This is Part 1 of a 5-part series: New Sounds of Africa
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“I cast my eyes up to the sky, I pray for rain…I got my feet in chains,” sings Auriol Hays, using only her powerful, penetrating, yet also soothing voice as a musical instrument.
Pray for Rain” is a demo song the South African vocalist is working on. The emotionally loaded and intense piece speaks of her desire to be “cleansed of the past” and of “personal imprisonment.”
Yet ironically, the song is liberating Hays…freeing her from the “constraints” of her debut album, 2009’s critically acclaimed Behind Closed Doors. It garnered comparisons with deceased British soul diva Amy Winehouse and had revelers gyrating on nightclub dance floors across Africa.
The record resulted in two exuberant “party all night” hit singles, “Take it Slow” and “Turn up the Volume” – songs Hays now dismisses as “terrible.”
“(Those songs) are a means to an end, quite honestly, because if it weren’t for those two songs I wouldn’t be here,” she told VOA. She explained, “My first album made people happy, and that’s great. But I don’t necessarily want to make people happy. I want to write songs that reflect my reality, and the reality is that the last two years have been hell for me.”
And so Hays is abandoning the computer-generated “bells and whistles” that “drowned” her voice in “electronic mush” on her first album. “My next work will definitely not have an electronic edge. It’s going to be about musicians playing real instruments and my voice as close to live as possible, with no artificial flourishes,” she stated emphatically.
“Pray for Rain” is indeed so unadorned, so naked, that it’s vastly different from anything on her debut. The track came about as a result of her “love” for the traditional American slave song, “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” and her admiration for a musical icon from the United States – the singer, songwriter and pianist Nina Simone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ckv6-yhnIY
“It’s not that Nina Simone had a particularly great voice but Nina Simone was a great songwriter and she could make you feel that!” Hays said. “I’ve always wanted to write a song in the vein of Nina Simone. This song is my attempt at that.”
Hays added that she’s set on “exploring darkness” in her new music. “There's nothing better than singing a bitter, sad song. In fact, I prefer the dramatic or sad,” she said. “If I was going to write a happy song, I would really, really have to mean it. I don’t want to write generic crap just because someone says that I should.”
Queen of pain and suffering
Hays is reluctant to go into detail about the nature of the “pain” that’s afflicted her in recent times. “I’ll speak about that in my songs,” she said. She hopes that her next album will “heal” her. “When I sing, it’s a cathartic experience,” she said.
In reality, she began this “purge” on her first record, although much of its lyrical bleakness was hidden by its upbeat production.
On the track “Queen of Pain and Suffering,” Hays croons, “I’m the queen of everything that you would never choose.” She explained, “That song was just my way of telling my husband, ‘I know that sometimes you think I’m a cow (difficult woman) and I’m okay with that!’ Because honestly – sometimes I am! So I’m the queen of pain and suffering.’”
A yearning for escape is also a recurring theme in Hays’s music. Her song “Zero Gravity,” speaks of someone who’s “floating between highs and lows,” unsure of where they are, someone who no longer wants to be lost.
“’Zero Gravity’is my sorry-for-myself song,” said Hays, adding, “We all sometimes wish we were children again. We yearn for their innocence and their ability to escape from the real world. We all wish we could just tune out for a while, and just go off (to be alone). And I do think that sometimes we should.”
Hays said her new record will be “deeply personal. I’m calling it Devil Woman. I’m going to be talking about this devil woman and why she’s a devil woman and all the complexities that happen in a relationship.”
She wants to fill her new songs with instruments not associated with the jazz and soul labels thus far pasted on her. “I would like some accordion in there, some beautiful violin. I want some beautiful sounds in there,” she said.
The singer wants to be known as more than “just a jazz or just a soul singer.” Hays said, “Given the chance to explore everything else there is out there in music, I would jump at it. Music is such a fantastic thing, it’s such a broad, expansive thing; why would you want to go hide in one little corner?”
‘Failure means winning’
But, more than her desire to branch out into as many different forms of music as possible, Hays wants to be “genuine.”
“I’m no longer willing to churn out music just to aim for it to be radio-friendly hit material,” she stated. “What I’ve learnt is that as an artist you have to be true to yourself.”
And if that means abandoning the formula that ensured Behind Closed Doors was such a commercial success, Hays will “walk that tightrope.”
She insisted that she wants to work with people “who take chances, who aren’t afraid of being called commercial failures, people who are willing to risk failure if it means being victorious as a person, as an artist, and keeping your self-respect. It’s about not selling yourself out, not rejecting who you really are as an artist.”
So, said Hays, the new direction her music is taking isn’t a risk at all. She explained, “Because I am being genuine, even if I fail, I win. Now I don’t expect people to understand that philosophy, but I do hope they’ll give my music a fair hearing.”
But she’s acutely aware that she’s on an artistic precipice. Her new music, with its non-commercial, experimental leanings, may not sell – condemning her to a wilderness of sorts.
Hays laughed. Then a wry smile creased her face, and she sighed, “Only the lost can be found – even if it is only by themselves.”