How Music Shapes Us: An Interview with Lula.xyz

We met in the lobby of the Marriott in Durham in a nook near the bar at a sofa along the wall. She had performed the night prior across the street as part of Moogfest and after the concert I noticed she had a pink heart of lipstick on her upper lip. Her name is Lula.xyz, and she is a musical artist and singer based in London. Below is a transcription of our interview.

Andrew Cheek: You’ve spoken about how we define things and the limitations of labels (in your TED Talk), especially in how we perceive, culturally, immigrants. Where are you from?

Lula.xyz: I’m Eritrean Habesha. So, east of Africa next to Ethiopia.

Andrew: In what ways are you incorporating your personal and cultural heritage into your art, and even into your life as a whole? In a way that preserves its authenticity while remaining accurate to the present moment.

Lula: So I say I’m Eritrean, but I’ve lived in the U.K. since the age of six. I’m not sure if you managed to come to the gig yesterday but… definitely through the rhythms, and the feel. Through a guttural expression of thought.

I reference my parents quite a lot in my stuff. I’m Eritrean by way of London, and anywhere else I’ve traveled to. So, I suppose the music reflects on every experience, conversation, thought, evolution of what I’ve had; so it’s never just one thing. I’ve yet to find a way anyone’s described my music in terms of traditional labels or sonic identities that has resonated with me.

Hence why I keep making up my own! Then I don’t have to live up to the ones that exist because, you know, soul singers are amazing and they do specific things. I don’t entirely do that, I do something else sometimes. If you give yourself the label then you define it and that definition can be malleable.

Lula.xyz on stage at The Armory. Photo by Meg Cowan, courtesy of Moogfest.

Andrew: And music now is an especial combination of genres, too. Especially here at Moogfest with jazz and hip-hop, or R&B, electronic; and even still you go back to jazz or to R&B and even those words we’re combining are limited and have many subsets.

Lula: Completely. It depends on your understanding of what it means for each genre because these titles — jazz or hip-hop — are umbrella terms. There are subcultures. Just the way there are in society. But when you put out these labels at face value, you have immediately a codified system in your head whether you intended to have one or not.

Andrew: I think, when you create something, you want to have an idea of generally what your style is. So it can help to define it for yourself a little.

Lula: If that’s how you make music, sure. If we sit down and we say, okay, let’s make a jazz song, I might immerse myself in jazz — bathe in it — so that when I open my mouth the ingredients are there. When you make a dish, you can make a dish intending to make a pizza. A pizza has a base and all these different ingredients and that’s how you make it. It’s a formulaic system, no?

Alternatively, you can just open your fridge and see what you have in the day. And then depending on who you’re collaborating with and what seasonings they bought, that changes things. I don’t very often cook with cinnamon in my food so if someone comes, of course our collaboration should create something new for the both of us.

What I do when I’m by myself and what you do when you’re by yourself should be very different, and when we come together it’s like having a baby. You don’t know whose eyes the baby’s going to get, whose nose, are they going to be a throwback are they going to get your grandmother’s hairline, whatever. I think of music like that.

If you were aspiring to make a particular genre that’s a particular process. But it’s not very often I work from that space.

Andrew: Yeah, I get what you mean. And, we gravitate towards what we like and if when we express our inner voice if it happens to sound like something else, maybe it does. But it’s not necessarily that we’re trying to sound like… M.I.A…. or whoever it is.

Lula: K-pop is a particular sound, but it was intending to make pop music. So when you’re from another culture trying to imitate something else you do your own version because your ingredients are yours.

On stage at Moogfest in The Armory. (Photo by Andrew Cheek.)

If your aspiration is just to be a conduit for something greater than yourself, you…. It’s the most liberating [approach] I’ve found.

There’s a writer and — I forget her name, so excuse me — she said something and it always stayed with me. Someone asked her after the success of one of her books What are you going to do? How are you going to top that?

And she said, You know, I’m not the things I’ve written. I’m just a vessel. And there are these spirit geniuses that exist and my job is just to always make sure I have a pen in my hand so when the spirit takes me I give it space, and I bring it to life. So if a spirit gives me some rubbish… [Laughs] It’s neither me, nor is it my accolade when you deem it phenomenal.

When she said that, it was the most liberating thing ever. So my job is just to sing. What you call it, how you define it, that’s cool and I’m open to have those conversations and I’m intrigued as to what your interpretation of what I do is more-so than me telling you what it is.

Andrew: What comes through comes through.

Lula: Yeah, yeah. And of course I have a hand in it because it’s based on things that I’m interested in, things that affect the world, and it’s from my eyes and being channeled through my voice.

Also, I think music has a purpose. It’s more than just sound. It can be that, but it has the potential to affect you on a molecular level. So much music has existed before now. If I’m going to enter this lane, what’s my purpose? And why am I in it if I have nothing to contribute to it?

If I’m rehashing what’s been done…. that’s not for me. Music is probably the thing that’s helped be the most honest in life. For that reason I will work from this place.

Lula on stage at Moogfest. (Photo by Andrew Cheek.)

Andrew: What questions are you asking as an artist? And, what questions does your music ask?

Lula: Ask of me? Or the audience?

Andrew: Either.

Lula: I suppose… the music asks of me to be honest. To show up, irrespective of what’s going on. And to find strength in vulnerability in the gaze of anybody. And I suppose what it asks of my audience is the same. It’s essentially just a conversation. Yesterday’s gig was not me performing as such but us performing. The audience sang along, and I met them for the first time. It definitely influenced everything I did.

