Beautiful, warm and incredibly talented – Singer-Songwriter, Pianist and Film Composer, Kaliné Akinkugbe, is definitely not the average person you meet every day. In this interview with GuardianWoman, she shares how her journey to music began, what makes her style and sound of music unique, and why it’s important to overcome fear. It is an utterly inspiring read
Your name, Kaliné has a beautiful, almost musical ring to it, what does it mean?
Thanks so much. It means “Little mother”. Kala-Little, Ine- Mother after my maternal great-grandmother.
Amazing. Tell us what you do?
I’m a singer-songwriter/pianist and film composer. I am also a music entrepreneur – I just started a blog called amusicianinlagos.com -an online resource for local and Diasporan artists who are trying to navigate the Nigerian Music industry. It will feature articles, podcasts, videos and interviews to help any musician in this space better survive as an artist.
It seems that you come from a musical family, did that influence your foray into music in any way?
Absolutely. I grew up listening and playing a wide range of music – from Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy to The Beatles, Led Zepellin and Jimi Hendrix etc. My parents had eclectic tastes so I was exposed to all sorts of genres. When I finally went to music school, I was able to tap into both and come up with a style that I felt was really me.
Tell us about your journey from Imperial College – studying Business Management, to Berklee – where you studied music. What informed the diverse choices?
When I was applying to universities, although my teachers were looking for me to do music, my parents wanted me to do something more conventional. So I did Business Management at Imperial and thereafter went on to do Film Scoring at Berklee. I guess I had always wanted to do music but it wasn’t until I started applying to music schools that I started thinking about it more serioulsy. Berklee gave me a scholarship and that certainly encouraged me and gave me more confidence. Once I got there, it was clear I was in the right place and that I should take things to the next level. Film Scoring was a choice I made in my 2nd year after going to several classes in other majors. It just felt like the smartest and most practical one to do because I was already classically inclined in the way I wrote and composed music. Film Scoring also excited me because I knew it had the potential to be another source of income, other than touring as a musician. I learned production, engineering, editing and arranging… much more than any of the other majors offered singularly.
So for you, did you choose music, or did music choose you?
Great question. I would say it was a bit of both. Music chose me from an early age but if I didn’t choose to make it a career, it would probably just be a hobby. Me putting in the work and actively trying to take things to the next level is what makes may like them to be.
Who are some of your musical influences – globally and locally?
Michael Jackson is my biggest and most important influence. His music resonated with me at age 9 when I heard his Dangerous album. I listen to my music now and can still hear subtle references to him especially harmonically. Stevie Wonder is also a major influence. Lagbaja is one of my all-time favourites, as is Earth, Wind and Fire and Asa. My most recent loves are Andra Day and Lianne La Havas. Locally, I’ve learned a lot from the way Bez, Cobhams and Simi write.
So how long have you been in music professionally and what have been some of the challenges and milestones?
I had my first recording experience with the late great OJB about 10 years ago, so I guess that was the starting point. The milestones certainly outweigh the challenges, from opening for Chaka Khan to performing the Nigerian National Anthem upon President Muhammadu Buhari’s first official visit in 2016. Just like every dream, challenges are there to make you stronger. I believe that preparedness is key and a lot of what I used to consider as setbacks have become stepping-stones towards who I am really meant to be as a person, a musician and a leader in my field.
You have a very unique, esoteric sound and style – who is the quintessential Kaliné fan?
I’d say that my supporters and followers are lovers of good, live music – who like the idea of an ‘experience’ where they can get fully immersed in feel-good, thought-provoking music. They love to sit and listen, and they also love to dance. From age 6 to 70, I have supporters that seem to care more and more about what I say and how I say it as opposed to just how I look or what I wear. Those two things play an important role in my brand, of course, but I’ve always wanted to be a performer and artiste of substance and depth. So, when I get compliments to do with the quality of my music and the lyrical content, it’s much more rewarding for me.
Talking about your style, have you had people wanting you to “bubble-gum” your sound? That is, make it more mainstream – and what would be your response to that?
All the time. I always get people trying to give their two cents about what would work in this environment if I want to ‘blow’. Their comments are valid. However, my response is this; I think it is important as an artiste to explore and experiment. If that translates into something mainstream and you feel it resonates with your brand, that’s great! There is a place for all forms of music. I just happen to prefer to make music that touches the soul on a deeper level, that is created with more precision and depth, and that comes from an honest place. But, making it a career means being smart about it business-wise as well. I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘selling out’ because we are all entitled to create whatever we want to create for whatever reason even when that reason might be to make more money. The only issue that may arise is when you can’t sustain a certain kind of sound that is not really you. If your fans know you in a particular way, it may be hard to transition into what truly makes you happy. Personally, I just believe in authenticity. Making other kinds of music can still be an extension of oneself and I am constantly looking for ways to reach a wider audience by speaking a language (figuratively and literally) that they understand.
Who are some of your role models, and what are the reasons why they inspire you?
I have several but Oprah, Meryl Streep, Chance the Rapper and Michelle Obama are a few people I highly respect for their dedication to their purpose and their work in the global community.
You worked with Kemi Adetiba recently, creating the score for the King Women Series – how was the overall experience?
It was an honour to be asked to do the music for King Women. Kemi and I have been wanting to work together for a while. I had sent her a message once I saw the trailer for KW, telling her that I loved the idea. I offered to write music for it if she didn’t already have a composer and she immediately wrote back saying that she needed one and I’ve got the job if I wanted it. The music I wrote was for the purpose of making sure all those important stories were delivered to the viewer as emotively as they were told. The music just needed to be a support and give enough space for the dialogue to shine through. I’m so glad people have commented on how appropriate they felt the score was.
Talking about Film Scoring – is that a thing for you? And should we expect to see more of that from you, even in Nollywood for example?
It’s definitely something that I am doing more of these days while I wrap up my EP project. I thoroughly enjoy it and I’ve got a couple of exciting films I’ll be involved with as a composer later this year. Honestly, orchestral music and film music in general are my favourite kind of music to listen to, unwind, reflect or meditate to. I enjoy making music that enhances a story just because of how it has been written and arranged. I hope to have many opportunities in Nollywood and other film industries.
What drives you and how do you get inspiration for the music you write?
I get inspired by everything from books I read, shows I watch on TV, the news, conversations with people etc. I find songs in everything, as I’m sure most writers do.
If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
When I was younger, I wanted to be an athlete. And then, I wanted to be an architect. And then I wanted to be an interior designer. I’d probably be doing something creative, I know that for sure.
You’ve collaborated with pretty amazing artistes including Bez Idakula; any plans to release your own album soon?
My upcoming EP will be out later this year. I’m so happy to share that with you all. However, although that’s on the burner, I’m working on a few exciting collaborations, so stay tuned for that as well.
What would you tell younger women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Fear Nothing. Don’t let fear hold you back from truly living and experiencing all that life has to offer. Fearlessness helps you to eventually appreciate and embrace who you really are.