Exploding the Listener’s Mind: An Interview with Jeff Darko.
by Nikita Chistov.
During my recent sojourn in sunny Barcelona, I got a chance to interview the singer and songwriter Jeff Darko. A native of Ghana, Darko has been making waves with his emotionally charged blend of neo-soul and electro-funk, underpinned by African influences, both in Europe and the USA. He is now actively touring all over Spain, so make sure to see him live if you happen to be there.
Nikita: Jeff, as a musician with Ghanian upbringing, who has experienced living in both France, United Kingdom, and now Spain, do you think that your location has a certain impact, that it leaves a particular imprint, on your songwriting? Content-wise, imagery-wise, somehow else?
Jeff: Yes, I think it has definitely painted a color on the way I see things and also my storytelling because I’ve experienced interesting things in every location that I’ve been to. This is what my first EP was all about, it’s that journey from Africa to Europe. And this is why on the cover of the EP, you can see me as a young boy wearing an African outfit. There are a lot of things that I wear that are very African, and this is something I carry with me wherever I go. So traveling does mark a strong imprint in the way I tell my story, even in the way I portray myself. To keep it short, I am thankful for the journey, and I think it has helped me be who I am today.
N: So you can say that your art is largely about traveling, can’t you?
J: Yeah, I’d say so. This is why I named my first EP The Epic Dreams of a Pedestrian, me being that pedestrian and walking through the journey of life.
N: You have just mentioned that you like wearing traditional African garments. After going through your Instagram profile and watching your music videos, it becomes obvious that you like to dress in style. Where do you feel your sense of style originates from?
J: I really don’t know. I usually go with what I feel like wearing. I don’t think there is an original with where my style comes from. But if we are to really pinpoint and try to narrow it down, the way I dress now is derived from how my dad dresses, or how he used to dress. A lot of the clothes I wear actually belong to him. He is, for sure, one of my biggest influences in terms of style and fashion.
Again, at the same time, I often try to really connect with my roots. Right now, for instance, I am very much into African jewelry. So you can say that there is a great African or Ghanian influence on my sense of style, but besides that, I just go with what I feel. If I want to wear a skirt, I will just wear a skirt.
N: As far as I understand, Barcelona has been your home base for the last couple of years now. What motivated the move?
J: I was in a very chaotic space creativity-wise when I was living in the UK. I just needed a place where I can breathe, I guess. So I came to Barcelona for the first time ever and enjoyed it a lot here. Because it was very laid back, very lazy. But at that time I needed that lazy environment because it allows you to be at peace. This is what I needed, and I’ve recovered from that and have created my own temple. This place is indeed a very lazy place, but if you balance it with hard work, you can be happy. That’s what motivated me.
N: In your opinion, how does the local music scene compare to that in the other cities you’ve previously lived in?
J: The music scene here is very interesting. You’ve got the likes of Rosalia who is blending her genre with some other genres to create a novel sound, which makes the local scene cool in the end. But generally speaking, that is not something that pushes my creativity. What really pushes my creativity is art. The buildings. Gaudi. That really stretches my thinking. It’s got this wow to it. What is this guy trying to do? Your mind is about to explode watching his work. And this is what I try to do in my music as well. I am constantly focusing on trying to explode people’s minds. This is why when listening to the beginning of the song Dynamite, you feel like your head is about to explode. Overall, I think that the music scene here is okay, but it simply doesn’t explode my mind.
N: So it is the atmosphere created by the artistic history of the place that inspires you?
J: Yes, that’s it. I don’t think all that many artists here drive me insane… explode my mind. I have to dig deeper in London and other cool places to find this sort of mind-blowing stuff. I met this artist named Channel Tres, for example, who came from the States and who was here during the Primavera festival. His art is crazy. The sound was something I’d heard before, but his sound doesn’t just define his art. The art is everything. It is also the dance, the clothing… the whole package. That’s the art. And that blew my mind. But his thing is still a bit safe. I guess people get caught up in the laziness of Barcelona, so it’s alright to be off edge.
N: You’ve mentioned your song Dynamite. Would you say that the description that you’ve used for it — that is, “a weapon to equip anyone going through any kind of struggle and soar above any challenges” can extend to your entire catalog?
J: That’s a great question. Yes! To be honest, it also defines a little bit of me, because a lot of my music touches around love, as well as various struggles and challenges. It is about life in general. Some of it is based on my experiences, some of it — on what I’ve seen in other people. So to answer your question, we can really pinpoint it to that. It definitely does convey my overall message. I would like my music to be a weapon for people to carry with them whenever they want to forget a certain worrying circumstance.
Now I am very much focusing on creating music that pumps people up. So far most of my music has been very chill, mellow, something you can listen to in the background. A lot of people have said that. The next challenge is to create something that is kind of aggressive, something that motivates people’s adrenaline on another level.
N: So it is a change of pace in a way?
J: I am changing the pace a little bit now, yes. In my shows, things do get quite energetic, because I put in some funk music and stuff like that. It’s cool, but now I am trying to find a new rhythm. Maybe to shock people a little bit, to make their minds explode. That’s what I am trying to do.
N: Could you please take me through the process of how a Jeff Darko song is created step by step? What do you usually start with and how do you deal with writer’s block?
J: It usually starts with my producer and I creating an instrumental. Sometimes it’s being created on the go while the song is being done. Dynamite was an example of that. My producer had the melody of the chorus, and we all connected with it and built around it. But most of the time, it begins with an instrumental being sent to me, and then I work around a bunch of melodies, try to connect with the instrumental, and look for a message to go with it as well. Most of the time I like writing with other people. There are two people specifically that I write with: my producer One Man Band and another friend of mine, Jonathan Holder, who’s been writing with me since I started. So this is why the writing process is very enjoyable for me — you get different flavors; it’s like collaborating with another chef in the kitchen. It makes it very interesting.
