Genesis Owusu: "There are no rules to the artist who I want to be"

Genesis Owusu plays songs from 'Smiling with No Teeth' (MPR)

Australia's Genesis Owusu plays songs from his debut record, 'Smiling with No Teeth,' and talks to Zeke about his philosophies as an artist, and making music that eschews genres and pushes boundaries.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

ZEKE: I'm joined by Genesis Owusu, a man who was raised on the shoulders of many, who's just released his album Smiling With No Teeth, which means pretending it's okay when it's not. I looked at your TED Talk that you did for Sideways. That's where I got "a man that was raised on the shoulders of many" from. Was that going to be the original intro for Smiling With No Teeth? Or could have been the intro?

GENESIS OWUSU: Yeah, it definitely could have been. Yeah, as you probably gauged that was where the title came from. I mean, honestly, once I wrote that poem--I wrote that poem so many years ago, and it just always stuck with me, and I knew I wanted to use it in some sort of greater capacity. And I just didn't really know why. But yeah, especially those last like four or so lines, "First kiss was a fist, first love was a leech, crying with no tears, and smiling with no teeth," just stuck with me for forever. And yeah, this is the capacity it grew into, it became the title of my debut album.

"Everything is everything, or all or nothing means nothing," you said on the back end of it, that that line stuck with me. And I was like, such a powerful--to open up an autobiography kind of way, in the form of a TED Talk and performing.

Just going on TED Talk at the time was just like, so crazy for me. I wanted to, as I do in every aspect, and every circumstance, just wanted to open up with something that I felt was wholeheartedly me in the, the most potent version of me at the time. I felt like that poem really expressed what I felt I wanted to express at in time, and that song "Sideways" as well, with the whole band and choir. Yeah, I always just want to put the strongest version of Genesis Owusu at the forefront at all times.

Now, the question I have from that though is: when are you more Andre 3000, and when are you more McLovin?

It's a 50/50 of both, man. At this point, when I've released an album and I released these music videos, and these live touring--everyone surprisingly thinks I'm ice cold all the time. What's cooler than being cool? Ice cold, but when I'm not on stage, I'm just chilling. I'm playing video games, watching anime definitely on some McLovin vibes, you know? Just full nerding out. So it's always like a healthy 50/50 I'd say.

What video games you been playing?

Me and my girlfriend just played this game It Takes Two. Fire game. Fire co-op, split screen, wholesome game. What else have I been playing? I just started this game Control. Some like telekinesis third person shooter type deal. Fire. I can go on forever so don't get me started, or it's going to be the whole interview.

In your spare time when you're not writing and recording you're on the video games hard.

Yeah man, even when I am writing and recording I got my Nintendo Switch so I can go on the move.

Now your influences you talked about being Kanye, Andre 3000, Prince, Erykah Badu--who do you want to influence with your music?

Honestly, anyone it will reach in a substantial way. I make my music for myself but I've never had the goal of being a pop star or some guy with a random 3 million people who know the song but don't know the artist. I would just love for people who get it to get it, you know? People who really can understand what I'm trying to do and resonate with the music and the artist. That's who I would love to hear it. Honestly, just little weirdo black kids as well who just don't know really know what to do or what they can do. I'd love to be some sort of figure who they can look at and see that the sky's the limit and there are no boundaries.

You've been creative director on all your music videos. If you were given your choice to win an Oscar for a movie--there was a line about winning an Oscar versus winning an award, I'm drawing a blank on the song title that you have it in. But what would the movie be about if you could to direct a movie that would win an Oscar?

Phew! You know what? It would probably be some weird psychological thriller. With some kind of crazy arthouse elements like some some sort of David Lynch type vibe, you know? Just something real weird. Kind of doesn't make sense, but doesn't make sense in a fun way. I want to have one of those movies where when you type in the title, the first result is, "Explain this please." That would be my Oscar winning movie for sure.

You performed a covers of the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads, what do those bands mean to you?

Talking Heads, along with Prince were one of the main influences for Smiling With No Teeth. Just going back to embracing the essence of weirdness. Talking Heads are a prime example of that and just making "weird" cool and just being wholeheartedly themselves and figuring out something new from that. Sex Pistols I've always had some sort of affinity with punk music even though for the longest time my knowledge of it has been very superficial I've always just loved the energy of it and the soul of it and the soul of rebellion is something that I've carried throughout my life in a different kind of way. Not not like tearing down walls and like kicking down doors type rebellion but just like something very intrinsic in trying to break out of boundaries and not be boxed in so I've always appreciated that element of punk. So I wanted to, I guess, pay homage to that when I covered Sex Pistols, and yeah, when it was Talking Heads, it was just paying homage to that essence of weirdness.

