Kae Sun has previously sung in pidgin over Afrobeat rhythms, but nowadays, it is the ever-changing world of R&B that occupies his thoughts. In February, the Montréal-based singer-songwriter, born in Accra, Ghana, released the mesmerizing mini-album Midnight and Other Endings, in which he further explores modern R&B, a quest that started on his previous album, Whoever Comes Knocking, released in 2018 on the Moonshine label. “It’s the abstract, impressionistic side of songwriting that I’m interested in, right now,” he explains.
The new cultivators of R&B provide fertile ground for him, as he follows in the footsteps of Moses Sumney, serpentwithfeet, and to a certain extent, Frank Ocean. As Kae Sun (born Kwaku Darko Mensah Jr.) readily admits, such comparisons have the advantage of delineating his aesthetic choices. “There’s this quality that I find in these artists – especially Frank Ocean – that has to do with the way they write songs,” he says. “I’m interested in that because I studied writing and poetry. They have a singular way of linking words and music, whereas I used to say things more directly, while trying to be lyrical. Lately, I’ve noticed the emergence of a new generation of R&B composers who are interested in poetry in a different way, which I find very interesting.”
Arriving in Canada as a teenage international student, Kae Sun began composing and producing his own music upon graduation, while based in Toronto (his family has since moved from Ghana to the Atlanta area). His previous releases melded soul, folk, pop, reggae, and occasionally, the rhythms of his native country. “I’ve only recently turned to R&B, but I’d say there’s always a little bit of Ghanaian influence in my music,” he says. “And besides, the musical culture is so rich in Ghana that it’s naturally bound to leave its mark on what I do. But those influences are more subtle and direct.”
In this regard, Kae Sun is the product of his sonic environment. As a child, he was influenced as much by the American and British pop that was played on the radio as by the distinctive kind of gospel music heard in Accra. And LAO, inevitably, by highlife – the fusion of jazz and traditional Ghanaian rhythms that emerged in the mid-20th Century, whose influence has extended far beyond the borders of the country. Nigerian Afrobeat, in fact, is largely dependent on the Ghanaian sound. A modern, more pop-reggae-funk version, which emerged among the Ghanaian diaspora in Germany, dubbed “burger-highlife,” plays extensively in Kae Sun’s memories of radio.
The other formative musical ingredient of the musician was passed on to him by his father, a great fan and record collector of soul music. “Stevie [Wonder], Marvin [Gaye], the Ohio Players, all of them were played at home. I have eclectic musical tastes!” says the musician, who makes music in his small home studio, often starting from ideas that come to him while playing guitar, his main instrument.
“The melody always comes first, then it’s on to the lyrics,” Mensah Jr. explains. Even if you have the most beautiful words, they always need good music – I believe the melody is truly what drives the song. Then, sometimes, I’ll hear a beat someone made and I’ll take notes, I’ll try to find melodic ideas that can go with it.”
While he wrote and produced a lot of his first projects, Kae Sun turned to his Montréal-based collaborators, and mainly to beatmaker Yama//Sato, for Midnight and Other Endings. “For this project, I was looking to achieve a slower, more flowing, hazy sound,” he explains. “Yama//Sato creates very atmospheric productions,” which are the perfect backdrop to the artist’s delicate voice and tender songs. “My songs are about desire, the desire for intimacy, of course, but also to have a place to call home, a home port. I’ve moved around a lot in the last few years, so I wanted to express this desire for a place of my own, this desire to love and be loved.”
When he left Toronto a few years ago – a city where the R&B scene seems more valued than in Montréal – “There was a lot of interesting stuff going on, at least from a music-industry perspective,” says Kae Sun. “But I believe that artists, creators, have to be able to extract themselves from the industry. Creatively, I feel more comfortable in Montréal. The cultural scene is so exciting, there are so many good musicians, creators, talent from different backgrounds: designers, visual artists, filmmakers, etc. Yes, Toronto has the wind in its sails right now, but the scene is very cut-throat. I felt that creatively, going back to Montréal was the right move for me.”