There is an unashamed propensity for discomfort in the work of SOLR, moniker of South African experimental artist Thandanani Mhlanga -- a staunchly determined exploration of claustrophobic isolation. Her debut EP, Young Wild, was released late last year, subsequently featuring as part of the third volume in our Oneiric Escapism series -- the representative track very deliberately positioned at the compilation's climax in appreciation of its spirit -- entirely indicative of its record of origin -- as an amorphous pursuer: a lingering disturbance one cannot shake. Thandanani, fresh from recording her sophomore effort, spent some time chatting with ALGB, offering insight into the place of an alternative artist in the South African music scene, the importance of silence, and how the desire to explore her own being is at the core of all that she creates.
It’s like we’re each little mysteries, and art is such a great tool to open yourself and just look, explore, heal...
Thandanani: I’ve been writing songs since I was really young. Probably nineteen was the first time I recorded a song — nine years ago — but I’d been writing songs even before then. It’s just how I process what I’m feeling: through writing and stuff. Music took a while to take off because I didn’t know what I wanted to sing about — I didn’t know how to turn the words into melodies. Eventually, I was just messing around — it started with learning a bit of production on FL Studio and then collecting pieces of machinery: a laptop, then a condenser mic — you get a whole bunch of different things, and that’s when the proper songwriting starts. I think, before then, it was very fantasy-like: just writing about this abstract life. I actually started writing music that felt genuinely like writing when I was writing about myself, which has been within the past five years.
Thandanani: No. When I was growing up, I was fully obsessed with R&B. The only thing that’s played on South African radio is quite mainstream, and if it’s black music, it’s mainstream black music; if it’s from Europe, it’s pop. I’m from a pretty small town in South Africa, and I moved to Cape Town for varsity — that’s when the education really happened. I started listening to the weirdest music. Jazz was sort of the gateway drug to all the other music. So, the music that I make now is so far removed from anything I would have wanted to do. If you’d have asked me at eighteen, I would’ve said I wanted to be like Toni Braxton or Mariah Carey, and I’m not anywhere near there. [laughs] I’m so far from that, you know?
Thandanani: I did. [laughs] I have a few songs that I’m really, really embarrassed about. Some are lurking somewhere online, and I can’t get rid of them. [laughs] So yeah, I did the whole thing. I met with a lot of different producers, and it was a shit-show — it really went nowhere. And I knew it was wrong; it felt wrong. So, it took some time to find the actual sound.
Thandanani: I think if you conform to whatever it is that’s already there, and you mix that with knowing the right people, then yeah: you can be successful. [laughs] But the type of music that I make is so obscure; I just feel like most people don’t even understand what the hell I’m doing. Which is okay, but if I was singing something like afropop, which is really big here — especially for female vocalists — then it would be better received, I think. And if I was doing R&B or hip-hop — if it was styled in the same vein as a lot of what’s happening in America — then it would be like, “My goodness, she’s amazing — she’s like Nicki Minaj!” You know what I mean? But to actually do something that’s so different… South African audiences haven’t been exposed enough to that type of sound. And it’s no-ones fault — well, it’s not their fault — because, even for me, it took a very radical education. I had to look for obscure bands and acts: just trawl the internet to find what was out there, because if you’re listening to radio or watching TV, you would never find anyone different.
Thandanani: That’s exactly it. We have a lot of artists in South Africa; we have a thriving hip-hop community — hip-hop is massive here, and we are basically the hub for house music right now worldwide. In Africa, afrobeats, and just a lot of what’s coming out of west Africa is amazing. So there’s a huge community there and a lot of artists, but they wouldn’t upload on Bandcamp. [laughs] They’re on YouTube, or they just go immediately to MTV Base, which is like the African MTV channel. So, if you’re looking for alternative, different, indie artists — those are few and far between, and those that are there, they can’t really break through. You know, I went to a performing arts school for a year, and I quit, but while I was there I couldn’t believe it. I thought I knew what South Africa had music-wise, and then I met all these amazing vocalists and producers. It was just these kids that are so ridiculously talented, and I don’t know what happened to them. They have nowhere to go, nowhere to upload their music — they don’t have an audience. So, that’s the situation.
