Spirits were lifted last week at the Arches in Haggerston. Not through gospel soul but from Hejira, the four-piece London band, who brought their raw sound spanning Afro-soul to guitar funk. Having seen them a couple years back at the 100 Club, I was curious to hear their new style on the EP ‘The Lima Limo Ceremony’, inspired by time spent in Ethiopia. Opening up was ‘Welcome’ which immediately transported you to the highlands of Ethiopia - overlaid with field recordings from Addis Ababa. Lead vocalist, Rahel, brought shivers when she sang ‘Ribs’ - a reflection of our existence sung in the purest form. The journey of the night swayed as the band reflected a more acoustic side, jamming with a baby grand piano through to ending the evening with one of their funk numbers ‘I don’t belong to anyone.’ There’s a special synergy with the band and wherever they go next, however they evolve - that synergy will no doubt follow.
After the gig I caught up with band-member Sam on their beginnings, inspirations and what next..
When and why did you start playing music?
The story goes that my Dad saw me playing a toy drum kit at the age of 3 and he thought I had rhythm so went on a quest to find me a drum kit. But they were too expensive so he bought a really cheap piano off a friend instead which me and my sister started playing on. I didn't take it seriously though until I changed piano teacher at the age of 11. I started having piano lessons with a jazz guitar player called Phil Dawson after my Dad saw his advert up in our local music shop. In my first lesson Phil taught me the pentatonic scale and encouraged me to start improvising and I fell in love with music at that very moment.
How did you guys as a band meet?
Me and Alex met when we were teenagers playing in a youth jazz band in Hackney run by the legendary educator Phil Revens who sadly passed away recently. We lost contact for a few years but re-connected in 2009 and discovered that we had a similar compositional path that we wanted to pursue and so we started writing music together. We were soon joined by Rahel who I had also been writing with after meeting her through the Goldsmiths Vocal Ensemble. Me and Rahel realised through our writing sessions that we felt encouraged when we sang together, like a super mini choir! :) And so we wanted to do this more. The combination of mine and Alex's compositional connection and mine and Rahel's melodic/vocal connection formed the foundation of Hejira's beginnings back in 2009.
Hejira is an unusual name...what does it mean?
Our favourite definition of Hejira is "mass migration away from danger towards a safer environment". The name feels increasingly poignant given that we find ourselves in an era where so many people are on the move.
Across the band you've worked with everyone from Nithin sawhney, Amy winehouse to Matthew Herbert...how have they played a role in your development as performers?
We've been very fortunate to work with a diverse spread of talented artists, each of which has influenced us in different ways, providing us with insights and experience that has informed not only how we make music, but also what we prioritise in our creative process. One of the most important things for us is to endeavour to maintain a supportive and open communicative environment, not only amongst ourselves but also with those in our extending circle of friends and collaborators.
In the 8 years you've been together what's your fondest musical memory?
This is a tough one! So many memories shoot through my mind as I'm trying to answer this question! There have been many special moments. One of my fondest memories is spontaneously deciding to jump on a train to Eastbourne in order to soak up a certain travelling spirit whilst writing the lyrics for our song 'Fields of Rooftops'. The entire lyric for that song was written on that train journey and I remember having this warm, melancholic, alive hum in me for that whole trip.
Musically eclectic in the truest sense - how have your styles evolved over time? And who are your influences?
It seems to me that transformation is a very integral force in music... music cannot help but re-invent itself as we engage with it anew each day. This is very true of Hejira's relationship to music, as it feels like it is in a constant state of evolution. The great jazz composer Wayne Shorter once said that compositions are never finished, and this statement definitely resonates with my experience so far. I think if we didn't decide to have a deadline for releasing our recordings they would just continue to evolve ceaselessly. Once released in a fixed recorded form, the evolution continues, this time in the context of live performance.
And how do you describe your style now?
We've always been pathetically hopeless at describing our music. I would say that there is a soulful spine that runs through a lot of our current material.
Moving to your latest EP, you mentioned it was inspired by a trip to Ethiopia - can you tell me more about why it inspired?
Our trip to Ethiopia symbolises a kind of pivotal shift in the process of making our current body of work. Before the trip we had lots of fragmented ideas that were refusing to settle into a cohesive collection of music. But something happened in Ethiopia that meant that upon our return a new imagining of what our next record would look like began to emerge. I think there are many reasons for this. First and foremost, the trip was of life changing importance to our singer Rahel, whose late father is buried in Addis Ababa after sadly passing away in 2012 after a long battle with cancer. Rahel travelled the breadth of the country, reconnecting with distant relatives and soaking up the landscape and culture of a country that is integral to her family history. Alex and myself joined her in Addis Ababa for the last 10 days of her month long trip and we had a beautifully intense time together checking out local music, writing new material, meeting family and eating injera! Upon our return to London we entered into a prolific phase of creativity where we consolidated our ideas and a record began to surface.
Looking at the London scene, you're all from here - which artists/groups are you really feeling right now?
I think we all feel very lucky to call London home. There are so many incredibly talented and inspiring people surrounding us you just have to count your lucky stars! I have been deeply inspired by our friend Tawiah recently who I have had the great privilege of working with closely on her debut album. She is a beautiful soul and a stunning performer who has created a really unique UK soul album which will be arriving on your eardrums soon! We also love Micachu & The Shapes, The Invisible, Gwilym Gold, Lay, Coby Sey, Fran & Flora and so many other musicians making the London music scene the vibrant inspiring place it is.
And what's next for Hejira?
We're close to completing our second full length LP which we're really excited about. We've also got some shows coming up including The Great Escape festival and an EU cultural festival in Algeria we were invited to play at by the British Council.