking on any one of a multitude of day jobs or youth projects. It would be remiss to not comment on the pair’s shared connections here too, namely the jazz musician Ben Marc, who has enlisted the talents of both Idehen and Komolafe in recent years.
Ahead of their forthcoming performances at the city-wide EFG London Jazz Festival, Komolafe and Idehen come together with Crack’s Digital Editor Jasmine Kent-Smith to chat about work-life balance, the future of jazz, identity and overcoming creative roadblocks.
Rarelyalways © Louis Flashman
Joshua Idehen © Agatha Powa
Crack: When preparing for this call, it became clear that there are several common threads between you personally – or as personally as you can gauge from past interviews – and professionally. Qualities such as the power of language, lyrics and the voice stood out, as well as understanding the role that music-making plays as part of your wider lives. As for you both, music plays such a central role – but it’s not the only one you take on. Would you say that language, especially, is something that’s key to what you do across your various outlets?
Josha Idehen: I would absolutely agree. Language is a beautiful form of communication. I, for my sins, have decided to use that as a means of self-expression, of a career, of communication. And to do better, I guess, by myself and by the kind of social issues that I see in the world that I feel I can effect some kind of change [on] or campaign for. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had the right words to say how I felt. It’s why I saw myself as a more of a spoken word artist than a poet or writer, because I though that what I couldn’t express through words, I could express through performance and volume – the sound of my voice and my intonation – bringing it all together to create, the bigger, deeper meaning. Through my own reading and learning, I’ve begun to see the beauty in the set of words that I have. It’s not necessarily about all the words I know. It’s about the words I’m comfortable using and how I use them to express myself. For me, that’s what language is: people speaking with the truth they have to create something beautiful.
Rarelyalways: From a young age, I’ve just learned the power of words. I’ve also known, from then, to speak up. Language is a form of diplomacy, self-power, and communication. Communication is a huge part of diplomacy, and I feel like words go a long way. I bought one of my sisters a birthday present [with] one of my royalties when I started making music, and it was a new, unfamiliar ground, because I wrote some lyrics and I put it on a beat and now I’ve got money coming into my account. That was one of the moments where I realised words go a long way.
Crack: Joshua, Ricco, you’ve both spent a fair bit of time working both as a solo artist and more collaboratively – something that often seems to be the case with those with ties to jazz, given the collaborative nature of the music itself. What did you learn about yourself through your collaborative work, and how did you bring these learnings into your solo endeavours?
R: [Working with Innovative Leisure’s] Hanni El Khatib, he just focused on the basics and getting the groove right. I employed that on my latest album WORK. I learned in that process of collaborating with a range of people – though I’ve always known this about myself – that I’m not power hungry; I don’t want to dominate, I don’t get attached easily, and I’m able to let go. So if I have an idea and someone has given me a new perspective, and it’s quite easy for me to let them take over at that material time. What I also learned is that I’m a strategist. So I know what I want and what I like. There are moments that I wouldn’t compromise, but it’s give and take. It made me a better human and made my relationships work better, because I realised it’s an exchange, isn’t it? A little bit of you, a little bit of them. So I made sure to hold my tongue at the right moments, and I made sure that I picked my battles. So there were moments where I was like, ‘Nope, it’s got to go this way’ but I made sure so-and-so artist could win this battle, but when it came to this point, I took over. So I learned when to input and when to close my mouth, and let the magic happen. I take that in life now – knowing when to speak and when not to.
JI: I can relate to everything you’ve said about collaboration – partly because I just genuinely think everything is greater as a team. As much as I love my own ideas, seeing that idea be taken by somebody else and transformed into something completely different is the greatest thrill for me. Because with my own ideas, I know where it comes from, so I can’t really enjoy them in the same way.
JI: There’s a side of me that loves music as an audience member and wants to be excited about it, and you can’t really do that with your own work. You can enjoy it as a piece of art or something you’ve created, but you don’t get that mystery. But that thrill – when you make something and you give it to someone else, and they then take it in a direction you didn’t even consider – that’s something that I’ve really enjoyed while working with all the people I’ve collaborated with. When I meet people, they often ask me what I want. I’m like, ‘I don’t know’. And to be honest, if I knew what I wanted and I came to you with that, it’s no fun for me – I’d rather we all just make a mistake, and then find a way around.
