Turunesh VD PressSet1 3 scaled e1718752522426

Nurturing A Soulful Music Journey: A Conversation With Turunesh

With a unique, entrancing voice that transports you into a tailor-made world of poetry, raw storytelling, and hypnotizing visuals, Turunesh returns to the music scene after a 2-year hiatus away from the limelight. The 26-year-old Kenyan-born Tanzanian and Ethiopian singer defies easy categorization, embodying a soulful core that is both experimental and deeply personal.

Successfully balancing a full-time job based in Toronto with a music career, Turunesh is the perfect example of an artist’s purpose being authentically seen through with perseverance. Her latest single, Virgin Denim, delivers the soulful poetic nature of the artist we know and love with a renewed energy that challenges sonic norms, evoking excitement from fans about what her projected album has in store.

Turunesh’s journey is one of resilience and creativity, blending various influences into a sound that is uniquely her own. iMullar’s Anabel Rose Kubabom sits down with the East-African singer to discuss her music journey, staying grounded in purpose, and her plans for the near future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

How has it felt to return to the music scene and release new music after your two-year hiatus?

Honestly, it’s exciting. I feel like myself again. When you’re a musician, that’s never not a part of you, but we do fluctuate between being center stage, and living our civilian truths. I’m grateful for the time I spent creating away from performing because it allowed me to really spend time with myself. In the past two years, I’ve really just lived life. I’ve been writing music and creating, but away from the limelight.

It’s also nerve-wracking being back. I feel like so much has changed. Social media has been big for over a decade now,  but the synonymity of success as a musician and on TikTok wasn’t so cemented in 2021. I love to make content in the capacity of ideating and creating for produced shoots but typical social media content creation, I don’t really care for. I enjoy consuming content, it’s just not the thing that I create. I’m trying to see it as a new way to express myself and expand my creative thinking in order to connect more with my fans.

What inspired this hiatus?

I took a break from releasing just so that I could process the things happening in my life. Then I was able to write songs that felt really true and sincere. The poetry of songwriting is so important to me. I wanted this record to have honesty and relatability, to write in a way that was still poetic, strong, and beautiful, but also understandable. I think those are the lyrics that resonate with people the most: “I get that, I’ve experienced that,” as opposed to, “Oh, that’s so pretty.”

Another big thing for me is performing because it was like a drug. It’s something that’s very all-consuming for me. I felt like for me to be really introspective and write right now, I just needed to sit with myself and take a break from this. I needed to live life and be super present in order to write from a place of honesty. The time I spent away has allowed me to show an even more genuine self to my audience.

During your break, did you still feel actively connected to your creative community?

It was still an active immersion.  At the end of the day, I’m coming back with an album, right? So it’s not like I’ve spent the past two years totally away from the music industry,  just from sharing. I definitely feel like the civilian and the musician worlds are interconnected. If you’re a creative, you can never really separate yourself from that. It’s just more about the extent to which you’re living in that truth. 

Some of my closest friends are creatives. We’re always learning and growing from each other. When we aren’t performing or recording, we’re talking about the industry and the impact we want to have, just hanging out at home. I’ve spent a lot of time with those people buckled down in a professional headspace; ideating, shooting, creative project management, and making sure everything looks how we dreamed them to look. What’s exciting now is that with the music coming out, we can just be kids about it, enjoy it, and be thankful for what we’ve done. It’s really fun to see. It’s all an evolution of the self and the work.

Do you feel the pressure to hit these industry metrics of success now that everything is rolling out?

It’s more natural for me to work really hard on something and then share it, hoping that my audience will propel the music forward. Of course, there’s a marketing team involved, but there’s also the marketing that we artists have to do for ourselves. Before, that just meant getting booked on shows and sharing your own work in a minimal capacity, like posting about it online. But now, it’s more about being a content creator in a UGC (user-generated content) sort of way.

On one hand, it’s great because it’s made it easier for us to discover new artists who now have the opportunity to get global recognition through social media. But the fact that it’s becoming the only way to gain an audience can be damaging because many talented creatives put in the work to have a global audience, but they’re not necessarily content creators. If you only know the artists blowing up on TikTok, you don’t have a good understanding of what music is rising. Timelessness is so important and many things going viral today won’t be remembered a year from now. We might look back at this era and question what was popular, much like with fashion trends from the early 2010’s.

We need to stay positive and focus on the incredible artists discovered through social media and how it empowers artists in new ways. Embrace the change, see it as a challenge, and find a balance without losing good music to viral content.

Tell me about Virgin Denim. How did this blend of experimental and soulful elements come about?

