Moss Kena: Amy Winehouse was so real and raw at a time when we’d kind of lost that
Rising west London musician grew up under the influence of Back to Black ringing in his speakers
Moss Kena: ‘I write from a very autobiographical perspective.’
Moss Kena is a disciple of Amy Winehouse. Tattooed on his left wrist is an image of the singer – a self-inflicted apparition of his blessed hero permanently inked into the skin. But I don’t have to inquire about Kena’s body art to get him talking about Winehouse. A soft opening question on the 20-year-old’s musical background instantly gets him reminiscing about growing up with Back to Black ringing in his speakers. So, what is it about Winehouse?
“I always found her music was so real and raw at a time when we’d kind of lost that,” says Kena. “My generation was growing up on really heavily manufactured music. I was just looking for something that was a little more real that I could connect to and that’s what I found. Through that, I realised that for me, my musical identity would have to be something honest and real.”
Cut to today and Kena is the kind of rising star that usually has phrases like “next big thing” thrown on his name. We meet in his dressingroom at the 3Arena where later he’ll be the chief support act to pop-R&B bigwig Jess Glynne.
Just five years ago or so, Kena was performing in coffee shops and shopping centres in his native West London – anywhere that would give him a gig would do. Some notoriety came the singer’s way in 2016 with the release of his version of Kendrick Lamar’s These Walls. Kena’s lounge R&B take on the track has a cool vibe that showcases his spotless, soulful falsetto.
Now, he’s signed to powerhouse labels Ministry of Sounds, in the UK, and RCA in the US. Touring with Glynn has suddenly seen him go from performing to 200 people to 2,000 people. (Since last November, Kena has both opened for and performed alongside Bastille too.)
Right in the middle of the Glynne tour, Kena put out his second EP, One + One. Building on the sound on his first EP Found You In 06, which was released in March 2018, these five new songs distil his burgeoning artistry.
Rather than indulge in the smoky, raw instrumentation of Winehouse, Kena’s songs are actually built on symmetrical synths and programmed basslines. The Weeknd is a stylistic forefather though you can go even further back. Ain’t The Same has a 1990s R&B vibe, while his performance on Touch boasts shades of Michael Jackson. It’s typical to look to past pathfinders when trying to place new artists and Kena himself seems pleasantly surprised with some of the names I throw out.
“It’s all kind of my concoction,” he says of his style. “Of course you’re influenced by things that are around you. The sounds just kind of rub off on you. But I don’t intentionally do stuff because I think, ‘This is going to be really big.’ I’m just like, ‘Is it honest, is it catchy, could I sing this for the rest of my life and still feel like it means something?’”
The writing throughout One + One feels deeply personal. The singer examines human interaction – bonds that form and rifts that hurt. Take the single Silhouette, where Kena details all the messy lows of a break-up.
“I write from a very autobiographical perspective,” says Kena. “I was always just drawing, especially on this EP, my personal experiences with other people. When there’s two people in a type of relationship, whether that’s family or whether that’s a girlfriend. I think it just allowed me to write very honestly about things that really have happened. That’s just the best fuel. Usually if I’m stuck for something to do I feel like I should go and start an argument with someone or something, for something to write about.”
Success has the potential to change the narrative. Some artists struggle to write about what is around them once their situation changes so drastically. As a writer who depends on truth an intimacy to inspire his lyrics, how does Kena feel about his life changing so quickly as he becomes more successful?
“It’s quite scary because you think as your circumstances change, you become less relatable because the things that you’re experiencing, there’s not many people experiencing those things. You only have to look at maybe Kanye West. People were all of a sudden were like, ‘Bro, we can’t all relate to you having loads of money and nice cars’. I’m lucky that I’ve written so many songs before any type of success that I’ll still be able to keep myself in that mindset of what was before that. I think that as long as you keep yourself grounded, and I’ll always have real experiences with people because you’re still just a normal person. It’s just whether you choose to write about it or not.”
It seems to me like there’s a gap in the market for a daring, forward-thinking pop star. So it’s exciting to see Kena come along. Sitting across from the singer, an orange hoodie peeking out from under his black jacket, baseball cap on his head, you can see star quality in his chiselled features.
“I think there’s definitely so much room for somebody to come in with a lot of honesty. There’s a lot of formulated music out there. It’s nothing new. There have been people like Amy Winehouse who’ve just come through and been like, ‘Okay that’s a load of rubbish, let’s do it this way.’ But I think we’re getting to a point in music where if people don’t come along and be like, ‘Okay I’ve got a unique sound and we should go this way’ and steer the ship, then you end up just getting multiple variations of the same sound or the same people. I feel like it just becomes so saturated of one sound.”
There’s that name again: Amy Winehouse. It’s as though she’s both Kena’s spirit animal and totem pole of the music industry – the artist that will eternally inspire him and act as a barometer of his own success. But does he want to be as big as his idol?
“Of course,” Kena asserts. “Some people just make out that having a big music career is a happy accident but if you look at all the major people, I just don’t believe that none of them set out to achieve what they have. I think you have to have a bit of vision . . . The best way to do it is just to focus on your stuff and make you as big as you can be and not worry about what everyone else is doing because that just slows you down.
“There’s no rush,” he continues. “It’s such a fast-food society that’s going on right now, especially music consumption. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with constantly putting out music – I think that’s really good, you’ve got to keep yourself in the race. But there’s no rush for me. Let it happen, let it grow, do everything in the right way.”
Be Mine by Moss Kena is out now