Simple, stylish and staunch

Photo by Sabrina Hyde Photography.
Photo by Sabrina Hyde Photography.
Neo-soul singer Iva Lamkum overcomes personal obstacles to let her debut album, Black Eagle, finally take flight, writes Lydia Jenkin.

Born and raised in Wellington to Chinese Samoan parents, striking neo-soul singer Iva (pronounced E-va) Lamkum cultivated a love of music in high school, without ever dreaming it would become her career.

"We used to just sit in the courtyard at school, and we'd just jam on the guitar, and I had friends who rapped, so it was just a fun thing that we did."

She took music and drama as subjects, and learnt to play drums and guitar. But it was songwriting that really pushed her buttons.

"I loved composing music, and that's what I studied at school, but it wasn't really a goal or dream to be the next big singer."

R'n'b was popular with her girlfriends, but it was artists like The Fugees and India.Arie who really struck a chord for Lamkum.

"The girls I hung out with loved doing trills, and showing off the big pipes, and I hated it. It was like, 'No, I'm not gonna do that'. And then [Fugees singer] Lauryn Hill came out with this husky voice, and I loved it, and I think I was quite influenced by it."

When she finished school, she was keen to do a business course, and find herself a full-time job.

"I think I wanted to pay off a credit card or something," she laughs. Incidentally, that credit card experience was a partial inspiration for her recent single Bankrupt Visa.

But it wasn't long before other musicians were hearing of her talents, and slowly encouraging her to perform in public.

"I came across friends who were actual musicians, played in bands, like some of the [Fat] Freddys guys, so I just hung out with them, and they heard that I could sing and so on.

"And I was like 'Well I can sing a little bit, but it's not really my forte', but people would be like, 'Just do it for $100, and you can just take that and buy your drinks or whatever', ha ha! I was a bit of a rebel back then."

One night after performing, she met musician-producer Caleb Robinson, who encouraged her to write and perform, and helped her to put together her self-titled EP released in 2008.

That release garnered attention from other musicians who wanted to work with her, like Andrew Spraggon from Sola Rosa, who featured Lamkum's vocals on 2009 hit track Turnaround, and brought her to national and international attention.

Another producer keen to collaborate was P-Money.

"Just after the EP came out P-Money hit me up and said, 'Look I dig your stuff, and it'd be cool to work with you one day'. But he was busy at the time, and I was just starting out. But a few years later I was like, 'Dude how about we start something now' and he was keen to write something, and that was how Doo-wop happened.

"I wanted to bring in my hip-hop roots, and bring in the '80s and '90s feel, use some samples. So it's a kind of Michael Jackson meets hip-hop kind of feel."

Plus it's got a bit of a rom-com theme happening.

"It's a party song, but it's a nerdy-girl-meets-perfect-boy-and-perfect-boy-falls-for-nerdy-girl song. So there's just a bit of fun inspiration in there."

Though there are a lot of energetic, sassy tracks on the album, there's also some darker themes, which reflect the difficulties Lamkum went through while trying to record her debut album.

Writing the title track in particular was a cathartic process for her.

"I was just going through a lot of typical stuff. Girl's not perfect, boy's not perfect, a lot of stuff with my family, trying to find a job, and that was all rolled together, and Black Eagle came about as a song to try to help me get over what was going on at the time."

The very stripped-back recording of the song was inspired by Robinson's advice as producer to keep it simple, to just go into the studio, play it straight through with guitar and vocals, and keep it personal.

"I just played it myself, didn't have any of the other guys come in, and I think I cried at the end of the song, actually. But it was a good test to say that I've come a long way, and I'd come through it."

It was clearly an emotional time for Lamkum. She doesn't want to be too detailed about her trials, but they were enough to cause her to pause recording the album for a significant time.

"In the end, we had to hold it for nearly two years, just for me to get my life back together, before we could go back into the studio and finish recording."

But it's not by any means a sad album, it's full of fun, of cheeky winks, and is a portrait of a stylish, staunch, fierce young singer.

The title Black Eagle came from a biblical psalm (her family is Methodist) about the strength an eagle gains from flying through a storm.

"It says the eagle is the only bird that can fly above a storm, because the lightning makes their wings stronger. And it helps them to fly strong, to live longer.

"So if you go through a lot of struggle, and you overcome that, you rise above the storm, and that just makes you a better person.

"It just sums up what the album is about. Some of the songs sound quite fun, but they all have a special meaning. And, hopefully, people will be able to relate and feel inspired."

Catch her
Iva Lamkum plays Re:Fuel, Dunedin on September 27.


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