Journeying Through Time and Genres: A Conversation With Rina Mushonga

Rina Mushonga © 2019
London-based Dutch-Zimbabwean artist Rina Mushonga gives an insight into her relationship with Afropop, transformations, and the processes behind her latest album ‘In A Galaxy’.

Listening to Rina Mushonga’s In A Galaxy (released February 15, 2019 via PIAS) is to be taken on a journey. The music spans genres and cultures, the lyrics drifting in and out of real everyday life and ancient mythology. Moods are a blend of buoyant African beats and starry synths, while soundscapes of the 1980s are reprocessed with futuristic inventiveness. In “Good Vacation”, a sexy bassline sashays throughout, while “Jungle” holds a subtle blend of synth pop and dubstep. “4qrtrs” is a party complete with the sounds of sociable laughter while “Glory_” is a moment of intimacy with piano and emotion fuelled by current injustices. 

Rina Mushonga - In A Galaxy

In A Galaxy – Rina Mushonga

Ooh I know it’s hard,
you get in my way
No you make me angry though,
you twist the words I say
Now when we march forwards,
you go backwards, you go backwards
And when we march
forwards, you go backwards
And backwards we won’t go
– “Glory_, Rina Mushonga

In A Galaxy is Rina Mushonga’s second album, following her 2014 debut The Wild, The Wilderness, but it feels like a more rounded introduction. Whereas The Wild, The Wilderness is a collection of folk-leaning gentleness, authentic African tones intertwined throughout, In A Galaxy is a concoction of life experiences delivered in a fresh way. Born in India and raised in Zimbabwe, Mushonga moved to the Netherlands (Rotterdam) to study and grow her musical career. Experiencing a lack of diversity, she later left and relocated to Peckham, London, where the multicultural community spirit has become her current home.

The album was written while cooped up inside, making productive light of an Achilles heel injury that prohibited extensive movement. Foot perched up, instruments and recording equipment around her, she’d experiment with the ideas that had been developing in her mind since the release of her debut while the sounds of daily life (people passing by, arguments, laughter, kids going to and from school, conversations, traffic) would seep through the living room window. Concept-wise, inspiration was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reflections on what makes us who we are and our place in the cosmos. These elements come through in the narcism of “Narcisc0,” the female strength in “AtalantA,” battling challenges on our own in “Hey Coach,” and the general eradicating of boundaries in the songs’ sounds. 

Oooh, watch ‘em turn us inside out
Oooh, they’ll let us burn just for saying it out loud
Ah baby, don’t you know what you sound like
Or maybe I’m just losing my mind
And it’s hard to keep all this anger inside
Are we done talking ‘cause I’m so tired of all your lies
– “Narcisc0,” Rina Mushonga 

Music’s exciting when it makes us think. We can lose ourselves in the simplicity of listening to songs, that’s part of its power, but it can also be educational if we choose to approach it in that way. In A Galaxy is an enlightening look at instrumentation, genres past and present and the way they can all unite for the primary purpose of enjoyment. But it’s also personal and individualistic, being the vision of Mushonga and her band and the transformation she’s been through during the four years the album took to make. Atwood Magazine caught up with the artist to get more of an insight into her relationship with music, the narratives behind In A Galaxy, and experiences accumulated through a life of traveling.

A CONVERSATION WITH RINA MUSHONGA

ATWOOD MAGAZINE: AS A LONDON WRITER, I’M GUTTED I WAS UNABLE TO ATTEND YOUR RECENT GIG AT THE SHACKLEWELL ARMS. HOW DID IT GO? I IMAGINE YOUR MUSIC TRANSLATING REALLY MESMERICALLY IN A LIVE ENVIRONMENT.

Rina Mushonga: The Shacklewell show was really special. It was our first show since the album release so it kinda doubled as a celebration and culmination of all this hard work and energy we’d put into this record. Some friends from Amsterdam and Zimbabwe were there mixed in with this new London crowd. It felt like a perfect representation of where I’m at at the moment.

YOU’VE SAID THAT READING OVID’S METAMORPHOSES INSPIRED YOUR OUTLOOK ON LIFE AND CONSEQUENTLY THE WRITING OF IN A GALAXY. ARE THERE ANY QUOTES OR PARTS FROM METAMORPHOSES THAT PARTICULARLY RESONATED WITH YOU?

