Kenya Grace on 'Strangers', being nominated for an Ivor Novello, and her debut EP 'The After Taste'

Interview Kenya Grace: “It’s amazing to be next to Kate Bush’s name in a sentence”

With a Number One single and an Ivor Novello nomination already under her belt, Kenya Grace is making history with her delicate drum’n’bass.

When Kenya Grace calls, she’s fresh off a plane back to the UK from America. Though most rising musicians might make their festival debut among the lower rungs of a home country weekender, the South Africa-born singer-producer was in the States making hers at Coachella. It’s a fast-track move that fits with Kenya’s trajectory as a whole; since the release of major label debut single ‘Strangers’ in September of last year, the liquid drum’n’bass smash hit has amassed nearly 700 million streams to date. “I was really shocked,” she smiles of the shows. “I was on at 3pm, which is pretty early, and at the end it was really busy for both weekends. I’ve never seen a crowd that big before.”

It’s been a monumental year for the musician, who grew up in a “very quiet and chill” town near Southampton. Born to a South African mum and a British dad, she started writing songs as a child, though it was perhaps a more concerning exercise than it was expressive. “I remember my mum found some lyrics I’d written when I was really young and they were so dark!” she laughs. “I was a gothic queen since very young.”

Though her first love was musical theatre, Kenya began to stumble upon drum’n’bass culture by visiting nearby cities. House parties would evolve into makeshift raves, where she started going to live shows and gigs “too young”. “Southampton is quite vibey, to be honest,” she enthuses. “I really love dance music. I love the feeling of a drop in a song, it’s so exciting. Also, the community – especially in drum’n’bass – everyone is so nice and so accepting. Every single time I go to a rave or party, there’s such a difference [than with] other genres of music.”

As with many crossover mega hits, ‘Strangers’ initially went viral on TikTok. Bemoaning the pitiful state of modern dating (“And then one random night when everything changes / You won’t reply and we’ll go back to strangers”), it proved so relatable that it catapulted Kenya to the UK Number One spot – the first debut single by a British female artist to top the charts since X Factor star Ella Henderson’s ‘Ghost’ in 2014.

“I’ve tried to not look at numbers anymore and get caught up in that world. I feel like it’s a killer of joy.”

Recently, the track has also garnered her an Ivor Novello nomination for Most Performed Work and an even rarer achievement: Kenya now stands as one of only two artists to have landed the top spot with a song entirely written, performed and produced by a woman. The other artist? None other than Kate Bush. “It feels like a dream to hear it now - like, surely not!” she gushes. “But I really hope it inspires more people to join that credit. It’s amazing to be next to Kate Bush’s name in a sentence.”

For Kenya, that achievement is even more important in the male-dominated arena of dance music. Though she acknowledges that dance music has a lot more female DJs in the scene nowadays, she only knew of two when she first started out, and recalls often receiving condescending, misogynistic comments when working with men. “It definitely was extremely common when I was doing sessions with guys,” she says. “So many times, they would say little comments: ‘Oh you don’t need to know what this is, you won’t get it’, assuming I wouldn’t be able to understand how to produce. It was very frustrating.” Learning how to produce and write her own songs was therefore a form of expression and power for the musician. “I wanted to never have to rely on someone who would treat you like that,” she affirms.

Doubling down on that ambition, Kenya’s debut EP ‘The After Taste’ arrived in March as a showcase of the atmospheric, ethereal D’n’B that’s taking the world by storm thanks to other pioneers like PinkPantheress and Piri. She counts Flume, Banks and Disclosure as key influences, but she teases that her newer stuff will be a sonic pivot from ‘Strangers’. “I envision [‘The After Taste’] in cars and headphones. With this new stuff, I envision it in clubs,” she nods.

Rather than getting bogged down by the monumental pressure of following a viral smash, Kenya is consciously trying to put those thoughts to one side. “I've tried to not look at numbers anymore and get caught up in that world,” she says. “I feel like that's a killer of joy, in a way. It's actually really toxic. You constantly see a numerical value judging your art, which is just not good. I try to preserve my creativity.”

Instead, her new “rowdy” and “fun” material will be an ode to the many Boomtown festivals and raves she’s attended since her teenage years, much to the chagrin of her parents’ party soundtracks. “Me and my brother would put drum'n'bass on, like really heavy jump-up. And then my mum and my dad would try and put Fleetwood Mac on,” she laughs. 

Ultimately, Kenya places good storytelling at the heart of all her music, inspired by classic British lyricists like Amy Winehouse and Adele. “I always want people to really feel the lyrics and understand the story that I'm trying to tell,” she nods, “and then I also just want them to vibe and dance!”

'The After Taste is out now via Major Recordings/Warner Records. 

Kenya Grace plays Mad Cool (10th-13th July) and NOS Alive (11th-13th July) where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/festivals for more information.

Tags: Kenya Grace, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the May 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

Read More

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Stay Updated!

Get the best of DIY to your inbox each week.

Latest Issue

July/August 2024

With Fontaines DC, Kneecap, BERWYN, Wunderhorse and many more.

Read Now Buy Now Subscribe to DIY