Discovery: ABRA

By
Photography Tyler Mitchell

Published July 14, 2016

ABRA got her start on YouTube. Her pleasingly dissonant acoustic covers of rap and hip-hop hits, like Waka Flocka‘s “No Hands,” gave her traction online, but she has come a long way since then. She tried her hand at being in a rock band and has produced multiple EPs in her Georgia closet. While studying at the University of Georgia, she joined Atlanta’s Awful Records crew, a collaborative community of rappers; she cites that time, specifically, as pivotal in shifting her outlook and building her confidence.

“It’s very organic, it’s motivating, and it makes me work hard,” she tells us of joining Awful. “Before that I had a really hard time figuring out who I was or what I wanted to be. They gave me a context to exist in and identify myself with, and they gave me confidence to be who I am,” she continues. “With my music, I take it a lot more seriously. I’m always sober when I perform. When I perform live, if I had a drink it was maybe a glass of wine an hour earlier with dinner. But before, when I was with Awful, I was getting twisted. A lot of that was because I was really, really nervous that people wouldn’t accept me—just really paranoid.”

While she remains a member of the Awful family and continues to perform and collaborate with them, Abra is focusing on her solo music. Tomorrow, the self-proclaimed “darkwave duchess” will release Princess via Awful Records. It’s her first EP produced beyond the confines of her closet. The set of tracks slips and slides between R&B, ’80s electronica, Miami bass, early 2000s pop, and rap. As her EP’s title suggests, she’s poised to take her throne.

NAME: ABRA

BORN: New York, NY

BASED: Atlanta, GA

PRINCESS: My dad told me this story when I went over to my parents’ house—I had kind of a hard time with my parents when I was growing up—and this was the first time they were like telling me about myself as a kid. We had never really talked about it ever. We were talking about how I’m not really affectionate with them. And I was like, “Well y’all didn’t ever want me to give you hugs and stuff.” And they were like, “No, it was you who didn’t want it. You just walked around like a little princess all the time.” [Apparently] I was like, “I got it, I can do it myself. I’m a lady,” and strutting away. It stuck with me and I thought it was a really funny story. And I just really appreciate the conversation with them; them talking to me about how I was as a kid really gave me a lot more insight than you would think on my life and how I think. It really helped me out as a human. [laughs] It was around the time that I was writing the project, and Princess just fit—I really liked it for the title.

INFLUENCES: I don’t really listen to other music when I’m doing mine because I’ll get sidetracked by how good theirs is and want to do what they’re doing. But I feel like [on Princess] I reference a lot of Britney Spears in 2000. You probably won’t be able to pick up on it because the things I was referencing were her ad-libs, the way she says things, or moods that she has. There’s a lot of that and then Gwen Stefani, Chaka Khan, a lot of disco music—how they annunciate, how they project their voices. I was playing with a lot of older sounds and styles of singing.

SHOWER EPIPHANIES: You know when you’re in the shower, and you’re having an imaginary argument? Like with that person where you say all the things that you wish you had said in an argument with them? That’s pretty much the process of writing songs. It’s just like I’m saying all the things I wish I could say to you, but it’s like coming out poetically, and then you just make it make sense lyrically. 

TRUSTING THE AUDIENCE: I performed one of the songs that hasn’t been released yet when I was on tour in March. It’s called “THINKING OF U.” I performed it in Milan and Norway and London, when I had the sold out show, but I made everyone put their phones away—they couldn’t record it or anything. And everyone did too, it was really tight, everyone put their phones away. It was really nice. Not that I was like, “Oh no, a leak!” It’s not that big of a deal, but I just wanted it to be special when they heard it, and then when it came out. And I think they appreciated it too, like the atmosphere was set. No one had their phones out, [which is] really rare. You’re creating a weird environment for people and it’s like an experience, so it was more so for them, just to have something, and to switch it up for a second.

FROM NEW YORK TO SOUTH LONDON TO ATLANTA AT AGE 8: Moving around a lot gives you a really big sense of non-belonging, so I always felt like I didn’t belong, but then it also caused me to figure out who I wanted to be. So as an artist, I get to be who I never felt like I had the chance to be when I was growing up. I don’t have to censor myself, I don’t filter myself, I’m just going to do what I want to do. I definitely learned that from having to be so suppressed when I was younger. The suppression comes from those years that I was moving; they’re huge points in your childhood, those ages. I was always getting dragged so far away from my friends. Even when I moved to Georgia, first we moved to Norcross, then we moved to this other place, then moved to where my parents live now, and it’s just like, I keep getting torn from people, so I don’t feel like I have this safe place to experiment with who I am or show who I really am. I repressed a lot of my true self—whatever that is—like my true desires, just so I could fit in with people and have friends as opposed to be some alone weirdo. So when I got into high school and college, all of that started to weigh on me, and it wasn’t positive for me. So now I’m using art to help me get over all that moving and stuff.

