The finest experiences in life are meant to be savoured, rather than rushed – and that’s something that only age taught me. For instance, when I was much younger (before the word “hangover” ever registered in my vocabulary) a friend bought me a rather expensive glass of Johnnie Walker Green and before he could even finish explaining the reasons why it was such a special brand of whisky – I had already gulped most of it and was ready to proceed.
During this same period in my life, I rarely ever made the time to listen to new albums too. I would hastily skim through a new release, looking for my favourite tracks before never needing to revisit the full body of work again.
What a waste of fine whisky and fine music.
Fast forward to 2020 and I am a much more patient and cultured adult, which I certainly needed to be if I wanted to do Langa Mavuso’s new album any justice. The sultry and smooth singer released his much-anticipated debut studio album at the end of September to much critical acclaim from media and fans alike. Fresh off the back of his newest collaboration with Johnnie Walker, I had the privilege of speaking to the Soweto-born singer about his creative process for this emotion-charged boy of work.
Through our conversation I was reminded of the lesson that life had tried to teach me in the years since I guzzled that glass of whisky without a second thought: that good things take time, and great things deserve the time to be savoured.
It’s a pleasure to have you on Moziak Magazine today Langa, how are you doing?
I am tired! I am good, but right now I am very tired. I’m just having a cup of tea, I’m realigning myself but I’m trying my best. I’ll be okay.
On behalf of the whole team – a massive congratulations on the release of LANGA your debut studio album. How much does it take as an artist to finally share your body of work with the world?
Thank you so much, man! It’s definitely a very daunting thing to do but it’s a huge blessing to embrace it and to have people support it the way they do. Putting out an album is scary man, it’s like walking out of your house naked – and then asking people to tell you what they think of what they see? Who would do that to themselves? [laughs]
Well that’s one way to put it! So now that it’s out there, what do you make of the reception it has received?
Ah man, it’s been nothing but love! It’s been so much love. Listeners are a bit predictable sometimes though [laughs] let me tell you why:
Before the album released, I told my friends which songs I think are the songs they will resonate with on the first day. Then I predicted that they will listen again and a few days later they’ll think ‘this song is like that song’. Then after a few more days, they will make more of these connections. And can I tell you what? That’s exactly how it has played out!
But really, it’s been all love and I am grateful for it especially because I did push the boundaries with this album, I did make sure that I wasn’t going to be restricted by anything.
That’s one thing that is evident. There are some ballads (which we’ve come to know you for) but also a wider range of sounds. Was the strategy here to open yourself up to different sounds and therefore different types of performing opportunities?
To be honest, all the music on the album has been informed by the space that I was in at the time. It’s real-life emotions and experiences that have inspired it. It wasn’t a strategic move to say ‘we need x many songs like this so we can tap into these crowds’ – no. It’s really been an honest expression on where I was at the time. For instance, when I wrote ‘Panther’, I was reflecting on a time when I was travelling at 5 AM in an Uber after leaving Sumo night club – and I was in my feels at the time. I wanted it to sound like that you know?
It had to sound like Johannesburg. It had to sound regretful while also setting up the picture of ‘what is the place we are coming from? What are the feelings we are conveying’. It’s been an honest retelling of journeys through heartbreak from the age of 23 through to the age of 26.
The number 3 is a very powerful number spiritually, and in life in general – and it is prominent on your album. Not only does the cover art show your face 3 times, but the story of the album is split into thirds. What’s the significance with all the 3s?
The album has three key sections or acts:
In the first part of it, we really deal with the pain and the anguish of losing love. In the middle portion, where Panther and Cheat Code lie, we really start to witness the mess. I think anybody in their twenties knows a bit about that phase where you start to go out a lot after experiencing a breakup. Searching for love in all the wrong places! And in the end, the last part which begins with Pretend and ends with Love Lost, the tone changes once more and it becomes more introspective and a lot more centred. The healing that I’m looking for in the first part of the album takes its time to arrive but I do find that beautiful resolve in the end.
