Four years ago aspiring pop-soul singer-songwriter Keléchi Kalu decided to move to L.A.
Originally from Orangeburg, S.C., the Nigerian American found himself living the quintessential struggling artist life: Surfing from couch to couch and trying desperately to get his music heard anywhere.
Kalu, 29, eventually found himself in an all-male pop group, CTZEN (pronounced citizen), that competed on the second season of “The X Factor” in 2012. The quintet impressed show judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato (Simon Cowell? Not so much) -- but didn’t make it far in the competition.
Although a deal with Primary Violator Management followed, the group didn’t last much longer.
Undeterred, the classically trained Kalu began working as a solo act.
Last year he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his debut EP, “Creative,” and raised nearly double the modest goal he set to record the project (he raised $16,378).
The four-song EP, which the singer is releasing independently, leans heavily on Kalu’s Nigerian roots, Southern influences and his love of contemporary R&B. The Times is premiering it ahead of its official release Monday.
The Times chatted with Kalu about striking out on his own, navigating the industry and staying true to himself.
For most people, the last time they saw you was competing on “X Factor” in a group. What happened?
There’s not some crazy story about someone storming off or whatever. It's just one of those situations where everybody felt like it was time to move on. It’s like you get to L.A., and things look like they are happening -- and then they don’t.
I’m never one to leave things falling by the wayside. I put so much time and energy and resources into being in the group, and music in general, so at that point I decided to take it forward. Right around the time the group decided to split, I started doing open mike nights and working with other musicians and it felt fun again.
Were you at all disillusioned by the industry after that experience?
I would be lying if I said things didn’t get me down when they didn't work out the way I thought they were going to. But at the same time I grew up in a Nigerian household and my parents taught me in the face of adversity, you still push forward. Every time we moved forward and then had to move five steps back, I still felt like it was setting me up for something. I used those moments as learning moments. Those things that happened during the group, or to the group, I haven't repeated those mistakes.
What’s it been like for you, navigating on your own?
It’s difficult when you’re kind of just figuring out what your sound is and you don't have someone saying this is what you’re going to do. But that’s what makes it more genuine when you go through the process of building. It took me about two years from the first time I recorded my first song to put out a body of work. In those years I figured out what I wanted to sound like, what I didn’t want to sound like. I can’t say I figured out everything, but it gave me a nice outline. I think the EP speaks to the entire process of what I went through.
You mentioned spending two years trying to find your sound. When did it click?
I think it was when I recorded [title track] “Creative.” It was one of the first songs I recorded. I was trying to do all these things but I was afraid of recording music that sounded too R&B. In the climate right now that's not necessarily what pop stations are putting on the radio -- although they are playing R&B and soul sounding songs on the radio from people who don't necessarily look like me.
But when it comes to black musicians, mainstream radio is not really where you’ll find soul music from them. I was afraid of that. I was afraid of sexualized content -- that wasn’t necessarily what I thought I could sing about. Being able to discover that that was something I could sing about and still feel genuine and still be able to connect that to my personal self and connect that with people who listen to my music, I thought that was amazing.
How was the recording process?
I worked full time and I worked full time on the EP. I would get off at 7 p.m. and go to the studio. I did that day in and day out. I’m a classically trained singer and cellist and I like to be as close to the arrangements. You hear about artists who put in all of this work and do all of these things, but other people are dictating what they need to do and then they aren’t happy with the project. So I’m happy to have had this amazing experience recording and I’m very happy with the project.
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