Atlanta-based Berklee School of Music alumni, Xenia Manasseh, has been making big waves in the industry, including working on Teyana Taylor’s new project titled, ‘The Album’, as a songwriter and background vocalist.
In the last year since she moved to Nairobi, the ‘See Me’ singer also had a hand in Sauti Sol’s new album, ‘Midnight Train’.
Xenia, who is signed as a songwriter with the Atlanta-based The UpperClassmen Music Group, also released her debut EP, Fallin’ Apart, opened for Rema’s Nairobi show, performed on the same stage as Blinky Bill and GoldLink, and was selected to be part of Mr Eazi’s emPawa program this year.
Teyana Taylor’s the album recently came out under the upperclassmen music group (The UCMG). Talk to us about how the magic happened.
Marquis and I actually wrote shoot it up in October 2018 then wrote Wrong Bitch in august 2019. I had just started working at UCMG, but at the time, I was not signed to the group. I didn’t know what was going to happen with the songs. All I knew was I’d go in every day and write a couple of songs and one day, this would all be amazing.
That’s what happened with Teyana Taylor. I wasn’t sure until I heard her demo of Shoot it Up, I was like “oh my god this is real”, and then I saw the tracklist – the songs were back to back. It was surreal. These are songs we wrote as part of our daily sessions and then they send the songs out to different record labels.
Obviously they edited the lyrics, but it’s crazy to know that something you worked on in a random session is used by somebody else, someone you looked up to for so long. It’s so cool; I honestly still can’t wrap my head around it. I am blessed.
Let’s talk Sauti Sol’s fifth studio album, Midnight Train.
It’s crazy! So crazy. It was amazing. I got to do background vocals with my friend Lisa Noah on the intro, insecure, feel my love, and Nenda Lote. I got to do vocals on wake up and also feature. I met Sauti Sol so long ago and when you think about how long it puts a lot of things in perspective for me as far as really understanding the depth of the meaning of patience.
That was eight years ago and I started listening to their music when their first album debuted and it took 11 years to finally work with them. That’s a long time. It puts everything into perspective; you cannot rush anything that is supposed to be yours. Working with them is amazing, they are extremely supportive and uplifting.
Every time I see them, they’re always encouraging me – they’ve made me realise how blessed and different I am and I really appreciate that. Definitely looking forward to working with them more! It’s always good vibes and I can’t wait to see what else we can come up with.
Your EP, Fallin’ apart is a great body of work. It almost feels like there’s a relationship flow in the order of the tracks and the specific stories. Could you tell us more…
Fallin’ apart is about the downfall of a relationship. It starts with see me when the relationship is at its turning point – it’s like dying out now; you can even say that it is one whole argument. It’s about feeling like you are not being seen anymore by somebody you have shown every part of yourself.
Then it moves on to found me where I thought that we were just getting to the good part, but everything has turned sour and things are different. Don’t go is where things have been said, things that can’t be taken back. Falling apart is a self-explanatory title and it is coming to an end.
The last song is when it’s over, it’s like the last argument and it’s an argument you have had before, but I’m okay with it this time because I’m going to be done with the whole thing.
There’s no denying your signing with UCMG was a defining moment. How did that come about?
I ended up in Atlanta because I went to school in Boston, Berklee College of Music. Every spring break, they would have industry trips for students at school to either visit Atlanta, LA, New York or Nashville. I chose to go to the one in Atlanta.
Being at Berklee already gave me a leg ahead because I got to learn more about the theory of music. By the time I ended up in Atlanta people were like “yoooo this girl really knows things”. UCMG put me in an environment where I was creating every day. They had studio time where I was doing almost three to five sessions a day and I was writing up to three songs a day.
I got so used to that and I feel it gave me a leg up. I was not writing as much as other people, but at 21 and fresh out of college, that was good because now I don’t expect anything less. As for the local market, I am extremely grateful because I was never sure how my music would be accepted because I feel like I was so different.
Being Kenyan already gives me different influences than people that are just straight R&B or just songwriters. I have more to pull from because I am aware of my roots. I have listened to so much growing up from all over the world, but there is that home touch that I feel like I have and both of these things coming together is what makes me a little different and that is what makes us different.
Gotta hand it to Berklee…
Berklee was amazing – it surrounds you with people that live and breathe music. It’s an environment that forces you to grow because you are around some of the most gifted musicians.
When is your earliest memory of loving music?
I was in kindergarten playing the piano. I think I’ve been singing all my life and picked up a little guitar, drums and bass along the way.
So, at 23 and taking over the world, including Tik Tok…
I love dancing, I have danced all my life. I wanted to be a dancer at some point because I was not taking music seriously and I was trying to find other ways of including music in my everyday life and it sort of just worked out.