In April 2021, Msaki, Tubatsi Mpho Moloi, and French cellist Clément Petit settled for a week in Nirox, a graceful art residency center, and sculpture park located one hour away from bustling Johannesburg. As Autumn was falling on the country and days were getting shorter, the three musicians worked for one week in the cold and bright South African winter, sharing ideas of melodies, drafting lyrics, and, from time to time, having a few open-hearted conversations. The result? Synthetic Hearts, an experimental, playful, and minimalist 9-track album released via No Format. As Msaki and Tubatsi describe the project, words like “organic” or “natural” keep coming up: it becomes clear that the songs they offer testify to the beautiful and evanescent parenthesis the three artists shared on these few peaceful days. “We were watching the leaves turn from green to gold to dark orange in the week that we were there,” Msaki recalls. “Something was happening. I think we tapped into that, what the seasons were doing, what was going on in our lives…” “The whole composition was honest to the space and time we were in,” Tubatsi sums up.
If we wanted to make it short, we could say that the nine songs of Synthetic Hearts are folk music: two voices with minimal arrangements, singing soothingly about romantic torments and love declarations on the delicate notes of a cello (“one of the closest string instruments to the voice!”, Msaki specifies). However, the album defies easy categorization, mixing deep songwriting with ambient and non-lyrical pieces, combining live and electronic elements, and tapping into classic folk as well as South African folklore. Through improvisation and collaboration, it is safe to say the three artists came up with a distinguishable and original music language, unheard of in the usual South African creative dynamics. A finding that owes much to the work of Clément Petit, at the origin of many compositions of the album: “he is an artist who, in his writing, understands jazz, folk, Afrobeat,” explains Msaki. “If you had to give it a genre and put it in a box, I would simply name it ‘synthetic hearts’,” Tubatsi smiles. “We were working in such a way that we didn’t know how the songs were going to come out, because neither of us had done anything similar to this. It came out organic and unique in its own way.”
The album composition and recording process came at the right time in both singers’ lives. Msaki, a few months prior, had just delivered Platinumb Heart, a dense double album with a full orchestra, which had taken her years in the making and led to dozens of concerts, live streams, and interviews. “So many sessions, so much music, so many musicians…” she sighs. “Man! I was like: three musicians? One instrument? One week? Perfect. And I liked the idea of doing something, leaving it behind and not overthinking it. It felt like a big exhale.” Tubatsi, in addition to his activities as lead singer for Urban Village, “was going through some stuff during that time, personal stuff, emotional things. It was a tough time. During the residency, Msaki and I were having conversations about human relationships. Conversations that one can have with an uncle, a niece, a parent… Conversations between two people welcoming each other into one space and trying to find a way to move and navigate around. I think this translated into the music.”
Naturally, without any concrete will to do so, most songs on Synthetic Hearts ended up evoking “matters of the heart”, as Tubatsi puts it. As “Hearteries” finds the reasons for a painful rupture in one’s own reflection, “Come In” is a determined declaration of unshakeable love, “Stay As You Are” delicately asks a lover to remain the same, “Fika” calls for a loved one to arrive back home, while “Madonna” sensually sings of distance and detachment. “Khanya”, futuristic in its own way, is “an affectionate command to be bright, and to shine”. When I ask the two vocalists if they had any duet reference in mind while composing, unsurprisingly, both struggle to find any, as Msaki comes up with Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody that I used to know” and Tubatsi reaffirms that they were trying to do “something that was not done before”. “For me, it’s interesting to see the new thing that the dynamic of two people can create,” Msaki explains. “With Tubatsi, we have been in the same band scene for a couple of years now. I did a song with Urban Village for Udondolo, and we obviously noticed some sort of creative chemistry. This is when this idea came up.”
As coherent as Synthetic Hearts ended up being as a body of work, ambivalence, and contradictions cross the different songs. Sentences like “I will always be closer away” (“Madonna”) or ambiguous commands like “stay as you are till the day that you can no longer” (“Stay as you are”) set a complex, paradoxical atmosphere to the different songs. More than feverish straightforward love tracks, the pieces of the album enquire, examine and raise more questions than answers on the heart and its reasons. Msaki admits “there are a lot of invitations, and there’s a lot of vulnerability. It’s not very clear. It feels like the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning… which is probably reflective of where we are as well.”
Listen to Synthetic Hearts, available via No Format.