Speaking of writer’s block, I felt it yesterday, for example. I definitely get writer’s block oftentimes. But sometimes I just get melodies in my dreams. Last time I had a dream, in which I was in some place, possibly a concert venue, where someone was singing a song to me. Then I woke up, and I recorded it on my phone. The song was given to me. It’s there, the time will come for the right producer to work on it. This actually happened twice. The first time I got a melody in a dream, it was given to a label in Madrid, and the song will be out at the end of this month.
N: It must be quite convenient when a melody comes in a dream.
J: Yeah! It’s quite beautiful. I am always thankful when that happens.
N: Do you usually work for hours at a time or do you work in very small sections?
J: Definitely in small sections. And I try to have fun with it, you know. I don’t like that whole process of going through an objective So what are we gonna write today? I like it to be more natural, more enjoyable, and that way you feel it right in your soul. For example, yesterday we spent around three hours on one song, and we paused for a little bit. I was just chilling in my PJs the whole day. Then my producer sent another beat three hours later, and we started working on that as well. No restrictions, no pressure. Just flowing with it. And sometimes if the process requires for you to be working on it for five hours, then five hours it is. So it is actually you communicating with the actual song. It is a relationship. It’s like oh, do you think I need to spend a bit more time with it?
N: You are just trying to sense how it flows, right?
J: Yes, I am trying to enjoy myself. Whenever my band and I jam physically, we have a party. We play the music loud and have fun. That’s the experience, that’s what I miss being here in Barcelona. Regardless, we are actually doing that on FaceTime. We had a party yesterday on FaceTime. It was super nice. My neighbors probably thought I was crazy. And if you saw me, you’d think I was crazy. My producer was going equally crazy as well. That’s the power of music. Music is insane.
N: It really connects people, even through WhatsApp or FaceTime.
J: No doubt! You could be having such a horrible day to start with. I had a very slow day, but then in the afternoon the music just changed my whole mood. I was super happy. It’s because we got two cool songs that we can definitely develop from, and the messages behind them were great.
The tempo and intensity of the music were also really cool. I’ve got one song called 360 degrees which is an example of what I mean by changing up the pace. It is very weird in the sense that all my music to date has been very chill, given that my life appears very energetic. I am excited about this new transition. I am excited to share that.
N: You’ve also previously listed Curtis Mayfield, Nat King Cole, and Stevie Wonder as some of the artists inspiring you; are there any Ghanian artists whose music you take inspiration from? Moses Sumney, perhaps?
J: Yeah, Moses Sumney is a cool one. His art is very beautiful. I wouldn’t say he pushes me so far musically, though. A genre that does that and that I like a lot is hiplife. It’s a genre from Ghana, and it sounds a bit like afrobeat, but it’s got a different groove. Hiplife and highlife are what I grew up listening to in Ghana. Ebo Taylor is one Ghanian artist that I like. His music fascinates me. It is very rich in sound, very instrumental-based, even though the melodies are very simple.
N: The reason why I am asking this question is that I like African music quite a lot… The music of Ethiopia, for example. There is a curious jazz-funk scene there. Fela Kuti and afrobeat of Nigeria, of course. Zambian Zamrock.
J: You know, there is also a message behind it all. African history is very fascinating. Those musicians combine a certain kind of art with that kind of message to create something new. I was listening to Fela Kuti today actually, all day long. Sometimes I work out to his songs. Not all of them fit my workout tempo, but they’ve got this groove. And the message is what drives the adrenaline. That inspires me as well because I am from Africa. We’ve gone through a lot, and we’re still going through a lot, so to have these artists represent us, be our voice, is just beautiful. So I am a true supporter of that. I am just adding on where they started and where they left off… Some of them are no longer with us, you know.
N: What do you think of the active resurgence of the culture of buying, sharing, collecting music on vinyl? I’ve seen a picture of you listening to a record, so I gather it is of importance to you.
J: I think that vinyl is such beautiful art. I know that today things are becoming more and more invisible with technology, but I think that vinyl is very elegant. There is some elegance within my music as well, so I naturally gravitate towards vinyl. And also that whole vinyl era. There were so many elegantly produced albums during that period.
N: Do you collect records yourself?
J: No, unfortunately. I should do more of that. But I have a couple of vinyl records from Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
N: Which ones from Stevie’s catalog do you own?
J: Innervisions. That’s my favorite. One of my favorite albums from him.
N: Are there any festivals you would like to perform at? Your music has already been covered three times by Afropunk magazine, so perhaps Afropunk Fest would be the most logical direction for you, wouldn’t it?
J: Yes, I would love to perform at Afropunk and also Primavera Sound. Made in America, Coachella and Glastonbury would be cool to perform at as well. There are some other festivals that are really cool but I don’t necessarily want to perform at them in the ordinary sense. I want to add value. I want to bring something different that could engage the audiences further. Because that’s what it is, right? Bringing people together, connectivity, making them enjoy and have fun. But there needs to be an evolution of this. So I’d like to join these festivals to mark my story.
I want to explore more festivals after I got a taste of what it is like just three weeks ago. I performed at a festival in Madrid. There were stages all around the city. It was a cool opportunity. I guess my whole performance life started last November. I hadn’t done much performing prior to that. But now I’ve started performing much more often. I am now ready to take new challenges and play in other countries and cities.
N: What are your plans for the nearby future? Is there a new record coming out any time soon?
J: Right now we’re just building songs. I am actually looking for a new team right now. That could help determine my direction. That’s the general focus — trying to refine the team and build the catalog. There might potentially be an EP at the end of the year. I don’t have much going on within my online catalog online, and people always ask about that. Just to give you a little hint: the EP will possibly be called My Sun.