Artist of the Month: Bklava
Artist of the Month: BklavaAugust 9, 2021
Jasmine Kent-Smith chronicles the incredible rise of Bklava, one of the UK’s most exciting young acts.
Lara Sweeney is in the middle of moving house. This is stress-inducing at the best of times, let alone with a journalist peering into your new place over a video call, asking you all about your meteoric rise, say, or your upcoming and deeply personal new release. Her WIFI hasn’t been installed yet either, which means her answers and gestures are delivered in cinematic, slow-motion fashion due to signal-related glitchiness. It’s a tell-tale sign of said move, coupled with the plain white walls and minimal furnishings visible behind her.
However, Sweeney, aka 26-year-old vocalist, producer and DJ Bklava, is far from flustered. In fact, she has other life changes of the equally ‘cut-it-out-and-stick-it-in-your-scrapbook’ kind on her mind right now. When we reconnect minutes later (for a phone call this time), we dive straight into some of major career firsts she’s ticked off in recent months. There’s a live PA/DJ set in Mixmag’s The Lab LDN (“It was so good,” she gushes. “I was literally blown away by the response!”), her inclusion in Amazon Music’s Ones to Watch 2021 list, plus a newly announced Warehouse Project residency. Elsewhere, the Brighton-based artist finished her new EP, Autonomy, for Ministry of Sound, remains a regular over on Rinse FM, and is preparing to join Beatportal’s August guest editor Jaguar at her Utopia event in London a few days on from our conversation. She also released several singles, securing big-league remixes from beloved veterans like Todd Edwards, as well as her eponymous debut EP, which introduced Sweeney’s distinctive voice and style to newfound audiences.
Given that her debut single, “CNTRL“, only dropped at the tail-end of ‘normal life’, aka October 2019, Sweeney’s made impressive strides artistically in the time since, channelling energy into all corners of her work – even during lockdown. In truth, 2020 turned out to be a landmark year for her in many ways, as she finessed her sound and forged new creative bonds through shared love for high-energy dance music.
Her continued M.O. involves merging elements from UKG, house and breaks into a single track or project. She’s previously described this signature as “non-stop bops and flava,” which mirrors her personality in many ways: bright, warm and instantly likeable, and her wardrobe is just as colourful.
Sweeney grew up in south London, which isn’t that far from Brighton. Singing is something she’s done from the moment she could talk, she tells me. And when she was a child, she’d put on performances for her family, wielding a plastic recorder in place of a microphone as she belted out her own interpretations of school disco classics like Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”
It helped that her family is similarly musical, and encouraged her to pursue such hobbies. Her dad used to write his own music, play instruments, sing, and perform in a band. And her mother, while not a musician herself, is a keen dancer, as was her grandma, or teta, as she calls her, which is the Lebanese Arabic translation. (Sweeney has roots in both Ireland and Lebanon, on her dad’s and mum’s sides respectively.)
“My teta was a massive influence on me growing up,” she says. “If anyone was like a real, strong female role model for me, it was her. We used to always dance together with my mum and my sisters and my granddad, as well. My dad would get involved too.”
Dancing, she explains, plays an integral role within Middle Eastern culture. “Everybody just gets up and does it regardless of gender,” she says. “I think that definitely inspired my track ‘Only for Tonight‘ because that song’s about feeling yourself, appreciating your body and how it moves, and also just feeling sexy. I definitely see that and embody that from my culture. It’s never for another person, it’s just for yourself – even though belly dancing can sometimes be portrayed that way. It’s a good workout, too!” she offers with a deep, hearty laugh. It’s the kind of laugh that would catch your ear and compel you to join in even if you weren’t part of the conversation.
She’s been writing her own songs since childhood as well. “I think I wrote my first at around 10,” she says. “I don’t remember how it went, but it was called ‘Good Friends.’” It was during these earlier years that she developed a love for musical theatre and, like countless other kids worldwide, Disney.
These interests followed her into adolescence (well, maybe not Disney quite so much). Her college years were spent studying musical theatre at the prestigious BRIT School, with many of her first clubbing experiences taking place during those two pivotal years. She had some prior knowledge of dance music, having stayed in touch with her school friends from back home. As a group, they’d occasionally venture out into London to attend raves and larger club nights. However, it was her BRIT School circle who led her further into electronic music culture. Plus, a former DJ boyfriend with an affinity for dubstep – a relatable entryway for some, perhaps.
Sweeney soon stepped behind the decks. It was an instant love, albeit a slightly nerve-wracking one. “The first DJ set I ever did, like, I felt so nervous to the point where I thought I was going to be sick!” she says, an audible grimace heard across the phone.
Apprehensive no more, these days a typical Bklava DJ set sees her deftly cutting between her original tunes, plus breaks, UKG and house, with a splash of acid or the occasional rumblings of dub or jungle thrown in. Topping it all off are Sweeney’s captivating live vocal performances, but when she first started out, she never thought to combine her passion for DJing with her dreams of being a singer. “You know, [performing with] a band and being in that world,” she says. When she did decide to start laying down vocals over her sets — something she says has helped her become more confident as a DJ — she enjoyed the pairing, but wasn’t convinced it was something she could pursue. It was only when she met her current team that it all clicked.
