There Were Flowers Involved: Kindness's Adam Bainbridge on Presence

Portrait of Kindness, a.k.a. Adam Bainbridge by Phoebe Collings-James.
Portrait of Kindness, a.k.a. Adam Bainbridge by Phoebe Collings-James.

Cry Everything,” the first single off Kindness’s new album, Something Like A War—their first since 2014’s Otherness—features Robyn, their longtime collaborator and friend, and, dreamily, a repeated sample from Todd Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care,” from the latter’s 1985 album, A Capella. The project was a marked shift for Rundgren, who’d by then grown tired of touring his own mid-70s pop hits; he wanted to experiment. For A Capella, he recorded tracks featuring only the human voice, using an E-Mu emulator to harmonize with itself, its rises, falls, organic warbles. “Pretending to Care” is a kind of polyphonic wail; it’s also a concession to the unknowable depths of his partner’s love, which, he concludes, is probably no longer there.

If “Pretending to Care” is about the murky hiddenness of feelings, “Cry Everything” is about their cathartic release: “Won’t try to hide it, I’m gonna be myself this time/ Not gonna fight it, I let it all come pouring down.” Here, Rundgren’s cry becomes a hymn—two songs communicating with each other on one plane, like a parabola. The Peterborough, UK-born Kindness (a.k.a. Adam Bainbridge) finds slippery spaces in the tracks they sample—places where the song takes a breath—and exhales them, spreading them into a lush field. There’s a palpable patience even in songs like “Cry Everything,” which is both a summer bop and an ode to bops of decades past. Bainbridge, a singer, DJ and Grammy-winning producer, often infuses their singles with reverence for disco, funk or the smooth-voiced R&B of the 90s (sometimes post-punk, too).

You’re familiar with Bainbridge, if not their own extensive oeuvre: they’ve produced or co-produced songs for the aforementioned Robyn, Solange and Blood Orange, for whom they’ve also directed videos; they’ve collaborated with all of these musicians and more. Something Like A War, which is released September 6, features Sampha, Jazmine Sullivan, Cosima, Nadia Nair and Bahamadia. By industry standards, Bainbridge waits a long time to release albums; by the same barometer, they’re slow burns. Again: an exhale.

When I spoke to Bainbridge on the phone, I heard car horns, a cat meowing and—inexplicably—birds (it was evening in London, where they live). They reflected on the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the pause between collaboration and solitude, the troubling idealization of a mixed-race future (Bainbridge is the child of an Indian mother and an English father). I’d sent my questions beforehand and, with poetic cadence, they gave me far more time than planned.

I was writing my questions for you right after Boris Johnson’s election, thinking about the changes that have happened in the five years since your last record. How are you feeling about all this?

I was recently talking about musicians being political with some artist friends. I think this applies to any artist or writer, but more specifically to people who do something pop-cultural, where it’s almost considered taboo to be hyper-politicized—this “stay in your lane” thing. Remember when someone told John Legend to stay in his lane? Someone wrote a useful rebuttal: Letting politicians deal with politics has been a complete disaster. It negates that idea that we should leave politics up to politicians, and puts the responsibility back on anyone interacting with society and culture to have an opinion, and to be somewhat clear about what that opinion is.

If another thing that’s made musicians reluctant to express opinions in the past was potential clumsiness—a lack of nuance or historical context for what they wanted to say—well, Boris Johnson’s saying “the problem isn’t that the British once ruled Africa, the problem is that they left,” quoting Rudyard Kipling in Burma and doing all kinds of bonkers, bat-shit offensive stuff, and yet he’s apparently qualified to be the leader of the United Kingdom. At this point, I think we have to consider nuance completely thrown out the window. If you have something to say, no matter how inelegantly you want to put it, you may as well. Otherwise, you leave a pop-culture space where white men, especially—those with the most loud and obnoxious voices—are filling the airwaves.

In the five years since my last record, I couldn’t help but feel the top-tier absurdity and noisiness was filled by people like Trump, Boris Johnson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg. Someone was talking about the tech conference at Davos, where the whole tech industry gets together and tries to talk about environmental issues. How does being lucky at being rich qualify you to talk about anything?

Portrait by Michele Yong.

I know people who use the term “political” to describe the reaction to cruelty, as if it were a personality trait. These are systematic problems, and they’re just more visible now.

This dissonance and tension is just maybe more visible to more people than it’s ever been. That sort of systematic injustice and prejudice was palpable for so many people, for so long. Now it just happens that we have the language for it, and caricatures that are the embodiment of racism and cruelty. But before that, they existed in more insipid forms. Probably an even more insipid cruelty was Tony Blair’s, as well. That was apparently the beginning of a golden era in liberal British culture; all it ushered in was violence and a campaign of savagery against the Global South in the name of social progress. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a golden era. It’s very clear that things are just more visible now than perhaps they were before.

