MORE

Unsettled Traveler

From Ethiopia by way of the Neptunes: Kenna bares his synth-pop soul.

As the first-born grandson in a family of 20 aunts and uncles, Ethiopian-bred synth-pop singer Kenna was accustomed to royal treatment.

His grandfather, by virtue of cultural decree, demanded his respect, and the child was doted upon by nannies and some of the best teachers in Ethiopia. But, initially, there was one key element missing in all of this early-stage nurturing -- his parents.

"There was an overthrow in the government. My parents left the country and went to school at Cambridge [England]. They left me with my grandfather, which was kind of government insurance, if you will, that they were going to come back," says the 27-year-old Kenna (born Kenna Zemedkun), whose debut album New Sacred Cow has won him critical praise and the right to tour with Depeche Mode's adored front man Dave Gahan.

"I was the first-born grandchild of a 22-person family -- my mom and her 10 brothers and sisters, and my dad's 10 brothers and sisters. I was really important and was treated that way. I had a nanny and respect and nobody could touch me," he says.

His life changed abruptly, however, when his parents returned to Ethiopia to reunite with Kenna. They left the strife-riddled African nation as quickly as they returned, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio, after stays in Kenya and London.

"My dad was working at the University of Cincinnati on his doctorate. We moved into student housing with one bedroom. My bedroom was a closet," the singer says. "My parents read Curious George books to me so I would learn English. But I didn't want to learn."

The culture shock was too much for him, Kenna says. The preschool-age Kenna went from having everything to living holed up in a small closet. Because he couldn't speak English, Kenna was mocked by the Midwestern children.

"It was a massive [culture shock] -- as a kid, just to come [to the United States] and to be dressed funny and live among other people that speak a language that you don't understand, and being ridiculed because you're kind of mute. That was an early wake-up call for me."

He admits his culture shock kick-started an authority complex and a pattern of obsessive-compulsive behavior he has since learned to control. Kenna and his family moved again when he was 10 to Virginia Beach, Virginia. A firm believer in the corny but prescient maxim "everything happens for a reason," he met a young musician at Kempsville High School who would later boost his career -- Chad Hugo of the prolific hip-hop-production machine the Neptunes.

They didn't know each other well in high school, but Kenna called upon Hugo when he heard about the Neptunes -- the celestial tag of Hugo and exotic partner Pharrell Williams.

"One day he came to my house with a guitar and started playing," says Hugo. "It wasn't like he was singing R&B songs. He wasn't just this black guy who comes up to me starting to do crazy R&B stuff. He was playing guitar songs that sounded like U2. He sounded like Bono. I thought, Wow, this is really different.' He told me that that's what he wanted to do. He didn't know where he would fit in because he likes all types of music.

"He thought he had something to say and wanted to do something different and artistic. I was like, Shit. So do I.'"

The two recorded in Hugo's basement in between his Neptunes projects. Originally, New Sacred Cow, Kenna's debut record, was set for release on Interscope, thanks to a deal brokered by label vice president and Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst -- a man who demonstratively has an authority complex of his own. However, Kenna says, Interscope wasn't supportive of the album. Kenna and Durst decided mutually to part ways, leaving Kenna to sign a new deal with Columbia Records. Durst's publicist at Interscope couldn't be reached for comment on the amicable split.

For New Sacred Cow, Hugo and Kenna drew on their love of '80s synth-pop and bands such as Depeche Mode, the Cars and the Talking Heads. Kenna's voice, in many ways, is frighteningly similar to that of Gahan, especially on "Man Fading" and "Sunday After You."

"Chad's much more of a Depeche Mode fan than I am," Kenna says of his partner-on-loan. "I'm definitely a fan. He was one of those people who, back in the day, got into that whole scene with the goth vibe. My record's heavily influenced by Chad being a programmer and a musician on it as well."

He explains that although Hugo had a heavy hand in the making of the album, the end result is exactly what he sought.

"It was absolutely what I wanted to do. When I came to Chad, I was trying to communicate with him who I was as a person, and how I needed that to relate to my music. I couldn't have it be a cookie-cutter or any one style because I wouldn't be that person," says Kenna, whose video for the kitschy "Freetime" was nominated this year for two MTV Video Music Awards.

"I needed a partner in crime to kind of make it happen," he continues a while later. "He and I got together and started writing and immediately that's what we did. We would write something that we thought would encompass all of our influences all at once.

Hugo concurs. "It was real collaborative," he says. "It was almost like we're a band. He really wanted to say things in a poetic way and it was just different. It was different artistically from what I was doing with the Neptunes. I was making beats and I was making hip-hop. I enjoyed doing that and I enjoyed making those grooves," says Hugo, a former high school drum major.

"We were bouncing [ideas] back and forth. With doing stuff in the hip-hop world, I've always been into grooves and making people dance. With this, we wanted to do something that hit hard, like something that hit through the speakers so when people heard it they enjoyed hearing the sound, but at the same time wanted to take people on a voyage. . . . I said, Let's make it loud and blare and let's make this beat, this type of rhythm, and then let's break down and let's make it emotional.' It was really cinematic in a way."

Kenna's life has been "cinematic" as well. He dubs it "beautiful" yet "complicated" but feels free releasing those emotions on New Sacred Cow. "Hell Bent' is a song on the record that directly kind of speaks about my authority complex," he says with a laugh, referring to the album's phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes electro track.

"I have a pretty glaring one. That song is really kind of a mirror of what it was that I went through as a child. . . . The song . . . says, Am I the king?' That's a question I was asking myself as a child. What happened? I had all this and it was taken from me. Am I the king?'"

He begins to ruminate on his lyrics, and those words, recited but heartfelt, fill in for the sentiment that seems to drive the young man -- "Then the question is, Of friction and heartache?/And the pain/But the pain is of no consequence 'cause I am hell bent/I will find my kingdom one day/I will have that again.'"


Also playing . . .

It's a sad fact that Fischerspooner's moment in the sun passed long before #1, their debut full-length, ever saw the light of day. And, no, it wasn't in the '80s. It had to have been sometime in 2001 or 2002, when "Emerge," the electro-pop duo's infectious stomp-cum-self-defining art treatise, was pumping up every discerning dance floor from L.A. to Berlin, and the phrase "electroclash" was yet to become synonymous with "poseur hype." Looking back, it still seems like a wonderful mirage: the very idea of a musical crossover from the gallery to the pop world, hooks perfect for cruising, kitschy brains schooled in modernist theory, with enough fashion sense to slay a runway. Bring that beat back.

Not bloody likely! Though it doesn't mean that ironic vocalist Casey Spooner, straight-man musician Warren Fischer, and the troupe of singers and dancers starring in the FS revue don't continue to tap into the high art/low art dichotomy that brought them to the party. Their live extravaganzas are some of the most entertaining in current production. And "Emerge" was a Top 10 download at iMusic this past April. So maybe Fischerspooner's sun is coming back from behind the cloud -- wear your sunglasses at night, just in case.


Sponsor Content