Smashing watermelons in multi-inch-long nails with sensual abandon is all in a day’s work for Zimbabwe-born, London- and Melbourne-raised R’n’B singer KYE. Her neo-soul sounds glint with sass, joy, and an effervescent compulsion to dance – and we hear she’s turning it up to 11 on the next EP. We spoke to the charismatic musician about wild outfits, songwriting technique, upcoming Opera House performances, and that time the Enmore floor caved in while she was on stage.
Even a super-quick look through your Instagram reveals how loved you are by some of the most talented women in the business: Sampa the Great, Ninjarachi, Mallrat, Bec Sandridge, Benee, Meg Mac. Are you building a coven?
Ha-ha! It’s the weirdest thing, on my Instagram – ‘cause obviously it’s not a huge Instagram – but the people who do follow me are my idols. Sampa I’ve worked with a bunch, so we have quite a close friendship and working relationship. Mallrat I met somewhere random – oh, she was at a gig with Alice Ivy, and she [invited me to her show]. Benee I met at Laneway; we just clicked and have been mates since then, a few years now. All of them I’ve met at gigs or festivals, and been like, ‘Hey, I’m KYE! I really like your stuff.’ And they’ve either surprised me and said, ‘I like your stuff too’ – which blows my mind – or we’ve just kind of hit it off and became friends.
Speaking of Sampa, you’re supporting her on the An Afro Future tour, coming up very soon. The Sydney shows are at the Opera House – have you ever been inside?
I have been in there – it’s crazy! The last time I was there was for Solange, so this is wild to me, that I will be on that stage. I can’t believe it – super, super stoked. Sampa is amazing to put me on [the bill]; she’s always been a big supporter of mine, kind of championed me, for a really long time. And this is such a big gesture.
You recently finished up a string of dates, both solo and in support of Genesis Owusu – including his Enmore show when the floor collapsed. It looked like the carpet was the only thing stopping people falling into the pits of hell! Tell us how it went down.
I was on-stage when it happened! I like to think that I actually set that off, because during my set we got the whole crowd to crouch down and then jump up at the same time. Someone was saying to me, ‘Yeah man, that’s when I heard the first crack in the floor.’ By the time we got to the Genesis set there had already been another act in the middle, and people were going crazy jumping up and down.
We got two songs into Genesis’ set. I was on backing vocals, on a raised platform. I was looking out into the crowd, and then the middle of the crowd just… disappeared! I’m standing there looking at the other backing vocalist and we’re like, ‘Is that happening? What just happened? Ummm.’
Genesis turned around and said, ‘Stop, everybody stop.’ We were all pretty freaked out, and there were obviously quite a number of minutes before we found out what was happening. You start imagining the worst. Luckily no one was hurt, and the carpet really did hold that hole together!
Late last year you appeared on ABC series The Sound. How big a learning curve was it performing for live television, versus filming a clip or doing a live show?
I hadn’t really done TV before – I had done live versions of my songs, so that helped me, but stepping into someone’s vision for my performance, being directed on how to perform for this specific kind of show, and all the different camera angles, was interesting. And obviously, having to record the audio live was such an ordeal! We were actually outside, and the band was actually playing, and we were all mauled by mosquitos to no end.
There were possums running through the big archway above us in the garden while we were filming. We stopped one of the takes because a possum was dangling from the top of the arch. We were like, ‘Is it going to drop onto the drum-kit!?’ Really cute though.
Let’s talk about some of your tracks from the Good Company EP. Gold is incredible – the warmth in your voice is radiant, and the harmonies are just like honey. How do you work out your harmonies – do you sit down at a piano, or just test stuff on the fly?
Never on piano – it’s always gotta be on the fly. I hear music pretty harmonically, so I usually hear things in harmony before I even suss the melody. Gold was, especially, one of those songs where the backing vocals came to me first, before the hook. I built the rest of the song around them.