Mushonga: I think what resonated the most with me was the concept of transformation generally, because it was something I was undergoing at the time, and thinking about my music and what next steps to take or whether to just stop. Also moving to London etc. There was a lot going on. Atalanta’s story really stood out for me the most- her power and independence and how that was stripped away, manipulated out of her. It definitely struck a chord with me on several levels- self actualisation and fighting for independence and acknowledgement for who you are is a tough ride as a woman, as an artist, as a queer POC…I dunno. I guess it’s the beauty of literature or art, when it can be transposed across time and mythology and geography, ‘cause it’s all just about human connection with each other and about finding and reconfiguring your place in the world over and over again.

IN A GALAXY, WITH ITS MIX OF GENRES, IS SUCH A GREAT LESSON/TEST IN KNOWLEDGE OF STYLES, INSTRUMENTATION ETC SO IT WOULD BE INTERESTING TO GET AN INSIGHT INTO THESE. A NOTABLE ONE IS THE AFROPOP. COULD YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS AND THE WAYS IT’S INTERTWINED IN THE SONGS - LIKE SPECIFIC INSTRUMENTS/ RHYTHMS ETC.

Mushonga: It’s been quite a process to find the right balance. Ultimately these things end up working best if not forced or thought about too obsessively though. I’ve grown up hearing Zimbabwean music and afropop blaring from kitchen radios and in shebeens and clubs and cafés living in Harare and travelling to different parts of Southern Africa so I guess a lot of the melodies and rhythms and vibes had kind of nestled in me.

Frans (Verburg- co-producer) and I listened to a lot of Afrobeats and afropop for fun, especially noting the synths and guitar sounds and riffs which appealed to us and bled into the development of the album. I was listening to a lot of Bhundu Boys and stuff like Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and Francis Bebey. But I think ultimately older stuff I grew up listening to, like Johnny Clegg, sort of had the greatest subconscious influence- certain ways the bass hums into a song (like on “4qrtrs”), the harmonies and melodies. Then after all that, furiously wanting to make it feel new and fresh and current. Part of that was really mixing it up unwaveringly with all these electronic beats and blips and synth vibes I was falling in love with.

But yeah, this is all sounding so much more deliberate than it was. Mitski tweeted once that a musician talking about ‘process’ is usually a bunch of bullshit (I’m paraphrasing). I’m inclined to agree with her.

HAHA, GOOD OL' MITSKI. IN AN INTERVIEW WITH NOISEY YOU MENTION ABOUT NOT CONFORMING TO AFRICAN STEREOTYPES AND SAY ‘THE IDEA PEOPLE HAVE OF PEOPLE SITTING IN HUTS AND PLAYING MBIRAS OR MARIMBAS, THAT’S OBVIOUSLY PART OF ITS MUSICAL HISTORY, BUT WHAT’S BEING PLAYED IN CLUBS IN CITIES THROUGHOUT AFRICA IS SUCH A DIFFERENT VIBE.’ DO YOU HAVE FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THIS VIBE AND IF SO WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Mushonga: Yes absolutely. I go back and forth to Zim as often as I can to see my parents and friends. In Mutare (on the border with Mozambique) I’d often go to local clubs and bars and of course there’s a lot of the old stuff being played but it’s mainly Zim dancehall and afrobeats and hiphop now really. I’ve just returned from Zimbabwe where I spent a week in the studio with an amazing collective. The stuff they’re working on, everything from dancehall to electronica and hiphop and then sampling old chimurenga songs and distorted mbiras is really exciting and they’re not afraid of bringing all those different styles together and forging something new and interesting. We talked about all sorts of music- punk, hiphop, Oliver Mtukudzi- and how freeing it is to be able to just play with all of those different ideas and sounds.

“GLORY_”, PIANO-BASED AND SOLUMN, IS LIKE A MOMENT OF REFLECTION. IT’S SAID IT WAS PROMPTED BY A RUSH OF ANGER IN REACTION TO THE 2017 CHARLOTTESVILLE CLASHES. WHAT ROLE DO YOU FEEL MUSIC CAN PLAY IN TURMOIL TIMES?

