Meshing smooth R&B with pop-friendly club bangers, British-born Kay B. is on the verge of releasing his second album, Better Than Before. The Ghanaian singer/songwriter first drew attention with “Call Cupid” and “Cheater’s Dilemma” from his independently released Look No Further, produced by Stevie Hoang. He talks with Justin Kantor about his surprise breakthrough in Japan; the process of writing tunes over the Internet; and what it’s like to be an independent artist with an international career. (You can hear the interview in its entirety on BlogTalkRadio.)
Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up?
I was born in South London. My parents are from Ghana, so I also grew up in there; then I came back to London and did my university degree in marketing and business/IT.
During the course of your studies, did you want to pursue a career in music?
I had actually been doing music all along. My brother, Sean Kuaye, and I were in a group that performed in talent competitions. When I was at university, I joined up with a friend in the choir, Santi, and Mr. Max. We formed a group called Pack of Three. We started recording stuff in the studio. With the talent shows, I had only been performing stuff from other artists, like Usher, R. Kelly, and Dru Hill.
Do you remember the first time that music had a big effect on your life?
When I was in primary school, Sean used to rap — but it wasn’t for me. I sang in the choirs. My brother and his friends would rap in between drumming on the tables. I was about 11. Lost Boyz were out at the time. The music was quite influential.
You and Sean write most of the songs you record. What was the first song you ever wrote?
Sean used to write poetry; but he started writing music before me. The first was “Adore You” when we were in high school. We broke it up into parts, like the way Boyz II Men do.
Your first single, “Call Cupid,” broke out in 2006 on YouTube and MTV’s Basechart. What was the story behind that song and video coming together?
That was the first song I wrote as a solo artist. At the time, I was in a relationship. Things were getting a little bit shaky. We had had some time apart, and that’s when I wrote it. I felt like the relationship was slipping away, and if I had another chance, I would do things properly. I recorded it with producer Stevie Hoang. For the video, we wanted to depict me being alone, reminiscing. We shot it in East London at Canary Wharf.
Was it from the success of that single that you were able to produce and release your first album, Look No Further?
It definitely let the whole thing take off for me rapidly. I got a lot of airplay in the U.K. It made me realize that I had a market. So, I went into the studio and recorded other similar songs, like “Impress You” and “Don’t You Walk Away.”
What was the process of getting together the album? Was it taxing on your personal life?
At the time, I was working a 9-to-5 while supporting the music. In between that, I had to pay for studio sessions. I spent a lot of time up at night writing songs, since Sean is in the States, and I’m usually out here in the U.K. We communicated over the Internet and did a lot of writing that way. We spent a lot of time working it out around the time difference. It actually took about me a year and a half total to put the album together. At the same time, shows were coming in. I performed with Chris Brown and Ne-Yo as an opening act here in the U.K. So I would schedule myself to record, periodically, so that I’d be able to finish the album.
So, you probably weren’t getting much sleep?[Laughs] There’s been a long period of that — definitely!
How do you write songs over the Internet?
Usually, we get a lot of our beats from producers we know from MySpace or other places. Sometimes, we compose songs, then I go to the studio and build a beat with Stevie Hoang or any of the producers I’m working with. But when I’m writing with my brother, we tend to have a topic. Either one of us will have a chorus or verse that we’ve written, and then we’ll be, like: “Hey, I had this idea, what do you think about it?” We start building it from that point onwards. I might pull from relationships from the past, or experiences I’ve heard about someone going through. Other times, we just say, “Let’s put it in such a way that people will relate to it.”
You mentioned working with Stevie Hoang on your first album. Both of you are independent artists who have gone on to achieve international success in R&B during the last three years. How did you connect?
We met when I was still with Pack of Three. Santi actually discovered Steve. He was working at Hitmaker Studio in London, where she went to record her first solo song. She introduced me to him, and then we started recording as Pack of Three. Stevie eventually started his own studio; and I was the first person he recorded with there. The first song we did was “Call Cupid.” During that time, he also started recording his own material.
You obtained a lot of success with “Cheater’s Dilemma” from Look No Further. The music video was very successful and had a twist to it. How do videos play into your career? How important is image?
I’d say it’s been very pivotal; because so far, it’s had over 300,000 views and counting on YouTube. Initially, people had heard the songs all across Germany, Japan, here in London, and parts of West Africa—but, some people didn’t have the visual as to who Kay B was. The videos for “Cheater’s Dilemma” and “Call Cupid” put a face to the name. People still see the video of “Cheater’s Dilemma” for the first time and comment on it. Even though the story was quite straightforward as to one person — it was talking about cheating — I didn’t want to do a typical video, whereby it’s so obvious that a guy cheated on a girl, or a girl cheated on a guy. I wanted to give it a little bit of a twist. What happens is, a guy has already cheated on his girlfriend; but then he finds out that his girlfriend actually cheated on him before he cheated on her. And it happens that they both cheated on each other with the same girl.
