Viola Karuri is a singer, songwriter, producer, music engineer, environmentalist and mother of two who loves to travel, and read. Nine years into her return from the US, she unpacks her experience in the music industry with Cynthia Mukanzi
As a musician who understands the creative process from the get-go, what roles does a producer and music engineer play?
A music engineer is the person who turns the knobs; when you are in a studio making music, they hit record, put a mic on for you and everything else you need for that session.
When you are doing live music, an engineer does the mixing and will mic everything to make sure it’s all going to the mixing board. So if you have a mixer, the person in the booth is the artiste.
Then there’s a beat-maker who people confuse with the producer. The producer is the vision bearer of the song. They will hear the song out and translate what the artiste is thinking to a finished product. The producer is not necessarily a beat-maker.
Do you therefore do all the above as a producer and music engineer?
Yes, I do. I studied music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Right now, I’m concentrating on the frontal scene, which is, me as an artiste.
I believe as I’m working and experimenting, I want to make sure that my music is commercially viable. At Berklee, they tell you that their goal is not to make superstars, but musicians who earn a living doing music.
As I’m trying to cross over to the commercial side, it would be unwise to invest my time and energy on trying to build other people up before I figure out what works for me. I can’t properly direct others if I don’t know understand my niche.
So you are currently not getting into production for other musicians?
Not at the moment. However, I still write music for other people. It’s a fantastic income stream.
In 2005, after graduating Berklee, you moved to New York to pursue music. Was it successful?
I was an engineer and producer in a couple of studios. I didn’t realise being a female engineer is a unique thing. There aren’t many. It’s a good market that gave me a lot of exposure. I also did sound engineering for film and learned a lot in the process. I worked in the Big Apple for a while also played with a band before going solo. In 2008, I got my band, Blue Number Nine, together and went to the studio to record music I’d written. I released an album dubbed Everything.
Talk to us about Blue Number Nine.
It comprised a few people from Berklee. When I joined, the band was in search of more singers, so that we could do rotations. We’d rotate between singing and back-up. It was so much fun. We used to tour a lot with our van. In the summer we would go to festivals and have a good time performing.
What did you take away from that period?
I learned how to run a band. I wasn’t the one running it so I would sit back and take in as much as I could. You learn a lot by observing the rules of engagement. It taught me how to deal with people. I learned how to perform music in a different way. I would not have managed to work with bands had it not been for that experience.
Now, let’s talk about how your debut album, Everything, faired on its first release in NYC.
The diaspora market received it well. Locally, it also got attention. I learnt Kenya was not a CD or album market. There were a lot of platforms for selling music albums abroad, but here, we are a singles market. This is how I’m tackling my second album. I’m releasing a series of singles and then will compile them and out them as an album.
Most Kenyan artistes who chase music careers abroad sometimes find it hard to crack into the local music scene. Could it be because people were not familiar with your music?
I think it’s hard to appeal to the local music scene when you are based elsewhere. It’s different producing music from another place. You have to be immersed into the culture and day-to-day happenings to see what is going on, especially as a songwriter. When you are producing music when you are away, you’re writing out of idea.
I was making music based on what my thought-process of what music in Kenya sounded like or what people were singing about. At that time, the Internet was not full of Kenyan music — we had to wait for mixtapes from here. It was a different time, and so is my music now.
So should we presume that your singles Milele, YOLO and Azizi are beats in the grand scheme of your sophomore album?
Yes, they are. I’m toiling towards a body of work and I will be releasing a lot of music this year. My second album will be out by the end of the year or early next year.
Your music journey has seen you share a stage with Lala Hathaway. How did that happen?
It was on my commencement concert when I was graduating Berklee. Every year, before you graduate there is a big a concert and you each have a role to play. She was performing at the concert and I did bac- up for her. It was amazing.
She is easy and fun. It’s a professional environment and I think we need to understand that. Sometimes people think that you have to be friends, but when you are there to do the job, be professional and move on.
When I moved to New York, I also met the South African star, Jonathan Butler, in a restaurant and we jammed.
Just like that?
Yeah. My friends and I were having a girls’ night when we noticed Butler and a friend sitting at the next table. Of course, we whispered about it in excitement, but went on with our business.
We were speaking in Kiswahili and I think he overheard us, and asked if we were from Africa. We started talking and it came out that I’m a singer. We went to the Piano and jammed for hours.
Coincidentally, at one time, Sierra Jazz invited me to perform at their concert and it turned out that Jonathan Butler was headlining that same gig. We caught up afterwards and it was amazing.
Nine years later after your homecoming, how would you sum up your experience thus far?
It’s been an interesting journey. People look at the entertainment industry as a glamorous affair, but it’s actually the hardest place to work in. Being a woman, you have to work five times harder.
You are judged on what you wear or look like. It has you constantly questioning yourself and can play on your confidence. Kenyans are importers of music; we like things that are already validated, rarely try out the new. We also play names rather than content.
It’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of great content out there. If we give ourselves opportunity to shine, we’ll grow the entertainment industry to an exponential level.