Granted, there were a couple of things I had intended on doing. The journey and how we went, and where we traveled in the celestials was definitely dictated by the audience.

So yeah. It asks for a togetherness. A oneness in life being You. But a togetherness through you owning that.

Andrew: It brings art out of whatever bubble you may think it’s in.

Lula: And the idea of who can do it. That little girl did it yesterday, at the front [in the audience at the concert]. She was dancing with her mother. If I wasn’t tied to the microphone that was in front of me I would’ve jumped down and danced with her, because she was dancing for her life. It was magical!

(Photo by Andrew Cheek.)

Andrew: Could you speak to what it’s like performing with Mi.Mu gloves, and that aspect of being so physically connected to your music and how that shapes your sound?

Lula: There was a process of working before when I was making music — I used to work on Garage Band a lot, and, Garage Band has its limits and there were things I wanted to do within it but it didn’t facilitate it. So I’d take [my music] off Garage Band and I’d put it in iMovie and so I started creating visuals, because you have to have visuals for iMovie.

Then I’d take it back to Garage Band and there’d be happy accidentals that constantly happened… And then it’s like Oh, I didn’t expect that, that’s interesting it took me down this rabbit hole. That’s where my starting ground was for making production-based music.

I suppose, with Mi.Mu it’s kind of the same journey. There are plenty of accidentals that happen. Every kink is its own identity. Every gig is a pleasant surprise. It’s more-so to do with the way I’m working with it.

My background is improvisation — it allows me to have the freedom to improvise and not be bound to a set song and the form of the song and the verse and the chorus, and instead to go off on a journey and come back. I can do that at the tip of my fingers.

I’m a very physical singer. I sing with my whole body, before the gloves. Now that I have the gloves, the music and I dance on the stage the same way you saw my physically dancing, every physical movement is definitely how I would’ve sung if I wasn’t wearing the gloves. And now I can actually have the music live there too.

When the beat hits, every time, the ripple effect it has on my body….

It can be quite mechanical in how you play the gloves because there are specific things — it has the gyroscope, etc. But when you take the technology ideas about what it does away, and just let it respond to you and you respond to it, it’s… indescribable.

And it’s also very frustrating. I’ve referred to the gloves as my boyfriend for many years. Or like a baby you have to raise — you have to nurture it, you can’t give up on it, sometimes it gets you sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes its ignoring you. Sometimes you have a blast and you think it’s your favorite person/thing ever.

We’re in an interesting new space because we’re playing around with a lot of analog, too. The addition of the Moog [synthesizer] yesterday was the first gig I’ve done with it. And even the E.P. I’m recording it in an analog studio — Soundgas — and they have amazing vintage instruments that are in the space. It’s beautiful that I can control them with the tips of my fingers and vibe and lose myself in it.

Andrew: It’s… an extension of yourself.

Lula: Yeah. And not. We are an extension of the universe — we’re all stardust — and it’s kind of like discovering new spaces, new rooms, new worlds. Some of them are uncomfortable, and some of them are really cool and you can stay in the corner of that room for a very long time. It’s a constant discovery.

Lula performing at TEDx

Andrew: Where do you think about where music is going with A.I. and machine learning, Google Magenta, and so many new blends of genres because of technology? This is kind of the polar way to put it, but, are we losing some aspect of humanity and classical refinement like Beethoven? Or, are we gaining new windows into ourselves?

Beepboop. (Photo by Andrew Cheek.)

Lula: It depends on how people use music. Or use technology. So you asked how was my experience with the gloves — when technology fails you, can the music still live? If your answer is no, then that’s what it is for you. For me, the technology isn’t the music.

A few months ago, everything I owned was stolen. I had a gig two days later. I was blessed I was able to have a network of friends who could forage and put something together for me so I could do the gig but two days, in the interim of that I had other little mini performances. We were in a dome — the acoustics in the space were beautiful — and everybody in that space was using technology and my source of equipment was gone. I was like, I’m still performing because I am the music. I’m not even the music, I’m just a vessel for it. The music exists, it’s just a way of how we transmit it.

For me, technology serves to facilitate. And that has been liberating. Of course there are other genres or different practitioners of music who their whole interest is how can A.I. create a sonic experience. That’s a thing in itself. But if I’m honest I’m not immersed in that myself. I come from a background of singers. For me the music was always the singers or the vocals. Even in production I’m asking where’s the heart of the music. If I don’t feel the soul in music…. I don’t know how engaged I can be with it.

For us on a human level we might all do these things, but you will always fall in love with the little girl just playing by herself in the park. That’s different than just seeing a hologram. Intellectually we are excited by the hologram, but the little girl is where the heart is, you know?

But, you know. I’m sitting here wearing gloves and this stuff.

When it marries itself it’s really exciting. When it’s just [the hologram] by itself, it’s interesting.

Andrew: But it can lose feeling.

Lula: Sometimes…. a lot of the time…

Andrew: Again it’s hard to put a general label on anything.

Lula: Completely. When technology is annoying me I miss the days when I didn’t have anything. I barely even had a microphone because I was like, There are acoustics anywhere, I can sing anywhere. In fact, as much as technology’s a facilitator it also sometimes slows the process because you’re having an argument with the technology and it’s just not listening to you and you don’t know what’s going on. But, when it works something magical happens. It’s the dance between that. But each to their own.

Andrew: Yeah.

Lula: Yeah.

Andrew: Thank you very much.

Lula: Yes. Thank you so much for your time.

For more from Lula.xyz, check out her music here, and follow her on Instagram to stay up to date.

(This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.)

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.

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