Thandanani: You know, that is probably one aspect that I don’t explore enough. When I was in Cape Town, you would go to different venues and you’d find these cool, obscure bands — if you want to find indie acts then Cape Town is the place; whether it’s hip-hop or any other genre, if you want to find the people that are really doing crazy, different, weird stuff, they’re there. They don’t always breakthrough into mainstream or what is happening in Johannesburg, which is the hub, but I think if you really try, you can find those people in live venues. But being able to perform at like a cute little café, it doesn’t really mean that you have an audience, unfortunately.
Thandanani: I find it hard to develop the skills and the relationships. And I’m not sure that that’s anybodies fault but my own; I just wouldn’t know how to engage that, I wouldn’t know how to have those conversations, and I wouldn’t know how not to be angry or annoyed by someone trying to get me to do something different. Because, for the longest time, music has been the only thing that makes me happy, so the thought that someone could tarnish it and turn it into something really ugly by saying, “Oh, no, just change it and do this” — that scares me, and I don’t know if I could do that right now. So it remains to be seen what’s going to happen with me. [laughs] I can’t see myself interacting with or working with anybody that’s in the mainstream space without sacrificing a bit of who I am, so I don’t know how that works out.
Thandanani: No, it is. It’s one of the things that my engineer, Atlay — who is also a good friend of mine — and I have been talking about, and he was like, “What are we gonna do? Do we have to leave?” And I said to him: I don’t know how advisable it is to venture out somewhere without creating an audience in your home country. But when there’s all these barriers to entry… You know, it’s one of those things that I don’t have an answer for. A lot of what I listen to and a lot of what I love is coming out of your neck of the woods: a lot of British acts. I feel like there’s a really cool, alternative scene there, and also Amsterdam and Japan. All these countries where it’s easy to explore and to do something different. And it’s not yet, here. Not to sound morbid about it — I’m not morbid about it at all — it’s just I don’t know what will happen with me.
I think the worst mistake that I could ever make is to assume that I am this unique beast, this alternative anomaly that exists outside of the African or South African environment — there have to be other people like me. I haven’t found them yet, but they have to be there. I think it would be very arrogant of me to think I’m so different and so special. I know for a fact that not everyone is the same — Africans are not a monolith, nor are South Africans. It’s just about circumventing the mainstream channels to find the audience that is already looking for what I have to offer, and I’m very optimistic about that. It will probably take me a bit longer, but that’s fine — that just means that I have more time to hone the sound and get better.
Thandanani: Oh, God. I don’t even know if I have a process yet. This is what’s happening: I haven’t quite learned how to compose yet. So everything that I’m doing now is: beat, then writing to a beat, then singing to a beat. I really feel like my sound will become a lot more refined when I figure out how to take what I’ve written, and the melodies that I already have, and turn them into music. Whether it’s working with other producers, or people that are just more knowledgeable music-wise. But right now, it’s very much me creating these sonic skeletons on a laptop, singing over them, and then finding a way to make that into a song. So I’m a bit limited right now, but I feel like what I’ve done is as close to who I am as I’ve ever gotten, so that’s cool.
Thandanani: It’s so funny, because Young Wild was me trying to lessen the eerie — it was as mainstream as I could possibly get. Halfway through creating the project I was talking to my engineer, and he was just like, “I don’t know if people are going to understand what’s going on here. Can we try to lessen the weirdo?” [laughs] So my style and my taste is a lot weirder and eerier than that. I’m drawn to things that evoke discomfort and otherworldliness. I like choirs. I like synths that sounds like they come from outer space. I didn’t know that I liked this until two years ago when I started messing around with production. Everything that I would find as far as samples or presets that I was drawn to, or that I would hear and be like, “Oh my goodness, this is beautiful!”, would always be under some folder that said ‘Other’ or ‘Weird’ — it was never the main stuff. So, I just think that’s what I’m drawn to; I think it mirrors how I feel in general.