Mushonga: I guess I feel it’s part of my job to reflect and process what’s going on around me- not to preach per se but to communicate observations on human interactions both loving and joyful ones as much as painful and hateful and complicated ones. I think music is a powerful tool and platform to process pain, to pick at scabs sometimes and acknowledge. Just really to help people feel less alone in whatever they’re feeling. I mean music can fulfil many different functions in times of turmoil or agony- motivate, aggravate, anaesthetise , be a voice of calm, reassurance or recognition. I think writing “Glory_” I was just processing my own anger and sadness about what I was observing and that’s probably the core of it really and why it has the ability to connect with people who are doing the same thing.

GREEK MYTHOLOGY IS REFERENCED IN YOUR ALBUM- ATLANTA IN “ATLANTA” AND NARCISSUS IN “NARCISC0.” WHICH MYTHOLOGICAL CHARACTER DO YOU ASSOCIATE YOURSELF WITH THE MOST OR IF YOU WERE TO PERSONIFY YOUR MUSIC AS ONE?

Mushonga: Wow… What a question. To be fair they’re all pretty messed up. One of the many take aways from Greek mythology is how fickle and egotistical, cruel and petty the gods are. With great powers often came no sense of real responsibility. I like Pegasus as an idea, though it’s a creature more than a character. When I first learned that Pegasus was born out of Medusa I was like wow, wouldn’t have guessed that!! Something beautiful born out of something terrible and filled with rage. Although when you read most of those stories a little more closely the lines between heroes and monsters tend to shift… I mean Medusa’s story like AtalantA’s and so many of the female characters make you go ‘hang on…wait a minute…what?!!’ Anyways…there’s lots of lessons and ideas and stuff to chew on…all good fuel for material.

DEFINITELY! IN A GALAXY WAS MADE OVER QUITE A LONG PERIOD OF TIME (OR NOT SO LONG. WHO’S TO SAY WHAT A RIGHT AMOUNT OF TIME IS). DID YOU HAVE SOME KIND OF VISION BEFOREHAND ABOUT WHAT THE ALBUM MAY INVOLVE OR DID IT JUST FALL INTO PLACE THROUGH ONGOING EXPERIENCES/ EMOTIONS?

Mushonga: It’s an accumulation of experiences and ideas, some old and some more recent and current. “Glory_” was the last song I wrote for the record like a week before our final recording session. It did fall into place as I started writing and I had no real brief for myself thematically except that I wanted to write something that felt close to my heart and honest about my joy as much as I was being honest about my disillusionment and frustration with people, places, the music biz. Less filters, more truth, and I really felt less pressure in the writing process because of that, which lead to a greater sense of play and joy in making music which I think I’d lost a little of along the way.

Rina Mushonga © 2019

Rina Mushonga © 2019

THE ALBUM WAS RECORDED IN PECKHAM WITH BRETT SHAW AND IN ROTTERDAM WITH FRANS VERBUG. WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE AND WHAT ROLE DID THE PEOPLE INVOLVED HAVE IN BRINGING THE MUSIC TO LIFE?

Mushonga: I wrote pretty much all the songs in Peckham over a summer, wrote sketches with quite clearly laid out sounds and beats. I took those to Frans’ basement studio in Rotterdam over a couple of sessions to basically help pimp things. Frans and I had worked together for a while as he played keys in my band in Holland. He really helped open up this world of synthesisers to me and we really connected musically. He has a great ear and is a brilliant pianist and multi-instrumentalist so together we could really thrash out fuller demos of the tracks, add more depth and colour. He’s been really instrumental in developing this new sound and giving me the tools technically to lay down what I was hearing in my head. 

We took those demos to Brett and his wonderful studio in Peckham. Brett really helped add more structure to the songs. Where I’d often quite happily just have had one chorus and two and a half different pre-choruses, he’d gently show me the foolishness of my ways hahaha. He also had the extra engineering experience we needed to boost our sound and take it to another level. I think the three of us worked well together and it was great having such a small intimate team working on the whole record where we really only brought in a cellist and saxophonist ‘cause we couldn’t play those ourselves. But all the rest we did as the three of us.

WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER, YOU TRAVELED A LOT AND SOAKED UP A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT CULTURES. ARE THERE ANY MEMORIES THAT HAVE REALLY SHAPED WHO YOU ARE AND YOUR OUTLOOK ON LIFE?