Lyrically, she draws from her own life and experiences; crafting bops out of bad times and the good. Her voice – as sweet as dessert that inspired her very alias – emits power and vulnerability all at once, enticing you in through the former, while connecting with you through the latter. This all makes sense, of course, given that she cites the likes of Amy Winhouse, Kate Bush, Erykah Badu and Imogen Heap as inspirations. However, I’m left wondering whether weaving her life into her music in such a way ever makes her feel exposed?
“Sometimes I don’t want to really talk about what my songs are about, and sometimes I like to just be ambiguous and let the listener decide for themselves,” she says. “But then everyone wants to know once it’s out, so I feel like I expose myself in every song that I write. At the same time, it’s quite a healthy thing for me because it makes me feel like I can open up about things that maybe I wasn’t as comfortable talking about before, and normalise those feelings for me in a positive way.”
Sweeney’s second EP, Autonomy, lands days after our call. Across four tracks she dips into themes like female empowerment and single life. Autonomy “is basically freedom of oneself,” she eagerly explains. “I related to that with each theme on this EP because every song – even though it’s a different story – it was all really about a time when I was single and just growing and becoming independent and connecting with myself on a level that I hadn’t ever done before.” She chose Autonomy as the title because those memories and realisations meant a lot to her. “That was a time where I felt my happiest and my most mentally stable,” she offers candidly. “I have a lot to thank for that year, and the EP is a homage to that time.”
A sense of elation and a desire for freedom surge through the EP’s core. Feel-good tracks like “Close to You” and “Only for Tonight” are catered towards moments of weekend transcendence — all iridescent, earworm hooks and ravey instrumentals, fit for wide-eyed club thrills or simply singing into the mirror in cheesy, rom-com style. EP closer “Leave“ shimmers in the same way. However, Sweeney replaces straight-up euphoria for something a little more melancholic, drawing from the handbooks of fellow heartstring-pullers like Bicep or Overmono. “Keep your hands to yourself / Keep my name out your mouth” she sings coolly.
In a press statement, she described “Leave” as a, “cry for all women who have experienced harassment by the hands of men – especially for queer women, trans women and women of colour who have suffered even greater. This song is for all the times we’ve said no and still not been heard.” It arrives at a particularly apt time, too, given the reopening of nightlife here in the UK.
Speaking of reopenings – despite a stack of gigs on the horizon, Sweeney is feeling somewhat apprehensive about playing out again post-pandemic. “I’m ready, but also I feel like I’m still mentally preparing myself for it,” she says. “I’m quite nervous. Nervous to play, but also just nervous about what it’s going to be like. But I’m sure it’ll just be fun and I’ll just enjoy it when I’m there.”
She admits that Covid-19, and the past year and a half of lockdown limbo has introduced new kinds of anxieties to her life. “I never had an issue going to supermarket and doing my shop, and, since then, every time I go and there are too many people I get nervous and need to leave,” she says. She also took up crocheting last year, an unabashedly wholesome activity that she finds very therapeutic.
She’s also sought new ways to connect with other artists, particularly those aspiring to careers within music, or on the cusp of breaking through. She just took part in a Future 1000 live class, the free online training scheme for young women, trans and non-binary people, after being invited in by Jaguar, who’s leading the program alongside educational initiative FutureDJs.
“It was so cool!” she says, beaming through the phone. “Like, I was a little bit emotional…in a good way! People were saying lovely things and asking really good questions.”
Supporting others in her vicinity and paying it forward means a great deal to Sweeney. So much so that for the past few years, she’s been leading her own DJ platform and support network for female and non-binary DJs and producers called Spin Suga, which she launched during her final year at university. At the time, she was still fairly new to DJing and production, and hadn’t yet stumbled across many female, non-binary or trans artists who were local to her, or that she could follow and be inspired by.
She used Facebook to connect with people at first, and the initial response to her call-out was far greater than she’d anticipated. “I honestly believed that there weren’t that many women in the industry and I went along with that,” she says. “But as soon as I got talking to everyone, and just did all this research, it was evident that there are definitely enough numbers. It’s [just] that they’re not getting the recognition that they deserve, and not enough opportunities.” The Spin Suga crew have taken part in panel talks and workshops, and supported the likes of Annie Mac at shows.
Generally speaking, Sweeney’s very much in flux right now. Her career’s going from strength to strength, her day-to-day life’s transitioning from the monotony of lockdown to a summer filled with shows and actual crowds and, of course, she’s muddling through a house move.
One thing that remains the same – a rare constant, if you like – is her music. While past releases saw her developing her sound, and seeking out new directions in order to find the ones that worked for her, Autonomy presents Sweeney at her most confident and creatively charged. Of course, she continues to draw from a deep pool of influences, and switch things up thematically whenever new inspiration strikes. However, she’s found a space that suits her at this point in time, and is relishing in the contentment that comes with making it wholly her own.
“I think I’m just happy with what I’m doing,” she offers. “I know this is what I want to do. And if it changes over time, it changes. But, right now, I’m happy with where I am.”