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Muroki: Beneath the Surface

Diving into the layers of rising Kenyan-Kiwi artist Muroki, he chats to us about growing up in an Aotearoa surf town, finding his Kenyan roots and the journey of his new EP, Heading East.

21-year-old musician Muroki is a name to remember. With warm, magnetic vocals that flow effortlessly over silky grooves, this New Zealand artist is a natural talent destined for big things. Muroki’s sound blends jazz, funk, reggae and soul, crafted by a selection of influences that caress the ears of those who listen. The Raglan local has come a long way since making music in his mate’s parents’ basement. His debut record, For Better or Worse, is a GarageBand demo that caught the attention of global Kiwi chart topper BENEE, who Muroki describes as his ‘guardian angel for the music thing’, as he was the first artist she signed to her own record label, Olive. Since then, Muroki has seen the progression of his artistry over the past couple of years. He dropped his debut EP Dawn last year and secured his first-ever platinum record for ‘Wavy’, a hypnotic tune that was inspired by a psychedelic trip he had at a music festival.

Now, Muroki has dropped his 2nd EP Heading East, a multifaceted body of work that is 3 years in the making, inspired by his overseas travels and worldly experiences. We caught up with the young musician on a sunny Friday morning in West Auckland, just a few days after his return from Germany. He chats to us about the new project, growing up in a New Zealand surf town looking different from everyone else, being lost and found in Nairobi and the influences behind his music.

How are you feeling? I know you just got back from Berlin and I saw you were also in America as well, it seems like it’s been a hectic few weeks!
I’m good! I actually feel really awake right now because of the jetlag. Besides that, I’m feeling good, nice and full because I ate some breakfast! But yeah it’s been pretty- well, not necessarily, I wouldn’t say hectic, it’s been kind of like a holiday but also like a bit of work. So, it’s been hectic since I got back! But yeah, I’ve kind of just been chilling, eating croissants and shit for like the past 3 weeks [laughs].

I saw you performed in LA for the first time as well?
Yeah in America I was working a lot more. I went over actually for a Samsung thing but then I also did some sessions in New York then I played the gig in LA which was real cool, I played School Night so yeah it’s been good fun! It was real sick doing the writing sessions in New York, I was working with this dude called Justyn Pilbrow [Elemeno P, producer credits for Halsey and The Neighbourhood], he’s a Kiwi guy and yeah that was so cool. It was in Brooklyn, it was in this real nice studio so yeah it was dope!

Well, welcome back home! I know you have a new EP Heading East dropping, congratulations!
Thank you! Yeah, nah I can’t wait aye. It’s been a long time coming.

I feel like this has been quite a big year for you and you’re only 21? I mean you haven’t even reached a quarter of the human lifespan and you’ve been travelling globally for music!
Yeah it’s been pretty nuts aye. I went over to Australia for the first time playing gigs, and then I’m going back in 3 weeks which I’m quite excited for. Then yeah, I did the LA stuff and did some sessions with- I actually did some sessions with Amy Winehouse’s producer in Berlin as well, which was pretty sick. That was pretty amazing like, he co-wrote and produced Back To Black so I was like [fangirls] oh bro! It’s one of my favourite albums! So yeah, it’s been just like cool experiences. Now that the borders are open and stuff, I’ve just been like, ‘right, I’m leaving! I’m fucking outta here!’ I definitely feel like I’ve made the most of getting out. I’m almost kinda like wow, I should probably chill at home for a bit [laughs].

Do think your travels have shaped you as a developing artist and even as a young adult?
Yeah, I think just travelling, not even just recently, my parents always made an effort to take me overseas. Every couple of years, they’d save up and they really thought it was important for me to go overseas. Like I’ve been to Kenya 4 times, first when I was 7, then I was 9, then at 14 and again when I was 16. My dad was always like, ‘alright, let’s go to Kenya!’ That’s obviously when flights were a bit cheaper but maybe I’ll go back next year. I’ve spent a bit of time in Australia because my dad lives over there, and also been to places like Mauritius. Going to places like Kenya and stuff when you’re really young kind of opens your eyes up a little bit more to the reality of what the rest of the world is like, you know? It almost like quickly matures you in a way so I definitely think it’s played a big part of my artistry like writing music, but that’s kind of the whole buzz of this EP to be honest. The Heading East EP has to do with- like I wrote it when I was in Morocco, and we were heading east to Eastern Europe so yeah! Definitely played a part in it.

