It’s a pleasure working with you on the “Black Dogs!” music video and album photographs. I’ve been so impressed with your vision for this album – not just musically but also visually. I’ve never worked with an artist that was so clear from the beginning on every aspect from wardrobe and performance to the video narrative. The album is highly original – you brought the punk into funk!
Let’s talk about the album’s themes and message.
The album focuses on these things known as the Black Dogs. The Black Dogs are representative of depression and racism, but I personified them into characters. So instead of them being like these static concepts, they become these figures with their own personalities and intentions and motives and stuff like that. And I thought it was just like a really fresh and creatively liberating way to approach these topics, because, the internal Black Dog, which is depression, its personality as a character, that wants to seduce you and lure you in and like make you its only one. I could make songs sound sensual or, you know, other songs sound upbeat, but at their core, they’re still talking about these issues. These aren’t two-dimensional issues. They’re very multifaceted and it’s not like as simple as depression. THIS GUY IS SAD ALL THE TIME. You know, I can laugh and cry and dance and have a breakdown in the same day. So it’s like I wanted to express that sonically as well.
Depression is super relevant now during COVID-19. Are you feeling depressed as a younger man? Do you think writing about this has helped to transform you or improve your mental state?
Yeah, definitely! The reason I started making music in the first place was just as a form of catharsis and therapy. Essentially, when I started making music, I didn’t care about entertaining people and making people dance or anything. It was purely a mode of creative expression. And this album has just like come full circle. And it was purely for fomenting essentially.
And do you think that if people address depression and confront it, it helps them move through it? Are there any words of advice to people regarding that?
Yeah, I mean, it’s such a personal thing for every person. But definitely, these issues are so deep and almost convoluted and multifaceted, but they’re also so ambiguous. They don’t have a face. They’re just so ambiguous, so putting a face to it and talking about it helps you understand it. Once you can really articulate something, it helps you understand it better for yourself. So yeah, it really did help me a lot.
And you also talk about the other theme of “Black dogs” being a racial slur. There’s a track on the album that looks at the indigenous culture in Australia. Let’s talk about that side of it. It’s a very different approach to indigenous culture in America and Australia and then also the whole Black cultural thing is a bit different because of the slavery element in America. So from your childhood, your background, did you find there was a lot of racism growing up in Australia and that you’ve experienced?
I definitely experienced a lot of racism overtly and covertly, but I often thought that covert racism was easily the more dangerous one and the more detrimental one because a lot of people don’t even understand what they’re doing, like understand that they’re doing something harmful because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture and it’s harder to convince someone to change something if they don’t really recognize the action in the first place. I guess going back to the indigenous thing, I just recognize the kind of lineage with Black people globally. And I guess I wanted to put that out there on record and also stand in solidarity.
Some of the tracks are poppy and playful; as you said the idea is Black Dog (depression) is seductive, but the lyrics are completely out there and controversial. The album really flows and comes in dumping these themes intensely. Tell us how you chose the fluidity and how you weave the songs through the album.
For me, that just comes naturally. I started writing as a child. I started by writing short stories and I guess that has always grown with me, in different aspects and different facets. And also as a fan of music and as a fan of concept albums, it’s something I’ve consumed a lot. It’s become kind of natural to structure everything almost in like a narrative sense where you have these peaks in these valleys and these rises and these falls. And I do it in my live show as well. I’ve just innately had somewhat of a storytelling aspect in my artistry from the jump.
But let’s go back to your childhood on the music side. What were you listening to growing up? What were your parents listening to? And what initiated your sound?
I came from a very eclectic sound palette as a child. My family had emigrated from Ghana to Australia in 2000 when I was two and a half. So we already had the Ghanaian highlife music which immigrated to Australia with us. My mum was the leader of the church’s gospel choir. So there’s a lot of gospel in the house. My dad was just a very curious guy. If he saw an album with an interesting cover on it, he’d buy it by the CD player in the house. Doesn’t know what type of music is on it, but he was willing to find out. So that came with lots of different results.
A unique way of playing records!
Definitely! My older brother of five years, who was really into Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine… and then I think when I was in the fifth grade, he discovered Kanye West, which kind of fused everything and added like a Hip-Hop foundation. And me being the youngest in the household, I was kind of the converging point for all these different sonic palates. So, yeah, that was a whole bunch of stuff. And I was listening also to a little of Bob Marley and Ray Charles and Michael Jackson…
Because I can hear a lot of Prince, as I’ve worked with Prince.
Yeah. Prince came in to me a bit later and I didn’t hear a lot of Prince growing up, but when I did hear Prince it was like, yeah, this is it. Like this is crazy. I love it!
