Philippa Zawe is a singer-songwriter set to perform alongside Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi on Sat 13 May at Town Hall. But B:Music first met Philippa five years ago, back when the charity responsible for Town Hall and Symphony Hall was called THSH.
“It feels great coming back here. It’s weird because so many memories come flooding back. It’s been—2018/2019? It’s been a while since I’ve been back in this building.” Philippa laughs recalling her time as Cultural Intern and returning to a building and an organisation that has undergone so many changes since then. “I learnt a lot about myself. I feel like there was a parallel between myself and—it was called Town Hall Symphony Hall back then. What I found being here is that it was still figuring out its identity.”
“At the same time, I was still figuring out my identity: as a person, in this world, what do I want to do career-wise? How do I want to impact the city that I’m in with the arts and culture? And I think—well THSH now B:Music—was thinking the same thing, was asking itself the same questions.”
“I was figuring myself out, [B:Music] was figuring itself out. And so, I don’t even know what to say. Because coming back here, visually it’s quite different but it’s also somewhat the same? And I think,” Philippa says, “That’s kinda like me too! I’m visually different, somewhat the same but I’ve grown and evolved and figured out more about who I am as a creative and how I want to impact other people with music, with the arts in general.”
Philippa catches us up with what she’s been up to since her time with B:Music. “I’ve continued to work with the arts since being here. And I really valued the opportunity [B:Music] gave me to explore what I wanted to do, you know? I didn’t feel like I was constrained, didn’t feel like I have to go down this one path.”
“I’ve been able to take a lot of the lessons I learnt here throughout the rest of my career. I’m really grateful to this organisation for that. And it’s really nice to see that it’s coming into its own.”
Philippa returns in May as support for Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. “The number of times I really wanted to perform on one of these stages and now I’m doing it!” Philippa glows, laughing with disbelief. “I’m a little bit scared. I’m excited but quite scared. Because I imagined myself so many times performing and now it’s not theoretical, it’s actually gonna be in real life. And not only that, Rhiannon Giddens—from a really early age she’s been an inspiration for me.”
I was really given the space and the opportunity to explore what it is I wanted to do.
I really value that. It gave me confidence, being part of an organisation like B:Music.
“[Rhiannon Giddens] made me want to be more who I am and truer to myself. To be able to perform on the same stage as someone I admire is exciting but also very terrifying. I’m honoured honestly, I’m very honoured to perform alongside an absolute legend. It’s very exciting. And to see what she’s doing, with not just cross-genre but cross-culturally with Francesco is something that’s incredibly inspiring to me. I’m excited to also be present just for what she’s gonna perform as well.”
I remember looking at her and seeing her as someone that was true to who she is, honest about what she wants to do and her practice and her creativity and her music—that was so inspiring to me.
When asked about her inspiration, Philippa says: “I’m inspired by the idea of connecting to people through what I’ve been through. And even if I don’t have to be there, present physically with them, I still get to connect with people. And that’s inspiring. And I’m inspired by people—I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone lately and the songs that she wrote. I’m amazed by how connected I feel to her through her words and then it inspires me to write that kind of music. And what it is is just honesty. It’s just her being honest about what she feels, you know, and I think that’s what inspires me. Honesty is something that is very inspirational for me. And [Nina Simone] has always been an inspiration but even more now in this season of life that I’m in."
“In terms of my Ugandan heritage—I’m inspired by the form in which the stories are told through those songs. It’s not necessarily verse-chorus-verse-chorus which is more of a Western pop form, you know. And it’s not like that when I’m listening to Ugandan music. It’s very—” Philippa becomes animated here as she tries to articulate her thoughts, hands moving in a way as if trying to capture the shape of a story. “You’re going on a journey. There is still a refrain, somehow, but not really? I don’t know how to explain it. There’s not really a chorus from the songs I’m thinking about; [the songs] that I love, my favourite songs growing up as a kid. There’s not really a chorus. It’s just all the way through. And that’s kind of what inspires me to write in that direction.”
But then also musically, sonically, rhythmically, there’s a lot of brass instruments, horn sections. You’ll hear that in my upcoming project.
Philippa has come a long way from being B:Music’s Cultural Intern and as a musician. “I had the opportunity to live out in the Democratic Republic of Congo recently. I was working with a small organisation whilst I was out there, but I also had the opportunity to meet other artists and creatives and we did this piece together called Les Narratrices featuring Linda Light, Bénédicte Luendo and Virginie Anne. It was four women collaborating—I’ve never really worked like that in the UK before where it's me, this folk-y musician, a rapper, a dancer and another singer and we were all collaboratively putting our pieces of music together, our art together.” Philippa recalls her time working on this project fondly. “I don’t know why I’ve never worked like that before because I learnt so much, and I was inspired by the other women I was working with so much and there’s a lot of value in that cross-genre that cross-genre collaboration.”
“My favourite musicians are the people that have created these fusions, that have worked cross-practice, cross-genre and I want to do more of that. Because that’s exciting to me and that goes back to inspiration. I’m inspired by other people just being 100% who they are but creating space for different art forms to influence them as well rather than being stuck in their own way.”
Philippa recently released her EP Shudder, Pt.1 and this desire for honesty, cross-genre experimentation and Ugandan musical inspiration shines through with songs like Would You Lean.
I think, far too often we get stuck in our mindset of “well I’m a folk musician therefore I need to perform and play with this kind of people”.
“Curiosity,” Philippa says, when asked about the best advice she received when she first started out in music. “I wish I’d just been more curious. Because I think curiosity in general is always going to lead us towards more reality. I think when we’re curious we learn more about what’s actually in front of us rather than projecting.”
“In music, when you have those moments where you’re just sat and just playing around and being curious with “what sound does this make?” or “how do I make these sounds work together?” That curiosity, it opens you up to this new language of speaking musically. Curiosity is something that I’m trying to lean more into. In life and in music.”
Philippa adds: “Living more in practice rather than in theory, as well. Because theory is all well and good on a piece of paper but being in practice—that’s real life. That’s how we are connected, that’s how we connect to other people. Real connection happens in reality, in practice and us living out our lives, making those mistakes and then trying to resolve it and making it better next time.”
You can catch Philippa’s performance in support of Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi on Sat 13 May at Town Hall alongside Alicia Gardner Trejo on flute, find her across social media with @philippazaweand listen to her recently released EP, Shudder Pt.1.
Interview by Lerah Barcenilla, Marketing & Communications Officer
Post-production by Ibi Keita, Digital Marketing Assistant