This is: Mawi
aised in Oakland, California, Mawi started his rap career by jotting down lyrics in his high school biology class and recording tracks on Audacity.
After performing a number of shows during his time at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to New York City and and has been aggressively pursuing RnB ever since. Mawi has steadily garnered a dedicated fanbase, amassing hundreds of thousands of plays across streaming platforms like Spotify and SoundCloud. With an interest in all genres and a flexible personality, he draws his influence from the likes of Drake, The Weeknd, and Kendrick Lamar.
For his interview with Myth, Mawi treated us to a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process behind his debut album, More Than Meets the Eye. Themes of desire, romance, and heartbreak resonate throughout the record; his depiction of regret and heartbreak on "Patience" and "Wait For Me" portray a bittersweet reality that people of all backgrounds find relatable. Check out the full interview and more of his music below.
The music video for Mawi's "You've Once Known"
Hey Mawi, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Your most recent album, More Than Meets the Eye was released a few months ago. What’s the story behind the album? What was the process behind releasing it like?
This is like my first album, actually. I think that throughout most of college, I was in a place where I was very much trying to find my sound. Over the last four years, I spent a lot of time playing with different things musically; if you go onto my Soundcloud and listen to my releases over the years, I’ve clearly done a lot of experimenting with sounds.
This album was a good opportunity to find my groove and really show off my style as Mawi. I don’t think the songs on this album necessarily define me, but I think that they are a strong starting point for the kind of artist that I want to be.
Is Mawi an extension of yourself or a completely different kind of character you’re trying to portray?
I don’t try to be this other person when I make music - I go by Mawi in my day-to-day life, so music feels like a natural extension of myself. It’s definitely a specific side of me, though..I think the music does take a fairly more serious type of turn and I do have some people telling me that I’m not as serious in person. My music shows off the side of Mawi who I think is trying to find himself - whether it’s through emotions, love, or all that different stuff.
The theme of romance and of struggles within relationships are consistent throughout your music. Where do you draw your inspiration for your music from? What portion of it would you say draws from your own experiences?
To be honest, I don’t really draw a lot of my music from life experiences. I really don’t like to do that. I’ve tried to draw from life experiences before, especially when songwriting, in an attempt to make the writing sound more authentic.. but I always find myself feeling like it was forced in a way.
I think I like to approach music like an author telling a story; I’ll get inspiration from something cool that I saw and wanted to take it to the next level. Like for example, maybe I’ll go through an experience personally and use it to explore a broader theme or to extrapolate on certain items. But at the end of the day, a lot of times I just hear a beat that I like or mess around in production until I get something that sounds cool. From that point on, I think through what I can do with the beat and what a potential story would sound like. I’m more developing a storyline than completely working off of real-life inspiration.
How did you come up with the name for More Than Meets the Eye?
Haha, that's a good question. Singles are always easy cause you just take the hook or theme, make it like three words, and use it as the title. Like "Wait for Me", "You've Once Known", "How You Want It", and so on.
For the album: my former manager and close friend believed that when you make the title for albums, you have to make it sort of like this more encompassing title based on the album’s theme. The story behind More Than Meets the Eye is that a guy moves to a new city, ends up meeting a girl, falling in love, and getting into a relationship. He encounters a lot of turmoil, and eventually starts questioning why he pursued this relationship in the first place. So you know when you first meet a girl at the club and you think to yourself that she’s nice, but in reality there's “more than meets the eye?” That’s the title and then people seemed to like it. I was initially scared that people would find it corny, but now looking back it’s actually a pretty cool title.
What’s your favorite track on the album? Which is the most personal for you?
This is a tough one because I almost start forgetting some of the tracks. Numbers wise "Patience", "Wait for Me", "You’ve Once Known" - those have been the money tracks so I hear them a lot more. I’m always thinking that those are good songs. Also, I sometimes listen back and think that "Live Forever" or "Medicine" are really good songs despite being tracks that ended up being done later in the process.