Mushonga: There’s so many memories and experiences that have shaped who I am and how I make music, it would be difficult to highlight any that aren’t super personal. But I think moving around so much has contributed mainly in having an open borders mentality when it comes to making music. All those influences and references of different music styles felt accessible to me and not things belonging to far away imagined places but places where I lived and experienced love and friendship and pain and where I was growing up and learning. My mum’s white and my dad’s black so I always felt in-between or other. I personally wasn’t of one genre so to speak. Sometimes it meant I could adapt and adjust quickly and sometimes it felt isolating and alone, never enough of one or too much of the other. I think that shapes a person for sure through insecurity into growing awareness and hopefully, ultimately, a more independent and empathetic person.

YEAH AND I THINK THE OPEN BORDERS MENTALITY WITH MUSIC IS GREAT BECAUSE WITH YOU IT COMES FROM AUTHENTICITY. IT’S NOT, AS YOU SAY, TAKING FROM IMAGINED REPRESENTATIONS. COULD YOU TALK MORE ABOUT WHAT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC- PLAYING OR WRITING- HAS BEEN LIKE GROWING UP.

Mushonga: I think the connecting or engaging with different instruments and technologies is still very much a process. The crux of songwriting or the joy of it for me is piecing together melody and lyric- Finding the right sequences almost that strike the right chord and balance of emotions.

Performance-wise I’ve been looking to do less and less playing of instruments myself and really focus more on performing and presenting the song. I always played guitar on stage which was fun but I also found I could kinda hide behind my guitar as well. The moment I put the guitar down really opened up a whole new way of performing but also of writing.

WHEN WAS THE MOMENT WHEN YOU WERE LIKE, ‘I’M GOING TO TAKE THIS BEING A MUSICIAN THING SERIOUSLY,’ AND HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED SINCE THEN? FOR EXAMPLE, YOUR MOTIVES/ PERCEPTIONS/ EXPECTATIONS.

Mushonga: I have the worst memory- I guess maybe around 2011 when I moved back to Holland from Zimbabwe. I’d been running a theatre programme there and making music but more on the side. I was thinking about performing again and what kind of music I’d want to make and had gone back to reconnect with that part of my musical heritage in a way. A friend graciously gave me some money to record a few songs for an EP there and it got picked up by a Dutch agency who were promoting artists from different African countries. When I moved back to Holland I kind of decided to give it a serious go and have been re-deciding pretty much every day since hahaha.

My ambition’s always been pretty up there. I want to do it all but then on my terms which can complicate things and slow things down sometimes I guess. It’s been years of people telling me to manage my expectations, of forming bands and dissolving bands. Years of butting my head against walls, against big egos, sometimes my own ego, hating the music industry, feeling lost and misunderstood and deeply pained by the execution of this craft. But then also the most amazing shows, hearing how supporters connect with my music in ways I couldn’t ever have imagined, seeing dreams become reality and forming new dreams. It’s all the things really, this wild sometimes toxic relationship. It’s unrequited love; It’s total euphoria. You keep approaching it and discovering it from brilliant new angles which keeps you hooked in a way. Yeah…it’s all the things.

THAT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL WAY TO END THIS INTERVIEW. I MUST ASK FINALLY THOUGH (ESPECIALLY AS I DIDN’T GET TO SEE YOUR RECENT SHOW): HOW DOES YOUR MUSIC TRANSLATE IN A LIVE ENVIRONMENT? IN A GALAXY, IN A WAY, EXPLORES OUR POSITION ON EARTH, HOW WE PERCEIVE EACH OTHER, AND CONCEPTS OF SPACE AND TIME ETC. WHEN PLAYING OR WATCHING LIVE MUSIC DO YOU FEEL LIKE IT’S SOME OTHERWORLDLY EXPERIENCE?

Mushonga: I’ve never wanted my shows to feel or sound like you could just close your eyes and it sounds like the recorded version. I always try to change things up a bit- add little bits and pieces to tracks to transport them out of the studio and out of your headphones into a sweaty, intimate and sincere experience. I talk a bit, sometimes too much haha, and I like connecting with the people standing in front of me and sharing something that for however long the show lasts makes us all feel like we’re completely together, maybe even friends. I’d like to think it helps open up the possibility of really taking in the songs and feeling them genuinely in whatever way someone connects with them in that moment. Feel free to be sad or angry or dance and be joyous with me. Whatever it is, we’re together.

— — — —

Rina Mushonga - In A Galaxy

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Francesca Rose

Francesca is a London-based writer who considers music a form of storytelling. She's fascinated by the connections that songs can form, whether it's relatable lyrics or the personal associations a sound conjures up.