FEATURE | 13 February 2019
Photos, Interview & Text: Martin Hufnagel
Desta French and I met in a pub in East London. We talked about surviving as an independent artist in London, her Colors Show, and the difference between good and bad music.
When you have a subscription to one of the numerous music streaming services, you have the vast majority of releases at your fingertips. However, I personally often find myself feeling overwhelmed when looking for new artists, even though the algorithm has an uncanny ability to suggest suitable songs for me in my weekly mix. Even though I‘ve discovered a lot of great artists this way, personal advice from people with good taste is irreplaceable.
So, it felt like a Christmas gift when Alexandr London sent through his current favourites from the London scene. One of the names on the list was Desta French, and only seconds later, I listened to her beautiful voice singing over a beat that sampled one of my favourite rap tunes from Souls of Mischief.
Desta French, 'Needing U' (Prod. by Jamal Hadaway)
When I met Desta in a pub in East London, she had just finished rehearsing for her upcoming show in London. She was sitting with her bandmates, debriefing and enjoying the afternoon.
When I asked her about whether she remembers her first contact with music, she said, 'I remember seeing a video, hearing it and not understanding why it was good but just being like, "Wow that’s cool." As a kid, you don’t know what it is, you don’t understand anything yet but you know that your body is reacting to it this way. For me, it happened with really classic songs that my head started banging, and I started to sing along.'
As far as she remembers she was always making music, but it wasn’t until she met Jamal Hadaway, who became her manager, 2 years ago that she took it seriously and started creating something that could actually be a thing. Even though London is big and you don’t know everyone, Desta says that you always know someone who knows someone. Even though she doesn’t love that, it has its good sides. For example, when a fruitful collaboration like the one between her and Jamal emerges from simply being introduced to each other. Not only did his production style speak to her the moment she heard it, they have also shared an open approach to music. 'For me, there are only 2 genres of music: good music and bad music. Good music is anything that I can feel soul with, no matter which genre or time signature. That’s the formula of the inner life that’s in big songs.'
After working on their first songs together, Desta was featured in a Colors Show with her song ‘Shame’, which has now over 1 million views. 'That was probably the one that most people have seen. It’s such a big platform now. When I did it, it wasn’t so huge; I think it was a bit more like niche.' The high number of views is not only due to the fact that the channel had around 100,000 subscribers when they released the video, but that this song is a perfect example of how Desta fuses R&B with Latin-American rhythm and her own style.
Desta’s mother is from Colombia, and she was raised in a bilingual home. 'My first language was Spanglish because my English was amazing and so was my Spanish, and I was just kinda in between there. Since my dad is Italian, I speak Italian too, but it’s a bit rusty.' Perhaps it’s because of these early cultural influences that it's hard to put her music into a box. When you listen to her Immigracious EP, you can hear a lot of influences, like the Caribbean sound on 'Invited', the second track of the release.
Drawing from this open source of inspiration, Jamal claims, 'We’ve got too much inspiration, that’s the problem, there’s too much stuff going on.'
Desta says, 'I’m not so mentally stable, so there’s always some shit to talk about. We’ve got many songs, but probably due to over-thinking and being cautious about going back and forth, finishing songs is hard.' Also, due to financial limitations Jamal is doing all the mixes. 'If I had the choice and finances, I'd probably get something mixed many times. When you pay just one person, there’s the possibility that, when it comes back, it sounds like it’s not even your song, and that's depressing.'
The DIY approach is something that makes Desta's music feel authentic and approachable. She even directs most of her own videos. 'A lot of times I see the image of the video straight away when I’m writing the song. I can see the story, the situation, and the scenario. I write quite directly, it’s straight up.'
For her latest video, 'Mention', she chose a location in the South East of London. Desta is still in love with the big city, even though it has changed a lot in the past 15 years. 'There’s always gonna be cool, interesting things. But my overall feeling is that there’s a little bit too much public caught and investment shit. The flavour has changed, there aren’t as many independents. Camden was associated directly with alternative culture, alternative everything. Even this gay bar called The Black Cap, which has been around for many years, just closed, and overall, there’s a bit of concern.'
Together with the cultural changes, the vibe has changed and the cost of living has risen. This raises the question of how the young and up-and-coming can survive in London. 'It’s hard out here, bitch! You just have to really hustle to survive. Everything you earn you have to invest in what you do as an independent artist. I don’t really have the answers for you. I wish I did, actually.'
An hour after our interview and shooting pictures with Desta, I was sitting in a coffee shop to write down some notes. It was packed, on every table there was a laptop and the person sitting next to me at the bar was switching between his app and his computer every few minutes. The constant hustle, as Desta describes it, is part of the omnipresent energy in London. Creative people are always coming up with new ideas to earn money and to find their spot between a new hub of chain restaurants and newly built flats. So, despite or perhaps precisely because of the fact that there’s a construction site on every block, it’s apparent that the space for creative culture is getting tighter and tighter.