With the world in a state of limbo due to an unprecedented pandemic, we are in need of comforts such as music, perhaps now more than ever. One artist that has recognised this need is Alina Baraz, who recently blessed the world with her debut studio album ‘It Was Divine’. The Cleveland born, Los Angeles based artist has spent time on perfecting her craft, with ‘It Was Divine’ coming over five years after her debut EP ‘Urban Flora’ – a collaborative effort with Danish electronic artist Galimatias. She embarked on her musical journey seven years ago, yet it feels like our first real introduction to the singer-songwriter. Over the course of our interview, we discuss her debut album, the nuance behind its title and more as we get to know Alina in our latest Cover Story.
“Hello? Hey, it’s Alina.” When a friend of mine recommended ‘Urban Flora’ a few months back, I never imagined that she would ever call me to introduce herself. That might be a first in my journey as a writer, but such is the nature of our current landscape that a face-to-face interview is unlikely. The Russian-Ukranian is soft spoken, graceful yet commanding in her tone. Tone is an important facet to the staccato’s arsenal; as you’ll discover once you unpack ‘It Was Divine’. We break the ice a little as she tells me how she’s been keeping occupied during the lockdown. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life because I’m such a homebody. I’ve been doing water colouring, paintings, watching a lot of tutorials on YouTube.” We discuss how our interview is unusual in these times as our phone interview is dictated by a pandemic that has forced millions to stay at home. “I’ve been watching the news and staying up to-date, but even around me, I’ve had friends lose jobs and there are people dying. Many people are affected by this. I’m doing a whole lot of nothing right now, so my focus is on growing as a human and as a creator.”
Moving away from these anxious times, I recall a flashback from Alina’s past that led to a cancelled gig in London back in November 2018. She is happy to divulge as she recounts her state of mind at the time. “I was really sad about that because I was excited to come to London and perform for you guys. At the time I was on my first ever US tour, doing shows in over 40 states and as I was new to the experience, it exhausted me and I was going through something at the time so I had to cancel.” She assures me that she will invite me and “my friend” – she refers to the friend of mine who told me about the cancelled Electric Brixton show – to her next London show. A token of appreciation that doubles as something to look forward to at a time when the world needs a little light.
‘It Was Divine’ takes listeners on a thrilling journey through love and its peaks, thrilling highs and crushing lows, though she doesn’t explicitly say the album is about love. Such is the beauty of being ambiguous with words. Over a run time of 52 minutes, she captivates, heals and acknowledges the bad in situations whilst empowering us to be kinder to ourselves. With thoughts of being God-like on the brain, we get into what ‘It’ is and what the title means to her. “It’s so funny that you ask that because I think making the title ambiguous is so telling of me as a person. My close friends will tell you that I don’t like to give too much away, I can be guarded with deep things. ‘It’ refers to quite a few things. Love is definitely a topic on the album, it’s one of a few but I like to leave the music open to interpretation so fans can have their own understanding and connection. I wanted to use Divine in the title because I feel that the word followed me throughout the process, like it was calling me.” We continue to get into small context around the album, especially on love and what it means to her. “For me it’s hard to define because it takes many forms. It’s hard to describe something that affects people differently. I think if you pay attention to certain songs on the album, you’ll be able to understand what love means to me.”
Growing up with her parents who happen to be classically trained musicians, it’s only right that Alina was exposed to a lot of classical music in her formative years. Once she discovered acts such as Amy Winehouse, Mary J. Blige, Backstreet Boys and Corinne Bailey Rae, R&B really took a hold of her. ‘Urban Flora’ is a dreamy, psychedelic effort that places emphasis on vibe and poetic feeling, while her first solo EP ‘The Color of You’ finds Alina in a pensive, conversational mood, working with more conventional R&B producers in the process. I remark that though her previous releases introduced us to parts of her, ‘It Was Divine’ feels like the real introduction to Alina Baraz. I muse on whether or not that influenced how long it took to release her debut album. “Thinking back, when I first started out in 2015 I thought I would release my first album a year later and get this going *laughs*. Obviously plans change and things happen that will affect what you want to do. 5 years is really a long time, but it didn’t feel that way during the journey. It’s disappointing but when I think about it, I’m still young, there’s a lot of time for me to put music out.”