Anyway, I think my personal favorites are just going to end up being "Patience" and "How You Want It". "How You Want It", I remember making that and thinking to myself “oh shit.” I feel like the song has a funky groove while also feeling like a club banger.
Are the songs that are popular now the ones that you expected to be popular?
Yes and no. "You’ve Once Known" and "Wait For Me" were singles so it made sense that they were popular -I already pushed those and they already got a bit of positive reception. Patience, on the other hand, came out of nowhere if I’m being real. When I was writing "Patience" I legitimately looked at it as just an interlude. I just nonchalantly put it in the album, particularly because it acts as a transition between the themes of being lost and forward looking to being more reminiscent and sad. I gave the song a spin at the end of the session and it was probably the fastest song I’ve ever recorded, mixed, and completed. Next thing I know I’m on the bus ride back to New York listening to the song, thinking to myself that it ended up being very different from how I expected it to turn out.
I feel like I find myself having that lot in the studio. I’m always coming in with a list of songs I’m excited about, and a list of songs that I don’t expect much out of. But it’s pretty common for me to get out of the studio after recording one of the latter tracks thinking “woah...this took a whole 180 - this is a whole different type of song but it sounds dope, so lets work with it.”
How did your journey with music start?
When I was younger I would sing at my elementary local talent show to get started. But that was it at that time, music wasn’t a strong presence in my life. I played clarinet throughout grade school, but I wanted to do other things so I put it to the side.
The point where I really wanted to get into making music was in grade 10. I wasn’t a fan of the class (AP Bio) and Drake’s "Started From the Bottom" beat was stuck in my head, so I started jotting down some lyrics to distract myself from the lecture. Eventually I had a verse going and decided to record it (I didn’t have a mic so I literally used Audacity). Once it was done I was pretty happy with how it came out, and I started doing more. I ended up putting out a mixtape by the end of that year and everyone was like “since when did this kid rap?”
I put out a few more mixtapes and singles throughout high school just so people would start associating music with me. But you know, looking back, I think I was enjoying it but not a lot of people were encouraging me to take music further. People noticed when I put out music and would like it, but there wasn’t really anybody who said something like “it’s cool that you found this for yourself, you should continue doing this.” Because of this, I didn’t think I would pursue music aggressively once I got to college.
That changed when I got to Penn. I’d occasionally jot down raps and show them to people - and a lot of them told me that my stuff was fresh. My man JJ told me that I had a gift and needed to pursue this, which was the exact kick that I needed. Ever since then I’ve just been making music, promoting myself, and going on this journey.
Who were some of the most influential artists for you? What about the most influential albums/songs?
I guess the big three artists in terms for me would be Drake, then Kendrick Lamar, and The Weeknd. Those three are in a way definitive of my earlier stages. I think Drake was somebody that I really liked not even as an artist but as a listener. I felt inspired by his new wave melodic rap... though I quickly realized that I wasn’t that good of a rapper, haha. I like Kendrick a lot too because he’s a perfect example of what I think ‘real’ rap has the potential to be.
Down the line I found myself singing my own hooks and being melodic, to the point where I was more of a singer than a rapper. A lot of people say I sound like The Weeknd, and I think to an extent - yes, listening to The Weeknd's stuff has definitely influenced me (I’m a big fan of his work). I think those three have been the pillars in terms of how I approached music as a whole.
What was your favorite Weeknd album? What did you think about Kissland?
I didn’t really like Kissland! People hate me for this but I’m actually a huge Starboy fan. I remember where I was when I first heard that album. That album to me was very cohesive, probably one of the most cohesive albums that I ever really listened to. I think for him, especially if you look at how his music now, the Starboy era was a huge pivot for him musically and commercially.
How would you describe your style? Is there an audience that you have specifically in mind when you create your music?
Haha, I’ve been trying to sort of figure that out myself. I know that I’m a sort of RnB, but generally I like more funk or syncopation. So sometimes it might come across as more pop or more rhythmic in a sense. Playing with how rhythmic I can get with my RnB while still having a bit of that pop sound is still something I’m trying to weave in and out of.
