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Tasman Keith: “Being Happy Will Lead to Everything Else I Wanna Do”

Tasman Keith has delivered his debut, the Album Of The Year contender A Colour Undone. Keith, a Gumbaynggirr man and the son of trailblazing Indigenous hip hop artist Wire MC, was raised between regional Bowraville, New South Wales, and Sydney. After releasing 2017’s upfront hip hop joint ‘Might Snap’, he consolidated his profile with the credible EP Mission Famous and 2020 mixtape To Whom It May Concern.

But, as early as 2019, Keith presented an indie-rock project, Evenings, a collaboration with Darwin’s Stevie Jean. He then recorded ‘First Nation’ for Midnight Oil’s ARIA #1 The Makarrata Project alongside Jessica Mauboy. Keith joined the Oz rockers on their 2021 tour, impressing pub-rock heads around the nation.

Tasman Keith – ‘Might Snap’

The pandemic afforded Tasman Keith the opportunity to slow down. Apart from watching Breaking Bad, he spent time in Bowraville, reflected and wrote music. A Colour Undone explores not only different facets of Keith’s artistry but also the man himself. He brought in Western Sydney’s Kwame to executive produce. The friends had previously worked together on the raw ‘THESE DEVILS’, off To Whom It May Concern, and last year’s loosie ‘ONE’.

“It wasn’t too difficult of a choice for me,” a relaxed Keith says over Zoom. “When I told him I wanted to make an album, he’s like, ‘Let me produce it.’ I was like, ‘Aiiight, sweet, let’s do it.'”

Kwame encouraged Keith to embrace R&B and pop and to even sing – resulting in ‘LOVE TOO SOON’, a romantic bop. “He’d push me to be a bit more melodic and do some things that were out of my comfort zone.” Keith duets with Mauboy on the jam ‘HEAVEN WITH U’, which is very JAY-Z and Beyoncé circa ”03 Bonnie & Clyde’. Other guests include the acclaimed Genesis Owusu, drum and bass star Thandi Phoenix, and Sydney rapper Phil Fresh.

Lyrically, A Colour Undone is personal, philosophical and poetic. It captures Keith amid a phase of accelerated growth, as he was “having to deal with some shit.” The MC ponders human connection, emotional immaturity in a relationship, the cult of machismo, intergenerational trauma, and communal expectations as a First Nations man.

Keith emerges with “clarity”, feeling centred. The album retains Keith’s trademark braggadocio, as heard on the lead single ‘5FT FREESTYLE’ – recalling Snoop Dogg circa Doggystyle. Still, he implores fans to listen attentively to the jazzy epilogue ‘TREAD LIGHT’, which honours his late cousin Knox. Above all, A Colour Undone expresses sorrow, joy and resolve.

A Colour Undone, released during NAIDOC Week, was a triple j Feature Album, and Keith hosted rage. Next, he’ll hit the road, his first stop Splendour In The Grass, declaring, “I made the album to be a live album.”

Tasman Keith – ‘5FT FREESTYLE’

Music Feeds: Every time you have a new project, you level up. But I realised what makes you unique is you’re like an era artist. Everything has been conceptualised. I wondered how you approached A Colour Undone – if you had that big statement in mind or if it evolved?

Tasman Keith: The nights spent by myself in the hotel rooms on the Midnight Oil tour allowed me a lot of space to kind of go through what I needed to go through, things that I’d always pushed to the side due to making music or constantly working – things like death in the family, past traumas. It’s things I’m still dealing with. But I think it’s a lot that I didn’t necessarily address at all – I thought I was good. And, with that, came clarity. I was really honest with myself.

I was just like, “What don’t I have?” Some would argue, but I was like, “I don’t have the big records,” you know what I mean? That’s why you get a ‘LOVE TOO SOON’ or a ‘HEAVEN WITH U’, because intentionally I wanted to write that.

So what happened was we’d lock into Alex The Astronaut’s studio for six days. Prior to that, we had, I think, three or four tracks from the album roughly done. We had one day in the studio before that six-day lock-in. In that one session, we wrote ‘HEAVEN WITH U’, ‘CHEQUE’ and ‘FIND U’ all in 12 hours.

Every song that we made in that six days is on the album. We got to the seventh day, tried to make one more joint and, for the first time in that week, we were like, ‘Nah, this feels false. The album’s done.’

MF: It sounds like you were dealing with a lot. Yet, at times, this album feels quite liberated. How were you psychologically as you approached it?

TK: It was interesting. I think, by the time we locked in, I had started to take steps towards knowing what I need to do for my psychology. Therefore I think a lot of it was able to come out of me without it being forced. I just really felt like I wanted to make the music I’ve always wanted to make.

