Interview by Zach Grossfeld
Meet Bahari, the duo comprised of singer/bassist Natalia Panzarella and singer/keyboardist Ruby Carr. After parting ways with a major label, the two have reclaimed their sound and have collaborated with producers like Illenium, Zedd, and Grey. In this interview, Natalia and Ruby speak on their beginning from opposite sides of the globe, the evolution of the creative process, Rock Mafia, and why they’re now “off-white.”
Auxoro: Ruby, you were born in South Africa and grew up off of the coast of Kenya. Natalia, you're from Nashville. How have your different backgrounds and geographic tastes influenced the creative process as a duo?
Natalia: We both liked pop music and making things that had more of a hook, and we both grew up on lyrically heavy artists - Bob Marley, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles.
Ruby: Being around so much African music growing up, the instrumentals are based in similar ways to Nashville. Our like-minded musical tastes weirdly tied us together even though we grew up on opposite sides of the world. Also, we both play instruments, which we have always looked to incorporate into the production.
Natalia, you pursued an acting career earlier in your life and said that you’ve been turned down for many roles, as all actors have. How do you think being told "no" as an actor has helped prepare you for the harshness of the music industry?
Natalia: We started out young. Many people told us, “You're too young to sing these songs with such heavy emotions, such big feelings.” But that was what we were feeling and writing, and that's what we wanted to release. In acting, things were different. You’re either too tall or too short, or they already cast a blonde. The music world contains rejection, but an alternative type of rejection. Things feel more personal. In music, someone saying “no” to a song feels like a dismissal of your deepest thoughts and desires. In acting, roles often come down to type or appearance.
Speaking of being too young, you have artists like Billie Eilish, who is 17, singing about heartbreak and other mature topics. When I hear her sing, I think about the emotional depth she possesses at such a young age - the way she can observe experiences, even those she hasn’t endured personally, and translate that through the music.
Natalia: Everyone can get their heart broken.
Ruby: When you're younger, feelings are amplified. Everything seems like a huge deal. Now, we’re 20 and 21. We’ve had our hearts broken. We’ve fallen in love. But when you’re writing about these things before you’ve experienced them, the emotions are just as real. We have the ability to grasp the emotions and context of an experience before enduring the experience ourselves.
How did you both link up with Rock Mafia?
Ruby: They're our family. We've been working with Rock Mafia since Natalia and I met at the studio. When I first moved to LA, I was looking for somewhere to play the piano. A friend recommended Rock Mafia. Soon after, I met Natalia and we started writing together. When you're 16 and meet another 16-year-old girl doing the same thing, you absorb each other.
You’ve been on tour with artists like Birdy and Selena Gomez. Ruby, I read that you grew up listening to Birdy. What was it like being on tour with her and getting to absorb certain aspects of her live performance.
Ruby: When I was young, I would watch Birdy’s videos on YouTube and sing them. She has such an amazing way of taking songs that sounded different and making them into her own thing. When you're in a room with her and she's singing, it’s mind-blowing to see this little girl stand up there and make a room go completely silent with just her voice.
Are there any parts of her artistry that you’ve been able to incorporate into your own sound? What advice did she have for you?
Natalia: The way her band hits harmonies with eight people is inspiring. She also gave us a lot of tips for when we were sick. She would come into our room and give us throat coat teas and lozenges. She would force us to eat them. They were gross but really helped. She was like, “you gotta do this.” [laughs]
Previously, you were signed to a major label and said that things had felt a bit out of your control. What were some of those things that you felt you were not in complete control?
Ruby: The way we were presented and the whole aesthetic of Bahari was something the label had a lot of control over. They wanted us to wear white 24/7 and things became more pop than we wanted it to be, geared towards a younger crowd. At the same time, we were writing edgy, emotional songs, not what the label was expecting. They told us, “this isn't really Bahari.” We're like, “We are Bahari.” We were so young that people didn't expect us to know what we wanted. They tried to give us the solution to how we should broadcast ourselves.
Natalia: We never followed it. We never wanted to come off as fake because we worked so hard on being authentic through the music, having people relate to what we write. Now, we're independent and controlling everything we put out.
I give you guys credit for wearing white as long as you did. That’s a lot of effort and laundry.
Natalia: And a lot of bleach.
Ruby: Try eating spaghetti or just getting out of a tour bus in all white. Let us know how it goes.
Natalia: How were we not sponsored by Tide Pens?
Ruby, what are some of the biggest culture shocks that you've experienced since moving to America from Kenya?
Ruby: The cars. The island I grew up on doesn't have a single car. I had to get used to traffic and crossing the streets. To this day, I’m always worried about getting hit by a car. Also, the ambulances and the police cars, I was like “Woah, it's just like in the movies!” The uniforms, the lights, the sirens...we didn’t have that where I’m from.
