Genesis Owusu's Triumphant Struggles
“It was definitely a new challenge, but I always welcome a new challenge”
Image credit: Bec Parsons
Second albums have a reputation for being difficult, often being referred to as the sophomore slump or second-album syndrome, so we can only imagine the way this may be amplified when your debut album was as successful as Genesis Owusu’s was.
Released in March of 2021, Smiling With No Teeth has established itself early as one of the most celebrated Australian albums of the decade so far, with awards and accolades including triple j’s Album of the Year and x4 ARIA award titles, including Album of the Year, Best Hip Hop Release, Best Independent Release and Best Cover Art, and the AIR Award for Independent Album of the Year.
Off the back of this, Genesis hit the road with sold out Australian tours and heading around the United States and Europe (including a show at fabled mysterious Berlin techno institution, Berghain), winning fans around the world before turning his thoughts to album number two.
That album would go on to become STRUGGLER, Owusu’s just-released second full-length. Building on both the sounds and styles we heard on Smiling With No Teeth, STRUGGLER is centred around the narrative of “a story about a Roach, that runs and runs, trying not to get stepped on by God", while being inspired by famous philosophical authors like Camus and Kafka, and playwright Samuel Beckett. Across 11 tracks, STRUGGLER sees this narrative explored through an diverse blend of sounds and style, touching on everything from post-punk, garage rock and indie pop to funk, hip hop and soul.
With another mammoth North American tour and a few European shows on the cards before heading back to Australia for a national album tour this december, we jumped on the line with Genesis to find out all about STRUGGLER!
To start off with, I’m really curious about going from Smiling With No Teeth, which just like, incredible dude, congratulations again on the success of that...
So what was it like starting STRUGGLER and was there any sort of pressure to follow-up such an awesome debut album? What was your headspace like in those first creative stages?
Yeah, there was a lot of pressure. I think more internally than externally… or maybe 50/50, actually. I think the main thing was - there’s obviously that old phrase that’s like “you have your whole life to write your first album and only a year or two to write your second”. I felt like I put so much of my life, my life experiences, into Smiling With No Teeth, and then it was a series of COVID, touring and then time to make the second album, which was a real curveball for me.
I had to find a new source of inspiration to draw from, like a new well to draw from, which ended up being authors like Kafka and playwrights like Samuel Beckett. I think just the process of figuring out the second album and obviously trying to make something as special as the first album, trying to find something to say in the first place. It was definitely a new challenge, but I always welcome a new challenge.
Were you reading Kafka during lockdown cos I can only imagine that would compound his message or something?
No, I was reading Kafka on tour. I was reading Kafka on tour and the very first thing I thought was how hilariously on point it was with today’s times. Reading Metamorphosis where he turns into this huge vermin and his first thoughts being like “oh shit, how am I gonna get to work? What’s my boss gonna think!?”. I just thought that was so on point with what we’ve been through as a society, like the Australian bushfires, pandemics, you know, blah blah blah economic downfall… and we just have to wake up every day and keep pushing. Yeah, I thought it was super poignant which is where the inspiration came from when it came to books and plays.
So what about in terms of the connection between your two albums - is it fair to say that STRUGGLER is a bit of an evolution or expansion on some of the themes explored on the first record?
I think the way I think about it is kind of like an author writing a book, writing a series of books. I’ve used STRUGGLER as a completely different story, but when you like at an author or director, and look at their catalogue of work, you can see through the lines that they have a certain style and they have certain things they like to talk about, so I feel like the two albums exist in different universes, but they’re uniquely Genesis Owusu in the way they cover the things I like to talk about and the way I like to talk about them.
My brain just goes to directors like David Lynch or David Cronenberg there! Speaking of Cronenberg vibes, and going back to Kafka, I feel like the idea of the Roach character ties in a bit there, so could you tell us a bit about the Roach character/concept?
Yeah, like I was saying before, I was reading Kafka and all these other inspirations through the lens of what we as a society had been through in the last few years, and I felt like for me and what it felt like a lot of the people around me, it felt like a real ripping of the rug from under you, and it’s really showing how out of control we are on the things around us and the world that we live in. I thought that when we think about ourselves in comparison to these huge pandemics and the absurdity of the universe, destiny… like we’re so small in comparison to these forces that we’re up against and I thought the Roach was just a really good metaphor for that. It’s this little, insignificant thing that you just can’t get, you can’t kill it. When you think you’ve killed it, a second one will come out of the woodwork. I thought it was this perfect metaphor for the stubbornness - that inspiring stubbornness of humanity’s will to survive and persevere through all the insanity.
So when it came to actually writing the new record, how did this one come together? Cos again it feels like an evolution or expansion of the sounds from the first record, with some post punk stuff, some hip hop and indie stuff and even like some Curtis Mayfield sort of vibes?
The natural way that generally most people make music, I assume, is that they obviously have things they want to say or whatever, but maybe they’re inspired by other music, and then you’ve got to go and make your own music. This one, I wrote the story of the Roach as a little short narrative, and then when it came to writing the album it was kind of like “OK… what does this story sound like?” I hadn’t really listened to much music in between Smiling With No Teeth and STRUGGLER, for whatever reason it just wasn’t really inspiring me like it used to. So I kind of flipped the process a bit, and when it came down to it, when I was writing this almost post-apocalyptic story, the post-punk stylings just felt right. When it came to certain more emotional moments on the album, there's the Curtis Mayfield-style soul stylings. They felt right. Yeah, it was more so letting the story direct how it sounded rather than vice versa.
Do you do other sort of fiction writing in your spare time?
So I used to. Actually, before I started making music when I was a kid, I used to love writing short stories, then that transitioned into writing poetry, which transitioned into writing music, so it’s kind of going full circle, I’ve found my way back to what I loved as a child and it’s helped me at 25 years old now.
