Fresh on the Scene

Lous and The Yakuza

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Some have already obtained small successes, spending years in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to shine and others have barely left their bedroom studios. Some aim for headlining festival stages, others aim for nothing in particular – but all of them have developed a sound with the potential to turn heads. With this feature, we shine a light on some of the most exciting new musical talents our tiny country has to offer.

Fast flows, sharp lyrics and a crystal clear vision; the 23-year-old Lous and The Yakuza currently finds herself at the start of a promising career. With just one single out ('Dilemme'), the Brussels-native has people around the world begging for more. And more is coming indeed. The Congo- and Rwanda-raised songwriter is dropping her debut album 'Gore' on the prestigious Columbia Records early in 2020. Last week, she won the silver medal in the brand new Fresh On the Scene category at the Red Bull Elektropedia Awards. Often seen in the studio with Rosalía’s producer El Guincho or by the side of big artists like Alicia Keys or Damso, the future for this promising talent shines bright like a diamond. We invited Lous (without her Yakuza) to our studio for one of her very first interviews ever.

You have moved around quite a bit as a teenager. How did that influence your taste in music?

I’m way more open to external influences because of it. Being raised in so many different places made me very aware of the diversity of music out there; it was always present around me. When I was young, my father always listened to classical music, while my mother was into traditional music from Congo and Rwanda. That was an excellent mix to grow up on, because I listen to so many different types of music now. I’m a Japanese folk fanatic, but I also love hardcore, metal, hip hop, R&B, and super cheesy pop – Britney Spears is my queen. My playlist makes absolutely no sense.

Did you get support from your family from an early age?

My parents were dumbfounded when I told them I didn't want to focus on my music instead of going to university. They're both doctors, so I get why they needed some reassurance that I wasn’t going to end up broke. For them, singing was “something you can do in the weekends” It was a tough situation, and I pushed through. Somehow, they helped to grow my vast ambitions. I was like, "I have to prove them wrong, so I better be a star, or I'm f*cked” (laughs). Their initial rejection forged my will to become great.

I got to be able to look back on my music in 20 years and feel proud.

How would you describe your own sound?

I would say my sound is minimalistic now. I want my music to be simple yet complicated. That’s why I pick the people I work with so carefully. I always want to work with people that are more experienced than I am, so they can teach me things and push me further. Even though it took us a lot of time and effort, me and my amazing producers – El Guincho, Ponko, and Mems – succeeded in exactly making the sound I wanted to put forward. I'm a fan of my music; that makes me happy because then I can own it. I got to be able to look back on my music in 20 years and feel proud, even though the dominant music design will have changed by then. It’s something that always evolves, but that doesn’t mean music can’t be timeless. Take 90’s R&B, for example. You can hear it's made a long time ago, but it still sounds relevant because the emotion is there. I want my album to have the same qualities. If I make tracks with love and passion, I won’t regret them in the future.

You signed on the reputable Columbia Records already. Doesn’t it feel like things are going too fast for you?

I'm always going to be comfortable with it because that's what I've always dreamed of. It's such a prestigious record label with a rich history. It's quite crazy I work with them now, because I remember I wrote them such an awkward email when I was 14 years old. "Hello, I'm a singer, and I'm amazing, so sign me". That was so stupid, but I can't believe it actually happened a couple of years later. I was dumbfounded – but more so I'm grateful for the team around me that made it happen. That's why I'll never think my career is going up too fast; they'll never let that happen. I have complete trust in them.

You have a distinct (visual and sonic) identity for a beginning artist. You know what you want. Are video’s, shoots and artwork things you want to keep control over at all times?

Yes. First of all, because I'm a control freak (laughs). But more importantly, it's because I'm going to be the one who will represent and defend the end product. That's why I want to be fully involved in each step, being close to everyone I work with: the director of the video, the music producers, the musicians, the vocalists, etc. That's the only way to create something real. A real connection therefor is crucial. That said, knowing when to let go is essential too. I will always write my own songs, but it was so hard for me to let other people produce music with me. At one point, you got to trust the producer and accept that your skills don’t allow you to deliver the best possible output. One of the first things my producer told me was to trust him, and the results are better than anything I could have done on my own.

Do you sing in your native African languages too?