How would you describe your image?
First, I’d say the music is commercial R&B/pop. My image is more… just a calm gentleman, trying to entertain the world with music — really and truly.
Do you have a particular vocal style? How do you approach the art of singing?
I’m a big fan of old-school R&B. I like to do a lot of harmonizing when I’m recording my songs. If you listen to songs like “Impress You,” there’s a lot of that going on there. I also like to mix my natural voice with falsetto, so that it doesn’t just remain monotonous. So that’s the style I like to go for. I think it comes out really, really melodic and sounds good to the ear. Others do it differently, but that’s how I like it.
There were standout ballads and uptempo tracks on Look No Further for me. I thought that the titletrack was a lovely tune; and “Party in the Jungle” had a strong hook. Actually, I felt that one would make a good single, even at some point if you were to redo it.
I know a lot of people really did like that track. But sometimes, being independent, there’s a lot of things that don’t go the way you kind of want them to. But you never know, I could always re-release that song. I mean, anything’s possible, these days.
Speaking of that, how do you structure and schedule your career as an independent artist? The music business, to begin with, is an industry wherein there’s not a lot of roadmaps. I would imagine you really have to have a lot of discipline to figure out how to coordinate everything. Can you shed any insight on how you do that?
Well, first of all, you have to be dedicated. You have to love what you’re doing, because you need to dedicate a lot of time to it. And that’s mainly what my brother and I and the rest of the team do. There’s a whole lot of things that you need to take care of, from the admin side of stuff to the legal stuff, and then the copyright stuff. We did a lot of research. These days, with the way the industry’s gone, it’s slightly easier to be independent. The difficult part is giving your time to it. The Internet makes it easier for us to promote the music and get it out to channels where people can buy it, listen to it, and enjoy it. But some of the harder parts are doing gigs, shows, or even some of the media stuff. It’s not as simple as just getting stuff done online.
Is it harder to get gigs because there are not as many venues?
The shortage of venues is one thing. But also, when you’re online, sometimes it’s not quite straightforward for people to be able get in touch with you and book you for a gig, or TV and radio interviews. When you’re online, you can probably get interviews online or blog sites. But trying to get in touch with mainstream radio and TV, is a whole different ballgame. Sometimes, there’s an unwritten or unspoken code. There’s a bit of a monopoly going on. If you’re not signed to a major label, then—even though you might have a hit song, or a hit album—people sometimes don’t want to pay attention. But there’s always ways around that, as long as you can reach the fans and give them interviews such as these on the Internet. I guess it balances itself out.
So when it comes to artist promotion, the Internet really is a totally separate world from TV and radio.
Definitely. It’s one thing being an Internet phenomenon. It’s another thing being a major radio or TV success, whereby you are all over the airwaves. And then there’s another thing: being both. Having the best of both worlds. A good example is Justin Bieber. He was a phenomenon on the Internet; but then Usher’s label picked him up, and now he has the best of both worlds.
Tell me about your company, KNK Entertainment. Was it started by you and your brother, and who is involved in it now?
Yeah, it was started by Sean and I, and we have a couple of other people who are with us. We’ve got Alvin, J.K., Olivia, and other people who basically work remotely with the team with the radio promotion, artwork, and music videos. But basically, KNK Entertainment is the label through which we license the music out to different labels in different territories of the world.
What does KNK stand for?
It’s a combination of our names, Kay B. and Sean Kuaye.
You mentioned licensing your music to labels in different territories. One part of the world where you’ve had a lot of success is Japan. How did that come about, and what was the experience like for you over there?
That experience was just a blessing. I’m so proud of that. It came about, basically, when I tried to put my music out in the U.K. And then we decided that we should put out the music for the whole world — as opposed to trying to focus on one channel. We started to promote the music online, vigorously, via MySpace and Facebook. We were also selling the album on CD Baby. There were people buying the album on there and then selling it in Japan. Then, it actually started picking up on the charts there, but there wasn’t actually anyone distributing it. So, we got a contact from Japan who wanted to know if they could license the album and produce it out there. And the rest is history.
Was CD Baby helpful to your career?
It has been ever so helpful. Apart from just joining CD Baby and being able to sell the music on there, there’s a whole lot of information. You have like-minded artists on there, who share their experiences of being independent — how they promote their music, how they develop themselves. It’s led me to the right audience. It’s a very good outlet, because it manages to get the music out to different channels and different online retailers.
So, you were able to contact other artists and ask some questions?
Yes. There are so many people who post blogs on how to do gigs, or how to get yourself gigs, and how to increase your fan base online. When you’re a member, you get emails coming through — but you have to read them. That’s where the dedication comes in. You might feel like you’re being bombarded. But then, if you actually pay attention to it, that’s when there’s knowledge and skills you can apply to yourself.
Now, as part of your company, you also have a publishing arm, right?
I believe that you guys hooked up, in recent times, with Sony Music Publishing?
