Photography: Michael Kirkham / mrkirks

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Water, nurture and new space to thrive, Orla Foster tracks the resilient journey of the singer-songwriter.

Maybe it was the Jacuzzi that was the final straw. When the man upstairs decides he needs to install a hot tub to entertain local celebrities, that’s when you know the end is nigh. For Kyami Russell, aka IAMKYAMI, it meant being forced to wrap up her last days in Liverpool huddled in a dank suburban bedroom, watching water cascade down the walls while her neighbours splashed blithely overhead.

“Why a Jacuzzi, though? So boujie for no reason,” she exhales. “It made everything so damp I had to throw away all my clothes. After four months I was like, ‘Alright, I’m out. I’m taking my shit and leaving’.”

It marked a slightly flat finish to her time in Liverpool, where she’d been since 2017. But there’s nothing like a damp bedroom to make you thirst for a fresh start, so when Kyami finally did sling her hook, she headed for Manchester instead. “I really did try to hold out as long as I could in Liverpool,” she says. What else could she have done, sit and wait for the ceiling to collapse?

Before Liverpool and Manchester, there was upstate New York, where Kyami grew up, joining her dad for local open mic nights and envisioning a musical career in the long run. But there was a limit to how far she could progress in the small city she called home, even in a household overflowing with music. As long as she stayed there, she felt, she couldn’t really grow.

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“My dad and brother always produced music when I was younger, but never taught me,” she reflects. “Because subconsciously boys just assume girls can’t produce music. I was always the singer and songwriter of the house, but never the producer. So that’s what I wanted to learn, when I was thinking of moving [to Liverpool].”

Not only that, the dubious honour of being voted ‘Most Unique’ by her classmates in high school was a pretty strong indicator that her best years lay elsewhere. “I stuck out. I always knew that I was different than everyone else. But I didn’t think I was different in a bad way, you know?”

But moving to the UK to enrol at LIPA wasn’t the homecoming she dreamed of either. There, she encountered a chorus line of wealthy classmates and tutors mistily invoking past pupils who had gone on to ghost-write mainstream hits. Her irritation at the memory is palpable: “I’m like, ‘I don’t care about the Dua Lipa song. Teach. Me. Something’.” What the experience ended up teaching her was to get the hell out of stage school.

So she left, began seeking out new horizons and turning up to shows alone. She got accepted into LIMF Academy, became involved with a ton of creative projects in the community and, for a while, things were good. “I used to love going to gigs and events by myself because, in my eyes, it’s easier to approach people – or easier for people to approach you. I attribute a lot of my success to just going out and meeting people outside of the uni bubble.”

In the months that followed, she became relentlessly prolific. She put out music and podcasts, was featured by BBC Introducing, starred in a Pepsi ad with Mo Salah and became a literal poster girl for Liverpool tourism. The EP she released towards the end of 2020, Life of Ky, is a culmination of that period, featuring autobiographical lyrics and soulful hooks about upholding self-belief against a backdrop of long retail shifts and second-guessing crushes.

A lot of the songs were really hard to write because they come from such a raw place.
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So what went wrong? Well, if anything, she felt the scene was a little too quick to champion her. No sooner had iamkyami put her name out there than she was being fêted as one of the city’s premier RnB talents.

She was uncomfortable at the accolades from blogs and promoters, when she hadn’t even decided quite how and if RnB fitted into her sound. “I was still trying to figure it out, and I couldn’t, because I had so much pressure to be this next RnB person from Liverpool. And I didn’t like it, I felt it contributed to my lack of writing and creativity. I wasn’t motivated, because I thought I needed to fit into this box that everyone was putting me into.

“There’s more to my sound than people have experienced,” she continues, “but also there are a lot of labels that go with being a queer, black and Japanese woman. It’s sad to see, but at the same time I can’t be the person to swoop in and try to save the scene. That’s not who I am or who I want to be.”

There was also the fatigue of competing with the city’s fleet of guitar bands: “I think we really need to leave these white indie lad bands behind. Just drop it! It’s so dead! In Liverpool, I’d go to venues and watch bands and be like, ‘What the hell? I could be playing here, and my band is 10 times better than whatever this is’. I would actually be fuming all the time because there’s way better acts you guys could be putting on, but you put this on instead.”

One thing that hadn’t shifted since childhood was the scepticism she met trying to prove herself as a producer. Meanwhile the prowess of her male peers went unquestioned. “I knew a lot of guys making indie music and people would always be praising them. But when I showed things I was working on, I got so much scrutiny. I thought it was because my production wasn’t good enough, but then I realised, it’s not actually about how good it is, it’s about me and who I am as a person. I feel like – not only as a woman, but as a queer woman of colour – it’s still really challenging to say to people, ‘Listen, I’m a producer’.”

Has it been any easier to make strides with this in Manchester?