Listening to ‘It Was Divine’ offers shades of the songwriting witnessed on both of her previous projects, but more in tandem. More nuanced, a nuance that allows her gentle staccato to encompass many feelings, or even a concept. “I’ve always been a little extra when it comes to an idea or a feeling I have. Super visual and vivid with my writing. When I was putting ‘It Was Divine’ together, I put extra care into balancing the poetry with my conversational style. It’s like ‘Urban Flora’ and ‘The Color of You’ just had a baby and made this album!” She apologises for the analogy but I quickly assure her that it works. Over the last five years, Alina has worked with a string of producers and artists in order to craft the album, but she officially tells me that the album was worked on from January 2019 to earlier this year. Longtime collaborator Spencer Stewart is joined by a string of names including Al Shux, Jonathan Elkaer, Dante Jones, D’Mile, Smino, Jeff ‘Gitty’ Gitelman, frequent collaborator Khalid and more. Of all the names featured there are two special guests that intrigued me; hip hop icon Nas and D’Mile, who has produced for a slew of names including Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Ty Dolla Sign and more recently Lucky Daye.
I tell Alina that she didn’t waste a feature and placed them correctly, such is the care and attention to detail that typifies most of her work. I ask her how the Nas feature (on ‘Until I Met You’) came about and her response draws an interesting comparison to another legend. “That was the one song where I knew who I wanted featured from the very beginning. It was a very full circle experience, from me writing the song to meeting Nas in the studio. We had conversations about relationships and that ended up being one of my favourite sessions. He reminds me of Amy [Winehouse] so much, I can’t even explain it.” I remark that given their shared birthday, stories of their reserved nature and the revelation that Amy had a crush on Nas, it’s not a shock to hear her say that.
We come to the album, ‘The Beginning’ – produced by none other than D’Mile – it’s beautifully written and comes off as a continuation of ‘To Me’, a powerfully symbolic song that details Alina’s need to leave a toxic situation. “I just want to say that D’Mile is a living legend! The day we had the session for ‘The Beginning’ I was just having a shitty day and we sat down with this record and knocked it out. I like that this song comes last because it makes it harder to say where the album begins and ends. I wrote it [the album] so that it would feel like an endless loop. Basically, just outlining my feelings at the end of the relationship.” Curiously enough, ‘To Me’ and ‘The Beginning’ are two of her favourite songs on the LP. She admits that the list changes often before giving a third favourite. “I think I would say ‘Frank’ too. That song is new but the words from that song are five years old. I decided to keep those words because they are from the ‘Urban Flora’ sessions. The song is me revisiting that part of my life.”
As we wind down our FaceTime call, we reflect on her journey and the work that was put into the album. Given we’ve seen a slew of quality R&B releases from the likes of Giveon, Lucky Daye, Kiana Lede among others, I ask her how it feels to have her album talked about as an early contender for R&B record of the year. “I’m just happy that the album is finally out, and the world can enjoy it. I put a lot of myself into this album, my blood, sweat and tears. There were times that I didn’t think I would get here but music is my destiny. I hate saying things like that, but music has always found me at different points so I’ve done my best to finesse whenever I could. People point out things like streams and sales, but they have no bearing on how my supporters feel about the music.”
For an artist with over 2 billion streams to her name, her attitude towards that aspect of the machine is refreshing. Alina says she intends to come to Europe once the pandemic is over, especially as she hasn’t been to Ukraine yet. We say our goodbyes and wish each other well as I wonder if Facetime interviews will be more commonplace in future. In any case, Alina is here to stay and with any luck, her next project won’t take five years to drop.
Alina’s debut album ‘It Was Divine’ is out now on all streaming platforms.