Curating More Than a Sound, Berhana is His Own Creative Director - whynow

Speaking a few hours before his London headline show at Village Underground, Berhana is calm and articulate.  For someone who started with words, Berhana has layered his skills to achieve full creative control over his work.

With Ethiopian heritage, born and raised in Atlanta, he moved to New York City to study TV & Film at The New School – a metropolis he called home for over four years. It’s here that his desires split between his college subject, and his musical passion.

“I wanted to do both. I was writing and submitting for different jobs and opportunities in film and TV work, and then music picked up in a way that made me think ‘I’m going to follow this light for right now.’” However, the core component of any future was always words: “I think no matter what, I’d be writing. No matter what medium it is, whether it’s music, film, TV.”

From writing, Berhana didn’t take long to dig into production: “I started working with people. I’d just be sitting by the side learning, ‘Oh, that’s how you do this. That’s how you do that.’” Even though Berhana has developed his expertise beyond tinkering at home, he underplays its importance in the process: “I still like to work with producers. I’m glad I have a good understanding of how everything works.

I think no matter what, I’d be writing. No matter what medium it is, whether it’s music, film, TV

“I think that’s important and I can work out ideas on my own if I need to, but I would never introduce myself as a producer.” It seems Berhana is content as the eternal student, a mature one at that.

Given his enjoyment in working with others, the studio set-up is a priority. This starts with the producer themselves: “My ideal studio environment is working with someone that I’m familiar with, someone that I like. Sessions can be weird when it’s someone brand new.” There is no need for big names, only ones that create the right dynamic. “In the first ten minutes you can tell,” he says.

Berhana has a few simple criteria to find the right producer: “You just have to ask if they could really be your friend, someone you could actually see yourself hanging out with. After that,” he continues, “taste is a really big thing – when you get excited about the same stuff when you hear those certain moments within a song.” From here, ideally there are “as many cool instruments as possible”, and they don’t mind daytime hours.

These requests might sound fairly basic, but a person who encompasses these traits isn’t  always easy to come by. Luckily, Berhana found Canadian multi-instrumentalist and producer Pomo. “He was someone I always wanted to get in a session with and then we did, it was just easy off the bat. One session turned into three sessions, three sessions turned into five and five turned into: ‘let’s create this thing.’”

I had no expectations for it. I just wanted to put the whole EP on SoundCloud. I put out ‘Janet’ and it immediately got a crazy response

The chemistry was right from the offset, inspiring them both in constant creation: “There’d be a part of a song where I’d say ‘God’, he’d say ‘Whoa”, and it’s really easy to create with those people because you’re looking for the same things.”

In 2016, however – before he met Pomo – Berhana was crafting his first release, his eponymous EP, Berhana. It was this six-track, 18 minute project that shifted his world: “I had no expectations for it. I just wanted to put the whole EP on SoundCloud. I put out ‘Janet’ first and it immediately got a crazy response, and I think the next day BBC [1Xtra] hit me and asked for the WAV files.” The EP wasn’t finished at this point, and even with the initial response, the full release took time to catch on.

The stand-out track is the finale, ‘Grey Luh’. Written about the toxicity of a ‘situationship’, this specific but all too common feeling is best articulated through the hook: “Grey love / Hungover Sunday love / Come over, no, stay love / Maybe someday.”

Half-written while on an errand at a TV internship, Berhana recalls the subject matter: “I stuck it out in a bad relationship. I did it in a very unhealthy manner.” The irony is, the song made it onto the soundtrack for the TV show Atlanta, the namesake of Berhana’s hometown – “a cool overlapping of different things that I’m into,” with proud smile.

The irony is, the song made it onto the soundtrack for the TV show Atlanta, the namesake of Berhana’s hometown

Having “made a deal with himself” before the EP came out, Berhana was already situated in LA to be around the “people he wanted to work with”. It was here that he met Dan Friedman and Henny Yegezu, co-founders of label and management company EQT. “Henny was the first person I met. I didn’t have a manager. I didn’t have a label. It was after my EP had been out for a little bit. Then I got to meet with Dan and they both started managing me.”

With this support, Berhana began working on new material, shelving most of an existing project after he realizing, “this just isn’t what I want it to sound like.” The galvanising moment for his 2019 album HAN, was a trip to Japan for a few shows, where almost half of the project was made. He was by no means an idle tourist though, having originally learnt about the culture through working at a Japanese restaurant in New York.

“It was these people [at the restaurant] telling me what to read, what to watch, what to listen to. I think having that rich culture, it’s easy to appreciate it.” Renting out space in Tokyo and on Okinawa Island, Berhana and his team constructed a metaphorical hothouse that produced an album of RnB, funky soul and jazz, laced with personal stories and sentiments.

For Berhana, there is no catch-all description of this sound. “It kind of hops between a few different genres but it has a dance element to it. There are RnB elements for sure, there’s  even a drum and bass section.” Structured as if the listener is on board a flight, HAN takes you on a musical journey from mellow RnB in ‘Golden’, to the synth funk of ‘Lucky Strike’, to fast-paced rock in ‘G2g’.

It has that Truman Show vibe. Sonically it sounds like you’re going on a trip

Given Berhana’s background, his videos are higher quality, conceptually and visually, than the average artist. It also helps that he can act. Berhana applies the same attitude to his videos as he does to production: “I think everyone I’ve created with are people I went to school with – Sam Guest, who’s directed most of my videos, and Julia Baylis.”

“When you’re working with friends and, again, your tastes are aligned, it’s super easy.” A notable video is for ‘Health Food’, which is a contender for Berhana’s favourite: “It has that Truman Show vibe. Sonically it sounds like you’re going on a trip, so the visual is like, ‘is this real?’”

On his first headline tour outside of North America, and here without his band, he speaks about performing tracks with personal content: “I still connect with the songs but it’s not as raw as when I first wrote it. I can still be thinking about other things – ‘what does the band sound like? What are the levels?’”

For an artist with this much creative instinct and linguistic talent, it’s almost luck of the draw that Berhana ended up as a musician. But he is acutely aware of what matters most. “I feel like [some] people who have a lot, can’t figure out how to be happy with it. I think that’s something I like striving for.” If Berhana continues as he has, with the right team around him, there’s nothing standing in between him and this admirable goal.

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