Detroit singer Kesswa was having trouble finding the kind of dance music that she wanted to hear, so she did what any aspiring musician would do: She got to work.
“I wasn’t really successful in finding dance music that felt like there was a calming and grounding element to it,” Kesswa says. “A lot of the electronic music, vocally, is kind of cold, or it’s just very cookie-cutter.”
While she was working on her debut EP, last November’s Soften, she had a breakthrough with Detroit-based producer Benjamin Hill as they composed “To Find,” an ambient, ethereal, and hypnotic track that calls to mind Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s experimental solo work.
“‘To Find’ started with the sample of a Rhodes [piano] that Ben was messing around with, and it really struck me,” Kesswa says. “He would play me loops and samples that he was listening to or loops he’d created, and we would deconstruct and reconstruct the song to build this larger landscape so I could express myself vocally. When I heard the Rhodes, it just felt so heavy and the rhythm of it was so dancey. We built this drum arrangement, and then he pulled out his bass guitar and I just started singing. It felt so liberating — like I’d found my happy place.”
What did she find? Calming, meditative, and soulful dance music with glitchy electronic beats that borrow rhythms and structure from traditional Nigerian music (her parents are from Nigeria). “To Find” was the last song the 27-year-old Detroit native wrote for the EP, and it’s the one where she felt like her artistic vision fully clicked.
It had been a long time coming. Though she’s been interested in music since she was a kid, she didn’t start pursuing it as a career until fairly recently. While in college at Wayne State University, she developed an interest in DJing and electronic music production. “I sang in private and in the shower — that was the extent of it,” she says of her college days. “I was mortified at the idea of anyone even hearing me sing.”
Kesswa had started taking vocal lessons, so she could sample her own voice for her productions. But when a car accident on the Lodge Freeway in 2015 left her sidelined in a neck brace and a mountain of medical bills, she had to put her dreams on hold. Until 2017, that is, when she was let go from a full-time job at a nonprofit. She had a side gig as a beautician and decided it was time to give music a real shot.
“I need to just see what would happen if I gave all my attention, all my focus, all my energy to creating a musical project that felt like an authentic reflection of my inner world,” she recalls thinking.
Now, the southwest Detroit resident is prepping a live recording for release this fall while working on her full-length debut.
“It’s definitely becoming more funky and more soulful,” Kesswa says of her new music. “I’m looking to make something that’s a little more accessible but still fresh and still unique to my experience.”
That last part is key to what makes Kesswa and her music stand out.
“I identify as an artist who is driven by searching for a feeling,” she says, “and being very, very meticulous about the elements that come together to create that feeling because I really want to communicate something.”