That’s why the cover has 3 faces. It’s not even 3 faces, it’s one face with two mirrors on the side of me. And that’s because in life we reflect on all 3 parts of the journey, but ultimately it’s always a reflection of one body, one mind, one spirit.
That is powerful. The featured artists [Yanga Chief, Loyiso, Zoe Modiga] didn’t let you down, and we were also impressed by some of the big names in the production credits, where some international heavyweights [Linden Jay, Noble] have lent their skill. How did you get such a diverse array of talent to buy into your vision for this record?
I’m bossy man!
Jokes aside, I have conversations with producers before we even start to work. Sometimes I even avoid starting the session for some time, just so we can talk about life you know? Even before we start recording, I like to sit down in studio with a producer and we just talk about ourselves, just so that they can have the full picture of where we are trying to take this, you know? So even before we decide what we are going to do, everybody will know what state of mind or emotion I am at. That’s exactly what happened.
With Darryn, well he knows that when I’m ready to write a sad love song, I get into the frame of mind and I start working on it and he understands my process. Whereas with Noble, he said to me “I really want to change your BPM a bit, I want to hear you on an upbeat song” and he played me some beats. As soon as he played the beat for Panther, I remembered that night/morning I was coming from Panther.
I’m impressed with how seamlessly it all came together. It still sounds like a Langa Mavuso record even with contributors from the world over. How do you keep that consistent thread going even as you’re developing as an artist?
Well, my process hasn’t changed even as I’ve grown. For instance, when producers play me something, The first 5 seconds I hear of the beat, I already know what kind of song I’m going to write. Honestly, that first feeling you get after the first 5 seconds, or the first idea you get, is usually the right one and you should trust in it and build on it. It’s instinctual.
Sometimes the producers pick up on what I’m going for and work with me to expand it. For example, with Linden, he had just came back from tour with Kelis, and my UK management introduced me to him and it all came together very quickly. He was just telling me about his life but I started thinking about a love I lost [back in high school no less!] and I just started playing a few chords on the piano. We were at a studio in Hampstead, North-London, where some of the biggest acts in the world have recorded, the likes of Sam Smith, Tom Misch; and there’s every kind of instrument in there.
So I’m playing the chords and he goes ‘oh my gosh I have an organ in here, can I play it for you?’. He played those same chords on the organ, and then he played a bit on the drums, and then again on the bass and slowly it came together. Then I started putting together the lyrics and even then he understood that I wanted this particular song to be a reflection on life and on love. Eventually, that song turned into Love Lost and we then went to work on the actual lyrics.
We wish we were there – but we’re also pleased to be with you here in Mzansi where we’ve ushered in Level 1. You’re a good friend of the Johnnie Walker brand and have teamed up with them again just in time for this year’s festive season. What message do you have to South Africans on how we can enjoy level 1 responsibly?
I would definitely like to start by saying to South Africans: Welcome back to level one, welcome to the party for sure. It’s been such a long, long, long year and we have had to deal with so much.
Johnnie Walker is a brand that really represents smooth, textured and soft life. Literally, it’s the epitome of the soft life! I really just want to encourage South Africans to enjoy their Johnnie Walker responsibly. Get out those high balls, pour a glass, and enjoy a sip now that we can once again – but of course, do it safely, do it responsibly let’s not lose level 1 now that we have it.
With great fun comes great responsibility, we love it! Would it be crazy to suggest pairing your album with a glass of Johnnie Walker?
Oh yes, Johnnie Walker definitely goes along with the album! In fact they have some delicious cocktail recipes on their social media pages for all tastebuds, such as The Johnnie and Ginger Highball, Johnnie and Lemon highball and the Johnnie and Peach highball. I’d suggest you pour yourself a glass, put on the album on some good quality speakers or earphones, and just sit back and enjoy the work that has been masterfully made for you. The album, as well as Johnnie Walker, are both created masterfully. Johnnie Walker is a world-renowned whisky and is the most awarded whisky on the planet for a reason.
If you had to end by telling us three things you admire Johnnie Walker for, they would be…:
Johnnie Walker embodies beauty, smoothness and craftsmanship – and I stand for the same in my own life.