Level Unlocked: An interview with ABRA

The cult singer-producer talks reconnecting with Playboi Carti, singing in Spanish with Bad Bunny and her forthcoming album.

ABRA’s back. Last week, the singer and producer dropped Unlock It, her first solo track since 2017, featuring a verse from fellow Awful Records alumni Playboi Carti.

It feels like a confident comeback from an artist who, in the mid-2010s, had the kind of hype that new artists dream of: a flurry of magazine profiles, international festival dates, and surging followers across social platforms. Then, things went kind of quiet.

But her loyal stans, affectionately known as the Brats”, already understand that ABRA never really went away. It might seem like a break to everyone else,” ABRA says of the four-year gap since her last solo release, but I’ve been grinding the whole time.” And there’s good news: an album is on the way.

The origins of Awful Records go as far back as 2011, but 2014 was the year the freewheeling Atlanta collective – which, at one point, counted around 17 members – broke through internationally (in part thanks to the hype around single Look at Wrist by Father, the group’s de facto leader). It’s also the year ABRA joined. Having previously dabbled in music by uploading acoustic Gucci Mane and Ludacris covers to YouTube, ABRA found her confidence in the explosive creative chemistry of Awful’s debauched recording sessions.

She quickly built her own following as the self-proclaimed Darkwave Duchess, with a distinctive sound that combines dimly-lit R&B and icy synth pop. She produced 2015’s Blq Velvet EP and the Rose album, following them up with Princess EP in 2016 via the True Panther label. ABRA’s since collaborated with Charli XCX, Hudson Mohwake and Tiga and Bad Bunny. In 2018, she even made her cinematic debut, starring alongside Hari Nef in the gun-toting satirical horror Assination Nation.

Although it didn’t take long for Awful Records to start coming loose, the project is respected by those who’ve followed independent rap and R&B since the mid-2010s. It’s also served as a launchpad for interesting careers: Tommy Genesis went on to be a fashion mag fave, later recruit Faye Webster is now a critically-acclaimed alt-country star and the crew’s close ally Zack Fox is widely acknowledged as one of the funniest people on the Internet.

Playboi Carti was an early member who was bursting with superstar charisma and soon recruited by A$AP Rocky’s crew, who took him to New York to ink a deal with their AWGE imprint. So Unlock It – which marks ABRA’s new record deal with RCA – is something of an unexpected reunion. Alongside Carti’s choppy verse, the track bears the classic ABRA signatures – a chunky bassline, a wall of soothing, multi-tracked vocal harmonies – with extra flourishes from the track’s co-producer, Boyz Noise.

Speaking from her family home somewhere in suburban Georgia, ABRA shared her memories of the Awful days, also revealing the journey she’s been on these last few years and her vision of the future.

Let’s talk about your new track. Are you happy with the response?

Yeah, I am. I thought I would have to rebuild the momentum again. But [my fans] were like take your time we’re waiting for you” and it seemed like they meant that. Even Carti’s fans were really supportive of me when we announced that it got pushed back. And then when it came out they were like so proud of you!” It’s really awesome. I feel so excited about everything.

Obviously Carti was affiliated with Awful Records back in the early days. How was it working with him on this track?

It had been a while since I’d seen him, just due to everyone’s careers branching off in their different directions. I don’t know how to say it, but it kind of seemed like an impossible thing to do. So when he agreed to do it and was so cooperative and excited about it, I felt like that loyalty was still there. I don’t think he did it for, like, the homie thing, only because he kept saying this is such a banger”, this is such a great song”. It was a real full circle moment.

Do you want to talk about the song’s lyrics?

Sure. I think everyone’s got something to give to the world. But a lot of people, especially me, struggle with making [themselves] small. I would feel like I have so much I want to offer, but I would make myself small. And I think that incongruence can make you a pretty sad or miserable person. Unlock It is the start of me just letting myself be, so the lyrics are about unlocking who you know you are. You know what you can do. You know what you want to do. We just confuse ourselves with doubt.

A lot of fans will see this as a comeback track. It feels like Unlock It is an appropriate way to say I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’m sitting on and I’m ready to go”. Is that message in there?

Yeah. I think a lot of stuff that held me up was a fear of working with other people because I might lose myself. I guess it’s like, OK, stop making decisions out of fear and unlocking the full potential’. Which means I got to do so many things and I still got to [be] myself. You don’t have to just be a bedroom producer. Like, no, I’m a talented person in my own right. And just unlocking that way of thinking enables me to unlock all this dope new music that I have. So, yeah, I would say it’s definitely I’m unlocking an era.

The energy of Awful Records was amazing, but it also seemed like it could be pretty chaotic. What kind of emotions do you feel when you look back at that era?