Are there any prominent American cultural references brought up in conversation that made you feel out of the loop?
Ruby: Yes, Hannah Montana. I didn't grow up watching a lot of popular American TV and internet videos. When I moved here, I had the original iPhone and everyone else had the iPhone 5. I felt like, “What is going on?” Then, Natalia educated me on everything. She made me listen to Hannah Montana soundtrack.
How did you link up with Illenium for your latest song ‘Crashing’?
Natalia: We wrote that song over a year ago with our team. We didn’t know what to do with it, but we knew that we loved it and we didn’t want to rush putting it out there. We thought, “What can we do to make the song more special and let people hear it?” Illenium had heard our version, but we had never heard back from him. Then, all of a sudden, Illenium and his team were at Rock Mafia and started working on our track. He turned our idea into a great electronic song that maintained our original emotion.
What was the creative back and forth like between you and Illenium?
Ruby: The most important thing for us is that we wanted to make sure that the emotion was still there alongside the production and the lyrics. We didn't wanna lose the sensitivity of the song, something we made clear to him. He agreed with us and we were on the same page the whole time. Everything that he did was what we wanted, so it was a smooth process. He came into the studio only a couple of months ago and now the song is out, which is a testament to his talent.
I’ve never listened to another producer like Illenium who conveys the emotions behind the lyrics so clearly and powerfully, and amplifies the emotion of the original track.
Natalia: All of his production perfectly embodies the emotion of our lyrics.
He [Illenium] has a way of doing things that makes the music wash over you. You feel like you're surrounded.
You've worked with other prominent producers as well like Grey and Zedd. From your perspective as songwriters and vocalists, does that process change completely from producer to producer or is there a good bit of overlap?
Natalia: It's different every time. With Zedd, we didn’t write that song. He showed us the song and said he wasn’t sure who he wanted to sing it. We sang it, and he seemed happy, and then we went on a trip to Africa and the song just came out. That was one of the first things we put out. We were on very limited wifi in Africa so we had no idea when the song dropped.
Ruby: For the song with Grey, we had become really good friends with them and were very involved in the whole process. We did the music video and lyric video together. We worked through the entire track with them in the studio. That was very much a joint effort, similar to our process with Illenium.
You've also spoken a little bit about the recording process. You sometimes record phrases or words by splitting them up. One of you will sing half of a word or a phrase and the other one will sing the other half. Like a syllabic divide of duties.
Natalia: We used to do that more in the past when we started producing with the people at Rock Mafia. We thought, “How can we make this more interesting?” We even started doing it live.
Ruby: We're also quite the perfectionists and want to make the best possible music. It wasn’t like “You're singing this part, so let me sing this part.” It's whoever sounds best singing that part of the song. If Natalia sang the last word perfectly and I sang the rest of the phrase, we would combine it and make it sound how we wanted it to sound. Once it comes time to actually choose the parts, we're very honest with each other. If Natalia sings something better than me, then that’s her part. We push each other in the studio.
Natalia: I heard a lot of that style on the Kanye West album. Maybe people just aren’t doing it in pop as much. I think it's cool to switch off lines. The listener can feel like they’re in a room with us singing the song to them.
I love the aesthetic of video for ‘Chasers’ released a few months back. What were some of the inspirations behind the visuals?
Natalia: We came up with the idea and directed it with our friend Russell. We barely had a budget.
Other than throwing a party for the video...
Natalia: We paid for the beer. That was about it. When we designed the concept for the video, Ruby and I thought about how we were not part of these popular social groups growing up. As adults, it’s weird being in a room at a party and no one talks to you, or feeling like you're completely isolated when you're surrounded by 100 people. The song is about losing yourself in that environment and trying hard to be something that you're not - losing yourself but still having each other. We wanted the music video to relate to that concept. That's why the video shows us at a party, and then together in a room alone.
If you could solve one mystery in this universe, what would it be?
Natalia: An obsessive murder mystery. I’d want to know who the Zodiac Killer is.
Ruby: I would want to know the real story about what happened to Tupac because I'm a huge fan. I listened to him a lot growing up. I watched every documentary and read every book about the whole situation.
If you could broadcast a single message to every person on the planet, what would it be?
Natalia: Look around you, get out of your bubble, realize that every single person around you is a human being.
Ruby: Give the person next to you a hug.
Who is an artist in a completely different lane than you, but that you admire and respect?
Ruby: I hugely admire Kendrick Lamar. He's a musical genius with such an incredible sound and vision.
Natalia: We saw him live at Coachella which made me a massive fan as well.
Ruby: One time, when we were in rehearsal, we saw him [Kendrick Lamar] because he was rehearsing in the same building and I freaked out. I was just like, you're incredible, you're amazing. He’s definitely one person outside of our lane who we both admire.