I've made songs in Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili already, but it's tough to fit this into the sound I want to bring right now. These languages always remind me of where I come from because they have such a spiritual connotation. It's like speaking to my ancestors. Using it in my music can be possible, but I need to spend more time and energy on it to make it work. That said, you have to keep in mind that Congolese and Rwandan cultures are different. In the former, everybody's loud and active, while people are calm and collected in the latter. I have a little bit of both in me. I'm Rwandese when I make music – quiet and organized - but I'm Congolese when I feel music – I go absolutely crazy. You’ll hear some of those African elements in my album.

One of my best friends once told me to 'knock on people’s doors until my wrists bleed'. I kept knocking on those doors until people started to notice me.

How do you start to make a new song?

I write down my ideas in little books I have laying around everywhere. I never dissociate my lyrics with the melodies, so I'll always have an acapella first. From there, it can go into many directions. Either people send me beats to work with, or I compose something myself on the piano or guitar. Because of my roots in hip hop, I know so many producers that send me their productions. It's just a matter of picking the right one for the particular idea I had in mind.

So why did you pick El Guincho, the producer of your upcoming album? This guy is mostly known for his work for Catalan pop star Rosalía.

For about six months, we were looking for a producer who could take on the task of producing my album. We couldn't find anyone over here who could match my expectations and sound direction. I knew exactly what specific sound I wanted, but it was so far away from what was around at the time. After I heard the teaser of Rosalía’s 'Malamente’ early in 2018, the beat made me think “what the actual f*ck”. It was such a refreshing mix of flamenco and hip hop, layered with a gorgeous voice on top. I was so in love with the beat, even though the song hadn’t even come out yet. I told my label "this is the guy who's going to produce my album, we found him". We send him a sample of my music, and a week later he invited us to come to Barcelona. It was an instant match. He was supposed to do only three songs, but after those first days in the studio, we realized we should do the whole album together. I'm so grateful a big name like him wanted to do it because he has a successful career of his own and he doesn't need an unknown name like me. He just listened to the music and said yes. Him believing in me gave me so much hope. 

What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

One of my best friends once told me to “knock on people’s doors until my wrists bleed”. That’s why I did. That’s no life, no money, sacrificing everything. I kept knocking on those doors until people started to notice me. I have such strong ambitions, so that sentence always stayed in my head.

Tell us about your artist name. Do you have a connection with the actual Yakuza (the Japanese organized crime syndicate, ed.)?

Not really, but I'm in love with Japan. I love their anime, the way Japanese people act so orderly, the way they dress, etc. I've never even been there, but still, I'm obsessed with Japanese culture. Every year I think I should just go there, but then I get scared because I think my expectations may be too high. Anyways, that's one of the reasons I picked this artist name. 

I include my friends and entourage in my artist name because it serves as a shout-out to everyone who's working with me, but remains behind the scenes.

The second one is that, when I was younger, all my friends are the type of guys that society would label as “thugs”. They came from the streets, only listening to hip hop, acting tough, etc. In my opinion, being 'gangster' is a vibe. It's the way you act, the way you talk, but it's not something negative. That’s why I started calling them Yakuza. They were loyal, which is the most important code of conduct within the actual Yakuza. I too am incredibly loyal. I hate it when people do things behind your back. I want the friends I have today to be the friends I have when I die. I include my friends and entourage in my artist name because it serves as a shout-out to everyone who's working with me, but remains behind the scenes. My music is not just me; they are part of it; they give life to my ideas. People have told me to cut it out, but I refuse. It’s like Florence + The Machine or Bob Marley & The Wailers, you know?

What can we expect from the album? Which story do you want to tell?

I want to tell the truth, I want to be real, and I want people to understand the reality of a young black woman living in Europe. More so, I want to tell the story of being a woman and a human being in general. It's hard to be 'good' within all these steps of identity. You can relate to these things, even if you don't live the same life. With my music, I want to show that darkness that’s inside me and every one of us, getting people closer together. There’s nothing that makes me feel better when I’m sad than listening to a sad song, because I realize I’m not alone in this (thank God for James Blake). Don’t worry, it’s not only going to be depressive stuff on this album, there are up-tempo songs too. As long as my music can touch people’s feelings, I have succeeded in my goal.