As well as being one of Britain’s most exciting new R&B voices, for the past few years, 22-year-old Kali Claire has been an avid production enthusiast.
Just over a year ago, the Audio Engineering Society revealed a somewhat alarming statistic concerning the gender gap within the recording industry. Women, global research showed, only accounted for 5% of all audio engineers and producers currently working in the industry.
For Claire, that statistic didn’t come as any great surprise. Spending every available minute learning her trade in professional recording studios, or at home hunched over her laptop mastering the ways of Logic Pro, she’s someone who proudly obsesses over those finer – and sometimes overlooked – sonic intricacies.
And yet, during those studio apprenticeship years, she routinely felt like the lone female voice.
“When I first started out, it was hard finding the confidence in a studio environment, especially as you’re completely surrounded by men,” she explains from her East London home. “Men are the producers, the engineers, the mixers, the owners. I’m quite a shy person so it took me a long time to get to where I am now, where I’m more assertive and can say what I mean when I’m in the studio. That’s the reality of it: it’s a very male-dominated world. So if I can add to that small percentage of women involved in engineering or mixing, I want to contribute. It would be nice, occasionally, to look around in a studio and see more female representation. It’s something I’m really passionate about. It all comes down to accessibility, and making women more aware that these roles are available to them.”
Kali Claire, it’s safe to say, is someone you underestimate at your peril. When she first emerged two years ago, the 22-year-old could have been easily filed away as another budding starlet from British music’s inexorable R&B diva production line. On closer inspection, however, she has revealed herself to be an artist of many wonderful facets.
Over a string of acclaimed EPs and singles, her songwriting, which is far from cookie-cutter, has pin-balled seamlessly between R&B, futurist pop and soulful, cinematic balladry. A fervent collaborator, she’s worked with everyone from Not3s to Unknown T to Alicia Keys. Whether she’s addressing the aspirations of London’s working class communities or kicking back against chauvinist attitudes within the music industry, Claire’s resistance to glass ceilings is what firmly sets her apart.
Reflecting on her early experiences as a young woman in the industry, on being routinely undermined for her gender, Claire responded with a gutsy, pugnacious statement of empowerment and self-worth on her recent single “Disrespekt”. Patriarchy-smashing has never sounded so dancefloor-attuned, nor so edifying.
“’Disrespekt’ was kind of my letter to the music industry,” she says defiantly. “I’ve been in certain rooms where I’ve been made to feel like a lesser person. That my opinions don’t matter, I don’t know what I’m doing, that I can’t even operate a computer. All because I’m a woman. ‘Disrespekt’ is probably my favourite release so far because of what it means. It’s me expressing my power.”
Born in South London, Camberwell, but raised in the east of the capital, Hackney, Claire’s powers of expression were nurtured from an early age. Encouraged by her single-parent mother, Claire’s passion for music was both voracious and wide-ranging: an introduction to Bob Marley (“I got one of his albums for my fourth birthday”) was followed by a nineties hip-hop phase, then a deep, enduring love affair with Beyonce and Destiny’s Child.
Beyond her immediate family, Claire’s east London community was equally as important in her artistic appreciation. She talks with immense pride about the “opportunities, if you’re young, to create and express yourself” in her native Hackney. For the teenage Kali Claire, those opportunities arrived at the Hackney Empire and Twist Music Theatre, with whom she became a regular participant in their artists’ development programmes. Tasked with writing, developing and eventually performing original pieces on the Hackney Empire stage, Claire was instantly bitten by the writing bug.
“I feel like that was my introduction to writing,” she enthuses. “The idea that you can create something, entirely from scratch, then perform it to an audience. There’s just something magical about making something that didn’t exist before. I love that feeling of starting a day, opening my laptop, opening Logic, and there’s a blank cloud. But, by the end of the day, I’m leaving the studio with a song I can send to my friends, to other producers. That love for creating something out of nothing, that definitely started from those youth theatre workshops. Just feeling inspired and letting your imagination run free.”
