Interview, write up: David Simmons

New Zealand’s Ladi6 recently released her latest neo-soul love fest EP Royal Blue 3000, the latest release in four years. At first glance the collection of futuristic RnB vibes come across as playful and intelligent, with Ladi’s voice sliding delightfully over the retro-futuristic production of Parks. Diving a little deeper, however, listeners will find Royal Blue 3000 holds personal secrets and nods to now-classic hip hop stars like Andre 3000. Moments of the EP recall the curious artistic leans of Zola Jesus and Australia’s Ngaiire, but the EP is ultimately embedded in the golden haze of this century’s RnB megastars like Frank Ocean.

Before the band embark on a tour of Australia we had a candid chat with Ladi about the unique recording process of Royal Blue 3000, the hidden secrets of the EP, and where exactly Ladi6 fits (or doesn’t fit) in the world of music.

Having basically recorded most of this album in a live jamming session, how does this method of creation compare to being in a studio or a room laying down and writing individual tracks?

Well we did have to do that too at some point in terms of recording the vocal takes, the synth takes and all the percussion and drums. But the process of writing the songs was done live on stage and that was different from the last record Automatic which was four years ago now which we recorded and wrote all in the studio. You get this feeling that you want to entertain the audience so you have to adjust to fit that situation. I think in the studio you can feel a lot more introspective so songs can get…especially with the genre of music we do which is kind of RnB, soul, you can get really mellow on it, almost too mellow and you can get carried away; you don’t have that automatic response like “okay the audience is yawning let’s change it up”.

How do you take those live songs you’ve written on tour and make them into something that came out so polished during the recording sessions?

It takes a lot of time on the production side which, to be fair, isn’t my side, its more Parkes and Brandon’s side of the songs, but it takes a lot of refining. Just hours and hours and hours in the studio making sure we were refining specifically that synth sound. My part of the puzzle didn’t really take as long just because what came out of my mouth naturally almost always felt like that is where it should be, specifically on songs like Guru that literally came out that way and we didn’t change one thing vocally or melody wise. When it feels natural it doesn’t feel stressful and you don’t feel pressure to have to create something, it’s just kind of happening to you. And that’s so much nicer.

It sounds like more of a synthetic way of creating, something very real as opposed to forcing something in a studio.

Yeah you kind of end up throwing out the whole idea of structure and arrangement, kind of like “well we need an intro and an outro and we need some sort of slow bit here and a fast bit here”, that whole idea of thinking about the structure just went out of the window which was lovely. And that’s something you can always go back to obviously. We’re already talking about the next project and how we would like to come at it in a different kind of way yet again.

What is the next project? You’ve just released the new EP, so do you plan on touring behind the EP or is this a precursor for a new studio album?

It’s absolutely a precursor for a studio album. Whether it’s going to be a full-length studio album or another EP we just have no kind of clue yet. We’ve got so much more music than just those six little snippets of songs; we’ve got shitloads just sitting there but we felt like these ones fit together nicely and they were the ones we finished first. We thought “fuck it we should put something out now” and have that done. So we have heaps more music from those sessions that we still have to finish and refine so that’s really exciting. And whether it’s going to be another two EPs and then a record, or a full-length record, we just don’t know.

That’s exciting though!

Isn’t it?! It’s just so good, we’ve never had that.

Especially after a couple of years off it must be really refreshing to get back into the whole making music side of it all.

Yeah it really is and it really is something different to have a whole bunch of different songs just sitting there and you get to pick and choose which one’s you’re going to finish. It’s such a luxury then trying to come up with something completely from scratch; we have a hard drive full of these awesome ideas and we love each of them. It’s a pretty privileged position to be in. We’ve never had the luxury of that before. It feels very relaxing.

Your identity as a Samoan is very important to you, and I understand you learnt how to make music as a teenager in Africa. How much did this identity come into play when recording Royal Blue 3000 and generally when you make music?

