Singer Abimaro Gunnell and bassist James Beatt met at university, and joined by Alex Montaque on keys, they’ve been making music together as Abimaro and the Free ever since. The band’s initial line-up also included drummer Rafael Powell and guitarist Michael Kiwanuka, who has gone on to achieve mainstream success, topping the BBC Sound of 2012 poll.
To mark International Women’s Day, Abimaro and the Free curated and performed at an event on 2 March at the Albany Theatre showcasing their soul-folk songs. The evening was funded by Women Make Music, a fund set up by the PRS for Music Foundation to support and celebrate women who are making outstanding music in the UK. M chatted to Abimaro about the event, her thoughts on opportunities for women in music and her own sound…
How did you come up with the idea for the event?
I came up with the idea of writing about the different relationships that a women has in her life – something everyone can relate to. I wanted to put a night together that was an inclusive night, one that I would want to go to and that you don’t have to be a ‘muso’ or arty type to attend or relate to, and so I applied for the Women Make Music grant from the PRS for Music Foundation. I was really surprised and overwhelmed to hear that there were so few women that were PRS members! [Women Make Music was created in response to the fact that women make up only 14% of the writer membership of PRS for Music]
Why do you think there are so few female music creators?
I was discussing this with a friend the other day. We were debating what makes a good musician, and whether it had anything to do with gender. It does seem that there are a lot of singers who are women, and a lot of instrumentalists that are men, and we were trying to understand why this was. I think a lot of it is to do with confidence. I think that part of the reason some women I know don’t engage with music is that it doesn’t feel accessible to them. I certainly felt like that about certain venues growing up. Sometimes as women we feel that we need to separate ourselves from men and stand alone to show that ‘we can do it’. But actually, we can learn from men through collaborating and working together. I’m constantly working with men. It’s strengthened me and made me a better musician, and given me confidence.
Do you think that the trend is being reversed?
I hope so. I think things are changing; there are more Laura Marlings, Emeli Sandés, coming up. The trend is moving more towards women who have something to say. Women need to support one another more to reach out and do things that they may feel uncomfortable doing. Speaking personally, leading a band for me was a real challenge. Although I had musical training, I found that my band members were more advanced than me in terms of communicating on a musical level. I could have easily have given up. I had to find a language that we could both speak, so they could understand what I wanted to achieve musically. I think a lot of women come up against those hurdles and because there’s less women in the industry to provide support, they are more likely to give up. But I do think this is changing.
How long have you been making music?
Since I was around 14, I started out writing poetry. I didn’t see myself as a singer or making music until I was 18. It was always about writing for me. I started off writing stories, then I moved on to poetry, I then realised that more people could hear my stories through music. It felt like a natural progression. I didn’t want my stories to stay in books, I wanted to get them out there.
How do you write your songs?
I write some lyrics with a few chords, melody, chords and lyrics generally come together. I then record the song and send it to the guys. They will then add their own ideas and take it from there. It really helps the song evolve when the guys put their spin on it. It’s really interesting to collaborate for that reason. They look at the song through their eyes, interpret it and take it further. That way, the song becomes bigger than just me.
What influences your music?
My faith influences me a lot. That’s the rock of what I talk about. I’m inspired by Bible stories, I think they are incredible…the old folk stories, parables, and legends. They are told to be remembered. A lot of stories today are more ‘throwaway’, but I guess as there were not as many forms of entertainment back then, they told stories a way that would be remembered and passed down. I’m also influenced by family, friends, life experiences. Musically, it’s Joni Mitchell, Esperanza Spalding, Nina Simone, Laura Marling, Mumford and Sons. I also like Imogen Heap, and the incredible Eska Mtungwazi.
You describe your sound as ‘soul-folk’. How does this compare to the contemporary folk artists such as Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons?
We’re similar to Laura Marling in that the lyrics of her songs are the foundation of her music, which is the same for us. The soul element is in our music because of our backgrounds and the music we grew up listening to. I grew up with a mix of music – a lot of Congolese music, jazz music and some classical. There’s also some gospel elements in our sound.
Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka is featured a lot on some of your tracks. How did you meet?
I worked with him and drummer Rafael Powell on a project with the poet Verb Swish, then formed the band with them along with James and Alex. It was more of a neo-soul sound back then. Michael was a session guitarist, playing for lots of people, and then one day he told us he was thinking of singing as well. We went to see one of his early gigs before he got signed, and we were blown away. He’s an incredible musician. We’re so proud of him. I think he has a rich career ahead because he’s got so much to offer musically. Rafael is doing really well now too, he has received airplay on Radio 1 with his new band 2Morrows Victory.
How did your sound change after Michael and Rafael left the band?
We had the choice of either finding new members or working with what we had; I am a firm believer in working with what you’ve got. Our sound definitely changed at that point; partly because we had become smaller and partly because we wanted to experiment with different sounds. We became more folky at that point. We spent a lot of time arranging, and compensating for the lack of drums to bring rhythm into the music. We’re excited about how far we can push our current sound.
What does 2012 hold in store for you?
We’re really busy! We’re putting a lot of work into our upcoming ‘Ginger Tea Tour’, which is being funded by the Arts Council. It’s a tour of independent coffee shops around East London. It coincides with the release of our single Ginger Tea. We’re hoping to do some festivals in the summer too. It’s been great to get the funding to do all these things that we were never able to do before, and take our ideas forward into reality.
Watch Abimaro and the Free perform Ginger Tea