28 February 2022

Photography Gigi Umbraiste
Fashion Jessica Stein
Interview Hilda Kosunen
Grooming Karla Q Leon using Fenty Beauty
Fashion Assistant Savannah Jones
Grooming Assistant Ceren Yilmaz Dogan

London Bridge looms large in the background and the early spring air carries with it the crisp taste of new beginnings, setting the stage for Daniel McCarthy and Jim Higson of North London band KAWALA. Although it’s only lead singers Dan and Jim sitting at my table today, the bond between the five members - including drummer Ben Batten, guitarist Dan Lee and bassist Reeve Coulson - is evident as we navigate the stories shared between these confidants.

Dan and Jim are the epitome of their music - relaxed, approachable, and candidly truthful. From the first note, beat or bar you are compelled to let down your hair and hit the backroads, headed for the unknown. Yet beyond joyful melodies, the true magic arises from lyrics that embrace that sense of humanity. Rather than stuffing your emotions into a trunk, the lines ask you to join hands with your demons and welcome them on your journey as your new besties.

In this beautiful, trouble-free space, Gigi Umbrasaite captures Dan and Jim’s personalities effortlessly in her frames, as a humble eye providing a peek hole into their world. Stylist Jessie Stein envelopes the boys in artsy patterns and soft silhouettes in a wild yet harmonic celebration of the life-forces the boys and their music embody.

Having traversed through lockdown, losing shows, and finding new ways to tell their stories on their debut album Better With You, Dan and Jim haven’t needed to follow the signs towards a set destination – all is yet to be defined.

KAWALA’s debut album ‘Better With You’ is out March 4th. The band is currently on tour in the UK - dates here.

How would you describe each other?
Jim: For every inch you grow, you lose an inch of personality. And that's why Daniel is bursting with it. Haha… such a media trained answer.
Dan: Jim is tall, talented, my friend… and he’s fashionable.

I was ready for a third T.
Jim: I was hoping for: tall, talented and tantalising.
Dan: Tall, talented and a twat… haha, I am only joking.
Jim: I take it: tall, talented and no personality because I am 6’3”.

Your sound is so harmonic that it truly breathes a unique bond between you two. What makes up KAWALA’s DNA?
Dan: Our DNA is constantly developing and expanding, but at the core of all of it is the close harmonies between the two of us. Even with our recent music, which is more pop, heavy, and epic and leaning more on the other boys in the band and their influence in it, in terms of the writing, the core is still in the two-part harmony and acoustic lead. That's the thing that gives our music its specific angle.
Jim: All our songs begin with the same genetic DNA make-up: Daniel’s rhythmic acoustic guitar playing and two male vocal harmonies. That maintains always. We've never been afraid to experiment with going with a different sound or trying different productions because our ethos is that as long as the acoustic guitar and our vocals are on the track, it will always sound like us. I think that's how we’ve identified for a long time.

What’s the weirdest thing that has happened on your journey?
Jim: We had one festival in 2019 before the world changed - for what feels like forever - and we went out to Zurich in Switzerland. We had this great show and we were in a great mindset of this was going to be the best year ever! It was like, ‘that’s it boys, we made it’. Then what escalated later that night was pretty...
Dan: I don't know which story you are going to tell.
Jim: A few things happened that night. The one I got on video is Dan Lee getting what almost looks like fully nude on the dance floor. You [Dan] were rubbing your chest hair.
Dan: Yeah, that's not that weird, that's quite common.
Jim: And you like to rub it.
Dan: I like to get in there because it feels safe and warm. I am home. The weirdest thing that has happened to us is just Dan Lee as a concept.
Jim: A couple of things he’s said to show the point: he once said, while staring out of the window on a long drive in the Lake District, “I think I was a fish in another life”.
Dan: And once, with complete sincerity, he looked out the window and saw a sheepdog and a shepherd, closed his eyes and went, “Oh God, I love a dog with a job”.

On that note, whilst on tour do you have any habits or rituals before a gig?
Dan: Not anymore - it's weird, because last time we toured in 2019, which was our proper first tour ever, we had some funny little traditions that got us in the mood for a show. Now we've come back after a year and a half, it's a bit more ‘happy to be there’ rather than anything too specific in terms of routine. But each individual in the band have their little thing they do.
Jim: Reeve always has a beer before he goes on, a beer on stage, and Joe comes halfway through to give him another beer, then a beer when he comes off stage. I try to do a fairly good physical warm-up before I go on stage - stretching and the likes. But it's not really a ritual.
Dan: I breakdance for about 25 minutes before, just getting myself in the mood for the show. I've got my own wooden panel that I take with me on tour and put out on the floor.

What do you listen to?
Dan: I’m only joking, I don’t actually do that.
Jim: I was convinced there. I was like, I really haven’t seen you do that, haha.

