From Atlanta to beyond, Berhana wants to take you away
The R&B newcomer, who just dropped his aviation-themed debut, wants to take you on a journey. For the past three years, he’s been on a whirlwind one of his own.
Header photo and in-article photo by Harry Israelson.
“I'm always in the mix. My hand is always in the Kool-Aid, all up in there.”
Mired in his half-formed laugh lies a sense of true enthusiasm, one as natural as it is irrepressible. On the one hand, it makes sense: Amain Berhane is a creative through and through, an artist free from form or medium. On the other, it's a testament to his drive: having just released his debut album, the silky-smooth R&B vocalist retains his vigour, not just in words but in intangible spirit.
Indeed, HAN – think Han Solo – has been a long time coming, the idea of having been clamoured for since the artist revealed his musical talents back in 2016. “It feels like a big weight has been lifted,” he says of the LP. “I've been working on this for quite some time, so I'm excited for it to exist in the world.” If the three-year gap seems like a long time, it’s nothing compared to the wait that Berhane himself has endured. Though he grew up in Atlanta, beholden to his Ethiopian parents’ record collection and his sisters VHS recording of Moonwalker – “I could watch it all the time with the commercials and all that shit, I would watch it so many times a week!” – it wasn’t until Berhane moved to New York City to study screenwriting that he began to seriously consider a music career.
“When I was first starting on this thing, it was comedy,” he says of his writing, “and then it slowly started to change into having a little more of a serious tone.” It’s a brief befitting the man behind Janet, a mournful breakup song that uses a notorious moment of pop culture controversy to illustrate romantic betrayal and lingering doubt. If it’s not exactly comedic, there’s a certain juxtaposition at play, one which sets his fear of romantic erasure against a nostalgic injustice. That debut single, which bounced across the internet in a moment of virality, was boosted by recognition from Janet Hubert herself, the original Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Affording the cinematically-indebted track a music video proved relatively simple: film school had acquainted Berhane – then recording under Berhana, a phonetic rendering of his family name – with videographers Sam Guest and Julia Bayliss, the formidable duo who’ve since been responsible for each of his distinctive visuals. “I'm lucky enough to have known Sam, and like kind of know his eye, well before I put out any music… so knowing that was like, it was easy. When I had Janet like ready to go, I was like, ‘I want to do this with you. I think it could be really special.’” That first video – a freewheeling ride through suburbia, replete with charming shades and striking shots – feels as inherent to Berhana as the music itself, another element of his game instead of a visual extension of his music.
“I feel like the music and the visuals, they all go together and they all hold the same weight to me… as a kid growing up, I always cared about what was going on visually when it came to music and just like, whatever it was, I really was drawn towards visuals. I try my best to have them both be of the same calibre.” The result is an approach that’s more comprehensive than most: “I think we've definitely influenced each other,” he muses, noting that it’s “easy to work with them, it's easy to tell them my ideas, to go back and forth on treatments.” The crafting of visuals, then, is yet another part of the creative process, engaged in a push-and-pull with Berhana’s songwriting sensibilities. It makes sense, given his multipotentialite background, that he’d immerse himself in the oft-outsourced video process.
Striking a delicate balance between music and work, Berhana remained a moonlighting persona, playing second string to Berhane himself. The balance showed signs of shifting when, whilst interning on The Colbert Report, Berhane was sent on a wig run with not enough petty cash. Walking back from a Chelsea wig shop to the Hell’s Kitchen studio, he ran over the previous nights session in his mind, writing a hook on the fly. It would become Grey Luh, another single included on his self-titled 2016 EP.
Already shaped by one of America’s great late-night shows, Grey Luh found a place in a program much closer to home: Donald Glover’s exceptional Atlanta. “It was weird, like Grey Luh came out like so long ago, and then people started listening to it in 2017 and started like picking up, and then Atlanta came up, which helped with that snowball effect.” By mid-2018, Berhana had accrued a solid fanbase eager for his first full-length project, but he wasn’t one to rush.
“I really enjoy putting albums together,” he reflects, looking back on the long road to his debut. “I think that's what I really like, investing over this long period of time and creating something that really fits together as opposed to just putting out songs.” Indeed, the sense of thematic cohesion that runs throughout HAN is a testament to Berhana’s overarching vision. The skits throughout, which pull tropes from the golden age of aviation, may be more familiar to listeners as a homage in their own right: even a film like Catch Me If You Can is antiquated for his younger fanbase, and the visions of Pan Am luxury are all but foreign to those accustomed to contemporary, cattle-class jet-setting. Those stylistic segues are themselves rooted in Berhana’s journey, originating from the close of his self-titled EP. “The very last line, the last line on [Grey Luh], I say "I copped this one way out to Mexico / Cause you compress my soul and call it love," and basically, from that point, I knew I wanted to implement that theme.”
