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Abra – Autum/Winter 2016
All clothes Balmain AW16, jewellery Abra’s ownPhotography Gregory Harris, fashion Nell Kalonji

Becoming Abra

Abra – Autum/Winter 2016

‘Age is so irrelevant in art. Everyone has their own timeline’ – the Awful Records graduate crafting songs for outsiders reveals the epiphany that gave her a new assertive energy

Taken from the 25th anniversary issue of Dazed: 

It’s Friday night around 9pm on a rooftop in Chelsea and, as the Manhattan skyline glitters around us, Abra is remembering the intensely bad trip that changed everything. “I took three hits of acid and it ended up being six,” she says, laughing. “I started putting on my own music to see if it would help me or not, and I realised, ‘This is not positive.’ Like, ‘This is not bad, but it’s not uplifting.’ Then I put on this six-hour Buddhist chant on YouTube, and it just changed me. It took me right out of this terrible downward-spiral trip into just, like, calm peacefulness.”

It’s an experience that made the Atlanta songwriter and producer see a new potential direction for her own music, which she has been working on for almost a decade in various forms. “Music has so much power,” she says. “You can change someone’s entire perspective with good music, so why not put that out there?”

Abra’s most recent work, the Princess EP, brims with that assertive energy. Less than 24 hours ago, she was playing songs from it at her first sold-out headline show in her hometown. “It was crazy,” says Abra, smiling. “Everywhere I looked I saw someone I knew. It was one of the best nights ever. I had to be at the airport at 7:30am but everyone was trying to make me go out, which I did and regretted! I packed this morning at 5:30 with tears in my eyes like, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Hard as it was getting on the plane this morning, the show was an important milestone for Abra. Especially for the presence of her parents, who had never quite been able to comprehend her mostly internet-based success as an artist, despite all she’s achieved: three records, countless collaborations, international touring, magazine spreads. “I don’t think they really understood until they came to my show last night,” she says. “It was packed, everyone was singing my words to my songs.”

Abra is an experimenter, messing with 80s beats and making shadowy, reverb-heavy hooks bounce over dark-hued drum machine patterns. She’s an outsider even in her own crew, the leftfield Awful Records rap scene, where her type of synth-pop is uncommon. The Princess EP, a six-song set released in July on True Panther Sounds, followed two records self-released via Awful: the BLQ Velvet EP, unveiled in early 2015, and debut LP Rose, out in June the same year.

Between releases, Abra has been honing her skills as a producer, and “trying to evolve as a human being” by reading as much as she can. “If people are going to watch me, I want to make sure I’m a person worth watching,” she says. “I’m trying to make sure I’m living a healthy lifestyle mentally.” Her reading has been varied, from the esoteric spiritual writings of Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov to Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. “I’m just trying to read things that open me up to different perspectives.”

“I’m trying to evolve as a human being. If people are going to watch me, I want to make sure I’m a person worth watching” — Abra 

Princess was entirely written, produced and performed by Abra, largely at home, with scrappy synths and a laptop. It was mostly recorded in her bedroom closet, and it sounds like it – but the music’s rough edges belie a palpable sense of confidence, emotionally vulnerable yet full of strength. “Crybaby” is the centrepiece, with Abra singing “You’re calling me a crybaby / but you’re making me cry” over crackling, high-energy beats before turning the tables on the song’s antagonist: “You always call me a crybaby / Well let me teach you how to cry, baby.” It’s the outsider song of the summer, an anthem for those late-night moments when you have to be honest with yourself.

“I grew up very insecure and unconfident,” explains Abra, who maintains a sense of anonymity online, never giving out her age or her full name. “It’s just not a healthy way to live. I used to blame it on a lot of people, but it’s just within yourself. Your worst enemy is yourself. I’ve been trying to make music for people to feel good about themselves, instead of perpetuating sad-girl music. There’s more to life than being sad. I love it when people tweet me and they’re like, ‘I listen to this every morning when I wanna get hype, or when I wanna go run.’”

