Elaine is in her element

Elaine embodies the girl next door aesthetic in an oversized T-shirt dress and fresh sneakers. Her envy-worthy natural hair sits in an effortless but taut pineapple bun that draws attention to her kind but matter-of-fact eyes. “Thank you so much for having this chat with me, sis,” she says as we settle into our conversation over coffee.
She can only spare an hour because, even though today is her “day off”, it’s exam season and she has to study.

With access to information and unmatched resources, she and a group of barely 20-something-year-old students managed to put out Elements, her internationally acclaimed, local chart topping debut EP. Barely accustomed to her new found fame, the 20-year-old artist talks me through the thinking that led to her becoming the first independent woman to reach the number one spot on the South African Apple Music album charts within a month.

Although she is from Pretoria, Elaine is in her second year at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is studying towards a masters’ degree in law. When I exclaim at the thought of being a full-time student and an independent artist she shrugs off the idea of being overwhelmed because she has “always enjoyed being really busy”.

So far, her only point of tension this year was curating the team that would help create her signature sound. “I had to start over quite a few times because what was being produced was not the sound I had envisioned,” she explains.

No one is over 21
All members of the team that helped make Elements a chart-topping EP are students no older than 21. This was a deliberate move on Elaine’s part, because she didn’t want to work with anyone who was established.

“I didn’t want to be told what to do by someone who thinks they know better, I’m trying to learn and grow at the same pace as my team,” she adds.

And in case the public thinks her decision was motivated by existing friendships, Elaine clarifies the nature of the collaborations. “We’re not friends; I didn’t choose to work with them because I know them. I chose them because they’re good.”

After a handful of false starts Elaine began working on Elements with producers Clxrity and Elyzée. The fourth, and most invisible member of the team is her manager, Joshua Molotsi, who describes himself as “a young kid who wants to help change the South African music industry” through his music agency Velocity Music Group.

His role as manager began after a friend of his played him Elaine’s single, Slip Away, in February. The budding artist manager had been looking for an artist with Elaine’s R&B and trap-soul sound since 2018. With no leads into who she was and how to get in touch with her, he sent her a dm on Instagram. “I told her that I don’t have all the experience in the world but I have passion to get her to the next level”. By March he had assumed the role of handling “her interviews, bookings, visibility and royalty administration while making sure that nobody takes advantage of her”.

Molotsi is in his third and final year at the Academy of Sound Engineering where he picked up the means to manage artists through music business courses and mentorship from his lecturer and entertainment lawyer, Nick Matzukis.

“Besides the book and mentorship I also stay online. Thank God for the internet and wi-fi,” adds Molotsi.

Fashioning a bespoke sound

The sonic aesthetic in question is a blend between various genres including trap-soul, Baroque pop and contemporary R&B. Trap-soul happens when a New Age hip-hop beat is combined with soulful lyrics sung in the dactylic pentameter flow of trap music. Artists in this genre include Bryson Tiller, Jhene Aiko and Kehlani. Baroque pop fuses alternative rock and classical music to create the sort of melancholic vibe that Lana del Rey has going on. With regard to contemporary R&B, it isn’t hard to tell that Elaine’s sound and subject matter are akin to that of H.E.R, Snoh Aalegra and SZA, all artists that she dreams of working with.

Because the references to this sound are all American, it supports the idea that Elaine’s music does not fit into an “authentic” South African sound as described by local duo Darkie Fiction in their 2018 documentary, Little America. Under this description, a local sound can be picked up wherever it plays, because it takes its cues from music that is indigenous to South Africa.

Little America is a good first step but …
Elaine sighs: “That chat is tired, sis.” The songstress says she’s stopped subscribing to the idea that South African music has to sound a certain way to be considered authentic. Her argument is that no matter how people categorise her sound, she’s a South African woman.

“The sounds that we are trying to preserve are already protected. We’ll never stop playing Brenda Fassie. There’s no need for us to find another Brenda,” she adds.

How to make a hit
The EP’s name comes from the artist’s attempt to explore the various elements of love necessary for romance to work, because, “as much as love comes from the heart, it’s a mind game too”, she says. As such, Elements touches on issues of communication, setting boundaries, admitting fault, vulnerability and self-care.

To create each song, Elaine followed a simple ritual: establish the beat, write to it and then record before mixing and mastering it. In each beat’s early days, Elaine would listen in because “it influences the direction, pace and voice that I should be writing in”. Then as soon as the respective beats were ready, Elaine would get a call and either make her way to Elyzée’s garage or Clxrity’s dormitory where she recorded the EP’s seven tracks.

Elaine’s lyrical style is conversational and perhaps the reason she is able to relay layers of emotion without being complex. In I Just Wanna Know, like all the other songs on the EP, Elaine addresses a love interest. She sings: “I just wanna know/ If we’re gonna continue with what we’re doing/ And if so/ Are there rules and if not/ What happens when I make a mistake and what happens when I break your heart/ What happens if you break my heart”.

As simple as the lyrics are, they convey the importance of setting boundaries for a relationship to be healthy.

To further fuel her point Elaine takes her time to deliver the words in a deep whisper and sombre tone that can only come from meaning what she says.

When asked about the source of her lyrical approach, Elaine attributes it to being soft spoken. “I don’t like to talk. My way of dealing or processing feels is by putting them into a song.”

It’s for this reason that writing for Elements was a swift process that happened when Elaine was going through the experiences she sings the listener through, whether “in lecture halls, while sitting in traffic, or in the middle of a daytime nap”.

Making this EP was not free. By the time the final product was ready for distribution and promotion, Elaine had a manager, two producers and a photographer on her payroll. Although she doesn’t disclose the exact amount, she says settling the bills took all of her allowance “for months” as well as unwavering contributions from her parents, who have been “extremely supportive of this journey”.

The next step
Elaine is yet to tackle the full potential of Elements. It is for this reason that she isn’t quite ready to collaborate with other artists. Apart from the women she emulates, the other artists on her collaboration wish list are Drake and Shane Eagle.

With the news of Elaine’s success as an independent artist came offers from multiple record labels offering the artist “the same thing”: an opportunity to take her career to new levels by introducing her to the right people and reducing her workload. When asked to name the labels Elaine declines because she doesn’t want to “close those doors forever”. With only an EP to her name, there’s still a lot for Elaine to figure out about the music industry, a journey she’s invested in exploring on her own terms.

Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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