Yeah the EP is amazing! I feel like it’s quite a versatile project, there’s definitely a song to suit every mood.
Thank you! That’s what I was kind of going for. It’s like quite hard with EPs because you can only have like 6 songs, right? And I might’ve written like 30 or 40 songs in the timespan of these past 3 years. Over time, some are finished, some aren’t but you just chip away and write lots of songs, then you got to boil it down to like, not necessarily the best ones but the best suited altogether, in order for it to work cohesively. So yeah, I tried to get a snapshot of everything I’ve been into but it was quite hard putting that all together because there’d be like an acoustic kinda jam and then there’s like some more kinda poppy stuff, then a full kind of reggae dub tune or funk stuff so it has been kind of tough, so I hope it makes sense [laughs].

Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this body of work?
Yeah, so Heading East, that was an EP I was supposed to release like, the very first lockdown, and this was before I met BENEE and got signed and like, this was actually the EP I sent to her, like pre-everything-else-happening. And then she was like ‘don’t release it’ but anyway, that’s a different story! But yeah I had the EP, I ended up not releasing it but I always liked the song ‘Heading East’ so I’ve got that one on the EP but all the rest of the songs are different. It’s kind of been like this journey, like I wrote that song when I was in Morocco and travelling around Europe, Africa and stuff so it kind of felt like a big journey for me, musically as well. Also just growing up and seeing my influences and development throughout these past 3 years, so that was kind of like the whole idea. I didn’t like- I put a little bit of thought into it but it also just kind of happened, and I was like oh yeah that makes sense [laughs]. But you listen to the EP and you’re like wow there’s some different stuff on here, lots of the songs I’ve written ages ago and lots of them I’ve written fairly recently so it does feel like it’s got a bit of a story.

So this is 3 years in the making, what would you say you’re most proud of when it comes to this EP?
I was thinking about this in the car, and I was listening to the old EP and like the old ‘Heading East’, like if anyone heard the old Heading East EP, they’d think fuck it’s a bit sketchy [laughs] but yeah, it’s cool to see the development in my own songwriting, recording and like production stuff, and just learning about it, you know? Working with all these people like Josh Fountain and Jason Truscott and stuff. I owe these past 3 years- they’ve been like teachers in a way, I’ve learnt so much through the process so that’s what I’m stoked about. Like listening to it now then listening to what it was, like that would’ve been made 2 years ago so I can really see the progression.

That’s always good as a developing artist to see your own progress.
Yeah definitely, that’s what I really liked. When you listen to other artists that you’re into, and you can see their first EP, it’s like a bit of a shocker and then by the end of it, they’ve got like a hit record. So I like seeing those developments and you can grow with them as well.

Can you tell us a bit about how you started your musical journey?
I started playing music when I was 8 years old, just playing guitar and stuff but I didn’t start recording any music until I was about 15. I was in the basement of my mate’s parent’s house, I used to live with him because my mum moved away to Coromandel and I didn’t wanna leave Raglan, I was just in love with the place and I kind of started a band so at the time I felt like it was gonna be huge [laughs]. So I stayed and we were getting into recording on GarageBand and I started singing then as well, just all up in this basement with me and my mates, we were just doing that. It’s kind of crazy to think about because not long after that time, I recorded ‘For Better or Worse; and that’s just a GarageBand demo and it’s still my second most listened to song, so I thought that was kind of weird [laughs], surely some of the new stuff passes it!

