Name: Thandi Draai
Occupation: Producer, songwriter, vocalist, DJ
Nationality: South African
Current release: Thandi Draai's Africa Gets Physical Vol. 4 is out now and features some of the currently most artists from the South African house scene.
If you enjoyed this interview with Thandi Draai and would like to stay up to date on her activities, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you?
The impulse to create music started from the day music moved me emotionally, mentally, physically and especially now more than ever spiritually!
The day I felt - truly felt - music and its powerful magic was when I knew I wanted to know how to conjure such a powerful force. I needed to know how to make music, sing on it and play it for the masses. Oh man, music is something else; it’s a feeling!
What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc. play?
Everything and anything can inspire my work. From the positive and negative aspects of life, there is a story in every situation that can trigger you differently in its diverse moments.
Right now, I’m driven and inspired by Africa’s diverse music, stories and spirituality.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
From my creative experience, everything starts from somewhere. I can be inspired by anything and everything at any moment. I could be watching a movie, and something spoken can inspire a song; during a groove, I can hear and feel certain vibes and automatically get inspired.
I don’t have rules or a specific way of making art. It’s a feeling. As you trust that feeling, it will guide you through what you express.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
It depends on what that the creative process needs; sometimes it's premeditated, like when I DJ; I love to tell a story, so most times, my song selection is prepped and ready to go. Then in the studio, I’m down with whatever comes in that moment of creation, no rules! Then when it comes to songwriting, I enjoy just freestyling over the instrumental until I find a vocal flow that feels right, especially during chores.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
When I create in my own space, I always like to set a mood and light a candle. Candles are very calming, so is burning sage. I try to create a space that sets the mood for the assignment.
Anything can trigger a creative mode in me, and I adjust to what I need to deliver. I always pray that the moment leads the way.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I usually start with a groove; the drums are what I would play first to capture the audience. Before I got the right one, I produced at least six versions of my song ‘’IRIS’’.
In production, everything else is a new adventure; you learn something every day as music-making keeps evolving. I look at production like a puzzle, some days, you smash it, and other days you are puzzled, lol.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
My lyrics can emerge from any space, whether good or bad.
I remember when I wrote ‘Lomhlaba’, I was not in the best space, which made it hard to connect with myself and the music.
I stepped outside on my balcony for some fresh air to clear my head. In a memorable moment, I was reminded by mother nature how beautiful the Universe is, and at that moment, I was at peace. I said a little prayer and asked God to please help me express that beauty and peaceful energy in my lyrics and voice. I asked for the whole universe to receive this prayer well.
All I can say is WOW, my prayer was answered.
What makes lyrics good, in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
For me, what makes good lyrics, is whether my audience relates to them. When I first started writing, I wrote a lot about love: everything was about burning passion, lol. As a hopeful romantic, I wrote about things that were sometimes a little daring and made everything sound soft and convincing with my voice.
Now I'm in a space where my people inspire me to sing encouraging words, words of prayer. My writing style has always been less is more; my vocals must have soul and feeling.
At times, the challenge is writing songs in my own Language ‘’Zulu’’, so I’m looking forward to learning more about my native tongue and taking it to the world fearlessly and proudly. Africa is so rich in its native languages, and that’s a powerful thing.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Once I've started on a project, whether singing or doing production, I would keep freestyling in both aspects until I find the right feeling in the music and lyrics. Once you have a flow, the rest is history, and for me, those are the best days.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Whenever I work on something alone, I feel complete freedom to express myself without pressure. When I'm working with other creatives, then it's out of my hands, lol.
As we all express ourselves differently and I’m always willing to learn from others and get inspired, especially if you rock with people, with their energy. When you click, the magic is really in that moment; you can just feel the energy in the work.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Lol, Lmao, OMG. In my work, I change everything all the time, lol. One moment I'm feeling it, then I feel like it’s wack, lol, then I'm back, then I'm off, it’s crazy, lol. But nothing goes to waste, especially my lyrics. You can always revisit your work and upgrade it at any time.
I first wrote ‘Linda’ in 2013 and then upgraded it in 2021.
Every idea born can be revisited and polished. I look at my pending work as a library, constantly going back and forth, listening, feeling the stories and remaking the ones that get me in this time.
Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
As of recently, spirituality is everything in my work. My people are in a space where I'm inspired to write the lyrics, and most times, it's not coming from a good place. We, as a people, are on an intense spiritual journey, and I'm honoured to be one of many vocal sirens to express our spirituality and conversations with GOD in our music.
Spirituality in African lyrics and instruments is super powerful. I can't explain it; it’s magic; you just have to feel it. Every other day I'm learning how to capture that kind of intensity, and it's not easy as it's emotionally and mentally draining trying to find inspiration in so much brokenness.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Music production has evolved, especially in this digital age. You have to keep researching, learning, practising, and delivering what's needed. My work gets completed when I feel like it doesn’t need anything else, and Iike I would take a bullet for the piece I've created. Only then I can say it's finished.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
I primarily work on projects for which I have a specific direction, e.g. releases for different countries which lyrically and musically sound different. I can go back and forth on a project, but not for too long as I have to submit it eventually.
If I'm not happy with something, I make sure I work until I'm satisfied. It might mean sleepless nights, more research, calling in other creatives to get their advice or input just to get it where it needs to be.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Music production is everything; that’s my first love. I believe that’s where it starts for me; whether I want to sing or dance, you need that music, music is in everything, it's around us 24-7 from restaurants, movies, games, you name it; music is present.
I’m very much involved in the production phase as it's a personal vision I'm trying to express. One of my inspirations, Cuebur, does the mixing and mastering; he is one of the best music producers & engineers in Africa. He gets our songs where they need to be.
I aspire to learn his engineering skills someday, as he always expresses the importance of knowing how to mix and master well. He is such a mentor.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
The state of one's emotional energy relies heavily on the previous project you did. You ask yourself, was it easier to do the project? What sacrifices were made? Do you have a healthy and supportive structure when everything is smooth sailing, then it's easy to get back in it. Still, it can suck the inspiration out of you if it is hard and leave you blank, challenging the next project. It’s especially so if you haven’t had time to heal, making it difficult to connect to the next assignment.
For me, I find healing and inspiration from other creatives, especially at times when I feel down and out. Their energy that can light you up and remind you why you love music, and also sometimes just totally switching to off and going to be one with nature gets me back real good.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
For me, everything comes from intention. When I make music, I intend to make good music, and when I make a cup of coffee, I intend to make good black coffee, lol.
In each situation, I have to deliver and apply myself as best as possible to achieve the goal at hand, so it doesn’t matter the complexity of the task; I intend to make it good.