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Abra: ‘My fear was of being puppeteered’

Now signed to a major label for the first time, the LA artist is unlocking the next level of her career – here, she talks nu-metal influences, waking and baking over lockdown, and leaking her own music

There’s something irreplicable about Abra. When she first emerged in 2014 with independent collective Awful Records, it was clear that she was mastering her very own take on the art of the sad banger. With her often-looming, bass-heavy production, laced with hypnotically melodic and vulnerable lyricism, the New York-born, Atlanta-via-London-bred singer and producer captured a precise and compelling space at the intersection of electro, R&B, and eventually trap. It was music to be shared in community at late night afterparties, and wallowed in during solo cab rides home with the windows rolled down.

It’s no surprise then, that as almost five years passed since the release of her last project in 2016, PRINCESS, her impassioned fans (affectionately dubbed ‘the brats’) have been all but crying out for new music from the now-LA-based artist. Myths flew around of her retirement as believers clung to hope of incoming new music, feasting on the promise of a sprinkling of features (from Father to Bad Bunny) and a debut acting role starring in Sam Levinson’s 2018 action thriller Assassination Nation

Fast forward back to 2021 and now signed to Polo Grounds Music via RCA Records, Abra’s latest single “Unlock It” featuring fellow former Awful Records labelmate Playboi Carti, signalled the launch of that long-awaited next era for the ‘darkwave duchess’. And over a signature bumbling bassline and hopeful if distorted backing vocals, enters Abra sounding as energised and self-assured as we’ve ever heard her.

Below, Abra catches up with Dazed to talk about the journey she’s been on, what to expect from new music, and that TikTok leak.

Obviously you have a real cult following who have been chasing music from you. But I was curious to know how you view the last five years and the journey you’ve been on – did it feel like a hiatus to you?

Abra: Hmmm, a little bit of both. It’s definitely been a journey, like an internal journey. I’ve still been grinding and working the whole time, so to me, it doesn’t feel so much like a break. I didn’t walk away from the industry, I was working, writing, just getting my skills together, and then working on myself.

You know with Awful (Records), we weren’t doing it for the chase, we were doing it to have fun. And then it just kept going. So then after that, there was this moment where I guess everyone had to decide like, am I really about that life or not? And I was like, ‘I am!’ So I came to LA and decided to hone in on my skills and really tighten up.

And did the pandemic end up helping or hindering that process for you, were you still able to create during lockdown?

Abra: Well, you see, I’m kind of anti in general (laughs). So I’ve been on social distance times. 

Oh really?

Abra: Yeah! Actually it felt a little better because there was like no FOMO, you know? Like, okay great, I don’t wanna go out and y’all can’t go out either! It was cool but it was also difficult.

I was doing these things called ‘wake and bake’s for a while, where I would just roll up a spliff and play a playlist on Instagram and I really got to connect with my followers – the brats, the homies – so it wasn’t really a break from them either. I think because everyone was kind of home, trying to figure out what to do, I got to connect to them better. A lot of good came from that, a lot of people got to check messages they wouldn’t otherwise. That’s actually how I got to do the Bad Bunny feature! I met his manager through the wake and bakes.

That’s incredible. And then fast-forwarding through to “Unlock It”, what made this the perfect track for you to kick off this new era of Abra?

Abra: In a lot of ways it was just really good timing. With the theme of unlocking after being locked up in here, me feeling kind of trapped in the break I had, and then being able to bust out of that and put music out. It was also the first song I wrote after a slump since my last release. Everyone’s life has ups and downs and I definitely had a low point, but this was the first thing I wrote that I felt like, oh I’m back. It was the first thing that gave me that feeling that I had when I made “Roses” and first made that bassline and thought, ‘Oh, this is it’. I know what I want to do, I can see the vision.

Do you have any rituals or routines to help pull you out of those creative slumps these days?