I look back on those days so fondly. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it seemed so meant to be. It was really inspiring because we really didn’t have [backing]. There was no adult in the room, so to speak. It was really us just thugging it out with no money, like 15 people in a room, sleeping on the floor, getting trashed. But when you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are like, we’re going to make it, we’re going to do it”, it inspires you so much, you know? That was really the battery in my back.

[At one point it was] just me and Lord Narf – we were like the only two girls at the time – I remember watching Father, Keith [Charles], Archie [Archibald Slim] and Ethereal, and they would just gasp at each other when someone would make a fire beat. I thought I’m gonna make a beat and they’re going to be like, whoa!’” It was the perfect environment for fast growth and confidence… We all got to just be as weird as we wanted to be and it gave us a place to grow into something new.

Do you still speak to many people from Awful?

It’s hard, because I live in LA and we kind of spread out around the world. But you know those friends that you have where you don’t speak all the time, but when you do, it’s like nothing ever changes? Keith and I speak pretty often. I speak to [Father] pretty often. I don’t see them often – Keith is in New York, Father is in Atlanta. I was just recently in New York to shoot the [music] video and me and Keith hung out all day. It’s like a sibling or a cousin you know, even if you don’t talk all the time, it’s all love when you link up again.

We did something so special together. Every time we see each other, at least for me, I’m shocked at how much – like, this sounds so corny – but how much love I still have in my heart for them. Like when I saw Carti again, I was like, Oh, my God. I’ve watched you from the sidelines since the last time I saw you years ago.” What we did back then was real and [so was] the bond we made.

How’s life been in LA? It seems like a good place for musicians to focus.

It’s a double-edged sword. It’s like living in Disneyworld. I remember like when I would go visit, it would be the best place ever and I’d have so much fun. You live there and it’s like, OK, now you’re in the Mickey Mouse suit and Mickey Mouse isn’t real.

Everyone’s there with the vision. Everyone’s there on a journey. Everyone’s there to grind. So, you know, it can be isolating. But it’s cool to be surrounded by a bunch of people who are also like, I’m here to work’. Like in Atlanta when I was getting to that point where I was like, no, I can’t go out’, people would take it personally. But in LA, people aren’t really trying to go out like that.

It’s like an extended business trip. It’s like the place where you go to get your shit together before you take it to the next level.

Unlock It is your first solo release since 2017. Is there a reason you’ve waited so long to release new music? Or does it not feel like a long time to you?

I mean, it might seem like a break to everyone else, but I’ve been grinding the whole time. And I’ve been engaged with everybody, because I’ve kept in contact with the people who fuck with my music – the Brats,’ as we call them. [During] the quarantine when I started doing wake and bakes, like just rolling a spliff and playing music on Live and engaging with them in that way. So it doesn’t feel like I’ve gone away and I’ve been in the studio the whole time.

Tell me about Sorry Papi, the Bad Bunny song you’re on. How did that come about?

I was doing those wake and bakes [almost] daily, so I got to know the people who were [joining]. There was this person who would just be like ABRA, ABRA, check your DMs!” I checked my DMs and [Bad Bunny’s manager] was like, Yo, [Bad Bunny] really wants you to sing the hook for this song.” So I was like, OK, bet.”

Then I went to the studio and he was like – I don’t want to misquote him, because I was really excited when this happened – but he was like, I really love your music. I’m really inspired by Rose. In fact, Rose inspired the song.” And he said, I wanted a female artist to sing the hook, but I didn’t want the same people who are just like always in rotation.” He went on a Spotify Women in Music” playlist or something, and then Pull Up came on. He went to see who the artist was and he was like, Oh my God, is the girl who made Rose!?” He asked me to sing it in Spanish, which was cool because I studied it in college.

And you shot your first movie, Assination Vacation. How did you find that experience?

It was intense. It was cool and I would do more movies in the future, but that world is so much different than music. I definitely had to take a second to get my land legs, so to speak, in the acting world. It’s a lot of like… getting paid to wait. Or doing the most for a little bit. It kind of feels like making wine, stomping on all these grapes to make a little [bottle] of wine. We did gun training. I had to swim in the pool with a mask on. All these intense crazy things and then it would just be for this [short] scene. But they all mattered. They made a big difference. Just seeing how much work goes into making a movie is just insane. I look at movies with a completely different [level of] respect now.

What’s next for you?

Well, I definitely have an album coming. All these years they’ve been like, Oh, ABRA’s retired” or you’re just teasing us”. But, like, nobody’s playing. I’m making music. There’s a lot of music coming. You know, I made those [previous] projects in very little time. So imagine this: for three, four years I’ve been away – I’ve been working this whole time. So I’m about to be relentless with it – and I don’t want to just be limited to just singing. I have a lot of range in terms of genres and I’m really excited to have the place to show it now. Just expect a lot of art, a lot of cool shit.

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