Mereba reflects on the creation of "AZEB," connecting with J.I.D and EarthGang, producing for other artists, and her top five rappers of all time.
Rise & Grind is a new editorial series, meant to introduce and dissect new, buzzing, or underground artists.
A multitalented artist who plays guitar, produces, sings, and raps, Mereba has been steadily honing her craft for years. Upon moving from North Carolina to Atlanta, she quickly found creative kindred spirits in both EarthGang and J.I.D, who went on to become her trusted friends and collaborators. Most recently, they reunited on Spillage Village's Spilligion album, a project written, recorded, and released in the midst of the pandemic.
The recent release of AZEB has solidified Mereba as one of the most evocative songwriters in the game right now. An emotionally resonant and incisive reflection on themes of love, companionship, and family, the seven-track project highlights many of Mereba's artistic strengths. Not only from a vocal standpoint, but from a production one as well. The choices made behind the boards reveal a visionary, one who understands how to maximize the impact of a song beyond lyricism and performance.
That's not to say AZEB isn't without conflict. In a similar fashion to Spilligion, the bulk of Mereba's latest solo release was written during one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory. The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of black men and women at the hands of the police, and the ominous sense that society was facing a widening division cast a dark shadow. At the same time, Mereba welcomed her first child, drawing further strength from the unity of her growing family. As such, there's a fascinating duality surging through AZEB, one of the most emotionally satisfying albums of the year.
We recently had the chance to speak with Mereba for the latest episode of Rise & Grind. Check out a transcription of the full conversation below, and be sure to go check out her latest album AZEB right here.
Look for a new installment of Rise & Grind every Monday.
Image via artist. Photo by Breyona Holt.
Greensboro, North Carolina is an important place, of all the places I've lived. It’s where I learned to play guitar. I started writing songs all day, every day because I had trouble making friends there. I learned the guitar and wrote songs instead. It’s how I found my interest in folk music and roots-type music. I would also say Atlanta. That’s where I linked up with a lot of my friends that I make music with to this day. Atlanta taught me the grind of being an artist -- playing shows all over town and playing shows for different types of audiences. I’ve played every circuit you could imagine. The hip-hop shows, the singer-songwriter shows, the reggae shows. Anyone who was down to listen to me, I was playing for. It really showed me what it takes to hone your skills. That was super important in my journey.
I used to be on the same circuit with J.I.D. and EarthGang, playing the same shows. I have flyers from years ago with both of our names on them. It’s really cool to grow with your friends from ground zero up.
I'm very into astrology. I’m a Virgo. Very much so a Virgo. It’s all about analyzing and finding solutions to problems. We’re very solution-oriented. We have a tendency to want to fix things, sometimes too much. But it’s all from a place of love. I feel like I’m a very idealistic person, with ideas on how the world could operate to avoid more pain and suffering. It’s not necessarily always realistic, but that’s kind of what my music is -- a more idealistic view of how the world should be. Hopefully whoever listens to it sees that intention of me trying to put something out into the world that can make people feel better. It comes from that desire to fix things. Big Virgo vibes, with a Leo moon.
Top 5 DOA (Rappers & Singers):
My top five rappers are Andre 3000. Lauryn Hill. Black Thought. Tupac. It’s hard to do five! I’ll go with someone current and say Kendrick. I have to give a sixth one, and I’m not being biased, it’s just how I feel. I have to say JID. He’s a GOAT and I think people are going to recognize that more and more.
With singers, it’s less about singing skill itself and more about songwriting. I'm into songwriting deep. My favorite artists on the singing side would be Stevie Wonder. Lauryn Hill again. Joni Mitchell, she's one of my favorites ever for both singing and writing. Whitney Houston, vocally. And lastly...Frank Ocean.
Producing my own music. Producing my album The Jungle Is The Only Way Out was a very proud moment for me. For years, I wanted to produce my own stuff. It was a missing piece for me as far as translating my sound to the world. It wasn't glamorous, sitting in front of my computer teaching myself Abelton. But going really deep into the process of production was my biggest achievement artistically. Being able to put something out into the world that was new and maybe something only I could give to the world -- that was really cool to me.