I wanted to ask you, as a white-passing mixed person myself, about occupying this strange in-between space, which can be difficult. You see a lot of people’s insidious racism when you’re in this space, too.

I would say the seeing for me has usually not been from directly experiencing it; it’s just that people have felt more comfortable to express their latent racism around me. Which is not to say I haven’t experienced racist behavior or aggression. There has been something quite disturbing about always being this ambiguous person in the room, but also clearly not white in some ways.

I thought about that in-betweenness, and it’s not something I could find much of a positive perspective on, to be honest. I very bluntly spoke about this recently and said, “I wouldn’t wish mixedness on anyone.” That came from the perspective that it’s not some idealized endpoint. We don’t create utopia by mixing cultures blindly, with no thought as to what’s happening when that happens. There’s so much inter-community tension based on scales of colorism and hierarchy.

At the same time, I love to be who I am, and have no intention of trying to change any part of what has made me who I am. It just takes a certain amount of responsibility to keep your eyes open as to the privilege it gives you, and the solidarity that it requires. If I’m now the lightest-skinned person of color in a certain space, I have a responsibility toward that community to step up when necessary. It’s an honor and a privilege to be in spaces with people of color; you can’t just take up space unnecessarily.

I appreciate that you said that—that you wouldn’t wish mixedness on anyone.

It sounds extreme, but I’d rather counteract this naivety about what it is to have mixed-race kids. We’ve been here forever, but it’s not something to idealize unnecessarily. People will get into relationships with people of other cultures and other ethnicities, and that’s great! It just shouldn’t be done blindly with no appreciation for what that means, or for each individual’s cultural heritage.

We can move to lighter stuff now. Regarding the latest single from Something Like a War, “Hard to Believe”: How did you connect with Jazmine Sullivan and with Sampha? I met Sampha at a party before recording with Solange. We did ten days in New Orleans together recording the Solange album, then a week in Ghana; I interviewed him for my radio show when I had it in New York. Sampha is just this incredible and sort of unknowable human being I really enjoy working with. It’s like being around one of the most distinctive voices of a generation, yet he’s so unassuming. Someone mentioned hearing his voice on Beyoncé’s “Mine”—he just comes in for a few seconds, but you know it’s Sampha. He has that unmistakable voice, which is amazing.

Jazmine is also this somewhat iconic artist for our generation, who’s unreachable in a different way. When I first wrote this song, I instantly thought of her and thought it would be impossible to have her sing on it, but that it was worth committing a serious amount of time and energy to. I don’t think you would actually believe the email correspondence. There’s a chain with about 600 messages—not even with Jazmine, just with her management, gently checking in. I’ve always been in the same space as my collaborators for our collaborations—this was a one-off. Jazmine is uncomfortable recording with new people, so she did it on her own in Philadelphia. But I made sure to send flowers. There were flowers involved.

Portrait by Michele Yong.

Like: “My presence is here.” It’s been interesting knowing that you can make such a wild, undreamable collaboration happen through perseverance. It’s a challenge to stay focused and persevere that long, but I would probably say to other musicians, “If you really have your mind set on working with someone, and your song is good enough, just send 600 emails. Maybe something will happen.”

I’ve spoken about the absurdity of collaboration in music. It’s probably the only art form where two people who are not at all on the same level of career success or profile can make these songs together. There isn’t another field where that happens. A 16 year old coming out of high school who wrote a great essay doesn’t collaborate on a book with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The best chef in the world isn’t working with the most talented winner on Top Chef Junior. But seemingly, in music, if you’re a producer with an idea and you’ve managed to find the contact details for this artist who’s in a completely different league—these collaborations can still happen.

How do you balance these collaborations with a natural need for solitude? How do you tend to it?

Working with people requires editing afterwards, and I think that’s the moment for introspection and time on your own. There’s plenty of time for introspection and solo work, as it were. But there’s something quite inward-looking about a record released under an artist’s name. Even if there are other voices and instruments, I would still assert that this is a vision I had for an album, and that I hope doesn’t sound like anyone else and that it isn’t unclear whose intention it was: I made this, I wanted it to sound this way.

There have probably been times where collaborators even disagreed about the direction things were taking, but I wanted them to trust that it would make sense. I’ve had that experience, too. Working with Solange, I had no real idea what shape the thing we were working on was. Likewise, with this record, at times, my collaborators might’ve said, “It’s what now? What?” Philippe Zdar, who was the mixer and tied everything together at the end—sometimes he’d say, “I don’t know if you need this. Keep it for the next album.” I kind of asserted myself in that I had a vision in mind, and I wanted it to unfold in a certain way, even if it ended up being quite long. I apologize to those with short attention spans.