He has that effect on you! So then once again, I was impressed that you really think about every element of it all. And most artists don’t do that until later in their careers and they let other people do that in the beginning. You have been engaged from the get-go in how you are perceived and your image. So let’s talk about your image. Why the three colored suits? Is there any symbolism there?
I’m a big fan of Kanye, and there’s this thing I see a lot on Instagram where you can tell the album cycle he was in by what he’s wearing. And they draw these characters where this era he was wearing this and this era he was wearing that, and it was it’s almost like a character progression. So for this album cycle, I definitely wanted to have a staple kind of look, which is where the suits came in.
That’s brilliant! …. I don’t think anyone’s done that before.
I wanted to do something like that. And so that’s why the suits came from the red and black, specifically red and black have been predominant colors throughout my whole career. Almost like Prince had purple. I kind of wanted to have my statement color as well. But yeah, I think in the visuals we obviously have the Black Dog character and then the Genesis character, which are both played by me. So I wanted to have these clear distinctions between who was who. And the Genesis character always wore the red suit and the Black Dog wore the black suit with the bandages on the face. So, yeah, it really just goes back to me as a music fan. And me going back to the storytelling part, wanting to have these distinct characters that are easily identifiable.
And the teeth?
So that goes in with the character uniform as well. The album title, Smiling With No Teeth, which means to me pretending things are OK when they’re not. I wanted to play with that metaphor visually, which is where the bandages and gold actually came from. There’s this obvious flaw or fractured element, which is represented by the bandages. Obviously, something very damaged is going on here, but then it’s tried to be covered by very superficial solutions, which is represented by the gold grills and the gold rings. Trying to pretend everything is OK, trying to put a very flimsy veil over these very deep and ingrained problems. So that’s where the gold comes from.
What other forms of art have influenced you?
I’m a fan of all mediums, but I’m only really well versed in music. I go to art galleries a lot, just to kind of have a mental and creative refresh. I think the most underrated medium, as an art form, is video games. I think video games encompass so much of what makes a bunch of other art forms great, but then add in the element of immersion and having you play through these characters’ lives or story arcs and stuff like that. So my biggest influence was actually a video game that I played when I was five years old. And it was called Jet Set Radio Future. It was this game where you play in a rollerblading graffitiing street gang. And it was set in Neo Tokyo where creative expression was outlawed and the government was essentially corrupt billionaire corporations that had taken control of the government and the police force. You played as the antithesis to that. And you battled the police and the government by graffiti-ing over them and vandalizing their property and stuff like that.
As a moral crusader?
Yeah! And obviously, like as a five-year-old, I wasn’t like really getting all these concepts. But the art style was so vibrant and colorful and the soundtrack was so eclectic and crazy. It was a soundtrack by this noise, rock, and future-funk and glitch-electronic music. And it really just blew my mind as a five-year-old. And it’s always stuck with me into adulthood. And as I grow older, I keep realizing more and more of what was actually going on in that game and how it’s influenced me creatively that I actually credit that as my most influential medium or piece of art, I guess.
Are you looking forward to touring?
Yeah. We’re building a whole new tour right now. It’s going to be crazy! …. It’s very daunting. We announced nine shows and due to crazy demand, we’re now up to twenty-three.
Yeah, it’s really great. It’s really heartwarming that there’s so much love and support. It’s also very daunting because the live show is very energetic and physically demanding. So I had to start training, doing cardio, and stuff like that just so I’m not completely worn out. But it’s going to be great.
The next album…is that going to be a complete departure, and do you want to collaborate with other artists?
I haven’t I haven’t thought too much about what’s next. But just as a rule of thumb, it probably will be a whole departure just because I don’t really like doing the same thing twice. But my dream collaborations are like Solange, she’s definitely number one. I love King Cruel. I love to work with someone or a band that people wouldn’t expect. So I’m not sure who that is yet. But I know my range of influences is pretty broad. So I would just love to work with anyone interesting and anyone that it feels like the collaboration wouldn’t work. That’s what I’m most excited about.
This album is quite cathartic – do you feel that you’ve dealt with the Black Dog issue in your own life and you can leave it behind you? Do you think the next album might be more upbeat, happy, and positive?
I think there’s definitely that possibility. My music and my art would just be a reflection of my life at the time. So when I start making that, it would just be what has happened recently, I guess. But I would love to move past that [Black Dog]. I think that when it comes to Black art, so much of it is based on Black trauma. Which is special and something that I’d like to explore and definitely holds an important place. But I think there is a lot of space to elevate Black joy and Black love and Black happiness. So that’s something that I’d love to champion in the future.
PART 2 OF DANIELA FEDERICI’S INTERVIEW WITH GENESIS OWUSU ON HIS ALBUM ‘SMILING WITH NO NAME’ AND THE LAUCH OF THE COLLABORATIVE MUSIC VIDEO ‘BLACK DOG!’