PARENTAL SUPPORT: No, [they weren’t supportive] at first. They were not really supportive of any creative thing I wanted to do. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. I was like, “Yeah, right.” But then it actually started becoming successful and they saw that it was actually viable. Like every young person who is imaginative, I was always saying a bunch of stuff that I was never going to actually do. Like, “Mom, I want to be a photographer,” or, “Mom, I want to be an actress.” So all these things she was used to hearing, but then I guess when she saw, “Oh, wow, this is actually really taking off for you.” Now they’re really supportive of it. They don’t really dig deep into the content because we’d probably disagree there, but they’re happy that I’m happy, and that I’m doing something with my life and making money so I can support myself.

MUSICAL BEGINNINGS: I’ve been singing forever. I started to pick up the guitar when I was 14. Up until then I had never considered myself a songwriter or even really a singer. I always thought I wanted to be a poet. But then I started doing the rap covers on the guitar and realized I really enjoy playing the guitar. But I ran out of stuff to play, so it was like, “Well, I could just write my own stuff.” And then it just ended up being really cool because I recorded on my webcam and sent it to my brother’s best friend, Wesley, because he had a huge crush on me and I knew that if I sent it to him, he wouldn’t be mean to me. So that was my safe place and I would just send him music and he was really encouraging. Then I sent it to, like, two people for three years, I was only sending it to those people, and it just slowly grew.

GOING PUBLIC: I was maybe 17 or 18. I was really just surprised at how much it took off [on YouTube]. I did a cover of “No Hands” by Waka Flocka. It went up and it was the highest I’d ever had, like thousands and thousands of views, and I was just recording from my bathroom. And that’s when I realized my access, my reach. Like, damn, you can do a lot with this internet, you can reach a lot of people. So that was a really good place to start off with—seeing the power of the internet and how fast things can move. And that was even before I was on Twitter, and shit moves really fast on Twitter. YouTube, that’s kind of slow [now], but it really helped me see what I can do.

RECORDING IN THE CLOSET: I like to be cozy. I like to feel like I’m in my zone. I just want to be surrounded by me and my own thoughts and my own things. I don’t want anyone else influencing what I’m about to record or write or anything. I don’t need anyone’s opinion on it, I just want to do me, so I keep it shut. The only reason I went into my closet is because if I was in my room you could hear my brother playing video games next door to me. So I went in the closet, it’s like a little walk-in closet, and it had clothes and stuff lining the walls so it absorbed the sound. So you couldn’t really hear anything; it was like a recording booth.

FINDING HER SOUND: I like fusion a lot. I like juxtapositions of strange things. Also a large part of me feeling ostracized, whether by myself or by my peers in middle school and high school, was the fact that I’m a black girl but I wasn’t raised like whatever they call a “typical black girl.” It’s like I didn’t know a lot of my rap history, I guess. I didn’t know a lot about black pop culture. When I started getting into it, I started to really like rap music, so it was kind of my way to be involved without changing or conforming myself to something that wasn’t me—just making something that I liked and fit me.

STUDYING ANTHROPOLOGY AND LINGUISTICS: It has definitely informed the music I make. I was really close-minded before I went to college, and just really scared—I made a lot of decisions based out of fear. But I was still good at heart, I believe. Then I went to school and I was just like, “What? This is crazy!” My parents are Christian, so they were really strict and I grew up being taught to believe something that kind of didn’t resonate with me that well. Going to school and having something resonate with me just opened up my mind, like there are so many possibilities. So I started just being more open to everything, and it really inspired me. It made me look at humans in a different way—with way more compassion, way more empathy, a bigger ability to want to put myself in someone else’s shoes and see where they’re coming from, and to try and find the greatest common denominator between me and anybody. And it just made the world softer to me; it made me want to write about it.

PRINCESS WILL BE RELEASED TOMORROW, JULY 15, VIA AWFUL RECORDS. FOR MORE ON ABRA, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.