That’s so cool! Imagine if when you were first writing stories as a kid if someone had told you where that would lead like 20 odd years later, what would you have said?
I would have been like “yeah, that sounds about right”. I always felt like I was going to do something crazy. I didn’t know what and didn’t know how, but it always felt right to just be doing something out of the box, and yeah, it wouldn't have felt right not to.
I love that, and “crazy and out of the box” just made my brain go somewhere else to ask about a particular show you played last year when you played Berghain… it doesn’t get much more out of the box than Berghain, you know no phones, anything goes, wild techno usually, so what was that like?!
It was actually such a wild show. I don’t know if you’ve seen the live show, but a lot of the time I performed with a group of guys - I call them goons, and they’re like my hype men/backup dancers, and that was a wild show. One of my goons stage dived into the same crowd of people like three times, which was a terrible decision because they couldn’t keep up. They tried to throw him back and he hit his head on the fallback speaker, like split wide open. It was the most metal moment ever, playing Black Dogs which is one of the more punk tracks and he just had blood all over his face. Yeah, very fitting for Berghain, it was a crazy show.
And there would be no footage of that right? Which in this day and age is kind of cool, makes it more about the memory of the moment?
Yeah, it was insane. So insane.
I can only imagine. I want to talk more about live shows and the upcoming album tour shortly, but first I have to ask about music videos - you’ve really outdone yourself with the album single videos and even the couple before, so what’s been the approach to making music videos this time around?
For the music videos from this album, Leaving the Light and Tied Up!, and a few small videos I have coming up later, I’ve been working with this visual artist from New Zealand named Lisa Reihana and she’s just incredible. She’s a half Maori, half Jewish visual artist. The Museum of Contemporary Art reopened in Sydney and my manager went to the opening where Lisa had a huge installation. Immediately he sent me pictures of the installation like “man, we’ve got to find her, we’ve got to find her now!” He ended up finding her, and we sent her a bunch of music, both old and from the new album and she really liked it, which was really cool.
For Smiling With No Teeth specifically I felt like I had a big hand in every element of creative control, which was great. It was fun. But with this, it was really cool to focus on what I can do best and then let someone really professional do what they do best as well. I was able to write the story and concepts and we had a bunch of conversations about the Roach and the God character and all the themes I wanted to go through, then let her run wild with what that could actually look like. Yeah, it was an insane process, and she made it look incredible. She made it look like big, big budget stuff, crazy stuff. Yeah, she’s good.
And now I’m just thinking we need to see you in movies next…
*laughs* Coming up next!
*laughs* I hope so, dude! So relating to the Tied Up! video, have you ever done any sort of boxing in real life?
I mean, like a little bit? A little bit, not to the point where I could flex about it.
Well you looked like you knew what you were doing to me!
A little bit, but I’m definitely gonna get rocked.
*laughs* So after you drop the album, you’re heading back off on some huge tours - back around North American and a couple of shows in Europe, then coming home in December and bringing EARTHGANG along for a national tour… so much dope shit going on, how’s it feeling heading back to America having already toured there, and this time armed with a new album?
It’s definitely a different beast touring in America. Doing that for the first time was a huge, huge shock, so I think the best thing now is that I’m more prepared for what that entails, like driving around in a van for a month with a bunch of other people and playing shows, it can get pretty crazy, but I think from an audience and show perspective, it’s always a great time.
The crowds that I’m lucky enough to have, a decent amount of people really care about the music and care about what I want to say, so the crowds are always really receptive. It’s definitely a testing ground, it’s a harsh environment to tour and it really tests your mettle, which is why we put Australia at the end. To get to come home, get to breathe, and we get to do the crazy shows with EARTHGANG… You know, I’m born and raised in Canberra so to be able to bring EARTHGANG with me to Canberra is insane and ridiculous. Yeah, the shows are going to be incredible.
So are you guys gonna get in the studio together while they’re here?!
We’ll see, maybe, maybe, who knows…
Well I’m crossing my fingers and toes for that! So what can people expect from the STRUGGLER tour, and I guess in particular people who maybe saw your last tour?
I mean I feel like if you’ve listened to the music, if you’ve seen the shows, I feel like you should know not to expect anything, you should know to expect the unexpected, that’s going to be the vibe this time. It’s going to be as chaotic as it is theatrical as it is musical, but on an even grander scale. We’re doing bigger venues which allows for bigger things, obviously bringing EARTHGANG… it’s just gonna be a wild time. I’m formulating it right now, I’m on my mad scientist mode right now putting all the pieces together, it’s gonna be a crazy time.
Dope, I can’t even imagine! You’re pretty much touring from like now until Christmas time - are you gonna have some downtime at the end of the year?
I hope so. I’m hoping I can chill a bit in January, fingers crossed. I had a little holiday not too long ago - I got to go to Japan for the first time, it was nice. So now that I’ve had my two weeks, I’m back on my grind, back at it. But yeah, hoping I can take a little break at the start of next year.
Dude - beyond well earned! So finally, I’m wondering how you celebrate releasing an album? Obviously this is your second album, did you start any sort of ritual or personal way of celebrating for the first album, how do you commemorate the release of a record?
We just have a good time. I like to get a bunch of my friends together - one of my friends is a manager at a bar here in Canberra, so sometimes we like to do something a little impromptu, get the bar going, spin the album and just have a good time with family and friends which is something that I cherish a lot these days, especially the more I’m going out and touring and spending time away, it’s always really great to be back with friends and family and just celebrating as you celebrate best.\
So sick! Thanks so much for chatting, that was really great dude, and we’ll see you back in Perth in December!
Thank you, man.
Genesis Owusu's new album STRUGGLER is out now via Ourness / AWAL