Thandanani: I am. I don’t think that I’m ever happier than when I’m watching movies. I love horror — not so much anymore; I’m getting increasingly more scared. [laughs] I used to be able to watch horror movies all day by myself; I used to be that weird person who was up at night, while everyone was sleeping, watching horror movies. But the older you get, you realise how fucked up the world is, so it’s no longer this escape; it’s like, “This is actually happening somewhere, probably.” [laughs] I know too much now. But there was a time when horror movies and epics, or fantasy… I swear I’ve watched Lord of the Rings a million times, and I don’t even know why, because there’s nothing about that world that I relate to. There isn’t even a single black person in that movie. [laughs] But I love the idea of extreme odds, good versus evil, all these magical creatures, journey, adventure. I just love shit like that.
Thandanani: I don’t think it comes easy to me at all. I think, because it’s something I suppressed for such a long time… I come from a very academic family, and I’m smart, so I think the assumption was that I would also go into a very worthy profession. Every time I said I wanted to make music — from the youngest age, I knew what I wanted to do — it was just like, “Why? You’re smart.” You know, ‘stupid people, who have no other way of making money, become artists’ — it wasn’t said, but it was implied. So, I think for the longest time, there was shame about it, like, I can’t even vocalise that publicly. It was like saying I wanted to be a basketball star or an astronaut: something that’s so ridiculous.
So I had to relearn how to be creative, which is unfortunate because I think that human beings are inherently creative, and it’s just beaten out of us from when we’re little until we have to relearn what we are fundamentally. So now, I’m not perfect at it at all. When I’m recording or writing a song, I still have to stop and remind myself to stop thinking about it because, oftentimes, I’ll do like twenty takes, and the first one is the best one. Because the first one I was just trying to find the melody and feeling the song; nineteen of those takes I thought about really hard and was trying to get the perfect notes, and they sound shit. It’s not supposed to be something that you think about. It’s a relearning: relearning how to just be and create, you know?
Thandanani: I think it’s resources at this point, because it’s just me and my engineer, who’s in Malawi. He’s like twenty years old — really talented, but we’re figuring it out together. It’s not like we have these amazing studios and mentorship or whatever. As good as I think we’re doing, we could always do better, and it’s always nice to get advice or support. And also not being immersed in a community of artists, because I’ve been creating in a very solitary way, which serves me just fine, but I know that it’s not really healthy. I think collaboration is very good, and it’s just bouncing ideas off of other artists who genuinely want you to do good. And for people to be able to say, “Hmm, maybe not.” I don’t have that yet.
Thandanani: It’s usually after midnight, when it’s quiet, because that’s when I think a lot about everything. You can go through the entire day thinking something hasn’t affected you, and then at night it’s like, “Whoa, I’m actually really pissed about that. That actually really hurts me.” It’s insane. The only way you can get back to sleep is to write about it; you have to get it out otherwise there’s no sleep for you.
Thandanani: Anxiety, for me, is a constant companion and has been for very many years — it’s actually gotten increasingly worse as opposed to better. I think it’s just me putting so much pressure on myself. I’ve done things that I don’t love for a very long time as a career, where the stakes weren’t that high for me, so the anxiety wasn’t there whether I failed or did well. But when you genuinely care about something… I mean, it’s so ridiculous because it shouldn’t be about that; it should be about just creating and stepping away and having been part of having done something yourself. But when you genuinely want something to work out, it just becomes so scary and a lot more exhausting emotionally and psychologically, which adds to the anxiety.
Thandanani: … Silence. I like when I can share my voice and hear the production and then I hear nothing. Because I feel like the ‘nothing’ is really beautiful. What happens before and after is really important, but there should be space for the song to breathe and for the person to take in what’s just happened.
Thandanani: I just want to understand myself. There’s really no other reason why I do this. I mean, when I was younger I probably wanted to be famous and for people to see my name in lights… It’s so crazy: the older you get, you become a mystery to yourself. Why do I do that? Why do I react like that? Why do I show up in this way to that person? Why do I show up in this way in a completely different circumstance? It’s like we’re each little mysteries, and art is such a great tool to open yourself and just look, explore, heal and see what’s happening with you, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do.
