Interview \\ The contradictory nature of Alfa Mist
Alfa Mist is an artist full of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s an introspective, solitary, stay-at-home producer type. On the other, his most recent album Antiphon marks him out as a confident explorer of new musical terrain. Most of the work Alfa has produced up until this point has been collaborations with singers, rappers and other producers, characterised by a generally electronic, beats-based feel. Antiphon marks a new era. It’s a more personal project, and the first release of his that can be distinctively associated with Jazz. When asked about these creative shifts, Alfa elaborates:
“A lot of the time, I’m adapting to other people’s sounds, or we’re both adapting to each other. With Antiphon, I kind of wanted to make something that’s truly myself and see what would happen… We recorded the music in three days, because I’d had the music written out before. I was touring with Tom Misch playing keys for him, and I just made this stuff on the road. When we got back I recorded it at a studio called Pinkbird with the musicians.”
“Everybody’s selfish, right?”. The third track from Antiphon, Errors, begins with a bold statement. It’s underscored by a sharp, stabbing riff on electronic keyboard and sparse, broken drums. The words are sampled from a conversation that Alfa recorded one night with his brothers around the family table; “I sat down with two of my brothers, set up a mic, and we just had a conversation about relationships and mental health. Because we’re all at ages where we’re just constantly working and can easily go without seeing each other… because life is just life. It’s a constant struggle whether to make time for family, or to work hard so you can support your family. It’s a weird one. I understood both sides which is why it was interesting for me.”
Extracts from this conversation are spread throughout Antiphon. It’s a way of communicating ideas that instantly take the listener by surprise. They’re not present throughout however, as tracks such as Brian are purely instrumental.
The album has received praise for its soulful blend of live jazz, samples, and hip hop beats. Alfa’s trippy keyboard harmonies are a constant feature throughout, with Maria Medvedeva on alto saxophone and Johnny Woodham on trumpet providing catchy ensemble sections and improvisations on tracks like Nucleus and Keep On. Long-time collaborator Jordan Rakei also features, adding to the soul ambience by providing layered harmonies on Potential and Errors.
The cover art for Antiphon is an eye-catching painted image of Alfa Mist against a background of faded orange, designed by Kaya Thomas-Dyke who incidentally sings and plays bass on several of the tracks. Despite his somewhat recent foray into the jazz world, London-based Alfa Mist has been active for many years as a producer, mainly within the realms of hip hop and grime. Another ongoing project of his, 2nd Exit, is a joint project with rapper Lester Duval. The pair trade verses to an accompaniment of Nujabes-style laid-back hip hop beats and groove-ridden electric keyboard. Alfa is keen to emphasize that although he ‘can rap, it’s not a career thing’. His attitude is evident that his talents multifaceted.
“I grew up around grime. It’s just what was around. I didn’t know any other music by that point, so I started off as a grime producer. Then I slipped into hip hop, got into Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek. I was looking to try and make beats like that. And then I discovered they were using samples… found out they were using other songs and putting the hip hop drums and bass on that. So I started doing that, and through that I discovered loads of other genres. Like Madlib and Dilla obviously. And then I just got stuck on Jazz, for a while.”
He’s still stuck on it. Amongst Alfa’s many influences, Aaron Parks and Lawrence Fields stand out as contemporary pianists who have inspired him, as well as Israeli jazz bassist and composer Avishai Cohen. He’s quick to point out that whilst these are ‘new school people’, he does listen ‘to old school; Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.’ Robert Glasper sticks out especially for Alfa as someone who pioneered the fusion of neo-soul and jazz, with a large portion of work featuring collaborations with a diverse range of musicians.
“I’m constantly learning, I reckon collaboration is the quickest way to learn and absorb”
This also seems be a trend within Alfa’s own music. From his work on the 2014 Epoch EP with dynamic producer and vocalist Emmavie to his 2015 Nocturne EP, which features an eclectic range of musicians, it is evident that one of Alfa’s many talents lies in meeting and working with the right people. When pressed on the subject, Alfa offers some interesting insights behind why he likes to work in this way.
“I believe heavily in collaboration with different artists—with people who can do things you can’t do. Because then, you can make a complete song. I can’t sing to save my life, so I’ll get a singer on the track that needs vocals. Like the very first time I met my friend Tom Misch, he was a producer and he asked to collaborate. I didn’t really understand what he was saying because we were both producers. I didn’t understand then that you can collaborate even if you do the same thing. It’s not about competing with each other, it’s about adding your sound to the melting pot. I’ll tell you why I do it so much, because you can always learn something from someone else. Because I’m constantly learning, I reckon collaboration is the quickest way to learn and absorb.”
A stand-out feature of Alfa’s personality is his humility. He sees himself as a student rather than a teacher. In fact, he’s recently self-taught keyboard player.
“When I got to college, that’s when I was looking around. Listening to Jazz a lot more, and then I decided I need to learn the piano. You know, the stuff I’m listening to, I can’t understand it all properly. So I decided to teach myself piano. I don’t see myself as a Jazz pianist, or anything like that. Because I’m not there yet, or anything close. I’ve taught myself what I do know now… Where I live, I wasn’t really connected to any music scheme in my area. I was pretty isolated. I reckon there are so many sick players that aren’t really connected to everyone else.”
Alfa Mist grew accustomed to being a totally self-dependent producer, although he’s enjoyed adapting to working with live musicians: “It’s about having other people’s styles that improves the music. It’s different perspectives. I give the exact same music to these musicians, but they obviously play it the way they play. I reckon that’s definitely better. It’s all about what’s good for the music. It means I have to learn how to talk to people. I can’t be one of those guys who can just get by. For now, this is the way I like recording. The next one will be similar.”
Judging by his past releases, there’s no way of knowing for certain what the next move from Alfa Mist will be. But whether it be grime beats or hypnotic Jazz grooves, we’ll be listening closely.
JS | Gail Tasker