Unfamiliar with folk music, I didn’t know what to expect from independent folk singer Yanis Khamsi’s new album, Queen Kari.
Khamsi mixes traditional sounds and modern references to Netflix and Digimon with a youthful voice that matches well with the themes underlying his work. Full of quirky lyrics and magical realism, the songs express the different dimensions of childhood and innocence. The first track, “Goggle Head Blues”, is catchy, bright, and only two minutes long, serving well as the opening to the album. The titular track continues with the puppy love sentiment but is lyrically bland, although the simplicity may come off as charming to others.
“Earl of March” is my personal favourite. It brims with that end-of-summer, melancholy feeling. It’s about the nostalgia that swells up inside you when the adventure ends and you feel the blues of growing up. The line, “shogun of the bathroom stall while the kids hung out in the stall” is so very lonely, demonstrating Khamsi’s ability to capture compelling images through his words.
“Momentai” is slow and mournful, because childhood is also about letting go and being afraid of things not quite understood. The last track, “Jeri”, although a rather forgettable acoustic ballad, has surreal imagery with the line, “I saw the long-eared rabbit on my bed with three horns on his head”.
On a whole, Queen Kari is a high-quality, cohesive album. The album rises above the weaker tracks with engaging lyrics and whimsical ambience. As a young independent artist, Khamsi has lots of room to grow. I got in touch with the Ottawa-born musician for an interview to discuss his album.
The Medium: When I listened to your album, I noticed some references to the Digimon series. For example, the title of the songs and the lyrics.
Yanis Khamsi: Yeah, there is something about that series that I just keep coming back to. I was eight years old when I watched it. Then at around 16 to 17 I watched it again and from there it brought on new life. A lot of the media for adults is very self-aware and very cynical. This stuff is very innocent and creative, which is what I need, where I think most great art comes from. That’s why everyone says young people make the best art. This series just seems to represent the childhood imagination and the creative potential that comes with being a child.
TM: What made you decide to pursue music?
YK: I guess the bug just bit me. I would watch people play and was full of envy more than anything else. Some people just like the idea of, “Oh gee, I could be on stage”. And then that thought passes. For some reason I just couldn’t let it go. It had to bring itself out.
TM: What about singing? The description on your Bandcamp profile says, “One day, I just felt like singing.”
YK: Yeah, absolutely. Singing came a lot later. It was a lot more spontaneous. Before that, I was playing instruments here and there. I never really thought I could sing. But around 18, I started getting that confidence back and I really just started pursuing it.
TM: More on the industry then; what are your thoughts on streaming music online and inadequate compensation? I mean, someone could just play your music online and not buy it.
YK: I do agree that musicians should be compensated a lot more; they spend all their time on the road nowadays but still can’t make ends meet. The Beatles quit touring because their album sales were giving them enough money, and they had the time to just live and just make really good albums. But musicians should definitely be compensated more. I mean, we live in the age where people aren’t buying things anymore.
TM: So what was the process of publishing your album like?
YK: After I finished Digimon on Netflix, I needed to find a great recording studio. Oak Recording Studio is right here in Toronto, easily accessible for anyone in Mississauga. What I loved is that they have free studio musicians. It’s got a full band. As for mastering, the works get sent out to a different engineer. I recommend that to anybody, because that way they can use their special gear. I sent it out to a place in Ottawa called Conduction Mastering. Once that was done, I got the incredible Alexandra Laine to do the album art. We worked together. The result was a more talented version of what I saw in my brain.
TM: After that, how did you promote yourself as an independent artist?
YK: I was pretty diligent the past few weeks, sending it out to everyone I could. The Internet can allow you to send your music to everyone. That’s really what I recommend; make awesome music and get people to hear it. Or if you’re really good, play live. Be committed to quality.
TM: What is your songwriting process? When does the seed of a song begin to sprout in your mind?
YK: I’m inspired by wherever I am at the time. Winter, childlike innocence. Because I find different seasons bring things out of you.
Writing songs can be work. A lot of it comes from confidence. I like my work, people like my work, so let’s get to work, versus sitting and waiting for that stroke of inspiration. I think that’s a little overrated.
TM: Are there any stories or people behind your songs, your lyrics?
YK: A lot of the titles are obscure. It’s basically protection. We are the Internet generation, right? We’re all quiet people. We all say we’re extroverts but if somebody walks up to us on the TTC and says, “Hi, how are you?” we immediately clam up, but then over the phone or the Internet we can open up. So it’s not about anyone in particular, but for example in the track “Queen Kari”, it will forever be me, 10 years old, and the feelings of being in love.
TM: Who are your musical influences?
YK: Bob Dylan, John Mayer, and Neil Young, who mixes folk music with childlike innocence. He doesn’t sing in a traditional Irish way like me because it would be a parody if I did it! I love tradition but I will only approach it with authenticity and reality. Also Joni Mitchell, who applies great imagination to great work ethic, and Leonard Cohen. I love him because he was a poet first.
Currently studying journalism at Humber College, Yanis Khamsi now resides in Toronto. Check out the album at https://yanis.bandcamp.com/album/queen-kari
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.