Thandanani: No. [laughs] You know what I think I’ve done? I think I’ve figured out the universe I’m from. Whatever fantasy universe exists in everyone’s mind — the system; the planet — I’m there. Which is good. Now I just need to find what species I am, and then find the tribe, and then find my function. That’s what I think.
Thandanani: That I’m really morbid and tragic. [laughs] I’m not; I’m actually such a mellow person and I’m generally happy. It’s just the things that make you sad that bother you the most: the things that make you uncomfortable. It’s the ugly parts that are most fascinating to me… I could sing about love, but that’s just not interesting for me. Maybe because I’ve never been in love so I don’t know what that feels like. When I see people who are in love, there’s nothing interesting about them other than the fact they are so happy. Which is great, but I can’t create from that space because I’ve never been there. So I create from the bad parts, the ugly parts, the strange parts. But I’m not morbid; I’m actually really happy. [laughs]
Thandanani: Yeah, just the exposure and the visibility. I don’t know how one becomes a successful artist without the visibility part. I don’t know how people like Sade do it. I don’t know how she’s so big and so successful, and nobody cares what she does day-to-day. I don’t know how you balance that. I’m not there yet, but I don’t think I would like it very much; I don’t think I would like being famous — I think I would hate it actually. So, I’m trying to learn how to be very successful without being famous. If you find the recipe, let me know. [laughs]
Thandanani: YouTube videos of soldiers coming back from war. Kids with pets. And when somebody that I love does something really nice for me. My friends are so funny… And I make myself smile by email. I’m the best email writer; I’m so funny by email. Like, in real life I do okay, but by email I’m fucking hilarious and I make myself smile. [laughs]
Thandanani: It’s literally insane. It’s like two people living inside of you. Sometimes you’re sitting around a group of people, and you’re like, “If you knew how fucking interesting I am, you would be paying more attention to me.” [laughs] Like, you just don’t know, because I’m too anxious and really uncomfortable… “Let me email you! Let me email you, then you’ll know.” [laughs]
Thandanani: People who are very courageous and can put themselves under the spotlight and be comfortable. There are some people that, when people are looking at them, they just come alive. And they like that. They like the gaze and they like attention, and then they become the best version of themselves. I don’t know what that’s like. That’s very fascinating to me.
Thandanani: I think I have something to do with all this feeling. I just feel alight constantly — literally, all the fucking time — in ridiculous proportions. Nobody should feel as much as I feel at any given time — it’s just such a ridiculous way to be. But then, the only thing that you can be when you’re like that is an artist…. or maybe a murderer. One of the two. Because what else do you do with it then?
Thandanani: [laughs] I thought about it really long and hard. [laughs]
Thandanani: I don’t know if I personally think about other people when I create my work, because I just assume that other people will feel exactly the way I feel. If I’m honest, and if I’m so honest that it makes me uncomfortable, I assume that whoever’s listening will find something to latch onto that they can relate to, and if not: that’s fine — it’s not supposed to be for everyone.
Thandanani: I don’t think it should define me at all. I think that what I say, and what I create, depends very much on how I’m viewing a situation at any given time. I can be six months removed from a situation and, at the beginning of it, I was the victim — six months later, I can see how fucked up I was in the situation: how bad I was and how I contributed. So, whatever you create as an artist should never be the whole scope of who you are, and it should never define you; it should just be a little snapshot of the moment where you were busy creating. I’m always evolving, I’m always changing, I’m always changing my mind — I hope I never stop changing my mind — so the music that I’m making five years from now is hopefully going to be very different, and I hope that’s okay.
Thandanani: I really just want to get better. I want to get more honest. I want to listen to my music and not find any part that’s contrived; I don’t want to find any part that I’ve thought out too much; I want to surprise myself. And also, I just want to feel like I understand myself and my place in the world better. That is literally the only thing that I’m trying to do, and if people come along for the journey, that’s really nice… And if I can pay my rent whilst doing it, that would be great. [laughs]
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