KOTA The Friend has been making waves with his music over the last few years, capturing the attention of an ever growing audience thanks to the authenticity housed within his lyrical prowess and the slick simplicity of his visual treatments. It’s a unique offering of purpose-laden prose delivered with peaceful composure, leaving listeners with a sense of inspiration and understanding each them they press play. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the music KOTA shares with the world is also incredibly dope.
The Brooklyn-based artist recently joined Hxppy Thxxghts for an interview via email to discuss his forthcoming FOTO album, lessons he’s learned along the way as his journey in the physical continues and more.
FOTO will be available everywhere on Wednesday, May 15th and you can pre-order/pre-save KOTA’s debut album here.
Enjoy our interview with KOTA The Friend below.
How does it feel to have finished FOTO and be approaching the liberation of the album to the public?
Man, I’m so happy to be letting this project go and be heard all over the world. Kind of anxious because I’m interested to see how people will take it in. It’s a lot packed into it. I just can’t wait for people to hear it.
What’s the meaning behind the title?
FOTO is kind of a play on words – “FOTO Album.” I want people to feel like they’re flipping through pages of my life. I’m snapping vivid pictures with the lyrics. This album is about freedom but also about those moments that we leave in the past and forget about. But as soon as you see an old “foto” it all comes back to you. It has a sentimental vibe.
Your first project, Palm Tree Liquor, was pretty much entirely produced by you. On Paloma Beach, there was a far greater collaborative effort. And Anything. followed that same blueprint, with various artists lacing the tracks with production. When it comes to FOTO, what lane did you take in regards to the production? Who contributed instrumentation to the project and how did you decide which producers would fit the story you were trying to tell through the music?
I did 98% of the production on this album. “Chicago Diner” and “Alkaline” were produced by Origami Beats, he’s the homie and incredibly talented. I wanted people to get the authentic KOTA experience so I took creative control over the whole album. I always said I would produce my first album. FOTO is the most me I’ve been with my music. I know every snare, every hat, every kick, bass, etc. So I’m very connected to this music.
Do you have more visuals in the bag or in the works for FOTO?
Yes, I do. Tons more.
What’s the end goal in dropping shortened versions of your songs with the visual treatment, like you did with “Birdie” and “Backyard“?
I want people to go listen to the song, not just [watch] on YouTube. And now I’m learning that is what some people do – they’ll watch it on YouTube and say, “hey, that’s cool,” and move on. I give snippets ’cause I want people to say, “hey, this is a great song. Let me go check out the full version.” Music videos were created to promote a song. I just want to steer people into the direction of the music
We touched on the producers. But in an attempt to give everyone involved their shine, who would you like to thank for the creative and technical process that gave life to FOTO?
Hello Oshay, who is my friend and very talented singer/producer. He came over and tracked backing vocals for multiple songs, which easily gave the music life. Isa Reyes, who also did that same. My elementary school music teacher tracked saxaphone on a few songs and did a beautiful job. And Saba, who has the only rap verse on my album besides me. They helped me elevate the album to a beautiful place.
Beyond the beautiful storytelling and songwriting featured on the individual tracks, your projects have each presented a collectively deeper message. Anything., for example, was almost on some modern day Dylan in its protesting of the corporate trends that plague the music industry. What was dope though was this commentary existed not only in the lyrical content but in the blueprint of the project when taken as a whole. Is there a larger story you’re telling with the 19 tracks that will live on FOTO?
FOTO is about freedom, genuine love and genuine everything. Throughout the album I’m telling the story of who I was, who I am and how I got here. I’ve been surface level on my previous projects. I go way deeper in this one. I bring up memories from my past that I had suppressed for survival. I’m telling the complex stories of me and my friends in high school and as small children. I’m telling the story of Brooklyn in the ’90’s and 2000’s.
You dropped your debut single, “Customs,” just shy of three years ago. In the time that has passed since, it would appear you took a risk, made a choice and kicked down the door that was standing in the way of your blessings. How has the journey from that first release to the forthcoming project been for you?
I’ve learned a lot since. I’ve learned what it takes to make it and grow in music in this day and age. I learned how to maintain my authenticity and grow at the same time. I use my music to grow as a human being. I am as real as my music is. The is not just a project, it’s my debut album. This is the product of my musical and spiritual growth. FOTO is my garden in Full Bloom.
There are references to depression and mental health littered throughout some of your work. Yet there is seldom any angst or negativity, even when you’re speaking on sensitive subject matter or the trials and tribulations. Rather, you seem to have a keen ability to flip everything into a positive – like the lessons have been learned, so you’re able to own and assert your power over the experiences you’ve lived through. Where are you at today – mentally, spiritually, emotionally – and what inspires or motivates you to keep a positive outlook?