For this particular song, I really have to hand it to the producer – Cherry Blu. Me, Karun, and mau from nowhere linked up in Karun’s studio in Nairobi and recorded this song over a traditional R&B beat. It was sweet, lovely, and clean-cut R&B. I sent it to the producer and told him to experiment with it. Typically, he would enhance the production, but for this song, he completely scrapped the original beat and put in a whole new experimental one with the same vocals from the original R&B beat. Remarkably, the vocals sit perfectly on the new beat, almost as if they were recorded for it. This speaks volumes about the producer and about Mau and Karun’s adaptive singing styles.

Initially, I had to process because it didn’t feel soulful enough for me. So, I did some production myself and worked with a saxophonist and a guitarist, one of my bandmates, to record live saxophone and do some guitar playing and shredding respectively. We adjusted each addition to fit the futuristic sound, and once that was done, the song felt like it always should have been that way. With this album, I wanted to go crazy with the additional production because I was working with several different producers and one main executive producer on the sound. It was important to me to have a consistent feel throughout the project. 

What other sound explorations can you clue us into for the project?

There is a lot of exploration in this project, but I don’t see it as focusing on specific sub-genres or main genres. It’s more about the feeling. The reason my music sounds very alternative is because I listen to a lot of music from all over. When I make music, it’s very natural for it to come out alternative because of the huge blend of my influences.

For this album, I wanted to create songs that feel big regardless of the pace. My references for that were Erykah Badu, Sade, and Cesária Évora. I wanted to create a project that really hits people in their core, something beautiful that impacts the spirit. This project touches on many different genres. We have one song that is kind of Neo-Soul with futuristic funk elements. Think early 2000s neo-soul with futuristic synth elements. I also love world music;  old African records, Cape Verdean records, Malian music. In all of my albums, there’s always one song where I try to pay homage to that. In my debut album, Coastal Cider, it was “Asili Spirits” In my second, Satin Cassette it was “Zanzibari Spice.” I’m definitely doing it in this album as well with a song that’s super precious to me. When you have that natural intentionality in music, it can make for some innovative creations. I wanted people to be challenged in their thinking about love, intimacy, and music itself. I played around a lot with sounds to achieve this, aiming for an album that makes you pause and reflect.

What are  the processes you go through when it comes to storytelling/songwriting?

Every song is different for me. Sometimes it starts with just a title that stays with me for a year or more before the words begin to form. Lyrics can come to me in bits and pieces, and I slowly piece them together. I’ll be chilling, and a line will come to me, or sometimes, lyrics come in dreams, and I have to wake up and jot them down immediately. Some songs come together over months or even years, and it makes me proud to see them come to life because of the journey involved. However, a whole song can come to me all at once, as if in a trance, which is always an exhilarating experience.

Some songs require hard work to articulate which can either turn out to be the best or the worst, depending on whether they feel forced or natural. Not every thought or feeling needs to be a song; some things are just meant to be conversations. I’m always writing, so in studio sessions I may have several songs partially written, an original melody or an idea of how I want it to flow. Then I work with my producer to build the song from scratch. Even though I’m not a traditional producer, I feel it’s important to have a hand in how my songs sound. The producer and I bounce ideas off each other, and I provide direction and orchestration. For this album, I’m really proud of how the beats are sounding. It’s the most involved I’ve been in the production process, especially with the live elements of the songs.

Turunesh VD PressSet1 14
Photo Credit: Jenn Xu

What advice would you give to others facing the challenge of balancing their passion with their career?

Don’t be ashamed of your 9-5. As an independent artist, the reason you’re able to go to the studio and produce visuals, no matter the budget, is because you’re investing in yourself with the capital from your other hustles. You should feel proud of the other work you’re doing because that’s how you’re able to be your own label and invest in yourself. Of course, you are a creative first, and that’s your identity, but take pride in the other work as well because it supports your primary passion. That’s how I’ve been able to stay independent for so long and scale up my productions, in addition to applying for grant funding.  

Be willing to take necessary creative risks. The financial and mental security of your 9-5 shouldn’t become a safety net that prevents you from doing that. Being an artist is an insane, crazy career path, and you have to be willing to take risks and lose all sense to fully commit to it. I encourage people to do what they need to do to take care of themselves and sustain their music, but when it’s time to make difficult decisions, always remember your real priorities to avoid living with regrets. I constantly remind myself to be courageous and take big risks, like with this album.

Experience Virgin Denim through its newly released lyric video.

Written and Interviewed by Anabel Rose Kubabom

Follow @theimullar on Instagram and Twitter for more.

The iMullar is the voice of emerging African music and the lifestyle that surrounds it, showcasing exceptional talent from all around the globe focused on promoting the most distinctive new artists and original sounds, we are the authority on who is next.