Berhana's 'HAN' Is a Sonic Treatise On Intent [Q&A]
When we last saw Berhana, he ended his debut EP with the phrase "Copped this one way out to Mexico, cause you compress my soul and call it love." Utilizing his innate storytelling ability, he used that final line on the project to serve as a bridge to the future. His new project picks up exactly where the last one left off. HAN, the debut album from LA-based singer Berhana, is out this week via EQT. It's been about three years since the success of his self-titled debut EP, Berhana. Fueled by the breakout singles "Grey Luh" and "Janet", Berhana has garnered over 100 million streams and has continued to win over fans all over the world.
With HAN, Berhana is able to execute the next level of his artistry and showcase his growth as a person and a musician. We chatted over the phone a few weeks ago and a reoccurring theme from our conversation was intent. From moving to New York City to study film to taking music more seriously and releasing a project, to making a promise to himself that by the time he released his second project he would be living in Los Angeles, he knew how he wanted his life to look and he did whatever it took to make it happen. That level of intent and vision echoes throughout his entire artistic output. We talked about his thoughts on genre classifications in 2019, working with Pomo, his relationship with time as it relates to creating, staying intentional, and what city has the best ugly dancers. Read the full interview below:
OTW: So it's 2016 and your first project just dropped. How did your life change?
Berhana: Well, it was slow. People really didn't fuck with that project immediately so it took a while to hit after I put it out. So when I released it, nothing immediately changed. I still had to work in a restaurant and grind outside of music. But after a while, I started to see it slowly snowball. That’s when I was able to transition into music being my full-time thing.
OTW: When did you feel the difference?
Berhana: I remember I moved to LA but I still had to get this restaurant gig, and I really didn't want to be there. They put me in the lowest position possible even though I was working a much higher position in New York. All of these artists and people would walk in, like people that I would want to work with in the future, and it really just made me want to get out. And one day I got in a fight with my boss and I was just like "alright I'm out of here - it's a wrap." And it just so happened that in that month I made just enough money to get by without having to get another job. And then that next month I made just enough to squeeze by again and that's when I was like "ok, cool I'm just gonna save as much as I can just to not get another job", and that's what I did.
OTW: That's crazy. You can be so close but still, have all of these little things that you need to figure out.
Berhana: Totally. Not everything is going to be an explosion of success. People might picture it like that but sometimes it's a slow build, and then it gets to this point when you're like "oh shit we're here now." It seemed like it came out of nowhere but it was a slow build.
OTW: It's funny that your fans kill you for how long it's been between your releases. What is your relationship with time and the process behind waiting to make sure the music is right?
Berhana: For me, it's a mix of a couple things. The EP was the first thing that I ever made and I was very cognizant of that, so I wanted to make sure that the second thing was as good as it could be. But I also wanted to make sure I had enough time to grow. The second thing someone puts out solidifies a pattern - it solidifies an expectation from your audience and I didn't want to put out some half-hearted bullshit that sounded like the EP for everyone to say "oh yeah this is what he does." I wanted it to be bigger and I wanted it to be better, and that just took time. I didn't intentionally wait a certain amount of time. I just did my best to give it the time it needed to make sure that everything was right.
OTW: Various playlists refer to you as an R&B artist, and that title doesn't feel right to me. How do you feel about genre classification in 2019?
Berhana: I think that genre as a concept is dying, and I think people care about it less and less. One day it'll be extinct but until then I don't let it affect me too much. They called Prince an R&B artist and other famous people that clearly aren't, so yeah, I can expect the same. But it's not my job to tell people what I am.
OTW: Your first project was entirely produced by Sapphire Adizes. Han features a lot of production from you and Pomo. How do you approach production for a project and how did you connect with Pomo?
Berhana: I like locking in on projects with people, and I want the people I work with to feel invested. I think that happens when you bring people in during the early stages and keep them there throughout the entire process. I had wanted to work with Pomo for awhile. I'd seen a lot from him and had gone to a couple of his shows and I could tell that we were into similar things musically so I finessed to get one session with him that my manager set up. That one session was so great that it turned into three sessions and then it turned into this full project.
OTW: What do you think makes you guys such a good team?
Berhana: I think we have similar tastes - I think that's where it starts. And I think the things that get me really excited, like when I hear a certain thing in music, are the same things that get him excited. And I think that's a really good place to start when collaborating with artists - having that same taste and the same feel.
OTW: So Han is almost here. How do you feel?
Berhana: I'm stoked, man. I'm just so excited for it to be out in the world and exist as one body of work. Like it's cool having singles but having it all out there at one time - I'm really excited about that.
OTW: Can you explain the overall theme or concept behind it?
Berhana: Yeah, I always wanted it to be this kind of journey. The very last line in "Grey Luh" is "cop this one way out to Mexico, cause you compress my soul and call it love." So I knew that I wanted this next thing to feel like a journey and feel like an experience.
OTW: When I was listening to the project, it had a familiar aesthetic based on your singles but then I got to "G2G" and it jolted me out of my seat. Explain how "G2G" came to be.
Berhana: "G2G" is probably my favorite on the entire project. It felt like a science project because I already knew that I wanted a song to have different sections and I knew that I wanted the last section to have this drum and bass section, but I wasn't sure where to fit it in. We were all in an Airbnb one day jamming and making music and made the first half of "G2G" super fast. It was a joke that turned into something crazy that we loved. Then we realized that this was the song where we were going to add all these different sections. After that, we kept finessing it into what it is today.
OTW: It's like a shock.
Berhana: I like that. I like messing with people's expectations.
OTW: As you should. Another standout song on the project is "California." It feels like what you were setting up on"Grey Luh" and leading into Han, you're also setting up and leading into the next project as well. Is that intentional?
Berhana: Totally. Everything is intentional. The details are always the best part, it makes it special.
You have a tour coming up so lastly I have to ask, what city has the best ugly dancers?
[Laughs] Ooh, Toronto. We'll see how other people come out for this tour but on the last tour, Toronto people were dancing pretty ugly and I loved it.
Check out Berhana's debut album available everywhere on Friday, October 18th!