I suppose I feel like it plays a huge role in terms of who I feel like I am and where it is I came from, but it’s not something that I try really hard to inject into my music in any way. I’m not going out of my way to make sure that there is anything that points to the fact that I am Samoan or to the fact that I learnt how to play anything in Africa or any of that experience but maybe it comes more across just in my perspective on how I feel. I sing a lot and the main gist of everything is messages of hope and that we can make it one day and even though a lot of people would say that’s very cheesy or a lot of people might say that that’s very cliché I 1000 per cent am genuine and sincere in that message. I truly believe that every human being is out there trying to find a connection and I suppose that comes from seeing the connection within my family and being lucky to have grown up in a Samoan family that is very close and we are very connected. Having had a worldly view from a very early age because of my travel as a young person at 15/16 I feel like that’s something that I witnessed everybody kind of needs and is missing in the world.

What’s behind the name of the EP? Is it meant be sort of futuristic or afro-futurism? It kind of even feels like Andre 3000 came into play?

So Royal Blue, obviously that is just one of the colours that came up, and ‘Royal Blue’ the song when we were freestyling that, and the whole song, the whole lyrics to the song was me imagining all these spirits. I just experienced a tragic death of my cousin who was sort of like my sister to me in every single way and her absolute favourite rapper was Andre 3000. She loved him, she would be like “when I grow up I’m going to marry that boy”, she loved him that much. She was a B-girl, one of New Zealand’s most prominent B-girls, and her B-girl name was Ice Cold 3000. She died of cancer very quickly over the span of two weeks, and it was so traumatic I really had to find a positive spin on how I could deal with it, how I could deal with that trauma watching somebody literally fade away. I imagined that her spirit still exists in every colour of the rainbow and you go back to becoming a part of everything again back where you started before you were born you were part of everything that exists. I imagined her dancing off and the colours of the world, and through sunshine and reflections on the sea, and that golden reflection you get on a beautiful sunny day when the sun’s real high. The song was really about her and about death generally and about where I felt like perhaps where you go where you die. On top of that I wanted to make a tribute to her because she was specifically who I was thinking of at the time so while we named it Royal Blue after a lyric in the song we called it Royal Blue 3000 after her because she was Ice Cold 3000 and that was kind of our little wink and secret nudge as a tribute to her.

That’s beautiful. Thank you for opening up, and I’m sorry for your loss of course.

Thank you. It’s been a year now. Rocks on fast doesn’t it.

Comparisons to Erykah Badu get thrown around a lot when journalists discuss you and your music. How does being compared to someone as iconic as Badu feel personally? Do you sometimes wish they would be able to focus on you instead of making a touchstone comparison?

I don’t know where [the comparison] comes from but I’m totally and utterly stoked and humbled by it really to be honest. I mean who wouldn’t want to be compared to Erykah Badu?! It literally is all the time… I wonder if it’s just from a lack of imagination or the ability to figure out what the fuck it is I am. Because I’m not a classically great singer and I even recognise that and I know that Erykah Badu, what I know about her because I’m a huge fan too, is that she started out as a rapper back in the day, spoken word poetry was her buzz and then she was a rapper and went on quite a major tour. And that is my history too and I think that is where it maybe lies? I don’t know where it comes from to be honest, but I’m always really touched by it, I’ve never really been offended by it, I always think if I could be compared to anybody then I’m pretty stoked it’s her. But to be fair I’ve been compared to like every black female artist that you could possibly imagine form the beginning of my career, it was like Billy Holiday, Nina Simone, she’s Jill Scott! I think its people’s way of trying to help explain who you are to someone who has no clue who you are. I don’t really feel like I’ve done anything like Erykah Badu so what I do really love about the comparison is that she’s constantly pushing to extend her artistic experience and that’s definitely what I’m all about, so I really feel like in that way I hope that we are twins!

Catch Ladi6 on tour this July:

13 July – Hudson Ballroom, Sydney

14 July – The Foundry, Brisbane

15 July – Globe Alley, Melbourne

20, 21, 22 July – The Reef Hotel, Cairns