Abra: I’d say I’m learning that as I go, really, I don’t have a thing that I do yet. But I’m learning to trust the process? Because I’m kind of still new to this, this is my first time putting out an album with a record label, but it would still only be my second album. So I’m just learning the mentality of trusting the process and to stay working, to stay trying to sharpen my skills, and if I’m not inspired, then I’ll focus on the technical.

It feels like the organic progression of your career reflects that ethos too. In an industry that can put pressure on artists to keep ‘feeding the machine’, it shows resilience to resist and take time for yourself and your personal growth and trust the process.

Abra: That’s a really good point, actually… I think that’s the thing that I've been operating on the entire time. When I was with Awful, before Awful, it’s always been I don’t care, this isn’t about the outcome. This is about doing it the way I want to do it and executing the vision the way I see it in my head and having fun. It’s not for anything else. So I guess I’ve been choosy and where it might look like a break, it was more deliberate than that, you know? That’s true!

“If you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, you gotta go with others” – Abra

And speaking of your first release with a major, how has the transition been from independence to signing? Did you have any particular intentions set for that move?

Abra: It’s been a long time coming, I signed in 2019. And it was hard, to be honest. I’m always trying to grow and I know that I can be very perfectionist with my stuff but I also know that if you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, you gotta go with others. So I’ve been trying to balance some of my more anti instincts by working with a team and the intentions I set were to be able to hold myself and keep my boundaries – to not say no to good opportunities, just because you’re scared of something. And my fear was of being puppeteered, or going into the studio and the producer makes me sit on the back couch while they play beats and they just want me to come in and sing. You hear all these horror stories. I’ve taken label meetings that were just like, ‘This is what we want you to do, and this is who we see you to be’, etc etc. 

I said no to a lot of help and the machine because of fear. But I’m trying to learn that I have more control than I allow myself to think, so this is kind of an exercise in using that control and drawing those boundaries and holding my own reality. So we’ll see how it goes! I wouldn’t have signed with just any label, though, and my A&R Bryant is a really dope person – it’s specifically because of him. He’s made me feel safe enough to even want to do something like this.

And can we talk about the TikTok leak situation – was that a case of some label life growing pains?

Abra: Well… (nervous laughter) So, like I said, I was signed in 2019 and I really had thought I was gonna put out my album in 2019. I don’t know, this is my first rodeo not having all the control, and I wasn’t really fucking with the fact that someone could tell me no or have input, which was really hard. Especially because the people who listen to my music have been so supportive, even saying: don’t rush yourself, we’re always gonna be there.

And that made me put pressure on myself to want to deliver for them. And I kept seeing more and more in my comments or whatever people saying ‘Abra retired’ or ‘you’re on your last leg’… while these people who had been loyal are trying to stand up for me! All just adding to my sense of urgency. So when the release date approached and I got the call the night before (about the track being pushed back), I was just beside myself. I was like oh no, I’m going to be one of those horror stories that got shelved, I threw my phone in the air, I was sobbing, it was just a mess. And I just thought I need to do something, I can’t be helpless. So I just did what I could do. And that’s how the TikTok video came out...

As someone who worked at a label I’ve always found the level of control over every aspect of an artist’s campaign pretty strange to witness, so no judgement here…

Abra: It is very strange! Especially because as the artist, we’re the face card of our business and it comes from within us. It’s not 9-5, we can’t turn it off or walk out, I’m on Abra time all the time. So for someone to have so much power over something that affects my life on every level, in an emotional way, in a mental way, in a where-I-live type of way, I was shown the harsh reality of that in the past few years, you know. But I trust the process and I guess it ended up working out?

It’s kind of like a marketing strategy in the end, right?

Abra: A lot of people thought that! When it came out they were like, ‘Oh this was just a rollout?’ I was like, ‘Bitch, I wish it had been.’ (laughs) I thought I was going to be in so much trouble! But it ended up working out...

If you were to compare and contrast the vibe of what’s to come with what we’ve heard of Abra pre-2021, how would you describe the jump?

