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Kee’ahn On Placing Her Story Of Heartbreak And Healing Front & Centre

In May 2020, Kee’ahn, a proud Kuku Yalanji, Jirrbal and Zenadh Kes song woman, boldly debuted with her sublime indie-soul single ‘Better Things’ – its lyrics about emotional release, mental wellbeing, and the heartache following a break-up. Today ‘Better Things’ has accrued over a million streams on Spotify. And, despite the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kee’ahn’s career is gaining momentum. Last year she won the Archie Roach Foundation Award at the National Indigenous Music Awards.

The singer, songwriter and storyteller comes from Townsville (Gurrumbilbarra), on Wulgurukaba and Bindal country, in North-Eastern Queensland. Kee’ahn’s name, from the Wik people, is a take on the word ‘kee’an’, meaning “to dance, to sing, to play” – and, belonging to a music-loving family, she was doing just that at a young age, progressing from performing in school to busking and open-mics.

However, Kee’ahn was also a junior basketball star, even representing Australia in the US. She enrolled in uni to study physiotherapy but resolved to pursue music vocationally. In 2018 Kee’ahn moved to the Kulin Nations – Melbourne – seeking fresh challenges. She landed a slot at Laneway the next year, introducing her band. Crucially, Kee’ahn bonded with local MC, trumpeter and producer Patrick “Pataphysics” Marks, credited on Speech Debelle’s Mercury Prize-winning Speech Therapy. Together, they recorded ‘Better Things’.

Additionally, Kee’ahn has liaised with DRMNGNOW, the interdisciplinary project of Yorta Yorta poet, MC and musician Neil Morris. This year she graced the buzz MC Dallas Woods’ ‘Stranger’, accompanying his band for a viral Like A Version sesh, where they covered the 2000s hip-hop classic ‘What’s Luv?’, Fat Joe’s duet with Ashanti. Kee’ahn recently reinterpreted Moses Sumney’s ‘Man On The Moon’ for RISING Festival’s Singles Club. She’s now preparing to roll out an EP, In Full Bloom, with more soulful grooves exploring self, heritage, community, growth and healing.

A budding festival fave, Kee’ahn shone with her virtual showcases for BIGSOUND 2020 plus the global Folk Alliance International and SXSW. Latterly, she’s eased back into live gigs, many rescheduled due to lockdowns. Kee’ahn is currently scheduled to play a sold-out headlining show at the Northcote Social Club in Naarm (Melbourne) before joining the Queenscliff Music Festival. Kee’ahn was meant to make her Sydney premiere at a Singular Voices event as part of Vivid Sydney 2021, performing solo on guitar, but the festival has been cancelled, the gig possibly still happening as a standalone in future. “I’m just really excited for a lot of things coming up,” Kee’ahn says. “I feel grateful that I feel inspired lately and can write and hopefully will be able to continue working with Pat on the EP, on the album, whatever it is – I haven’t decided yet!”

Music Feeds caught up with Kee’ahn to discuss her Solange connection, new music, and tentatively returning to the live circuit. “It is quite exciting so I’m keen to have a yarn.”

Music Feeds: I was keen to know how you started writing and making music. How did you develop your “dreamy soul food” style?

Kee’ahn: My parents were quite creative. I grew up learning how to sing and play guitar with my dad – he taught me a lot about big soul musicians. I’ve loved Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald since I was little. My mum used to dance in her early 20s in this hip-hop crew in Townsville (laughs). They named me ‘Kee’ahn’ and it means ‘to dance’; it’s a play [on a word] from the Wik mob up in Cape York. I’ve always just felt like I’m able to ground myself and feel more connected to myself and everything by dancing and singing and performing.

But, I guess, the dreamy soul sound, and island kind of sound, is influenced by my love for soul singers and soul music. But, then, there’s the island element from my mum’s side of the family – they’re from the Torres Strait and from Badu Island. My parents always loved listening to island music and just really cruisy, chilled-out stuff. So I think I’m trying to merge the two without purposely doing it – just being like, “I love these sounds.”

MF: I first saw you playing guitar on Like A Version with Dallas Woods. Do you actually write and compose on guitar?

K: Yeah, so that’s how I write. I started writing by singing and playing guitar. All of the songs are just based on guitar licks that I’ve created. [But] I think singing is my main tool. I’ve been singing since I was like a baby – not a baby, but so little. So guitar is just another fun thing to add. But it was really cool being able to play guitar on Dallas Woods’ Like A Version. I was pretty nervous about it. But, yeah, guitar’s a big love of mine.

MF: Which artists have inspired and shaped you musically? And who are you listening to at the moment? I was looking at your old triple j Unearthed profile and you mentioned Moses Sumney, who you’ve covered, of course.

K: I really love Lianne La Havas. Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill have shaped me as well. I was trying to think of some of the artists that I’ve listened to their album from front to back… I’m not really an album person. But I’ve always loved Solange and Stevie Wonder and Prince and, yeah, these incredible Black artists that have really shaped me. Archie Roach is a big love as well; he’s really deadly and really inspirational.

MF: Solange spent a whole summer in Naarm, working on some music before she did A Seat At The Table. There’s all these stories of her hanging out. She DJed and everything. It’s the lost summer story!

K: Oh gosh, I didn’t know about that as well!

MF: She was working with Midnight Juggernauts.

K: Oh, deadly!

MF: But you’ve made a much bigger move, in a way, because you moved here from up North. I was wondering when that was and if you’ve made good connections in the music scene down here?

K: It’s been three years. I was pretty keen to move down. And, yeah, I feel like I’ve made such good connections. My first gig was for NAIDOC Week and the person putting it together was Neil Morris from DRMNGNOW. He saw me sing and was like, “I would love to have you perform with me and do some tracks with me” and so I did that.

