New artists talk appearing on the FIFA soundtrack: “It’s validation”

Kawala, Willow Kayne, Yard Act and Baby Queen tell NME about “a real bucket list moment”

More than a simple football game, FIFA has become a rite of passage. At some point over the past 25 years, almost everyone from diehard football fans, dedicated gamers and people with barely a passing interest in either will have picked up a controller and got involved in the series that’s shifted over 325 million copies.

Since FIFA: Road to World Cup ’98 featured Blur’s ‘Song 2’ the games have included an iconic soundtrack – up there with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Grand Theft Auto in terms of generational influence. Mixing dance, indie, rock and pop, songs like Gorillaz’ ‘19-2000’, Muse’s ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ and Two Door Cinema Club’s ‘Sleep Alone’ have gone on to become “FIFA anthems”, a choice collection of euphoric tracks that stir up memories of lobbing goalkeepers, getting thrashed by your mates and screaming at the television.

In recent years, the FIFA soundtrack has evolved to also champion new music. FIFA 21 featured the likes of 070 Shake, Aitch, Alfie Templeman, Biig Piig, Oscar Lang and The Snuts alongside heavy hitters from Glass Animals, Tame Impala and Royal Blood while the FIFA 22 soundtrack is just as exciting, with Baby Queen, Easy Life, Girl In Red, Greentea Peng, Inhaler, Joy Crookes, Little Simz, Pa Salieu, Sam Fender, Willow Kayne and Yard Act all featuring. As Baby Queen tells NME, FIFA should really book a music festival”

“You don’t really know how much it’s actually going to impact your career,” says Kawala’s Daniel McCarthy, whose track ‘Ticket To Ride’ was part of FIFA 21. “When you first get that call, all you’re thinking is ‘this is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.’ The FIFA soundtrack was so iconic growing up, so being part of it was a real bucket list moment.”

Kawala originally released ‘Ticket To Ride’, an escapist, indie pop anthem, in July 2020 during lockdown. “It was doing well, all things considered,” McCarthy tells NME. “Then the FIFA effect happened. The song went from our fanbase and a few Spotify playlists to millions of people around the world.” When it was first released, the track was racking up 5000 streams a day which exploded when FIFA 21 was released. Over a year later, the song has never dropped below 25000 streams a day.

People have heard the song and been actively seeking out the band behind it as well. A majority of Kawala’s songs have between ten and twenty thousand hits on Shazam, a music discovery app that identifies artist and song name. ‘Ticket to Ride’ is on 150,000.

“I can’t work out how else you achieve that reach,” continues McCarthy. “People hear your song and worst-case scenario, they’ve heard your song. You’re on the same playlist as huge artists and naturally, people want to rank and compare. It puts you in this exclusive pool that’s only going to do good things.”

The band were worried that being on the FIFA soundtrack might impact their live shows, since Kawala has a strong LGTBQ+ following. “We try and create an environment that’s a safe space for dancing, feeling good and being accepting of one another. It’s a very inclusive space and I was worried we’d have an influx of laddy lads.” And sure, at Kawala’s first proper show post-Lockdown, they had blokes in bucket hats and kids in football shirts turn up to see their set on Latitude Festival’s mainstage. “We had mosh pits, which is something we’ve never had before. But no one was trying to pick a fight or cause trouble. Everyone was just happy to be there.”

“It’s really nice to see that there’s this connection with so many people. There’s space for everyone at our shows, as long as everyone understands that. If anything, our shows are more inclusive now. The idea of the FIFA Lad is a stereotype, it’s just a football game that most people play.”

@tiktokawala

Nice to meet ya 👋 #fifa #fifa21 #fut #tickettoride #tickettoridekawala #kawala

♬ Ticket To Ride – KAWALA

“You’re not playing the game to find a new favourite band, but it does happen,” McCarthy continues. “Part of me is devastated there’s now a new game, a new soundtrack and we’re not on it. But I’ve got friends on the new one and I’m excited for them to experience all the fun.”

Like McCarthy, getting the call that her song ‘Two Seater’ was going to be included on the soundtrack to FIFA 22 was a bucket list moment for Willow Kayne, not that she really thought it was something she’d ever be able to tick off. “It’s a really big deal for me,” she tells NME in the days after winning the Ivor Novello Rising Star Award. The song got pitched to FIFA but that was as far as she thought things would get. “To be fair though, when it was released I had people saying ‘Two Seater’ is such a FIFA song’ so I guess they were right.”

