KYE: Effervescent pop singer who came to Australia promising “to be the next famous Kylie”

Every month in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. Zimbabwe-born, London-raised singer KYE talks her ‘Good Company’ EP and how Lianne La Havas and Sampa The Great have helped her on the road to pop stardom

Collaboration doesn’t come naturally to every artist, especially those who are protective of their creative headspace. But for KYE, crafting artistic alchemy in the studio is her strong suit.

“When you get into the studio on a session you have to be the first to come up with a great idea, otherwise someone else catches a vibe,” the 24-year-old artist says. “They set the tone.”

“For me, inviting others into the space is a curated thing. It’s always someone who is gonna challenge me, someone who’s going to push my ideas out quick,” KYE continues. “It happens for me fast these days. I can listen to the first pass of the chords and within three minutes – bam – I have the whole song.”

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It was that swift, confident approach that brought about KYE’s ‘Good Company’ EP, which drops next Friday. It’s a wildly jagging yet effortlessly coherent introduction that offers neo-soul bumpers (‘Tuesday’ featuring Jerome Farah), shimmering deep house (‘Finest Quality’, Touch Sensitive), Solange-meets-Jess Mauboy future pop (‘Gold’, Sampa The Great and 18YOMAN) and relationship breakdown epiphanies (‘Sometimes’).

NME catches up with KYE – real name Kylie Tadiwa Chirunga – over Zoom, the Zimbabwe-born, London-raised, Australian-based singer speaking from her parents’ house in southeast Melbourne. She’s about to be released from two weeks of quarantine, which she had to live out after a friend she went hiking with tested positive for COVID-19.

After obediently staying put for 14 days, KYE’s joy is palpable: she speaks with her bejewelled hands and frequently breaks into song mid-conversation. She’s now free to see her goddaughter for the first time and reconnect with friends who have been outside her 5-kilometre travel bubble. “I just want to hug them,” she enthuses.

“Music was a place I could run away to so I wouldn’t be bullied”

It looks like the world wants to throw its arms around KYE now, too.The singer has done her time 20 feet from stardom, touring with Sampa The Great’s band everywhere from Golden Plains to Glastonbury (we’ll get to that) and collaborating with new-school heavy-hitters Genesis Owusu, Ruel and Billy Davis. Now she’s got a full dance-card with Beyond The City (Beyond The Valley’s Melbourne CBD pivot), St Kilda Festival and a Young Franco support slot lined up.

In her Instagram bio, KYE apologises to her mum for becoming “a popstar not a doctor” – but it’s possible her parents had seen it coming all along. After all, Chirunga’s earliest memories are of catching guavas then putting on shows for her neighbours in Harare.

“My parents would be blasting Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and everything that was poppin’ in the late ’90s,” she says. “Me and my older brother did dance routines for all the kids and parents.” With some prodding from NME, she pulls on some socks and moonwalks across her carpet.

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Her father studied nursing and set himself up in London for a year before the family joined him. Chirunga started girl groups with kids in the UK and was singing in public from the age of eight.

After a decade it was decided they’d set off for Australia. “My parents always wanted a better life for us. They wanted to escape the grey,” she says.

Which sounded good on paper, but was more difficult in practice.

“I was in my groove in the UK. When I got to Melbourne I was the only Black kid at school. I came in loud and boisterous and said ‘I’m going to be a pop star, I’m going to be the next famous Kylie’,” she smirks.

“That didn’t really go down super well with the other kids at school.”

Chirunga fled the schoolyard so she could be with non-judgemental vessels: instruments. “Music was a place I could run away to so I wouldn’t be bullied… I begged my parents to buy me the pinkest guitar you’ve ever seen. It was like embarrassingly pink, like so deep and glittery.” The first song she wrote was titled ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, which she later performed in front of 1,500 people in a singing competition at Thornbury Theatre. “I told myself, ‘When I get up there, I’m just going to explode’.”

She did – and she won.

“Lianne La Havas grabbed me by the shoulders and said ‘I just see it for you. I really believe in you’”

That early air of inevitability seemed to waft through her burgeoning career. In 2016, Chirunga attended a Lianne La Havas gig at the Howler in Melbourne while the English singer was supporting Coldplay.

“I went around the back of the carpark to meet Lianne and I met this other bunch of kids. They were like, ‘Were you the girl singing harmonies in the second row? Can you sing us something now?’ So I started singing to them. We swapped details then Lianne came out and said ‘Hello’ and also asked me about music,” she says.

“Then she grabbed me by the shoulders and said ‘I just see it for you. I really believe in you and y’know what, one day we’re gonna play the same stage’.”

KYE Good Company EP Lianne La Havas Sampa The Great
Credit: Hana Schlesinger

The “bunch of kids” turned out to be friends of Sampa The Great. Eight months later, they booked KYE to headline a show. “I went along and that same bunch of girls were in the corner holding their phones up and hyping me during my set; one of the girls put her phone down and it was Sampa!”

Within a year Chirunga had joined Sampa The Great as a backing vocalist, travelling the world and going “through a whole bunch of stressful situations together”.

“Two years later we go into our dressing room at Glastonbury and Lianne La Havas is next door and she is playing after us on the same stage,” she says, eyes bulging.

“I went up to Lianne: ‘Two years ago in Melbourne you told me I was gonna play on the same stage as you and now I’m here.’ And she said ‘Oh my god, I think I remember that!’”

On ‘Good Company, KYE takes centre stage with the help of her collaborators. ‘Tuesday’ with Jerome Farah is just one example of how quickly she conjures good chemistry in service to the song. “We jammed out all those chords then Jerome came up with that,” she says, humming the intro and the beat. “The whole song got built on that ad lib. He came out with that groove, I came in with my verse, it was all very natural.”

There have been some head-scratching moments along the way. In 2019, she debuted with the single ‘Good Company’, which landed on triple j’s charts in a peculiar category. “When ‘Good Company’ first came out, it was number two on the Unearthed chart under Hip Hop. I was, like, ‘This is the brightest song on the hip hop chart, it doesn’t fit there’.”

Being miscategorised was not an unusual experience for KYE, as a person of colour living in Australia.

“Black Lives Matter was quite an awakening,” she says. “My proximity to Sampa at that time was really important, because Sampa is someone who has always been, pre-BLM, very ‘BLM’. It’s hectic, I had to find my own voice and my activism.”

Around that time, KYE decided to stop referring to herself as an R&B artist.

“I realised it was steeped in a bit of a bias and I think, y’know, subtle racism. I don’t always make R&B music,” she says, with media-savvy we’ve grown accustomed to from the other Kylie.

“I make pop music too. After putting these singles out I’ve realised I can be a pop star if I wanna be a pop star. I’m ready.”

KYE’s ‘Good Company’ is out November 19 through Sony

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