New York City-based musician, Kassa Overall, knows what it’s like to feel trapped. The artist has spent two stints in a mental ward as a result of serious manic attacks. Ever since, he’s had to maintain vigilance over the highs and lows. But thanks to songwriting – a talent he’s made supremely mobile (more later) – Overall has found an outlet for his energies and better modes to understand his brain. And all of this is on display on Overall’s latest solo record, I Think I’m Good, out Friday.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
“On one hand, for me,” says Overall, “that artistic outlet saved my life. I’m able to put all my energy somewhere and apply it and comb through my thoughts. On the other hand, if I get really deep into something – even practicing the drums – I can get stuck in there. I’m working on this indefinitely.”
Overall came to music as a toddler. His parents were “hobbiest musicians,” he says, and instruments like guitars and saxophones were all around the house. Overall’s older brother, Carlos, was gifted a drum set when the two were young and little brother became obsessed. Some years later, Jazz and Hip-Hop entered Overall’s life. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince was an early favorite.
On I Think I’m Good, Overall talks about his childhood. On the sublimely sporadic song, “Landline,” which features his older brother on saxophone, Overall describes the cartoons they would watch as kids while eating fried eggs with honey. But the lyric blends quickly into the curious, even dangerous dreams Overall had while growing up. His psyche, the song shows, is a blisteringly paced ride through spaces of bliss and terror rooted in claustrophobia.
“I went to the mental hospital twice for 10 days,” Overall says. “I know it’s not like going to jail, so to speak, but there’s something about being stuck in this place and I can’t leave and I have no power. I think that experience connects me to anybody dealing with that situation.”
Overall’s musical universe is an amalgamation of disparate parts brought together artfully by his acute ear. I Think I’m Good is overflowing with samples, chopped up drums, vocal snippets, answering machine messages – you name it. Yet, the album is pieced together in a way that it ceaselessly unfolds and unfurls with each listen, becoming more and more intimate.
Overall, who is almost always in transit both between and within cities, calls himself a backpack producer. With him, he carries the fundamental equipment to record at the drop of a hat – literally, he’s equipped to record the sound of your hat dropping, should he wish. In his backpack is a mixing board, speakers, mics and other contraptions. With his backpack he can be a bedroom producer in his own abode or in any he’s invited to.
In this way, Overall’s mobility marks a step forward in music and helps push ahead the artist’s signature fusion of jazz, hip-hop, classical music and rock. Ever since DJ’s began scratching and sampling, music hasn’t been the same. Connecting sounds has become a new art and Overall swims in those waters constantly, almost obsessively. So much so that if you ask him about the state of other contemporary genres like Jazz, Overall will tell you that the two longtime schools are too finally blending.
“People who have been in the field, so to speak, are starting to get studied,” says Overall. “And the people who’ve always been studied are starting to realize the necessity of connecting to the people. I think it’s a really natural and beautiful thing.”
Song titles on his new album include “Visible Walls,” “Sleeping On The Train” and “Halfway House.” The songs dart and shift, ever moving. On the track, “Show Me a Prison,” longtime activist, Angela Davis, makes a cameo, wishing Overall well and strength. Davis is one of nearly two handfuls of guest artists listed on the album (with likely many others appearing unlisted).
“About a year ago,” Overall says, “I was invited to DJ at her surprise birthday party. I went to Oakland and I had all these Angela Davis interviews chopped up and I was scratching them into the music. When she saw what I was doing, we became cool.”
I Think I’m Good, which took about a year to complete, offers insight into Overall’s relationships with contemporaries and the fascinating wilds of his mind. He finished the project in the lobby of a hotel room after a nearly sleepless night in one of the rooms working on vocals and other finishing touches. Overall spent six hours in the lobby. Then, he could finally exhale, finished.
“I got it out of my system,” Overall says. “I feel like it was one of the hardest things I ever did. It took a lot of belief in myself, and courage. Now, I think I’m just excited for the world to hear it and to see where it takes me next.”