“It’s really cool to reach people who have never heard of you before,” she continues. Not that everyone is a fan. “Someone did a TikTok about the FIFA soundtrack using ‘Two Seater’ and I commented, ‘OMG that’s my song’. I got bombarded by kids saying it was shit but I’m the one on the soundtrack so…”

“I’m just happy to be part of it. For me, it was a bit of reassurance that I’m doing alright. I feel like I can actually call myself a musician now, which is cool. I needed that.”

“Everyone’s aware of FIFA growing up so to be on it, it’s massive,” says Yard Act’s vocalist James Smith. ”It’s also one of the things you can tell your mum about and she understands that you’re doing alright. That, and you can brag to all your mates from school about it as well.”

When they signed to Island Records, Yard Act were asked about their ambitions. They said about FIFA and Tony Hawk’s but were told “don’t get your hopes up” since FIFA 22 was out in six weeks. However it was confirmed later that week that ‘’The Overload’ would be included, the band just had to edit out all the swear words. “We still didn’t think it would happen, even though we were explicitly told it would. That’s how we approach everything though. That way, we’re always pleasantly surprised.”

Once they got over their worries about their not being enough space on the cloud, “all I wanted to see was the whole lineup, because I know how many of the songs become defining anthems, and how good the mix of unknown bands like us and well-known acts like Denzel Curry or Little Simz is. Going shoulder to shoulder with them is a really nice thing, it’s validation.”

“Not that that’s why we do it,” Smith adds. “We didn’t start a band to get on the FIFA soundtrack but it does make you feel good about what you’re doing. You exist in the same realm as a lot of artists that you love.”

The first FIFA game Smith played was ‘Road To The World Cup ’98’ but the one that really stuck with him was FIFA 11. “I played as Italy. I don’t know how I had such synergy with a computer-animated Mario Balotelli but he was my guy. That soundtrack really hit home for me because when you’re twenty, that’s such a formative time and everything you hear feels exciting.” He lists of Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem, Caribou, Groove Armada and Black Keys as stand out artists from that year, all off the top of his head. “FIFA definitely influenced my songwriting, which is a pretty weighty claim for a football game but that’s how important the soundtracks are.”

“Hopefully it will change our profile, and we’re really grateful for that. All we’ve got to do now is not be defined as the band who had that one song on the FIFA soundtrack.”

From the moment the soundtrack was announced, Baby Queen has seen an “incredible” response towards her inclusion, ‘You Shaped Hole’. “I didn’t realise how big a deal it was until it happened,” Bella Latham explains, having grown up in South Africa before moving to London aged 18. “I’ve had DMs from guys I went to school with, who haven’t spoken to me in years. Suddenly I’m their hero.”

A gamer who grew up on Mario Kart and has recently got lost in Little Nightmares 2, Sally Face and Road 96, Latham is “an absolute adventure game geek but I’m ready to move on to playing football games now my song is on one.”

She believes “the fact that they support so many up and coming musicians like myself instead of just going for artists that already have big established profiles is amazing. It’s exactly the sort of promotion and support that we need at this moment in time.”

There’s a purity to it as well. “They’re not choosing the tracks based on any of the other stuff that comes with being an artist, they’re just supporting you because of the music you make.”

FIFA 22 doesn’t just have a killer soundtrack that pulls from across the board, it’s also made changes to make the game more inclusive. Alex Scott features as the first female English-speaking commentator in the franchise’s history and women have finally been added to the Pro Clubs mode.

“It’s great,” says Latham. “In general, if you’re not becoming more inclusive with where we are moving as a society, then you’re getting left behind. It should have happened earlier but the fact that it’s happening now is a reflection of the fact that you can’t, not make those changes. It can be quite ostracising when you don’t show people something that they are familiar with on the screen.”

“I’ve got an 11-year-old neighbour and all his favourite songs are from artists who have performed on Fortnite or are on FIFA,” Latham continues. “They’re not interested in music but they are interested in gaming. They become interested because of the connection to the thing they love. It gives artists like me an audience that you otherwise would not have been able to tap into.”

Latham believes FIFA championing small artists, alongside high profile in-game concerts from the likes of Ariana Grande and Twenty One Pilots, is proof that “people are starting to realise how significant gaming is, and what it can actually do for musicians.”

“It’s something that people have slept on for a really long time but now all the labels are getting gaming professionals, gaming experts in because they’re starting to realise how big of an untapped audience there is. You can better games by bettering that relationship with musicians, and vice versa. It’s really symbiotic,” says Latham. “There is a generation of kids just waiting to be introduced to the music that they love.”

FIFA 22 is out now, just about anywhere you can play games.

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