Reflecting on the release of his debut EP, Pub Therapy, west London rapper, producer and artist KiLLOWEN shares his wisdom over a few Guinness' in The George Tavern.
Photography Kitwah (@kitwaah)
There are few artists you’d rather share a pint of Guinness with than KiLLOWEN. The 24-year-old rapper, producer and artist, who takes his stage name from a small village in County Down, Northern Ireland, perpetuates a warmth akin to a few rounds of the deliciously creamy stout. When we meet for the second time, at the George Tavern in east London following a catch-up at Leeds festival, he’s in high spirits, anticipating the launch of his debut EP, Pub Therapy. Running through the track list emphatically to an exuberant crowd, the project marks a significant milestone for the artist, who has found his groove following years of experimentation within UK club and rap circles.
Staking everything on his bars and production, Pub Therapy has no features, forcing fans to indulge in this personal yet compelling journey of self-discovery. The nine introspective tracks reflect on the dichotomy of mental health struggles and musical aspirations; It’s also grounded in British culture in a way that feels truly authentic, comparable to seminal albums like The Streets’ Original Pirate Material. As with Mike Skinner’s work, KilLLOWEN acknowledges the fallibility of using alcohol to aid self-expression: pubs, partying and the mundane 9-5 lifestyle form the project’s white boy wasted backbone, tinged by sounds found in the strobe lights and shadows of clubland.
Although sentiments of optimism and determination echo throughout, the album’s final track, ‘The Butterfly Effect’, feels unique from the rest. The tempo drops as KiLLOWEN reflects on the passage of time over beautifully melancholic strings, which both tug at the heart and evoke a sense of triumph. “From the boy with a vision to the man with a plan,” he raps in his west London drawl, referencing vivid noughties iconography like Air Max and JD bags along the way. It’s a subdued ‘Fuck You’ to everyone who has doubted him and a manifesto for what KiLLOWEN’s music may feel like in the future.
Here, he talks developing a thirst for experimentation, what's on his rider and why 'Dry Your Eyes' is the ultimate pub karaoke tune.
We’re in a pub today to celebrate the release of your debut EP, Pub Therapy, how are you feeling now it’s finally out?
I’m excited, man. It’s been a long time coming! It’s the best introduction to me as an artist and if you’re tuned in already, you still get to find out more about me. I’m excited to start this journey properly, with a proper project and something that I’m proud of.
If there’s one thing you can gather from the project, it’s that you don’t mind a drink. What’s your all-time favourite pint?
It’s got to be a Guinness, I’m a stout guy!
Describe that first taste of Guinness to me, can you remember it?
I didn’t like it at first. I thought, ‘This is bad’. But then I realised, that the more Guinness I drank, the more I could handle it. When I was drinking lager, I was getting all bloated, but Guinness grew on me like fine wine.
Where’s your favourite boozer? Do you have one from home that feels sentimental or somewhere you’ve discovered on tour?
There’s a place near home called The Dumb Bell, which is basically on a farm. It’s weird but it’s great. They do a great Guinness, it’s Irish-owned; I love that place.
What’s your pub karaoke song of choice? You’ve had a couple of drinks, and mustered up the courage to take the mic, what are you singing?
Maybe ‘Dry Your Eyes’. I was at The Dumb Bell a couple of years ago with my boys and they put on ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele; my mate and the bar lady were singing it, that was fucking hilarious. That’s a great shout as well.
What’s your favourite pub snack? What goes well with a Guinness?
Scampi Fries, 100%. I go through like 10 of them in a decent session.
And what’s your favourite pub game?
Does the fruity count? The fruity is jokes, the fruity is bad! I’m not condoning it but it’s fun.
What’s your biggest pub gripe?
Probably if they don’t have Guinness. I hate to sound like, ‘Ooo I drink Guinness’, because Guinness drinkers can be pretentious but it is slightly annoying. They also need to have a nice garden. I don’t smoke sober but with a pint, I need a fag. I hate places where you have to leave your drink inside. Give me a good pub garden, a pint of Guinness and we’re good!
If you could invite three guests to a KiLLOWEN pub session, who would they be and what would the vibes be saying?
That’s hard. I’ll chuck Didier Drogba in there, Damon Albarn and Jeff Hardy. The vibes would be nuts. I reckon Didier will be egging on everyone, Damon will be providing some mad chat and Jeff will just be doing flips. I reckon we’d turn it inside out.
You're here at The George Tavern for the EP launch. Moving away from the pub and towards your live show, What are your pre-performance rituals to settle the nerves?
I know a lot of people say this, but I don’t get that nervous, honestly. I like to just take 5 or 10 minutes by myself to let any negative thoughts exit my brain and get into a good headspace. I then get my DJ a few minutes before for a little huddle, to hype ourselves up and then go out and smash it.
What song do you enjoy performing the most, and why?
Right now it’s 'Sober' because everyone fucking knows it! Everyone goes nuts for it, everyone knows the lyrics, and it feels like an anthem. I feel like Liam Gallagher or some shit whenever I play that song! I enjoy playing unreleased stuff because it’s a lot more gratifying when people go nuts because they don’t know it. They’re relying on your energy and how it sounds. If it sounds good, you bring the right energy and you perform it well, that’s harder to do than playing a song that everyone knows.
What’s on your rider?
Guinness, spiced rum and Red Bull. The Guinness and the Red Bull are for before, caffeine and the Guinness is a little better than just water. The rum is for afterwards, if my mates don’t drink it all by the time I get off stage!
There has been such a swing towards electronic music and rap combinations recently. What do you think has led to that?
I believe that everything goes in a circle. In the early '00s, '21 Seconds' and Original Pirate Material were massive releases. Garage and MCs, right as Grime was coming out of the woodwork. Fast forward 20 years and it’s almost happening again. You hear a song in the rave from a DJ and it's a dub of a rap song over some mad breaks. I work hard but I feel lucky that I am making this sound while the universe is pushing it at the same time.
I remember hearing The Streets for the first time and being like, 'I love rap, and that guy looks like me!' I didn’t understand much of what he was talking about at the time but as I grew up, I related to it.
Do you have any words of wisdom for creatives out there?
I feel like everything inspires anything. We should live life with an open mind. Be a sponge! You know, when you’re a kid, you soak everything in? Try your hardest to keep that curiosity throughout life. I think the worst thing you can do in life is to try and be cool. Honestly, It’s dead!
And that’s coming from a rapper!
I’m just myself. If I wanna upload an Instagram story of my cats, I’ll do it! If I wanna big up someone who might not be "cool", I’ll do it because I want to, and it’s genuine.