He foregoes the scant luxury of modern air travel by directing his soft-spoken air hostess announcements towards the music itself, quipping that “once the album is in progress, we ask that you fasten your headphones,” announcing that the record has “now reached an altitude of 101 beats per minute,” and even suggesting that the “smoke friendly flight” expects the “tampering with, disabling or destroying of any nearby smoke detectors.” It’s a device that draws your attention to the lush breathing room of the record, one that – with the notable exception of G2g – slips from one track to the next, easygoing and fluid. These moments of compositional ingenuity are rooted in another of Berhana’s deliberate collaborations.
“I really wanted to work with Pomo, that's how I met him! I did everything in my power to get one session with him, and from that one session I finessed like three more, and then from those three I finessed an album,” he explains, the sheer scope of the happenstance surprising even him. It’s not hard to see how the Montreal-based producer, a familiar name for fans of Mac Miller and Anderson .Paak, fell in with Berhana on a creative level: “it worked out because we have these similar tastes, we like similar things and he's just like the most fun guy.” Their professional rapport explains Pomo’s constant presence, though only partially. “The thing I really appreciate about Pomo is, there's like a Venn diagram of like hard work and talent. He's like that right in the middle. Perhaps most importantly, however, the pair “became super close friends.”
Friendship, it turns out, was key to the record’s only other guest appearance. “Um, it's funny,” starts Berhana, “I went to Korea last summer for a festival and while I was out there, Crush had his album release party and asked me to come and do a couple of songs.” The 26-year-old R&B vocalist, mired in the same hip-hop dominated landscape as Berhana, already seemed an inspired collaborator. “I went, it was great, but then we ended up vibing. We were like, yeah, let's work! I like that it's not something people would expect,” he says of the unconventional international feature, formerly the purview of forward-thinking pop stars and crossover hopefuls. “To be honest, the whole time I wanted the album to have no features, but then I was like, ‘oh no, I want to try something for this part of the song that I have.’”
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray, something that Berhana knows all too well. The roundabout route to HAN isn’t as much an unintended consequence as an element of creation itself; a condition that shaped his vision in unexpected ways. He’s spent this time honing his creative skills, deepening the creative bonds that underwrite his work and furthering his own artistic perspective. “When you have someone that you can trust a hundred percent, life is so much better,” he tells me, reflecting on his collaborators. The team that Berhana’s assembled – one that perfectly complements his considerable songwriting talents – doesn’t take away from his own talents, instead an endorsement of his easygoing nature, his collaborative trust and his ability to adapt.
Elsewhere, Berhana was fostering his knowledge of cultural history, an awareness built upon a humbling appreciation. “I think when I was younger I had like an idea of like, ‘oh yeah, I like this, I like this, I like this,’ and then as I got older and I was like, ‘oh, what do these people that I like, like?’, you know?” The rabbit hole led him to artists such as Azymuth, Darando and Gábor Szabó, forefathers of funk and jazz that cast a long shadow over his work. “It was never like a class, it was like, "oh, who am I?" Self-discovery isn’t just collateral: it’s the process itself, a soul-bearing exercise that reveals character and conviction.
HAN is simultaneously a triumphant arrival and a steady culmination; the product of a disciplined grind that prized vision overviews. There were many times when Berhana had our collective ears – the online explosion of Janet, or the considerable endorsement of Donald Glover’s Atlanta – and yet, in a world that prizes relevance over fandom, he chose to foster the former with his commitment to the craft.
Talking about Grey Luh, he says that “it felt like a very like steady, it took a long time, but like looking back on it, the growth was fairly steady.” It’s a comment that could be extended to his greater career, one that’s built upon the kind of vigilant consideration that’s all too rare. In a world that demands more and more content from up-and-coming artists, dutifully honing your craft is a small rebellion. Berhana doesn’t mind: it’s all been a part of the journey, one that’s taken him from Atlanta to New York City; from film school to viral fame; from screenwriter to songwriter; from The Colbert Report to a South Korean album launch party.
“It's important to live life, that's how you make stuff that people can really feel,” he tells me, contented. It’s been a long time coming for Berhana, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Berhana's new album HAN is out now via EQT Recordings / Caroline Australia.
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