A band name inspired by a video game username, music that’s defined by hopeful lyrics, and a strong sense of community – North London band KAWALA might just be the most wholesome musical discovery you’ll make in 2020.
Following the release of their debut EP in 2018, it’s been onwards and upwards for the band led by childhood friends, Jim Higson and Daniel McCarthy. Defined by Daniel’s unique finger-style acoustic guitar technique, the duo’s twin vocals, and lyrics that always have meaning and significance, KAWALA’s sound is just as unique as their name.
Their new, self-titled EP and single Animals have just dropped, focused on dealing with issues such as depression and toxic relationships with a positive mindset.
Ahead of the release, we had a chat with Daniel to ask how the band’s sound came about, where the name KAWALA came from, and what to expect from the new EP. We ended up discovering his surprisingly strong love for Jason Derulo and why the band thinks they could be the next Lizzo…
How did you and Jim end up in a band together?
Jim and I grew up near each other. We were kind of in the same friendship group and when we were around 19 years old, we noticed we were both into music and wanted to study it.
So, we got together, had a little jam, and that’s when we fully realized we were into similar things. I’d written all these songs but never really considered myself a singer. Then suddenly I had this tall, 6’3, blonde, gorgeous fella who could sing on my songs.
We then went up to Leeds for uni but quickly realized we didn’t need to be at uni to do what we do. So, after a year, we dropped out and came back to London. Things flowed from there, but it took a long time to get to where we are now, and there have been ups and downs.
The other boys in the band are also friends we’ve known for a long time. It’s like we have a duo and a band as well, which is really nice.
What’s the story behind the band’s unusual name?
Jim used to be a bit of a gamer. One day I went down to his room in our halls and he was playing some video game. His name came up on the screen, and it was Kwala163 or something like that, so I asked what that was about. He said it was meant to be Koala like the animal; Jim is severely dyslexic. I really liked the way it was written and thought it was quite edgy. So, when we signed up to do our first show and had to come up with a name, that’s what we went for.
Your sound is quite unusual, has it always been that way or has that developed over time?
A lot of the distinctiveness we aim for comes from the acoustic coming first. A KAWALA song always has to be able to exist as an acoustic with two vocals alone. I believe that if you’re relying on anything other than that, it doesn’t stand as a good enough song.
This rhythmic guitar playing with twin vocals that we do is not that common, which adds to our distinctiveness. Our sound has definitely developed over time, especially with a full band around us, and we’ve also added some more rhythmic beats so that people can dance at our shows.
What would you say has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
At the time, it wasn’t even that enjoyable because it was quite terrifying but playing on the main stage at Leeds and Reading. Reading specifically, because it was Friday morning, so we were the first thing on at the festival. We opened the main stage, so looking out onto thousands and thousands of people, with your faces projected largely on screens – I should have definitely worn a better outfit – was crazy.
Our London show at the last tour was also absolutely ridiculous. It was the first time we got a full production involved in the show; lights and crazy backdrops that almost made it look like a Marbella club. That felt really special.
Why should people come to see you perform live?
We always try to make our shows as relaxed as possible. We don’t think there’s anything special about us, we just happen to play instruments and people want to come and see it – there are no egos, we speak to the crowd.
Actually, we once got a review online that said, ‘they think they’re hilarious and they’re really not’. We engage with the crowd a lot, we have a party, a dance and a laugh. Then there are some chill moments too, so you can relax in between.
We don’t want to just be one thing. I don’t want people coming to our show and knowing what they’re going to get. We just want to make people have a good time and have a good time ourselves. Basically, please come and see us.
Who do you think listens to KAWALA, what’s your audience?
It’s a massive range, which is a really nice thing to see. You get the young demographic right at the front of a show, between 15 and 18, then it goes up to the mid-twenties, and then the dads at the back. We’re quite proud of this range because I don’t want to feel like we’re just targeted at one age.
You describe your music as ‘hopeful’ – can you explain why?
When we write lyrics, we don’t sit down and think ‘we’re going to change the world with this song’ or ‘this is a really political song’ or things like that. We often talk about journey and progression and you see that in our videos too.
We make music that’s difficult to hate – I don’t care if people don’t like it, but it’s not anything to hate. I guess you could say the songs are hopeful because they’re quite positive and upbeat. What we often do is write a really upbeat song but with really sad lyrics or the other way around. Positive progression is usually something we touch on, and how can you get out of negative situations and move forward in life.
You have a big group of friends and people you collaborate with on things like artwork, videos, and merch – why is this community important to you?
I think it’s important to us because we come from that community. I know we’re signed now, but that’s all new and we’ve been going for a while. We truly think we enjoy the things our mates do the most, and we want to bring our friends with us. A job for them is also helpful for us. The aspect of community is really important to us.
What can we expect from your self-titled EP?
The process of this EP has been a bit of a funny one because it’s not come about like the other EPs, where we would record the four songs and get them out.
In this day and age, we’re so reliant on things like the support of Spotify. People’s engagement with music is so strange now and because everyone’s got such a short attention span, putting out an album is actually really risky.
So, we staggered all four songs this time. Heavy In The Morning is a song we trialed at some of our shows and it got probably the best reaction we’ve had to a song before. The two middle songs are a lot more classic indie-sounding, but more mature and intelligent. The last song, Animals, is just an unashamed pop song.
This new single Animals deals with toxic relationships – why was this something you wanted to talk about with your music?
Yes, it does. It wasn’t actually explicitly about that until we added the lyrics and it all started to make sense. Again, it’s about being in a negative situation and trying to make it a positive. We see this empowering message as our kind of ‘Lizzo moment’. That might be a little bit ambitious, but you never know. Maybe I’ll wear a leotard and play the flute soon too...
It seems like there’s always an important message in your songs – what comes first, the idea for the sound of the song or the message?
Jim and I write everything together. The origin of a song is always the acoustics part and the lyrics actually come last. We’re a believer in strong melody. Lyrics are important. I think that if lyrics are bad, they can ruin a song; but if they’re fine, the song can still survive.
What we do is – we thought this was weird but then we found out that Paul McCartney and John Lennon also used to do this – we will write gibberish lines out to form melodies, and then use that gibberish to try and form lyrics. So, we have to come up with a phrase that works with that rhythm.
What is something you’d love to do in the future?
We always speak fondly of collaborating with Jason Derulo. It’s become such an inside joke now that it kind of has to become a reality – it has to happen. Other than Jason, we’d love to be on Jools Holland. I’m sure in practice, it’s not as exciting as it sounds, but as a kid, I’ve always watched it and it’s always been a nice source of finding music.
And playing Kentish Town Forum because that’s the venue between mine and Jim’s houses. Doing a sold-out show there and going to the local pub after, that would be a bit of a dream.
Kawala tour dates available at kawalaofficial.com
Animals is out now!