Working with Ludvig [Parment] is a combination of the love, learning and the accomplishments and mistakes I’ve made over the past decade of working with solo and different artists. With Luqvig, I’m the night, he’s the day, and together we make 24 hours; he does his music and then I write the lyrics. We might communicate some ideas but we’re mostly allowed to do our own thing. When he does the production, that’s when he gets to take my words in a different direction. When he comes back with it, I’m like, ‘Rah, this is not the song we started out with’. I think that’s the beauty of it. It’s only with that kind of collaboration that magic comes out.
When I started out, I was really hands-off and allowed people to do what they wanted around me. As I got more successful, that brought in a bit of an ego. I definitely went through a period where I was like, ‘No, I want to do this. I want to imagine it this way’ and I’m glad that happened because it made me get to a point where when I finally decided to do a solo project, I was able to go, ‘No, I’m not a producer. I’m not a musician in that sense. There’s one thing that I can do very well, and that is write poetry. What I should do is work with people who know how to do what they do, and show we can communicate back and forth, but I should let them be themselves because that ultimately is going to make this work the greatest thing’. There are no absolutes in art. A convention that I tend to work with is that there is no kind of auteur, no one singular person. Every piece of art that I’ve ever enjoyed myself personally was created by a combination of people all getting to add their truths to that piece – even Prince, even David Bowie. I think a community makes art.
R: I do agree with a lot of things you say. However, I make most of the music, I’m the producer. So in my case, I have to come up with this really strong stimulus. I don’t mind people branching out and taking my ideas elsewhere. But I’ve noticed over the years that I get the most out of the musicians when I create the foundation; I give them a strong core tone, a strong stimulus, a strong melody, strong form, and they take it. I feel like creatively, we need to have the rules in the beginning and then break them.
R: So a lot of artists that I work with, they’ve got their parameters and they sort of know where their part is, and then as we get to the second chorus, they’re breaking out. But in the beginning, we’re pretty much sticking to the form. So from a producer’s point of view, if you don’t have that… Another thing, Joshua, a lot of people recognise my music before my voice comes on – they’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds like a Rarely beat’. And I think I accomplished that because in those early stages, I had a strong idea and then I got the geniuses to sort of take it elsewhere. I’m never going to undermine the important contribution of other creatives, for sure.
JI: Yeah. I don’t think that creative projects don’t have leaders or people who started it. Far from it – that’s actually a very important part. I’ve never been good at jams and just walking into a place, and seeing how something goes. That doesn’t work for me. What has worked for me is someone coming with a core idea, like you said. I’ll give you an example: I just did a show in Innsbruck, Austria. Afterwards, I climbed a mountain – that was a really important moment for me because a poem I wrote in my kitchen has ended up with me on the top of a mountain in Innsbruck, Austria. But it wasn’t just me. I wrote the verse, the chorus, the middle eight and so on. Ludwig made the beat. But I still got Sharlene Hector to record vocals. When she recorded her vocals, she did ad-libs based off words that I wrote, and those make the song. She is the sweetener to that song, and that didn’t come from me. So that’s what I’m thinking about. Sometimes you need a leader – a person with a vision who’s going to come in. But it’s also about giving the flowers to the people who helped stitch that vision together. The people who helped make the bouquet what it is, regardless of who came with the flowers in the first place.
© Agatha Powa
Crack: What factors are important for your creative process – and how have these changed over time?
R: I’m going to be really brief. I go through phases where I don’t listen to any music and I don’t want nothing to do with music. I go through that phase and I just need to focus on other stuff, like picking up another course, or something that’s not related to music at all. Then I’ll go through a phase where I’m listening to a lot of music and making new playlists. At this stage, I forget that I’m a musician and I do music, and then I go through to the phase where I’m curating. But I do need that phase where I’m doing nothing related to it – that’s what helps me. Everyone’s got their own definition, but you just do good. Someone once told me, ‘Ricco, your creativity is never going to go. As long as you’re on the side of righteousness, you’re always going to get ideas. The moment you start doing disagreeable things, hurting people, those ideas, those nuances that make you you are going to evaporate’. So again, I shut off music that I listen to a lot, and I just keep on doing good deeds, helping people. Then before you know it, the creative juices start coming in. That’s my formula.