I really love production. Engineering myself, playing with reverbs, plug-ins, EQ. Finding my sound has been a very personal process for me. Production is super fun because I love to play instruments. I’ve always felt insecure when it comes to producing my own music, but I finally decided to say fuck it, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I became very hands-on with the process.
Like everybody else, I didn't expect last year to be last year. I was working on what I thought was going to be the follow-up to my first album. “Rider” was a song I made in 2019 with the producer Elite. My team and I loved the song and we knew it would definitely be a single for the next project I released. It was tucked away sitting on my computer, and then 2020 started happening. I didn’t want to continue making the album I was working on, because It wasn’t covering how I was feeling presently. Everything changed almost overnight in the world.
Being a Virgo, I’m very in tune with where the world is and how I fit in, how I can be a positive force or a solution to the problems we’re experiencing collectively. I felt like what I was writing was no longer relating to me or the situation the world was going through. I pulled back and started to write new songs. I didn't know I was making a project at first. I was writing in my living room because I couldn’t leave the house. I wrote the songs “Go(l)d” and “News Come,” and that’s when the theme of the project started to form. "What is my life like on the daily now?” I'm living with my man, it was just us against the world all of the time. So love, falling in love, being in a soulmate kind of relationship was at the forefront of my mind. That's where "Rider" and "My Moon" and "Beretta" come from.
Image via artist. Photo by Breyona Holt.
On the flip side, looking at the destruction and confusion happening in the world...between the pandemic, the protests, and people finally waking up to what the fuck is going on in society, that's where the other songs like "Go(l)d," "Another Kin, and "News Come" came from. The first song "Aye" is also about where the world is, and me trying to maintain my inner peace in the midst of it. Then I looked back and saw "Rider" and thought oh, I can use this song for this project cause it makes sense. That's how it came to be, and the themes revealed themselves through me being honest about how my life was looking in 2020.
[Laughs] I don’t remember how they go, I could tell you that much. I remember it came from being around my cousins from Atlanta. They all rap. Pretty much everyone in Atlanta raps, it's just part of the culture there. I was with them, and I was the singing cousin who played guitar. I would be around them every single day, just rapping and freestyling in a circle. I was like okay, I can do this, cause I've been writing lyrics since I was a kid, and all I had to do was translate that into bars instead of singing.
I remember going into my little corner, smoking, writing something, and coming back. Next time they were rapping, I rapped it. They were like okay that was a good start! Low key they were like oh dang! I remember them laughing at me cause they weren't expecting it, but they were like 'that's actually kind of fire.' But from that point on, they started helping me figure out how to translate what I sang into bars but have them actually be more fire. I don't remember what they sound like or what they were. It was probably sort of mid, but that was where it started.
My first show in Atlanta was at this place called Apache. I think it’s still open, it’s a legendary venue in Atlanta's downtown area. I can’t remember who I was opening for, it's a blur, man. It was a minute ago. It was me and my guitar, and I was really nervous because Apache was always sold out. It was one of those places my Auntie and Uncle probably went to, a little bit of an older crowd. A neo-soul type of crowd. I remember rapping and singing a song on my guitar called “The Light” that I wrote. It got really quiet in there. When I was done, I wasn’t sure if the audience got quiet because it was really terrible, but they ended up really liking it.
I had sung so many times in my room or for my cousins or people really close to me. But really stepping in front of an audience of strangers vibing with it, it was like, maybe I can really do this thing.