She may have allowed her imagination to run free, but Kali Claire has never once forgotten the finer details. Determined to oversee every aspect of her music, from production and mixing to business affairs and visuals, she spent several years laying down sturdy foundations before entering the spotlight. Alongside studying at the BRIT school, she worked two part-time jobs in order to finance time learning in professional recording studios. By 2018, when her talents had earned her a publishing deal with Tinie Tempah’s Imhotep creative agency, Claire was – even though she’d yet to release a debut single – already industry battle-hardened.
“The reality, if you’re an artist, is that life isn’t about fun and games and parties all the time,” she considers. “It’s a business and you need to learn about the business. If you want to be a complete artist, something who wants to be around long-term, I think it’s your duty to educate yourself about the business. Things like songwriting royalties, registering with PRS, insurance for playing live, having the right legal representation. I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak but I always like to know what’s going on. If I’m signing a contract and my signature is on there, I like to know what’s going on. I want to know all the terms and conditions. It’s a hard balance, trying to be an artist and understanding the business.”
Claire may, on the surface, seem like the finished article, but that clearly isn’t the case. Indeed, in musical terms, she’s someone who makes no illusions about the fact that she’s on a steep learning curve – and she’s proud to showcase it. Whilst her early releases, especially 2019’s aptly-titled debut EP, Symptoms of a Teen, showcased her ingenue qualities, her more recent material oozes maturity and feminist power. And, as you’d expect from such a production aficionado, her music has grown more expansive and richer, absorbing everything from dancehall to Afroswing to laid-back acoustica.
“For a long time, I just didn’t feel like I was ready to release music,” she admits. “I was always like, ‘It’s not ready, now’s not the time. Eventually I had to ask myself, ‘When is the time? When will I be ready? What am I really waiting for?’. I realised just how important it was to follow an artist’s journey. As humans we grow; it’s important, as an artist, to show that growth. As a music fan, I love to see my favourite artists change: to see how they develop, how their sound and image changes, the people they end up working with. They morph into something else, something beautiful, like a butterfly.”
Part of that growth process, of course, has been Claire’s desire to collaborate with and learn from others. From those early days participating with Hackney Empire youth workshops, she’s firmly understood the value of artistic alliance. Over the past few years, she’s provided backing vocals on Not3s’ 2017 hit “My Lover” (the Hackney rapper repaid the favour by appearing on Claire’s “So Sweet”), popped up on drill juggernaut Unknown T’s Rise Above Hate LP, and she’s co-written a track, “Wasted Energy”, for Alicia Keys’ most recent album Alicia.
The latter project clearly brings her the most pride. Co-written with South London producer P2J, “Wasted Energy” was first conceived for a Rihanna songwriting camp in 2018 and sent out to various artists. A few weeks later, having forgotten about the track, Claire was informed that one of her idols, a certain Alicia Keys, would be recording it for her next record.
“She DM’d me and followed me back on Instagram,” she recalls enthusiastically. “She told me to keep doing what I’m doing and, if I’m ever in LA, I should go and see her in her studio. I was just screaming! Alicia Keys at The O2 was the first big concert I’d ever been to with my mum. It felt like a full circle moment. The day her album came out, I got home from the studio and went straight to the kitchen and saw my mum. We have an Alexa in the kitchen, so I said: ‘Alexa, play ‘Wasted Energy’’. We just jumped up and down and cried. I’ll never forget that.”
That sense of wide-eyed wonderment, underpinned by a steely pragmatism, will surely stand her in good stead in the years to come. Whilst Claire admits that the past two years have left her feeling “a bit more pessimistic” – a consequence of the pandemic and her myriad difficulties navigating the music industry – she’s also never been more sure of her mission statement. What’s that sound, you say? Just the shattering noise that comes from this wondrous R&B voice smashing a few more glass ceilings.
She declares: “After everything that’s happened in the last year or so, you realise the power that music has. People can’t wait to see live music, to be inspired, to connect with one another. And when the time comes, I want to put on the best show I can. I’ll give it my all.”