JI: I’m quite similar. I do listen to music all the time but I go through phases when it comes to my writing and creating a space. Some ideas come very easily – like the moment Luvig sends me a beat, I immediately start thinking of what I can do and the poem has practically written itself by teatime. By the time I put my daughter to bed, I’ve got a verse. Sometimes, it’s quite long and laborious – those days are the worst. With this new project that I’m working on, [there’s a new layer to the process] where I can completely scrap something I’ve written. Whereas before, I would just write stuff and I’m be like, ‘Okay, that’s it. I’ll edit that and make that better’. Now I can scrap a whole piece and just be like, ‘None of that was good, I have to start again’ and that is a part of the process. Regardless of where my head’s at or how I’m feeling, the blank page is always the most difficult, the hardest part to overcome. I am not someone who writes as easy as he wants to, and when confronted with the only moment of perfection, which is a blank page, I freeze up because my head’s telling me negative things. When I do eventually get something down and I edit, that’s when things come a lot easier. I find that I am much better at editing my work than I am at writing it. Usually when I’ve written something down, that’s when a lot of good lines will come up because it feels like that that period of blockage, of stress or self-doubt, has left and I can engage into it.
© Courtesy of Rarelyalways
Crack: How do you find balance across your life and work when juggling so much? Is it something that comes easy? Or is it something you’ve learned through necessity?
JI: I have a child, and my work has reached a point where what myself and Luvig are doing is kind of in-demand, so that involves me having to travel out of Stockholm to perform. And because someone has to take care of my daughter, it requires a lot of negotiation. On top of all of that, you know, she’s two-years-old now – the ‘terrible twos’ – which is not always the most fun time, but you have to make yourself present because she’s one of the most important things. What this means is that the amount of time I have to even just write – much less edit or rehearse – is severely limited, and that requires a lot of planning and sacrifice and plotting out hours. This is a skillset I have never had. Something I didn’t mention before: my writing oftentimes involves in lots of procrastination, a lot of wandering around and walking back and forth and just thinking – and you can’t do that when you have a child. Firstly, you don’t have the space and secondly, you don’t have the time. So it has led to a complete seismic shift in how I approach my art and my time. I’s an ongoing conversation. I can’t say it’s easy, as it’s really hard and it’s been really challenging at times. But the rewards have been plentiful and it’s made me pickier about what I do. That’s been for the better.
I am undiagnosed, but I clearly show the signs of someone who has ADHD and the way that had manifested before I had a child was [through my workload]: I had about five bands on the go, I was working with Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming. I never wanted to not be busy. Whereas now, I can only do this one thing and if I sit down to write a song, then it has to count. Whether it’s an exercise to get all the cobwebs out or what I hope will be ‘proper’ song. The fact that I have such limited time and I’m treating it as a precious thing is reflected in my work, and people are responding to that. So yeah, like all good things, it has to come with a challenge. No quest is ever comfy. But there’s not some special algorithm or schedule that I tend to go by. I have a couple of techniques I use to battle my own scatteredness. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
R: It’s a muscle that you have to exercise. I think it comes back to capacity, especially when you’ve got a strong sense of identity. Me and Joshua are both Nigerian too, so we’ve just got work rate in our DNA.
JI: Oh my god, we’ve been having this whole conversation in the wrong language! Sorry, back to you Ricco.
R: [Laughs] Yeah, I have a strong sense of identity. So even when I think, ‘Ah, I can’t do this’ that’s probably my emotional brain speaking at the time, as I can. To me, the eulogy that people have at their funeral is just a CV for God. So I want my eulogy to be expansive and I believe the only way I’m going to reach my full potential is by pushing boundaries. I crave the moments where I’m working on 100 things, as I know it will bring out the best version of me. The works not going to be forever, there are moments where it’s just hectic. And then you because you’ve done that, the moments will come where you can actually enjoy it – I personally try to enjoy the whole process, but the moments will come where it’s less busy. Someone said to me that nowadays, the average mind can’t focus for four hours. Apparently, if you can just focus for like five-to-six hours a day, you are above the average. I’m used to working with people that have a higher threshold. So when you’re around these running mates, you just naturally get better. I’ve seen judges that could read 12 cases in 20 minutes, and they’re ready to start their hearings at 10am sharp. It depends on who you surround yourself with, and it all comes back to capacity in the end.
"I crave the moments where I'm working on 100 things, as I know it will bring out the best version of me" – Rarelyalways
Crack: What do you enjoy most about performing and engaging with an audience in a live setting?
