Muhsinah is an acclaimed indie music-maker and an ear-bending, standout singer, so it seems almost counter-intuitive to introduce her like she’s a newcomer to everyone’s ears. But she probably is for some. After all, such is the vastness of attention-deficit musical discovery on the Internets.
This Washington, D.C. native attended two prominent music schools (Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University) before releasing her first EP, day.break, in 2007. She received a Grammy nomination for her collaboration with The Foreign Exchange for the song “Daykeeper” in 2009. She also blew her wonderful pipes on “Changes,” off of Common’s 2008 Universal Mind Control, as well as her two follow-up solo EPs.
Muhsinah’s voice is a malleable, sublime instrument, unique in the way that she occasionally bends straight-ahead R&B vocal riffs in the direction of haunting subtly Arabic scale patterns. Her laptop beat-maker’s taste for tangled-up dusty samples, beats and looped-out electronic flourishes was more avant-garde when she first arrived at the start of her career.
She briefly adopted her middle name, Safia, in 2010 to signal a desire to reinvent and distill her experimentalism a bit, and produce a sturdy, more soul-pop-friendly sound for her listeners. Now back to her original stage name, Muhsinah has found that delicate balance between artfulness and accessibility, with a new live video performance and a new EP, simply titled M, to share.
She answered a few questions about her musical journey, and graciously offered a free download of “Luv w Luv” for EBONY.Com readers. Bon appétit!
EBONY: What is the story behind this gorgeous song, “Luv w Luv”? Is this song indicative of the general sonic direction of your new project?
Muhsinah: “Luv w Luv” is based on the fact that I am a hopeless romantic at heart, always excited about the possibility of love. This song describes my feelings at the very beginning of finding someone new, as well as how I tend to fall in love with even just the idea of love itself.
“Luv w Luv” is definitely a great introduction for the sound and style of my new project. Sonically, I am making the usual lush, warm, emotionally expressive arrangements, but combining them with new electronic elements that I’ve never used before. I’m also stepping it up by writing orchestral parts and recording real musicians in my studio for the first time. It’s really exciting. I feel like Quincy Jones. [laughs]
EBONY: As an experimental musician who’s been active in music over a transitional period of time for more genre-bending expression among popular Black musicians (Frank Ocean, Jhené Aiko, FKA twigs), do you see yourself as having influenced this shift? If yes, in what way?
Muhsinah: I started in the Myspace era. That time was like school. We were free. We were creative, and the Internet gave us a new way to share, get heard, and develop ourselves. A new and exciting collaboration was only a direct message away. I didn’t know it then, but I was a part of a movement of artists that filled a void at the time.
The Roots, Erykah Badu, Common, D’Angelo, etc. helped to fill the void in their era that inspired a lot of us to step forward. Frank Ocean, Jhené Aiko and FKA Twigs are helping to fill the void now, and they’re inspiring future artists to step forward and fill another. I think it’s all really beautiful. We’re all connected. We all contribute. We all fill a void somewhere.
EBONY: How do you remain focused and positively charged up as an indie artist? It’s a difficult road for many.
Muhsinah: I take it one day at a time. I stay grounded spiritually. I do my best to remember that my story is unwritten. There is no rulebook. I am always evolving. I’m also positively charged by my fans. They keep me on my toes. They remind me what my purpose is.
EBONY: How would you describe your fan base?
Muhsinah: My fans are some of the most unique, creative, awesome people on the planet. They’re all smart and have great taste. They’re all great at something. They’re not bound by societal norms. They do what they want. They are all different ages and from different ethnic backgrounds and I love them dearly.
EBONY: Can you please describe the experience of touring with The Weeknd, which was a very pleasant surprise for those of us who are fans of both of your very compatible voices. How did you two connect? Are you collaborating on future material together?
Muhsinah: I absolutely loved touring with The Weeknd. He’s a star. I learned so much from him and how he interacts with his fans. His fans adore him, and I’m glad I could be a part of the team he put together to put on an amazing show.
I was brought in by Omar Edwards, an amazing musical director, who invited me to join the new band he was putting together. I’d met him while touring with Common years before, so it was a natural transition. Omar has such a great intuition when it comes to putting musicians together whose styles and personalities match. So the fact that our voices are compatible was not a coincidence. Omar did it.
Abel [a.k.a. The Weeknd], the band and the crew all became like family on the road. He was awesome to work with and I’d love to work with him again for sure.
EBONY: How would you describe your music in 140 characters or less to a curious person unfamiliar to your music?
Muhsinah: My music is about opposites. It’s playful. It’s emotional. It’s electric. It’s acoustic. It changes by the moment, just like me. Just like life. That should be 140 characters exactly.
EBONY: Are you touring to support the new album? If yes, where can your fans see you live in the coming month?
Muhsinah: I will definitely keep everyone posted on the shows as they’re scheduled. Muhsinah.com will post tour dates as well!
Sun Singleton is a musician/editor/journalist based in New York City whose work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Vibe, Mass Appeal, Complex.com, EBONY.com, Bronx Biannual, YOYO/SO4 and BET Digital. Feel free to connect with her on Twitter at @sunsing.