In terms of a specific audience, I don’t make music for anyone in particular. I span a lot of different sounds and I like to mess with a lot of different things. I know my comfort zone, I know what makes sense, and I know what I want to put out. Being fluid has been a great benefit for me artistically because I’ve had this free range to work on whatever I like, but looking back, I think it might have hurt me in terms of marketing. I think that not having a specific audience and not targeting a specific sound/genre/style has made it harder to find fans.
Would you say you’re still in your discovery stage? Trying to figure out exactly what is going to be your signature sound?
It’s a late discovery stage. I think that by this point I have a pretty strong sense of which beats are well-suited for me or vice-versa. Let’s take this as an example - "You’ve Once Known" is very ballady, very sappy, whereas "How You Want It" is very upbeat. Despite the different vibes of these songs, both feel like “Mawi” songs to me; they paint a picture of who I am and the type of music I want to put out. At the end of the day I don’t want to feel like I have to make a certain type of music just so I can market myself better. The music is gonna have range in terms of sound and that can be an asset down the line, like I can stay fresh with myself. But it could be a liability because it could be hard to target an audience because one song you're funky and the other song you’re kind of ballady and people can’t really understand who you are in a sense.
How long does it take you to write a song? How do you know when it is complete?
That can vary. "Live Forever" took about an hour and a half to write because I found the beat and thought that I could do something with it (it’s very high energy but still a darker production). I wrote the lyrics in 90 minutes one Friday afternoon, took it to the studio and was like “let's do this.”
"Patience" on the other hand took months. I had the production and I really liked the sound but I just couldn’t find the crux to put myself in. I had a hook but I didn’t know how to come in on the verse and kept critiquing myself, so it felt like an on and off 3 months where I wasn’t grinding the whole time. At some point though, it kind of gets to the point where you just book a studio session for a couple of hours and try to get as many songs done as possible. I did that with "Patience" and listened to what I had - if I think something has potential I’ll go back and rewrite or I’ll change how the engineer mixed it. If it doesn’t, I’ll normally finish up the song but acknowledge that it might not go anywhere. It happens - it’s tough to know for sure if a song has potential until I’m in the studio.
Where do you get your beats from? Do you do your own engineering or is there a particular person you go to beats and sound mixing, etc.?
Beats...I find ‘em on Youtube. People always ask me if I produce and are surprised when I tell them that, haha. There are 3-4 producers that I’m subscribed to and I keep up when they post their new beats because of how consistent their sound is. Even if some of the beats they put out aren’t suited for me, I know that there will eventually be something I at least will want to write to. So there's a few of those producers that I’ll tap into on Youtube - BeatStars or whatever - and I go from there.
In terms of mixing, when I was in college my manager at the time managed to find a studio in the Fishtown area of North Philly. I’ve been going there for about five years now; the studio was pretty new at the time and it was great to be in a place where I was still considered an early client of his. His studio has blown up a bit - he now has two locations and a lot of work. It was great to grow together, both my sound and his mixing. I went to him for a few songs on the album, and I’ll probably go back to him in the future. New York is not far from Philly and he has worked with me for so long that he’s an asset. But there is another studio, another engineer I got put onto by another friend so I’ll likely do some songs in Philly and some in New York.
Which if any performance did you really enjoy doing?
I want to say them all! It’s a great feeling when people who know I make music finally come around to a show, dap me up, and show me love - it’s crazy. I did do a memorable show last September - I got put onto this thing called Major Stage, which puts on shows for underground independent artists. They are sort of pay to play in the sense that you need to sell a number of tickets (normally around 20) in order to get a spot. I did my first show with them in September of 2019 and sold about 40 tickets for a Wednesday night performance, which was a dope feeling. There were also hella people who bought tickets but were on the fence or couldn't make it because they worked in banking, consulting or other office jobs with long hours. It was a good feeling knowing that I probably could have brought in 60 people.
