Three years on from the debut that captured the hearts of fans around the world The Very Best are back with their second full length LP, MTMTMK.
One of the pleasures of 2009's Warm Heart of Africa, from this London based collaboration of the Malawian singer-songwriter Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit, was that it sounded little like anything else at the time. The Very Best combined European pop beats with African urban styles to produce an irresistibly inclusive album that garnered fans from M.I.A, Vampire Weekend, and even Usain Bolt.
Album two from the duo comprised of Esau and London-based producer Johan Hugo is the realisation of Warm Heart of Africa's potential vision – a real introduction of African urban styles to the hipsters of London, New York and the rest.
I got to chat with Johan about the new album and what it was like recording out in Malawi.
Where did the name MTMTMK come from?
The album actually has a real title, that's an abbreviation but I'm not allowed to tell you what the real title is... I think we might be doing a competition around it but once the title has been released you'll get it.
People always talk about the 'difficult second album'. Was this album difficult to write and record?
Initially, I guess it was. We kind of did the album in three instalments, the first part was in my house in Sweden, then we moved to a nice big studio in New York where we wrote and recorded about nine songs. When we came home we thought the album was done but I had this nagging feeling that the album just wasn't right. And although I wasn't happy with the album, we had run out of time and money, so we handed it into our record label and we could tell that they weren't happy either. So finally we just made a decision to go out to Malawi and give it another try.
Why did you decide to go out to Malawi? I imagine it's very different from recording in a million-pound studio in London or New York.
Well Esau lived in Malawi with his family and once we were out there everyone just left us alone. There was no pressure for our label or anyone else... maybe because they were worried there would never be a second album... but we just got to work.
We were recording in this little studio and luckily everything just clicked, we just got to writing and recording and in five weeks the album was done. There were a few challenges to recording in Malawi, like the constant fear of a power cut, so we knew that when the power was on we had to make the most of it and try and get as much work done as was possible.
But we had lots of fun, our friends would come over all time, we even had Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend fly over and hang out with us for a couple days, which was really great.
What is the response to your music in Malawi? Do you have a big fan base?
Well it's getting there. The first album did ok and we managed to get a few radio plays, but people are still confused about the whole thing. People know that there is some guy from Malawi doing well internationally but I wouldn't say there is a huge fan base. While we were out there we tried to build up our reputation by collaborating with other artists and playing live shows with them, which is slowly raising our profile but we still have some way to go.
You have worked with some big names in the music business, people like MIA, Vampire Weekend and even Bruno Mars. Have you receive a lot of support from other artists in the industry?
The support has been amazing and every collaboration has been really great. Ezra Koenig, from Vampire Weekend, has probably been the most supportive. He let us go on tour with them in America; he came and did some live shows with us when we were out there as well. The guys have just been really great.
The new album has fewer big name collaborators on it but we tried to get lots of different people involved and they all bring something special to the record.
With this album do you feel you have cemented your sound?
There is no project that I love more than The Very Best. Working with Esau is such a joy; writing, recording and touring together is just so much fun. So this is something I definitely want to keep doing. In terms of sound, I still don't feel like The Very Best has been accepted, the first album did ok... I don't know how the second album will do but I still feel like an outsider.
Do you think that it's a language thing? Esau doesn't sing in English, do you think that is something of a barrier?
I think to some extent, maybe but I have to give people credit for that because at the beginning lots of people told me 'you're not going to get very far with this' because of the language thing but now our biggest market is the United States. I mean the way people have embraced it has been so amazing so I can't be too much of a barrier.
I like that we are a bit different, the language barrier means that Esau has to sing with real feeling and emotion and that's how we connect with our audience, just on the power of the emotion.
So what's next for you guys? More touring?
Well, we hopefully want to tour this album for the next year or so. We missed festival season this year so hopefully we can stretch this out and do the festival run next year.
We are also doing the score for a documentary film called, Tough Bond, about street kids in Kenya who huff glue to endure the hell of street life. It's directed by Village Beat, the same people who directed our Yoshua Alikuti & Kondaine music videos. It's a really amazing project and we are so honoured to be a part of it – everyone should go check it out if they have the chance.
MTMTMK is out bow, and comes highly recommended from The 405.