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Kojaque: grief, fear of failure and hometown frustrations

Dublin born Kojaque just dropped his stunning debut album Town’s Dead, so we caught up with this Irish rapper to hear more. He spoke about writing the song No Hands about losing his father to suicide, his fear of failure and learning to say “fuck it” to insecurities. 

Zooming in on a New Year’s Eve in Dublin, Town’s Dead counts down to midnight. Full of vivid, evocative storytelling and brimming with chaotic and claustrophobic energy, it follows a group of friends through the build up and inevitable let down of the evening. An album full of frustrations, fears and fumbles, it interrogates the ups and downs of Kojaque’s hometown. 

So when this mellow character joins the call, the violence and pent up anger that radiates from the record feels a little surprising. Describing Dublin as “a bad relationship”, Kojaque’s love for where he grew up is complicated, entangled with messy memories and letdowns: 

“There are a lot of personal tracks on Town’s Dead. It’s a reflection of Dublin really, or what living there can feel like in many senses. There’s frustration and anger because there’s a lot more that could be done there and living standards could be much higher. 

“I think you’re shaped by your environment and that tends to be what expresses itself in your music. My accent is very prevalent in my songs and storytelling comes into my music time and time again. I like observing all the weird stuff people do and I love Dublin, but it’s like a bad relationship.”

Of all the tracks on the record, perhaps the most intimate is No Hands. Poignantly written on his 21st birthday, it tells the true story of how Kojaque lost his dad to depression when he was just three years old. 

A reflection on the difficulties of growing up without his dad, the song details learning to ride a bike with no hands, teaching himself how to shave and looking out for his mum and younger brother. A gut wrenchingly raw account of the realities of trying to understand suicide at such a young age:

“My dad died from suicide when I was a child. I wrote, recorded and produced the track on my birthday and it details growing up, feeling alien from a lot of people and not really understanding how to feel about the whole situation. I didn’t know whether to be angry or upset because death is such a confusing thing at a young age. That’s where a lot of the song came from.

“I was listening to people like Vince Staples and Loyle Carner and I was really inspired by the personal note tracks like Nate, Cantona and BFG were on. So I started writing No Hands as a direct result of wanting to do something in a similar vein.” 

A self-confessed music fanatic, it’s clear Kojaque loves what he does. When we ask if he felt any pressure following the success of Deli Daydreams – a concept album about a deli worker which was nominated for The Choice Music Prize, he’s pretty frank: 

“I had my own expectations for the album and my own standards that I set, but it’s for myself. The minute you start making tunes for other people, or tunes for the sake of award shows, that’s when it goes out the window in terms of being true to yourself. The only pressure I felt for my second album was the pressure I put on myself.”

Unapologetically himself, Kojaque’s drive to make music isn’t shaped by what other people are doing, it’s shaped by his own experiences and what he wants to write about. He’s not always been so sure of himself, but he’s determined not to let fear of failure get in the way of his creativity, something he’s had to work on over the years: 

“I’ve dealt with my insecurities mainly through saying ‘fuck it, I’m just going to put it out’ and make music despite it. It’s an ongoing battle and something that still affects me, but it’s about understanding where that’s coming from. If it’s fear of failure then what’s the worst that could happen? I love making music and I think it’d be such a shame to give that up because I’m afraid of what people would think.”

Kojaque knows how to spin a captivating story, creating characters who appear throughout the album and setting the stage in songs like That Deep, a track about a love triangle gone wrong. But he also draws on his emotions when he’s writing, something he says he’s sometimes caught off guard by: 

“When you’re writing you can talk about stuff that’s frustrating you or stuff that’s on your mind. Often when you write a song you reveal stuff that might be happening subconsciously and then when you step back from the track you’re like ‘ah I didn’t realise that was there’, so it can be good in that sense.” 

Aside from writing, which he’s been doing since he was about 15 years old, Kojaque has some reliable things he returns to when his mental wellbeing takes a dip: 

“If I’m feeling really bad, I usually knock the drink on the head and that levels shit out. I like meditation a lot and I use the Headspace app, then I try to get out for a run or exercise. Chatting to my buddies helps and thankfully I’ve got some really good friends who are always there and very open. When I retract a bit from social situations they know it’s a sign things aren’t great behind the scenes.”

Kojaque knows the importance of support when he’s finding things hard, championing counselling and charities like ours for the stuff you can’t talk to your mates about so easily: 

“I went to counselling in college and luckily it was free. It took a while to get on the list because services are obviously so stretched and that’s why charities like CALM are good. At the time I was having really bad depression and anxiety. I just didn’t have the tools to deal with it or the proper vocabulary to articulate my feelings and express to other people what was going on and why I felt so bad, so I found it incredibly helpful.

“I recommend it to a lot of my friends, even if they’re not in a place that’s as severe as how I was feeling. Because life can be confusing and emotions can be really difficult to understand, so to get a better grasp on that through counselling or speaking to someone is really useful. I still use a lot of techniques that I learned from counselling, and I dip in and out of it even now, because keeping on top of your mental health is never a bad thing.”

Kojaque isn’t just breaking new ground in music, he’s pulling down the walls we often put up when we’re struggling and we’re excited to see what this softly spoken Irishman has up his sleeve next: 

“It’s pretty surreal being on the other side of the release because you’re behind it for so long, working on so many different versions, different narratives and songs that don’t even make it onto the album. I’m glad to have the finished piece and I’m pumped for people to hear it. I can move onto the next step now.”

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