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Singer-songwriter Kirby

KIRBY: "We have to learn who we are in this new moment"

In our "Artist Voices" series, artists reflect on their music, lives, and time on YouTube.

KIRBY, the poised and proudly independent artist and long-time songwriter, released her debut solo album “Sis” to critical acclaim just last year. After spending time reflecting on her past and musing on her future during the downtimes of the pandemic, KIRBY is ready for what’s next. Today, she unveiled her latest EP, “Sis, He Wasn’t The One,”  which can be seen and heard here. We recently caught up with KIRBY to chat about the EP and her musical journey so far. 

(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Tell me about your upcoming project, Sis, He Wasn’t The One. What are you hoping for it to convey?

KIRBY: This new project, Sis, He Wasn’t The One, takes you through the journey of being broken, reconciliation, and returning back to self-love. I’m talking about how every love story is not a long story, and that’s okay. Just because you find somebody that loves you for a season, doesn’t mean they’re going to love you for a lifetime.

Maybe it's just my circle, but a lot of people were booed up going into quarantine last year. A lot of people found love, and then as the world slowly began to open up, a lot of people walked away from each other, like, “Wow, we were just together too much, I need space, I need to find my own.” “Boys II Men” is about that--a woman saying what she’s tired of. Another song from the record, “First,” recounts how, even when you go through heartbreak, you can still feel how sweet and tender love is, and have a soft space for the hope of love. Wherever you are at in your life emotionally, you can find something in this project to relate to.

I love the performance video you created recently to introduce “Boys II Men.”

KIRBY: Whether it’s a short or a super DIY video or a video with a huge budget like Normani’s, a video can tell a story in a way that you just can’t with only audio. So I’ve been really pushing to figure out how to visually tell the story of heartbreak in a way that doesn’t take away from the value of love. Sometimes good things come to an end, but the happiness doesn’t end, and it’s still a happy ending. And sometimes the easiest way to connect with people is sometimes just standing in front of a microphone, being honest and vulnerable. Being locked up in an apartment for a year, you can forget how important that live-performance energy is. I’m tapping back into that, and getting my head ready for—if everything goes to plan--hopefully being back on the road in the fall.

You studied music at Berklee and began your career as a songwriter. What brought you into music in the first place?

YouTube literally changed my life. I got my publishing deal from a video on my channel that had, at most, 3000 views. YouTube was the bridge that connected me, in Mississippi, to the music industry.”

KIRBY: I grew up in a very small town, singing in a church where pretty much half of the members were my cousins. The church was my first stage. I was nine years old, telling the older ladies on the front row like, “No, give me the mic!” I loved growing up in a small community because it forces you to dream. I think you can hear that Southern woman who wants to get away and see the world in my music. You still hear the macaroni cheese and the cornbread and that sense of warmth. That “I don't know you, but I feel like I know you” energy.

For me, the journey hasn’t been a straight shot. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I ended up having to drop out because it was too expensive. It was a rude awakening when I left. I had to sell my car. I was working at Urban Outfitters folding clothes, living at home with my parents. That wasn’t the dream. But thank God for YouTube. YouTube literally changed my life. I got my publishing deal from a video on my channel that had, at most, 3000 views. YouTube was the bridge that connected me, in Mississippi, to the music industry. It wasn’t my college education that got me a shot in music. It was having a platform where I could release new songs and get them to people who I would otherwise have no way to reach. I was consistent and intentional with writing and uploading songs, and sharing them with people I would find on the ASCAP website or my favorite artists. Sometimes, artists would like or retweet them, or DM me. None of us knew that years later, I would have placements on their records.

Why did you make the decision to focus on your own artistry, and what’s it been like to develop your career as an artist so far?

KIRBY: My songwriting changed my life, and we probably wouldn't be talking right now had I not gotten the chance to be a songwriter. I still love working as a songwriter. But I took some time away from songwriting for other people to make sure that I was validating myself and choosing me, too. I invested my royalties to build out my career as an artist, paying for things out of pocket and growing independently with my team. When you’re doing it yourself, it’s your responsibility to make sure the audience connects with your music--and you. The whole thing is still scary, but rewarding as well. At the end of the day, I can go to sleep knowing who I am, what’s in me, and that I did my best. I know my capabilities at this point, in both writing for others and thinking for myself.

I did a writing camp for a big artist a couple of weeks ago. A couple years ago, I would have been so nervous about a camp like that, coming in tense, not feeling sure of myself, with a clenched fist and a pit in the bottom of my stomach. But now, having spent time focusing on who I am, when I walk into a camp, I know I’m going to leave with more than what I came in with. I’m so grateful for my identity as an artist, and how my artistry is a way for me to put myself out there.

Why have you chosen to release your music independently?

I knew I had given away so many rights as a writer in signing a publishing deal, and I wanted to figure out how to work differently as an artist. I couldn’t be excited to have a seat at the table if I never inquired about who owned the building.”

KIRBY: When I went back home to Mississippi from Boston, I visited the Dockery Plantation, which they call the home of the blues, because legendary blues players would come there to perform and sharpen their skills. When I stood on that ground, I realized that all the people that gave that land value had nothing to show for it. They didn't own the land, and their children weren't able to say, “This is ours.” That's when I knew that I wanted to own my music and the next chapter of my life, even if it meant taking a longer route. I knew I had given away so many rights as a writer in signing a publishing deal, and I wanted to figure out how to work differently as an artist. I couldn’t be excited to have a seat at the table if I never inquired about who owned the building. Ownership and creative control are important to me. And ownership doesn't mean doing it alone. Ownership doesn't mean not having help. That's why we're so grateful for YouTube partnering with independent artists and making things like Foundry possible. Because you can’t do this by yourself. It's important to have help from people who want to see you go forward, and the cost for their help is not ownership. There’s this notion in music that you gotta sign a bad deal just to get in the room. But why should it be like that?

What do you hope to grow into in the coming year, as a human, artist, and performer?

KIRBY: I call myself a late bloomer, because I’m still trying to reach and become the woman that I see myself being. I look forward to being transparent with my audience about being a woman in your thirties, pushing yourself, preparing to see the biggest stage of your life. You don’t have to be who you dreamed you were supposed to be by 30! I’m 30, bomb, beautiful, and courageous. We don’t get to live in the past. To make it through a pandemic is a blessing, and we get to chase our dreams on behalf of the people who didn’t.

This past year and a half has made us comfortable in our homes and comfortable in our routines. So to go on the road again is exciting and scary. But I’m ready to face that fear, and I feel like that’s the story for all of us right now. We have to learn who we are in this new moment. I’m learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

When fans experience your new music, what do you hope they’ll take away from it?

KIRBY: I used to spend at least four hours in a hair salon every two weeks, and to me, hair and emotion are very strongly correlated. When you listen to my music, you should be able to imagine you’re at the beauty salon on a Saturday. I make music for the moments when you’re laying your edges down or slicking your ponytail back. I’m always speaking to women, and specifically Black women. When Black women see me, I want them to see themselves. And if people outside of that audience connect to me also, that’s an incredible added bonus. We really are all going through the same types of things.