Azieb Abraha is reaching toward a higher level of consciousness. That's evident in her soulful, cosmically attuned music and even in conversation.
As a vocalist Azieb volleys swiftly between conventional singing, spoken word and rap, but the beats Azieb creates eschew typical pop structures, instead following an internal musical logic.
That might sound like a heady concoction, but the music on Azieb is also eminently approachable. Azieb name-checks artists like Grimes, M.I.A., Bjork, Radiohead and Santigold as influential touchstones — and like those artists, Azieb succeeds in creating music that is simultaneously expansive, challenging and appealing.
I chatted with Azieb after an Indianapolis appearance celebrating her new self-titled album Azieb.
NUVO: You're currently living in Chicago, but you have a deep connection to Indy. Tell us about that connection.
Azieb: I came to Indianapolis to work a full time job after college. I found so much love in the Indy music scene that it motivated me to completely immerse myself in music.
NUVO: Prior to finding that inspiration in Indianapolis, what was your music-making activity like?
Azieb: I started out playing the piano. I've played the piano for about 10 years now. When I was 15 I started making beats in Fruity Loops. I really got tired of listening to what was on the radio and that's why I started making music. I made my own mixes and I'd listen to them in the car. After that I went to college at Indiana State in Terre Haute and I started expressing myself at open mics. I was doing spoken word, and I was making my beats separately. But when I put those two together I started rapping and that's kind of what I've developed into now. And it just keeps going forward. I'm starting to branch out into more instrumentation and arrangements, and I'm playing piano live.
NUVO: Monday, June 20 is World Refugee Day. We're currently facing the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, so I feel like this is a critically important subject to address. Last week you performed for a World Refugee Day event at Daley Plaza in Chicago. I wanted to ask if you'd mind commenting on your personal connection with this issue.
Azieb: [The connection is] really through my family. They're the ones who went through it on an eye-to-eye basis on ground level. I'm a first generation citizen of the United States, I was the first in my family to be born here after they moved from Ethiopia.
I've heard a lot of stories from my family about what they've been through, and I've read a lot too. But reading about it, or hearing it from someone's perspective is completely different from experiencing it. I don't really want to go into any details about their experience — it gets pretty deep. But I feel for that, and I feel for refugees trying to get placement. So that's why I decided to perform live for that event and do whatever I can to spread positive energy to anyone I can, including refugees.
NUVO: Azieb, you have a new self-titled LP out. One of the elements of your sound that draws me in is the experimental, free-form nature of your lyrics and beats. Do you think those terms provide a fair assessment of your work?
Azieb: Yeah, you hit it on the head! That makes a lot of sense. I always try to give my best on every track and I always try to push myself. On this album the main thing I was trying to do was to be clear on every message. That's why the beats are so minimal compared to my last album, Products We Love, which had a lot of layers. This album was more like, "listen to what I have to say" over some chill beats.
Experimental? Mm-hmm. I do not really like structure and I tend to rebel against it in a way. When I approach beats it's whatever comes to mind. The universe opens up, I'll hear a melody and lay that down. I'll add some drums and then all of a sudden the words will come. It just flows all together and it's all natural.
NUVO: Are there specific themes you address in your lyrics, or are they all over the place?
Azieb: I definitely have specific themes. I like to open people's minds and I think if people took more time to listen they would understand themselves and others better. I myself am learning to listen, which is what this album is kind of about. I'm kind of talking to myself on a lot of tracks. It's like a note to me: remember to listen to others, remember to stay calm, and remember to walk away in certain situations.
That's what "On the Run" is about, the conflict of being yourself in public with no regrets. Sometimes I vent on a track and sometimes they're more like stories. "Uncivilized" is more of a story.
I purposely performed "Uncivilized" at World Refugee Day because it's about how people are perceived coming from a so-called "third world" country, or being uncivilized. Everyone to me should be treated equally. We all have the same potential. That's what I believe and that's what the song speaks on in a more detailed fashion.
NUVO: Finally when can people in Indy catch you live again?
Azieb: I think the next time I'll be back in Indy is for Chreece. Oreo Jones just asked me to play, so I'll see you guys at Chreece.