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Karma-Ann, Future Superstar? - Karma-Ann: Now of Karma

2006-03-29 11:03

A quick biographical update...

Karma-Ann (ex frontperson and songwriter of Henry Ate) left for the USA in 2003, when the SA scene and her ex-band Henry Ate's career seemed to be stagnating a bit after the release of their must have "best of" collection (96-2002 The Singles) and found her niche in the Florida's muggy, South American flavoured live scene.

Having won a few SAMAs, performed at Walter Sisulu's Harlem, NY funeral, and sold many 1000s of CDs, Karma-Ann had no trouble qualifying for her greencard by showing she had "extraordinary ability in her chosen field."

To add proof, Karma was rated 2004's top live rock act in Florida. We caught up with Karma-Ann at the end of Karma's SA tour, which included headliner gigs at Oppikoppi Easter fest and the KKNK Kaktus Op Die Vlaktes closing concert, as well as fund raising gigs for Nkosi's (Johnson's) Haven Aids Foundation.

Her drummer Danny joins the interview, held over a lunch of amusingly tooth-resistant curried beef chunks at the office canteen. The outspoken but always oddly girlish Karma calls it "her first home-cooked meal in weeks."

Jean Barker, MWEB: The album title Don't Walk Fly seems to be about very sad stuff, love, loss, homesickness and so on. "O Miles" particularly. Was there a particular person?

Karma: Did you ever hear Henry Ate? (I answer yes, but I've only heard the singles and live sets.) Well everybody tells me who's ever heard Henry Ate "Ooh you seem to have cheered up a bit." And I go "I have? Not at all! [laughs] I still make a living off sadness."

MWEB: Is the sadness about the whole experience of moving to the USA?

Karma: Oh definitely. I suppose the most obvious song is "0 Miles". But funnily enough "O Miles" was written on my first trip there, when I was going to check it out. I was also predicting, I think, the failure of my relationship. When I'm really happy and things are going well, then I imagine things going wrong. It makes me so sad, and then I write a song about it. When it's [actually happening] the last thing I want to do is be self indulgent with a guitar!

MWEB: You used to hate being pushed around. I remember you told me you were told just "shut up and sing" by some record company dude once, and that line wound up as part of a song lyric? Do you still have that thing where people try to tell you what to do and you're like... scr*w you!

Karma: I do and I don't. I started my own record label, so I'm my boss. I joined a band, so there's three other people who take as much flack as me, but also have as much say. I don't sit and think that the world is on my shoulders. If there's grief that flies around, it mainly flies around the band. That's not to say we're all best friends all the time. But we get on better than most communities.

That's something that's changed from Henry Ate. You would never ever have gotten to sit round a table with any drummer. And I think there were 17 drummers all in all. [Laughs]. With this band, we hang out.

(Henry Ate, who she was with when we last interviewed her is Karma's South African band, which apart from having a string of radio hits and selling many CDs had a controversial career. Disgruntled musos, and the media accused Karma-Ann of unfairly making the band all about her. To be fair to her, it was. She wrote the songs, arranged them and sang them!)

MWEB: Is that something to do with the South African music boys' club rock culture?

Karma: No, I think, it's got something to do with something horribly wrong with drummers.

MWEB and Danny: [laugh]

Karma: I'm serious! For people to play their instruments takes a certain personality type. If you combine that personality type with an ego it's pretty dangerous. Very weird, because all my best friends in other bands are drummers. But in my own band, endless hassles. Everything from people just taking way too many drugs and not being comprendo, to not showing up at gigs, to being ars*holes onstage to the audience. And in some people's defences, sometimes when I found talented, phenomenally professional [drummers I wanted], they just weren't available.

If you wanna be in a band, you have a personality type that's very volatile. And musicians live in an imaginary world 23 hours of the day... I'm giving them an hour off for taxes and banking. But maturity and experience - all of us are pretty grown up - have helped. We sat down and agreed to disagree.

MWEB: Have you seen the guys from Henry Ate since you've been back?

Karma: The people in the band? No I haven't seen them.

MWEB: And back to the South African music industry. Why did you want to get out of the scene and go overseas?

Karma: Where my life was pointing I was going to become a full time producer or a full time songwriter - for other people. Or I was going to quit. And I was only 27, and it was horrible that I'd dedicated my entire adult life to something that hadn't materialised into what I'd wanted it to be.

My frustration became my drive.