The centrepiece of the EP is the gorgeous Finest Quality. The chorus lyrics “I’m milk and honey” get stuck in your head immediately, but the way you deliver them is unusual: “I’m milk and huh…” and then the breathed “-nee.” How did you come to sing them that way?
That one was quick: I wrote it with my friend Ben. We ummed and aahed over the ‘milk and honey’ thing – ‘Do we want to split up the word ‘honey’?’ It’s a bit of a songwriting faux pas, but we decided to just go for it. It was catchy. It got stuck in both of our heads!
The song contains the lyric,“There’s a fickle line between their love and hate.” It’s such a truism. Do you remember coming up with it?
I do, I do remember. I couldn’t find the word ‘fickle’ in my mind at the time, so I think the original demo goes ‘There’s this little line.’ Ben said, ‘What are you trying to say?’ and I said ‘There’s a word I can’t think of.’ I sent him a text that night: ‘Fickle!’ I guess when he sent me those lines – ‘Feel like I’ve got enemies, I can see them creeping through the darkness of the night’ – it drew this image of the people that hate you, or are jealous of you, and they disguise it with being your friend, or being overly nice or loving towards you. That line is the most explanatory line in the song.
We have to talk about the outfits in the video: there’s the red latex with the folding fan and massive white lace-up boots, the full zebra-print fit with the elbow mesh gloves and sequinned skirt, the cowboy hat with the dangling chains… which was your favourite?
I loved them all! Steph – who is [stylist] Kid Condo – is such a visionary. She really brought those looks together. I usually love being involved in styling videos, but she had such a clear vision. She had a whole rack of the most insane outfits, but that zebra-print one was just so [chef’s kiss]. It’s really TLC, ‘90s, out there. It was exactly what we were trying to capture, that boisterous energy of, ‘Yeah, I’m wearing a completely zebra-print outfit in a supermarket!’ It was so much fun, and so memorable.
You really did shoot in an actual supermarket, right? There’s a couple of shots where you’re lying in the deli display freezer…
It had meat in it before we got to the store. Someone said to me, ‘There was meat in that thing five minutes before you got here.’ It stunk, and it was freezing cold. I was lying on a sheet of felt material, but the fridge was turned on because we needed the light. I slipped on some meat-blood getting in there, ‘cause I was wearing stilettos, and I had the biggest bruise all down my thigh. It was worth it for the shot!
How many watermelons did you smash in the making of the video?
I smashed, I think, three watermelons? We didn’t get it the first or the second time. They were so heavy, and I had these really long nails superglued to my nails – which is another story in itself, they were impossible to take off – and I’m wearing gloves, in this tiny little shopping cart. So lifting the watermelon was not easy, logistically.
Now you have to tell us about the nails.
I had fake nails on because I was at a wedding two nights before, and I couldn’t get to a nail place in time to have them dissolved. We were sitting on set trying to dissolve them, and it was getting closer and closer to the start of the shoot, and the stylist was like, ‘I brought some superglue…?’ I was like, ‘Okay, it’s for the shoot, we’ll superglue them on.’ It took four days to get them off. I had to soak for hours and hours and hours. The first time I soaked, all it did was mess the fake nail up so that I had these weird, distorted, gooey nails stuck to my hand.
That is truly horrific. Do you have some new music coming out soon?
Yes – and I’m so excited for this new stuff, because I don’t think anyone is expecting me to go where it’s going. I really had fun with this one – I think my last EP is a little bit serious in places, and that definitely reflects where I was at – you know, lockdown, deeply in my feels. I came out of lockdown and just completely raged. Just non-stop partied in a non-guilty way. It was, ‘I absolutely need this, I need to go out with my friends every single night and I don’t care how tired I am, I’m having the most fun I possibly can.’ The songs really reflect that: having my time out there with my girls, feeling the most confident in myself that I ever have, and embracing the fun in my life.
KYE is supporting Sampa the Great on the An Afro Future tour, which will visit Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne beginning May 25. Her EP Good Company is out now.
Kye wears the Air Jordan 11 Retro Low "Pure Violet" from Finesse.