“At first, I was just thinking about myself. [How] it’s either pure luck or just certain decisions that I made in my life that got me to this place.” Looking for who and what made him into the person he is today, Alfa Mist extends this arc to each and everyone, telling me: “The album Variables is exploring who I am and the decisions that we all make.” This investigation of the self and all our shared experiences is presented by Mist’s confident guidance of the audience through his introspective, yet wonderfully emotionally charged, jazzy oeuvre. At times softly inquiring (with the single Aged Eyes setting expectations high for this quest of the self), and at other times almost interrogatively spiraling (best exemplified by the closing number BC), Alfa Mist wants to examine how the decisions we make and factors out of our control have shaped or even created us.
Something From Nothing
As to how he was able to identify this core motif with the exploration of the self on Variables, Mist describes that his background as a grime beatmaker and producer has been influenced by so many factors; people he has collaborated with, the varied music he discovered through producing, and while all these things are personal experiences, he also realized that “[…] everyone else has a story like mine.” He points to his writing process as an integral part of that discovery.
“When I’m making an album, the first stage is just me by myself in my room. Making these ideas, writing these things down, making these beats. The next stage is showing all these to a band. Then everyone brings themselves to the table, […] has conversations and brings their thing. That’s how I see it. You’re interacting with other people to create something from nothing.”
This element of collaboration is essential to Alfa Mist’s body of work. Beginning his music career in his teenage years as a beatmaker for local grime artists in his native Newham, London, and for his own first MC efforts, collaboratively exchanging artistic forces characterized Mist’s artistry from the start. As a grime producer, Mist delved happily into the depths of the internet to scour for new possible samples, where his search would lead him to seemingly eclectic genres of music. Where he encountered unfamiliar sounds and wanted to understand and study them. This led him onto the path to not just sample jazz music, but to study it further in order to finally produce it himself, learning to play the keys efficiently whilst doing so, as well. This progress slowly shaped him into the multi-faceted artist he is today – a highly sought-after jazz bandleader, producer, beatmaker and MC in the sparkling jazz scene of London. Nonetheless, the early musical influences continue to shape his music today, as well. Describing this evolution, Alfa Mist says:
“[Being] at school listening to grime music, listening to hip-hop music, and I’m producing the beats, helped me to discover other genres of music. If I didn’t make hip-hop beats, I wouldn’t have listened to as much music. I wouldn’t have listened to the range of music that I listen to, and then that wouldn’t have made me. Or made me make the music I make today. I’m still influenced by grime and hip-hop and things like that. Everything that I sound like is a sum of my influences.”
Living in Memories
The album celebrates this inquisitive journey into the yester of the self in a spectacular fashion. Collaboration is a necessity for Alfa Mist. He tells me: “The music doesn’t come together unless you collaborate.” – and his fifth album is no exception. Features on Variables include many well-known faces in the “Alfa-verse”, as Mist is joined by some two-, three- or four-time collaborators. Aged Eyes alone reunites Mist with steady collab-partner guitarist Jaime Leeming, for whose second album Resynthesis Mist also acted as Creative Director; cellist Peggy Nolan, who worked with Mist on three LPs and his Two For Mistake EP; as well as percussionist Junior Alli-Balogun, who also joined efforts for the before-mentioned EP and Mist’s last album Bring Backs. The song’s cast is completed by Avishai Rozen on the drums and Kaya Thomas-Dyke’s soft vocals, who can also be counted as an absolute regular to Mist’s crew, being featured on almost all of his projects, going way back to Mist’s first publication in 2015, the Nocturne EP.
The song itself takes a reflective look at the past. Asking how much of it is produced through ourselves, through our own words and recollection, as well as how the perception of ourselves in others can in turn shape our perception of ourselves. Thomas-Dyke’s sensitive voice is guiding us through this kaleidoscopic inquiry. “What if you believe everything? / That they tell you, I was different, anything |The story that we write, through those aged eyes | Will you plan to recognise?”
The song lands on a hopeful note, telling us the sun will come out no matter how dark the clouds may seem. That our true self is consistent yet our memories of ourselves can be altered through the perspectives we gain along the way, through growing as a person and seeing things in a different light. And how our experiences and influences are constantly shaping us in the present, as well: “But life goes on eventually | I’m standing here, living in my memories.”
This sentiment of finding yourself by looking backward so that we can confidently face our future is also beautifully captured in BC. As a closing number, the over seven minutes-long improvisation makes its way through all emotional stages of questioning yourself, not knowing how or whether you may resurface at the end. It is overflowing with eagerness and confidence, as well as a certain degree of anxiousness being mixed into this query. The brass featured in the song leads us in the beginning with an initially almost quailing trumpet by John Woodham, posing this question of the ‘self’. Jasmine Kayser’s drums give us a sense of urgency, while the trumpet’s scream is immediately answered by Samuel Rapley’s firm sax and Mist’s keys, ushering us into a tumultuous confrontation gradually joined by Kaya Thomas-Dyke on the bass and Jaime Leeming on the guitar and intermittent calls by Woodham’s bass clarinet.
We set out on this journey to experience ourselves, separately and collectively. The soli and alternating interactions between the players give me the sensation of hitting a wall, feeling lost at times, and being enraged or frustrated with this pursuit of ‘us’. But we persevere through this exploration to arrive somewhere familiar. Yet we are changed, changed by getting to know ourselves through questioning these experiences. We underwent an inner metamorphosis that doesn’t transform where we are but helped us to understand ourselves and each other.
Joy of Missing Out
Alfa Mist’s perspective on the past, future and present is determined by a grateful pessimism. I ask him if, in this conversation about questioning how he got to the place he is at today and the decisions and actions that led him there if it ever was a question of regret as well:
“I’m pretty lucky in the way I think. I’m quite pessimistic, I’m negative, and I do think of the worst-case scenario and everything. It’s never all regretting ‘cause this could be better, it’s more grateful that it is not as bad as it could be. Thinking in that way fuels me and helps me to view every day, or most days, anyways, as quite positive when I look around.”
FOMO is not a concept to him. If anything, he enjoys missing out on things and spending some alone time. “I love it when people cancel on me. I can relax. One of the greatest things you get from life is cancellation.” His worldview allows for utter confidence in his doing. He exudes a calmness, rested in a sense of true self-assuredness. Having been this prominent in the field for almost a decade and having consecutively collaborated with artists since his school days, his appreciation for stillness is understandable. It is not about jumping on every train, but about being grateful for the journeys he took part in. Alfa Mist is highly aware of every possible negative outcome and is therefore all the more appreciative of all the good things and people in his life.
“[T]here’s not really regrets and things like that because I’m quite happy with where I am right now.”
Variables is out now via Anti Records.