JI: For me, I guess it’s the reaction. I think I struggle with making work that people absorb and appreciate in silence. I admit, a large part of that is because I’m an attention-seeker and my own creation of work is sometimes rooted in my need to be understood and for validation. So when I first started this project, I went on tour with a band called Lazy Habits and at the first thing I did, people were pretty much silent. Even though most of my music is in major key, and there’s a big choir in the background, there are very heavy topics: suicide, redemption, the loss of friendships. People were really quiet and just sat there with their hands folded. And I was like, ‘Oh shit, I guess it’s not working’ and I started thinking about ways to make it better or different. But a strange thing happened: people came up to me, and told me how much it touched them, or affected them. So they were responding, and I just had to believe in the work and move in that space.
Completely separate to the audience, I love dancing; I love being on stage and just being able to let loose, and dance as if I was in my bedroom. That feels really cool. It’s nice when you’re in the pocket of the performance and you can just let go, and everything is just hitting exactly how you want. I realised a long time ago, I write poetry for performance, mostly. So if this life is what I could do for the rest of my life – write, make music and perform it – it’s all leading towards the performance. I love that.
Crack: And you, Ricco?
R: That they’ve never heard anything like this before. I love that part. You know, when everyone’s looking at me like, ‘This is new’. I love to see the sort of people I bring together: pensioners, people that ain’t even touched uni, people from all different types of life, all up in one space. So it’s nice just to see all of these people together, vibesin’.
Crack: Does performing to an audience reveal anything about your music that you didn’t gauge while writing or recording? For example, do certain songs you may have loved in the studio that translate poorly in live settings, or vice versa?
JI: Yeah, where do we start?
R: Certain songs I can’t do live with a DJ and need to be done with the band – and certain songs can’t be with the band. Certain songs have to be like a DJ set, because it doesn’t really bounce the same. So it’s trial and error, you have to test run these tracks, and just see how it goes. I’ve learned from certain experiences, ‘Never do that track with the DJ again, that is a band song’ or vice versa. So yeah, I have learned those lessons. They are embarrassing, but you can’t get to great places without feeling humiliation or embarrassment.
JI: I cannot tell you how many times I have finished a track and I really thought, ‘This is the one, this is the shit’ and when I go on stage it doesn’t go down like we expected. This new project has had many tracks like that. But there was one song in particular… Ludvig’s partner is a music supervisor, right, and she told me I should just write a poem. So Ludvig was like, ‘OK, why don’t you try to write something and I’ll make a beat for it’, which is the reverse of how we usually do it. And so I sat there, and I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t want to take one of my old poems and turn it into a song either, so what I did was write some lines as if I was writing something to my daughter. At the time, I was learning to swim and so the first line I wrote was: Stay cool, learn to swim. I wrote some more lines, we finished it and Ludvig and I both agreed that it was our weakest track, and that we never wanted to perform it.
We sat on that track and did almost a whole year of touring without it. But then there was a gig in Stockholm which was a bit of a sit-down show. We thought we may as well try it. I had to carry my iPad as I didn’t have it memorised. People were laughing, crying, hollering – the response was so positive! A year later, that is our best song. That is the song that is received the best above everything else that we do.
"Through my own reading and learning, I’ve begun to see the beauty in the set of words that I have. It’s not necessarily about all the words I know. It’s about the words I’m comfortable using and how I use them to express myself" – Joshua Idehen
Crack: What would you like to see jazz moving toward in the future?
R: I’d like to see something all-inclusive, that everyone’s in. You know, Ezra Collective won the Mercury [Prize] and I feel like that was big for musicianship in general. But I want it to be a thing where everyone’s involved – like popular music, just all inclusive.
JI: Nu-jazz, global. I can explain it: I have long been a fan of nu-jazz and I’ve been honoured to have participated in it too, like Ricco, in different guises with different bands. Over the last week, I’ve been on tour around different countries. And I’ve realised that while nu-jazz is appreciated in all of these places – like, Ezra Collective, Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming and Nubya Garcia are selling out shows wherever they go. But these other countries don’t have a nu-jazz equivalent, and that has interested me. Like, why can Nubya come and sell out out a show in Stockholm, but none of the kids in Stockholm are thinking, ‘Let’s try and create what’s happened here in Stockholm, and make a Stockholm variant’.
I feel like what nu-jazz has done in the UK… I think it’s vital and vibrant and it speaks to the future of music. Yes, it needs to be more inclusive and more accepting, and bring more elements into it. But I would like to see that spread out the same way in the same way grime and dubstep has done. Maybe it has and I’m just the old fogey who doesn’t know what’s going on, but from what I’ve seen, I’d like to see it everywhere. I’d like to see what the Swedish version of nu-jazz would be like, I’d like to see what the French version would sound like, I’d like to see what the German version sounds like. I think that’d be cool.