Yep, that’s right. When we got the licensing deal in Japan, we were trying to get publishing out there. And then it so happened that Sony Music were actually already trying to get in touch with us. It was another blessing that just happened.
That’s a great connection to have.
Yes! What happened is, the week the album was released, it was the number-one album in Tower Records. “Groove Thing” was one of the top international ringtones when it was released out there. Basically, the name of the profile was growing, and people were asking questions. So that’s how it all came together.
Presently, you’re on the verge of releasing your second album, Better Than Before. Are you still in the process of recording it?
I’m actually finished with the album. Anything else that gets thrown on there would probably be a bonus; maybe a feature, a remix… or maybe I just might throw one extra track on there. But basically, for the Japan territory, the album is completed. What we tend to do is, we have an additional song for each different territory that we release the album in. The first single that’s coming out in Japan is “Take Me Away”; that’s being released this July. We just shot a video, as well; and the album is coming out on August 18th.
Is there a particular concept behind this album?
Yeah! Funny you should ask. Basically, I’m just trying to enjoy life— single life. ’Cause I wrote the album after becoming single, and things that basically happen toward the end of a relationship is pretty much what the album encompasses. That’s the feel. It’s just the liberation of coming out of a relationship and being single.
Along the lines of what Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo” is about?
Yeah, yeah. “Ridin’ Solo” — “Take Me Away” has that kind of vibe right there, as well as songs on the album like “Let It Go” and “Old News…”
From the songs I’ve heard so far, it seems like it’s a more uptempo album than the last one?
Yes, it’s more uptempo, and just more lively. It’s definitely more commercial. There are songs on there that you can party to, and at the same time, songs that have an R&B feel to it, but not so mellow. But there are some ballads on there, still.
Overall, it’s more for the dancefloor.
Yeah, I wanted to get a bit more into club and daytime music. Most of the songs on Look No Further were played on the radio at night.
One of the songs you’ve been promoting online is called “Push It Back,” featuring Tez-Lee. Tell me about your collaboration.
Tez-Lee is a good friend of mine. We met back in 2005. I was doing a show. He’s an R&B artist and producer himself. We met backstage and exchanged numbers. Though we didn’t get in touch up until 2008, it turns out we actually were living in the same area of London. When we got into the studio, he already had the beat done, so we just needed to think of a topic to write about, and what came out was “Push It Back.”
How would you describe the subject of the song?
We wanted to give sort of, like, a club scene or party environment whereby you see this girl, and you think she’s good-looking and respectable — but what if she had a man, and how do you get to know her. So, between Tez-Lee and I, we’re trying to get know her, in respect to what her situation is. We know she wants to dance, so she should let her hair down, and let’s get to know each other. It’s a fun track.
Did you work with other producers on the album?
Yeah, I worked with three other producers on the album, aside from Tez-Lee. I worked with Matt Mo. He’s a producer here in the U.K. who did about five tracks on the album. He was introduced to me by R-Sin Beatz, who produced “Spotlight” on Look No Further. Another producer is Drew Horley. I recorded most of the album at his Lab Studios in South London. Finally, there’s Digital Clue, who’s based in Germany. He also produced some songs on the last album.
Didn’t he do the remix of “Cheater’s Dilemma”?
Yes; and he’s also got a remix on this new album. He remixed “Take Me Away,” which is a very brilliant remix.
So, the album is coming out in Japan first. Where will it be available?
It will be released, physically, in stores; and then on I-Tunes afterwards. A month later, we’ll release it elsewhere.
Are there any other artists whose work you’re listening to currently?
Yes, you mentioned Jason Derulo. I like his stuff. And Trey Songz — I’m liking a lot of his work.
Have you heard the latest Craig David album, Signed, Sealed, Delivered — the Motown covers?
I heard one track on it; but I haven’t listened to the whole thing. But, Craig David is one of my favorite artists. I love his first and second albums. Then, I’ve got the new Drake album, that’s not bad. And also, here in the U.K., there are quite a lot of artists doing stuff that I’m loving: Tinchy Stryder, Sway, and Tiny Temper. Also, I was a big fan of Jay Sean before he got signed to Cash Money.
Well, cool. I’m looking forward to hearing your new album. I’m liking what I’ve heard so far, and I hope it will come out stateside, as well.
We’re actually working on a licensing deal to get the album released in the States. Hopefully, we’ll have that up and running, and then fans in the States can buy the physical album, as opposed to having to having to buy it on iTunes.
That’d be cool. But, I have to say Japan always does a nice job of putting out CD’s: really nice packaging; and the sound quality is always excellent.
That’s true. They actually remastered the album when we sent it over to them; and then the quality, just like you said, is top-notch. The master I have is already really, really, really good. I mean, I’ve been listening to it; and when you play it out on some really good speakers and systems, it’s top-notch stuff. We’re definitely looking forward to the remaster in Japan.