For those who bemoan the declining health of soul music, shame on you. Launching her solo career in 2017, songwriter-turned-solo-artist KIRBY, 30, stands as one of the latest in a long line of newcomers keeping the genre thriving. Having penned songs for Ariana Grande (“Break Your Heart Right Back”), Demi Lovato (“Tell Me You Love Me”), Beyoncé (“Die With You”), and more, KIRBY is already a music industry veteran.
Despite her outstanding qualifications as a songwriter, however, KIRBY knew she was destined for more. Though songwriting fulfilled her creatively and allowed her to give back to the artists that she loved, launching a solo career meant Mississippi-born KIRBY could nourish her soul and put her two loves of singing and writing together.
Debuting with the EP, Sis., LA-based KIRBY brings to life the sounds of spoken word, cabaret aura, and silky soul sensibilities in just seven songs. KIRBY’s runs and pattering vocals on “Kool Aid” enchant us, while on “Don’t Leave Your Girl,” it’s her bellowing tones that stun us. KIRBY has a knack for the evocative. Her voice is delicious in its sly and shapeshifting nature. Her range is the furthest thing from tame, and she’s methodical with her belts and coos.
Too, Sis makes a show of vulnerability. As a seasoned songwriter, we would expect nothing less of KIRBY’s pen, but it’s the grand soundscapes that are astounding. Though KIRBY spills her soul and lets love overtake her spirit, she never sounds weak or victim. Sis makes vulnerability sound powerful—a real statement of purpose.
A joy to speak with and a pleasure to listen to, KIRBY kicks off her decade with an impressive bang. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first fall in love with music?
KIRBY: I’m from the South, so, you know, Sunday mornings, everybody’s singing in the choir. I grew up in a super small church with my cousin on the piano, my grandmother leading the choir. Whenever they would let me get the mic, I was super young, but I was like, “Let me lead!” I just loved singing. When I would get in trouble with my mom, I would write her songs. At the same time, I fell in love with writing; I fell in love with my voice. My mom’s got videos of me singing Toni Braxton songs! I was going in. I had an older sister who loved R&B, and everything she was listening to, I was listening to. I remember she would put on Erykah Badu. And I didn’t get it, so I didn’t like it—I was seven years old. As I got older, I was like, “Damn! This is music.” It all started in a small church on a dirt road in Mississippi.
Talk to me about getting into songwriting.
I went to Berklee College of Music, and told my mother, after two years, I’m leaving school to do it on my own. It was a nightmare! It took so long to figure out how to get into the industry. When you’re fresh out of college and dropping out, you feel hella optimistic, and then all of a sudden, you’re like, “Wait! I’m just folding clothes at Urban Outfitters.” This is not popping, at all. I had a scary moment in my life because my first love from college ended up passing away in a car accident. At the time, it shook me up to the point of, “Okay, KIRBY, you don’t know how much time you’re guaranteed on this earth. You can’t just be sitting back home, working these jobs. You gotta figure out a way to change your life.”
I had maxed out my student loans. Even if I wanted to go back to school, I couldn’t. I told my parents—I was grieving at the same time—just give me a year. I moved back home, and honestly, it was a divine, God moment. God put on my heart; just write a song a day. I would wake up—my mom has a piano downstairs—and write original songs and put them on YouTube. Never went viral or anything like that, but I would be intentional about tweeting the right people. I didn’t care about getting a million views, I cared about the right person in the music industry [hearing my music] and being like, “This girl is gonna work hard, let’s give her a shot.” I did that ‘til day 275, and that’s around the time Roc Nation decided to bring me on. That started with a tweet.
It was the worst [time] of my life because I had never dealt with losing somebody I loved like that so young. But, if that had not happened, I don’t think it would’ve pushed me to the point of giving up everything and just saying, “I gotta try anything.” I have nothing to lose. I lost the one thing that felt like everything to me. I gotta do this, you know? That’s how I got into songwriting. I’ve written for all my musical heroes except Drake and Lizzo. It’s been a blessing to do songwriting, for real.
What about professional songwriting did you find fulfilling?
I grew up listening to “Hey Mama,” [which] was one of my favorite songs from Kanye. So, when I worked with him on “Only One,” which is his mother talking to him from heaven, that was fulfilling for me because he gave me so much as a listener. To be a vessel and give you something to sing, like you gave me to sing? That’s so fulfilling. A chart could never do that for me. You can rarely give back to artists. Having Beyoncé’s “Die With You” as her anniversary song… Beyoncé is everything. All these years, you guys have been giving us great music, I feel blessed to be one person who can help you cultivate a song that means something personal to you.
