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You Heard It Here First: Tawiah on queerness, spirituality and growing up at the Brit School

Every week Stylist will be shining a light on a female musician you need to be listening to. This week we meet soul singer Tawiah, whose honeyed vocals you’re about to hear everywhere.

Tawiah’s music is good for the soul. It’s the audial equivalent of a hearty meal, warming you from the inside out and clearly made with love.

A seasoned performer who has collaborated with everyone from Mark Ronson to Wiley, Tawiah is now putting out a full-length album of her own, tinged with the gospel and soulful sounds she grew up on. 

Raised in the Pentecostal church surrounded by a traditional Ghanaian family, Tawiah used Starts Again to explore her identity as a queer black woman. “It’s a deeply personal record,” she tells Stylist. “It’s about growing up in the church, coming away from the church, what my spirituality means to me, my lifestyle, my mother deeming me a sinner – a lot of life-changing stuff.”

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The content of her work is heavy but in person she’s upbeat and funny, comparing the difficult conversations she had with her mum about her sexuality to telling a friend they have bad breath – “difficult and awkward, but things are better afterwards!” – and regaling me with tales of her days at the Brit School and scarily good James Brown impressions.

Here, she tells Stylist about her most formative firsts.

The first single I bought…
Was Destiny’s Child No, No, No. I remember getting that from HMV.

The first gig I went to…
Was Erykah Badu at Brixton Academy, about 18 years ago. It was incredible, but there was this guy standing next to me who was going in, singing all the words. I was like, ‘With all due respect sir, I didn’t come to hear you sing’. 

Another gig from early memory was seeing James Brown perform – it was a school trip. During one of his songs he gave me his bow tie, and I remember the cologne he was wearing was so strong that it really smelled. I met the band after and everyone was like, ‘She got the bow tie!’ then James Brown came backstage and he was like ‘You got the bow tie!’ That was a moment. I’ve still got the bow tie.

The first job I got paid for…
Was at JD Sports on the King’s Road in Chelsea. We had Vivienne Westwood come through sometimes and I served Katie Price once – I remember that, she bought some Pumas [laughs].

The first time I performed…
Was at church, I was four. I was in a girl group called Sisters of Praise and I really remember the other girls. When we came off stage one of them was like, ‘You were singing too loud!’ That was my first beef – I was doing a Beyoncé in church.

The first time I realised music was my future…
Well for a minute I thought I could’ve been an athlete – I was heavily into football as a kid and got scouted for Chelsea Ladies – but the way my knees are set up… One time I was on stage and my knee just kept giving way. You see all of these moves Megan Thee Stallion is doing? Not me. I wish I had those knees.

I guess I’ve always known I loved music and performing. During my Brit School audition I actually played the clarinet. I didn’t sing for the first couple of weeks at school and then one day all the singers were in a circle and I joined in and that was it. But I’m going to bring it back you know, I’m going to whip it out at my next show. It’ll be Lizzo with the flute, Tawiah with the clarinet – we out here!

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The first time I knew I was good at what I do…
Is hard to say. Music is my passion and I feel confident in it, but I guess that moment comes in a recording session when someone is like, ‘Oh wow, you nailed that we’re done’. But I feel like I’m just doing what I love and I’m blessed to be paid for it.

The first thing I do in the morning…
Is go to the gym… as of today [laughs]. No, my first thought is always to give thanks. Being grateful that I woke up, that I’m here for another day. Tomorrow is not promised.

Tawiah is about to release her debut album, Starts Again.

The first thing I do when I get home…
Is kick off my shoes at the top of the stairs, walk into the kitchen – I’ve got a lovely view so I have a look, see what’s going on outside – then fix myself a beverage. The type of beverage depends on what kind of day I’ve had; a lot of the time, it will be a glass of wine. I like a riesling or a merlot.

The first person who inspired me…
Is probably a gospel singer, I grew up listening to people like CeCe Winans. Then my uncle put me onto everything else, all secular music, and I gravitated towards Erykah Badu, Mary J Blige, the Fugees, Lauryn Hill. So gospel first, then soul, then I also got into jazz and other things – I love Björk and I remember discovering 70s psychedelic soul and being blown away. Music is amazing.

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The first thing I’ll spend money on…
Is either new trainers or a piece of music gear. I used to have a ridiculous amount of trainers and I gave most of them to charity because I was like, ‘This is too much’. My family are in Ghana and a lot of the time I go there and my cousins are be like, ‘Oh I like your trainers, leave them for me’. So whenever I go I know I’m coming back without a few pairs. 

Tawiah’s debut album Starts Again is out on 18 October.

Images: Studio Myrrh

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