Now you've got a live performance from one of your shows in Oxford Arts. The song "Drown," what is this song all about? What can you tell me about this?

So this song is featuring my friend Kirin J. Callinan, who was playing guitar all over the album as well. This song is the part of the album where you recognize this dark part of yourself internally and you recognize that's not you, but just a part of you and you're able to let it go. You figure out that you need to let it drown.

[music: "Drown" by Genesis Owusu]

In America we haven't opened up our doors to perform in front of live audiences. What was that first time performing in front of a crowd like for you?

That was really fun, "Drown" is one of my favorite songs on the album. And when we played it I needed the crowd to go crazy. I was like, "Yo, this is like my favorite song. We need to go harder than this." I jumped in the crowd because I needed the crowd to go harder, and they did! Yeah, it's one of my favorite songs, it was so much fun to just be able to do that, you know, post, all these hard ass COVID restrictions, to just be able to jump into the crowd and be marching with everyone, going crazy to one of my favorite songs. Yeah, it was an amazing experience.

What have you learned from your first EP, Cardrive, to the making of Smiling With No Teeth about yourself in the process?

I don't know if I've learned anything particularly new, rather, just all the experiences I've gone through from then till now have really reinstated who I am and why I'm doing this. It's totally solidified the artist that I want to be, in that there are no rules to the artist who I want to be. I want to be able to do anything I want at any given time. And through every experience, I'm learning that no matter what any outside forces say, that's 100% something I can and will do. And yeah, that's something that I feel like listeners might be able to get a gauge of on Smiling with No Teeth from the wide range of everything on that album.

There's no looking back from the past, we're only moving forward--which is one of my favorite standout tracks on the album. How do you move forward and look at things that have been negative to move forward in life, for you?

I actually watched this movie Jojo Rabbit yesterday. There was a phrase at the end of the movie that I'm going to paraphrase because I can't remember word by word, but it's like, it was essentially like, "Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror both because no feeling is final." Essentially just let everything happen to you and everything that happens to you will build you further into who you're meant to be, and you can't really get bogged down in any particular moment because there's a whole future ahead of you and you have no idea what's coming next. So it's always good to keep that kind of thing in mind, like if something bad is happening to you it's because something greater is on the horizon.

Do you hate waiting for those good things to come to you? Or what do you hate waiting for the most?

I'm lovin' these little segue points you're putting in. I don't really hate waiting, I'm pretty patient person to be honest. I can wait on you forever, you know? When the time comes, the time comes.

When you're hungry? Come on now.

When I'm hungry and I'm microwaving something that microwave timer--I swear it goes at half time, you know?

What does the song "Waitin' On Ya" mean to you?

So "Drown" was a little further ahead in the album where you recognize that there's this internal darkness that's not you that you can separate from. Whereas "Waitin' On Ya" is earlier in the album where you haven't quite figured this out yet, and this internal darkness is essentially trying to suck you in and make you like it's only one and it's told from that perspective--the perspective of the darkness.

Well let's enjoy you performing the song "Waitin' On Ya" from Oxford Art Factory. Here it is for you to enjoy.

[music: "Waitin' On Ya" by Genesis Owusu]

How do you deal with mental health right now? A lot of the album deals with mental health, depression and race, how do you personally deal or would tell someone to deal with that, and their feelings and stuff they're going on with?

It's really hard to give advice on it. Just because every person's journey with it is so personal and so different from one another. Personally, there are strategies that I have found that work for me, that may not be as effective for other people. But personally on the album, it helps me to be able to detach my own identity from this chemical imbalance that's happening in my brain. This is not me, this is just something that is happening to me or inside of me. Stuff like that really helps and yeah, just taking it day by day and like I said before, just accepting that. Even though I feel this way, this feeling is not final and there are greater things on the horizon.

Perfect. "Gold Chains," the video for that one. Where are all those gold chains at right now? Can I get one? Can I borrow one from you?

Probably in the bottom of that pool that I drowned in at the end. I actually have no idea. I think they all got returned.

So they weren't your personal gold chains right now.

They're more fiscally responsible than that. You know, we're getting that money back.

Are you invested in the stock market? In Australia do they have Doge Coin and stuff like that over there?

Yeah, we can do all that. I haven't gotten into crypto yet. But I'll get into it possibly, but even before I get into crypto, I know better than to spend all my money on gold chains. So yeah, we're fiscally responsible. We returned all them and we got our money back.