We had an interview with you guys five years ago, and there have been some weird years in between. How do you feel about your journey and where you are now?
Dan: The weird thing with this career path is that you always feel on the outside of success. I guess our measurement of success has changed so much from when we were first photographed and did the shoot with Lily. At the time it felt crazy that we’d be in a magazine - never having done anything like that!
Jim: Our last London sold out show was at Kentish Town Forum. When we were just starting out that was the pinnacle of success and we thought you can't do better than that. Now we've done it and obviously, we're still hungry for more. We've set our sights on the next big thing, so the view of success is constantly adapting and constantly changing.
Dan: The journey has been incredible. We've had a lot of fun and there have been some amazing moments. It’s boring to dwell in the past two years but I think because it was such a reality check it warped our view of how good it’s been. In reality, when you look back, we’ve done some insane shows. At the start of this summer we played on the main stage at Latitude on a Saturday and it was just the best thing. We got to make our TV show in lockdown and toured with George Ezra in Europe… so there've been some absolutely crazy things and it’s important to remember that as we carry on.

What would you like to say to those guys from five years ago?
Jim: Don't be nervous. There’s no point in being nervous or caring about what other people think when you are on stage or when you write a song. And that's advice for anybody.
Dan: Mine was going be to stress out less. But actually, I wouldn't say that because my stress is the key to focus.
Jim: That sounds unhealthy.
Dan: But I think if there's nothing to stress about then you are not probably not doing it right. I don't think I'd have too much advice. Just allow yourself to enjoy yourself a bit more. Because there are times when you feel the weight on your shoulders and get frustrated so you have to let yourself enjoy being young and doing a job that most people dream of doing.
Jim: We’ve been lucky enough to make a living out of something we love and that’s rare.

Sometimes you forget that you dreamt of something when you reach it.
Jim: It’s like you get a job interview and you're super excited about it. Then the night before you get really nervous about it but then a week before you were excited! What's the point of being nervous? It's a useless emotion. Stay calm, stay cool.
Dan: You’ve never been nervous before?
Jim: Nah, at least not anymore.

At the next gig, Daniel will be checking on this.
Dan: At the next show, I'm going to bring out a python and put it around your neck while you're performing. See if you get nervous.
Jim: Bring it on. He’s going to be called something like Larry. Or Gareth. Gareth the python. You can’t be scared of a python called Gareth. Or Larry.

Talking about being on stage, with a python or without - what’s the best part of it?
Dan: It’s the feeling when you finish and it has gone well.
Jim: Or when you first step on stage.
Dan: It's such a hit of endorphins when the show is going well and the crowd is into it. But again, the expectations have changed over time. Now if the crowd is a bit more mellow, you wonder if they are enjoying it but I’ve come to appreciate that and the fans enjoy music in different ways. Some people want to listen, some people want to dance. But it’s that hit when people sing your song back at you. Like how do you know this? We just wrote this in one of our bedrooms and now you are mouthing these words back - that always feels insane.
Jim: Fuzzy cheeks.

What now?
Jim: If I get emotionally moved by something - listen to really nice music or something moves me - I get fuzzy cheeks. It’s a sensation on my face. I think it is some kind of adrenaline thing. If I am really enjoying a show I get that. And then I know I am just having the best time of my life.
Dan: Another big thing is that we are all very close friends in the band. When we do a show there’s always that bit when I look around and look at Reeves who plays the bass - probably going through a beer - and he is smiling and having a good time. And then I look at the crowd and think ‘this is pretty weird and mad but it’s kind of a dream’.

What drives you to write music? Has it changed over the years?
Dan: We’ve always had one consistent theme that we always played around with in terms of the songwriting itself, which is talking about journey and progression. It is always quite hopeful, and even if the lyrics are quite sad or difficult it’s never dwelling on sad things. It is always about how we can progress. How can you move forward from a sad situation?
Jim: The reason that sometimes our songs are different from others sonically is that Daniel and I love writing songs. We don’t try to write just one kind of song, we’ve written all kinds of music. That’s why there’s a collection of different styles.
Dan: On the new album we leant into more vivid storylines in a way that we hadn’t before. We always felt weird about talking about things like relationships because it is two of us singing. Like if Jim was feeling sorry for himself about past relationships, it would be weird for me to sing it. But then we realised we were actually in very similar situations - coming out of long-term relationships. We were able to talk about these topics and it was something that we could tap into more for storylines on the album. A bit more honest, rawer, and that’s why the album is a body of work.
Jim: Songs, in general, are closely related to writers’ emotions and what’s going on in their lives. So, when something changes in a writer's life, their music might change and people have to accept that. I guess fans have to accept when the band’s or musician’s songs change.

Does it almost feel like therapy?
Dan: There is one song on the album called ‘Sailor’ which is quite a miserable sad folky song, and I remember someone asking if it was therapeutic writing it. I can’t really pinpoint it because it’s hard to say ‘I got it out and now I feel better’. It is more just nice to have - this sounds very cynical - to have an interesting topic to talk about. The relief comes from knowing you got a good song rather than being ‘it’s out there, now I can deal with it better’.

Has it ever felt daunting to share these stories for others to hear? After all, these are your stories that you are sharing with the world.
Dan: Until now our music has been so ambiguous about what it really is about, and you hear that journey and progression of positivity.
Jim: We also have told a lot of our friends' stories rather than our own in our songwriting. As much as it is important for us it's not our emotions in that case and that has helped as well.

