Aziya: “I didn’t have guitar role models growing up – I want to fill that gap”

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you'd have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite bands. This week, a new kind of guitar hero takes the lead. London's Aziya talks cover versions, being the change she wants to see in rock and finding a fan in Oscar-winning artist H.E.R.

Aziya Aldridge-Moore was about to perform at Brixton’s beloved Windmill when the bad news came through. On March 20, 2020, pubs, clubs and venues – like the one Aziya was about to play – were told that they should close “as soon as they reasonably can”. A stinker of a warm-up act, that. The 21-year-old had started to hit London’s gig circuit with her new band in the months prior. Surely this news was disastrous?

“I think I was quite optimistic at that time to be quite honest,” Aziya tells NME over Zoom just over a year later. On the day of the Windmill gig, she had gained thousands of new Instagram followers owing to the success of a cover she posted just days prior. Over the course of lockdown, she continued to utilise the social media platform to reach new fans. It went well; Grimes and Angel Olsen have since given their approval to her re-workings of their tracks.

“I think that day really sparked the idea that there was an audience out there and a way to reach them,” she says. “I wanted people to be prepared for who I am and what I’m into ahead of this EP. I guess without COVID and those restrictions, I wouldn’t have been thinking about things outside of the box.”

Advertisement

It’s well worth diving into Aziya’s archive of covers to appreciate her journey to latest single ‘Heaven For Me’. The slinky psych-rock of Tame Impala, Khruangbin and Melody’s Echo Chamber and the other-worldly directness of The Doors spill into her songwriting and production, but avoid pastiche. Likewise, her formidable debut single ‘Slip!’ smoulders with both her love of pop heroes Blondie and rock heavyweights like System of a Down. It’s a treat to watch Aziya put the pieces of the puzzle together and realise them in real time.

For Aziya, it all comes down to her weapon of choice: the guitar. She first picked up the instrument aged 10 but struggled, like many kids do, at mastering chords with such tiny fingers. A shift to the electric guitar is where she felt more comfortable. “It was just so loud and obnoxious. I knew I could make mistakes and it still sounds cool. Moving to the electric was such an experimental time for me and helped me embody a lot of guitarists that inspired me like Prince, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix.”

But even at that young age, she recognised that the concept of guitar heroes was whitewashed and male-centric. It was only as a teenager that she discovered accomplished and pioneering players such as Fanny’s June Millington, gospel rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Slits‘ Viv Albertine. “Albertine didn’t know how to play guitar but just picked up an electric and thought ‘that sounds cool, it’s loud and it’s me and that’s my sound’ – I resonate with that a lot.”

“I didn’t feel like I had guitar role models growing up,” continues Aziya. “A lot of my intention with my music and my playing is to fill the gap I saw when I was younger; that’s always at the back of my mind. If I’m able to be on your Instagram page or on TV playing loads of gigs, I think that’s important. I wish I had someone that looked like me when I was growing up. And I’m sure there is and was one, it just felt so hard to find.”

It’s why she wants to make clear that these songs are written, produced and performed by Aziya and Aziya alone. “There’s always been assumptions that some women aren’t producing or even playing the guitar; I think I’m making that clear so other women don’t have to say it.” In fact, while in lockdown last summer she spent a whole day building a Moog synth from scratch. “It took the whole afternoon watching Spirited Away and just plugging little wires in and out making my own soundtrack,” she laughs.

Advertisement

It’ll be why artists like H.E.R. – last seen shredding her way through ‘America The Beautiful’ at the Super Bowl in February and then picking up an Oscar – was so enamoured with Aziya, later inviting her to the Girls With Guitar live stream series. “I was thinking about how to build those relationships online, so being able to meet her for the first time online, it was like ‘shit, this isn’t impossible.’”

Aziya’s since started Across The Tracks, her own series teaming up with contemporaries like rap/rocker Master Peace and Yonaka’s Theresa Jarvis. It’s the type of series that will surely thrive beyond lockdown, but getting back to the real thing is what comes next: “I crave being back in sweaty gig venues and moshing – I really miss that.” It’s also nifty timing as British guitar music paints itself as a chart heavyweight once more. Aziya is limbering up to land the knockout blow: “I want to hear it on the radio all the time, so I’m going to make it myself.”

Radar Roundup: sign up and get our weekly new music newsletter

Advertisement
Advertisement