Things have certainly changed since I last met Alex Rita, the angelic lead singer from award-winning band Okapii, in 2013.
Our previous encounter took place in the city of Copenhagen. The Danish singer acted as my excellent host and city tour guide during my stay, culminating with her first live performance at the venue KB 18.
18 months later, I now find myself in the area of Deptford, South East London, which has certainly changed over the past years, too. It was previously best described as a no-go area, being riddled with crime and a high poverty rate. However, as rent and property demand increased, so has the nature of the residents.
I park outside an art gallery, and as I search for Alex’s address, I pass a live band playing from an open garage. Several excited people are enjoying the clever make-shift venue.
“I’ve been here for a year now” says Alex, welcoming me into her small yet creatively decorated home.
“I’ve wanted to move here for a couple of years. I wanted to be closer to the music I love, and live in a more culturally diverse city – something I think I’ve missed my whole life growing up in Scandinavia… I think when you have family from somewhere else far away – in my case, Barbados – you want to explore and share that, but there’s not that many to explore or share it with. It’s nice to meet more people who have that same connection to the world.”
What’s been the hardest part of living here?
Finances, and not having a network. How do you find a job? Where do you look for one? It’s a massive city, and just getting around is so overwhelming at first. On a bad day, If I couldn’t figure out what bus I needed to catch in order to get somewhere, it made me want to give up completely. I didn’t see much of London for the first 6 months! If it wasn’t for my flatmate and boyfriend’s patience and support, I probably wouldn’t have managed to still be here. They have helped me so much.
And when you meet new people you vibe with, and you have to ask them ‘Do you want to meet up some time? Can I get your number?’, you feel like a little child asking for a play date. British people are so polite and say ‘Yeah, sure’ but then you might never hear from them. It seems dishonest at first but I’ve learned it’s just a cultural thing… You need to have a lot of mental energy and confidence to approach new people all the time if you want to make new friends.
Are you good at selling yourself?
Probably not. I’m not really into the term “selling yourself”. It sounds a bit wrong somehow. I’m trying, but today’s society is so self-promoting, it’s really not charming and it’s hard for me to deal with.
To be honest, I feel like if the music is good, it will spread naturally. Live its own life without me having to shove it into peoples’ faces through whatever media. I guess I’m trying to find some kind of balance between feeling happy and confident about my work while being modest about it at the same time.
But I did just play you some of the new Okapii stuff, so I’m trying my best to sell myself!
The people I meet and surround myself with were brought up with Minnie Riperton and D’angelo
Are there more places to perform in London?
I’ve only done three gigs really – two in Denmark, one in London. But yeah, there are definitely many more places to perform here, especially soul and African-influenced music. The diversity in this city makes the demand for this type of music much bigger. It’s more popular. You realize you’re in London when you go to a sold-out Theo Parrish gig at the Barbican Centre, which has a capacity of over 1,000 people! I bet if he was playing in Copenhagen, only 100 people would show up, and half of them would be brought by their friend. There’s clearly a larger soul vibe here.
The community is bigger. I guess there are lots of people in London who prefer other types of music, but the people I meet and surround myself with were brought up with Minnie Riperton and D’Angelo. I love it! I don’t get ‘Minnie who?’ so much when talking about my favourite singer.
Are you working with anyone at the moment besides Okapii?
I’ve been working with Werkha, a lovely guy from Manchester called Tom. I can’t remember who reached out to who, but when I moved to London, we met and our vibe was great. I went to Manchester, and we’ve written a track together that will be on his debut album next year via Tru Thoughts (label).
I’ve also been working with Typesun (producer from Bristol), who’s a great spirit and musician. Music to follow!
Your sister is a soulful newcomer ANYA. Where did you both get your musical roots from?
Anya and I were separated at birth. We met again when we were 21, so our musical roots lie within our roots.
I’m so happy to have found her. I’m proud to call her my sister, even before Anja became ANYA. She sang backing vocals for our first two Okapii gigs and saved me. She is much more confident on stage than I am. I might end up being her backing vocalist, haha!
We haven’t spoken to you since you won the SSoul Music Award for Best Newcomer in 2013. Were you surprised?
Yeah! I’m always surprised when people like what Mads and I do, that people who don’t know us actually voted for us! It was a really nice feeling. Amazing! Makes you feel like ‘We must be onto something!’
When can we expect the debut Okapii album?
People release music every second. Anyone can make something if they have a computer. There’s so much fast-food-ish music out there. It’s all sounds a bit the same, and you can tell not much time or care has been put into it.
My favourite music decade is, without a doubt, the 70’s, and both Mads and I are dedicated to organic sounds. So, you know, when you are only two people and only one plays instruments, then it takes a long time. But I believe most of my favourite music took a lot of time to make. Maybe we have been a bit slow on this one, but none of us has been able to do music full time. Mads studies and I just try to pay my expensive London rent, haha. So that’s why Okapii looks more like a sloth at the moment. I’m normally quite an impatient person, but Okapii has made me very patient and hopefully, that pays off in the sound!
I’m trying to avoid answering this, haha! It’s coming! We’re hoping for summer 2015. At the moment, we’re talking to a really interesting label, so fingers crossed!
Actually, is it an EP or Album?
We were discussing this for a while. I’m personally more into the album format, and we have enough tracks now. It just appeals to me more; you can tell a whole story with it. I guess you can on an EP as well, but it’s quite a short one! My favourite albums all have a certain sound to them, like Marvin Gaye’s I Want You or Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden. Both of those albums are like a journey. All the tracks are different, but they all have the same unique sound to them. I love that!
We see the brilliant Philip Owusu is also on your album. Will he feature on several tracks? And what does he bring to Okapii?
Philip has helped us since Okapii started. He lends us his ears and helps with arrangements and mixes, but he is officially on one track. We asked him if he was up for writing some strings for us as a nothing-too-big-that-you’ll-spend-hours-and-hours-writing favour.
But I guess Mads and I should know by now that it will happen his way, and his way is 10 sheets of notes with amazing harmonies and more than one string part to play. That’s what he gave us – a string trio. We recorded it and it sounds better than we could ever have imagined. He has lifted that track! He is so so so talented. I’m grateful for his friendship, and I have the deepest respect for him.
It’s great to see all your creative illustrations on the walls. Are you practising promotional work?
I did the covers for our first two singles. I really want to do our album cover. I mean, I will do it, but it’s a bit nerve-wracking. If we ever get to put it out on vinyl, it’ll have to be great – something I’ll be proud to look at for a long time. So much pressure! All my favourite artists have put a part of themselves into their work somehow, and I think that’s why I feel their music so much. I hope I can do the same. I hope I can make people feel something.
The personal aspect is really, really important to me. From our artwork and lyrics to our music videos, it’s like you kind of get a piece of me…