So, when we last spoke, you were just launching the album and we had a lovely chat about how much I was impressed by your vision not just musically, but also your whole creative vision and the meaning of it all. You seemed to clean up at Australian Music Awards (ARIA’s)! Has anyone ever won that many ARIA’s in one go?
I’m not sure what the record is, but yeah. It definitely felt like a lot. They’re heavy awards. So it definitely felt like a lot in my arms.
Tell me what has happened since we did the video early 2021 and we last chatted? Australia was on crazy lockdown and then I saw you perform in Sydney and I loved the performance. You are fantastic live! Tell me your trajectory since then.
It’s been a bit of a blur, but yeah. There were the ARIA’s, there was the Triple J album of the year and the video of the year for the “The Other Black Dog” video.
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How was the reception to your tour? Because when I saw you perform, the whole audience was engaged. You really capture the audience in a unique way…..So, was it the common denominator throughout the tour?
Yeah, definitely. The show you saw in Sydney was very well-loved. I loved that show. It was probably my favorite incarnation of the live show. It was received really well by everyone. And it was just super inspiring to get back on stage, to have the opportunity to do so after all the lockdowns. It was a logistical nightmare trying to travel to Australia at that point. But we managed to make it work and get through most of the dates. And yeah, it was great. I think it was 22 sold-out shows, which was really awesome.
And then the multiple ARIAs! Did that success change the way you were perceived in the industry and what were the changes?
There definitely was a change. There were definitely more eyes on me, outside of the industry. It definitely breached an audience that I wasn’t tapped into, which is a lot of the wider Australian market. Industry-wise, there was a lot more validity to my name. So, there were a lot more opportunities. There was also a weird type of thing, where I was seeing myself being treated like a celebrity, in the positive aspects and the weirder aspects. I was getting weird tabloid-style emails. Like, “We heard a rumor that you got COVID-19. Is there anything that I can tell my editors for this article?” I haven’t hated or been super indulged in it, but it’s all just been very interesting to navigate.
The album had a strong theme about the importance of addressing mental health. Once the album went bigger did people ask you about that and the journey of the album? Because, obviously during COVID, people were really experiencing those issues.
Yeah, it seemed like everything was so timely, in regards to the release of the album, and then what’s going on in the wider world. It seemed to resonate a lot with a lot of people that I talked to, or who reached out to me. So, yeah, people were really keen to delve into the themes of the album and express to me how it had helped them.
Are you liking the fame?
I think it’s very interesting and I’m definitely trying to keep my head down and just focus on what’s important. But, the fact that I can impact people in a positive way, is always great to hear and it’s a great feeling.
And how did that resonate internationally? Australian success, does that travel?
Yeah, it does. We also did a performance on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, which was after the ARIAs. So, there were definitely eyes internationally, after all the success as well. But, I think, it also goes both ways. We released the album in March and it was a good release. The fans were engaged, but I feel like we got international support earlier on. And I actually think, because of the international support, that then translated to Australian support.
Australians saw that people around the world were celebrating that, and then it felt like the Australian support started to pick up. So it worked both ways.
Tell us a little bit about your approach and your vision and your message for the new album.
Yeah, that’s actually a great question because it’s something that I’m still figuring out myself, like Smiling With No Teeth. The album was such an accumulation of my experiences and life lived up until that point. But, then after that album was created, we’ve just been living through COVID. I haven’t lived too much life since then. So, I’ve had to shift my perspective as to how I release, or how I create music and how I get inspired. So it’s been coming through, I’m getting inspiration from things other than just life I’ve lived. I’ve been reading novels and trying to see plays and things like that. And try and get a bit more abstract with concepts and themes. And I’m definitely in a very exploratory phase right now. And we’re just seeing what works.
I like that! Have you already recorded tracks for this album?
We’re in the writing phase. We’ve recorded some tracks, but we’re definitely still working on them. They’re still very in their initial phases, but they’re sounding pretty great. Really varied still and yeah, super exciting.
And also, I think that because of COVID, we all got a bit more philosophical in our approach to life and perhaps need some fun. So, do you think this album might be a bit lighter?
I don’t know. I think, there was the approach of Smiling With No Teeth, or at least certain tracks from, it was interesting. Tracks like “Don’t Need You” were about depression and mental health, but it was framed in a fun pop way. And I thought things like that were very interesting. So, I might still try and finesse that approach a bit more and see if I can crystallize it a bit more. I’m definitely still in the exploratory phase, so I guess we just have to wait and see.
I’m looking forward to seeing your tour here in NYC. When do you think the new album will be coming out?
I have no idea honestly, and I’m in no rush.
The first album is genius and I have every faith you that the next album will be equally received!
Amazing, thanks so much. It’s awesome chatting and look forward to seeing you in NYC.