Eric Wainaina is wearing his heart on his sleeve on his latest album “Dreams in Stereo” as he sings about love, passion, betrayal and reconciliation.
“I am at a point in my life when I want to talk about my experiences because it is cathartic; art is a lot cheaper than therapy and every time I play these songs, I feel healed,” he says.
It’s been six years since the singer, songwriter and producer’s last album “Love and Protest” and he explains that this new project required time to complete because it’s a very personal story.
“I wrote every song on the album for my wife who has stood by me through joy and pain,” he says. He picks the ballad “Can We Fly Away Together” as a song that expresses the honest tone of the album.
“All my albums have been honest but this one is honest about personal experiences,” he says.
The album is predominantly based on love songs: songs about relationships, others about messing up stuff and about putting things back together again.
It is also very different stylistically because the songs have a much more adult contemporary and pop sound than on his past albums. Los Angeles-based musician, Will Kennedy, who was a college mate at Berkelee College of Music, produced the album. The songwriting initially took place via e-mail over a three-year period until Kennedy came over to Nairobi for both musicians to be in the same space to work on the music.
What at the beginning were ideas for 90 songs was whittled down to 12 songs. The production period took between two and a half to three years.
The original working title of the album was “Brand New Day” which just didn’t seem to reflect what Eric wanted to express through the music. “Dreams of Stereo” which is taken from a line in the second verse of the song “Found Me a Lover” was felt to resonate better with the themes of the album.
The first single from the album “Okay” is a break-up song about coming to terms with end of a relationship but its also about drawing a line and saying ‘tonight, I am getting over you’. That lyric came when co-songwriter Kagwe Mungai was looking for a punch line to add to the chorus. “Whenever we play this song at gigs I am always intrigued by how much women love that line because when women make a decision to get over you, it’s over,” says Eric.
“Don’t Bury Me” brings together 1960s African Twist legend John Nzenze with contemporary stars Blinky Bill and vocalist Kendi Nkonge. The title is taken from a phrase in Swahili ‘don’t bury me while I am alive” that Nzenze has used in a conversation with Eric, soon after returning from the Smithsonian Festival in the US in 2014.
“As I strummed on the guitar in the studio, Nzenze started writing the first thing that came to his mind and he built this great verse in an about an hour,” recalls Eric. Blinky Bill added his lyrics and Kendi who is hailed by Eric as a ‘mind blowing vocalist’ sang on the chorus.
Eric says he went into making this album with no baggage. “What I decided to do was to write and not expunge ideas because they were not ‘African’ enough or ‘pop’ enough but to just write the music,” he says.
He adds: “The sound of the music therefore is not by design but by letting myself go free and because of that, it is among my best works so far.”
While there are gospel, blues, pop, jazz, soul influences there was always a deliberate move to ‘bring it back home’ with, say, a distinctive guitar that would be reminiscent of a sound from this part of the world. A line up of top musicians played on the album including Benjamin Kabaseke, Marvin Maveke, Andrew Wanjohi and Aaron Rimbui. The US cast of musicians included keyboardist Charlie Prince whose resume includes playing for Michael Jackson on the Immortal tour.
At the moment “Dreams In Stereo” is available on digital format but CD and vinyl copies will be pressed from November.
Eric is juggling the promotion of the album and his other big project, “Tinga Tinga Tales: The Musical” which runs at the Kenya National Theatre from August 30 — September 30 and then moves on to New York’s Broadway from October 12-26. He also performed in front of Barack Obama during the opening of Sauti Kuu community centre in Siaya.
“It was great honour to play for Obama again because I also sang when he was last here as president”.