Was there anything about songwriting that didn’t nourish you enough as an artist, moving you to go solo?
I sing soul music. If you listen to the EP, those are songs so specific… You can’t go into a room as a songwriter and tell the artist what to do. My job as a songwriter is to be a canvas and paint what they wanna paint that day and help them. Like I told you, I love to sing and write. When you take one away… It’s just not fulfilling. They’re both hand-in-hand for me. I love soul music. Me not being able to sing the music I love was tough for me. I stopped and had to go back home and remember why I do [music]. I feel like I’m chasing placements and not chasing purpose. I have to take a moment and figure out: If everything ended tomorrow, am I putting out songs that mean something to me, no matter where they chart? Sometimes, when you’re in LA, you forget that.
It’s scary to walk away from something that was once a dream, but I had to do that. I really, really did.
Talk to me about the fear, because fear can be a great motivator.
Fear has been my greatest motivator. I would rather fail at trying to be myself than win at being somebody else. My fear was: “KIRBY, what if you don’t ever try?” You know? As my songwriting career was getting bigger, my self-esteem was getting smaller, because people want your pen, but they don’t want you. It’s like, “Damn! What’s wrong with me?” Now, the big fear is, “Here’s the EP, what if people don’t like it?” But… When you lose somebody you love, and you realize you gotta get up the next morning, and the world doesn’t stop… If I can go through that, I can deal with you not liking my music.
You’ve got your debut EP, Sis., out today. The title signals it’s all about womanhood and solidarity. Could you speak on those themes?
People ask me, “You ready to be a star?” For me, that’s never been appealing. I don’t like stuff like that. When people hear my music, I want them to think of me as their sis. That’s my word! Every time I’m talking to a girl, it’s like “Sis! Sis!” Man, if people can listen to my music and feel connected to me: I’m like the girl in the salon that’s doing their hair or the girl they would call when they breaking up with their man. That, to me, is the biggest success. When women hear [Sis], I want them to think of themselves, and I want them to see me as a woman they can relate to.
I wanted [Sis] to be hella “Not about a dude, female empowerment type.” It’s female empowerment, but I’m also very much in love! I’m writing about a part of my life when I was in love. I realized that female empowerment is not just loving yourself. You can be empowered as a woman and also be in love with someone else. My female empowerment is tested the most when I’m in a relationship. This record is about the first time in my life when I was in love with somebody, and I didn’t give up my power. I felt stronger. I had all of my self-love, and I had someone who came into my life and loved me for me. It was like a superpower. It’s not the full spectrum to sell self-love if you can’t have that self-love while you’re in a relationship with somebody else.
Sis has some classic sounding moments, “Don’t Leave Your Girl” and “Velvet” come to mind. How do you balance sounding modern with hinting at cabaret-like notes?
The modern part about it is the truth of the story. What I’m speaking about is now. That always translates. I told [my producer] I don’t wanna make a tribute soul record. It needs to be where soul music is headed, not where soul has already been. It’s easy to do [a tribute], but how do you push it forward where a kid is listening to it like, “Woah! What is this?” It’s not the easiest thing to do, but I think we found a couple of ways to push the genre forward, especially on “Velvet,” where it feels futuristic. Like you’re on Mars but still listening to soul music.
What would you say to people talking about “Soul music, R&B, is dying.”?
I would name drop everybody: H.E.R., Ari Lennox, Lucky Daye, Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid. If soul music is dying, then our soul is dying. Soul music is the core of music. Soul music is a classic feeling. Whenever you think of soul music, you go to some emotional place. As long as you have a couple of people lighting the torch, which we do, it’s not going anywhere.
Who does KIRBY make music for?
I make music for the woman that has to get up at seven in the morning and go to work, and for the girl that’s braiding her hair and laying her baby hairs down. I make music for the powerful woman on the 24th floor in her building [who] wants to believe she can still be powerful and in love. I make music for women. I make music for men who still have a soft spot for love songs and romance. I hope all women love my music. [For] women of color, for so long, the narrative is “We’re hard to love. We’re angry. Nobody checking for [us].” I wanted to make my first EP be about love because, as a Black woman, I’m not hard to love. As a Black woman, I’m happy; I’m in love. I am powerful. I’m not waiting on the world to tell me that; I know that.