Some artists reveal themselves in an instant. Others take the long way round, each release peeling back the layers of self slowly like the ruffled petals of a flower. For 22 year-old, South London-based artist ABISHA, the case is very much the latter.
Making coolly restrained alt-R&B to a backing of barely-there-beats, ABISHA unravels gradually before your ears. Her songs, tales of romantic adventure (or, to be precise, misadventure), are the epitome of More Going On Beneath The Surface Than First Appears Pop™. Prickling between fragility and assertiveness, her distinctly British accent, turned up high in the mix, feels liminal, ambiguous, on the cusp of something. The most exciting part of it all? We don’t know what that is and we’re not sure if she does either.
Born in Devon to a white, English mum and a Jamaican father, ABISHA’s upbringing felt defined by the sense of outsiderdom that dogs all of pop’s greatest performers. She didn’t eat Jamaican food, listen to Jamaican music, or, until the age of seven, have any contact with her Jamaican father at all. In a part of Britain that is overwhelmingly white, ABISHA was, in her worlds, “the only mixed race person anywhere”.
“It was weird,” she describes today. “I was really shy growing up, not confident at all, and I just remember feeling noticeably different to everyone else, which when you’re young impacts you more than you think.”
Her mum didn’t really listen to music around the house and so ABISHA’s early musical diet was defined by the pop fare she’d hear at dance class: Shania Twain, the Black Eyed Peas, the Spice Girls (whom ABISHA recalls providing her first black role model in the form of Melanie B). Developing a natural ability for writing, she’d spend her school lunchtimes sat in the computer room typing up poems, short stories, lyrics. “Music was what I wanted to do growing up, but as I got that little bit older, it became something that I thought was going to stay a dream,” she says of the time. “I thought I should focus on something more achievable. That’s why I moved to London to go to uni.”
ABISHA had wanted to make the move for as long as she could remember. She puts a lot of it down to “wanting to be somewhere that I fit in more, in a cultural way,” and describes feeling more herself when she’s in the city. “When I go back to Devon now I get more anxious and on edge, which is weird because it’s my home,” she continues. “Devon is literally the countryside, the middle of nowhere with nothing happening. I just feel more comfortable in London. I feel like it’s me and where I belong.”
While ABISHA initially wanted to study fashion, going so far as to secure a place at Epsom, her mother persuaded her to take up an offer to study Sociology at Goldsmiths – an act of fate that would prove to be pivotal in the young artist’s career. “I’m a massive believer in destiny and my mum’s really spiritual and a massive believer too so her wanting me to go to Goldsmiths… Somehow she knew there was a connection,” she says. “I only went there for a year. I think the reason I did was because I was supposed to meet Mike.”
There are, you’d imagine, countless stories of artist-meets-producer-in-the-pub. What you’d imagine there are less of, however, is artist meets legendary record producer Mike Chapman in the pub – the same Mike Chapman who pretty much owned pop music in the 1970s, produced breakthrough albums for Blondie – including the iconic Parallel Lines – and latterly worked with FKA twigs and Laura Doggett among others.
“He was there because he was working with another artist who went to Goldsmiths and so they were in the pub,” ABISHA explains. “It was so surreal. One of my mum’s favourite songs is The Best by Tina Turner and when I found out that he basically wrote that I was like, okay, this man’s cool. What a weird place to meet Mike Chapman – in a pub in South East London.”
Weird maybe, but Mike would prove to be the missing ingredient in ABISHA’s sound, developing the young artist and coaxing out what would become her trademark vulnerable yet evocative poeticism. “It took us quite a long time to establish what my sound is exactly,” she recalls. “It didn’t come that easy and was actually something I struggled with. Then I wrote All That and it was the first song where I thought, okay, this is me, this is my sound.”
A skittering, accessible work about the pitfalls of seeing more than one person at once, it sees ABISHA haunted by her own thoughts, torn between two people and fluctuating from seductress to wronged woman. “It was really bad,” she says. “I had to pretty much choose which one I wanted to be with because I was not feeling very good, fucking them both around. The lyrics… It’s literally just what was happening. I was writing what was in my head – whole sentences. I literally wrote it in about half an hour on the tube to work.”
If it sounds like ABISHA pours herself into her work, that’s because she does. A duo of tracks slated for later release – Selfish Love and Tough Love – grapple with trust, breakups and The One over lightly gliding synths and barbed, nocturnal beat making, and she says the songs that are the most personal are “always the better ones.”
She continues: “I want to be someone that people who are struggling with their identity or don’t really feel like they fit in, can look up to. To have someone who can listen to my music and identify and think, okay, there are other people who have been through the same things. That’s something that I would love to happen.” ABISHA might have taken the long way round, but she’s set to make sure no one else has to.