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Interview with K-OS

by Archives October 11, 2006

With his third album, Atlantis: Hymns for Disco, it’s evident K-OS no longer needs to prove his worth on the urban Canadian music scene. Instead he will focus on making music – nothing more, nothing less.

“I want the debate over whether [my music] is hip hop or what it is to end,” he said about his expectations and hopes for the new record. “It’s like with David Bowie, at a certain point in his career people stopped questioning what it was, it was just him.”

Indeed, Atlantis does not easily fit into any one genre of music. Although all of the tracks retain a certain flavour of urban rhythm, K-OS breaks away from the traditional rap-to-the-beat artist that’s become a dime a dozen on the hip hop shelves.

“I pictured myself as this customs agent saying ‘No, no, no, can’t do this, can’t do that’,” K-OS said of how he used to approach record-making. On this release he no longer set boundaries on how far he would go musically. One of the most noticeable changes on this record is how much K-OS uses his voice, and not only to rap. He explained it’s not a new development, “I used to sing before I rapped,” but that he never had felt comfortable using his voice publicly in that way before.

Sitting in an exclusive Asian restaurant on Ste. Catherine sipping green tea with an exclusive tinge of sesame to it, it is clear K-OS has come far since his first record release four years ago. Although that might seem like the perfect scenario to any artist, K-OS talked about the downside of success, one that not many artists want to talk about.

“I stopped feeling guilty,” he said when asked why this record sounds so different to his previous one. “You know, I know a lot of people who are still making demos, still trying to get a record deal. And there is a sense of guilt associated with that, because in a sense I guess I’m lucky, or at least fortunate.” He went on to say that this is the first record where he’s allowed himself to feel that way instead of fearing that his success could go away.

When it comes to what his critics might think about the success, K-OS laughed before answering. “Some people say ‘this is too popular, he only wrote this so people would like it.’ Well yes!”

The scene can definitely be elitist, where popularity means selling out, but in K-OS’ mind that way of thinking just doesn’t make sense. He talked about how absurd the situation is to him by likening it to a more common scenario. “It’s like your mom serving up a meal, and everyone around the table going: Is it too salty? Is it too much of this? Or that? ‘Well, I think you just made this for us all to like it.’ Well, someone just made this meal for you, and all you say is ‘you just made this to make us all like it?'” he said while shaking his head.

It’s no secret that K-OS has pretty strong thoughts about music critics who carelessly cast a die and deem a record good or bad. From the point of view of an artist with a very personal writing style, K-OS doesn’t care for the know-it-all attitude of some critics, and will occasionally challenge “unfair” reviews.

“People get to ask me about why I did this or that with my record, so why should it be that this one section of society can write something horribly good or bad about your record and not be questioned?” he asked. “I sometimes call people up and ask them why,” he continued. The reason is just as much a desire to question the critic as the critique, and he said all he wants are well thought-out words. If the critic has a well-founded reason behind a certain view of his record K-OS will consider it, even though he might not agree.

One of the more personal songs on the album is called “Sunday Morning”. Like a few other songs on the album, it’s accompanied by a history of its creation on the cover’s inlay. K-OS said he hopes the stories behind the songs will make the listener feel more connected to the album, more like “it’s [the listener’s] own.”

“Sunday Morning” was made after a summer of heavy partying, a life style K-OS said is both appealing and discomforting to him. The song portrays a mixture of feelings K-OS said he finds fascinating because it’s not a conventional emotion.

“I started to feel bad about [partying], I felt like ‘I had a lot of fun, so why do I feel this way?’ . People write songs about being happy. People write songs about being sad. But what about those songs about being sad about being happy? That’s what’s really interesting to me,” he said, and smiled.

Another notable track on the album is “Fly Paper”. Anyone who was a fan his last album Joyful Rebellion will immediately recognize this song as a new version of “Crabbuckit”.

“I have this theory that you can keep writing the same song all your life.” K-OS explained he doesn’t necessarily think repetitiveness is any less original than writing a brand new song because changing a song can be just as challenging as writing something new. “Fly Paper,” as opposed to “Crabbuckit,” has a more direct lyrical content, where K-OS sings about the apathy city dwellers meet every day on their way to work. And K-OS doesn’t close the door on even a third version of the song.

The FACTOR grant and the Toronto scene.

K-OS occasionally plays with Toronto-based music collective Broken Social Scene, although he claimed he’s “more like the second cousin twice removed” than a full member of the group, which also boasts members from other Canadian acts like Metric, Stars and Feist.

K-OS explained the group started out as a collective of friends, and that to this day that’s the driving force behind the music they create. That network of friends is largely responsible for Canadian music’s recent revival, a development made possible by the Canadian government’s Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings, or FACTOR grant.

They all started out with the help of these grants that give artists enough money to tour the country and record material even before they have a solid fan base. K-OS got his first break as an artist when the grant supported his first video, which then led to an opening tour across Canada and eventually a record deal. “It’s all connected,” he said.

To K-OS it all seems simple. “People keep saying [about Canada]: ‘What’s in the water?’ Well, it’s not about that, it’s the FACTOR grant, because there is no money-guy standing over you telling you what to do. You can keep making the music you do, but with these grants.”

“Atlantis: Hymns for Disco” is in stores Oct. 10.

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