Kawala’s Jim Higson and Daniel McCarthy are sat in a Hereford recording studio in front of rows of gold records, Number One trophies and Grammys. They’re not theirs – yet – but they do serve as a natural prompt for the duo’s effortlessly self-deprecating humour to come flying out of the gate. “It looks like our careers have upped it a bit,” quips McCarthy as he gestures at the dazzling display.
It’s early days for Kawala, who have been patiently honing their craft since forming during a brief stint at Leeds College Of Music in 2014. First as a duo with Higson on vocals and McCarthy on acoustic guitar and vocals, now as a full band completed by drummer Ben Batten, bassist Reeve Coulson and guitarist Dan Lee. While taking home a golden gramophone is probably some way off, they’re still already hitting milestones they arguably have no right to be at just yet, Like playing the main stage at Reading & Leeds last summer or the events of one night last October, in the middle of their second ever headline tour.
Usually, it takes bands a few years of attention to become meaningful enough to someone to soundtrack the asking for their partner’s hand in marriage. Yet that’s exactly what happened on the band’s first visit to Southampton. While Kawala were packing up their gear and taking the obligatory post-gig selfies with fans, they heard a massive scream go up in the adjoining pub. “This random person was like, ‘You’ve gotta see this’, so we walked back there and this guy was like, ‘Yeah, basically I just got engaged to my girlfriend,’” McCarthy recalls.
“He said he wasn’t planning on proposing but then we started playing ‘Animals’, which is his and his fiancée’s favourite song, and he didn’t have a choice,” adds Higson. “Which is great for us because if she said no he would forever know ‘Animals’ as the song he lost the love of his life to. But instead, it’s quite the opposite.”
At the time, ‘Animals’ hadn’t even been released – just a few fan-shot videos from previous gigs on YouTube to go on – which tells you something about the power of a Kawala song. That impact comes from something very pure but also very necessary in today’s world. Even when they’re singing about something less than cheery, like the toxic relationship at the centre of ‘Animals’, they’re still able to find an element of hope and encouragement amidst the gloom. “Hold onto your worth or you’ll be broken,” they advise on that track, over lush finger-picked acoustic melodies. On last year’s Maccabees-meets-Alt-J swirl of ‘Wash Away The Wild’, they reassure a friend battling a drinking problem: “And I won’t let you fall away, you’ll see/You will wash away the wild.” Crucially, you may not be the friends they sing of and might never have met Kawala, but the atmosphere in their songs – particularly on their recent self-titled EP – makes you feel otherwise.
“It’s fairly unintentional,” Higson reasons of the fact their songs give you something to cling onto. “I don’t know if it’s an innate feeling that we have in ourselves… I think it’s easier to be sad than it is to be happy so if we can make music and have a nice time and make happy songs, it’s worth putting in the effort to do that.”
“It’s our Lizzo moment,” McCarthy chimes in of ‘Animals’ specifically, quickly throwing in an apologetic mumble to the current figurehead of pop empowerment. “That’s so offensive to Lizzo – she’s gonna be like, ‘Who and what is this’.”
Currently, the group are holed up in the studio working on some new music with producer – and owner of that array of awards – Will Hicks (Lily Allen, Ed Sheeran). “It sounds like a record,” McCarthy says excitedly. “I’m more proud of them than anything we’ve done before.” He cites old Kings Of Leon (“Pre-‘Sex On Fire’,” he notes, making an important distinction), parts of the new Bombay Bicycle Club album, and rediscoveries like Captain Beefheart as current inspirations, while Higson opts for Ben Howard and Michael Kiwanuka, and the eclecticism in Kawala’s music suddenly isn’t so surprising.
While they say there’s no plans in place for this new batch of songs (“We’re just making songs for the sake of making songs at the moment,” shrugs Higson), Kawala do have plenty of plans for the rest of 2020. In just a few weeks, they’ll achieve a lifelong dream of supporting Bombay Bicycle Club on tour as they open for them in Europe. “I might have deafened the person next to me,” Higson laughs of the moment they found out. “It means everything to me and it means a lot for us creatively cos they must like our music enough to have us on tour with them. It’s flattering to be asked.”
“There’s no artist on earth we’d rather support,” McCarthy agrees. “Cos they broke up for a while, it seemed like it was out of the picture. When we kicked off Kawala, we talked about how much we love Bombay and wanted to support them on tour. We talked about how much we love the [acoustic YouTube channel] Mahogany sessions and we got signed by Mahogany [when they launched a label]. The only dream left is to play Jools Holland.”
Over the next few months, Kawala will keep themselves busy with their biggest headline tour to date and a summer of festivals, including Latitude and Live At Leeds. The former run will conclude with what should be a triumphant return to their Camden stomping ground at the iconic Electric Ballroom. Even if they say they’re equal parts excited and terrified to play there, there is one benefit of venues getting bigger – being able to avoid the thinly-veiled threats from your parents’ mates. “I’ll never forget a couple of years ago when a friend of my mum’s came to our headline show at Omeara,” McCarthy remembers fondly. “She lent into me at the end of the gig and was like, ‘Lovely gig – but if you ever make me go south of the river again…’”
“Just as well we can have a whole career without leaving Camden,” Higson retorts, listing off venues most bands would kill to play as if they’re as easy to book as the local pub. Sooner or later, though, their family friends are just going to have to get used to going the extra mile.