Crushingly beautiful and oozing with musical references such as Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys and Snoh Aalegra, Unlucky is a love song. It’s as simple as that. Swaying groovesomely between heartbreak, nostalgia and relief, it recounts the end of a fleeting romantic relationship. Florence-based, Kenya-born singer Kavinya weaves the story in warm and textured vocal harmonies over a minimal production with a soft drum pad, electric keyboards, vintage organs, harp sounds and bass. Released on January 7, this velvety gem is as catchy as they come. Thirsty for more, we traveled directly to the source and interviewed Kavinya Monthe Ndumbu.
Tell us a bit about you. For how long have you been in Florence?
I’ve been in Florence for eight years now: it was supposed to be a gap year! I wanted to finesse my piano skills, as I’ve been playing since the age of five. It was my father who actually had the idea of sending me to a school in Italy. He had taken me to a free concert by Riccardo Muti in Kenya at the time and after seeing more Italian cultural initiatives in Nairobi and because of our shared interest in classical music, he suggested looking for a short course in Italy. I ended up loving it and the short course became a three-year degree in jazz piano! It was a great opportunity. I got here when I was 18 and it has been important in shaping me as an adult.
What were your initial impressions of Florence and its music scene?
I have to say that I have always found Florence quite comfortable, even when it came to singing and jamming with others. Jazz standards also played an important part in this, since they become a shared repertoire capable of bridging any linguistic or cultural divide. I also feel that local musicians are very welcoming in general. They crave English-speaking singers and different cultures to mix with, since they are well aware of the limits of Florence’s sometimes cagey mindset. Music has always been my way of connecting with people and I was lucky to have pianist Alessandro Lanzoni, who was my teacher but who also became a good friend. He introduced me to great talents, such as drummer Stefano Tamborrino and pianist Michele Papadia.
Your debut single Unlucky also featured an important Florentine contribution: composer and guitarist Saverio Lanza…
I met Saverio through Maurizio Busia, artistic director of Florence’s Festival au Désert, who was teaching a class in music business. He told me about Almar’à, an orchestra comprised of 13 women of mostly Arab and Mediterranean descent, and asked me if I would be interested in auditioning. So I joined the orchestra in 2019. When I told Maurizio that I was actually thinking about writing and producing my own material, he put me in contact with Saverio, who has played with the cream of the Italian pop-rock crop, from Irene Grandi to Cristina Donà and Piero Pelù. Saverio asked me to bring all my ideas with me, but all I had was a series of lanky, rickety tunes. We had a session and we tried to compose original melodies together, but to no avail. At the very end of the session, I brought up the idea of the song I’d had, which was the very first line of the song (“knowing my luck in love it had to happen eventually”), and he asked me to go on and improvise more. He ended up clipping the structure from these improvs and adding some melodies himself. I had been listening a lot to Alone Again (Naturally) by Gilbert O’Sullivan and Chet Baker’s But Not For Me, so I was in that kind of emotional space. This was two years ago. Unlucky’s completion took another chance encounter: drummer and producer Guglielmo Torelli of indie-tropical-pop outfit Aquarama.
So Unlucky is actually quite a lucky song!
Absolutely. I first met Aquarama when they were releasing their first album, Riva, in 2017. They were looking for backing vocalists for their live concert at Auditorium Flog, so I joined them on stage. I was really inspired by them, by their ability to self-produce their music. Fast-forward a few years later, I was working with a producer who was too dominating and I wanted to learn how to do things myself, so I asked Guglielmo to give me a few pointers. He ended up asking me if we could work on the project together. The song was mixed and mastered by sound engineer Marco Olivi in Milan.
What is Unlucky about?
On one hand, Unlucky is about the freedom and relief of knowing you don’t want that particular person anymore, but also the sadness that comes after losing an intoxicating illusion and the underlying feeling that you will always be unlucky in love. It’s about not being high on infatuation and having to go back to the real world. It is a mix of things. I chose the title because I kind of felt like this was doomed to happen all the time, that there was no way to live with someone else or have a long-standing relationship. It was the last of a series of brief romances, an infuriating yet stirring series of highs and lows.
Speaking about highs and lows, how did the pandemic affect your music making? I imagine that it is no coincidence that Unlucky finally saw the light during this hiatus from normalcy.
Yes, I felt that I could either sit down and let this whole situation hit me the hard way or take the time to learn and improve myself. Whenever I had the urge to write or play and compose, I would honour it, even if I needed sleep. I was happy to take my inspiration to a whole other level.
What are the next steps?
We are shopping around for publishers and live shows. Touching wood, we will be able to do something in the United States, where I have family. I want to put together my own band and book some shows in Europe. Hopefully, Unlucky will bring us luck!