Surely! For those who don’t know, what was it like growing up in the coastal town of Raglan?
It’s pretty laid back aye. It was pretty good. I just surfed a lot, played a lot of live music. It’s pretty cheap to rent you know, as a local I feel cause it’s quite hard to move there but if you’ve grown up there and you know people, you can find rooms and stuff for real cheap. At one point I was paying $80 a week for like a room and I was living on like $300 every 2 weeks or something like that. I was fucking bumming it but yeah, had enough food and enough for some beers, could go skating and stuff, it was real chill, real good!

You seem like a real beach person like the sun and the ocean is just your happy place.
Yeah definitely. I moved up to Auckland recently and I’m like oh fuck.. [laughs]. It takes a bit of time to get to the beach, to just go for a surf but yeah, it’s definitely like calming for me, takes my mind off of everything, I really enjoy it. It’s more like a meditative thing like you can get away from everything and just go for a paddle around in the water.

How does this great love impact the type of music you make?
I don’t really know, I guess- like this is an interesting question because I was just thinking about how everything you do growing up, obviously nurtures everything you’re going to do in the future you know so it obviously has had an impact but I can’t pinpoint what it actually is. I was thinking maybe my music’s a little bit more chill or something, maybe more lighthearted. I think just having time out in the ocean and like being away, being able to reflect on everything, having that space really like clears my head out to create. But yeah, I don’t know. I guess I don’t really get a whole lot of influence from- well, I guess I do, yeah, fuck, it’s kind of hard but it’s kind of funny as well because I’ve got a song called Wavy and another called Surfin but they’ve got nothing to really do with the ocean [laughs]. Maybe they’ve influenced the names of my songs so yeah, that’s what it is! [laughs].

Moving to an urban city environment from like a beach town must’ve been quite a transition, although I feel like you speak on that in your song Surfin?
Yeah, well I actually wrote that song before I even moved to be honest. It was because I was driving up here so often and I was just getting started so it was kind of like a couchsurfing vibe where I was just staying at mates houses all the time. Didn’t really have a room or anything, obviously, my friends were really lovely like they are amazing hosts you know. I was just kind of getting fed up with driving from Raglan to Auckland constantly and like, getting stuck in traffic because I’d finish in the studio at about 5 and then it’s 6 o’clock and I’m just sitting in peak traffic like ‘fuckkkkkk this!’ I was almost doing it twice a week. Sometimes I’d stay here for a week at a time, just sleeping in my trousers so it was just about like, frustration. So it was actually like the transition of me moving up here because I was like fuck, it would be nice to have a house here so I don’t have to constantly sleep on people’s couches.

It’s really neat like, when you see the name you obviously think it’s about surfing but then it’s actually about couchsurfing which I thought was a bit of an unexpected twist.
Yeah, really? It’s kind of clever but it’s kind of daft as well [laughs]. Like it was quite a funny song because when we were recording it, we were actually recording another song and then we made this beat. We were in the middle of the session when we made the beat and then we’re like, ‘fuck should we just have some beers?’ So then we just got on the piss and then like came back [laughs]. It was like 2-3 hours and we just had the song done. It was like ‘watch me write about something stupid’, you know like, something like I’m just fed up with traffic, like couchsurfing around and then Surfin came out and it was kind of like this fun vibe.

So back to the EP, when I got to Found in Nairobi and I was like holy shit, I had actual goosebumps. Can you tell us the story behind this specific song?
Oh true, no way! So that was like a tune that was inspired by me getting actually lost in Nairobi. So when I was 14, me and my 12-year-old cousin wanted to go to this fair. My family lives in a place called Athi River and it’s like around 40 minutes out of Nairobi. So we took the bus in to this fair, just me and him, my mum was there as well actually at the house shitting herself cause she was like ‘I don’t know if I want my son to go’ but my dad and the rest of my family was like ‘nah they’ll be fine!’ Then we went, we were having a great time and then we got our money stolen, by these two kind-of like con artists, one of them was just like cooked on drugs I feel like. I just remember his eyes were blazing red. And then he like started chasing after us and shit, grabbed me, grabbed my cousin. I like ripped my arm out and we were running around, we went to this quad bike thing, running on this quad bike track away from this guy and like, it was fucking gnarly. There were just quad bikes going around and I was like fuck! Then we went to the guys who were running the quad bike place and we were like ‘bro this guy’s trying to chase us and shit’ and then eventually they told him to shoo and we finally somehow made it home. But yeah it’s not actually really what the song’s about but that was kind of the inspiration behind it. I was like, I could use that to talk about me being Kenyan in New Zealand, looking different to everyone else, having a different culture to everyone else, kind of just finding my place— I haven’t lived with my father pretty much my whole life so I’ve kind of been separated from that part of the world in a way. So it was about trying to find that side, yeah.