Outside Of Music:
I'm really physically active. I love hiking and going into nature. Before the pandemic, my pregnancy, and having my first baby, smoking a joint and going into nature was my not-so-guilty pleasure. I just feel really connected to the Earth -- maybe because I’m an Earth sign. It’s my ultimate relaxation. If I have time away from the demands being an artist, that’s probably where you can find me. Nowadays, it’s spending a lot of time with my baby, cause he's really new to Earth. I’m a very family-oriented person. I also love eating, and I've gotten more into cooking. I was reading a lot during the beginning of the pandemic, but that's ended -- I don't know what happened. Now I'm back to falling asleep when I start reading. [Laughs]
I love writing beyond music. I really want to write novels one day, and I have a couple of short story ideas. I love fiction -- I like sci-fi and things that demand the engagement of my imagination. That keeps me engaged. My favorite science fiction author is Octavia Butler, she blew my mind last year. I was reading her stuff, she's incredible. She's my inspiration. If I can do anything close to what she was on, that would be a huge thing for me.
I used to like horror but I read this book of short stories by Stephen King and literally had nightmares. One of the short stories was about a time loop that these people who took a flight that crashed got stuck in. I dreamed about that shit for a year. I was like, I'm putting the horror down, cause my brain obviously can't handle this. [Laughs]
Writing is a lot of work, man. You have to be very reclusive to write fiction, I find. I have to go into my own place for a while.
HNHH: Would you ever be interested in producing for other artists? I feel like you'd be able to work with a variety of different styles -- r&b, hip-hop, and even indie come to mind.
MEREBA: I’m putting it out there that I want to produce for other artists! It’s one of my main dreams. I have thousands of songs and I can't release them all for myself. Maybe when I die I can have someone flood the streets with my music. [Laughs] I would love to produce and write for other people. With "Sandstorm," that's the type of sound I would love to experiment with. That classic r&b, pop feeling. J.I.D. was one of my first friends that was very encouraging about me producing. I guess I produced that for somebody else, kind of.
When you spoke about your first show, you mentioned your song "The Light." Have you ever revisited that track?
I actually recently found a version of it in my email. It’s not bad or great. It's not something I would be playing from the mountain tops right now. [Laughs] It's like photographs from a time in your life. You can look back and remember everything you were feeling and going through at that time. I appreciate it for what it was then. It's not hitting now, but I appreciate that it exists so I can remember those times when I was really grinding it out in Atlanta.
Can you tell me about your experience working on Spilligion? How integral was live instrumentation in the album's creation??
When we were writing certain songs like “Jupiter,” and other ones I was involved with, we had live instrumentation from the beginning. Even if it’s just strumming a guitar. We worked with this amazing band called Hero The Band. They're these brothers who play every instrument and they're fucking dope. It was right at the start of the pandemic, so nobody was quite as paranoid about having people over. They would come over and we would jam to the guitar. Then Benji, who is from Spillage Village, would add bass to it -- he's an incredible bassist. We'd build the songs from there. It was an organic musical thing.
With "Hapi," Olu was playing the piano -- there was a piano in the Air B&B that we had. Just all of us using our talents on whatever instrument we played to add to it. I'm sure that not every song was created like that.
Were there ever any plans to tour the project?
We definitely expected to tour the project, for sure. It was a no-brainer because obviously EarthGang and J.I.D are such performers, they tour the world. I tour my music, so we at least wanted a small tour with all of us. It was going to be difficult nonetheless because of all of our separate schedules, but we were going to figure it out. Once the Pandemic hit, we asked whether it was more important to release it later so we can tour the album, or to release it now so it’s relevant to the people and their experience? We chose [the latter.] I trust when the time is right we'll be able to tour. Maybe on our next project together.
On your next your, would you bring the live instruments -- harp, guitar, and bass -- that you used for your acoustic “Rider” video?
I would love to. I’m not sure about the harp though. Harps are really fucking hard to transport. They’re like 80 pounds. I don’t know how people do it. If it was a local show, yes, I’m all for the harp [Laughs]. For touring, I usually play in a trio with my two bandmates Chris and Sam. Those are my guys. We produce music together, they play on pretty much all of my records, and we tour together. For the upcoming show dates I have, it’ll be the three of us. We like to mix live instrumentals. Chris plays violin and bass, Sam pretty much plays everything including guitar and keys. I play guitar and keys. We all switch off and rotate instruments depending on the song. That's how I'll be touring this next phase.
WATCH: MEREBA - RIDER (Unplugged)