And then I met Pat – Pataphysics. When Solange performed at the Sydney Opera House [for 2018’s Vivid Sydney], Pat was invited to play trumpet for her. Pat produced my single ‘Better Things’ – and that was really fucking cool. I love Pat. He’s just such an important person.

Being able to travel around with DRMNGNOW and then The Homelands Tour we went on – that kinda helped me explore my folk singer/songwriter side of my music. Being able to connect with other First Nations folks from across Australia, but also from Turtle Island, [they were] incredible connections, too. I guess being able to perform with, and to see perform, all the First Nations Blak artists that I’ve looked up to back home in Townsville and then being able to meet them down here, like Briggs and Alice Skye and Emily Wurramara and Uncle Archie… We met BARKAA… It’s just been such an incredible ride. I met so many great people.

MF: I didn’t know Pat played with Solange.

K: Yeah, he just dropped it one time when we were recording. I was like, “What – were you just gonna not tell me about this?” It’s really cool.

MF: You made your debut with ‘Better Things’. It’s a beautiful, resonant, meaningful song – and it has that incredible artwork. The song carries a significant message about mental wellbeing. What can you say about ‘Better Things’ and why you chose it as your first single?

K: I just felt the urge to put it out. I wanted to put it out earlier, but then COVID hit. It was still a weird time. I was kind of thinking like, “How do I stay inspired and motivated and not let my depression and anxiety get the best of me in this situation?” And I was like, “Oh, I love this song and I’ve loved working on it with Pat. Whatever happens with it, I know that I’ll feel proud that it’s out there. People can listen to it and hopefully, they can form their own connection to the song.”

So doing that and then just having such a wonderful response and receiving so many messages from people that have connected with it was super lovely and heartwarming. It’s more than I could have asked for. It just made me feel heard and seen and hopefully able to contribute to the wider conversation of talking about mental health and destigmatising mental health. So it’s been beautiful being able to release it.

MF: Since then, you’ve released that cover of Moses Sumney’s ‘Man On The Moon’ for RISING. I was curious what the response was – have you had any from the mysterious Moses?

K: Oh my gosh! Nah, I haven’t (laughs). But, yeah, I think the wider response was just really beautiful. It was so much fun to be able to cover it and to be able to submit it to RISING. I’ve had just really lovely feedback to it: that it helps people sleep or it calms them down – and that’s what the original did for me in high school when I first discovered Moses Sumney. I’d listen to that song and ‘Plastic’. I’ve still got his album [Aromanticism] on vinyl. It’s my favourite kind of music – really calm, ethereal, spacey, beautiful harmonies… So I feel really lucky that I was able to cover it.

MF: You’ve had some collabs as well. I loved ‘Stranger’ with Dallas Woods – and the performance on Like A Version was so cool. What was that experience like? I imagine that was the first time you were on Like A Version.

K: That was my first time and it was so much fun, but I was so nervous. I’m really glad that my first experience with Like A Version was with Dallas. He’s such a cool guy – super lovely and chill and really connective. It was a really lovely team to do the performance with. So I had a lot of fun, but to lie and say I wasn’t nervous walking in there and just seeing all the cameras and all the triple j signage… I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is such a big thing…” Yeah, like teenage Kee’ahn and adult Kee’ahn are just screaming! But it was so much fun and seeing the video and seeing all the reactions to it was such a dream. It was incredible!

MF: We’ve been hearing about a project called In Full Bloom from you for a while. I know you’re performing possibly some songs from this in the Singular Voices show. What can you tell us about that?

K: Yeah, there are songs from the upcoming EP – and I’ve been writing some new stuff… It’ll be my first time being able to perform it on Gadigal land. The performance [for] Singular Voices is gonna be highlighting me and my voice and my guitar and feel really intimate but in such a huge space. I’m just gonna try and centre my story of heartbreak and healing and trying to grow through things and feel and say things. A lot of my songs will be emotive and sad, but then it ends on a healing note and trying to be optimistic about where I’m heading towards. I’m really excited.

MF: It’s such a strange time for live performers with this pandemic. But you did virtual sets for the US Folk Alliance International and SXSW. How did you enjoy that experience? And how does it feel to be returning to the live circuit?

K: I think I’ve enjoyed it. I feel like I’ve been able to adapt to it quite easily. Being able to be a part of the online showcases was really incredible. As someone with social anxiety, I feel like it was easier for me in some aspects…

I just felt really thankful that people were still looking for live music – even if it’s not in person, but live online music. But coming back to in-person performances has been really incredible, ’cause I definitely missed that electric energy that you feel and create when you’re performing to a live audience in person and to see how people react to your songs.

So I’m really excited for that to happen at the City Recital Hall and to be singing on the same line-up as [the alt-country artist] Babitha; she’ll be supporting me. I’ve missed it a lot – and being able to do that again this year has just scratched that itch that I was missing during lockdown. It’s great.

MF: It’s interesting because Alice Skye was saying how it took some adjusting to virtual performances because you don’t have that feedback from the crowd. You’re saying something similar but, at the same time, it’s good because you can control the circumstances a little bit more. But it’s quite a unique skill to have or, at least, a unique approach.

K: For sure. It is super weird – like what you were mentioning that Alice said about not hearing the applause after you perform. That feeling is super awkward. You’re like, “Oh – thank you, next.” But, yeah, I guess, like you said, it’s definitely a new skill. I feel like, coming out of it, I’m able to project more and feel like I can take up space and I’m speaking more – so that’s something I’ve learnt from it. But it is kind of weird. There’s good and bad to it!

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