Oh wow, so it was about trying to discover your cultural identity?
Essentially, yeah. Kind of just looking different and feeling different and growing up with funny hair, you know, almost like…especially when you’re a kid you just wanna look like everyone else, so I just wanted to capture that and then almost use the song as a slightly therapeutic thing for myself so it was cool, I enjoyed it. I think it’s one of my favourites on the EP, definitely one of the deepest songs I’ve ever written, that’s not like a love song [laughs].

How else do you think you draw from your culture when it comes to making music?
Oh, rhythms. I think that’s like the big one, rhythms of flow, of the voice, of the drums, of the bass. The whole instrumentals a lot of the time are all heavily drawn from Black music. You know like the Brazilian samba and Jamaican reggae, afrobeats, almost like Soukous music. I always like to listen to those kinds of things and put them in my music because I like the rhythm. I like making people dance. People like having a good time and those rhythms are perfect for it.

You were also the first artist to be signed to BENEE’s record label which is amazing. As a new artist it must be surreal to get a co-sign from the most popular artist coming out of the country at the moment?
Yeah it’s pretty cool. I was pretty surprised when she messaged me about it and stuff. Like 2 years ago, around the time of the first Heading East EP but yeah she’s been amazing. She’s helped out with all sorts of stuff, now we got the same management crew and she’s a really good friend as well which is great. She took me to Australia, she put my songs on Elton John’s podcast, she’s spread my shit everywhere so yeah it’s been great. She’s my little guardian angel for the music thing [laughs].

How important do you think it is to have established artists support local musicians?
It’s definitely important because you gotta keep everything moving like everyone has their time and once you reach a certain point, I feel, like at BENEE’s level you’re kind of sorted you know, you can tour around the world and stuff so it’s amazing. Even like for me on my own level, kind of just supporting artists like your mates and stuff because it’s such a tight community so everyone kind of knows everyone, so it’s great to bring everybody up, bring up the whole tribe.

Congratulations on Wavy going platinum, how does it feel to have your first platinum single?
It’s pretty nuts aye like fuck, it’s nice to have the actual visual thing cause it’s been platinum for a while but it doesn’t feel platinum until you get the platinum fucking vinyl so I was pretty stoked. I feel like a professional now so that’s great. It was received so well too so I was stoked that everyone was into it. It completely opens up new doors for me.

I read the song was written about a psychedelic trip you had at a music festival, what’s that creative process like transferring that experience into a song?
Oh yeah, I was kind of making it silly because- I can’t remember how we started, if it was the chorus first, I can’t even really remember it was awhile ago. We wrote it and it was great but it was kind of like a piss take but then like… not a piss take. It was kind of like a love song, like dancing and the whole vibe was like, let’s write a song about dancing on mushrooms and like, because it’s so profound and like, whatever you kind of say is not wrong, you know? It can be as trippy as you want really and lyrically too. So yeah it was fun, I like a good psychedelic song, even if the song itself isn’t necessarily like super psychedelic. People don’t quite get it. I said it once on Radio New Zealand and I was like ‘fuck, probably not the best place to tell them that’ [laughs] but yeah I just say it’s about dancing aye!

Follow Muroki here for more and stream the new EP Heading East here.

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