I’m in a way better place mentally and spiritually but I still struggle from time to time like we all do. I keep the positive outlook in my music because I want people to grow, not wallow in sadness. I want people to learn how to be and do better. I want to hold the light at the end of the tunnel for them.
How’s your son? A lot of people search their entire lives for their “why” but your “why” came into your life unexpectedly/unplanned. How does having your seed impact the decisions you make and the actions you take?
I keep him first. He adds to my realness because he’s the realest person in my life. Above all I have to be a good dad. I would rather disappoint the world than disappoint my son. If, when I pass, he is the only one that’s proud of me, I’d be happy. He helps put everything in perspective. When I find myself veering off track, I think of him and I get right back on the path.
Before you decided to focus on music, you put down the mic to pursue cinematography. And, although you made the return to the studio, it appears the detour paid off in more ways than one. What are some of the biggest lessons you took away from your time spent behind the camera?
I learned to PAY ATTENTION TO DETAIL. I became more descriptive in my music, more intricate with production and just better overall. I used visuals to launch my career. I learned that simple is better. I’m glad I took that detour because it taught me how to see a visual while I was making the music.
From the music to the videos, you’re something of a textbook example of moving through life with a DIY mentality. With so many artists struggling on the come up, what advice can you offer to those who fall into the trap of creating a story of “too broke” to make moves?
Play to your strengths. Above all, get to know yourself and create your own tools. People will try to tell you, “you need to do this or do that.” Truth is, everyone’s path is different. Find out where you excel and create a plan based on that info.
I know people who are creating dope and unique music, but they get lost in their frustration due to low streams, plays, views, etc. It sucks to see someone stop fucking with their own vision simply because other people don’t see it yet. With a few projects in the bag, and your most recent being the first that really caught people’s attention on a wider scale, how did you move past the lack of support and stay focused on your vision and goals?
I just kept my head up and kept pushing, picking up fans along the way. My fans are real and they march with me along this path. They push and inspire me to do better and continue. I just appreciate what and who I have. I try not to focus on the gazillion people that don’t rock with me. Instead I pay attention to the 10 people that do.
If you could give one piece of advice to the youth today, what would it be?
Be patient. All the stuff you’re rushing to do will come in time. Youth is something you’ll never get back. Learn as much as you can and do things you like to do, no matter if it’s “cool” or not.
I remember – vividly – the first time I heard Kanye West. I was shuffling through music on my brother’s computer while doing homework and “All Falls Down” came on. At the time, I was caught up in the illusion that all music featured on the radio was trash – I had heard of Ye, but decided his music wasn’t for me because it was “popular.” But when I heard “All Falls Down,” my entire perception changed abruptly. At the same time, it was a catalyst for an energetic shift that changed the course of my life in quite a few ways, not the least of which was the way the track triggered my love for hip-hop. There have been a handful of songs since that have served to change my life in various ways, but “All Falls Down” stands out to me as the first time I can truly recall a single piece of music having such a prominent ripple effect on my life.
Of course, I don’t want to make this about me or my stanning of Kanye. After hearing a song from you for the first time, which was only earlier this year, I immediately began digging through your catalogue. And, when I heard “January,” I felt the same sensation. It triggered something within me that helped fuel a mental, spiritual and energetic shift – if that makes any sense. So thanks for that, but I’m wondering if there is a particular record, or records, that stand out to you as life changing joints? And, if so, how did these songs impact your life and the direction you were moving?
It’s ironic that you say that because Kanye’s “All Falls Down” was that song for me. It was the first piece of music I liked with no one influencing me. I loved Kanye’s early stuff. It made me think about things I’d never thought about. Definitely made me a deep thinker.
When I was digging into your past releases, I spent a good amount of time listening to Self Portrait. Even though it appears to be a slept on and sort of unnoticed tape, I love the ways the EP blends genres, dancing between rap, folk and more. It really serves to highlight a range of musical influences. What brought that project to life?
I was just kinda messing around with that one. I was at a weird transitional place in my life and I guess that’s how it came about.
As a longtime fan of Sylvan LaCue, dating back to his QuESt days, I was thrilled to see your work with him. And, as a hugh fan of Saba, I’m stoked to hear the track you two have on FOTO. Who are some artists you’d like to link with on wax in the future?
Tobi Lou, J. Cole, SZA, Smino, Noname and Mahalia.
I’m looking forward to sitting with FOTO and really letting the music resonate. But you’ve gone on record that you’re still making more music. Does this mean we’ll hear new joints drop in the near future or will you be keeping the post-FOTO music in the vault for a minute?
Yes, I will most likely drop more music while I’m on tour in August.
Thanks for taking the time to interview, man. I appreciate your time and congrats on all that is and all that’s coming for you. Looking forward to FOTO!