Publishing date: Feb, 16, 2023
Even if this is the first time you’re hearing Pierre Kwenders, his quintessential cool and unique sonic intonations will make him instantly unforgettable. Born José Louis, he found his love for music at an early age, and his passion for the art only escalated since moving to Montréal from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early 2000s. The singer’s distinct Colognese beats and electro-pop sounds can be heard throughout his exhaustive list of works. With his unique blend of African, Caribbean, and North American music styles, Pierre Kwenders has made a name for himself as a versatile and dynamic performer, weaving the threads of his life together in a way that is simultaneously unexpected and completely natural.
His latest project, José Louis & The Paradox of Love, tells his story in a more personal way and showcases his immense talent as a songwriter coupled with his impressive DJ chops that OG fans first fell in love with. Released in 2022, the album spans 18 tracks and provides the listener insight into his colorful life. The album has been critically acclaimed, winning him the 2022 Polaris Prize & a 2023 JUNO nomination. When I sat down with him, he was a few hours away from playing his show in Victoria, BC, and his energy was so calm and collected that you’d never know he was about to play to a room of 500 fans. As we chatted, I could feel the respect and admiration he has for his colleagues around him as well as his true passion for music, both on a personal level and as a way to bring others together. Below, we chat about his fashion sense, his most meaningful collaboration, and what message he hopes to convey to fans through his work.
You’re on tour right now! How is it going?
It’s been really good! I really felt the love this tour. In January, I played in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon which were all great. Then, we went over to the West Coast of the United States. In particular, Seattle was amazing because I got to see Tendai [Maraire], who produced my second album. I’m really excited about this last leg of the tour. I’ll be closing it out at the end of February!
What has been the most memorable moment so far?
At the Seattle show, Tendai got to see me perform on stage for the first time! That was definitely the highlight.
Congratulations on winning the Polaris Prize! In your speech, you acknowledge your mother and cousins as huge sources of inspiration for you. Where else do you draw inspiration from?
A lot of my collaborators are people who have inspired me for a long time, especially on this album. Young, up-and-coming producers from all over the world also inspire me. And of course, I get inspiration from my friends, and the little encounters I have in my day-to-day life.
‘José Louis & The Paradox of Love’ is a deeply personal album that tells your story. What is one thing you hope your fans take away from it?
I hope that in some way, they can relate to it. Even though it tells my story of being a young African kid moving from Kinshasha to Montréal, that story can be anybody’s story – it can be a Canadian story, an African story – anything. I just hope that people can really connect with the love that is coming out of it and make it their own.
You have a great sense of fashion. Where do you draw inspiration from when selecting your looks?
It’s a bit of a Congolese thing. Growing up, I was inspired by artists like Papa Wemba who was one of the founding fathers of what we call La Sape, which is like an elegant young man who dresses really well. That culture really stuck with me and I feel that it’s important for us musicians & artists to portray something beautiful when we’re able to be on stage because at the end of the day, music is art and we’re there to tell a story. Of course, music is about the sound, but you can also be taken on a journey visually with what you see.
A lot of your music videos are really creative & have a lot of references in them. What is your process for conceptualizing and creating your music videos?
Well, I like to surround myself with geniuses! I normally have an idea, but one thing to understand about music is that you can’t do everything alone. I need other people to help bring my vision to life. That’s why I like to work with people who have inspired me and whose work I am familiar with because that open communication is key and they can really understand my vision.
You have quite a few collaborations on your album. How do you choose who you’re going to collaborate with?
Most of the collaborations I do are DJs and producers from Moonshine [a collective that Kwenders co-founded], so they are people that I already am familiar with. Also, I never stop working when I’m on tour so if I feel inspired by something, I’ll go to the studio and sometimes it ends up on my album! I feel like all of the producers I worked with during that time in my life really helped to make José Louis & The Paradox of Love what it is. It all made sense – it wasn’t really planned. I didn’t even think I was making an album, it was more like I was just making songs and then the rest sorted itself out.
My favorite collaboration on your album was between you and your old youth choir in the song “Church (Likambo)”. How did that collaboration come to be and what was it like for you?
The recording part was one of the most beautiful moments of the whole album for me. I always wanted to do a song that reminded me of the church where I first started singing and I thought this one would be a great fit. I sent the demo to the Maestro at the church and a few days later, he sent me back a new version that had him & his wife singing different parts of the song. The album was actually supposed to come out in 2020 but it got delayed because of the pandemic which was actually a good thing in the end because it gave us time to record the version that is now on the album.
Creating music & creating a community around that seems to be your passion. In your free time, what do you listen to?
Pretty much everything! I listen to a lot of Congolese artists. I also like R&B, rap, hip-hop, and a lot of electronic music since I’m also a DJ! My collective, Moonshine actually has a playlist of everything my colleagues and I are listening to at the time that we like to share with people.
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