The success of longtime collaborator Knucks’ recent Top Three album ‘Alpha Place’ has shifted Venna into the limelight, but the London saxophonist and producer has already spent years quietly shaping big releases in afrobeats, jazz, and rap.
He laid down the stirring sax sounds on ‘Alarm Clock’, one of the standout tracks on BandLab NME Awards Best Solo Act In The World 2022 winner Burna Boy’s Grammy-winning album ‘Twice As Tall’. He’s featured on tracks with Wizkid (‘Starboy’) and Beyonce (‘Ja Ara E’), and cultivated a reputation as an exciting young instrumentalist and producer. Now, though, he’s focusing on his own work.
Blending elements of sax-heavy jazz and laid-back UK hip-hop and drill to create ambient, far-reaching soundscapes, Venna’s music transcends the concrete streets which gave birth to it. Aware of music’s restorative qualities, he insists “music’s not just for me… I have to do myself justice, but I have to do everyone else justice too.” This sense of community seeps through his 2021 EP, ‘Venology’, with features from JVCK JAMES, emil, and JADA highlighting the talent of both the south London creative himself, and the tight circle around him.
This summer, he’s juggling a busy touring schedule with solo creative work, but when NME catches up with him over Zoom, he seems calm, at peace with the knowledge that he’s carving out a distinct space for himself in the UK music scene.
NME: A lot of your music has a feeling of escapism to it. Are you inspired by the idea of getting away from it all?
“‘ Venology ’, I made at a time where a lot was going on; Black Lives Matter, COVID, End SARS in Nigeria [an ongoing wave of mass protests against police brutality]. The day ‘Sun, Moon & Herbs’ and ‘June’s Cry’ were made, I went to the studio, and it was a bit rainy and glum. You never consciously think, ‘I’m doing something as an escape or a release’, but at the end of that one, I realized that it was like a therapy session. It was like, ‘We don’t have to think about what’s going on right now, because in this room right now, we’re safe.’ ”
What’s been inspiring you recently?
“I’ve got a thing for picturesque scenes… I’ve been on tour recently with [drummer and producer] Yussef Dayes, driving around the US West Coast, LA side. As we’re driving around, I’m seeing mad landscapes, listening to my next project while making beats in the van, and seeing those images helps me gather my thoughts and collect them. ”
‘Venology’ was an important marker in your career so far. What were your ambitions with the EP?
“I wanted this to be the biggest thing ever. I wanted the music to touch as many people as it could. Not in an arrogant way, but I know how special the music is. Before then, I’d worked with loads of people, and I appreciate everyone who brought me in and helped me get to where I am now, but there’s nothing more rewarding than finally doing it for yourself. ”
What was the response to the EP like?
“The response was everything I thought it would be and more. People have messaged me saying, ‘This has helped me get through this’, or ‘I normally have anxiety in the mornings and I listen to your project and it helps me start my day.’ ”People really find a spiritual kind of healing from it, and it was a spiritual healing process for me to make it. It’s been a beautiful process. ”
What was it like working with Burna Boy and P2J on ‘African Giant’ and ‘Twice As Tall’?
“Both albums were cool, man. I’ve never met Burna Boy personally. I’ve performed with him, but I’ve never shook hands with him. But P2J, that’s my bro, he’s helped me out a lot, it’s always a pleasure with him. He’s a pioneer with afrobeats right now. He knows what he wants and when you play it, it might not be what you thought. But sometimes you need someone like that. ”
You’ve been working with Knucks for a while now – how did you guys link up?
“I was in college, 16, on YouTube, and I came across Knucks, on [rap-based promotional channel] Link Up TV. I’m like, ‘This guy’s cold!’ He was using Midi sax, and I was like ‘Nah, you might as well use the right thing’, so I DM-ed him that evening. He replied and we said we’ll link up. There was a show called London Rebels, and both of us were on the bill, so that was the first time I met him properly. Then from 16, until now, we worked on ‘Vows’, then he sent me ‘Home’, and there’s a bunch of other tunes that never came out. ”
“I know jazz; I’m a jazz musician, this is my forte ”
You executive produced his new album, ‘Alpha Place’. What were the highlights of working on that project?
“Leading up to‘ Alpha Place ’, Knucks’ manager Henny was like, ‘We need to make a classic rap over here but with drill, cause no one really done a classic drill album. Tell your stories. Set your scene of where you live. ‘ ‘Alpha House’ was the first tune we made for the project. I was in my studio in Dalston, and everyone came there, SL, Teflon – people came in and we just had fun. There was never stress or pressure. The highlights were just memories, man. Henny always has stories about life; I love hearing stories from people that are older than me, different stories and ways of living. ”
The album debuted at # 3 in the UK Albums Chart. Have you been at all surprised by its chart success?
“I knew it was going to get Top Three. Them man did a wicked campaign; they sold merch, did pop-ups, went up and down England to make sure the people could meet Knucks. It’s the people that get us here; it’s not the machines, it’s the actual people, and there’s nothing better than linking them and meeting them. I’m just happy that he’s getting the appreciation and the love that I’ve got from him since I was 16. ”
The production on ‘Alpha Place’ intertwines UK drill and jazz in a unique way. What was it like combining these two sounds?
“I’ll hold my hands up and say that Knucks was the guy that started that, with‘ Home ’. I can’t think of any prior examples of people using jazz on drill. With this project, we were like, ‘We already know what the vision is, let’s do it.’ I wanted him to be able to treat my studio as a safe haven and do what he wanted to do – if you want to try something, let’s try something. I know jazz; I’m a jazz musician, this is my forte, so that makes life easier for us. ”
You’re a big fan of nostalgia: in your music, your videos, your clothes. If you could go back in time and experience one period of music history, what would it be?
“I’m undecided between two periods. There’s the John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker realm. I wish I saw that, bro, that stuff was groundbreaking. And my Dad’s from New York, so I was in New York the week before last, and we were jamming around, and I can tell that New York’s not the same as it used to be when Biggie and Diddy were there. Even when Miles and Coltrane were doing their thing, New York was bubbling, so I wish I saw New York in its prime. So it’s between the Biggie / Diddy era, and the Miles / Coltrane era. ”
What are your plans for the rest of 2022?
“I’m running around the world with Yussef right now, which is a dream. We’re touring Australia, then New Zealand. His album’s coming out as well, and we’ve worked hard on it. And just my next project… I think I’ve got the track list, but I change things a lot. I’m very picky with my music. Anything I’m heavily involved in, I take my time. But I try not to put too much pressure on it. I am music, so music’s skirt come to me regardless. I don’t even stress about it anymore. ”