And a realisation... I always believed people in my heart but in my head I was starting to see the facts of what lay ahead of me. So somebody at the record label would say "We're going to send this package", or there were times that they told me they did. I arrived in America and checked up on the packages they supposedly sent and the people whose names were on them had never received them. So after the fact, I found out there were people actually bullsh*tting.

Also, I'm an adventurer. One of the reasons being in a band is an awesome job is it gives you the ability to travel around. That sort of thing seemed to have reached a plateau. I had to make it happen for myself.

MWEB: Would you ever cover a song? If yes, which songs would be your first choices?

"Time After Time" by Cindy Lauper. It's the one song I wish I'd written.

What was the saddest death in SA music in recent years for you?

Karma: Gito Baloi (of top SA Jazz Fusion group Tananas). He was underestimated by the industry. It was so senseless and what makes it worse is they haven't even caught the buggers who did it. I was overseas when it happened as well. And I remember Brenda dying - I've known Brenda Fassie since we were small, for the whole of my music career. And we lived in the same neighbourhood. I think both deaths were worse because I was away.

MWEB: Tell me about Miami. A typical day night in your new life, say? Where do you have coffee?

Karma: Well Americans have this thing called Vanilla Creamer. Which has changed coffee completely. It's delicious. So after my fifth cup of coffee... I often have one normal cup of coffee and then four decafs. I wake up in the morning, pretty early, to catch South Africa before they leave work. Because I do still have a record label in South Africa. And then if it's a good day, I go to rehearsals, which start at 11am because Danny and Steven have a hard time waking up. We try to get in a minimum of four hours. Then we have gigs almost every night. We don't really have much time off. It's fantastic. No complaints from us. Just wish we got paid more!

MWEB: How will you go about selling - distributing, publicising and so on - an album there? Is it working out?

Karma: What's ahead of us isn't clear. With the new album, we'll probably be on the road... But the big decisions can be made only when we get back. Because you get e-mail "So and So wants to do a distribution deal..." but we're very much a face to face band. And we made a deal in the beginning that all four of us must agree. You don't always get your way, but... not one of us is willing to work with someone we haven't actually met. There's something you only understand about people when you see them.

MWEB: Our perceptions of America are quite one dimensional from SA, often. Based on movies and war news mainly. What do you see there - and do you know anyone who voted for Bush in Florida?

Oh, no. Don't get this started. Christian and I have learned that politics is just not the way to go in America. You'll be forsaken. Because the understanding of politics is not there. The investigation of politics is not there. People are educated about politics by the television. On the other hand, you go to New York and it's completely different. Is America one dimensional? Not at all. America is not Hollywood, only LA is like the movie. Full of beautiful people. You get the best services ever. Because they're trying to pursue their dreams, and they never know who you are. You could be some producer's niece.

Miami? It's like New York. It's not a very accurate picture of America. It's so full of foreigners, especially immigrants. From state to state, America changes.

If there's something I'm an admirer of is that although there's blind patriotism, at least there IS patriotism. I'm completely and utterly in disagreement with any country going to war. But people children are fighting, and they don't have a choice but to be supportive.

America right now is my new home. I've found the people there extremely welcoming, incredibly kind and supportive. I went into America incredibly opinionated. I had a lot to say. I had a really hard time. Then I realised that sometimes you have to admire people who don't know any better. Children look a lot happier because they don't know what's going on in the world.

The "American Dream" is very real. We can say it's bullsh*t, but in America it's very real. And that is achievable, and it's very beautiful in that. I can't change the way things are there. I'd be in the same position as I was in in South Africa. I'd have to leave.

I don't really want to leave America, so I keep my mouth shut more. [laughs]

MWEB: How odd.

Karma: [Wryly] I know...

MWEB: And the South African tour? Oppikoppi? KKNK?

Karma: All the festivals have been great. All the shows really too. Except in Cape Town I lost my voice for the first time ever. So one night, I did something I've never done - I cancelled the show and sat home for three days not saying a word. It's always been "The show must go on". It was scary. My voice is my livelihood.

MWEB: Anything else you want to say?

Karma: Thank you to all the South African fans, new and old, who've come out to see our shows. It's been the most phenomenal experience.

- Jean Barker

Karma-Ann Swanepoel, SA pop's golden girl has a great new album out called "Don't Walk Fly" and now lives with her (pink) green card in Miami, Florida, where she and her new band (called simply "Karma") were voted top live act of 2004. We spoke to her about inspirations, fame and the US music scene on her recent tour of South Africa.
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