The EP’s confident aura comes through in its visuals, too: on the striking cover, Abra is topless beside an innocent-looking white horse. “For this project I tried really hard not to censor myself,” she says. “I’m always saying sorry for things. I grew up really repressed. My dad would be like, ‘You’re a little princess, you’re my pride and joy, you can’t do any of this stuff.’ And so I felt like the cover had this kind of Princess Jasmine vibe. Yeah, I’m a princess, but I’m also still going to be me at the end of the day. Yeah, the white horse is angelic, but it can get wicked too sometimes.”  

For the shoot, lensed by her close friend Pierre Pastel, Abra’s manager took her to a plot of land full of horses trained specifically for movies. “I don’t have any qualms with nudity,” she says. “You may see me nude but you don’t see me naked. It was completely comfortable.”

Abra grew up everywhere. Born in New York to a family of missionaries, her childhood was mostly spent in south London, where her parents were building a church in which her father would become pastor. When she was ten years old, the family relocated to the suburbs of Atlanta. She considers Atlanta OTP (‘outside the perimeter’, as locals refer to the city’s suburbs) to be the place that raised her. Even so, Abra grew up with a constant sense of non-belonging. “I was always left out of things, for multiple reasons,” she says. “Both my parents are foreigners. I’m a black girl who everyone thinks is white. They called me Oreo. So it was like, ‘I don’t fit in because I’m not a real black person to black people. I’m a Christian so I can’t do anything. My dad is strict so I can’t go to prom, I can’t go to homecoming, I can’t sleep over at your house, I can’t have a boyfriend…’ It was multiple layers of exclusion.”

“It was like, ‘I don’t fit in because I’m not a real black person to black people. I’m a Christian so I can’t do anything.’ It was multiple layers of exclusion” — Abra 

Growing up in a heavily religious household, surrounded by perspectives that didn’t feel relevant to her, was frustrating and complicated. It became especially difficult when her best friend came out as gay, and she would get into huge fights with her dad on the subject. “From then on, it was just a downward spiral of me just being like, ‘I don’t fuck with this, and I don’t fuck with that, and this is wrong,’” she says. “‘No and no and no, I’m not gonna just swallow this stuff that I don’t believe in.’ I’ve always been fairly combative.”

In the run-up to college (she eventually studied anthropology at Georgia State, which she says changed her life), Abra turned to music and the internet as an outlet. She would cover rap songs by the likes of Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame on guitar, posting YouTube videos under the name Hurricane Gabrielle.  Eventually, Atlanta rapper Father found one of them, and saw potential. He invited Abra to hang with his label collective Awful Records, the crew known for giving a DIY platform to artists like iLoveMakonnen and Tommy Genesis. The new community she stumbled into was inspiring.

“Awful Records gave me a context to exist within,” she says. “I was just this little folksy singer, singing some kind of weird, lo-fi R&B shit. Awful gave me the confidence to be who I am. I was working with a lot of producers before I came out with my own stuff. It never felt right, but I would always show (the Awful crew) and they’d be like, ‘Nah, dog, stick to your own stuff, produce your own music.’ I had a project that was supposed to come out and I showed (Awful affiliate) RichPoSlim, and he was like, ‘You can do better.’” The very next week, she started working on BLQ Velvet. “He was the first person that gave me that confidence. And that’s a really good gift.”

“You can be great at 16, you can be great at 30. Age is so irrelevent in art. Everyone has their own timeline” — Abra 

Before we leave that Manhattan roof, I ask Abra one last question – about her reticence to share her full name and age with the world. “I don’t ever want to promote the idea that age can change anything,” she says. “You can be great at 16, you can be great at 25, you can be great at 30. I think it really bothers people because they can’t label you as a prodigy. Everyone’s supposed to be this wunderkind. Age is so irrelevant in art. Everyone has their own timeline.”

Hair Vi Sapyapy at Management + Artists using Leonor Greyl, make-up Emi Kaneko at Bryant Artists using Giorgio Armani Beauty, nails Kiyo Okada at Marek & Associates, photographic assistants Stephen Wordie, Jared Christiansen, Ian Barling, fashion assistants Rosie Arkell-Palmer, Kat Banas, Kelsey Guba, hair assistants Erin Herschleb, digital operator Erica Capabianca, production Bo Zhang at Management + Artists