There are thirteen tracks; that’s not exceptionally long. It’s around 47 minutes, so it’s relatively long by contemporary standards because—unless you’re gaming the streaming system—most people don’t feel the need to do album projects that are that long. The music industry sort of dictates you should be releasing an album every two years. You’re giving away a lot by throwing it all on one record. But, luckily, I long ago decided to ignore those rules about the two-year touring cycle, so it’s getting longer and longer with each album.

You’re approaching it from a ’90s perspective.

I think, actually, from a whimsically obstructive perspective, where I realize each album has taken exactly double the length of the last one.

I wanted to know if you ever keep anyone in mind as you work. Do you ever share your work with anyone as it’s unfolding—someone you’re not collaborating with? In the home studio environment I had towards the end of the record, there were lots of thematic ideas or lyrical works in progress, or thematic quotes from other artists and writers, on the wall. I’d collected phrases and ideas jotted down in notebooks and phones over the past four years, and I was able to look for either the phrase or thematic idea for each song as it was nearing completion. Everything was there on the surface when friends or collaborators came to visit.

With friends who don’t actively make music, I would play them songs as they were almost finished, and see what was working, what made them excited, what was confusing. One thing that my music process maybe doesn’t have so much in common with writing—I feel like writing is quite a vulnerable, fragile art form—I would be showing people things at a point where their suggestions may still have made a major impact, but also where I was significantly confident in the progress of the song already. I don’t know if there’s that in-between point with writing. With music, you can know that you’re fully on the right path and that almost any suggestion could not possibly derail the song, and yet many of the suggestions would enhance it.

Portrait by Michele Yong.

I’m probably a bad gauge of that; I’m very insecure and respond quickly to any commentary. But even with that, I think you’re right. Music is different in that way.

Music is an interesting one, because it’s really unquantifiable. Even after all this time, I can’t think of any other explanation other than instinct. For me, I just know when something is working or when it’s not. Or else I don’t know where this sense of confidence comes from. Sometimes it would be more troubling not to have that confidence, and yet to still believe that you had something to say. In my case, I’m like, I do have something to say, and I’m going to use the confidence I have to make that as soon as possible. It’s a win-win situation, which would be much harder if I constantly second-guessed myself.

I’m always curious about what artists were like as kids; I’m interested in the world-building all children do, to a certain extent. You live inside the influences around you. I’m curious about the kind of music you lived in, if it helped you create connections with the people around you.

I think in my life, and possibly related to my mom’s Indian heritage, there was sort of a gendered thing about music, where it was understood that my dad would be somewhat hyper-vocal and take up space: he had been a DJ, now he was a music fan. I’ve always appreciated that, and it’s a wonderful thing that I shared with my father, but I also see it replicated in other households. I’m deeply curious about what my mother thought, and why did she stop having an opinion? In her 20s, she was spending all of her money on records—South African jazz, to keep a link to the country she’d had to leave; she was Indian but born in South Africa.

It was an interesting experience that has probably been shaped more by my dad imposing himself on that formative space—but still, in a super-welcome way. He would drive me to my friend’s house with my turntables and my record box so that I could—DJ at my friend’s house? Like, what for? Why would you do that? It wasn’t that we were even having a house party; I just wanted to have an audience. It was extremely nourishing, really supportive and very touching. As much as my parents thought I was spending too much money on records and probably spending too long on the computer, there was something encouraging about it. I think of it quite fondly.

Even aunts and uncles and cousins were extremely supportive at the time. I’ve been looking for this one mixtape—a mix made with two turntables and a mixer, a fully mixed cassette. I gave it to my sister to take on holiday. And what’s so sweet is that even my auntie, who was maybe in her 50s at the time, came back and was like, “What was this mix!? Oh my god, this track!” They were talking about house music and hip-hop instrumentals, and I’m just thinking: “That’s a funny thing you can do with music.” I never thought I could make that connection with the grumpy auntie through a house record, but—there you go. That was maybe something I took with me from the adolescent period, where I realized even with those people in your life, with whom it’s almost impossible to communicate, there’s maybe one thing you can use to have a conversation.

That’s amazing.

I desperately want to find that cassette. Either on a technical or musical level, it might be horrible. But I remember their reaction at the time—trying to visualize my aunt, my uncle, and three kids in the back of this car, on some European driving holiday, playing this badly DJed mix of house records in their car, which I thought was an incredible image.

What if it’s great? Imagine you listen to it and think, “Wow! This is my finest work!” If it’s great, then it’ll go on SoundCloud within the week. And if it’s bad, it’ll be banished to the vault, never to be revealed.

Kindness’s third full-length album, Something Like A War, is released September 6, 2019.