“There’s just more opportunity, more willingness to collaborate. And people are starting to pick up on who I am, I’ve been booked for a couple of things and I’m having conversations with different record labels about the kind of deals I want.”

For all that, Kyami doesn’t seem like the sort of artist who relies on being part of some local ecology.

You get the feeling that if lockdown never ended, she could just sit in her room stacking up projects, surrounded by notebooks and brimming with ideas faster than she can jot them down. Doesn’t that level of productivity get exhausting?

“Every day. I’m exhausted every day. I’ve been trying to be this sort of music business shark and get my name out there and do all these different things, but you know, I would never give myself time to chill.”

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What about her social media output, is that fun or a chore? Because she makes it look pretty fun…

“My Instagram is my business card,” she clarifies. “I only care about metrics, not about being popular. I used to work full-time in make-up and they would try to force us to be content creators and post all these different looks – and on my own page as well, where I’ve got people that want to see my music, not my frickin’ make-up! So I was making all this content that I would watch back and think, ‘This doesn’t make me laugh, it doesn’t make me smile, I don’t think this is good in any way’. As soon as I stop having fun making something, that’s when I know that it’s not good.”

But on to her songwriting. I bring up her set in the chapel at Future Yard festival in 2019, which in iamkyami’s breakneck timeline, already seems a lifetime ago. In that intimate setting, she came across like an old friend, warm and funny, filling the gaps between songs with anecdotal snippets about her life and what inspired each lyric. Does she still feel comfortable sharing that level of detail with strangers?

“I think I’ve tried to take a step back from writing so personally about my own experiences,” she says. “Because at the time when I was writing like that, and really diving deep into certain aspects of my life, it was more an emotional healing thing. A lot of the songs were really hard to write because they come from such a raw place.

“When I moved to the UK, I had no idea who I was. I didn’t know what I wanted to represent, what kind of relationship I wanted to be in, what kind of friends I wanted to have. I was very confused about my sexuality and my cultural identity and all this stuff. I feel like I come across as very confident to other people, but there’s a lot of things I’m insecure about, or have anxiety about, that I kind of shoved to the side.

“I remember when I was writing Concrete Rose,” she continues, “I was living in the first uni flat I ever had, and my room was in the basement. So I was sitting on my bed and just crying loads, and I thought, ‘I don’t know how I could ever play this live because I will just cry’. I think that’s why people resonate with that song. It comes from a part of me that I needed to rectify with myself, of like, not needing to be perfect. You just have to try your hardest, and just be authentic, and be yourself. And that’s something I’ve been trying to work on this whole time.”

Concrete Rose is like a lifejacket thrown to her younger self, a tender reminder to stay strong. When Kyami was growing up, who were the artists providing that kind of reassurance for her? “To be honest, I don’t think many artists I listened to had positive messages. I liked Erykah Badu, who has a lot of self-empowerment in her music, but most of what I listened to was super sad, like Amy Winehouse and Adele. And beyond that, really terrible misogynistic rappers and pop music. So when I started writing that letter-to-self kind of song, it wasn’t inspired by anyone else, it really was just about my own healing.

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“Actually, when I came to the UK, I didn’t even want to be an artist, I wanted to be a ghost-writer because I wasn’t super-confident in what I was doing. Now, looking back at it, I just think, ‘Wow, that was dumb’. Imagine if I had never become an artist because I was stopping myself?”

Although if you happen to be a certain German supermarket chain, those ghost-writing skills might still be available for hire: “I don’t think anyone knows this about me, but I love writing jingles. Lidl don’t have a jingle but they need one.” She bursts into song. “A lot for a little! Imagine walking into stores and hearing that little jingle. I’m just saying, you know, that’s why I need a publishing deal so I can get these jingles out and get my jingle money.”

We’re about an hour into the call and it occurs to me I can stop reeling off questions like a bot and just enjoy the conversation. What, I wonder aloud, is her track record with houseplants? She scuttles off-camera and returns with a tall, zingy specimen sprinkled with little blossoms. The plant she rescued from the Jacuzzi-soaked flat hasn’t fared so well, she says; it’s been infested with mould and left for dead.

“My houseplants need some work, trust me. This one is thriving and surviving, but the other one? I need to figure that out.”

I think it will heal, I tell her. I know nothing about plants, but I don’t let that stop me. She brightens. “Yeah, we just gotta do a little transplant. Cut off one of the arms and then replant it.”

Is it too schmaltzy to round this off with some ready-made analogy about repotting plants? Maybe. But for all the upheaval of the past few years, iamkyami appears like someone who will also thrive, no matter where she decides to put down roots. A little change of scenery, a little splash of water now and then, and she’ll stand taller than ever. Just, for goodness sake, go easy on the water.

Iamkyami plays the Bido Lito! Social at Kazimier Stockroom on 30th September.

@iamkyami

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