Tell me about the new LP Better With You. What are the big themes in the album?
Dan: We speak a lot about breakups and relationships in a way that we never spoke about before - still in an ambiguous way. We were also writing a lot about missing our fans. One positive about the lockdown was that we developed our writing ability. We channelled our pop a lot more - we have always been a bit scared of writing pop music but on this album we channelled that with the actual feel and the actual styles. We have a pop side, almost like an afrobeat-y side, raw acoustic side, and a more straight indie vibe. On the album, we try to showcase all aspects of our music.
Jim: Another consistent theme is that we allowed ourselves to be more vulnerable in our writing and that’s something we never did before. Whether it is important for us, whether it is important for our fans, it doesn’t matter. A broader concept is celebrating the community which has been intact to our music from the beginning. For us, it has always been the celebration of the people around us and the community and bringing minds together to create something.

What would you like fans to feel when they listen to your music?
Dan: Happy. Or a release of something. I always thought that in our gigs there is a positive, safe environment where everyone is singing, dancing and enjoying themselves from mixed ages and we just want everyone to hear a song and feel relaxed and happy.
Jim: Leave your ego behind.
Dan: The whole thing about this project was that we don’t come across these fancy artists that are a million miles away, we are quite normal. We want our fans to feel like they are friends of ours and part of our community when they listen to our music.
Dan: We put our whole body and soul into our album, and it is the most exposed we've ever been - sonically not physically haha.

Can you separate the ‘KAWALA guys’ on stage from Jim and Dan?
Jim: With a single, it is easier to differentiate but with an album, there is so much career pressure on it. In terms of personality, I think it’s sometimes easier to separate it as a group rather than as a solo artist because it is more internal but because we are a band it is wider and we are not telling a single story.
Dan: Even when it’s two of us singing, you are as not as exposed as you were if you were a single artist which helps it to feel more inclusive as music.

Do you ever feel like you lost yourself on the way to where you are now?
Dan: There have definitely been periods when I have felt overwhelmed and let things get to me. It is tough and you are constantly on a knife’s edge whether something is going to work or not. It is always these behind the scenes things until you get signed to a major label. But when we did there was always that mindset of what is it going to mean creatively. But they have always backed us.
Jim: They never tried to make us be anything that we are not. And we are quite sure about it and that probably helps a lot of us not losing ourselves.
Dan: We have our identity and therefore they can lead us in a direction but you are never going to see us coming out and singing thrill tracks.
Jim: Maybe.
Dan: Actually I am kind of keen. But I think we’ve kept fairly consistent and thick skinned, maintaining who we are.

What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?
Dan: Selling out the Kentish Town Forum gig.
Jim: Such a moment.
Dan: Such a shame it was in the middle of the mad Covid land which added a little bit of stress to it but just that moment when we were on stage looking over Jim, the boys - it was our dream venue and all those people were there to see us - it was a monumental moment in our career.

What has been the most challenging moment so far?
Dan: Losing shows. It was dealing with the constant blows and lack of knowledge of when we were going to do shows again. It was a shift in mentality because we felt like we were on such a high in 2019 and then you lose two years. How to keep resilient has been the most mentally toxic. But maybe we needed that moment to realise that people are waiting for us.

What’s next in KAWALA’s tale?
Dan: We are getting married.
Jim: Big news. We're going to get married in the Maldives.
Dan: Are we?

This is the first big couple argument.
Dan: No but seriously, the album.
Jim: We haven’t stopped writing. We are already thinking about album two - which we shouldn’t be - we should be excited about album one. But we’ve been listening to this album for about six months!
Dan: Just celebrating this moment and then building forward. And just, constantly progress.


Above Left: Dan wears Jacket, Shirt and Trousers by Mihara Yasuhiro, Jim wears Jacket and Trousers from Toga and Shirt by Urban Outfitters
Above Right: Same as before.


Above Left: Jim wears Jumper by Helen Anthony
Above Right: Dan wears Jumper by Helen Anthony


Above: Dan wears Jacket, Shirt and Trousers by Mihara Yasuhiro, Socks from Dickies and Sandals by Fila Jim wears Jacket and Trousers by Toga, Shirt by Urban Outfitters and Shoes by Dr. Martens


Above left: Dan wears Jumper by Helen Anthony. Jim wears Jumper by Helen Anthony and Jeans by Levi's
Above right: Dan wears Jacket and Shirt by Goodboy, Trousers by Urban Outfitters and Shoes by Kickers. Jim wears Jacket by Diesel, Vest by Samsoe Samsoe, Trousers and Shoes by Igor Dieryck


Above left: Dan wears Jacket and Shirt by Goodboy, Trousers by Urban Outfitters and Shoes by Kickers


Above left: Jim wears Jacket by Diesel, Vest by Samsoe Samsoe, Trousers and Shoes by Igor Dieryck
Above right: Same as before


Above left: Jim wears Suit, Vest and Shoes by Alexander McQueen and Socks by Lazy Oaf
Above right: Same as before


Above: Dan wears Jumper by Lazy Oaf

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