But 40 people came to that show, and it included a lot of friends and coworkers who had never really seen me perform or “do music.” It felt good to put a stamp on it and to also start establishing some paper trails for the city - I’ve been making note of places that I’d like to perform at in the future. Pre-Covid I was planning to have an album release concert over at one of the venues I performed at before; I think having those kinds of performances on my resume made it easier to do that.
What part of creating music do you enjoy the most?
Studio sessions. It’s not like I don't enjoy the songwriting process but the studio in a way is more rewarding. Writing lyrics is fun but I never know how the song is actually going to come out. The studio answers all of these questions - when I’m recording there, it’s really easy to tell if something is ass or if it’s good. You feel everything coming together, get on a wave for 2-3 hours, and you walk away with a track knowing that you killed it today at the studio. It feels really good.
There are definitely bad studio sessions, though. I’ve had sessions where I've recorded 3 songs after a 4 hour session and don’t feel good about the work that I’ve done. But I think just being in there and having the engineer there as well to help guide just kind of makes it a more collaborative and rewarding process because you can walk away with something tangible.
Anything you do to prepare for a studio session or performance?
Before a studio session.. I mean obviously going through lyrics as much as I can, trying to see if I need to refine the lyrics, asking myself if any lines can be improved - that sort of thing. I definitely practice singing as well because I don't want to come in and wing it. I think for myself as an artist and even as a person, I like to go into things with a plan. I know some artists like to go in and wing it but I’m not the kind of person that can sit in a booth and be like “oh this gonna hit me.” So I try to go in with a plan of knowing what I want things to sound like. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to be flexible with the engineer when they give me input, though; oftentimes the engineers will have some suggestions that I didn’t even consider, so I try to be flexible despite the preparation.
When I’m prepping for a performance, a lot of it will just be practicing physically in my room acting as if I’m on a stage. Like, I’ll sing out loud, jump around, and do my thing. If anything it's almost like physical conditioning because although I’m an avid jogger, cardio feels a lot different on stage; it’s more high paced cause you're jumping and you're singing at the same time. Sometimes if I have a show coming up, I'll kind of have to prep a couple weeks in advance because I want my body to be conditioned to move a lot, sing well, and not be sluggish. I don't want to be a performer that just presses play and sings along to instrumentals. I wanna be there and take in the energy; that's why on my performance tracks I take out vocals and my verse. It feels more like I’m performing and giving a show to the audience. And I want to be energetic, I want to be there engaging with the crowd, I want to look at the audience jumping when the beat drops, and give myself the opportunity to be mobile. So yeah, I practice in my room as a way to condition my body for performing.
Has there been a performance you’ve gone to that really left an impression on you?
As a musician I’m actually not a huge concert goer. But I will say Made in America my freshman year in college there were a couple artists that I was watching in terms of showmanship. So as an example, I was really impressed by Jidenna. This man was in a full suit but also like moving around and was very active and very engaging. I definitely want to be like that, where I'm maneuvering around and being mobile and giving the crowd a crazy show. I’ll pass on the suit though, that seems hot as hell haha.
What’s the next step for you? What can we expect from you in the future?
I think now the idea for the next few months is focusing on awareness. The album coming out in April in the middle of this pandemic served me well because I didn't really have to focus on creating content after (since studios are closed). I dipped out of New York because my girlfriend was wrapping up her senior year so I went back to Philly for a bit. It was a good mental break, and was a good opportunity to relax, reflect, and debrief a little bit. It was great cause I already had nine songs pretty much so I put out the album and just focused more on getting on to certain playlists and trying to run some ads. Honestly to an extent I kind of dropped the ball in staying consistent on the album promotion but luckily the songs were pretty good so it kind of took off a little bit.
These days I’ve been running Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Google ads in order to find out where my audience is. I want to be able to understand what my audience looks like and be able to retarget them for any future releases kind of down the line. So now I think as I‘m kind of growing in that stage working while also working on some new songs. Hoping I can get 1-2 singles or features out by the end of the year.
Mawi's studio cover of his track "Patience"