In a scene from the 1999 Nigerian Yoruba language film Saworoide, the greedy Chief Lapite thanks a soldier named Lagata for restoring his crown and grants him one wish in gratitude. Instead of responding gracefully, the equally corrupt Lagata throws down the gauntlet in front of the assembled honored guests. “Fellow country men, just look at the deplorable state of our nation!” Lagata yells, before demanding control of the government. Cue melodramatic strings and pew-pew laser gun noises as Lagata’s crew shoots up the dinner party and stages a coup.
Klein, a Nigerian-English singer and producer from Hammersmith, West London who spent time in Nigeria growing up, uses samples from this scene on the first track of her EP, Lagata, released in September. Saworoide is one of her favorite movies, and she relishes its over-the-top dramatics and brash declarations. “That film is ridiculous,” she says over a Skype call from her home in London. “Every movement, every touch, every ritual, everything about the film is so dramatic and elaborate. Almost out of this world.” Lagata is named after her favorite character, the crooked army man who tries to wrest control of a corrupt kingdom.
In conversation, Klein is effusive, using exaggerated voices and silly noises as she answers questions. Her songs, on the other hand, are distorted, droning sound collages, ominous and foreboding, layered with gospel-inspired vocals and jagged beats. Klein says she doesn’t consider her work truly “dark”, just dramatic; she is as inspired by Carly Rae Jepsen as she is by the Pentecostal sermons she grew up with. And opera, too: “I’m really into Pavarotti, all his live performances are just so insane,” she says. “I’m really into musicals, the dramatics of that.”
In February of this year, Klein released an LP, Only, mostly atmospheric tracks whose vocals sometimes sound like incantations. She felt that on Lagata, she needed to up the drama, so she turned to opera, though it’s not an obvious touchpoint for these warped songs. Working on the song “With U”, she described knowing she’d hit a sweet spot: “Halfway through [recording] it, I [thought] Pavarotti would be like, ‘I’m proud of you, Klein.’ Everyone else, all my peers, would be like, ‘That’s weird.’” she bursts out laughing.
Though Klein began playing music when her mom bought her a keyboard at age 14, she says that as recently as two months ago, making music for a living seemed impossibly out of reach. “I’ve never seen a singer that looks like me,” she says. “When you don’t see any representation, your parents don’t see representation, so they don’t think [you can do it].” It took watching a mediocre awards show on BBC 3 to motivate her into give performing a shot. “I was watching that… and I was like, this is mad, I can do this!” She cracks up, remembering her naivete. “I couldn’t,” she admits. “[After that] I spent a lot of free time teaching myself how to play piano. I remember watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on loop, trying to [recreate] the score.”
Klein began recording music and playing at pubs around London, where the regulars drinking mostly ignored her. But one of these dead-end gigs led to a chance encounter with a promoter, who set up a show at The Old Blue Last, the Vice Media-owned London pub. Since then, Klein’s profile has risen, and a month ago she finally quit her day job at a “horrible temp agency”. Last weekend, she played the Boiler Room Weekender in the Poconos, opening for Dev Hynes. Tonight, she performs her first-ever New York City gig at the Brooklyn arts space Pioneer Works, and on Wednesday, she’ll play at Trans-Pecos in Queens, with a lineup that features some of the most exciting performers working today, including the dark electronica of New York artist Hiro Kone and the Hynes-approved alt-R&B of Amsterdam’s Bea1991.
“I’ve never expected anything from my music,” Klein says. “When you’re making something that’s completely for yourself, that’s different and original, it will take longer [for people to appreciate it], but it’s so much better. If anyone else likes it, it’s almost like a bonus.” Now that singular focus on her vision has paid off, as the world starts to take notice.
Klein is thrilled and shocked by this recognition, but her ambitions go far beyond performing at hip outer-borough New York venues. She says her wildest dream is to perform in a musical, “just for one or two nights.” Her top choice? Phantom of the Opera, of course.