What do you want to be known for? After it's all--after the career, let's say 15, 30 years from now, if we go Genesis Owusu, what do you want to be known for?

Well, first and foremost, I honestly just make this art for myself. All the legacy stuff is just a bonus to me. So even if, in 30 years, I'm not remembered, if I continue just doing exactly what I want to do I'll have no regrets. But with that being said, if I am to be remembered, just be for doing some crazy stuff, some wild iconic boundary breaking art that might inspire some little black kids somewhere to realize that they're not boxed in or bounded. Bound by any restrictions or perspectives, whether it be their own or someone else's, you can do what you want to. That's what I would like to be remembered for.

There's no boundaries of the music that you can make. I'm excited for a folk album from you one day down the road. You working on a dance EP or something like that, I could see you doing everything, there's no genre that you can be put into, and I appreciate that in the art form that you're giving us. It's something that me personally, I think genres are dead. Is that something that you believe too?

Yeah, I mean, definitely, for me. They're still very pervasive in trying to navigate through the music industry. Just because on a consumer basis I can see how helpful they are for the consumer or the people marketing the songs to the consumer. I might be talking to someone in the industry, and they'll be like, "The music's cool, but how do I even describe this? How do I figure out what box to put this in so I can market this to someone?" So it's definitely--for me as the artist is more of a hindrance than it is a help.

It's not seeing color. Another one, another little pun on the album, it's seeing past it all. Which I think that that's a great song to for people to listen to from the album is you break down race as something as a black dog. You break it down into two different metaphors too, for depression and for being raised or in the world. How's race dealt with in Australia? You grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I want to say for sure? How did that affect you? I know in Minnesota, you may have seen some of the Daunte Wright, George Floyd cases all happen here in Minnesota. How did that affect you in Australia?

Yeah, Australia definitely has its own race problems for a lot of different groups, but honestly, predominantly to our Indigenous community, who have just been not taken care of properly for centuries and have been, like, that's a huge understatement, but it's a whole thing to get into. We've got some pretty like racist structures and foundations that this country is built on, as pretty much all like colonized countries in the world. So yeah, it's just as pervasive here. It works in slightly different ways than it does in like America or any other country, every country has its own specific experience, but it's just as pervasive here as it is in America, I'd say. So that's why these issues, that's why I know that these things are going on in Minnesota, and I live in Canberra Australia, because all these things are so universal, and they spark the same spark in every person with a conscience no matter where they are in the world. So that's why I feel like I'm talking about experiences that I've seen or experienced in Canberra, Australia, but vice versa, they can still spark something in the mind of someone living in Minnesota.

"Song About Fishing," what inspired this song?

"Song About Fishing" was a song that we made in the late stages of the jam sessions for the album. We had gone through every genre that we knew existed in those jam sessions, and you can hear the very start of the track on the recording "Song about fishing!" and that's Kirin my guitarist saying, "Sing a song about fishing because we've sung everything else that we know," and it was essentially me like jokingly freestyling in the studio. But then once I got the recordings back from the jam sessions, I tweaked some lyrics, and it turned from this jerky freestyle into this parable of perseverance in dire circumstances. It's one of my favorite songs on the album.

Well here it is live from Oxford Art Factory, "Song About Fishing".

[music: "Song About Fishing" by Genesis Owusu]

Being a Prince fan, are you excited to perform one day at First Avenue?

Oh, of course! To be even in the same space, let alone the same stage that he was once on is some spiritual connection type thing, you know? It's gonna be like a next level experience. I think performing there will channel something crazy and it will be one of my best performances ever.

What's your favorite Prince song?

My favorite Prince song, I wrestle with this in my mind all the time. I feel like it changes from time to time I feel like right now is probably "All The Critics Love You In New York" for the 1999 album.

Such a good one. Hopefully, when you come to the Twin Cities, you will perform that on the First Avenue stage. I'm excited to see that and you can also check out where he recorded at Paisley Park. So when you're doing the routing, talking to your managers plan some extra time to head out to Paisley Park to see where all the creation came from and hopefully we'll get you out there too.

For sure, for sure. I'll be there, I can't wait.

I appreciate your time, man. It's been an honor to talk to you, and the album, thank you for making it.

Hey, thank you for appreciating it. And thank you for your time. It's been great talking to you.

Songs Played

08:15 Drown
15:44 Waitin' On Ya
28:54 Song About Fishing

External Link

Genesis Owusu - official site

Credits

Host - Zeke
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Evan Clark

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