Ahead of releasing NEO NOIR this week, the artist takes a deep dive into his relationship with music highlighting the importance of art in times of crisis.
Set to release on March 12, Yowhannes’ five-piece debut solo project, NEO NOIR, is a sincere exploration of moods and genres, ranging from alternative pop to R&B, coupled with casual piano melodies, electronic beats, and soul vocals.
“NEO NOIR is an identification of myself as someone who’s constantly working within himself to gather new inspiration. It’s the physical embodiment of choosing this specific artistic path, something that reveals who I am and who I could be in the near future.” – Stefanos Yowhannes
Norwegian-Eritrean rising talent Stefanos Yowhannes let music mark the rhythm of his childhood and teenage years; yet the possibility of turning his inclination towards it into something more than a hobby only cemented itself during an improvised studio session in 2017. “The fact that this first EP is coming out feels crazy and exciting at the same time,” the Stavanger-based artist said over a voice note.
Merging the influence that artists such as James Blake, Bon Iver, and Jazmine Sullivan have on his artistic production with the cultural impact of his personal experiences — including performing in Amsterdam’s indie venues during his university years — Yowhannes delivers a multifaceted, captivating portrayal of himself. Emblematic of a society forcing us to take on different roles and adjust to unpredictable scenarios, Yowhannes’ NEO NOIR reflects the nature of our changing times while providing the public with an effortless demonstration of his artistic versatility.
What does music mean to you and when did you first start to gravitate towards it?
Stefanos Yowhannes: Music is the place where I have always gone to feel at ease with myself. I literally grew up with MTV and VH1 in the background. My mum loved country music, so she played that all the time as well. Music didn’t only influence me as an artist, but it also shaped my interests and personality, setting the premises for the person I have become through the years. I remember watching Eminem’s 8 Mile when I was 6. I didn’t really understand the film, but the musical side of it got stuck in my mind. My mum had taped the music scenes on a VHS recorder, and I would watch it over and over again. When I was 10 years old, I became obsessed with 50 Cent, Ja Rule, G-Unit, The Game, and all that kind of stuff. Those are the first memories I have of myself being conscious of liking music, it’s interesting to see how your senses react to it at such a young age.
Indeed. What are your main musical inspirations?
Stefanos Yowhannes: My main musical inspirations are Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and the neo-soul movement that came about in the mid-90s. For me, listening to any of their albums is a real intimate experience, almost the apex of what I think music should be.
How does music help you express your vision of the world?
Stefanos Yowhannes: My music stems from what I go through every day, from my feelings and emotions. I always turn to it to build a picture of my own experience, especially if I find myself somewhere I’ve never been before. It helps me get closer to the world I live in and become more aware of my surroundings.
“Music didn’t only influence me as an artist, but it also shaped my interests and personality, setting the premises for the person I have become through the years.” – Stefanos Yowhannes
How has your stay in Amsterdam influenced the music you make?
Stefanos Yowhannes: Amsterdam revolutionised my way of looking at electronic music. Back in Norway, I wasn’t exposed to that at all. So, when I moved there to pursue my Bachelor’s, the view I had of club culture changed completely. Plus, compared to Oslo, it’s the perfect place if you like going to concerts. Whether it be smaller acts or already established artists, everyone plays a gig in Amsterdam at some point.
During my second year of university, I became the lead singer of Botanic, an alternative band some friends of mine had started a while before. With members coming from all corners of Europe and plenty of musical influences, Botanic marked another key moment in my journey as a music artist.
Exploring the Amsterdam music scene with them made me understand the dynamic that needs to happen on stage to satisfy the expectations of each individual performing. The confidence I’ve acquired playing with those guys is the greatest takeaway I’ve had from it; if I hadn’t dedicated those years to performing with Botanic, I would have never felt confident enough to perform live nor to work on my own music.
You’ve got Eritrean roots, but you were raised in Norway. To what extent would you say this has played a role in your musical journey?
Stefanos Yowhannes: I like to think that what I listen to has more to do with my own personality and what I find special in music rather than being strictly related to my cultural roots. I am really aware of my Eritrean heritage; that’s something I always carry with me, although not as much in music as I do in my personal life. Still, as a Black person, I naturally tend to gravitate towards African-American music as well as different diaspora groups from across Europe. Those are big sources of inspiration to me.
Your debut EP, NEO NOIR, is dropping this week. Could you give us any insights into your first solo project?
Stefanos Yowhannes: NEO NOIR came out of a very organic process. We began to work on it at Christmas 2017. A friend of mine had received a beat from Lokoy — the Norwegian artist who produced the whole EP — so we made a demo of it and sent it back to him. He really liked the first demo; thus, we made another version of the track which, in the end, became my first single, ‘Phone Calls’. Lokoy asked me to go to Bergen to record it: from then on, every time I’d go there, I would leave with a new single. By April 2019, we had recorded seven new songs.
What does this EP represent to you?
Stefanos Yowhannes: NEO NOIR signifies the evolution of my musical journey. It’s a very intimate project combining different sounds into one cohesive piece of work. I don’t like to be put in a box; instead, I always experiment with different music genres and develop new aspects of my character through those. That’s something tangible in the music I make.
In this first solo project, I wanted to be heartfelt and real. I like the idea of being positioned in someone’s heart as a music artist, so I tried to make people feel like I do whenever I listen to my favourite songs. NEO NOIR represents my first attempt at claiming my right to be part of the music industry: a world I have never felt part of before, but that is now giving me the chance to have my voice heard.
“In a world forced to stand still, artists are the only ones that can immerse us into a different dimension and add some colour to our days.” — Stefanos Yowhannes
How have you been coping with the implications of COVID-19?
Stefanos Yowhannes: I didn’t have any shows planned for last year, so I was less affected than most people working in the industry. Still, knowing that I had an EP ready that no one could hear has been nerve-wracking. When you’re constantly at home, it’s easy to get into rabbit-holes of comparing yourself to other artists which, in the long run, can be quite demotivating. I guess that became the biggest challenge for me while waiting for the release of NEO NOIR.
The positive side of it was that I deepened the lyrical aspects of my work and discovered new music. The pandemic has also made me aware of the importance of opening up with those close to me. I’d love to be able to perform again soon, but I am sure the right moment will come for me to showcase my views, thoughts, and creativity.
Today, music has become more therapeutic than it has ever been. In a world forced to stand still, artists are the only ones who can lead us into a different dimension and add some colour to our days. I hope these times of crisis will serve as an opportunity for everyone to acknowledge the role that art plays in our lives. I think that’s something people have often underestimated, something we really should not forget as we move toward a new world order.
You can check out an exclusive first look at the brand new video to his most recent single ‘Blinded’ below as well as pre-save NEO NOIR here.