Photo by Nicholas O’Donnell
By Clare Martin
Indie-soul artist KK Lewis began writing and performing music during that unmoored, liminal period between secondary school and university when “you have no idea what you want to do,” as she puts it.
“It was a really lonely time in my life and I just delved into writing poetry. And then I taught myself how to play the guitar and I was like, let’s make them songs,” she recalls with a laugh. Picking up the instrument via YouTube videos came pretty easily to her since Lewis had played the fiddle growing up—a pastime she’d set aside in secondary school “because I thought it wasn’t cool anymore and I wanted to go out drinking with my friends.”
Soon after, a friend introduced her to the busking scene and it felt like a natural fit for Lewis. “I went to open mics and played my songs, and then I just didn’t do anything else,” the Dublin native says.
She found open mics more intimidating than busking for the simple reason that all eyes are on you in that setting. When you’re busking, though, “people might walk past, they might hate what you’re doing, but they’ll think about it for a second, and then they’ll just walk on.”
Thanks to the strong sense of community among the buskers, it felt safe and fun to perform. “It was like a social outing, as well as making money,” she explains. “So it was always a great experience, for me anyways.”
Eventually, Lewis found herself in a bit of a rut creativity-wise, playing covers on the street and not writing as much original material as before. While she was making money as a busker, a trip to Berlin transformed her perspective and made her want to change gears.
“I went to Berlin for two months last year,” Lewis says. “Berlin is crazy and I was busking over there and it was an intense experience. I came home and I just said, like, I’m gonna write now and I want to release my music and do it properly.”
She’d written an EP before her sojourn in Berlin, which Lewis now writes off as “messy,” and upon her return she decided she wanted to redo it completely. Luckily, Lewis had a collaborator she’d already been working with: Papa Rua.
Lewis met Papa Rua when she first started writing music. He was in college and working with a “singing group thing” that her mother was in.
“My mum was like, Oh, there’s this guy Darragh [Papa Rua], I think you should get in contact with him, and he might be able to help you out. This would have been 2018 maybe? I just messaged him on Facebook and I was like, Hey, can you help me with my songs? And he used to come over and just go through my very early songs, like literally just lyrics and a melody,” Lewis remembers. “He’d go through my songs and play guitar and just give me advice. And then it wasn’t until an actual year later then after I started busking and doing open mics that I seriously started working with him and he started producing my songs.”
After Berlin and Lewis’ musical reset, she and Papa Rua went on a lot of long walks and surrounded themselves with new artistic influences. Lewis’ style was previously very singer/songwriter-based, but now she and her producer were on a steady diet of Prince, Biig Piig, Kanye West (specifically 808s & Heartbreak, a suggestion from Papa Rua), Joy Crookes, and Frankie Knuckles, along with Amy Winehouse, who Lewis has loved for ages.
Lockdown had begun, but since Papa Rua lived just up the road from her, Lewis spent her days there working on her craft until he’d drive her home in the evening. She filled the rest of her time with painting and listening to the Blindboy Podcast to keep the creativity going, but without so much pressure. “It was a whole summer of just going in between the five songs. So it was actually really fun,” she says of the Dreaming EP, due on 18th June via Anon Records.
One of the more challenging songs on the EP was “Good Enough,” a thoughtful rumination on the unrealistic body standards thrust on women and girls. While Lewis is insistent that she doesn’t want the song to be a “social issue anthem,” the R&B-inflected track speaks to a harsh reality that many girls and women face.
“I just want people to listen to it and be like, Oh, wow, like, I felt like that too. I’m not a weirdo, or I’m not like, stupid for feeling these things… I hope it gives people the urge to step back from social media, because like, I’ve definitely taken a step back,” Lewis says. She’s still trying to strike the right balance with social media, since she needs to use it to promote her music but also shies away from having images of herself as a central part of that promotion.
“There’s nothing wrong with putting pictures of yourself up online,” she continues. “I just want to think of more creative things to put up, positive things people can watch and not look at it and be like, Oh, I don’t look like that, or I don’t have this or that. Just things that people will look at and be like, Oh, that’s cool.”
Her latest single “First Bus Home” is about a guy she was sort-of seeing in her late teens and “innocence and confusion and how love can literally just change your whole mood and you don’t know what to do.”
The soft, shimmering song follows the pair as they wait for the first bus home—a pretty relatable struggle for Dubliners back when we could stay out at pubs til the wee hours—with the sounds of birdsong and a bus’ ignition giving the track a rich sense of place. The accompanying music video shows a girl and a guy in some of Lewis’ favourite spots to wander around in Dublin: Grafton Street, Stephen’s Green, DiFontaine’s (she’s a big fan of their vegan pizza), Temple Bar, and Love Lane.
Even though it’ll be a while until in-person performances are a thing again in Ireland, Lewis is eager to get back to performing. A recent livestream had her saying to herself, “Oh my god, this is why I do it.”
When I ask about a specific setting she’d like for her first performance back, Lewis floats the ideas of a drunken night at Whelans or a vibey space filled with plants and rugs, but she’s not picky.
“I don’t know what it would be. Just on a stage, really, to be honest.”