Abra: I think there’s definitely been a shift. A big shift, at least in my mentality, has been that when you’re making yourself small or you don’t have a purpose or you’re not doing what you like, you don’t feel like you’re here or that you have anything to offer, you can be a pretty miserable person. And I feel like, though I had music, I didn’t believe in myself. So it didn’t give me the sense of worth, which can make things feel pretty negative or heartbroken, because it affects everything. 

But then through the process, whether I’m putting music out or not, I just realised that this is what I want to do. It makes other people happy and it makes me happy. And I think my music reflects that now, it’s a lot more happy, a lot more confident. I think it’s still real and maybe emotional but I don’t know, when I listen to my own music (which I don’t often) I can hear myself looking for something. And now, I don’t think I’ve found it, but I think I’m fine in the uncertainty and that shows.

Were there any moments or experiences that feel like they were a catalyst for that shift for you, or was it just time?

Abra: There were a lot of things, honestly. Time doing its thing and moving to LA and being out here by myself, and then getting out of a relationship, just a bunch of different factors, who could say. And also the space in between. After I put out PRINCESS and then did the movie (Assassination Nation), there was this lag where I had been trying to put out an album but then the movie kind of distracted me from that. And then it was kind of hard to find myself afterwards. And I think despair? (laughs) That's so dramatic and intense, but despair is what makes you move, you know?

If things had continued on an upward trajectory, I think I would have been content to stay the same but I think everything dropped off and there was no one around me, no Awful around me, it was just myself. There was just no room for illusions and I had to ask myself serious questions like, was it a fluke? No bitch, it wasn’t a fluke. But are you going to really practice? Are you going to really do this? Just being real with myself, I had the space and I guess loneliness to do it when I moved to LA. 

And would you still categorise the music you’re making as ‘darkwave’? And could you break down what constitutes ‘darkwave’ for anyone who may not know?

Abra: I think it does actually! And ‘darkwave’? Life is hilarious because I didn’t know what it–, it just sounded cool when I picked it! But it makes me think of darkness, nostalgia, dancing, like a dark vampire club or whatever. But still, I’m from Atlanta, so it’s all about bass and stuff like that too. At the same time, it’s taken on different meanings as I’ve grown with it and I think it’s ‘darkwave’ in a different way now. Where it’s maybe not as emotionally dark and heavy but it’s still sure of itself, liking riding on a dark wave. How do I explain it? Once you come out of a dark place and have a certain confidence, I feel like I’ve mastered the darkness about myself (laughs). And not completely, it’s a journey, but I think I’m getting more in control of my inner kingdom. So I think it’s still darkwave to me but just in a slightly different location I guess.

Like a different room in the same club...

Abra: Yes, I love that.

In this new room, are there any wild or wonderful new sounds or inspirations that you’ve explored?

Abra: I used to listen to a lot of nu-metal at high school and middle school and that was weird back then for me, people didn’t really understand that. So I think I kind of kept that part of myself to the side, but I’ve really let it come through. All the sides of myself that I never really felt like there was a space for in Awful or in the beginning of my career, I’m bringing in. I brought back my guitar, which is a big element, whether that’s being chopped up or put through a synth you know. Also a lot of folk and soul influences, but I think they’ve always been there.

You also moved around a lot as a kid, from Queens, NY to London, England, back to Atlanta, Georgia – do you feel like that places a role in the freeform way you approach your music?

Abra: Yeah, I definitely do. I don’t know what came first, chicken or egg, but moving around a lot made me a trained observer. I’m really good at looking at patterns and themes of like, what’s fire here? What do people enjoy here, here and here? Not consciously but I think that stuck around and really affects my music. Also how insulated it is, how I do it and keep it to myself. I was also fine doing things by myself and being alone. And even when I wasn’t fine alone, music was the one thing that I could always take with me everywhere I went. My mom says I could sing before I could talk, so before I even knew it music has always been my rock. 

And what’s up next for you?

Abra: Honestly, I have like 56 tabs open in my mind at all times. I’ve got songs on deck and the album is getting finished up, so it’s going to be really relentless for the rest of the year!

Abra’s “Unlock It” is out now