Tasman Keith: “As much as these tragic things have hurt me, they’ve also built me into the person I am”

On his debut album ‘A Colour Undone’, the Bowraville rapper confronts the cost of ambition and the spectre of death. Friendship and community pull him through. Words: Nick Buckley

As teenagers, Tasman Keith and his cousins honed their rapping from a cramped, carpet-walled recording studio at their local Bowraville youth centre. As an adult grinding away at his music career, Keith found himself returning from his biggest shows ever on Midnight Oil’s Makarrata Live tour to lonely hotel rooms. In solitude, old traumas and grief re-emerged.

Performing a verse on ‘Beds Are Burning’ to 15,000 people “was a simple thought of ‘this is great, this is amazing. But it’d be even greater if my uncle, aunty, my cousin was here to see this’,” Keith tells NME. “That started the thought pattern of: OK, where does that stem from? I’d never taken the time to deal with it.”

Keith, now aged 26, finished a recent triple j performance with a dedication to those he’s lost – his cousins Knox and Caleb; Uncle Doss, Uncle Job and Aunty Faye; Nana Sil, Nana Et and Nana Mac – and acknowledged unnamed others.

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“I’ve seen my little sister, who would have been 10 or 11 at the time, watching a coffin go into the ground. I’m like: ‘what are you thinking, and what type of person is this gonna make you?’” says Keith. “It’s quite traumatic to wake up to a phone call from your mum at 11PM, thinking somebody has passed, but she’s just calling to make sure you got home safe.”

“I’ve seen my little sister, who would have been 10 or 11 at the time, watching a coffin go into the ground. I’m like: ‘what are you thinking, and what type of person is this gonna make you?’”

Keith’s stunning debut album ‘A Colour Undone’ chronicles his path to living with, rather than fighting, those traumas. As such, it’s bracingly vulnerable, poignant and self-reflective, but layered with joy and empowerment. Largely recorded at Alex the Astronaut’s Marrickville studio over just six days in July 2021, its tracks bounce with Kendrickian rhythmic complexity, deft shifts in tempo and jubilant synthesised pop. Just like back in Bowraville Keith found himself in a space of friendship and trust, with his collaborators Kwame (real name Rich Kwame Amevor) and Nikos Haropoulos-Smallman.

The group converged at a two-week farmhouse writing trip in 2020, but their individual friendships started separately. Kwame and Haropoulos-Smallman made friends at primary school in New Zealand. Kwame met Keith during recording sessions for the latter’s 2020 EP, ‘To Whom It May Concern’, and have since formed a deep bond – both men crack huge smiles when they talk about each other.

“[My] friendship with Tas’ has been a positive impact on my life … [we are] the same, similar in a sense,” Kwame tells NME. “You hear it on the record, there is not one moment where it’s awkward or feels disjointed or doesn’t make sense. There’s a certain synergy and a certain frequency that we’re tapped into that’s very unspoken, we’re all moving together as one. That’s what the impact has been with Tas’ being a brother and family to me.”

Kwame recalls how that synergy fuelled the recording of three wildly varied tracks in a single day: the crunchy trap of ‘Cheque’ featuring Genesis Owusu; the deeply atmospheric, synthetic R&B of ‘Find You’; and the lilting, soul-waltz of ‘Heaven With You’ featuring Jessica Mauboy. (Guests were added in subsequent sessions.) Over the six days, Keith buried himself in his notebook, popping up to give instrumental direction. Virtually every vocal take on the album came from these sessions – redos lacked the immediacy of the originals.

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“[Tasman’s] recognised a lot in himself, he’s allowed himself to become vulnerable. In my opinion, I think that would have scared him. As humans sometimes we’re scared to be vulnerable, because it’s like we’re showing too much of ourselves,” says Kwame, who encouraged Keith to go out of his comfort zone and sing on the album. “We encouraged him to not be afraid to really tell his story.”

Keith also grappled with a sense that his ego and relentless work ethic had led him to neglect the people closest to him, and his part in the breakdown of two relationships (which he delves into on several tracks on the album). In addition came feelings of responsibility to his community as a Gumbaynggirr man and self-imposed pressure as the one from his peer group to go beyond that small Bowraville studio.

“I’m not trying to be a slave to my thoughts, I’m not trying to have that shit control what I do or who I am”

“Unfortunately due to circumstances they got caught up in life… I thought I was used to being by myself on the come up. But when I was in those [hotel] rooms I really looked at it and it’s quite sad,” says Keith. “[One of my big cousins] said: ‘Tas’, all I’ve ever wanted to see is one Bowra’ boy up there. Because the minute I see that, and I know it’s going to be you, that’s enough for all of us’. So that kind of allowed me to be OK with it.”

Keith has spoken at length – including during this interview – about his frustrations of being labelled, in his view, an “Indigenous rapper”, and how his work and Indigeneity are politicised against his will. Keith does not define his own artistry by his culture alone, but he does skilfully translates specific experiences into moments of universal emotion – like on ‘Tread Light’, the album’s staggering, goose-bump-inducing finale. Recording the session brought Haropoulos-Smallman to tears.

“I had to leave just to collect my emotions… it was a very empowering piece of music and it hit us all pretty hard,” Haropoulos-Smallman tells NME. “I hadn’t truly understood Tasman’s story and where he’s coming from with a lot of this stuff … I haven’t lost a lot of people and it changed my perception on life and death, and what we’re actually doing here. It just made me feel very grateful.”

Tasman Keith debut album and new music video
Tasman Keith in the ‘Tread Light’ music video. Credit: Tasman Keith YouTube

Keith wrote the song’s first verse the week his 26-year-old cousin Knox died of a heart attack. Over increasingly dizzying verses, Keith stares down mortality, his voice becoming unrecognisable in a boundless release of emotional intensity. It’s like hearing the unhearable, the deepest of secrets, the true timbre of a person’s inner dialogue. Recorded in just one take, the track’s third verse is an unquantifiable vocal achievement.

“I remember just sitting on [that first verse] for a while and the concept of me speaking to death, having a conversation with it… it’s like having the acceptance of it before I need to meet it,” says Keith. “[I’m] telling myself to be OK with it. Don’t be fearful of the journey but just watch where you walk, step right … I’m gonna overcome these barriers, overcome all that. Tread light is a metaphor for spiritually stepping and being above everything.”

‘A Colour Undone’’s creation reminds us how friends and family, or friends that become family, can carry us out of darkness. Through running the gauntlet of vulnerability, Keith is learning to live alongside his grief.

“[I] just breathe, meditate, be present and realise that these thoughts are really just passing. I’m not trying to be a slave to my thoughts, I’m not trying to have that shit control what I do or who I am. These things are tragic and as much as they have hurt me, they’ve also built me into the person I am,” says Keith, who’s learning new ways to process his emotions both on his own and with the help of others.

“I either go inward or, if I need [help] externally, to the people that I love.”

Tasman Keith’s ‘A Colour Undone’ is out now via AWAL Recordings

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