For musician Kai Jones, everything is personal.
Just take her headline show at the Camden Assembly on 11 December. You’d be pressed to find another top-bill performer who spent her pre-stage time weaving through the crowd, hugging family and friends, actually listening to the acts before her own — but Jones did just that.
Of course, that was just the beginning. Jones eventually made her way to the white-hot spotlight in an oversized fur jacket, no less. “I’m dying in this, but it’s the look,” she announced.
Glimpses into her state of mind would be a theme throughout the show, though the rest cut much deeper than the one about her wardrobe. Jones has her own unique mix of styles, in which she both raps and sings. You can imagine this lends itself to a more high-energy sound, but she switched it up by bringing a guitarist on stage for a bit and going acoustic.
She dedicated the song “Underwater” to her uncle who recently passed away, and, although she made it through the song just fine, admitted afterward that she wasn’t sure she would finish without cracking.
And that’s not all — she even performed a duet with her cousin in which they quashed a creative falling out that happened between them about five years ago.
See? It’s personal.
With all this in mind, it’s hard to believe that Jones is only 22. She’s been making music for almost a decade, though, which might just explain her ability to go there. At 13, her cousin — who goes by the name of Mr. Litch professionally, and with whom she performed the duet — brought her along to the studio, which made Jones realize music was more than a hobby.
“I used to just sing around the house, sing with my cousins and come up with dancing routines. I never took it seriously until I went to the studio. That’s when I started writing raps, writing music,” she said.
Despite the fact that she was only a teen at the time — and her genre of choice was fast-paced grime — Jones says her creative and emotional maturities already started to show.
“Obviously, grime is a faster tempo, so you can’t say as much as you want to say. But when I go back and listen to my first grime tunes, I was still trying to put a message in them,” she said.
Jones’s cousin worked with multiple musicians around that time, and one heard a song that she had penned. The singer asked her if she could record it herself, and Jones agreed.
And, while that boosted her confidence as a musician, it also represented a shift in her career. Because her cousin worked with so many other singers, it led Jones to feel as though the creative connection between them had weakened. She decided to work with another producer, Damien Cooke, who just so happens to be her cousin’s best friend.
This temporary rift is what inspired the duet she debuted at her Camden Assembly show. It’s all good between the cousins now, but Jones says she felt nervous to pitch the song.
“I literally came up with the cords and then I wrote my verse and the chorus. I was a bit scared to show him my verse because it’s so truthful,” she said. “But, I was like, ‘Let me just show him.'”
“So I called him and said, ‘I need you to come write this song — like now.'”
She credits her cousin with getting her to take music seriously, but says she has forged a strong bond with Cooke, too. They joined forces when Jones was 17. She dropped out of college and “literally was just making music [with Cooke] for three years.”
It’s been her time with Cooke that has really inspired Jones to open up. Her latest three-song project, released as a thank you to fans after the Camden Assembly gig, includes “Zone,” a song that details the severe depression that caused her nan to commit suicide.
Jones didn’t feel ready to put out the song.
“Damien was like, ‘No. That’s what people want to hear,'”she said.
So, she did. And she says she continues to draw most of her inspiration from her everyday life, “as cliché as that sounds.” She also takes her friends’ stories and turns those into songs, too.
“That’s why sometimes I take a while to put out projects, because I feel like I need to live a bit so I have a lot to talk about.”
However, she vows not to give herself too much time off in the New Year, in which she resolves to keep her momentum going.
“My number one goal is to just be consistent in putting out material, stay focused, do another headline show — but sell out, sell tickets. I’m just trying to do better than last year,” she says.
And for Jones, upward is the only direction possible: she pours so much into her music because she sees it as her only path.
“I just feel like, if you have a Plan B, you’re basically saying that Plan A is not going to work,” she says, and not without proving she really believes it. She quit a cushy (yet admittedly uninspiring) business apprenticeship after a year and a half to free up more time to focus on music.
“Sometimes, you just have to jump, even though it’s not going to happen straight away, you just have to have that faith.
“Because, in the end…,” she says, trailing off a bit, “I just don’t want to get to a certain age and look back and think, ‘Aw, I should’ve gone for it when I had less to lose.'”
Fortunately for Jones, she won’t have much to regret: she’s made it very clear that she’s all in.
— Andrea Marchiano