I just made music without any care for judgement, or just to have fun with it – just to make records that do have an underlying message, but if you don’t have the capacity and the time to listen to it, to understand that at a deeper level, you need to come back to that later, whenever that may be, that’s fine.

Tasman Keith – ‘HEAVEN WITH U’ ft. Jessica Mauboy

MF: ‘PROUD’ almost has a house beat. Tell us about some of the styles you explore on this album.

TK: I don’t think I noticed that until I put out ‘LOVE TOO SOON’, ’cause these are genres and types of songs I’ve always listened to and wanted to make, and I feel like I’ve always made, but it’s been demos that have laid around that nobody else outside of my circle has heard.

So I think it’s just basically like I wanted to go pop. I wanted to have this soulful moment with ‘HEAVEN WITH U’. ‘SHARKS’ was kind of rock-influenced. And none of this was really directly intentional before those lock-ins. But I’d just walk into the room and we’d be like, “What do we wanna make today?” We would reference something, reference some sounds, and then would make a ‘LOVE TOO SOON’.

MF: A Colour Undone also sees you explore different facets of yourself. You show a real vulnerable, emotional and even romantic side. Was it difficult for you to let down your guard and do love songs?

TK: It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, purely because I addressed a lot of things prior to making the album, which allowed me to just kind of be myself in the studio. Before, yeah, I had songs that spoke on different topics and some songs that weren’t necessarily just hip hop. But I feel like what I did, just sitting down myself and being like, “Okay, who do you wanna be? What do you wanna talk about? What don’t you like about yourself? What do you like about yourself?”, all this made having these songs easy, because it’s like, “This is what I like and this is what I love and this is what I’ll make.”

The only time, post-writing it, that I would feel like, you know, “Damn, I’m nervous about putting this out,” is literally the day before ‘LOVE TOO SOON’. I was like, “I’m so nervous for this record to come out” because it’s so different and I feel like that’s me.

I showed my cousin ‘LOVE TOO SOON’ and she was like, “That’s the Tasman I grew up knowing. That’s the Tasman that used to watch the MJ videos, used to like cheeky dancing.”

MF: What kind of reaction did you get to it from people outside your circle? Were you surprised?

TK: Oh, yeah, it was great! I was like, “Damn, I need to dance more.” So now I do it live [laughs].

Tasman Keith – ‘LOVE TOO SOON’

MF: It sounds like this album was a learning process. What did you take away from making it? What were the big lessons?

TK: I guess not to be such a perfectionist. Most songs on the album – maybe like 70 per cent of the songs on the album – were made in Alex The Astronaut’s studio. The next week we were scheduled to go and re-record the vocals at my engineer’s house, so it was properly cut. We got there and went to re-record the vocals and just weren’t hitting the same. In the demo vocals, I wasn’t overthinking and being like, “Let me get this take and this, this, this.” And so it just taught me to kind of let go sometimes.

MF: There’s this perception that you’re slept-on, and you addressed this on Twitter not long ago. Yet, every time your name comes up in conversations, people just go on about how great you are. Do you feel that it’s more important to be seen as underground but very credible and consistent, or would you prefer to be hyped up and have haters?

TK: I’d prefer to be hyped up! I’m trying to make money [laughs]. There’s always gonna be people that hate, for sure. I saw that tweet and I was like, “I’m content where I’m at.” I’m still obviously working and wanna get to where I wanna be. But I know that everything happens when it’s supposed to happen – and I can’t control that.

And so, like, do I think I’m slept-on? Nah – I think I’m where I’m supposed to be right now.

MF: What is your five-year plan at this point? Has it changed over time?

TK: It’s still international-level touring, having an album sell, and all the heights. But, personally, I’ve just narrowed it down to a real simple thing. It’s just being happy and separating music from my everyday life – which I’ve never done – and just kind of finding purpose and happiness in the small things, as much as I am in this big thing, and being present for people that love and care for me.

The realisation I’ve come to is that, of course, my community is Bowraville and that’s where I’m from. But right now what my community is is the people around me that love and care for me unconditionally. So it’s doing it for them and doing it for myself, first and foremost – and being happy will lead to everything else I wanna do in the next five years.

A Colour Undone is out now.

Further Reading

Tasman Keith Shares Tender Jessica Mauboy Collab ‘HEAVEN WITH U’

Tasman Keith & Kwame Team Up On Massive New Track ‘ONE’

Midnight Oil Announce New LP Featuring Gurrumul, Jess Mauboy, Adam Goodes & More

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